Friday, December 8, 2017

The Gift of Empathy

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. 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 an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

Writing accomplishes considerably more for authors than simply putting money in their pockets. In truth, for most writers, the money is more sporadic than you'd think and little more than icing on the cake. We write for more reasons that I can enumerate, but it boils down to this: we write because we can't not.

We'd love the hours spent at our computers to be more career and less hobby, but long before storytelling resembles a dependable money-making endeavor, dedicated writers are receiving gifts. Gifts that the writing itself imparts to the author.

No wrappings, no bows, nothing tangible to slip under the tree, but if you're working with any sort of consistency you might notice certain invisible attributes cropping up in your creative soul.

You begin to master things like people-watching, problem solving, impatience, procrastination, working when you don't feel like it, finishing what you start. I could go on and on--the disciplines that develop out of the daily grind are many and, strangely enough, they're treasures you dig out of your own chest.

Of all these hard-earned gems, the one I value most is empathy.

Reading has a way of developing this in us as well, but the act of creating a character, giving her a mind and a will, insecurities and faults, regrets and talents, a family history and a place in the world to inhabit--the time spent poring over and pouring into this creature can grow you.

The trick is to do it honestly.

Give your character dilemmas to solve, unsettled relationships, mountains to climb. In my own writing I've found that once I have the semblance of a character sculpted, certain things make sense for this character to do as she navigates her life and certain actions wouldn't make any sense at all.

On occasion, I'll get an email from a writer pal and it'll look like this (usually with a hint of panic attached):

So. I need my main character to poison her brother. But she loves her brother! Still, it has to happen. Only, why would she do that? Help! I need a reason.

And so we get to work. We begin to develop a motivation. Most likely this reason will change the character in fundamental ways. An adjustment that can be both difficult and helpful to the writer.  The lesson is this: there must be a reason for everything a character does.

Because there is certainly a reason for everything you and I do.

It's not always an intelligent reason or a moral reason. Often it's flawed and desperate. I find that most of my characters do things out of fear. That says a lot about me, I think, but it also helps me slide into the shoes of real-life human beings making decisions because they're afraid. I can empathize because in so many ways my characters are showing me what it's like to go, to do, to act, and to hurt out of a dark, terrified place.

It's a gift, friends. The ability to empathize.

And if you make it a habit to write honestly, the penning of a story will compel you to search out empathy--not just for your characters, but for those around you making choices you don't understand.

And right now, if there's anything this world needs more of, it's empathy. A willingness to climb out of our worn-in, cozy sneakers and into another's. We might be uncomfortable there. We might not like the roads those shoes take us down, but if we practice writing honestly, perhaps we'll remember to live honestly. In that way, the gift of empathy can lead us to build bridges. Not just in our stories. But in this great wide world.

A world that is sometimes very hard to understand.

Can you think of a gift your writing has given to you? We'd love to hear it.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

3 Things I Did in the Name of Book Research

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). She had a podcast/vlog at You can also find Jill on InstagramFacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

Authenticity has always been important to me as a writer. In fact, it's a pet peeve of mine when I'm reading a book or watching a program and something happens that I know is wrong or impossible. It bothers me that the authors didn't take the time to research the situation and get the details right. When authors don't bother to do their research, it's lazy. It tells me they don't care about their readers. My opinion, perhaps, but it's partly why I'm so steadfast in doing my own research.

Now, most research is fairly boring. I'm reading books or reading things online. And sometimes I'm interviewing someone on the phone, which is fun, but not really worth tell you all about.

But there have been a few stories of times when my research went into test mode. Times where I felt the need to experience something or get a good visual on something for my story. Today I will share three of those stories with you.

1. Spencer rappels off a cliff, handcuffed to two girls.
In Project Gemini, the second, full-length book in the Mission League series, my spy kid Spencer is in Okinawa, Japan. He was following some bad guys and got caught. But then he and two girls managed to escape. The problems are these: a) Spencer is handcuffed to each girl, b) there is only one one rappelling harness, c) bad guys are chasing them, so they have to act fast, and d) they need to rappel off a hundred-foot cliff to a getaway boat, anchored in the ocean below.

I wrote this scene, and my editor ripped it up. He said it didn't make sense and he couldn't picture how this thing was working. Spencer is six foot four. Both girls in the story were fairly small. And it just so happened that my husband is six foot one and my children, at the time, were fairly small. What a coincidence! I created a reenactment in my living room.

I used handkerchiefs to tie my husband's wrists to my children's wrists, then I made my kids climb on my husband, the way I pictured the girls holding on to Spencer.

Dad got quite squished and beat up, and our kids had a blast. There was much laughter. I didn't take any pictures, but I did manage to see where everyone's hands were and jot down lots of notes. I was able to rewrite the scene, and it turned out much better. Here's part of the scene from the book. It's a long scene, so I'm only sharing a portion of it. This is a first person book, told from Spencer's point of view.
          “You ready for this, Tiger?” [Beth asked.]
          “I was born ready.” Then I met Beth’s gaze—her eyes looked like pools of black through the goggles. “I don’t know what I’m doing, Beth.”
          “You’ll be fine. Stay in a sitting position and use your feet to walk and bounce down the rocks. The boat is directly below us. Keep your brake on, and you can’t fall.”
          “But the girls could.”
          “Nope, they’re tied onto you,” Beth said. “So, unless you forget the brake . . .”
          My head lolled back at the stars. “Fine. Let’s do this.” I crouched and picked up Mary, setting her over my right hip like a mother holding a small child. “Sixty-three, huh?”
          She swatted the back of my head with the hand that was hooked to Grace’s.
          I crouched for Grace, and she jumped onto my back. I resituated her leg over Mary’s on my right but could do nothing to hold Grace on my left as my left hand was attached to Mary’s and holding the main ropes. This wasn’t so bad. I had a pretty good grip on the ropes and Mary. If Grace could hold on—
          “Tiger,” Beth said. “Right hand. You’re not holding the brake.”
          Figs and jam!
          “Mary, you’re going to have to hold on,” I said. “Use your arms and legs.” I let go of Mary and found the brake rope.
          “Got it.” I was thankful for the handcuffs and ropes. Although I didn’t relish the idea of either girl falling, at least they were sort of locked/tied on.
          “Hold on tight, girls,” Beth said.
          They were. I felt like I was in a chokehold at the dojo. And both the girls’ legs around my waist hurt my bruised abs. Too bad I couldn’t tap out.
          I hadn’t bothered to look over the cliff. With a name like Suicide Cliffs, it couldn’t have been an encouraging view. I crept back and felt my heels go off the edge. I kept the ropes braked and leaned back. My toes gripped the rock edge as I let out the rope an inch at a time. A bead of sweat trickled from my forehead down my nose.
          Three lights flickered in the field beyond the mangrove tree. Flashlights. They were coming.

2. Levi shoots his rifle at a transformer to kill the power in the Safe Lands.
For my dystopian novel Captives, I needed to have Levi do something to shut off the power. I know nothing about such things, so I went to my then gun/hunting expert for help. His name is Greg and he taught me how to pull apart a bird (which Sir Caleb showed Achan to do in To Darkness Fled), and Greg also brought me one of his huge daggers and explained what Achan would have to do do kill a bear that was attacking him in From Darkness Won. Greg has done a lot to help the authenticity of my books over the years.

I told Greg all about my story and what I wanted to have done. At the time, my plan was for Levi to make some sort of pipe bomb to blow up the dam and kill the power that way. But I didn't have any logical reason for Levi to know how to make pipe bombs. Greg asked me why he wouldn't just shoot out the transformers at the power station.


As Greg explained that, yes, my story should have power stations, even if the power came from a dam, I realized this made much more sense, since Levi is a rifleman. This was definitely how he'd get the job done. So Greg brought over his rifle and taught me to use it, let me look through the scope at my neighbors houses across the river, told me what Levi would think and how he'd breathe. Here are some pictures I have of that very fun day.

And here is how the final rifle scene turned out:
          The distant substation was a tangle of gray metal on a field of black maybe three hundred yards out. The four gleaming spotlights that towered over the station didn’t cast their glow far.
          “Nowhere to hide,” Zane said.
          “We won’t be here long enough to need to hide.” Levi jumped down onto the roadway and crossed to the inner wall. It came up to his waist. He lifted the strap of his rifle over his head, set the rifle on the wall, and crouched to look through the scope, turning the zoom until the substation glowed in the lens. After locating the row of transformers, he tried to figure out which way they ran. If he could hit the first transformer in the series, everything else would go out.
          Levi pulled back the bolt and loaded a round into the chamber. “Keep an eye on the studio’s location, and let me know if it goes dark.” He flipped off the safety and took aim at the transformer on the far left. One deep breath, and he pulled the trigger.
          The shot cracked around them, echoing off the concrete walls of the dam. Through the scope, Levi saw no sparks or evidence that he’d hit anything. He glanced up at Zane.
          “Prospector apartments went dark,” Zane said. “All the way to . . . Wow, that’s weird. The power went out in the Highlands all along the edge of the Highland – Midland wall.”
          “It’s an arch.” The first one must be the other end then. Levi chambered another round and aimed for the transformer on the right end. Just as he pulled the trigger, Zane spoke.
          “Someone’s coming.”
          The shot rang out, but Levi knew he’d missed. He cocked the gun and straightened, looking where Zane was pointing. Two sets of headlights were heading their way from the other side of the inner wall. They’d just passed the other Highland substation.
          Levi crouched and aimed for the transformer again. “Don’t talk.” He took in a deep breath and held it, then fired. He straightened to glance toward the city below.
          Zane yelled, “You got it!”
          Levi tucked the rifle strap over his head. “All I needed to hear. Let’s go.”

3. Achan loves wine.
In, From Darkness Won, the final book in my Blood of Kings trilogy, Achan is in a fowl mood, and one of his poorer influences, gives him a bottle of wine to lift his spirits. I wanted Achan to love the wine so much that he ended up drinking the whole bottle. The problem? I pretty much detest the taste of alcohol. But I needed to write this scene, so I asked my husband to buy a bottle of wine. I'm pretty sure he bought the cheapest wine ever made. We poured the wine into the glasses we used at our wedding (for our sparking apple cider), and sat down to try and enjoy it. I took one sip of that stuff and gagged. I ran into the bathroom and spat the stuff into the sink. My husband didn't like it, either. It was nasty. We laughed and laughed, but I was no better off from where I'd started. No WAY could I describe that stuff as tasty. What was I going to do?

I had a friend who loves wine. I recalled her talking about going to a winery, tasting and smelling the different wines and trying to guess what was in them, etc. I emailed her and begged for help. I asked her to please write me a paragraph of what a good glass of wine might taste like to someone who'd never tasted it before but really likes it. She asked me if it was red wine or white wine.


The conversation went back and forth. She pried out of me the necessary information, then wrote me a paragraph. And I used parts of that paragraph to write the scene. Whew! Thank goodness for friends. Here is the part of the scene from the novel From Darkness Won in which Achan first tastes the quality wine and likes it.
          [Achan] brought the bottle to his mouth, worked the cork free with his teeth, and spat it on the ground. He smelled the contents, expecting the briny smell of mead, but the tangy combination of currants and cedar filled his nostrils.
          Had Kurtz meant to give him wine? Achan had wine with dinner most nights, so it wouldn’t matter to drink some now. He took a sip. Robust sweetness filled his mouth. He swished his tongue around, tasting the flavor as long as it would linger. Blazes, that was good. Much better than what Lord Eli had served in Mirrorstone.
          Yet when the taste faded, the wine left his mouth dryer than before. So he took a longer drink and wished he had some food. The wine seemed to point out just how hungry he was. He should go back to his tent and eat.
          Instead he took another drink.

The moral of these stories is: Go the extra mile and do your own hands-on research. It's an adventure, it's usually fun, and it will in the end, make your story better.

What strange things have you done in the name of book research?

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Win a copy of The Lost Girl of Astor Street and A Name Unknown for You AND Your BFF!

Stephanie here! If you didn't already see info about the giveaway on my author blog, I wanted to let you lovely writers know that I have a really fun giveaway going on right now for The Lost Girl of Astor Street and Roseanna M. White's A Name Unknown

Since our books both have strong themes of friendship, we thought it would be really fun to see you and your best friend! Send us a picture or share one on social media tagging both of us, and you’ll get entered to win signed, personalized copies of The Lost Girl of Astor Street and A Name Unknown for you AND your best friend. Here are the details:

  1. Snap a picture of you and your best friend, or get one of your old favorites. (For the purposes of this contest, your best friend must be human.)
  2. Between now and December 11th, share the picture in one or all of the following ways:
    1. Post it on Facebook and tag us. Here are our author pages: Stephanie MorrillRoseanna M. White
    2. Post it on Twitter and tag us. @StephMorrill @RoseannaMWhite
    3. Post it on Instagram and tag us. StephanieMorrill RoseannaMWhite
    4. No social? No problem. Email the photo to us (not as an attachment, but in the email, please) Stephanie(at)
    5. Do all four to get entered to win FOUR times!
    6. Link to this giveaway in your social post to get entered an additional time PER post.
    7. Please make sure to tag us! If you don’t tag us, we don’t know you’re doing it!
  3. On December 12th, we will email winners to get names and mailing addresses for you and your best friend. Gift wrap is available upon request, and we will even jot a note to your BFF to let them know how much you love them! (Due to the harsh reality of international shipping prices, this giveaway is only available to U.S. residents.)
  4. Have fun!

Learn more about A Name Unknown or The Lost Girl of Astor Street here.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Take Our Survey and Win A Critique

Every year, Jill, Shan, and I get on the phone and do some planning for the next year. Last year, many of you were generous with your time and filled out our survey. That made a huge difference in how we planned posts for 2017, and we would love if you would please do it again.

And if you need some extra incentive, we're giving away thousand-word critiques to three wonderful survey filler-outers.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Why You Need to Step Away from Your Manuscript

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. 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 an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

On a whim, I opened an old manuscript the other day. The writing surprised me. In good ways and in bad. I felt like my sentences were too stunted, but the pacing was good. I'm not entirely sure I love the protagonist as she's written, but the first chapter sucked me in. And I think that's a good thing. Especially since I know the story better than anyone on the planet.

The experience got me thinking about how healthy it is to push a manuscript aside after it's been drafted. Not forever, but for a time. And I thought, today, we could talk about why.

For those of you who completed National Novel Writing Month just hours ago--CONGRATULATIONS!--and for anyone who's ever written their way to THE END, this one's for you.

I'm going to give you five totally LEGIT reasons why you need to step away from your first draft. It's possible that not all five will apply to you, but I'm guessing one or two will. And the honest truth? Any one of them is good enough reason to tuck those words away for a while.

1. You're tired. If you've been deadline writing or manically striving toward that ending, your creativity is exhausted. If you attempt to edit your story now, you'll catch some things, sure, but laziness will inevitably take over. You'll read your manuscript with all the feelings you had as you penned those words still fresh and bright in your mind. The sentences and paragraphs that you worked so hard on won't be doing the heavy lifting. Your already engaged (albeit tuckered out) imagination has expectations and freshly painted images plastered to its walls. You'll see things that aren't really there in your work. To reset, you need distance. You need space. You need to think about other things for a while so that when you come back to the page you can ensure the words really are doing their job.

2. Your story is your new BFF. All those characters you created, those set pieces you fell in love with, those scenes that made your heart flutter as you wrote them? You love them too much to hack them to bits. If you've been on a deadline or working to fill a quota, each word carries some exaggerated sense of value to you. It's true that every image you fought so hard to get on the page was vital for your story making process. But it may not be vital for the reader's story reading process and you're way too close to the creative side of this to be objective. Walk away, find a book to read, a Netflix series to binge. Beta read for someone. Pick up a hobby. Do your homework. If you must write, write something else. Let that be your BFF for a while. The time away will make you a better editor.

3. The well is dry. Sometimes when we finish a story, an influx of adrenaline catapults us forward and we think we can and should start editing immediately. Rarely is this the right course of action. And the reason is simple. You are out of good ideas, friend. If you weren't, you would have already fixed that plot problem you skated over on page 83. But the truth is, you've earned the right to be out of good ideas. You worked yourself empty. You left it all out on the field. Good job, kid. Truly. Now it's time to fill yourself up again.

4. Stories have a way of growing when you're not looking. I finished a new book not long ago and I mean FINISHED finished. Like, oodles of edits and beta readers and feedback from my agent and more edits. In all honesty, I thought the work would never end. But here's the funny thing: Now that it's out of my hands, I have this new layer I think I could add in that would deepen the world building and add richness to the characters. The idea fell into my head one day and I don't think I could have handled it when I was so immersed in tackling edits, but it's an exciting option now. Crazy, right? It's this strange phenomenon. When your brain is engaged elsewhere, when the book stops feeling like WORK, suddenly the details come into focus and it becomes fun again.  

5. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Sometimes. Now that your story is sort of completed (let's be real, first drafts NEVER feel completed), you owe it to yourself to figure out if you want to continue with this project. The truth is, sometimes we draft because the writing is good for us. The discipline is a necessary part of becoming a writer and you worked your tail off to acquire some. I'm proud of you. But now it's time to decide if you want to see this baby through to completion. The best way to figure that out is to put this thing you worked so hard to create in the desk drawer for a while. Neither your exhaustion nor your passion can be trusted at this point. Put the pages away. Set a time frame, say six weeks, and don't come back to it until then. Your own emotions will help you here. I rarely say that, friends, because emotions can lead us astray sometimes, but if you cannot find passion for this project that devoured your writing time for so long, it's okay to move on. If, despite its flaws and its gaping holes, you can't keep yourself away from it, you might have a winner here. At the very least, it would not be a waste of time to dive in again. Now, if you're working on a contract and a publisher has paid you for the book in the drawer, you're going to have to finish regardless. But if you're not there yet, enjoy the freedom that comes with being pre-contracted. It really is okay to move on.

Rumor has it that agents' inboxes industry-wide will spike in the months of December and January. Of all the excited NaNo'ers who've written 50k words in 30 days, a chunk will think their book is ready to be considered for publication. They're wrong. Every book needs to be edited. Yours does too. I promise. Give yourself a nice fat holiday break and jump back in come January. You and your manuscript will be better for it.

Tell me, do you have any experience with this? Did you NaNo this year? What are your editing plans?