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Facing Fear and Tackling Writer’s Block

As promised for NaNoWriMo, I’m organizing all my past content so that YOU can more easily find what you’re looking for.

During week 1, I covered A Writer’s Basic Toolbox, and in week 2, I dug deeper into the more advanced tools at a writer’s disposal. Week 3 was for The Productive Writer, and this week, we’re moving onto fear, writer’s block, and passion.

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Fear & Self-Doubt

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Writer’s Block & Motivation

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Letting Go

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A Writer’s Basic Toolbox

bc1As promised in the last issue of the Misfits & Daydreamers, I’ll share links to past posts each Monday throughout NaNoWriMo.

Why no new content?

Well, I did a survey a few weeks ago, and of the 100 amazing people who responded, I’d say ~90% asked for content I’ve already delved into quite thoroughly.  I realized that people don’t even know all the topics I’ve covered before, and so rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll simply organize it all so you can find it more easily!

In addition to the organized posts, I have a forum open where you can ask ANYTHING about said topic, and I’ll answer it as best I can. 🙂

WritersToolbox

 

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Plot

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Scenes

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Character

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Point of View

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Setting & World-Building

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How to Craft Characters: Deepening with Backstory

Character3This is the third post in this series on crafting characters. To recap, here are the components I consider when crafting my characters–and these are in order of importance:

Today we’re discussing backstory and history.

Now, I’m sure many of you are wondering WHY history/backstory is #3 on my list. I mean, a person is the sum of their past, right? It should be the most important thing!

Yes…but no.

A Tale of Two Bros

Let’s say you’re on the bus, and a bro with a cap sits next to you. He talks like a bro (his “voice”), and when the bus gets stuck in traffic, he complains like a bro.

“Man, I’m gonna be late for class.” He tugs his Gators cap even lower. “This blows.”

Ah, well, now you know his external need (to get to class on time) in addition to his voice. And as you start chatting with him, you discover what’s at stake: he’s going to miss the final exam if this bus doesn’t hurry the hell up. Worse, he’ll fail the class if he misses the final exam, and in turn, he’ll lower his GPA and LOSE his scholarship! WHOA, the poor guy!

And, double whoa: you have a story. You don’t need to know ANYTHING about where this bro came from to understand what he wants and what’s at stake if he doesn’t get it.

Basically, you could write a complete story with a strong beginning/middle/end without any history ever coming into play. Bro needs to get to class on time–will he or won’t he?

Let’s say, though, that while you’re stuck in traffic, you notice the bro texting someone. This someone is a real jerk, and he’s saying stuff like, “Don’t fail that final, dickweed.”

The bro catches you staring at his screen and flushes. “That’s just my older brother. He’s a jerk.”

“Where is he?” you ask.

“New York. He graduated with honors two years, and one of his frat brothers got him a hot shot job in Manhattan. My dad’s from Manhattan, so he always wanted us to end up there.”

“Are you in a frat?” You think this is a polite question that might, perhaps, distract the poor bro from his current troubles.

But he only glowers and slouches lower in his seat. “Naw. I tried for the same fraternity as my brother, but there was some rumor going around that I…” He leans in and whispers something TRULY awful into your ear. “But I didn’t do that,” he hastens to add. “That’s just what someone said, and it ruined my chances of anyone letting me join.”

You believe the bro didn’t do what that rumor said–and you can’t help but suspect that perhaps his older brother is the one who started that terrible tail.

Backstory Adds Dimension

Now, how did learning about the bro’s family history change things?

It certainly deepened the story (and perhaps increased your emotional investment in it). It also humanized the character. He’s not “just a bro” anymore, right? He’s more 3D with this tangible backstory that we can all relate to in one way or another.

If you’re like me, though, you don’t necessarily know the backstory/history of your character until you start writing. That said, I don’t approach a book with a TOTALLY blank slate. I usually know the bare minimum about a character.

For example, when I started Truthwitch I knew these things about Safiya, one of my heroines:

  • She grew up in a mountainous region that’s part of a big, Austro-Hungarian-like empire.
  • She and her uncle don’t get along. He’s a drunk and pretty emotionally abusive.
  • She’s been trained to fight by her childhood bodyguard and that bodyguard’s husband (both men, in case you’re wondering).
  • She has been in school for a few years and away from her uncle.

That was what I knew. I had no specifics, and I didn’t need them.

You see, part of the joy of writing for me is having those in-scene SPARKS–those little snippets of a childhood or experience that you can suddenly insert and that you didn’t know had happened.

But remember: it’s those LITTLE details that matter most.

It’s All in the Specific Details

Show don’t tell, right? That’s what we’re taught, and it’s an invaluable lesson to have.

Small details and specific memories are HOW we show a character’s history.

So, here’s an example of a tiny detail that came to me as I drafted a scene between Safiya and her uncle (pardon the roughness of the writing):

“No,” he cut in. “This is not a drunken scheme.” Eron splayed his hands on the glass, and old burn scars on the backs of his fingers and knuckles stretched taut.

Safi hated those scars. She’d stared at the white pocks and holes a millions times growing up. In Praga. In Veñaza City. In any town large enough to boast a decent taro game, Safi had watched those hands fan out cards while Eron waited for her signal to fold or pursue.

“You have no idea what war is like,” Eron went on, tone hazy as if his mind drifted across the old scars like his eyes did.

could have simply said,

Safi’s uncle was a drunk who always forced her to use her magic in his taro card games.

That took fewer words, but…Well, I hope you can gauge which example works better. Which feels more real.

Of course, you can’t ALWAYS show critical backstory or information. That can get unwieldy or slow pacing to much. I have a post here on how to weave in more the expository-type information.

Alright, I’ll leave you on once more example. In this snippet, I introduce a critical piece of my pirate prince’s character. I could’ve simply said,

Merik’s homeland was starving, and as such, he was a careful young man–never wasteful.

But instead, as I wrote the scene, I realized he had his backstory could actually give him a fun character quirk that I could use again and again throughout the series.

Merik’s furious gaze dropped back to his plate. It was scraped clean. Even the bones had been swept into his napkin. Several of the other guests had noticed—he hadn’t exactly hidden it when he used the beige silk to pluck the bones from his plate.

Merik was even tempted to ask his nearest neighbors if he could have their chicken bones, most of which were still untouched and sat surrounded by green beans. Sailors never wasted foodnot when they never knew if they would catch another fish or see land again.

And especially not when their homeland was starving.

This was a different approach. In the first example, I used a physical feature to trigger emotions and specific memories of the past. In the second example, I used a specific action (a funny one) to hint at my character’s history. Either way works, and there are certainly OTHER options for weaving in these tiny, specific details.

You tell me: How do you discover backstory? How do you insert it into your story?

Speak up:

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How to Craft Characters: Desperate Needs

Character2This is the second post in this series (find the first post on voice and opening lines here).

To recap, here are the components I consider most important when crafting my characters (note: this might be VERY different from what you do, and that’s 100% okay):

  • Voice
  • Desperate need
  • Backstory/history
  • Behavioral/speaking quirks
  • Looks/physical quirks

Today we’re talking about desperate needs–or what your character wants so desperately that he/she will do anything to get it. Some people think of this as the “goal.”

There are two kinds of desperate needs/goals: external need and internal need.

The external need is a thing that the character wants. That thing–be it saving someone, stopping someone, finding something, delivering something, etc.–drives your external plot. There are tangible stakes linked to the external need.

So for example, Eleanor (in Something Strange & Deadly) wants to find her brother and stop the evil necromancer. Those are her external needs, and if she fails, then lots of people will die (our stakes!).

The internal need is what the character wants on a personal, spiritual level. Oftentimes, he/she isn’t even aware that he/she wants this, and the stakes are much more emotional in nature.

Eleanor’s internal need is to learn how to think for herself. If she doesn’t solve this, she’ll be forever unhappy and bossed around by her family/society.

Now, oftentimes, the external need cannot be achieved until the internal need is. In other words, our hero can’t save the day without first becoming a better person–Eleanor isn’t equipped to face the necromancer until she has learned to think for herself.

But the tricky thing about internal needs is that they’re directly related to a character’s deepest fear. In other words: the internal need comes from the character’s deepest internal fear.

Now, I’m not talking Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes here. I mean something emotional. Something the character probably doesn’t even know he/she is afraid of.

Take Eleanor again: she’s afraid that the people she loves will leave her (or stop loving her) if she doesn’t do what they ask. This fear leads her to a sort of chain:

Deepest Fears → Internal Need → External Need

Eleanor’s fear of being alone and unloved leads to her always doing what her mother and other people want. This in turn makes her internally need to learn be happy with autonomy and make her own choices. Until she learns how to decide for herself and give up “people pleasing,” she can’t meet her external need of stopping the evil necromancer that’s threatening Philadelphia.

It’s because these needs and fears are so deeply entwined in the story’s outcome and in the progression of story events that I consider them to be the second most important component of character development.

So…how do I figure out what the needs and fears are?

 

Finding the Needs & the Fears

To start, I write the book.

Helpful advice, I know. 😉 But it’s true. Oftentimes, I’ll only have the voice, the opening line, and a vague idea of the story I want to write. And that’s enough.

Why? Because knowing the general plot gives me my character’s external need. When I started writing Something Strange & Deadly, I knew Eleanor was searching for her missing brother. Which means she NEEDS to find her brother! External need, check!

As I wrote on and sank more deeply into Eleanor’s voice and emotions, I realized she was bossed around by her mother and society. She wasn’t very happy about it, either. Seeing these scenes unfold and feeling Eleanor’s emotions in them gave me her internal need.

And of course, as I wrote on, I uncovered snippets of her backstory. Her father had died when she was young, her brother had run off to tour the world (and left his family penniless), and her mother had gone off the deep end from grief. To add to it all, Eleanor’s friends and the high society she’d grown up with had abandoned her. What few people she still had left in her life, she clung to out of fear that they’d leave her too.

So from that backstory, I now knew Eleanor’s deepest fear.

Basically I discover my character in the reverse of the cause/effect list above:

External Need → Internal Need → Deepest Fears

 

How This Can Work for You

I realize that not all of you are plantsers (a.k.a. headlights outliners), and I also realize not all of you are starting a new project. You might be halfway through or revising even. You might be sticking like glue to an outline or you might be totally winging it.

Either way, you can apply needs and fears to your writing.

If you’re an outliner and just starting a first draft: Sort out your character’s desperate needs (internal and external) as well as your character’s deepest fears while you’re outlining (or before, even). Then make sure that your character’s needs and fears jive with the events you’ve planned. Remember that characters take action based on who they are, and who they are is a combination of needs and fears.

If you’re a pantser or already finished with a draft: Discover the needs/fears as you write, or–if that’s too “structured for you”–figure it out after you’re finished. You can always revise the story to fit the needs and fears you’ve uncovered during the course of writing (I almost always have to do this), and you can make sure the emotional dominoes all line up.

And that concludes part 2 in this How to Craft Characters series.

You tell me: Do you work with desperate needs/goals or deep fears when creating characters? And if you’re in the midst of drafting a story now, can you pinpoint the needs/fears?

Speak up:

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How to Craft Characters: From Opening Lines Spring Voice

CharacterRecently, I received this question in my inbox:

How do you get to know your characters? Do you work on getting to know them well before drafting, or do you get to know them as you work?

Honestly, at first I was like, “I HAVE NO IDEA HOW I DO THIS.” I’m such a free-writer and character is one of those things I really, really don’t plan well (I scribble things in my notebook, but it always changes as I draft).

So clearly I can answer part 2 of the question with great confidence: No, I don’t work on getting to know my characters before I draft. I get to know them AS I draft, and then I make sure voice/backstory/etc. all line up in revisions.

But, seriously, how DO I get to know my characters while I’m drafting? This isn’t something I’ve never thought too hard about. The voice is just there…or it isn’t. So as I always so when I get a tough question, I grabbed a piece of scratch paper and tried to break down what I do. What I ended up writing down are what I consider the components of character (and these are in order of importance):

  • Voice
  • Desperate need
  • Backstory/history
  • Behavioral/speaking quirks
  • Looks/physical quirks

I thought I’d spend the next few posts breaking each of those character components down a bit more. This week, we’ll address voice.

From Opening Lines Spring Voice

Now I just did two posts in the Misfits & Daydreamers on voice–here’s one on what voice is and here’s one with tips to find your voice. I also have this post on troubleshooting POV and voice (the key is in the filtering!).

The thing about voice is that it reflects who your character is. We can understand EVERYTHING we need to about a character (without backstory) so long as the voice is strong. We can even be entertained and put up with slow pacing (or a lack of a desperate need) for a while so long as the voice is killer.

As I was trying to break apart how I find character, I realized that there was ONE MORE STEP in my voice-finding toolbox that I forgot to mention in the newsletter: opening lines.

But let’s back this up just a bit.

I’ve mentioned before that I write stories based on character. My heroes, heroines, villains, and love interests–they dictate the plot and I just hang on for the ride. IF I don’t have a character, then I don’t have a story. Period.

In fact, the two times I tried to write novellas based on characters I didn’t know (and therefore didn’t have any connection to or inspiration for), I struggled months and months and MONTHS to find character–ALL because I didn’t know have some inner connection or inner need to write this character.

Yet in both of those head-desk-just-kill-me-now instances, when I finally stumbled upon the Right Story, I found it because I discovered the Right Voice.

And I found the Right Voice because I found the Right Opening Line.

So actually, the title of this post would more accurately be:

From Opening Lines Springs Voice (From Which Springs Character)

But that’s a mouthful. 😉

Basically, something magical happens when I’m ready to write the Right Story. An opening line will just appear in my mind. Poof!

I wish I could tell you HOW these opening lines (and subsequent voice) appear…But I honestly don’t know. All I can say is that it’s a culmination of all those scribblings in the notebook and my character playlists and the feel/promises I’m trying to create within the story. They knock around in the back of my skull for so long that eventually they swirl into something cohesive.

Now, since I can’t really explain/teach the pre-opening line magic, I want to at least show you how this process works for me AFTER I have an opening line. Below, I’ve got a smörgåsbord of opening lines to expound upon (some published, some shelved, some forever works in progress).

Something Strange & Deadly

“I scowled at the incoming train from New York–the one my brother was supposed to be on.”

This was originally what I wrote as the opening line to SS&D. It came to me after a month of researching and outlining (back when I still tried to force myself to be an outliner). Poof! Here was this line, and it immediately set the stage for Eleanor’s feisty attitude and her complete lack of patience. Like, I could just imagine her face, her bubbling frustration, and her need to do something already!

If you’ve read the book, though, then you know this is NOT the opening line in its published form. I took some external feedback that suggested cutting my first 2 pages and starting in media res. Yet, to this day I wish I had kept that opening line. But ah, c’est la vie.

A Dawn Most Wicked

“This was not how best friends hugged.”

I was having a LOT of trouble finding Daniel’s voice in ADMW. Essentially, I had agreed to write this novella thinking it would be easy to connect with Daniel…and the opposite turned out to be true. I only ever knew him through Eleanor’s eyes. I had NO IDEA what was going on in his head, and everything I tried felt forced. Wrong.

So I skimmed back through some of my shelved projects (one of my tips for finding voice!) and I came across one of my most favorite romances I’d ever written–a romance between best friends. The tension was so great, and suddenly I realized this was where I’d gone wrong with Daniel! He hadn’t been jilted by Cassidy (as I was originally imagining), but rather he was her BFF and madly (silently) in love with her. Once I knew that, his character literally just poured out of me.

Note: I went back and added a prologue (so the line above is now the opener to Chpt. 1), but it was the line that set off the rest of the story/character.

Truthwitch

“Everything had gone horribly wrong.
None of Safiya fon Hasstrel’s carefully laid plans for this hold-up were unfolding as they ought.”

When I originally sat down to start drafting this idea swimming in my head, I’d planned to write my from my Threadwitch character’s POV. But after a few false starts with her, I realized I wasn’t connecting. Then, after several days away (one of my tips for finding voice!), this line just HIT me. And I knew–deeeeep in my gut knew–that I needed to open the book from the Truthwitch’s POV instead.

Once I had Safi’s voice on the page, the story just exploded out of me.

Note: I ended up going back and adding a prologue…which then ultimately got cut again. But you can read that prologue here, if you’re curious. 🙂

The Mouse Queen

“If you were to ask Clara when it all began, she would say, without hesitation, on May fourteenth of her fourteenth year. It was in the afternoon.”

This work-in-progress came to me in one of those I-wasn’t-planning-on-this-but-I-have-an-idea-and-must-write-it-now moments. Like magic. So I shot to my keyboard and just started typing.

Of course, I realized pretty quickly that it was different from anything else I’d written. I had an almost omniscient, almost tongue-in-cheek sort of narrator, and soon enough, I realized this meant the project was middle grade. (And, if you’re curious, because I knew it had a great MG vibe, I changed the age to be 12 instead of 14.)

So that concludes Part 1 in this How to Craft Characters series. I’ll be back next week to talk about desperate needs (i.e. goals and motivation!). You tell me: do you find voice or character spring from some magical place? How do YOU get to know your characters?

Speak up:

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Pub(lishing) Crawl: Adding New Ideas vs. Knowing When to Streamline

I received an awesome question post in my forum last week, and I thought I’d answer it today. 🙂

I thought my first novel was done except for proofreading, after being through many CPs and two passes with a professional editor I hired. Now that I’m about 25% into its sequel, I keep discovering new things about my characters that I’d like to go back and put in the first one as a connecting detail or foreshadowing. This is for characters, but for places too, because my trilogy is fantasy and I get more awesome ideas about the various cultures and places as I write more.

The problem is when can I “stop” world building? Should I write and edit the entire trilogy before self publishing the first one or just publish the first one now because it’s ready. When I’m working on the other two, I’ll just have to delete some of my new ideas I guess? Because the first one will already be out in the world, unchangeable.

How do you deal with this when you have a traditional contract for only one book, not knowing if your editor will want to buy or publish the rest of the series as you envision it?

Okay, let’s break this down into two separate questions.

When to Stop Adding Ideas

It’s funny that this question–When can I stop world-building?–came RIGHT at a time when I’m struggling with a similar issue. I have so many new ideas! I want to squeeze them all in HERE and NOW and into THIS WORLD…

Well, there is a breaking point and there is such a thing as too much. And in all honesty, a tight book that gets complex without getting unwieldy and that wraps up in a great big AHA! of meeting threads–those are the books that readers love most. (An excellent example is the Harry Potter series: lots of threads and characters and world details, but it never bogs down the reader. Best of all, everything comes together for a truly spectacular ending.)

So how do you know if you’re only complicating things by adding more?

For world-building: If you have extraneous details that don’t actually add to the story or need to be there for the plot’s sake, then you might want to cut out some histories and details. A few subtle elements can absolutely enhance the story–little details make a world feel real. But if you worry you have too many details or so many settings that the reader is getting whiplash…Well, you might want to take a look at the world-building.

For characters: If you’re having a hard time incorporating characters into a scene, then maybe they don’t need to be there. I totally made this mistake with Strange & Ever After–I wanted to have Laure join Eleanor and the Spirit-Hunters in Marseille and Egypt. But it got so unwieldy! Having to find ways/reasons for every character to speak and act in group scenes? I just kept forgetting characters were even there. Obviously, I solved this problem by leaving Laure in Paris and then trying to keep each scene focused on only a 1-3 characters at a time.

For plot threads: If, at any point, you have to start writing a really complicated, info-dumpy type scenes in order to wrap up and connect all the threads, then you might have too many plots twining through your book. I am SO guilty of this in Strange & Ever After, and I’ll talk more about that below. 🙂

The key is, in my opinion, to getting a streamlined book is to:

1. Work with what you already have when trying to connect scenes, characters, places, and events. Sometimes little throwaway comments from earlier chapters or books can become AWESOME plot points or props.

2. If you can’t work with what you already have, try to instead to TAKE AWAY. Maybe some detail or thread is actually clogging you up rather than giving you the freedom to move forward. Thought it sometimes requires rewriting, it’s often better to simplify than to complicate–unless, of course, the book is already super simple. Then you might want to…

3. Add in those new ideas and see/feel how it works. If you can tell that it’s just opening up too many new story questions or story directions, then maybe you shouldn’t add it. But you can always weave it in, try it out for a few chapters, and then decide.

Writing an Entire Series Upfront

Now, onto the other part of this question: If self-publishing, should you write and edit the entire trilogy before publishing the first? If traditional publishing, how do you deal with new ideas and being confined to what’s already in the world?

Goodness, I can tell you from experience that writing a sequel once the earlier books are published/unchangeable is REALLY HARD. Holy crow, it’s hard. You write yourself into unforeseen corners and you can’t go back to tweak things in earlier books.

Or, you’ll have the AWESOME ideas that you just love and that resonate so much with you…but that you can’t introduce because they really should have been introduced in the already-on-shelves book 1.

Or, if you’ll discover in your third book (as I did) that everything you’d kinda-sorta thought would tie up DOESN’T–at least not in a way that resonates with you. Now you’re stuck adding all sorts of little details and backstories that you really wish you’d dropped into earlier books. For example, in Strange & Ever After, I introduce the idea of gods and other creatures from the spirit realm. I REALLY wish I could go back to Something Strange & Deadly and weave in just a few hints that gods are coming up…But alas, the first books were already published.

So if you can (and if you intend to definitely self-publish the whole trilogy), I actually think you can benefit from writing all the books at once. Not only does this allow you to really build your story and streamline it, but it also allows you to publish the entire series at once (which works very well in the self-publishing world).

However, if you ARE confined to writing only one book at a time, I urge you to follow the steps I list above: work with what you already have, take away aspects, or add new ideas with heaps of caution. Will you be stuck scratching your head and screaming at the already-in-stores book for not being changeable? Probably, but that doesn’t mean writing sequels after earlier books are finished is impossible. (And perhaps my post on planning a series will help!)
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Publishing in an English-Speaking Country When You Don’t Live There

Ask Sooz a QuestionI sent out a call last week for writing questions, and I thought I’d answer 2 today. (Thank you to everyone who sent questions!!)

…the problem is, I actually live in another country, and I’d be trying to get published in an English speaking country. Can this happen? Have you ever heard of it? Will agents only accept manuscripts that come from people who speak english as their first language?

Awesome question, and one I’m sure many of you are wondering about.

Short answer: Yes, you can most definitely do this! 🙂

Long answer:  You can publish in an English-speaking country, no matter where you’re from/live. While it can make things difficult when it comes time to promote a book, having an author live in a different country is NOT a deal-breaker for agents or publishers.

Consider that I lived in Germany when I sold my trilogy! I also have a close friend who lives in Australia, but her agent is American and her first book sold initially in the US (and later on, it also sold in Australia). I have another close friend who got her agent while living in Japan, and another friend who was living in Romania when her books released.

As for your next question, agents will definitely accept manuscripts from non-native English speakers (as long as your English is very, very strong). And yes, I have heard of this happening. 🙂 I knew a German girl who sold her book in the UK, and her first language was German.

THAT SAID, I’m not sure you should mention in a query letter that English isn’t your native language. It might end up biasing an agent against you simply because–despite an impeccably written letter–the agent may assume your English isn’t strong.

Let your letter and sample pages stand strong, and then–if you want–you can tell an agent/editor AFTER signing/selling that English isn’t your first language.

I hope that helps, and feel free to ask more questions in the comments or in the forum!

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