Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What Makes Your Protagonist Interesting?

What makes your protagonist interesting? Sparkling blue eyes? Rippling muscles? Brains? Money? Clothes?

Let's reword that. What makes a real flesh-and-blood person interesting? All of the things I mentioned above could be part of what draws your attention in the first place, but they aren't what holds your attention.

Just like a real person, the most important thing about your protagonist is that you have to care about him. I don't mean you have to like him. Many of the great protagonists aren't particularly likable. Ignatius J. Reilly, Holden Caulfield, Jay Gatsby, Scarlett O'Hara, Hamlet, Humbert Humbert and countless others are deeply flawed, sometimes to point of being straight-up unlikable. But the authors make us care about them. There has to be something sympathetic in the way even "bad" characters are portrayed, so we want to stick with them for a few hundred pages.

Some of the things that make a flawed character sympathetic are described below.

Action
A character who is not very active quickly becomes boring. A protagonist needs to protag. The things that happen in the story have to largely be due to her own actions. Maybe she makes the wrong choices, but those choices raise the stakes. We might not like the character's choices, but we want to know how she is going to get out of her predicament, or whether she even will. She can win or lose, but she has to put herself into situations that draw us in, and then through her own actions, get out of them or deepen the peril. When your main character is always a victim and relies heavily on others to solve her problems, she's not likely to be very interesting, or to grow (or fall) during the course of the story.

Wit
A clever character who pulls us along with his unusual or profound way of thinking, his humor, and the unique way he looks at the world can make us care about him, even if his actions aren't always (or ever) admirable.

Relatable Problems
Yeah, OK, your readers might never be expected to slay the dragon, defeat the evil wizard C'na'ard, and make the world safe for the Nine Peoples of Gerkin, but they will care more about your protagonist if he has to face problems they can relate to. Disloyalty, unrequited love, school or work or family that create problems, dealing with a world that is too big to handle, and many other problems can be worked into your story, problems your reader does have to face. If we relate to your character's issues, we care more about spending hours looking at the world through his eyes, watching

Strength of Character

Your character should always take a stand. She should have a goal and do whatever she needs to do to accomplish the goal. The character's journey doesn't need to be a straight line. In fact, it shouldn't be. But it should trend in a general direction defined by her values, whether the reader (or writer) shares the values or not. Her actions don't have to be predictable, but when we get to the end of the story, we should be able to look back and see that the characters actions were consistent with her values.

Vulnerability
We have to believe your character can fail. There are so many books, well-reviewed books, that have disappointed me because I never believed the protagonist was in peril. This tends to be a problem in YA fantasy, especially. A "Chosen One" character who is destined to defeat evil is not going to lose, and in some stories, the possibility of failure is never seriously raised. Every dangerous situation is easily defused without any serious peril. The character is perfect for the situation, and, well, let's face it: perfection is not very interesting. While it is unlikely that the protagonist is going to die, failure needs to be around every corner. The odds need to be against him. Death might not be a likely result, but it doesn't hurt if it does seem possible. Failure, however, might be worse than death, and with rising peril and a real likelihood of failure, we can't help but stay interested. It's like the proverbial train wreck we can't stop gawking at.


If your character creates the story through her actions, views the world through somewhat familiar eyes but in a unique and interesting way, is in real danger of failure or worse, and acts in a consistent-but-sometimes-surprising way, we'll be drawn into her world and her life, even if we don't always like her.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Yay or nay

By now you either have given up on NaNoWriMo or know you stand a good chance of “winning” ten days from now.

If you’re in he first camp, I understand, I’ve been there before. For a number of reasons - lack of time, other commitments, stalling of story, loss of confidence, seemingly insurmountable odds of completing it - the wind has been taken out of your sails. You started November enthused and with a killer story idea, but the thing beat you down. That is the nature of this beast. 

However, one not need feel like a failure. Take solace in knowing you’ve got the start of something great. Maybe not the complete first draft, ready to be fine-tuned, you had hoped for, but a beginning. That spark of an idea that once held such promise, though now stalled, still has potential. It had potential then, it holds it now. Give yourself a little time away from it, allow it to stew in the subconscious, then come back to it in January and try again. 

If you’re in the second group, I’m pleased to finally be among you. At least I will have 50K words by then. It doesn’t feel like the story will have been completed. As this is different territory for me, I’m not sure what is required to receive that treasured prize of being allowed to print my own “I Did It” certificate, or a new car, or free trip to Disneyland, or whatever it is they do to reward winners. Again, I’m new here and am not sure the procedure for officially completing the marathon. Something from the NaNoWriMo site tells how to validate and “win.” I personally have promised myself a massage once “the end” is reached, be that this month or next. 

There still is a week and a weekend to go, so keep writing. And if NaNo got the best of you, go get your massage anyway. You’ve earned it, too.


(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

Friday, November 21, 2014

Gifts I Want

It's that time of year when everyone everywhere has a list of gifts for your favorite mom, or golfer, or skier. So here's my list of gifts for writers and readers. Mostly these are things I personally want or like to have, so it's pretty self indulgent. I'm sure you can add items to the list.

I'd like to preface my list with this statement: I am all about gifts of experiences or things that can be used up, consumed. I don't need more stuff in my life, but I do want more life in my life.

1. SCBWI membership for your favorite aspiring/published/nationally known children's author or illustrator. Many of us on this blog are SCBWI members, and I'd just like to throw out a couple of wonderful benefits of this membership. First, it's the world's largest and most respected professional organization for children's publishing. It's important to your career to belong to the professional organization for your industry. We have great programs, great publications, resources of all kinds, networking, critiquing, and conferences. You'll make contacts with editors and agents, fellow authors, and learn from the best.

2. Audio books. Personally, I have never outgrown my love of being read aloud to. My mom hooked me early on, and my fourth grade teacher read to us every day after lunch. My husband reads to me every night before bed. When I was in the hospital once, he read me Beatrix Potter stories. Audio books are perfect for car trips, subway rides, plane travel, or just doing the dishes. I have an app on my phone, so I can take my audio books anywhere I go. And when the hubby is out of town, I let my audio book read to me before bed.

3. This one is sort of obvious. Gift cards to bookstores. One of the highlights of our Christmas celebrations is going to the bookstore after Christmas and using our gift cards. I prefer indie bookstores.

4. Send your favorite author/illustrator to a conference. There are dozens of workshops and events close by, or if you want to splurge, send them somewhere like Highlights workshops or Big Sur. Of course, SCBWI conferences are awesome, and there are many. The big ones in LA and NYC every year, as well as regional conferences all across the U.S. and around the world. Go to http://www.scbwi.org/events-home/ to check out all the possibilities. Conferences are invaluable investments in perfecting one's craft and meeting people in the industry.

5. Pens and paper. Yes, I know it's the age of the computer and other electronics, but I have yet to find an author or illustrator who doesn't use the old-fashioned method once in a while. I keep a notebook with me wherever I go to jot down ideas, images, resources, etc. I used to write out all my first drafts in longhand, and even now that I've trained myself to write at the computer, I still occasionally like to write a chapter on paper. It uses a different portion of the brain. If you don't know what your author friend likes, a gift card to an office supply store is also a good bet.

6. Chocolate. I don't think this needs any explanation, except that I prefer the highest quality dark chocolate available.

7. Coffee. See #6.

8. Time. Writers need time. Life is busy and there are a million other things demanding our attention. Give your writer the gift of time. A weekend at a cabin. A babysitter once  a week. An offer to do the dishes every night (or insert appropriate chore here) while he/she writes. A nudge to attend a critique group.

9. Buy your writer/illustrator a critique with an editor/agent through one of the conferences in our area. Learning what professionals see in your writing is so important and valuable.

10. A puppy. So this is personal, but I have to include it. My dogs are always by my side when I'm writing. I have two of them. But I've been asking for a golden retriever for almost a year, and if anyone who loves me wants to buy me one, that would be the best gift. Pets comfort you when the writing isn't going well. They encourage you to get out for a walk when your butt has gone numb from the butt-in-chair work ethic. They are also characters in many children's books. There's a reason for that.

There you have it. A complete guide for gift-giving for the writer. Print it out and give it to your family, or use it to thoughtfully gift your writerly friends. Or hound my hubby about giving me a puppy.


by Neysa CM Jensen
up in Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

My Version of NaNoWriMo


So, I’m not really doing NaNoWriMo. I didn’t start a brand new novel, and I don’t have a goal of writing 50,000 words in a month.
Going along with the spirit of the month, however, I made a goal to actually, finally finish my novel that I’ve been working on for a few years now, and to write at least five days a week (which I don’t usually do).
Guess what? I’ve done it! I “finished” my novel last week and I’ve written five days for each of the two weeks this month. I say I only “finished” it because I kind of hate the way I wrote the ending. Endings are so hard, that I probably would have put off actually ending it for a long time if I hadn’t been pushing myself this month, so that was a huge success in and of itself for me.
Which is another thing—though I have finished novels before, I have always been too intimidated to go back and overhaul the whole mess of what I wrote to try and turn it into something decent. Another part of my goal this month was that if I finished my novel before the month ended, I had to spend the rest of the month editing as much as I could. I’ve already started doing that, and after my years of intimidation, I’ve discovered I really like editing. It’s addicting. One night I got so involved in it I didn’t realize how late it was getting until I looked at the clock and realized my husband had already been in bed for two hours. And even then I had a hard time stopping. I’ve discovered that editing a rough draft can even be easier than writing the rough draft, I think because I already have something to work with. I’ve been rewriting entire scenes and writing way more words per day than I was before. Who knew?
Moral of the story: I think this will help me get through a first draft a lot quicker next time because I’ll put less pressure on it to be perfect. I’ll know that rewriting it is actually much easier and more enjoyable than I had always thought. Maybe by next year I’ll even be ready to do NaNoWriMo for real.  

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The wall

It’s funny how things change in a week. NaNoWriMo started exceedingly well. Week two came along and it has became a chore.

The wall, the murky middle, the notorious hardest week of NaNo has arrived. Allow me to re-post tidbits and tips to help us all through. 

The first is from Monday’s NaNoWriMo site. I can’t locate the article to credit the author but I believe it came from the local Salt Lake chapter who advised: back up your work. Right now. If you’re on track with 25,000 words or only a tenth of that, it is too much to loose. Back it up now, back it up every other day hereafter.

Gwen Hicks, also from a NaNoWriMo email offered these points:
--Not every thing you write this month will be good, some  of it even bad. The key is to accept that you may disappoint yourself and not live up to your own standards, but the time to nitpick is after its finished. 
-A sign above Ray Bradbury’s writing office advises: “You must never think at the typewriter. You must feel.”
-Stuck? Start talking to yourself - ad-lib dialog, even record it on a sound recorder
-Trapped in a scene? Do a choose your own adventure with several possible outcome based on a charter’s actions.

My operating procedure has been to set a timer and write for an hour, repeating as many times as I can manage. I record the number of minutes for each hour. If I first devote five minutes to figuring out what needs to happen in a scene, my word count goes way up. Know what you’re to write before you write.

Know when to write (and when not to). My word count goes way down at night when I am tired. Some people fight through it and struggle on. I merely waste time when I should have given up and gone to bed. Know when you are most productive and when you are not, then plan accordingly. 

In different font color, I drop remarks in the middle of my text. Notes to self such as “fix that” or “thesaurus” is my signal where something wasn’t right, or a more precise word is called for. This keeps the internal editor at bay, yet gives him something to go on when I let him out of his cage. It’s quick, easy, and doesn’t in erupt the flow of thought. 

Lastly, Julie Daines on Monday posted tips on this blog that are so good, they bear repeating. They are:
-Let go of perfection.
-Chip away at the story using spare moments of time rather that waiting for a huge chunk of time.
-Keep fingers moving - you need to read what she says about that.
-Be all in - again, Julie says it better than I can summarize here, so follow the link for the complete idea.

It’s half-time. Don’t give up. We’ve still got sixteen days to get our stories to finished. Good luck.


(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

Monday, November 10, 2014

NaNo Pep Talk

by Julie Daines

Now it gets hard. You got your NaNo novel off to a great start, and you know how it's going to end, but what to do with all this middle part?

Here are some tips that help me get through the tricky middle weeks of NaNo:

1. Let go of perfection.

Realize that what you're writing is only a draft--an idea of what your book is about. Don't go back and edit, just keep moving forward. If you write something you don't like, don't delete it, just use the strikethrough function and then move on. That way it still counts toward your goal, you have a reminder for later that this is a part you hate, and you never know--you may end up keeping it later.

2. Chip away. 

We don't all have hours of time, so use every spare minute. Don't wait for huge chunks of writing time, chip away. The words will accumulate.

3. Keep your fingers moving. 

When you don't know what to write next, don't stare at the computer screen with glazed eyes, keep your fingers typing. Drag out the scene you just finished, write a boring transitional scene of your character driving home from work, write anything that will up your word count and keep your mind going.

You'll be surprised at the ideas that will pop into your head while writing a bunch of boring nonsense--just as long as you keep those finger going. Sure it will all get cut later, but in the mean time, the words count and your brain is working.

4. Be all in.

It's easy at this stage to say, "Well, I got off to a good start, I guess that's good enough." Don't give in to that little voice of doubt telling you you can't finish. If you really want to be a successful writer, you have to be all in--not just in November, but all the time. Discipline is how a goal is reached, always.

Being an author means writing. It means hard work. And it means meeting your goals and deadlines. NaNo is good practice for discipline.

Good luck to all you NaNoers this month!

Share some of your tips on how you are succeeding.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

One week down, three to go

How goes NaNoWriMo? Hope it is going well. 

At the risk of being bombarded with rotten tomatoes or having my house egged, mine is going well, remarkably well. I’m above 15,000 words and we’re only a week into it. My story has legs and the middle doesn’t appear too murky.

The key, I believe, was the planning I banged out in October. I had a few ideas floating around, but wasn’t sure how to bring them together. I looked back over writerly advice that abounds on the internet. Somebody, I think it was John Grisham, says the first thing he writes is the ending. Super simple and super smart. When I determined how the story was to end, those other ideas just fell into place. 

The next savvy bit of advice appeared right before the write-a-thon began and I snatched it up. The NaNoWriMo site is helpful and sends out tips and encouraging pep talks. Our ML, Safaia, stressed, a week ago Friday, importance of keeping up on the word count. Says Safaia, “Your life will be so much easier if you make that 1,667 words every day. I usually advise that if you can get a buffer, write 2,000 instead of just 1,667, then you'll have something to fall back on for when real life inevitably comes in and kicks your butt.” I adopted that philosophy and pushed for the 2,000. Only one day I didn’t make it, the evening I was bleary-eyed and dog-tired and only could manage 1,500 before sleep took over. I made up the next day with 2,500. 

So, congrats. We’ve made it to the quarter mark. The nice thing about NaNo this year is it started on a weekend and ends there, too, a long weekend for some of us.

Best of luck with it.


(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)