FIVE MAVEN WRITING TIPS FOR AUGUST–LAST PAGES

The Mavens

 

  We’ve made it from the beginning pages, through the middle, and now we are reaching the LAST PAGES. These will NOT be the last pages from the Mavens, however. Read on:

Cheryl Zach:

In one writing org I belong to, it’s said that the first page will sell the current book to your reader, the last page will sell your next. So what do you need on your last page? A satisfying ending, obviously. Have you truly wrapped up your problem? Did the main character, the protagonist, resolve the problem him or herself? Not a helpful adult–that’s fatal–not the best friend, not an act of fate, the ‘god from the machine.’ Are the emotional conflicts resolved as well as the physical? You may not want too neat a wrap up, it may not sound realistic, but you do want the reader to feel that the story is really resolved, or readers will never feel completely happy with the book. (Mind you, I have written at least one book with an ‘open’ ending (RUNAWAY) in that one important question was left unresolved because the two main characters couldn’t agree. Some books are just like that. You do what has to be done, or at least, what your characters demand. I hope in this case, the novel was still emotionally satisfying–the book did well, in any case, winning an award and selling well.)

Now, having admitted that every rule has an exception, what else can I say. If it’s a mystery, solve the mystery and don’t cheat and introduce the villain on the next to the last page. If it’s a fantasy or science fiction, stick to your own rules of logic. If you’re going to do something truly awful, like kill the protagonist, at least give some foreshadowing.  That’s my rule, not everyone will agree. The late great Madeleine L’Engle, author of WRINKLE IN TIME and other award winning novels, said that writers for young people owed it to their readers to leave some hope at the end of their books. I agree. Not everyone does.

Last Pages: The ending is always important–you need to leave the reader satisfied. Has the protagonist resolved his/her problem/conflict, with only minimal help from others? Is it not too neat, so as to be unrealistic, but without too many loose ends? Have both the emotional/internal and external conflicts been dealt with? My daughter always says the ending needs a certain emotional punch, as well, that little extra something that may send you away smiling, or with a tear in your eye, but feeling content, none the less. You should feel that the story just couldn’t have ended any other way. The character was true to him/herself. The problem obviously had to end this way. There was a twist you didn’t quite see coming, but it was just what needed to happen.  And again, no, I didn’t say it was easy.

Dawne Knobbe

Last Pages: Writing your last pages early helps you to know where you are trying to end up.

Laurie Knowlton

Your last pages must:

Make sure every question you set up early in the book is answered, even if the answer isn’t positive, or finely wrapped up like in: Scarlet O’Hara, “I’ll think about it tomorrow.”
Do not use some out-of-the-world twist ending where someone comes out of nowhere and fixes everything. Your reader isn’t going to buy it and they will feel cheated.
No matter how many wrong turns, and bad decisions your main character may have made getting to the end of their story, allow those decisions to be the learning curve that brings your main character to a state of redemption
Use those little details that you’ve sprinkled through the text to assist in the ending. You want your reader involved in the ending and they will value the use of those details in the solution.
Resolve the story with a satisfying ending that is hopeful. Readers want to feel good at the end of a book.

Stephanie Jacob Gordon

The end is The End is THE END! And please don’t skip the end by telling rather than showing, then moving right to “and so they all lived happily ever after.” This will cause your readers to toss the book into the air wanting to know “WHAT HAPPENED?” Readers want to see, to participate in the finale the same way they’ve participated throughout the book.

Wind up your story in the final pages by showing the growth of your character through action and dialogue. The problem may be solved or the character may have accepted that this is a problem that can’t be solved and moves on with life. This shows growth, too.

Resist explaining, resist adding what happens the next day or years later, resist. But if you insist or your character refuses to take a final bow, make notes for a possible sequel to the story that has come to an end, for some characters can be so stubborn they refuse to exit the world you’ve created and some authors love their characters so much they refuse to let go.

Judith Ross Enderle

Wipe your tears. Just because you’ve written your last pages, just because you’ve written The End, just because you’ve sighed and celebrated the completion of your first draft, this isn’t the end. Writing a book isn’t over until it’s over. And usually it isn’t over until you’ve revised and revised and revised some more. So those last pages . . . might not be your final last pages; they are probably your first last pages. Yup! Upcoming in the fall months: What to do if you are Stuck, Revision Tips, and more.

 

FIVE MAVEN WRITING TIPS FOR JULY — MIDDLES

by The Mavens

  Whether your middle is teeny tiny as in a picture book or quite expansive as in a novel, sometimes middles can bring your writing to a halt. Here’s what the Mavens have to say about successfully getting through the middle of your manuscript:

Stephanie Jacob Gordon  As I get older discussing middles is not high on my list. My middle has increased a lot since I first began to write.Oh. Judy says that is not the kind of middle we are supposed to talk about. I am relieved.

The thing about book middles, some of them have also increased a lot. More in novels than picture books. I am finding that there is a lot of nothing going on in these books. Action, adventure, calamities, and changing scenes are becoming description, pontification, and boring. What I think a middle should be is where it all happens.

There is the beginning to get us into the characters, learn the main character’s problem(s), and believe there is no way their problem(s) can be solved. In other words, we begin to care about the main character, move into their skin, become them, and live the story.
There is the end where amazingly the problems are solved and we see the main character’s growth because of what he/she has gone through to get to the end of their story. Or, the problem cannot be solved and we see the main character’s growth by how he/she copes with this sad (but honest) conclusion at the end of their story.

So, what did we leave out? The middle…where we hope the story allows us to be one with the main character, share their adventures, calamities, successes, and failures.
So, as I said in the beginning…the middle is where it all happens! At least it should.

Judith Ross Enderle  Your own middle is where your strength resides. It’s the place where your entire body benefits from the organs that process the food we eat and drink so your growth and development can happen. When your middle isn’t working, you hurt.

The middle of your story isn’t so different. This is where the strength of your story resides. It’s the part of that develops the who, what, where, when, and how of your story. That’s one of the reasons that middles can sometimes be tough to write, why this is where you get stuck, or where you might go off track. The middle is the where the growth and development of your story happens. If that’s not happening, then your story hurts, too.

My advice: if you are stuck in the middle, keep going even if you have to skip some places. If you come to one of those sticky spots, type WORK MORE HERE then go on to the next plot part where you know what happens and how to show it. Once you reach The End, go back and read. You’ll know how to: a) develop those sticky middle parts, or b) realize you don’t need them.

Hope this helps get you past the muddle in the middle.

Laurie Knowlton  Everyone knows that a story has a beginning, middle, and an end. The beginning is just that. The day things changed for your main character. It is a small part of the actual book that makes the reader care about your main character.

The middle makes up the largest portion of the book. It is where the main character moves forward through their problem, quest, or journey. The main character must use their whit to work through ever more difficult situations on the journey to solving their problem, quest or journey.

So what does that mean? It means PLOT. How does your character rise to the occasion, overcoming one obstacle more difficult than the last, to reach a climax? They must be active. They must be vocal. They must sometimes stumble and fight against their own inner demons. There must be twists and turns, because a straight line is BORING. There must be loss that accompanies gain. There must be laughter and tears to make the reader care enough to keep reading. Every chapter must have its own mini arc that keeps your reader on edge while your main character presses on to solve the ultimate story question.

Cheryl Zach  Oh, that sagging middle! What a quagmire it can be. You can have a fast, exciting beginning, with an action-filled and dramatic ending in mind, but what to do about the middle? If the story line seems to be sagging, it may be time for a new complication to the plot. Time to ratchet up the story tension and make it harder on your protagonist. Maybe he or she is having too easy a time solving his problem. Maybe the problem wasn’t big enough for a whole book? Go back and rethink.

Maybe it’s time to introduce a new character–must be essential for the plot, but another villain may be hiding in the wings? Maybe someone who will be a friend, an ally. Perhaps he or she was foreshadowed earlier on and you didn’t quite see it? I do this to myself a lot, without realizing I was writing it in all along. At any rate, a new element may need to be introduced, and it will get your gears moving again.

Dawne Knobbe  Middles are the hardest part for me in a story. If I get to the middle and get stuck, then it helps to work on the ending—See last pages. (Which means you’ll have to watch for next month’s blog tips about Last Pages.)

FIVE MAVEN WRITING TIPS FOR JUNE – FIRST PAGES

by the Mavens

 

Aack! The year is half over. How did that happen? If you’ve spent the past six months thinking about the book you want to write, this is a good time to get started. And where do you start? With the FIRST PAGE. Here’s what the Mavens have to say:

CHERYL ZACH: First Pages are vital. You must catch the reader’s interest at once. Years ago I heard award-winning author Richard Peck say that he used to give himself ten pages to grab the reader’s attention; now it must be done on the first page. And it’s not just a restless young person you must mesmerize–it’s also the agent or editor who will be your first reader. If your book makes it to print, it’s the book store buyer or the clerk who puts it on the shelf, or it’s the parent of a young child if your book is a picture book. First pages matter.
For a young adult novel, on that essential first page you need to establish who the main character is, give at least a hint of the problem and the setting. Sound hard? It is. The first page will go through innumerable drafts. You’ll write it, edit, rewrite  many times. Read it aloud, read it to your critique group. Write it again. Hone it, tighten it. For sure tighten it. Every word counts. {Do not do an info dump–try to tell too much on what the book is about, as if you were giving a book report. You want to show; use action, dialogue, sensory details. Bring the story to life immediately.)
Go back through your most loved novels or picture books. Old favorites are allowed, but be sure to read many new books, too. See what the current best sellers are, what editors and readers like today. See what skillful writers can do with a few lines, a couple of paragraphs, to grab you by the throat and not let you go.

LAURIE KNOWLTON: What’s so big about first pages?
First pages are not EASY. They need a great deal of thought and rewriting, and rewriting.
Riveting first pages are imperative because they introduce your reader to the main character, the setting’s time and place, and a story problem, quest, or journey.
Your opening line should GRAB your reader making them want to read the next line, and the next line, and the next line. In those lines the writer needs to make the reader care about the main character and what they are up against. The reader needs to feel the conflict. A good way to do this is through strong sensorial action and dialogue that fills in the gaps.
Your first page is either going to keep your reader reading or putting down the book and moving onto something else, or someone else’s book. Don’t let weak first pages keep your reader from consuming your book!

DAWNE KNOBBE: First pages usually become a page further into your chapter. Don’t be afraid to “cut to the chase.”

STEPHANIE JACOB GORDON: Eve Bunting always said: “Start with the moment that’s different.” That means the event that makes your character take notice and react. That moment should be important to your character, make a difference in his/her life, create a situation where something is at stake for the character. The reaction may be physical or emotional, but it should be something that will hook your reader and create a page turn in order to find out what happens next.

JUDITH ROSS ENDERLE: Don’t be surprised if you toss out your first page or even your whole first chapter once you’ve completed your first draft. That’s a lot of firsts, but sometimes you don’t know if you’ve started in the right place until you’ve found out where your story ends.

Happy summer! Happy writing!

 

 

FIVE WRITING TIPS FOR APRIL

The Mavens

The April tip topic is Plot, Plot, Plot. Some writers love to plot, some hate to plot, and almost all writers have those “I’m stuck” moments when plotting their stories. What tips do the Mavens have for you as you PLOT, PLOT, PLOT? Let’s find out:

Laurie Lazarro Knowlton:

The biggest mistake I see when critiquing manuscripts is that the writer has all the early components of a story: The WHO: A Main Character and Sub Characters. THE WHERE: Setting, a WHAT: Problem, challenge or quest, But then they fail to follow plot basics:

Identify a strong reason for main character’s motivation. Hunger Games = saving her sister, Dorothy and The Wizard of OZ = Desire to get home

Plot has to involve the main character working through a series of tries/events to solve the problem, challenge or quest.
Each of the tries needs to increase in difficulty.
Emotion binds your main character and the reader.
No one else can solve the problem for the main character.
The main character has to grow in wisdom and strength in each of the failed tries leading the character to a believable solution.
Plot is the main body of your story using up approximately ½ to 2/3 of your text. Be sure to review your plot basics when writing!

 

Stephanie Jacob Gordon:

Every plot for me begins with a WHAT IF…?

One idea and my brain is off to the races.  OFF TO THE RACES….  A kid who loves racing what a great idea if I only knew something about horses, or racing, or liked horse stories.  But I don’t.  And Black Beauty is still a classic.  So that is not my WHAT IF.

But what if you are driving along through Ohio farm country with your writing partner and you see a bunch of pigs piled on top of each other and one of you says, “What do you think that pile of pigs is doing?”  WHAT IF…?  And the book A PILE OF PIGS is born.

For as long as I can remember, my friend Judy and I have been writing partners and conference buddies and Co-SCBWI RAs, RACs, Board Members, lecturers,teachers, editors, and anything else ones writing life provides.  So “what if” people all over the world start calling you the bad babies…  WHAT IF…?  And the book THE TWO BADD BABIES is born.

What if you need a plot? Grab your characters, look at their problems, then “what if” all possible solutions. And you, too, may soon have a book in the works.

Cheryl Zach:

Plot comes from conflict, conflict begins with a problem. If you don’t have a problem to solve, you don’t have anything to write about. Character is all important, but character without conflict is a big blob of shapeless nothing. Beautiful writing, maybe, but just an essay or character sketch in disguise. Literary novels, so called, can devolve into this if this writer is too self indulgent. The simplest way to think about plot is that it is what happens in a story or book and, baby, something better happen. (One important hint: it better be the main character who resolves the problem.)

Dawne Knobbe:

You want to give your readers some surprise. It is easy to fall into cliched plots. Make sure you put an original spin on your story. What happens and why it happens can make your plot original.

Judith Ross Enderle:

As a writer, you’ll find your best story path. Some writers do a lot of preplanning: chapter outlines, character interviews, and detailed research. Others dive right in from the moment an idea hits them. There is no right way to write. But, if you are starting out, preparation can give you confidence that you’ll be able to get from the first word to “the end.” That means figuring out ahead of time what happens to the characters in your story and that’s called plotting. A plot involves jeopardy for your characters, hard work on their part to move ahead as they struggle to solve a problem, and more jeopardy. Each move your characters take triggers additional moves and additional problems as a result of those moves. You’ll need action to generate drama, and conflict to build tension and keep the reader turning pages. So, if you plan, plan, plan you won’t have to plod, plod, plod, and you’ll be confident that you are off to a good start with your plot, plot, plot. One warning: characters get stubborn and have opinions. It IS OKAY to change your plot as the story develops. Nothing is permanent until the book is printed.

FIVE MAVEN WRITING TIPS FOR MARCH

The Mavens

  The Mavens are back with more writing tips, this time on birthing characters. What would a story be without characters? Not a story. Characters include not only people, but some story characters are animals, inanimate objects, and fantasy figures like ogres, fairies, wizards and more. So here are our character tips:

Laurie Knowlton:

After you’ve written the basics, hair, eyes, gender, ethnicity, family, age, INTERESTING characters need to be ACTIVE, VOCAL, FLAWED, and QUIRKY.
Interesting: Your main character needs to do something out of the ordinary to catch the reader’s attention. “Out of the Ordinary” = beginning of the story incident.
Active: A perfectly content main character is BORING… Active characters that need, want, desire something are motivated characters.
Vocal: Dialogue shows us, without telling us. Dialogue moves the story forward, by giving us tid-bits of information that develops the story line.
Flawed: Your protagonist is a nobody without strengths that move them forward and flaws that produce friction. Will or won’t the MC succeed based on their strengths and weaknesses?
Quirky: What is the one quirky thing about your character that makes them unique? Do they have a pet frog they take everywhere with them? Do they dance when they are waiting in lines? Do interrupt other characters always sending the conversation in a different direction? Do they always smell like what they’ve eaten? Do they twitch every time they get next to the opposite sex?
Add interesting, active, vocal, flawed, quirky traits to your character study and your character will be one that your readers want to get to know!

Cheryl Zach:

Since for me, characters and story ideas come hand in hand, that’s usually the same as asking, ‘Where do you get your ideas?,’ the answer is pretty much everywhere. Some of my YA books, such a RUNAWAY, came straight from news stories–of course, I changed the ideas right away, but that’s where they started, and then I had to wonder, who was this teen girl, this teen boy, who was caught up in this situation? A couple of books came from episodes that happened at the high school where I taught before I stopped to write full time–again, the real life was altered drastically, but that was the germ of the idea. Sometimes it was something that happened to my children. (My daughter, after I began publishing, would preface her conversations with: Now, you can’t put this in a book!)

Most often, it was something that happened to me, when I was a kid, again often changed, a little or a lot. Right now I’m working on a story about a military family–very pertinent to today’s news. I was a military brat, and I know a lot about that life style. I have to update it, of course. You always do, unless you want to make the book a historical. <grin>  Anything a decade ago or more is historical for kids. And of course everything about a historical setting–clothing, houses, furniture, food, lighting, transportation, all details big and small, must also be accurate and be included without being obvious about it. Remember that your characters would take it all for granted.

Sometimes characters come out of thin air, and you’re not sure where they come from. Benny, of the BENNY AND THE NO GOOD TEACHER and other Benny books, floated into my head when I was sitting at a writing conference. I know he owes a lot to my son and my brother, actually, but mostly, he is himself. Developing characters, now that’s a whole other topic.

Stephanie Jacob Gordon:

For me, giving birth to my characters has been only slightly easier than it was giving birth to my children. But in one way both had two somethings in common. No, one was not the spinal that took away the pain. Believe me, there will be pain. The two things both share in this –no matter how hard you push–characters and babies don’t emerge until they are ready, and no matter how tired you get, they won’t leave you alone until you deal with them. Oh, and here’s a third thing they have in common: years from now you will look at your children and your characters and you’ll be glad you birthed them.

Dawne Knobbe:

Characters are complex. After you have sketched out your character, take him or her out into the real world and decide how he would react in different situations you find yourself in.

Judith Ross Enderle:

Characters often sneak up on you and once on scene demand their story be told. Listen carefully to what they have to say. If you ignore them, you will be pestered. Once you acknowledge their presence, then get to know them. Ask questions about everything: life situation, best and worst traits, current big and little problems, friends and family, details like favorite foods, colors, favorite sayings, hobbies, all the bits that make the character as unique as you are. Don’t limit this information-gathering to your protagonist, but also birth the story antagonist and even the minor characters so you know how they will act and react in the scenes that move the story plot forward. Is all this work worth it? Ask any author who’s received a letter from a reader wondering if you personally know the main character. Absolutely! Because then you’ll know you’ve done your job birthing real characters.

FIVE MAVEN WRITING TIPS FOR JANUARY

by FIVE FABULOUS MAVENS

          It’s a new year, so for 2018 we are offering something new on our blog. At the end of each month we’ll post five tips on one particular writing-related subject, one tip from each of the Mavens. Our first topic is WRITERS’ NETWORKS.

From Dawne Knobbe: Start a private Facebook group page with your writer friends to share industry information. You can post upcoming events, editors who are open to submissions, writing tips, etc. It’s easy. Here is how to get started:

How to Create a Facebook Group

  •      Find “Add Group” From your “home page” on Facebook go to the Groups section on the left side menu and find “Add Group”
  •     Click “Create New Group”
  •     Name Your Group
  •     Add Members
  •     Choose Privacy Setting
  •     Click “Create”
  •     Choose an Icon
  •    Complete “About” Section

From Judy Enderle:  JOIN SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators  This world-wide organization is dedicated to the creation and promotion of children’s literature. Membership is open to published and unpublished authors and illustrators and others interested in writing and illustrating books and other material for young readers. Visit www.scbwi.org to learn about all they have to offer.

From Cheryl Zach: Conferences are great for networking, as are any events where writers gather. If you’re shy–and many writers are introverts–going to a workshop or discussion group or any event with a predetermined subject to discuss will help break the ice. Put your area of interest–picture books, YA, nonfiction, etc.–on your name tag. This will make it easy for another attendee to start a conversation with you. Remember to smile. And remember that it’s bad manners to rush an editor or agent and try to give them a long verbal version of your current WIP. If they’re open to a short pitch, they will indicate it. Otherwise just smile, make a comment about their presentation, thank them for coming. . . And keep their email for queries if they noted they are open to those. If it’s hard for you to get out to group events, there are online groups you can join, publishing news you can read. SCBWI and other writing groups have discussion boards and local newsletters.

From Stephanie Jacob Gordon: TWO not ONE GREAT IDEA

Writers need a computer or a pencil or pen and paper and a good light to see by and a drink and snacks (OK, I really like snacks when I write). But along with my snacks, I need Judy. You see, we have been writing partners for 39 years. Judy keeps me going, motivated, and nagged to death when I am not writing. But you may not have a writing partner (you may not have mine), so you write alone, lonely, without someone to tell you if you are any good at writing, someone to  encourage you to keep at it, or someone to tell you to give it up and get into plumbing and make some real money. What are you going to do?

Excellent question. I have two answers. Two because they are connected and number two probably will connect to most of the suggestions in this month’s tip list.

#1) TAKE A CLASS. Any writing class in whatever genre will help somewhat, but a class in writing for children, taught by a successful author, successful editor, or successful agent is a good place to begin. Not only will you learn some very important stuff to further your writing ability and career, but you will also meet writers. I met Judy in Eve Bunting’s class through UCLA. Will you meet your forever writing partner? Maybe, maybe not. But you will meet many like-minded people who are, like you, actively pursuing how to write for young readers. You will all be in the same place, at the same time, and be able to progress together. And you will make a friend or two or ten, like Judy and I did in Eve’s class.

#2) FORM A CRITIQUE GROUP. In fact no matter where you meet other children’s book writers, think critique group. Do they want one? Do they have one? Would they like to start one with you? Will they have room in theirs for you to join? When I met Judy I was new to Malibu, but she was already in a local group and I joined her group. When Eve’s class was over, all eleven of us started a group and we traveled to each other’s homes for our every-two-weeks meeting. Judy and I traveled farthest, but we had each other to talk to and slowly became best friends. YAY for writer’s classes! One of our group dropped out due to a work commitment, but the ten of us left became friends and all of us are published! Some of us are pretty well-known writers, too (sorry, not a name dropper, but I do know some amazing writers). From Stephanie, who is lucky to be Judy’s writing partner and 1/2 of Jeffie Ross Gordon . . .thanks to Eve’s class.

From Laurie Lazzaro Knowlton: OTHER EYES

Your writer’s instinct, along with your agent and your editor, have let you know that you are off track somewhere in the manuscript you’ve been slaving over. But where? And if you know where, how do you approach a fix? This is where “other eyes” might come into play. Over time, you’ll learn which writer friends connect with you and your work. Make an agreement to be “eyes and ears” for each other when you are stuck on your story, when there’s a hole in the plot that seems to keep getting deeper rather than filling up, when you are ready to make confetti out of your manuscript. You can do this via computer so friends don’t have to live nearby. Be respectful of each other’s time. Some friends may have time to answer and others may not. It can take many heads  and many hearts to birth a good book. And when you write acknowledgments for your book, don’t forget the “eyes and ears. (Laurie is deep in manuscript revision right now; she is the author of this month’s blog post. So this tip is ghostwritten by another Maven.)

 

 

 

5 Tips for Rewriting After a Critique

By Laurie Lazzaro Knowlton

So, you finished a manuscript and you have taken the manuscript to a critique group.

Your “Happily-Ever-After-Hopes were:
1. That everyone would love your manuscript.
2. That it was ready to send out to a publisher.

But, even though the critique group saw great merit in the story, they also saw flaws. Bummer!

Three examples of flaws could be:
1.Your story is flat. (That usually means-your plot is lacking. A plot is a series of events where the main character goes about trying to solve the story question. This usually happens with the main character trying to solve the problem with a series attempts without success.
2. You’re telling the story, you’re not showing the story. (Telling vs. showing. Telling is just that, you are a narrator telling a story. Showing means you let your characters show their thoughts and feeling through dialogue and actions.)
3. All your characters are the same. (Each character should have a purpose in moving the story forward. Each character should have their own quirks and ways of expressing themselves.)

So now that you have input, what do you do?

Sit on it. Let the new information roll around in your head.
Decide what input is valuable to your story. What rings true? If someone said something that you don’t think rings true for your story and your character, then put it aside. But if you hear the same type of comment more than once, I suggest you act on it
Go to mentor text. Read, read, read! This helps you to see how other authors moved through a story and accomplished a credible, satisfying story.

Re-acquaint yourself with the right way to:
A. Build a Plot B. Show Don’t Tell C. Write Believable Characters

Go back to your: A. Reference books B. Your favorite author’s How-To web pages,
C. Read/Listen to the How-To Web pages and You-Tube professionals.

THEN begin rewriting. Write, and then sleep on it. The next day, re-read and then ask yourself: A. Did I accomplish what I set out to fix? B. Is it strong enough? C. How could the wording be more sensorial?

Rewrite. Sleep on it. Then ask yourself the same questions. Repeat until you are satisfied with your story. Then take it back to your critique group. Keep working until you get the story that you will be proud to have out there!

You can do it! Good writing happens when rewriting.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU . . . (sing on)


by Judith Enderle
Birthing characters can be challenging.Iin a book, each one must have a reason to be there and each character—whether protagonist or antagonist—must be unique. So how do you do that?

(Right at this point I’m tempted to say: “If you find out, let me know.) But I know how. It’s the doing that is the challenge.

Here are a few details that help me get to know my characters (please expand these lists as you birth your book characters):
Traits: like temperament, intelligence and knowledge, determination
Appearance: height, weight, coloring, health
Family: number of siblings, is your character oldest, youngest, or in the middle? Living situation. Parents and relatives. Economic status.
Personal: secrets, brags, embarrassing moments
Friends: longest, newest, best, many or few?
What matters most to your character? What is your character worried about?

Sometimes interviewing the characters helps you find the details you need.
You’ll need the most information about the protagonist and the antagonist, but get to know the secondary players so their actions and reactions make sense as the story unfolds.

Last, but not least: don’t forget the little things: good and bad habits, tics, favorite words and phrases, great smiles, evil eyes, favorite piece of clothing, nicknames . . . This can be the longest list of all.

Guaranteed, your writing will be easier if you know your characters so well you’d recognize them if they moved next door.

Happy Spring!

Theme Vs. Plot

The theme is the thing.
Not that plot is not important–without plot, your novel is a jellyfish, no bones, no skeleton, no internal structure to give it shape and structure and hold it erect. Character-driven novels can be wonderful, but those totally devoid of plot are very difficult to pull off. At the risk of sounding contradictory, I think well developed characters are likely the most important element in a good novel–but that’s another blog.
Plot is what happens in a novel, and it’s much to do with the novel’s conflict, how the main character and others go about struggling with and resolving the conflict/problem: coming to a –we hope–victorious, or at least, bitter-sweet conclusion. (I hold with the late, great Madeleine L’Engle who said, if I may paraphrase, that a writer should always leave at least a glimmer of hope at the end of a YA novel. Adult readers can deal with a totally tragic ending, younger readers don’t have the experience as yet to cope–they need some optimism in a book’s conclusion to carry into their own life challenges.)
I’m sure you know the basics of plot and conflict: the main character must resolve the problem him or herself instead of an adult or an act of blind fate coming in at the last moment to make all things right, and so forth.
But that’s still not theme. Theme is the basic and overall idea that hangs behind the whole novel, that guides the momentum behind the character’s growth and change, his/her struggle with conflict, reaction to the setting, reaction to other characters, and more. Other writers have commented that theme comes from the characters’ issues–or perhaps, I might add, their issues develop partly from the theme.–and the theme grows from the writer’s heart. It’s possible you might write using a theme you don’t believe in, but I don’t really see how.

In the YA manuscript I’m working on now, working title: An Ounce of Courage, the protagonist has been relocated, after the death of his military father and much against his will, into a small isolated village from a much more cosmopolitan setting. His immediate conflict is being beset by the local high school bully. His bigger conflict is that he’s afraid he’ll never live up to his hero dad.

(My dad always said,’ Stick up for the little guy.’

My dad wasn’t on the bus.)

The theme, though, has to do with the nature of courage and the process of becoming a man, a journey every male teen has to make.  You might wonder why a woman is writing this book? The short answer, the story wouldn’t leave me alone until I started to write it.  Longer one: My writing has never been restricted to characters of one gender. : ) I do have a younger brother and a son, and now three grandsons, two growing old enough to begin this process. And perhaps sometimes a little distance is a good thing. . . And I am an army brat, so the backdrop of the story is one I’m very familiar with. There is a girl in the book, too, who is an important character, and she also has challenges to face and decisions to make. Courage is not just a question for boys–or men.

I feel every word and every page of this manuscript deeply, whatever the gender of the protagonist, because the theme matters. . . now my job as a writer is to make sure the reader does, too.

images-4Cheryl Zach is the author of Hearts Divided, Book 1 of the 4 book Civil War YA series, Southern Angels, and many other YA and MG novels.

PRESENTING: AN INTERVIEW WITH MAVEN CHERYL ZACH

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CHERYL ZACH, AUTHOR OF SOUTHERN ANGELS

1. How much research did you do and how deep did you have to dig to make the Southern Angels series feel authentic? What was your best source of information? What was the hardest information to find?

I did a great deal of research for the 4 book YA Civil War series, Southern Angels. All in all, I spent three years researching and writing the four books. I did as much primary research as possible. That means info from sources who lived during the time period of the books and who wrote letters, newspaper stories, private journals or diaries, and they give the best look at the time period. The only downside is that you have to take into account that everyone will have his/her own bias. Three people who knew Lincoln would have three different opinions of his characters, for example. I did also use secondary sources, i.e., history books about the Civil War where the authors have done their own research and gathered it together into a book such as The Civil War in Virginia, and so on. These authors will use footnotes to show their sources, which helps me judge the value and accuracy of their material. Although my books are fiction and more concerned with romance and relationships, and what happened on the homefront–where women and girls had a challenging time during a war happening all around them–I still wanted the background to be accurate.

2. What made you decide to reissue the series yourself and did you find the self-publishing path difficult?

I decided to reissue these books because I think they are among the best of my young adult novels, and because I put so much effort and time into them and I hated that they were out of print and unavailable. In particular, the fourth book was never printed by the New York publisher who originally put out the books–loooong story there, basically that I lost my editor who moved to another publishing house and thus lost any support–and I had many unhappy readers who never found the final book in the series. I wrote an earlier column on doing it yourself–I had some problems early on, but it wasn’t too hard overall.

3. Why did you choose to write the books as a series rather than as one long novel?

I wrote four medium length books because I showcased four girls, to give as many views of the conflict as possible. Elizabeth is from a wealthy Virginia plantation but has a domineering, cold-hearted father. She originally supports the South, but falls in love with a Yankee soldier and changes her views on the war and on slavery. Victorine is a Creole beauty from New Orleans who is a die hard Confederate, though she also becomes more enlightened about the evils of slavery. When New Orleans falls to Yankee rule under General ‘Beast’ Butler, she is almost thrown into prison. She will reject the man her father has chosen for her to marry in order to make her own choice. Hannah is enslaved, grows up alongside Elizabeth on the Stafford plantation. She aides other slaves to escape on the Underground Railroad. Though she has sworn never to marry while she is still a slave and her children could be torn away from her, she falls in love with a free man of color (some did exist in the larger Southern towns) and eventually makes the dangerous race toward freedom herself. And last, Rosamund, the Tennessee girl, lives under Yankee rule after Grant has taken the Tennessee valley. She has one brother in the Northern army and one brother who supports the South. Although her family has never owned slaves and she supports the Union cause, she finds it hard to live under a conquering army, especially when despite herself, she falls in love with a dashing vagabond Confederate soldier. The four books cover the conflict from the first cannon fire upon Fort Sumter (three of the girls are attending a boarding school in Charleston, SC.) to the end, when weary soldiers finally make the journey home. And all along, the girls grow and mature and learn that they can make a difference, each in her own way. And love may survive, despite the peril and uncertainty of war.

4. What do you want readers to discover and take away from reading about the civil war? What makes this period of history fascinating to you?

The biggest theme of the books is that what an individual does, the actions a girl/woman takes, does matter, and that you can make a difference.
The Civil War itself, parts of the country fighting against other parts, was an exercise in tragedy and futility, something we might remember.

5. Does this series fit into the school curriculum and at what grade level? Will you be doing a study guide when the series is complete or will there be a separate one for each novel?

I am putting a study guide on my website, http://www.cherylzach.com,/ which would be helpful to teachers, home schoolers, and reading groups. Schools study the Civil War, depending on the state, often in 4th or 5th grade, again in middle school, and in the junior year of high school. These books are rated 6.5 in reading level, but good students usually read above their grade level, and as a former high school teacher myself, before I stopped to write full time, I know the difference in reading levels between middle school and high school is actually pretty small. As for the interest level–well, I’ve had letters and emails from readers from pre-teen to adult!

6. How long will readers have to wait for the next three books?

All four books are now available, in ebook and trade paperback, from amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and other retailers. Hearts Divided is Elizabeth’s story, taking her from Charleston to Virgina and back to Charleston. Winds of Change sees Victorine home to New Orleans and then farther afield. A Dream of Freedom gives us Hannah’s tale and finishes Elizabeth’s love story, and Last Rebellion takes us to Tennessee and Rosamund, last of the girls to find her true love, and gives us final glimpses of all four girls

7. What one bit of advice would you offer writers who want to write historical fiction?

Finally, my advice for a would-be historical writer: history is a wonderful tool for the imagination. With so much going on, you never want for ideas. You need to do your research in order to make the background and settings accurate, but beware of allowing the research to slow down or stop your story–keep the pace fast and stay focused on your main characters–even if George Washington did sleep here!