Everyone has favorites: double chocolate fudge, purple, David Bowie, Peru, that scene in Contact when Jodie Foster's character meets her dad on the beach in the moonlight (only it's not a beach).
Sometimes we know why we love a certain ice cream flavor--it reminds me of my dad. Sometimes we don't. My favorite color has varied since I was a little girl (pink) to high school (black) to now (cinnamon orange one day, deep purple another). One thing we know, what we love will change and grow throughout our lives.
For me, my list of favorite books changes from year to year...because I've read new books that must be on that list. (If you want to see more of my reviews, look here.)
I know that if I want to improve my writing, I need to read good books. There's a pile TBR on my nightstand, a collection in my Kindle, and a list on my phone. One day, I might even read them all, and my favorites list will be miles long!
Today, these are my top five favorites, plus a little reason why.
ARE YOU THERE GOD, IT'S ME, MARGARET by Judy Blume - read it in elementary school. Margaret asked all the questions I had about life, and she taught me how to be tough and caring.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen - read in high school. While my classmates groaned, I engaged in one-on-one conversations about the Bennett girls and their interests in marriage. Yes, I was that girl.
THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER by Carson McCullers - read it freshman year of college. Drove around to every used bookstore in Los Angeles, buying all of McCullers' books and devoured each one. This one introduced me to a different kind of love: that between the two men and that between Mick and her world.
LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - read it senior year of college. Marquez' sprinkling of magic in all of his stories transports me to another time and place. The colors in this story still live in my mind.
THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt - read it as an adult. Tartt's writing is equisite. I've loved all of her books (all three?), but this is my favorite because of how lovingly she wrote Theo's story. My heart ached for him, but I also shook my head at his unrequited love, his dangerous friendship, his wayward path. Then I got to cheer a little in the end. Beautiful.
I haven't finished THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir, but I'm halfway through it, and I'm sure it will be on my favorites list next. Why? Voice. I haven't seen the movie because I wanted to read the book first. I'm glad I waited. Wow. Again... Voice. This is a book I'm reading, laughing out loud, loving, but I'm also studying the writing (when I'm not lost in the story). Because he's nailed the voice of his MC so well, the technicalities in the story (I still don't have a clue what a Hab or MAV are entirely or how he can grow potatoes ) that are lost on me don't matter. This book is a classic. Mark Watney is a character to live as long as Sherlock Holmes or Holden Caufield. He's iconic.
What's your favorite book? What are you reading right now? Please share!
That's my story, what's yours?
As a teacher and mother of grown children (23 and 19), I love summer. Lots of time to catch up on writing projects, but most importantly: tons of lazing in the sunshine reading.
This summer, I managed to devour five delicious stories. Because I write contemporary young adult, I read books from that genre. However, I also gobble up my favorite adult fiction.
If you want to follow my reading rants, check out my Goodreads page, or click this link to reviews I post here.
Now, check out these five writing tips I learned from the books I read this summer.
High Fidelity: find a line or phrase that ties into your story’s theme. Repeat it throughout your novel. Nick Hornby makes lists. He has a Top Five for almost everything in his life. This works really well for the character (a lonely and serial boyfriend record shop owner) and the theme (finding happiness with one thing).
Al Capone Does My Shirts: make your setting do extra work. In this middle grade read, author Gennifer Choldenko uses 1950s Alcatraz as a backdrop to seventh grader Moose’s caged life looking after his autistic older sister. If she had set this story in the city of San Francisco—where some scenes take place—it wouldn’t have worked as well. The island prison says so much metaphorically for Moose and his family.
Misery: every summer needs at least one creepy Stephen King read. Since I never read the book—just saw the film—I decided I could handle the suspense while reading in the bright sunlight on a California beach. There is so much to learn from this man, but in the case of Misery, it’s all about characters. King knows how to make the most repulsive people likable. Annie Wilkes is a monster, but she’s also a tormented woman with a troubled past, a town against her, and a compulsion for sweets after she’s been BAD. If you write mean characters in your stories, give them a quality that makes readers say, “oh, well, yeah she chopped his leg off, but come one, she’s got those cute porcelain statues.”
That Time I Joined the Circus: like High Fidelity, this story has great recurring hooks and phrases that help us feel safe in an unfamiliar world. JJ Howard introduces us to a young girl who meets tragedy and must leave home to find home. She takes her quirks with her, though. Of course. One thing the girl likes is music. She’s always comparing an event to a song she heard. Howard uses the song title and a lyric in her chapter headings. As we journey from circus land to circus land, from New York to Miami, we always feel at home because of the music.
It Should Have Been a #GoodDay: if you are working on a story with multiple POVs, you might check this quick read by Natalie Corbett Sampson. There are four narrators, each taking us through the same day. As the story heats up, we use the varying perspectives to figure out how things might pan out. One of the narrators is an autistic teenager. His voice is stellar. Because we hear the other characters’ thoughts and feelings, we learn a lot about how other kids see those with differences. This is a perfect format to showcase autism and the fears and prejudices we can carry.
What are you reading? If you picked up a great idea for your writing, please share it in the comments below.
That’s my story, what’s yours?
No matter where you are in writing your story, weather can play a part in moving the action forward, defining a character, or throwing a wrench in the path of good or evil.
Great writers from Shakespeare to Steinbeck have successfully used weather in their stories. If it weren't for the drought, the Joads might never have set out to California. In The Tempest, we can't forget how Prospero used weather for his own good.
Here's how you can hurl lightning bolts at your villains or paint rainbows for your protagonists and get away with it.
PLOT. If you are stuck moving the action forward, change the weather. When your MC steps outside without an umbrella and is caught in a sudden downpour, does he slip into a cafe for a fortuitous encounter with someone? Does he hop on a bus to avoid the weather? Does that bus crash? Is it the wrong bus, and he ends up late for (work, a date, picking up a child)? Insurance companies don't take responsibility for acts of God. Neither must writers. Use storms, landslides, earthquakes. These things happen without notice.
CHARACTER. How do your characters respond to different weather events? Use them to reveal moods, fears, hopes, or long-lost dreams. Maybe every time it rains, your character is reminded of the day his dog died. Or whenever she sees a rainbow, she makes a wish. Don't go overboard. No one likes a cliche. Subtlety is your best move.
SETTING. Last but not least, we must talk about the obvious. Depending on where your story is set, some weather events just won't come up. It's unlikely an earthquake will hit in Iowa or that a monsoon will flood Arizona. If you are writing realistic fiction, study the weather in the area where your story is set. You might discover some freak storm that hit years back. You could use that for a tragic backstory, or it could be the reason for your character's behavior or motivation.
That's my story. What's yours?
Please share your ideas in the comment section below! Happy writing :)
When I think about my boring day, I wonder why I can't bump into John Cusack at the glove counter or come across an injured famous writer in a snowbank (not that I'd take him home and torture him). My life is neither a romantic comedy nor a suspense novel. My life is.
Yet that is where great story nuggets begin--in the mundane moments of our lives.
In my current agent-seeking YA manuscript, IN BLOOM, the story begins with an obssessive-compulsive teenager straightening her rug while her brother tries to share some strange news. That news plays out later in the story, but it's a fun way to introduce the two siblings and show their idiosyncrasies.
Consider three recent great tales and their openings:
- A boy suspended from school spends the day at the museum with his mom. (THE GOLDFINCH)
-A woman takes an interest in events outside her window on her daily train ride. (THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN).
-A boy and a girl spend mundane mornings riding the bus to school. (ELEANOR AND PARK)
-A boy's attempt to kill himself is stalled when he spots a girl toying with the same fate. (ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES)
Each of these moments present a great way to open your story. Let's explore.
1. Transportation exploration. Putting your main character on a bus, train, plane, car trip, bike, or whatever is a great one to have her accidentally witness something, unexpectedly run into someone, or serendipitously find something.
2. Field trip. Whether your character is school-age or adult, a school field trip provides numerous opportunities such as those mentioned above. On a field trip, your MC can get lost, meet a stranger, find a strange item (in a bathroom, on the ground, in a gift shop), or learn something useful that might save her life later (i.e., how the ancient Egyptians stopped poisoning).
3. Beginning with an Ending. Start your story with your MC either trying to end his life or getting into an accident. Here, you have opportunity for another important character to enter. This character could be someone he later saves or who has another meaning to him (long lost... sister... brother... etc.).
Clearly, that last one is no ordinary life moment, but tragedy happens all the time. As a writer, you have the opportunity to turn those ordinary moments into something extraordinary.
Spend the day chronicling your life moments--the grocery store, bank line, work, lunch, phone calls--and find that catalyst that could turn dramatic.
That's my story, what's yours?
Think of your favorite childhood stories. How many include a pet or other animal who is integral to the plot? You might be surprised at the answer.
First of all, I use the term "pet" in broad terms. There are magical creatures, domestic pets, animals that are hunted, farmed, and tamed. There are animals that transform into people, animals that turn on people, and animals who will die for people.
Although there are numerous stories that feature animals as central characters, I want to focus on those who work alongside a main character. In some cases, I will highlight a story with "talking" animals. You will have your favorites, and I'd love to hear about them. Please share in the comments section your beloved animal adventures.
Here are a few great books to study:
Magical Creatures: Think Hedgwig in the Harry Potter stories and all the other messenger animals. Of course, there is Hagrid's slobbering dog Fang and Norbert the Dragon. Visit this wiki page for some fun exploring all of the HP creatures.
Domestic pets: I date myself with this story, but IT'S LIKE THIS CAT is a great example of how to use a simple house cat as a plot device. When teenager Dave brings home a cat to his dysfunctional family, life changes for the better.
The hunted: Herman Melville created the most famous man v. beast battle ever in his classic, MOBY DICK. Humble fisherman Ishmael finds himself in the middle of a vengeful battle between the egotistical Captain Ahab and the great whale.
Farm animals: Many of us will think of George Orwell's political satire, ANIMAL FARM. However, this story features animals as humans--an entirely different blog topic! A more useful study would be EB White's CHARLOTTE'S WEB. Each critter carries his own human foibles and conflicts. I think it's one of the best animal-human relationships in literature.
Heroic animals: One of my favorites is Buck in Jack London's CALL OF THE WILD. This is a great story to study if you want to create a pet or farm animal who exemplifies the greatest good within human and animal nature.
The Loyal: LASSIE is perhaps the most beloved classic pet who would warn his family and neighbors when danger was a foot.
The Tragic: I still feel a pang when I hear someone mention WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, OLD YELLER, or SOUNDER. These stories feature a dog who meets a tragic end. The stories serve to connect readers to deep emotions as characters make difficult decisions.
Comic relief: There is Toto from THE WIZARD OF OZ who serves as Dorothy's companion and who warns her of danger.
Animals can move your plot forward, relieve tension, highlight character traits, and help readers connect to your story. How do you use pets or other animals in your stories? Please share!
I dare not say these words out loud, but... shhh... come closer, and I'll whisper them to you.
I think my story is finished.
Don't tell anyone. Not yet. First, I need to make sure I've satisfied the questions with which the story began.
I have worked on my young adult contemporary manuscript for more than a year. I'm not talking the writing part. The writing began in 2013. I'm talking editing and revising. A year. To be precise, fifteen months.
ON THE ROAD TO MARTY MCFLY has seen changes in characters, point of view, and plot. It is an entirely different story than the one I began three years ago. It is also an entirely better story.
First, let me tell you why it's better then I'll show you how I know it's finished.
One. I have addressed every concern an agent or editor brought to my attention during contests and querying.
Two. I have examined and corrected every detail my amazing critique partners raised a red flag to.
Three. I like it. It's a story. The characters are authentic. The MC is fallible.
Now let me show you how I know it's finished using the following five questions.
One. Is the main plot resolved?
I don't want to promise a premise that doesn't pan out. Readers need resolution to the protagonist's problem. Resolution does not necessarily mean a happy or satisfying ending. It just needs to be plausible.
Two. Did the protagonist solve it (YA needs this)?
In YA, the protagonist needs to be the one to solve her problem. Adolescents seek empowerment; adults screw with their destinies enough in the real world.
Three. Has the character grown or changed from the opening scene?
Consider Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey narrative. When the reader meets the MC, there must be something the reader asks or observes, something he expects to change.
Four. Have all the minor plots resolved?
Your A story and B story and all minor journeys that arose along the way must each come to a close.
Five. Have all the "teasers" been dealt with or resolved?
In Act I, you've no doubt introduced red herrings or secondary characters with their own story. These all need closure. If Mom has been looking for a job throughout the story, and you keep referring to it, she either needs to land one or make a comment about going back to school. Something. Don't leave teasers teasing (unless you're writing a sequel... but that's another story...).
If you think you're story is over, answer the five questions. What other questions do you think writers need to ask?
Share with us here.
Oscar Wilde said: Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.
It's true, and that's why writers could gain much from reading the newspaper. You can't make up some of the real stories that happen every day outside our windows.
How about the tourist who took her Uber driver sightseeing because she had no one else? Fortunately, it's a heartwarming story, but imagine how it might have come to a ghastly end? Or perhaps they'd fall in love. So many possibilities.
Whether you want some writing practice or you need to infuse your story with new energy, the newspaper will not let you down.
Even ads can offer unique plot twists. Take the old one to the right. What if your MC stumbled across this vintage car at a salvage lot, bought it for a couple hundred dollars with the intention of restoring it but discovered something in the trunk: a body, a fortune, a bundle of letters, a map...
If you're looking for fresh ideas, consider these three ways the news can brighten your story.
1. Discover a new character. Flip to a random page and read the top story. Who's it about? What makes them interesting? What might they not be telling us? If there's a photo, even better. There's no better place to find real characters than in real life.
2. Create a plot twist. Take a story from the front page, add a weather forecast that would have created a real disaster. Maybe it's a presidential debate amidst a snowstorm. What happens when no one shows? Perhaps it's a fast food chain that shuts its doors for a safety training, but it's a heatwave, and people are thirsty. Will they open doors?
3. Update your setting. Turn to the Style section for inspiration on homes, landscapes, or modern neighborhoods. Then flip to the home sale pages and mash up a neighborhood with million dollar homes that can't sell.
What's happening to your MC right now? Look up tomorrow's weather forecast in Minnesota or take a quote from Peyton Manning after today's victory. How can use these news events to liven up your story?
I hope these ideas help. Please share your experiences or other creative uses of the news.
While working with my creative writers recently, a student frowned and said, "I don't want to make a character people don't like."
I wonder what Alan Rickman would have said to that? Most definitely the author, JK Rowling, filled him in on the multi-dimensional character.
Every character in your story is important. If not, get rid of them. No character--as no human--is perfect. We are flawed. We love; we hate; we care; we judge. Your job as a writer is to build three-dimensional imaginative people who readers believe.
As for creating unlikable characters, those can be the most fun.
Villains, antagonists, creeps--all of them--help your hero figure out what she needs and how she'll get there. However, the antagonist and villain are not synonymous.
The antagonist is your hero's biggest adversary. Adversaries can simply be annoying pains in the neck. They can help develop your protagonist, but they are not vital to the plot. This obstacle might also be a phenomenon like the weather (GRAPES OF WRATH) or an institution (CATCHER IN THE RYE, ANIMAL FARM).
Classic antagonists in children's lit include Tinkerbell and The Queen of Hearts. They help the protagonist grow and learn, but they do not tie in directly to the main plot.
The villain is essential to the plot and prevents your hero from reaching resolution. The villain is one whose dastardly ways impede your main character. (In HARRY POTTER, Snape might be seen as an antagonist, whereas Voldemort is clearly the villain.)
Villains we love to hate: the Devil, Moriarity, Captain Hook)
Let's complicate things. The villain might also be your protagonist. This character seeks a goal, but he's not the nicest of people. Think: THE GRINCH, THE GODFATHER, MACBETH, or the TV show DEXTER. In these cases, you can see that a villain/protagonist reads more like a villainous protagonist.
That said, not every story has a villain, but every story has an antagonist. It often depends on your genre.
Whether you are in the middle of your story or just getting started, consider who or what impedes your hero's journey. That is your obstacle. If it's a person or being, they are either your villain or antagonist. If that character is essential to the plot, they are most likely your villain. Think of the fun Rowling had with Voldemort. Readers despised him from the get go, but we also learned more of why he was so tormented.
Without Snape, our antagonist, Harry would never have survived. This we know now.
Create characters with flaws, characters who annoy us, characters who do despicable things. It's your world. Whatever you do, put as much heart and time into developing these hated ones as you do your main character.
Side note: when I told my young writers to imagine a teacher or classmate who truly got on their nerves and turn them into a character in their stories, they each smiled and put pen to paper.
Remember, writing is fun. Have fun.
Winning NaNoWriMo is no small feat. Committing yourself to writing more than one thousand words each day (a 1.6k average is needed to 'win'), suggests you have what it takes.
But don't stop there. Words on a page do not a story make.
Now comes the fun part. Editing and revising and editing and revising and . . . Time to get to the root of your novel.
Your story is not complete until you've spent days, and weeks, and months combing through its pages, tweaking plot lines, and finessing word usage. The true nugget of your story is often buried deep within the middle of all those thousands of words.
Every writer has his own advice for how to tackle the revision stages. Google til your heart's content, and you can find half a dozen that make sense to you.
I follow Stephen King's: put your first draft away for a month to six weeks before you revise.
Here are six ideas for how to handle revising your first draft.
1. Listen to the King. Put it away and work on anything else but that manuscript for at least a month. You'll return with fresh eyes to discover the hidden beauty (buried deep in chapter six) or the rubbish you wrote to begin the story.
2. Before you revise, write a letter to a friend explaining your book. (You don't need to send it.) Try to get it right in a 35-word pitch. Then dig in revising, go back and read that letter and write a new one. Repeat this process until you've uncovered the true pitch.
3. Revise your draft as many times as you have important characters. Each time you revise, do it with one character in mind. Use his perspective. This is a great way to uncover loose storylines, catch missing or erroneous details (birthdates, eye color, favorite foods, etc.).
4. Cut or combine useless characters. Idea 3 will help you uncover who adds to the plot and who detracts from it. As Mr. King says: "Kill your darlings." (This is also a good time to study all the names used in your story. Be sure they are not easily confusing--too many single syllable names; too many names starting with S, etc.)
5. Create a storyboard of key scenes. Plotters will have already done this. However, do it again. I record each scene on a post-it that I can move around a board. Not all scenes need cutting; some need moving.
6. Share your draft with a trusted partner. If you haven't joined a writing group or located a critque partner, now's a great time to do this. Other writers understand what is a first draft. They won't nit-pick at grammar or spelling. They will tell you what works and what doesn't.
Now, stop reading this blog and get to revising. More tips on revising and editing in the future!
Please share your ideas here.
In light of Friday's tragedy in Paris, I decided to locate authors and characters who promote peace.
Our words speak as loudly as our actions. While you work to write the next great novel, consider the messages your characters share through their words and actions.
Consider these wise and thoughtful words from some of our most creative writers.
Why can't people just sit and read books and be nice to each other?”
― David Baldacci, The Camel Club
“A quiet conscience makes one strong!”
― Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
“If you love me as you say you do,' she whispered, 'make it so that I am at peace.”
― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
“Peace is always beautiful.”
― Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
“I do my best thinking at night when everyone else is sleeping. No interruptions. No noise. I like the feeling of being awake when no one else is.”
― Jennifer Niven, All the Bright Places
“In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise. But still he wandered through the streets of the town, always silent and alone.”
― Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
“I have never been carried around by a large boy, or laughed until my stomach hurt at the dinner table, or listened to the clamor of a hundred people all talking at once. Peace is restrained; this is free.”
― Veronica Roth, Divergent
“How blessed are some people, whose lives have no fears, no dreads; to whom sleep is a blessing that comes nightly, and brings nothing but sweet dreams.”
― Bram Stoker, Dracula
“It is better to be small, colorful, sexy, careless, and peaceful, like the flowers, than large, conservative, repressed, fearful, and aggressive, like the thunder lizards; a lesson, by the way, that the Earth has yet to learn.”
― Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume
“Thus Gotama [Buddha] walked toward the town to gather alms, and the two samanas recognized him solely by the perfection of his repose, by the calmness of his figure, in which there was no trace of seeking, desiring, imitating, or striving, only light and peace”
― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
“Let the peace of this day be here tomorrow when I wake up.”
― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
Find your words of peace and infuse them in the stories you tell. Let your characters rise above the horrible acts of human nature and be the trumpets of a new world, a peaceful world.
Today, write only words of peace.