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?
Sitting in front of my laptop, day in and day out, tunneling inside my head to find the very last bread crumbs of creativity, I often wonder what I'm doing.
The short answer is: writing.
The long answer is much more complicated.
Telling a story is not easy. It's more than having an idea and some characters and a setting. There are layers. The idea needs to be complex, a conflict that branches off onto another path. The characters must be rich and flawed but believable. The setting requires details--but not too many--and imagery. It must all come alive before the reader's eyes and live within the reader's imagination.
Storytelling calls for all of this plus heart and movement.
Read all of the books you can on writing; study great writers; practice, practice, practice. It will still be hard.
No one said it would be easy.
Don't give up. Give in, and write. Every. Day. Every. Moment.
You are never not a writer. Even when you are doing the other mundane chores that humans must do, even then you are a writer. Writers must take out the trash, wash dishes, pee, buy eggs, carpool the soccer team, shop for new underwear.
You are human. Live your life, but always live it as a writer. Everything you do requires you to be on the alert for the next great line, quirky character, unusual plot, or brilliant setting.
This is not a pep talk, this is a shoulder hug, a you-can-do-it-stop-complaining self-talk, a remember-why talk. Don't write because you want to, write because if you don't, you would die, life would evaporate before your eyes, and you would disintegrate into a pile of dust to be swept under a rug.
Writing is the fire that burns inside me. I write for me. I write because I must.
That is my story. What's yours?
Every story has a theme even if the author never sets it there on purpose. The theme is an underlying or overarching message that might not be discerned until the story ends. A theme connects to the story's topic. It's what you want readers to understand about life after they've finished your book.
Often, the theme is the same as what the hero or protagonist discovers. In the Pulitzer novel, THE GOLDFINCH, Theo learns that you cannot hold onto what you love or you might destroy it. In other words, love means letting go.
Sometimes, it's too big, In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the theme centers around the fragility of innocence. Perhaps Harper Lee was saying that to be innocent meant risking your life.
On occasion, the narrator tells us the theme (or hints strongly), so we can participate in its development during the story. In Edgar Alan Poe's THE TELL-TALE HEART, the main character serves as the narrator and lets the reader know immediately that he's going crazy. We learn with him that even the mad can feel guilt. Guilt has no boundaries.
If you are in the middle of writing a story, or you are planning one, consider the message you want readers to take away.
Here are some common themes:
Beauty is only skin deep.
Believe in yourself.
Believing strongly in something is vital to its fruition.
Change is inevitable.
Good and evil can coexist.
Blood is thicker than water.
Love always wins.
Rules protect us.
Face your fears, and you will be stronger.
Truth can set us free.
Other themes can be found in old proverbs, the Bible, Torah, Koran, Baghavad Gita, or other religious works, Shakespeare, poetry, your mother's words, a prisoner's regrets. In short, a theme is a message, and we all have at least one we live by.
What is close to your heart? What messages will you leave with your readers?
Share your thoughts here.
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.
If you seek an agent, you must know about #MSWL.
However, beware its lethal lure...
There are many places to find what agents seek.
1. Agency sites.
2. Personal Twitter and Tumblr feeds.
3. The #MSWL.
Smart writers will check out the updates on the Twitter feed.
You might also be interested in two different websites.
This simple one.
This curated site with more info and archives.
If you are a serious querying author, you will want a free or paid account at Query Tracker. Don't forget to polish your query. Always seek a second (or third) pinion from critique partners or friends. Learn even more here about what makes a good query.
This week, I'm busy heavily revising ON THE ROAD TO MARTY MCFLY after an agent who requested the full manuscript suggested I tighten the plot.
I'll be busy with that for several weeks. As for the rest of you, write on!
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.
When I joined the NaNoWriMo crowd 23 days ago, I had little hope of achieving the 50,000-word count by the end of the month. As of today, I've written 36,099 words. No rounding; every word counts.
That's why I'm not going to spend too much time writing my blog today. I need to get back to my novel.
First, three things I've learned about goal-setting.
1. Setting a daily word-count goal gives you a visual target. Your inner writing-ego won't let you leave the project if you don't achieve that number.
2. Setting a daily word-count goal pushes your creativity into a corner that you must escape from. This requires more creativity. If you think the chapter's finished, but it's under your word-goal, how about beefing up that description of your protag's jacket or the sound of the rain or make it rain.
3. Setting a daily word-count goal exercises your writing muscles. It's like taking up running. At first, your goal is to get around the block. After a few days, you up to two blocks. Before you know it, you're jogging across town and back. Set reasonable goals then push yourself a little more each day. (Warning: don't set a goal so high that writing becomes a chore. Keep it fun.)
Want more inspiration? Try these articles from the experts at NaNoWriMo:
Tackling the saggy middle.
Putting the fun into your story.
If you're writing, good luck. Have fun. You can do this!