Monday, May 22, 2017

Character motivations as shown by Disney’s ‘Tangled’

Confession: I’ve not followed the theme this month. The closest I can get is that the weather in Tangled is really summer-y… and the Darling Buds of May is summer-y too….

Yeah OK it’s not linked.

Anyway, I was listening to Disney’s Tangled’s soundtrack yesterday (Yes it’s on my workout list) and as I was singing along to ‘I’ve Got a Dream’, I realised that Disney has basically whittled down one of the most important parts of fiction writing into a really catchy song. For those of you not Disney-inclined, this is sung by a group of scary pirates/thugs in a dodgy tavern, and it’s describing how even though they’re a bit murderous, they all have a dream that’s separate from their ‘day job’ of being violent.

I can’t directly quote the lyrics here due to copyright, but the opening of the song describes one pirate’s desire to become a concert pianist. (It’s so catchy, look it up.)

I know in YA writing we can’t be quite as obvious as Disney can, handily providing an exposition song to explain a character’s motivations, (if only) but the song is a really good reminder that no matter what character you’re creating they will ALWAYS have something driving them, and often more than one thing. So here we have a guy whose motivation seems to be money, taking out his anger on others, intimidating others etc… which is a bit of a 2D cliché, right? But then we’re told he actually wants to be a pianist. So, let’s say we were writing about this character and taking him out of a Disney realm, we could show his hidden motivation in subtle ways such as demonstrating his fondness for music; exploring his lack of opportunities to follow his dream growing up; maybe even having another character hear him secretly practising his tunes…

The song goes on to describe a multitude of cameo characters’ dreams, such as being a florist, doing interior design, being a mime artist, making cupcakes, knitting, sewing, performing puppet shows and collecting unicorns.

So now we have an ensemble cast who have suddenly become individuals with names, hobbies and aspirations, all in eight lines! Again, I know that when we’re writing YA we can’t just list what drives our characters, but if we know what they are as the writer, it will shine through in their actions; the way they speak and react to things and their understanding of other characters, which will all contribute to making them well-rounded 3D characters.

Within the song, we also have the main characters’ love interest sing about how his dream is to be ‘surrounded by bags of money.’ This is great, because it shows us how the character perceives his own motivation, whereas by the end of the film we know what will really make him happy is to find someone to share his life with. So now we start adding layers onto the motivations of our characters – what do they think drives them in comparison to what they ACTUALLY are looking for, if they were honest with themselves?

If you know all this, your characters will naturally demonstrate their motivations (hopefully in ways slightly more subtle than bursting into song,) within your writing.

And if nothing else, this post will ensure that you won’t be able to stop humming ‘I’ve Got a Dream’ for the rest of the day.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Be a Killer Queen

The Darling Buds of May/Kill Your Darlings inspired our May theme for YAtopia. And my post today is inspired by Queen's kick-arse song Killer Queen. 

Why? Because I want to be a Killer Queen. As in, I need to be prepared kill more characters in my series. I feel like it's something I've shied away from, despite having a homicidal super soldier as a character in my series, there has been a total of three deaths, and two of those were 'off-stage'. 

It's not like I want to get all George R. Martin and kill off  a truck load of characters, but I need to know when it's okay to kill my little darlings for the sake of the story, and to improve the reader experience. 

Now you may be asking, how does killing off characters make for an enjoyable experience for the reader. It doesn't always, especially if there's no good reason for it, but if the story needs to show characters being ruthless, having ambition, and a lack of respect for human life, then killing off characters can be a way to do that. 

A great example of this is A Court Of Fives. One of my 2017 Pitch Madness Team members recommended this to me to help me tackle the world building for my first ever fantasy attempt. The book is Roman Empire inspired, and is filled with political intrigue, defined classes and ruthless ambition. I won't spoil the story for you, but there were multiple times where death was depicted, either of supporting cast members, or scenery characters, and the impact on me was quite strong. I was often floored, not expecting it, but it supported the world building and the character development within the story, and overall cemented the story as one of the most exquisitely crafted series I've ever read. 

I know to achieve this I need to hang up my pantser pants and put on my plotter pants on. And thanks to finally taking the plunge and purchasing Scrivener, I'm hoping to become a converted plotter, and to kill many a darling in my pages. 

Sharon M. Johnston is an Australian author of YA and NA novels. her Open Heart Series is out now with City Owl Press. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Truth About Revising

Revising is a difficult subject for writers because a lot of work occurs between the first and final draft. However, writers need to remember one very important thing. They are the ones in charge of their work. Yes. It’s important for writers to take constructive criticism. But writers still need to stay true to their vision. And I would like to share a few revision tips I have learned over the last couple of years.
Worldbuilding is one thing I’ve improved on with my writing. Worldbuilding means rituals, details, and information that’s necessary to a novel. In a fantasy novel, that could mean how magic works. In a contemporary/non-fantasy or science fiction novel, worldbuilding could mean mentioning the school’s mascot if it’s a middle grade or young adult novel or even an annual event that’s important to the novel’s setting. Those are just a couple of examples. However, my point remains clear. Little details don’t have to be distracting. They just make the book’s world more fleshed out.
Characterization is another thing I’ve improved on with my writing. Having well-defined characters is necessary because people are complicated in real life. That doesn’t mean villains have to be redeemed. It just means characters need layers. Writers don’t have to drop a character’s entire backstory in a scene to give the character depth. They could just reveal a small detail. For example, a scene between a main character and his or her friend might entail the friend revealing a problem. The problem doesn’t even have to be large. But it gives insight into the friend and helps also flesh out the main character. Other characters often support the main character and it’s good if the main character can repay the favor somehow. However, it’s still okay to plan backstories for each character. The details might not all make it on the page. But they do inform how authors write a scene. For instance, someone who lost a parent before turning thirteen would have a different outlook on life as opposed to someone who never had a trustworthy adult figure as a kid.
Style is another thing I’ve learned about when revising. Writers need long, short, and medium sentences. Having a variety in terms of sentence length helps the writing be smooth. Too many short sentences would be boring and monotone while too many long sentences might lose readers.
Information is another issue related to revision. Details are essential for fiction. Although dropping too much information on readers can be dangerous. Readers only need as much information that is necessary in the actual scene.

To all my fellow writers: remember to take deep breaths when revising. It can be overwhelming. The trick is knowing you put solid planning into the novel. And I don’t say that lightly. I’m revising a YA Fantasy novel right now. Although this revision is only about modifying emotions/reactions and digging deeper with interiority in terms of the main character’s emotions/reactions. For instance, violence is present in the novel and can’t just be glossed over (the concept of the novel is fascism in a fairytale/fantasy setting). That means the main character needs to express his thoughts to those types of situations so the story will be fleshed out more.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Editing and the Five Stages of Grief

Happy Mother’s Day! Hope everyone reading had a fun, relaxing day with the kids or hanging out with Mom.

Reflecting on Mother’s Day made me think of how the creative process is often compared to childbirth. Novel writing is no exception. It can easily take nine months (sometimes longer!) to finish a writing project, editing being the hardest, lengthiest part. Most writers will agree they love drafting but hate editing. Why is it so painful to go back and review your own words? I know for me it’s tough to reread what I’ve written because I’m either too critical where I shouldn’t be and not tough enough where it counts. It’s brutal to admit that a favorite scene, a beloved character, or even a gratuitous line may not work and should be cut to improve the overall pacing, plot, and/or cast. So, as with a death or loss, the editing process can be subject to the five stages of grief: 

First comes denial: So what the word count of my YA novel is 150K? Surely the right agent will see the necessity of every single word and will fall in love with the project anyway. Their enthusiasm will exude as they pitch the story, and it will sell, as is, even though it’s twice as long as average and it’s a debut. George RR Martin’s first book in A Song of Ice and Fire was 300K, after all!

Then comes anger and maybe a touch of righteous indignation: How dare they (critique partner, beta reader, friend, agent, editor) say that (scene, character, line) doesn’t work? They just don’t get the story!! How can they expect me to hack away at what was surely created through divine inspiration, not to mention my own blood, sweat, and tears??

Bargaining: Okay, well, maybe if I just cut a few extraneous words, I can keep this scene …

Then depression and reluctant acceptance sets in: This is when you begin to realize making tough changes is necessary and will strengthen the overall story.

This is the time to really take a critical eye to the pages. Even though all the characters are like your children, you may find one of them isn’t moving the story forward, may be detrimental to the pacing, and needs to go.
As hard as it is to cut characters, sometimes deleting scenes is even more difficult. One scene can often change the outcome of the story, and if that pivotal event could (or should) be cut, even if that means rewriting the last third of the novel, it has to be done.

But what about those instances where changes will make the story different, not necessarily better. Maybe the advice you received was simply a personal preference of the reader. How can you tell the difference?

If more than one person gives you similar feedback about a scene or a plot point or if you’re not getting the response to a certain character the way you intended, it’s time to reevaluate. The critique can sting at first, but it’s best to wait a few days, let the advice sink in, and then go back with the red pen and mark up your work. It’s like chipping away at a slab of marble-- most edits will streamline and polish the story and let the really important points shine through. And in the end, your work will be improved, your message will be clearer, and the overall story will be all the better for it.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Lop of their heads!

Welcome to May, everybody! I'm extra happy this month, as it happens to be my birthday, which means I get to splurge a little.

Our awesome Sharon Johnston came up with the idea of "Killing your Darlings" for our May theme (don't you just love themes? In fact, you may (boom boom) have noticed a theme throughout our blog this year!). Yes, that was corny, but I really couldn't help myself.

There are a lot of ways to kill your darlings (it could be sentences, scenes, paragraphs, characters, dialogue, etc.). However, I'm going to talk about ones people rarely talk about. *Whispers dramatically* *long pause* Books. Yes, you heard me. Books. Sometimes you just have to cut that darling free. Hold on, let me explain. I mean this in two ways. Let me ease you into this by offering you the abstract version:

1) At some point or another, you're going to have to stop editing, polishing, tweaking, and adjusting that baby bird book of yours and cut the apron string - let it fly out into the agent slush pile, or out on submission, or out to your CPs. I know it's hard. You want your darling to stay your darling forever. But what if someone hurts it? Doesn't like it? Says my characters are flat? Gasp - hate it?! Well, thems the breaks. I'm not being harsh here. It burns like hell. However, there are benefits. Feedback will help you improve. You'll learn about subjectivity. You'll gain a new perspective. But, you'll also learn that, well, you can't please everyone, and you can't be perfect. And people will have read your book. That's the point of becoming a published author, right? So, as hard as it is, kill that darling string of yours, and let your baby book go.

Okay, that wasn't so bad, now was it? Good. Glad we're on the same page. This bit, though, is going to be tougher:

2) Sometimes you're going to actually have to kill your book. I mean it's got to go. Your book might be written in the wrong tense - give it up and start again, darling. It might be the wrong character POV. That's right - kill the POV and choose another one. It might be the wrong story. WHAT? The wrong story? But I wanted to write that story! Hey, calm down. No one's arguing with you there. What I'm saying is that your story may have went off track. What you wanted to write might have gotten muddled up, your vision changed, your characters went off fact, any number of things could have derailed your story. That means you have to kill that darling story and start from scratch. Painful, I know, but a good writer always does what's best for their vision, and if that means starting again, then that's what you've got to do.

There you go. That's killing your darling. Ah, wait, one more thing. Don't shoot me, but sometimes a book just doesn't work for publishing. It might be a saturated market, the book might not just have a wide enough appeal, it might be too niche of a market, it might not fit comfortably on the book shelves. There are a lot of reasons a book might not get published. I'm afraid that at some point, you might have to kill one of your books. I have a few dead ones myself. That doesn't mean I don't love them. It doesn't mean they weren't worthy. It just means that right now, you need to work on something fresh. Make sure you're moving forward, being objective, and remember...this is a business, as well as an art.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Agentopia: Patricia Nelson

Welcome to the May edition of Agentopia! This month we have Patricia Nelson from Marsal Lyon Literary Agency in the spotlight.

About Patricia:

Patricia Nelson joined Marsal Lyon Literary Agency in 2014. She represents adult, young adult, and middle grade fiction, and is actively building her list.
In general, Patricia looks for stories that hook her with a unique plot, fantastic writing and complex characters that jump off the page. On the adult side, she is seeking women’s fiction both upmarket and commercial, historical fiction set in the 20th century, and compelling plot-driven literary fiction. She’s also looking for sexy, smart adult contemporary and historical single title romance. On the children’s side, Patricia is open to a wide range of genres of YA and MG, with particular interest in contemporary/realistic, magical realism, mystery, science fiction and fantasy. She is interested in seeing diverse stories and characters, including LGBTQ, in all genres that she represents.

What is currently on your wish list?

Diverse books and #ownvoices stories is my #1 wish list item -- like many others who work in the publishing industry, I think it's SO important to expand the voices and stories we're hearing in kidlit. Beyond that, I would love to find a haunting YA contemporary fantasy with gorgeous, literary writing. I'm always looking for page-turning YA fantasy or sci-fi with a compelling heroine and a premise and setting that feels truly unique. I also like YA contemporary, but generally tend toward the upper-YA or more literary side with a very strong sense of place and characters who are complicated (and might even be a bit tough to love) -- I often use AMERICAN GIRLS by Allison Umminger, in which a teen girl spends the summer in LA with her sister and becomes fascinated by the Manson murders, as an example of the kind of contemporary YA I tend to fall for. And I'd love to take on a contemporary YA with a teen girl protagonist who reminds me of the amazing young women who write for ROOKIE and TEEN VOGUE: smart, socially and politically engaged, explicitly feminist, fighting to resist and to build a better world. I think a lot of teens are more interested in social justice than adults give them credit for, especially now, and it would be great to see that trait in more YA characters.

What's a personal turn-off in a query which is guaranteed to get the author rejected?

It drives me crazy when the querier frames themselves as the savior of YA! You'd be surprised how often people say things like: "Unlike all the vampires and dystopias being published in YA now, my book has substance." Not only is this an inaccurate characterization of the publishing landscape, it's patronizing and dismissive of all the other brilliant writers out there working in this genre -- and it makes me think you won't be a positive member of the writing/publishing community, which is not a great sign for career longevity. When a query starts with a comment like this, I'm almost definitely going to send a pass.

Do you google authors and if yes, what are you looking for?

I only look up authors after I've read the query and pages and I'm interested, but if I like the writing, yes, I do turn to google. Mostly, I want to see that you've at least dipped your toe into being a person on the internet, because that will be a necessity once you have a book to promote. For me, I hope to find that a querying writer has at least one of: a twitter account, an instagram account, a tumblr, or at least a simple website with an "about me". It doesn't matter to me how many followers you have, though!

If you're on social media, I do tend to scroll back and look at posts to get a sense of your personality and whether I think we'd get along. It's not make-or-break, but I do view it positively when I see that authors are posting about what they're reading and/or the writing process, and when they're engaging with other writers online, which tends to be a good sign that you're engaged in your genre and starting to build a community. The big red flag is trash-talking the industry or the querying process, or a general tone of persistent negativity.

To submit to Patricia,  send a query letter with the first ten pages of the manuscript with the word QUERY in the email’s subject line to:
Further submission guidelines can be found here.
Follow Patricia on Twitter at @patricianels