Last week I was lucky enough to attend a fantastic workshop at the Writers in Progress studio in beautiful Florence, Massachusetts. Led by author Jacqueline Sheehan, the workshop was called “Getting Close to Your Characters.”
Anyone who’s struggled with bringing characters and their motivations (real and hidden) to life knows what we’re talking about. It ain’t easy.
The studio described the challenge this way:
One of the main reasons why readers read is to slip inside the skin of another person. The most memorable characters are those we feel closest to: the ones whose feelings we feel and whose lives we experience…. But how do writers accomplish this intimacy while thinking about so many other things, like plot and pacing and character development?
Jacqueline keeps her workshops grounded in exercises and techniques that writers can immediately put to use. In fact, I went home and did exactly that in my novel draft.
We delved into point-of-view, motivation, physical setting, and verb tense as conduits to create intimacy between character and reader. I can’t put down all the good stuff I soaked up, but here are a few gems that REALLY struck me.
Characters need STRONG and CLEAR motivations in order to engage readers. Ratchet up the intensity of their desire. One common complaint among literary agents, Jacqueline says, is characters that are too PASSIVE.
So, the question becomes how we skillfully develop characters to SHOW the intensity of their motivation, and by extension, who they really are. Some techniques to get you there:
Engage the senses, make reading experiential. Sight, sound, and touch are of course important, but don’t forget the other sense. Smelling what a character smells, or tasting, gets the reader up personal and inside what the character is experiencing. Scent especially is a very primal sense, evoking memories and states of mind in an instant.
Let characters be vulnerable to pain. “Being stoic is not going to work,” as Jacqueline puts it. Show the reader how they react to fear, betrayal, abandonment, loss. “It’s very revealing how we respond to those hard things,” says Jacqueline, who, by the way, is also a psychologist. “Your core is revealed.” Help readers feel what your characters feel and they’ll go along for the ride.
Use powerful verbs! Brain imaging has shown that when you watch someone doing active things, the same part of your brain lights up as the person doing the action. So, if they leap, you take a mental leap. The same holds true for readers. So, don’t breathe heavily, pant or gasp or instead.
Use actions, not thoughts, to bring readers into a character’s mind. Watching someone throw a punch or flip the finger in traffic is a more telling display of their emotional state than saying their angry, even if they’re “quaking with angry.”
A good tip—use verbs that are associated with sex; they’re already sensual and evocative!
Summertime and the reading is good this year. We’ve selected our seasonal picks, and will surely be spotted toting them on vacation and to neighborhood parks. Here’s what we’ve chosen:
My extremely well read sister has shamed me into reading Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Okay, there are a few holes in my education. This is one I’m going to fill.
Then I’m onto two new novels that I can’t want to get my hands on. They’re from two of my favorite contemporary authors.
My book group never fails to steer me toward books I certainly wouldn’t choose for myself, and usually end up glad to have read. The one I’m reading now is no exception. Even though I’m not much of a nonfiction reader, Missing Man, about a spy who disappeared in Iran, grabbed me from the start. I’ll pass it along to the hubby too.
After that somber read, I’ll need a pick-me-up. And my all-time favorite, Anne Tyler, is just the ticket with her latest–a modern-day version of Taming of the Shrew, coming out on June 21:
What are YOU reading on the deck, at the pool, by the ocean? We need more ideas. Please leave us a comment and share your summer reading picks! (By the way, no need to insert your name or email address when you comment. Just type and hit Post.)
Have you heard of MOOCs? The term stands for massive open online course, and the writing program at the University of Iowa is currently hosting one.
Iowa’s Writing University Open Courses website is offering a six-week FREE course, for beginners to experienced-level writers, called How Writers Write Fiction. Once you register for the class, you simply watch a weekly video or two and complete a writing assignment. Then you’re asked to read other people’s work and post your comments while they read and critique your pieces. Some big-name writers are running the show, including one of my personal faves, Mona Simpson, and I believe they will comment on a few assignments as well.
If you’re too busy to sign up, or aren’t sure about it yet, I’ll give you a recap of the first video I watched. This one featured author Michelle Huneven, who offered some great tips for fitting writing into your life:
Turn your soul around. Make writing the priority in your life and everything else will fall into place.
Get a good timer. Or use your phone. Decide how many minutes you can stand to write: 7 minutes, 12 minutes, 1 hour, 3 hours…and begin.
Join a writing group. It just helps.
Find a writer you deeply admire who’s maybe a little better than you are, and make a deal to swap writing on a regular basis. Saves you lots of time and makes writing a lot less lonely.
Get plenty of exercise. Very important. No flabby mind, no flabby body, and they’re connected. Walk.
Do something else creative. Cook, garden, play music, make pots, paint. Do something that’s not word-based. It gives the psyche time to range about, and it will sort things out for you that you can’t do with a direct assault.
Bang out a really crappy rough draft of a story, chapter, scene, or article. Give the part of the mind that structures something the chance to organize.
If you’re a novelist, write something short once in a while: an essay, a short story, an article. This is essential so you don’t forget how to finish something. A novel is a really long act of faith. Shorter pieces remind you of the pleasure of endings and keep you in practice to finish.
Remember writing is a form of play. Get into flow. Remember you will get stuck, but you can’t force things. Solving difficult problems is the form of writing. It’s infinite. But remember to give yourself a little room. You have to work your way into flow. If you’re too stuck or going at it too hard, back off. Take a walk, cook a meal, play some music. If it’s still not working, try something else.
Great advice, right? I’m giving this course a try to see where it takes me. If you plan to sign up too, please drop us a line and let us know how it’s going. The second discussion is up now, and focuses on crafting beginning lines. I SO need help with this. I posted my assignment and within an hour had three comments on it. Fun, and hopefully very useful.
And hey, did I mention it’s Iowa for pete’s sake? And free???
Hannah Barnaby is author of Wonder Show, anovel set in 1939 that tells the tale of 13-year-old Portia Remini, who flees a Home for Wayward Girls and winds up with a traveling sideshow. As if the freakish world of the carnival and its sideshow “misfits” aren’t enough to deal with, Portia’s also searching for the father who abandoned her, and keeping a constant watch for Mister, her old headmaster, whom she’s certain will someday find her.
Wonder Show was a 2013 William C. Morris YA Debut Award Finalist and a Children’s Book of the Month Club pick. It was also named to the YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults List, the Bank Street College’s Best Books List, and the School Library Journal’s Best Books List, and it was an IndieBound New Voices Selection.
Intrigued? Offer up a comment to Hannah’s interview with Write Despite, below, and you could win a free, signed copy of Wonder Show.
This is your first book, correct? Why did you choose to write YA and is it the genre you plan to continue with?
Wonder Show is my first published novel, but not the first that I wrote. I have a middle-grade story that I wrote during my MFA program at Vermont College, that novel-in-the-drawer that most writers have. I’m not sure if it will ever be resurrected, but it taught me about the building blocks of a novel and about my own process.
As for choosing to write YA, I actually work pretty hard not to think about genre while I’m writing. Some genres—picture books, for instance—are obvious designations and have their own rules, but the lines between others—like middle-grade and YA—are not as clear. When Wonder Show was first published, it was named to the middle-grade summer reading list for the Children’s Book of the Month Club. Then it was nominated for the William C. Morris Award for debut young adult novels. So there was no hard and fast label for the book, which I appreciated because it reflected the fact that the audience for Wonder Show could be wider than one group of readers.
Your website says you came up with the character of Portia Remini in a dream, but what drew you to write about the circus, and its sideshow “misfits” in particular?
When I set out to write Wonder Show, all I had was the image of a girl riding a bicycle on a dirt road, and the sense that she was running away from somewhere. I didn’t know where she was going or who she was running from or anything else, really. Then a friend told me about a grant offered by the Boston Public Library, the winner of which would get financial support as well as being named the Children’s Writer-in-Residence. I decided to apply, and in researching the library’s Special Collections, I found that they had an archive of circus materials and quite a few books on circus and carnival history. A few months later, I won the grant! And then I was faced with actually writing the project that I’d proposed, which became Wonder Show.
The shifting POV among your characters comes later in the book, and gives it an unexpected twist. Was it fun to switch gears this way, and what made you decide to use this technique?
I wrote the first draft of Wonder Show very much by instinct. When I sat down to write each day, I took a few minutes to think about Portia and where she was and who she was with, and then I started to fashion a scene that built that atmosphere. It wasn’t plot-driven writing at all, but it was very much character-driven, and so I needed to get to know the supporting cast better. Writing pieces of narrative from each different point-of-view gave each character a turn to speak to me and let me know who they were and how their stories intersected with Portia’s. I wasn’t sure about keeping these pieces in the final manuscript, but I came to love them and what they revealed about the sideshow family. (I will say, however, that writing without regard for plot or chronology made the revision process *extremely* challenging. I don’t recommend this method.)
Can you talk a bit about your road to publication?
My path to publication is very different than that of most other writers, because prior to becoming a writer I worked as a children’s book editor at Houghton Mifflin, and winning the grant from the BPL also put me in contact with some valuable allies. One of the judges who awarded me the grant was Melanie Kroupa, who then had her own imprint at FSG. A couple of years after I finished my residency, Melanie wrote to ask, “What ever happened with your novel? Can I read it?” I asked for some time to do a quick revision (six weeks!) and I sent it off. Melanie didn’t end up acquiring the project, but her request got me working on the manuscript again and eventually Kate O’Sullivan, a friend and former colleague at Houghton, offered me a contract.
Do you write every day?
I aspire to write every day, but I rarely do. The reality is that I have three kids, only two of them are in school full-time, and life is unpredictable. So most of all, I try to be flexible. I might steal 20 minutes of writing time while my daughter’s in ballet class or while I’m supposed to be folding laundry. When I can plan for larger blocks of writing time, I always plan ahead so I know what to work on as soon as I sit down. I always, always have a notebook and pen with me because you never know when an new idea will come or the solution to a problem will make itself clear. (And my kids are always saying the most hilarious things, so I can capture those, too.)
What advice do you have for other writers still struggling to create or publish?
Writing is HARD WORK. And the fact that it’s hard doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong—it means that it’s important and complex and full of emotion, as all good writing should be. Take the time to find the process that works for you, and know that your process will adapt and change from project to project. When I started writing Wonder Show, I was a single, working professional living in Boston. By the time I finished the novel for publication, I was married with children and living in the Connecticut suburbs. My perspective had evolved, and it deepened my writing and my understanding of the creative process.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just completed a contemporary YA novel that’s going out for submission soon (wish me luck!). This summer, I plan to work on a younger chapter book and a few picture book manuscripts—I’m giving myself permission to loosen up my schedule and play with writing more than I usually do. I’ll let you know how it goes!
And by the way, if you’re anywhere near Richmond, Virginia, on Wednesday, June 18, 2014, Hannah will be reading at the Girls of Summer Reading Party at 7 pm at the main branch of the Richmond Public Library, 101 East Franklin Street, Richmond, VA. She will be reading with Meg Medina and also author Gigi Amateau, another ‘Q&A Book Giveaway’ author previously featured on Write Despite. Go if you can!
AND DON’T FORGET: YOU COULD OWN A FREE COPY OF WONDER SHOW. JUST TELL US WHY YOU’D LIKE TO OWN THIS BOOK BY POSTING YOUR COMMENT HERE.
I recently sat in on a panel with Jeff Kleinman—again. He’s the agent from Folio Literary Management I wrote about last year. If you missed that post, here it is. He gives lots of great information for submitting novels to agents, especially literary fiction, and had a few new insights this year. But even what I got from the panel last year bears repeating.
On Biggest Mistakes
Kleinman has four must-haves for writers who submit to his agency:
1)Premise – You MUST have a logline, even if you don’t use it in your submissions. You have to know it in your head because it will help you hone in on your book. Too many good writers don’t have a real sense of what their book is about. A logline, as he explains it, is much like the statement you see on a movie poster. For Splash it was: “Boy meets girl. She’s a fish.”
2)Characters – You get rejected mainly because agents DON’T FALL IN LOVE with anyone in your book. That means you didn’t do a good enough job of bringing your characters to life. Go deeper! Interview your character with crazy questions and keep asking him or her why.
3)Momentum – Make sure words serve to turn pages. Understand what your reader wants to know next.
4)VOICE. This can’t be stressed enough. In commercial fiction it’s what’s most important and it’s a huge problem for many writers. Ask yourself how you can focus and drill down to get something that’s distinctive. Establish voice in the first three to four sentences. There has to be an authority in the voice that the reader buys into.
Also, there’s this. People read for three things: Character, voice and plot. Kleinman suggested reading The Goldfinch as a great current example of all three. The painting in this book, he says, is the plot device that carries the story forward.
On Rejection Letters
If you’re getting:
All form rejections—Then your premise needs work. It doesn’t sound at all interesting.
“Minimal” rejections, as in “Hey, it’s not right for me”—Then your writing is stronger but you still don’t have a great premise.
Personalized rejections—Then clearly something is starting to work. They want to engage with you more. Now you’re likely done with your query letter—it’s probably good enough.
Requests for the first 50 pages—This is the basic minimal amount that gauges their interest in you and it means you have a strong premise. They’re willing to go further.
Requests for the full manuscript and they still reject it—Then it’s always, always CHARACTER. You didn’t engage the agent enough with your characters, especially the main one.
Your query letter should state:
– Why you’re writing to that particular agent.
– Who you are, and how you met the agent, if you did.
– Your contact info.
– What your book’s about—one to two sentences only. Your synopsis will provide the rest.
And hey, get this: He says not to sweat the synopsis too much: “We usually only ask for a synopsis to ensure you’ve written the whole thing.” We suspected as much, didn’t we?
“All agents can do is point out that you’re bleeding. We don’t necessarily know where you’re bleeding from. You have to know how to fix it.”
“Agents want to help you improve your book, but only when you’ve taken it as far as you can. Make sure it’s as ready as you can make it.”
Paperlet, an online writer community, not only allows readers to comment on and edit each other’s work, but actually helps you “build” your story by walking you through the basic structural steps. Check it out at www.paperlet.com.
Hope you find this stuff as useful as I did, everyone. Write well!
Taking a break from the book for a while because … well, because I’m stuck. Discouraged. Not feeling it . But you don’t want to hear my problems. Neither does Karen. She told me to shut up and quit whining and go write a short story. Okay, she was much nicer than that, but I got the message.
A short story!!??
This may seem like no big deal to you, but I haven’t written a story in years. How sad is that? I’ve been so caught up in the novel thing that the idea of shorter fiction hasn’t even been on my radar. If you want to switch gears and get a new outlook and rev up the energy again, though, I guess you really should consider going back to the basics.
I plan to start by reading stories, of course. I used to read short fiction all the time. Best American Short Stories is always on my Christmas list (thank you in-laws for making sure this is under the tree each year), but I confess I haven’t read a whole one in years. I’ll look through them now, though, since I’m one of those people who pulls inspiration from others (okay steals, if you like—I’m not too proud to admit it).
Any other suggestions for where to find great stories? Do you read literary journals? The New Yorker? Alice Munro anthologies?
Anyone want to write along with me?
When we’re done, here’s a GREAT listing of pubs to submit to:
I’m reading two books on writing right now, both of which were recommended to me by other writers, and both of which are technically geared toward…movies? Well, acting and scripts anyway.
Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors, by Brandilyn Collins
Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder
The first one was suggested by one of the comments here on Write Despite (thank you, anonymous tipster), and it actually gave me a real breakthrough. Of course I realized all along, while working on my novel, that I need to know my character’s motivation. As Vonnegut said: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” In my book, my character didn’t seem to want much. She wants to be happy. And kind of to be left alone. And sometimes water. Hey, just like me.
But that’s of course not enough to draw a reader in or sustain them through 300 pages. Getting into Character’s chapter on “Coloring Passsions” broke down the process into manageable bites—a character’s conscious motivation, subconscious motivation, etc. so I was able to see that what my character really wants is to figure out why she is the way she is. What happened in her life that brought her to this point? Luckily, she’s returning home to her family and now, knowing this is her motivation, I should be able to open up whole areas of discovery as she digs and prods and questions her past. Best of all, she should no longer passive. Stronger characters make stronger books.
Save the Cat!, is written by a true Hollywood insider, and this guy has lots of energy. He loves exclamation points! (See title.) And chapters like “Give Me the Same Thing, Only Different!” and “Let’s Beat it Out!” and he’s heavy into pitches and loglines. Know what a logline is? It’s one sentence—ONE—that sums up a whole movie. See if you can guess these famous ones:
“Adventuring archaeologist races about the globe to prevent Nazis from turning the greatest archeological relic of all time into a weapon of world conquest.”
Too easy, right? How about this one?
“When she falls in love with a sweet, but WASPy guy, Toula struggles to get her family to accept her fiancée, while she comes to terms with her own heritage.”
“A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend.”
Snyder says if you have no logline, you have no script. Or in my case, no book. After some tinkering, I did come up with a logline for my novel and I think it suits it. And forcing myself to do so made me zoom in on the two or three BIG ideas of the book, which in turn made me think about whether those 300 pages that come after it can, or should, live up to it. Pretty good for one sentence.
If you’re looking for some guidance, I recommend both. If you have your own faves, tell us! What writing books do you turn to? Which ones have been duds?
If you’re ever in this neck of the woods (and you’re a writer), check out Dori’s studio. Great writers (who are also super nice people) come together here to help each other. I took a workshop a couple of years back and loved it. Here’s the course I’m taking this time around:
The Psychology of Strong Characters, with Jacqueline Sheehan The most memorable characters are driven by powerful forces of fear and desire. Jacqueline Sheehan is a New York Times bestselling author and psychologist who applies basic psychology to all her characters. In this One-day workshop, you’ll learn to challenge your characters to take the necessary actions that reveal the white-hot core of your story. It’s a tall order, but that’s what all good stories are essentially about.
This couldn’t come at a better time for me. As I write my way further into the new book, issues of how compelling and sympathetic the main character is have taken center stage. It’s been a while since I sat in a roomful of strangers and discussed my (and their) work. And while not all the points discussed will apply to me, I always leave these things with at least a few priceless nuggets of insight that help me look at my writing in a new way. I’ll post my best takeaways to share with you all next week.