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!
As we head into glorious autumn–my favorite season–there’s no shortage of great fiction to read. Cathy and I have been focusing on a couple of contemporary authors lately.
Cathy just finished these two by Elizabeth Strout, both of which she loved…
…while I just finished Lydia Millet’s “Sweet Lamb of Heaven” (blew me away) and I’m now enjoying the stories in “Fight No More.” She’s just amazing.
Share the titles that you’re enjoying this fall? We always love to hear what our friends are reading.
And if you’re in the Fairfax, Virginia, area Oct. 10 to 13, check out the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University. There’s a great lineup of speakers, including Elizabeth Strout, and lots workshops and discussion panels. Keep an eye out for Cathy!
Writing during these high days of summer can be a tough proposition. Who wants to write when sunny skies, sandy beaches, and watermelon beckon? Luckily for us, our friend Amy Sue Nathan at Women’s Fiction Writers launched the 31 Days of Inspiration series this month.
Amy will be posting a bit of inspiration every day. As she puts, “I’m talking about what motivates me to write or nudges me to polish a scene or edges me closer to a good idea ON THAT PARTICULAR DAY.”
Sounds good to us! Amy’s new book deal was announced in Publisher’s Marketplace. We’re looking forward to her novel, “The Last Bathing Beauty.”
A new season brings a new lineup of writing contests. We’d like to bring one to the attention of aspiring, and established, writers, because it’s being judged by none other than my Write Despite co-host Cathy Cruise.
Possibilities Publishing Company’s2018 Anthology Contest is looking for stories–both fiction and nonfiction–that deal with the theme of triumph.In the publisher’s words, they’re seeking “those moments of triumph, of victory, of doing the things that seemed un-doable. It can be the types of triumphs that everyone relates to, or something that only mattered to one person. Victories that are earth shattering or just day brightening. We want them all.”
Possibilities is the press that published Cathy’s book, and we all saw what a super nice job they did. They really crank the publicity machine for their authors. Just last week, Cathy found out her book has been named a finalist in the 2018 Indie Book Awards.
Cathy, and her co-judge Jennifer Crawford, will do a bang-up job, and they’re actively seeking submissions! So, get yours in pronto. Submission deadline is July 15.
Now, if you’re not fortunate enough at the moment to be telling stories of victory, there are plenty of other, diverse contests out there. Here’s just a small sample. Good luck!
Midway Journal’s 1,000-Below Flash Prose and Poetry Contest
Entry fee: $10
Deadline: May 31, 2018
$500 + publication first prize, and other lesser prizes
Submit up to 1,000 words of flash, 40 words or poetry. http://midwayjournal.com/contest/
Golden Walkman Magazine Contest
Entry fee: $10
Deadline: July 31, 2018
Winning manuscript published solely as an audiobook, and awarded a sum of money (to be determined by the success of the contest).
Submit no more than 30 pages of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, or hybrid. https://www.goldwalkmag.com/audiochapbook-contest.html
Sequestrum New Writer Awards
Entry fee: $15
Deadline: October 15, 2018
$200 first prize, and other lesser prizes
Open to fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from new and emerging writers. http://www.sequestrum.org/contests
Panelists gave attendees all the tools they need to create a brand, give great interviews, effectively launch a book, and market themselves on social media. It even featured a media lounge where authors could take head shots with a professional photographer and create a video focusing on themselves and their work.
Oh, and my favorite part? The Instagram Photo Booth that offered up a professional light box and a supply of backgrounds and props so you could take social media pictures of your book. As you can see, I had some fun with this one.
Why has no one come up with these grand ideas before?
Well, maybe they have, but not that I’ve heard of.
There were also a couple of sessions on getting published—tips on self-publishing, and advice from independent publishers on what they look for when considering a manuscript.
Just for fun, the Improv Imps led a group of introverted writers through an interactive workshop to help them loosen up in front of an audience.
And check this out: Penguin Bean Designs. Oh man, I love this company. They will reproduce, even create, pretty much any design you like on a t-shirt, hoodie, tote bag, wine sack, tea towel, pillowcase, you name it. I’m getting my book cover reproduced on a tote bag for a mere $25 (based on author Lindsay Barry’s cool tote here).
All of it took place at the gorgeous Clark House in Falls Church, Virginia, and included a pancake breakfast, lunch, two snacks (we’re talking cookies fresh from the oven, you guys), and a “sip and swap” wine and cheese closeout reception where attendees could mingle and trade books.
Next year’s conference is sure to be bigger, better, and even more innovative. Keep an eye out for it by following Possibilities Publishing online. Until then, here are the best tips and quotes I collected while I was there:
On launching your book:
Create a book launch team. Strive to recruit at least 100 people who will support you in your launch by reading, reviewing, and promoting your book. This can take as little as 5 or 10 minutes a week, and in return they get advance copies of your book, return reviews for their book, etc. And the results? Session presenter Jen Hemphil, author of Her Money Matters, saw 1863 copies of her book downloaded and sold in her first month (compared to about 200 for most self-pubbed books.)
Why do we connect with a brand? Brand strategist Rebecca Gunter says it’s largely trust, quality, an inviting feel. Why do we not connect? It doesn’t align with our values, it feels yucky or false. Branding is all about feelings. How do you want readers to feel when they see your brand?
Author and holistic healer Laura Di Franco suggests you write down five reasons you don’t promote your book. Then ask, if there were no one on earth to disappoint, how would you promote it? Give five endings to the statement “My story matters because ______.”
If you do nothing else, create a signature with your book info for use on Amazon, so that when you review things, others will see your book title pop up. (Well, duh. Why am I not doing this?)
On social media:
Jennifer Crawford is owner of Social Media Rescue and Write On Social, which cater specifically to the needs of indie authors. She coached us on how to use Facebook Live as a marketing tool to reach existing fans faster and interact with readers in real time. Nifty tip: Three times more people are watching Facebook Live videos and those that aren’t live.
Use Instagram Live too. These videos last only 24 hours and are great for time-sensitive promotions, sneak peaks, and book “secrets.” And since few people are using this feature for now, it’s a less crowded area that gives you tons of room to be creative with your author brand and narrative. Instagram users in general tend to be highly engaged!
Check out these other presenters and sponsors from the Possibilities Publishing Conference!
Vijal Nathan – Washington Post’s Date Lab writer, stand-up comedienne, interview coach
Ally Machate – book collaborator, editor, publishing consultant
Meredith Maslich – CEO of Possibilities Publishing Company, Thumbkin Prints, Eaton Press
It’s tough to write now, especially when you’ve got little kids. School concerts, church pageants, snowy playdates, and the pure joy of encountering the season with them take over. And you know, I think they should.
But for those wrestling with works-in-progress, here are a few thoughts. Anyone rewriting–peeling away the layers of a narrative to drill down, discover, and embellish the real true thing, the core of what you want to say–may especially appreciate this. Rewriting isn’t easy. But keep pushing, and you’ll get there. Don’t look away. Trust the process. It will take you where you need to go. Maybe not where you want to go, but where you need to go. No one ever glimpsed the truth by glancing away at the critical moment. The great James Baldwin put it much more elegantly that I can:
“When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out.”
Keep trying, keep finding out, be honest in your efforts. Don’t be afraid to stumble and try again. The pay-off will be incalculable. This is how great works are made.
Sorry we’ve been…ahem, MIA lately. Too much going on, and too little of it is writing. But thisterrific postfrom Women’s Fiction Writers popped up on my screen this morning, and I just had to share it.
Here’s a novel for any mother who has juggled childcare, work, and life (which means every mother) and especially for those struggling to do it under extra challenging circumstances. We don’t do enough as a nation for parents, especially for mothers who, despite all the advances, still bear the brunt of the job.
I can’t wait to dig into Janet Benton’s debut. Join me?
Cathy has been basking in glory lately, what with her new novel, all her cool readings and interviews, not to mention her latest score—a flash fiction honorable mention in the acclaimed Glimmertrain magazine.
I could be envious, if I had the time.
But slogging my way through the middle of a comprehensive novel manuscript rewrite—yes, line-by-line, adding new scenes, reworking a viewpoint, the whole shebang—has me just a tad too occupied.
I’m making steady, if slow, progress, but I’m not complaining. My mantra these days: one foot in front of the other—make each scene, and each bit of connective narrative glue, as compelling as possible.
Of course, I am taking some breaks. My family recently spent a weekend hiking in New Hampshire’s gorgeous White Mountains, where I stumbled (yes sometimes literally) upon a nifty rewrite metaphor: the steep, boulder-strewn trail we climbed.
Okay, it’s a little corny, but also kind of apt, and you can’t beat the scenery.
Our hiking route was the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, which winds up the infamous and awesome Mount Washington. Here are a few milestone markers that—when you’re eyeball deep in a big rewrite—resonate both on and off the trail.
Chapter One, get moving. The Mountain—like the last page—won’t come to you.
Picking up speed, but pace yourself. One scene at a time.
Moments of early inspiration.
Look out for those rocky patches, and there are a lot of them.
This is called an uphill climb, dig deep and keep pushing.
Save your file, time for a coffee break. God bless the team that pitched these shelters along the mountain trail.
The end is in sight. Your feet are sore and your legs ache, but there’s no way you’re quitting now.
The end: A view worth climbing for. The manuscript’s ending? I’ll let you know when I get there.
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference happened a little over a month ago (February 8-11 in Washington, DC), and in addition to all the books, journals, and souvenirs I dragged home, I also took a ton of notes during the sessions and readings, and finally dug them out. Here are some of the best quotes, overheard remarks, and tips, most of them without attribution. Some are true gems, so please enjoy these takeaways from some great conversations about writing and publishing.
Turning Flash Pieces into a Novel, Novella, or Memoir (Panelists: Abigail Beckel, Kelcey Parker Ervick, Lex Williford, Tyrese Coleman, Tara Laskowski)
“Prioritize clarity over adherence to the form.”
“Flash eliminates all the boring parts.”
Try writing flash stories and connecting them together for a novella or novel. This retains the strength of voice and character, and the overall tension of the book will join them and progress the story forward. (Voldemort is the big tension, little problems along the way are the smaller ones.) Tara Laskowski recommends The Desert Places as a great example of a hybrid text novel.
We All Have to Start Somewhere: How Bad Writing Gets Good (Some raw language in this one. Oh, those bawdy writers.) (Panelists: Melissa Stein, Richard Bausch, Tayari Jones, Natalie Diaz, Nick Flynn)
“Fifty Shades of Gray reads like somebody shat it out.”
“Give yourself the freedom to suck.”
“You cannot fuck it up. You can’t ruin it. You can only make it necessary to do it again.”
“Your writing isn’t bad, it’s just off. Like a sweater buttoned the wrong way. Unbutton it. Rebutton it. It’s a perfectly fine sweater.”
Distinguished Editors Panel, featuring Nan Graham, Daniel Halpern, Jonathan Galassi, and Erroll McDonald
“The author/editor relationship is like an arranged marriage.”
“Voice and territory, more than structure, are the criteria by which I judge a book. Structure can be fixed. But you can’t fix writing that’s not fresh, that’s been done before.”
You know a story is done when others you show it to disagree about what needs to be changed. If they’re all telling you a character isn’t strong enough or the pacing is slow, for example, believe them and fix the problems. But if they’re all telling you something different, it’s probably finished.
A Novelist’s Job: The Realities, Joys, and Challenges (Panelists: Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Julia Fierro, Celeste Ng)
Being busy, working, having a job, makes you more productive in your writing.
Do not think about writing a successful book. Just “be true to the work.”
Do social media in an authentic way. Use it as a place of community. If you feed into that world, it will work for you too. Help other writers (with reviews, promotion, comments, etc.) and they’ll help you.
On creating more spaces/avenues for writing to exist: “We’re all fighting hard for a piece of pie, when actually there is no pie. Your job is not to get your piece, but to make more pie.” –Celeste Ng
Also try to post enough to stay connected with people, but don’t make it seem like a sales pitch. Tweet an overheard conversation. Do a daily task, like Ellis Avery who posts a haiku every day. Another writer posts dog pictures (often with a link to his book) every day.
Loose, Faithful, and Literal: Adaptation from Novel to Screen (Panelists: Christine Vachon, Neal Gabler, Magdalene Brandeis, Melissa Bank)
Screenplays make you focus on the narrative—how to bring character and plot into what can be seen and shown.
“In a movie, action is always character.”
One panelist says she tells her students not to call themselves “filmmakers” but “storytellers.” Because there are so many different forms (like streaming services) today to bring stories to life.
A movie is a “jolt,” whereas a TV show is a life. Characters grow incrementally, and that’s a “novelistic sense of life in real time.”
NO screenplay should be more than 110 pages!
By the time the Q&A rolled around, it was apparent everyone listening to this panel was there to ask the same question: How do you get your screenplay seen? Sadly, the answers were pretty vague.
“If you’ve written ‘trash’ like The Godfather, you may be lucky enough that someone will turn it into gold.” —Neal Gabler
Write a two-page summary of why this should be made into a film. Send it to a producer you think would be interested. A 20-something intern will likely read it, and will pass it along (or not) to the producer. Melissa Bank, author of Girls Guide to Hunting & Fishing, sent a story to Zoetrope. They put her in touch with Coppola.
Ask yourself who’s your dream director? Actress? Work on those connections. “I wrote this for you and here’s why.”
“Great works rise to the top. Books come to our attention through coverage, reviews, agencies, recommendations. It just happens.”
Um, yeah. But how do you get your screenplay seen?
“It’s difficult to get things read, and to work with and without an agent. The only sure way to do it is to make the film yourself.”
Kirkus Reviews was recommended as the primary route for movie companies to see synopses of stories that might intrigue them.
Foremothers: Southern Women Writers (Panelists: Charlotte Holmes, Cary Holladay, Lisa Parker, Lisa Roney, Adrienne Su)
A panelist talked about her mother, whose family moved from the south when she was young. The kids in her school couldn’t understand her because of her southern accent, so she stopped talking—for a year. She read books out loud, practicing in her bedroom, until she lost her accent.
One panelist recalled how Lee Smith studied at the Sorbonne and loved to let people there hear her talk. She could see them taking her IQ down about 20 or 30 points as she spoke. Then she would say something that would “take them out at the knees.”
Live outside the world of your past, but find your background. You have to get away from it to look back and find your voice.
The Ten-Year Novel: On why some novels take so long to write, and what writers can do to sustain themselves. (Panelists: Tova Mirvis, Rachel Cantor, Rachel Kadish, Joanna Rakoff, Sari Wilson)
“It’s the persistence that makes you a writer.”
“My sense is that publishing has changed to the point that, a few years ago, an agent might say this book isn’t quite where I want it to be, but I’ll work with the author a year or so and get it there. No more. Books today need to be as finished and polished as possible before they’re ever sent out.”
Such Mean Stories: Women Writers Get Gritty: Women writers of the south talk about “grit lit.” (Panelists: Luanne Smith, Jayne Anne Phillips, Vicki Hendricks, Stephanie Powell Watts, Jill McCorkle)
“If we think about the reader as we’re writing, we’re putting blinders on ourselves as writers.” –Jayne Anne Phillips
“There is true fear about the power of women.” –Watts
“In fiction, I love to have that alter ego character who rises up and defends herself.” –Jill McCorkle
“I’ve probably learned more from my characters than they’ve ever gotten from me.” –Jill McCorkle
On unlikeable characters:
By giving readers the history of unlikeable characters early on, they reveal a life, and it makes the characters human. So even if it doesn’t excuse their actions, it helps readers understand why they are the way they are.
Recommended story: “Lechery” by Jayne Anne Phillips