Monday, November 20, 2017

What To Do When You're Afraid Your Book Is Preachy



Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.


We had a question from a writer about how to keep from "preaching" in your fiction. They specifically asked about it in the context of Christianity, but since preachy fiction isn't limited by religious fiction, I'm going to broaden the scope of my answer.



We all have a specific way that we view the world. The right way, of course. (Wink, wink.) We also all have passions, some that are positive in nature and others that are sad or hard. You might feel deeply passionate about writing stories that leave people feeling hopeful about the world. Or you might feel passionate about people understanding the pain caused by racism. (Though obviously these two examples could coexist.)

Passion is a good thing, and we're rightly advised to create out of it. If you're not passionate about your topic, you can't expect anybody else to care, right?

But what about when your critique group says that you're "preaching" or that you've gotten on a soapbox? Should you cool down your passions? What about books like Jodi Picoult's (The Pact, My Sister's Keeper) that are focused on issues like suicide, a broken legal system, stem cell treatments, and so on?

We know novels that revolve around religious or social issues can sell, so the question becomes:

How do you put your passions on the page without readers feeling like you're preaching to them?

Remember story is king.

Sometimes we build stories based on a subject we're passionate about. I did that with my WWII novel that comes out with Blink/HarperCollins in 2019. I grew passionate about the Japanese American experience in the United States during the war, and I wanted to explore it more, so I crafted a story idea.

But very few people will pick up that novel thinking, "I'm going to buy this in hopes that I learn more about the Japanese American concentration camps." That's not why we buy novels. We buy them to be entertained. 

As someone who adores historical fiction, one of my favorite qualities of the genre is learning about another place and time in history, but if I was truly wanting to be educated about a topic, I would head to the non-fiction section at Barnes and Noble.

I have learned lots and lots of fascinating things about the Japanese Americans in WWII, but only a fraction of it gets to go in the story. The rest are darlings that need to be killed, or kept out of the story from the beginning.

You have to be strict with yourself on this one. If it doesn't serve the story, it's got to go.

Show other viewpoints with equal strength and respect.


If you hang around the writing world very long, you'll hear characters referred to as straw men. This refers to characters who are clearly there just to give the main character someone to beat, and they're beaten easily. A friend of mine, novelist and writing teacher Daniel Schwabauer, said in a class, "It doesn't take much effort to knock down a straw man."

If you want to avoid being preachy or heavy-handed, it's vital that you create strong, respectable characters who believe the opposite as your character. These characters should have clear, understandable reasons for believing what they do. It's much more impressive if your character triumphs over another character who's strong, right?

I think the first step to achieving this happens off the page. You have people in your life who believe something different than you or who don't get fired up about this hot-button issue of yours. Take the time to think it through from their perspective and to be respectful of them. I'm not talking about watering down the truth of what you want to share, but rather how to be honest while showing honor to other view points or beliefs.

Remember to raise questions.

One of the biggest reasons that preachy fiction is annoying is that it's all about telling me what I should and shouldn't believe. That's not what we pick up novels for, nor is it a great way to convince somebody they're wrong.

I think it's much more effective to write a story that raises questions:

Is this really the best way to live? Is this really fair? Do you know this is going on in the world? How much risk is too much?

Questions make us think bigger than statements do. Your writing will be more effective if your story raises questions like that than if it states this is the best way to live, this is what's fair, and this is how much risk you should take.

Ask for sensitivity readers.

You can probably guess this, but sensitivity readers are people you ask to read your book because you are aware that something you have written could unintentionally offend a person in their situation. For example, I might be a sensitivity reader for a book that deals with epilepsy, since I have personal experience with it because of my son.

This is a great way to make sure you are treating an important issue with the respect and accuracy that it deserves.

Sometimes we need sensitivity readers even when our story is about something that we have personally lived with. Angie Thomas is the bestselling author of The Hate U Give, a book written from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old black girl about racism. Even though Ms. Thomas is also a person of color and has had personal experience with discrimination, she still got sensitivity readers for her manuscript. On a panel at ALA, she said words to the effect of, "Not everyone has had the experiences I have. I wanted their experiences in the book too."

So even if it's a topic you think you're an expert on, consider asking others for their take too.

I absolutely love books that open my eyes to an issue I wasn't aware of, or that gives me a new perspective on a belief I already hold. What book has done that for you?


Friday, November 17, 2017

Writing Exercise #20: Scene Transitions

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

We've made it to Friday again, friends! Some weeks it feels more like a victory than others. This is definitely one of those weeks. 

For those of you participating in National Novel Writing Month, how's it going? If you haven't hit a funky stretch, you will. I'm sure. But press on, okay? YOU CAN DO THIS!

We had a request a while back for a blog post on scene transitions and I thought I'd do what I could to bring a little clarity. We have definitely talked about this before on the blog, so if you'd like some more information on the topic, just type 'scene transitions' into the search bar at the top of the page and you'll have some options to sort through.

The request we received recently read like this:

How do you fill in the spaces between scenes? I'm a plotter who writes the scenes I've plotted, but I can't seem to figure out how they connect right with the other scenes in the story. I call it "grasshopper syndrome" because it feels like I literally have to jump to the next scene to stay motivated.

It's a good question. Moving naturally from one scene to another is a problem for those who plot their stories out in advance as well as for those who sit with their hands on the keyboard and pray the words come. Both drafting styles present different obstacles and can produce stories that read like a collection of grasshopper scenes. 

To address that issue, you can use scene transitions. 

Scene transitions are useful tools when you're changing the setting, moving to a different time, shifting the tone, or switching point of views. You can transition in all sorts of ways and how you choose to do this contributes to your style and the pacing of your tale.

The most common way to leave one scene and move into another is with a chapter break. When you end one chapter and begin another one, readers know that a change is, if not inevitable, at least possible. A change that's likely related to the location, time, narrator, or tone. A change at this point will not surprise them at all.

If it serves the story, you can elect to use the closing words of one chapter to set up the beginning of the next. For example:
Tomorrow would be a challenge, but Katie was more than up for it.

With a chapter ending like that, starting the subsequent chapter is easy peasy. And there's no need to fill in every moment of Katie's life between the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. It's okay to simply jump with Katie to tomorrow. In fact, it's expected. You've done your job. You've closed out one scene and primed the audience for the next. In this way, scene transitions can be very short and simple.

Of course, it isn't always ideal to break a chapter after a scene, so if you need to, you can indicate a scene break with three asterisks or pound signs. Simply center them on a line between the two scenes and the reader will understand a change has taken place (a publisher too, but that's a different subject altogether).

As mentioned, some scene transitions are very short:

Introducing a new time: "Later that day . . ." 

or

Introducing a new point of view: "Bob's thoughts on the subject were very different."

But if a more dramatic change has taken place, you'll need to offer more substantial help to get the reader to make the jump. 

Setting changes: When you jump from one location to another, you need to set the scene. Depending on the type of novel you're writing and the voice of the character, these descriptions can be brief or more detailed. Either way, the reader needs to know where you've gone so they can follow you. Don't leave them asking, "Where are we now?"

Time jumps: Any substantial movement in time needs to be marked. We can jump hours or centuries and you need to somehow cue the reader into the present. It can be a simple mention of the time or it can be a paragraph about the dresses of the women moving down the streets of Victorian London. However you do it, you need to put us in the correct moment.

Tone shifts: Sometimes a book will call for a dramatic shift in feel. The pace slows or increases rapidly. Maybe a scene ends with a character drifting off to sleep in her bed, all peace and dreams. Our next scene begins abruptly, with her window shattering inward, glass peppering her body, sirens blaring. You want this transition to have the feel of SUDDENLY. It's okay to keep the transition short, perhaps just three pound signs indicating a scene break. We don't need to ease into every moment. But these kinds of abrupt transitions should be very deliberate and not overused.

Head hops: It's a rare author in modern writing that has mastered the omniscient point of view allowing for various degrees of head hopping. For the most part, I'd like to recommend that you tell the story from one point of view at a time. If you do need to leave one noggin and jump into another one, do the reader a favor and give them a chapter break or a scene break (###) to mark the transition. And when you do make these transitions, take a moment and ground us in this new perspective. Don't leave readers guessing whose thoughts they're hearing, whose eyes they're viewing the world through. 

As you can see, there are many different kinds of scene transitions, but the most effective are the ones that transport the reader completely to the author's chosen time, place, tone and perspective. Transitions do not need to be long and cumbersome, but they must be long enough to get the job done. 


For today's exercise, I want you to grab a novel. Doesn't matter which one; any novel will do. Take some time and flip through it, reading chapter endings and beginnings, looking for extra spaces between paragraphs that indicate a scene break. When you find a scene transition that jumps out at you as particularly successful or interesting, type it out for us in the comments section and tell us why you think the transition worked. I can't wait to read your thoughts!

REMEMBER! When you participate in our writing exercises you can enter to win an opportunity to ask Jill, Steph and me a question for one of our upcoming writing panels. Once you leave your response to the writing prompt in the comments section, use the Rafflecopter below to enter. Next week, Rafflecopter will select one winner and we'll contact you for your question via email. Happy writing, friends!
   
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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Go Teen Writers Live: Episode 7: Finishing your book, and dealing with subplots

Jill here. I was gone all last week, first to Nashville for the Christy Awards, then to Nampa, Idaho for my *ahem* twentieth college reunion. I'm still super behind, so I promise to share about my adventures next week.

Today I have the privilege of sharing Go Teen Writers Live Episode 7. Sadly, I seem to be the phantom author in these videos. I don't know what's wrong with my connection. It could be that my iPhone is getting too old for these things... You can hear me, but you can't see me.

Pretend I'm in the Veil. ;-)

The questions we answer this week are how to decide which plot is the main plot and which is the subplot, how to finish a book all the way to the end, and how to blend two or more story ideas. Enjoy!






If you've missed old episodes, you can click on that tab up top that says, "Go Teen Writers LIVE" or subscribe to our YouTube channel. (You also get to see the videos early that way!)

Any questions?

Also, if you are participating in NaNoWriMo, how is it going? 



Monday, November 13, 2017

2 Ways To Be Sure Your Scene Really Matters



Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.


I'm in a season of editing right now, which is a part of the novel-creating process that I love, even though it's also the part that I find most challenging.

No longer can I say, "I don't know what's supposed to happen here, so I'll just do my best and fix it later." Nor can I put off finding the answer to my most elusive research questions. No more slacking off!

This is also when I have to be brutally honest about individual scenes in the book. Is it working? Is it not working? Does it move the story forward? Am I starting in the right place? Did I end in a way that will make readers turn the page? On and on the questions go.

A few times now I've come across a scene that just isn't working like it should. Even though I had filled it with good character and plot stuff, something about it just felt ... off.



Finally, I had a breakthrough when I noticed a pattern about my character's expectations and decisions. (Or, rather, lack there of.)

Let's examine the two simple questions I've learned to use to help turn my Not Quite Right scenes into scenes that really matter: What does my character expect, and what decisions does my character make?

"What does my character expect to happen?"


This is the first question that I realized I wasn't asking, thanks to a post from K.M. Weiland about ... something. I scrolled back through her archives trying to figure out what lesson of hers prompted this discovery, and I can't find it. So the credit goes to Katie, but I can't link to it. Sorry, Katie!

Her point was that there should be a gap in what the character expects to happen and what actually happens. Most of the time I do this instinctively, and you probably do too. Your point of view character will think a conversation is going to go one way, and it won't. Or she will think it's an ordinary day, and the unexpected happens.

I realized on scenes that weren't landing like I wanted them to, often my character's expectations were met. She expected to have a tense conversation with her mother, and that's what happened. etc.

As I thought about this, I realized that this can work, and it certainly should sometimes. If your character's expectations are always wrong, we'll stop trusting them and their judgment pretty quickly.

So it isn't that your character needs to be wrong all the time. Instead, you can try applying the, "Yes, but" technique for creating an element of surprise. 

Yes, her mom is upset, but it isn't for the reason she thought it would be.

Yes, her friend has been lying to her, but the betrayal is even worse than she initially expected.

So that can work if we want our character to be right about something. Frequently, however, our characters should be surprised:

Lightning McQueen expects to win the race, but instead it's a three-way tie. (Cars)

Elizabeth Bennett expects to have an enjoyable evening at the ball with Mr. Wickham, but Wickham doesn't show up. (Pride and Prejudice)

Katniss expects Peeta to be on her side, but he's teamed up with the Careers. (The Hunger Games)

In my scenes that didn't work as well as they ought, it was because:
  • I hadn't given myself time to show my character's expectations, so when they shattered, the impact wasn't as strong. 
  • My character had no expectations.
  • Things happened exactly as my character anticipated, so there was no element of surprise.
So that's the first question you can start with. The next one I identified is this:

"What decision does my character make in this scene?"


Andy Stanley says, "Decision by decision, you are writing the story of your life." Initially, I latched onto this as a tool for making better decisions in my personal life, but as I worked on a problematic scene, I realized, "In this scene, my character isn't deciding anything that affects their life story."

Sometimes we choose to zoom in on little decisions our character's make. Like in the 2003 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice when Jane is delighted over her engagement to Mr. Bingley, and she expresses a longing for her sister to fid true love too. Lizzy makes a small, beautiful decision to keep the focus on Jane and her happiness. Instead of spilling about Mr. Darcy, she teases, "Maybe Mr. Collins has a cousin."

Purposefully making a small moment into something big can be very effective, but unless we're very intentionally choosing that, then our character needs to make a noteworthy decision within each scene. Even if it's just a renewed commitment to "stay the course."

And a lot of timesI'm going to be so bold as to say almost all the timethis noteworthy decision should be based on whatever shift happened in their expectations.

Using the same examples from before, let's take a look at the decisions that resulted:

In Cars, Lightning McQueen expected to win the race, but instead it's a three-way tie. And so he decides to get to California as fast as he can for the tie-breaking race so he can rub shoulders with VIPs.

In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy expected to have a nice evening at the ball with Mr. Wickham, but he doesn't show up. And so when Mr. Darcy asks her to dance, she says yes.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss expects Peeta to be an ally, but instead he teams up with the Careers. And so Katniss gives up on loyalty to him too.

That phrase,"And so," is the key to creating compelling character motivation. It's also how you keep your book from sounding like a list of scenes, the way you make it feel as though your character is writing their own story.

It's also the way you make sure each scene matters.

If you're writing a first draft, take a look at your next scene. What does your POV character expect to happen, and what will actually happen? What decision will your character make as a result?

If you're currently editing a manuscript, try pulling out a random scene later in the novel (those early chapters tend to get the bulk of our attention!) and ask the same questions. 

Share in the comments section, if you'd like!


Friday, November 10, 2017

Writing Exercise #19: Trying and failing to resolve the hobbit's problem

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

I promised you all a resolution to our series of hobbit exercises and today we have it. If you're playing catch-up, here's a quick recap.

In Writing Exercise #16, we started where Tolkien started, with the very sentence that slipped into his head and compelled him to sit down and puzzle out a story.

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.

We used this sentence to create our own hobbits and we decided for ourselves just why our hobbits lived underground.

In Writing Exercise #17, we gave our hobbits a problem. And in Writing Exercise #18, we upped the stakes and made the problem worse.

Given all we've put our poor hobbits through, I think it's time we helped them resolve their problems. Resolving doesn't necessarily mean a happy ending, of course, but we're going to do our level best to at least END the suffering of our dear hobbits at the hands of this particular dilemma.

There are many, many ways we could do this. In fact, the solving of a character's main problem is usually what makes up the largest chunk of any story. Often this problem-solving process can get mired down and I want to remind you of a tool that can help you plan your way out of these struggles. Especially if you're not entirely sure how you want to resolve the situation.

We're going to try and fail our way to a resolution today.


Step 1: Identify your hobbit's problem in a simple sentence.
Example: My hobbit's underground hole is filling with water and her leg is pinned beneath a fallen cupboard. 

Step 2: Determine your hobbit's end goal.
Example: My hobbit needs to free her leg and swim to freedom.

Step 3: Identify the first action toward making that happen.
Example: My hobbit wants to find something sharp so she can cut away the hem of her dress that is caught under the cupboard.

Step 4: Ask yourself a yes-or-no question. 
Example: Does my hobbit find something sharp?

Step 5: Answer this question with a "yes, but..." or a "no, and..."
Example: Yes, but just as she's about to slice her hem free, a fresh gush of water knocks the knife from her hand and pushes it just out of reach.

Step 6: Determine your hobbit's new want.
Example: My hobbit wants to reach the knife.

Step 7: Ask yourself another yes-or-no question. 
Example: Does my hobbit reach the knife?

Step 8: Answer your question with another "yes, but..." or a "no, and..."
Example: No, and the gushing water has forced the cupboard to sink deeper into the mud, pinning my hobbit more fully beneath it.

You get the process here? You're going to continue to determine your hobbit's next immediate want, ask yourself a yes-or-no question, and then answer it with a yes, but or a no, and.

This type of exercise isn't for quick writing. It's for puzzling out where you're going. So, here's how I want you to set it up in the comments section below:

Problem: My hobbit's underground hole is filling with water and her leg is pinned beneath a fallen cupboard.  
Goal: My hobbit needs to free her leg and swim to freedom.

Want: My hobbit wants to find something sharp so she can cut away the hem of her dress that is caught under the cupboard.
Question: Does my hobbit find something sharp? 
Answer: Yes, but just as she's about to slice her hem free, a fresh gush of water knocks the knife from her hand and pushes it just out of reach.

Want: My hobbit wants to reach the knife.
Question: Does my hobbit reach the knife?
Answer: No, and the gushing water has forced the cupboard to sink deeper into the mud, pinning my hobbit more fully beneath it.

Keep going by listing the next want, question, and answer until you approach some sort of conclusion. When you ask yourself the final yes-or-no question, it is perfectly acceptable to answer it with a simple Yes or No. You don't have to continue to make life miserable for your hobbit. Although, you are welcome to. We do like misery around here. 

Leave your hobbit's try/fail cycle in the comments section below and be sure to come back this weekend to read what the other teen writers are posting and encourage them.

REMEMBER! When you participate in our writing exercises you can enter to win an opportunity to ask Jill, Steph and me a question for one of our upcoming writing panels. Once you leave your response to the writing prompt in the comments section, use the Rafflecopter below to enter. Next week, Rafflecopter will select one winner and we'll contact you for your question via email. Happy writing, friends!

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