Tag Archives: writing

Getting into Your Character’s Head

This post is for my writer friends. Does your writing ever feel distanced from your main character? Do your critique partners tell you they can’t empathize with him or her?

Good writing–writing that draws readers in and makes them feel as though they are living the scene themselves–requires getting into your character’s head.

So how do you do that?

Envision the scene from your character’s eyes. I’m a very visual person, so I visualize scenes as I write, sort of like watching them on an imaginary television screen in my head. And while I typically do this as though I’m watching from an “offscreen camera,” when my writing is feeling forced and distanced, it’s time to change perspectives and watch what’s going on directly from my character’s viewpoint.

Eliminate phrases that remove your reader from the scene. This includes phrases such as, “I saw,” or “I thought,” or “I wondered” (or, if you’re writing in the third person, “She saw,” etc.). Compare the following:

  • Jane boarded the bus. She noticed a young girl, about her daughter’s age, sitting in the back seat listening to her iPod. She wondered where her own daughter might be now.
  • Jane boarded the bus. A young girl, about her daughter’s age, sat in the back seat listening to her iPod. Where would her own daughter be now?

The story is being told in Jane’s point of view, so we don’t need to be told that she is noticing and wondering. We know that. The first version takes a step back from her, while the second puts us directly in her thoughts. We are right there, noticing and wondering along with her. Not to mention, the second version is tighter. Bonus!

Smell, taste, and feel the world. We hear it all the time as writers: Don’t forget to use all five senses. And it does make a difference. Your characters experience the world through more than just sight and sound, and even an occasional reference to one of the other three senses can bring a passage to life.

What writing tips do you have for getting into your characters’ heads?

Blog Hop: What’s Next?

In the “better late than never” department … Today I am FINALLY posting a blog hop post that I was supposed to write, oh, two months ago. And then a work conference happened and the holidays happened and, well, you know how it goes.

Anyway, the brilliant Mary Rand Hess, editor at Story Pie Press and author of THE DAY I MET THE NUTS invited me to participate. (By the way, THE DAY I MET THE NUTS is not about an encounter with Acorns, though that would of course make an AWESOME book, but rather is about a kid with nut allergies and how he copes. Part of the proceeds from the book goes to allergy research and awareness, so you should totally go now and buy it, especially if you have a kid in your life dealing with food allergies. Go ahead. Go now. And then come back and read my post.)

So! I am supposed to answer four questions. (Yes, four. And it took me two months to get around to it. Embarrassing, isn’t it?) Here goes:

Question 1: What are you working on right now?
I am writing another contemporary teen novel. It is not a sequel to THE FUNERAL SINGER but is in fact quite different. It has very different characters, setting, plot, etc. But it does have some of the same themes. It explores the ideas of reality vs. image, identity, and self-discovery.

As of this moment I am at (*runs off to check word count*) … exactly 27,742 words, so I’m probably a little more than halfway through writing it. I don’t want to say too much more about it until I’ve finished, but I will offer one (hopefully cryptic) teaser: My main character’s name is Ember. Or is it?


Question 2: How does this differ from other works in this genre?
Such a great question, and I really had to think about this. What would make my book stand out? Well, aside from the incredibly, amazingly, terrifically, stupendously, awesomely, fantastically exciting plot that I refuse to tell you about yet, I’d have to say my judicious use of adverbs.

Hahahahaha, just kidding. In all seriousness, though, and this may seem like a cop out, but it’s true: Any story is going to differ from every other story in its genre because the person telling it has his or her own unique perspective and voice. And I like to think that’s true of [title redacted]. (Thought I was going to slip up there, didn’t you?)

Question 3: Why do you write what you write?
I write contemporary teen fiction.

Contemporary because, although I enjoy reading a good historical or fantasy or sci fi or dystopian, my mind doesn’t naturally take me there. And the here-and-now “real world” presents plenty of challenge and conflict, and thus opportunities for great stories.

Teen because teen characters have so much built-in turmoil and conflict … and potential. Those are tough years, and teens’ emotions tend to hover right at or below the surface, ripe for a gripping story. Also (and I’m not sure what this says about me since I am clearly no longer a teen), my writer’s voice seems to come out naturally as a teen-ager.

And fiction because it’s fun to make stuff up!

Question 4: What is the hardest thing about writing?
For me, I have to say the hardest thing is conveying emotion. Writers say “show, don’t tell,” because it’s more powerful for the reader to sense emotion through the character’s words and actions than to be told, “Susie was sad.”

It can be hard to know how well you are showing emotion. The truly skilled writer achieves a perfect balance, conveying the emotion but also pulling back and trusting the reader to understand, without hitting them over the head with Susie’s heaving sobs and plaintive wails.

And now, I get to tag another author to carry on the Blog Hop. I was supposed to tag three people, but since it has taken me forever and so many of my friends have already done this, I am going to tag just one person.

Kendell Shaffer and I met through an online writing class, and I fell in love with her story, KALIFORNIA BLU, the first time I read it. A delinquent teen surfer girl who gets sentenced to (horrors!) cop school … talk about conflict! Check it out on Amazon and head on over to Kendell’s blog to learn more about her and her writing.

5 Things I Learned as a Pitch Wars Mentee

fs_cover_smallA year ago I entered THE FUNERAL SINGER in a contest called Pitch Wars. The experience was simultaneously terrifying, exciting, and rewarding. It also proved to be the most important step I would take in my five-year path to publication.

If you are already obsessed familiar with Pitch Wars, you can skip this bulleted list while I explain how the annual contest works:

  • Contestants send in a query letter and the first few pages of their manuscripts to mentors–authors and agent/editor interns or assistants who volunteer to participate and who specify on the Pitch Wars website what genres they’re most interested in. Last year’s rules stated we could submit to three mentors of our choosing.
  • The mentors then review their submissions and select one writer and two alternates they wish to work with.
  • The selected contestants send their full manuscripts to their mentors for critique and, if they agree with the mentors’ suggestions, they have about five weeks to make revisions.
  • With a new and improved manuscript ready to roll, contestants post a pitch and the first 250 words of their manuscript on the Pitch Wars site.
  • A group of amazing editors and agents review the pitches and first pages and make requests to see more if interested. The contestant with the most requests wins!

I entered the contest in December 2012 and was thrilled to be selected by one of my targeted mentors–the generous, talented, and incredibly supportive Erica Chapman. Getting accepted (from among about 2,000 total entries) was a thrill, but it was just the start of my Pitch Wars rollercoaster ride. So, what happened, and what did I learn? Here are the top five lessons I took away from my Pitch Wars experience:

1. Prep, prep, prep.
I’d spent four years writing and revising this manuscript and another year exploring publication options, so my query letter and pages were definitely as strong as I could make them. At last, all those critique partners, workshops, and hours of hard work would pay off.

Also, I researched my selected mentors carefully. All three were people I wanted to work with, and all three were people who seemed like they would be great fits for my manuscript. This targeting–much like the targeting writers need to do when seeking agents and publishers–made a huge difference in my response rate, as all three of the mentors expressed an interest and requested to see more pages.

Finally, I did tons of research on the market. I knew where my story would fit in the young adult world and what types of readers might like it. In my query letter, I said THE FUNERAL SINGER “took AUDREY, WAIT! and dropped it onto the set of SIX FEET UNDER.” Turned out, Erica was a huge SFU fan and had also read and loved AUDREY, WAIT! Talk about a perfect match!

2. Sometimes your manuscript needs tough love.
As I freaked out about waited patiently to see Erica’s critique, I had some hopes and fears about what she might suggest. Were there sections that moved too slowly? characters who needed more fleshing out? word choices that didn’t quite work?

Hahahahaha! If only. No, Erica came back with one main comment: I needed to change my main character’s ultimate love interest. Yes, you read that correctly. SHE WANTED ME TO MAKE A DIFFERENT CHARACTER THE MC’S LOVE INTEREST! That is not a tweak, people. That is not a light revision. That is a REWRITE of most of the novel. And I had five weeks to do it. Keeping in mind, it took me FOUR YEARS to write it.

My immediate reaction: I’m done. I’m quitting. I cannnot deal for one more minute with this novel. I told my husband this. Then I made the mistake of through the grace of God read him Erica’s email. “Can you believe that?” I asked. “She wants me to make HIM the love interest!” At which point, Joe, who by the way is SUPPOSED TO BE ON MY SIDE, DAMMIT, said, “I think she might be right.”

This did not make me feel better. This made me want to go to bed and cry for fourteen hours. But it also made me go back, review my novel with Erica’s critique in mind, and decide to try. And you know what? She was right.

3. Sometimes you need to go with your gut.
In addition to the whole love-interest thing, Erica made a number of smaller suggestions. Some of them I followed, but a couple I didn’t. While I of course respected her expertise and her opinions, in the end, THE FUNERAL SINGER was my story. Certain elements meant a lot to me, and I wanted to stick with them.

I did, however, take a look at her comments and consider other ways to address them. Sometimes when an agent, editor, or critique partner suggests a change, what they are really saying is, “What you did here isn’t quite working.” As they say, there is always more than one way to skin a cat.

For example, Erica wanted me to make a major change to my climactic scene because she worried that my main character’s actions in that scene made her too unlikeable. Without giving any spoilers, I did not make that change, but I massaged it enough that, while her actions remained the same, the context around them changed enough that (I hope) the reader is able to at least understand them.

4. With enough motivation, incentive (and a hard deadline!), anything is possible.
As someone who works full-time and writes at a snail’s pace even on the weekends, the thought of revising my novel in time for the agents/editors round was more than a little intimidating. Did I mention I had five weeks? And needed to change the LOVE INTEREST?!? So, yeah.

But I knew Pitch Wars offered a great opportunity, I knew there were hundreds of writers out there who had competed for that opportunity, and by now I knew that Erica’s revision suggestion was just what my novel needed to take it to the next level. So, I did it. And even if this list of lessons ended right there, it would have been worth it.

5. Contests can work!
But, the list doesn’t end there! I received seven requests from agents/editors (which was not enough to win … the winner got eight … but I wasn’t complaining!). I ultimately did sign with one of the agents, Andrea Somberg from Harvey Klinger Inc., and even ultimately (outside of the contest) found a home for my novel.

Had it not been for Pitch Wars, THE FUNERAL SINGER would not be a book today! It was released on September 24 by Swoon Romance, a longtime dream come true.

Don’t you just love happy endings?

… Said No Teen, Ever

Yes, Mom, I’d love it if you came to the concert with us!


… said no teen, ever.

* * *

A strong teen voice is probably the one ingredient most likely to make or break a YA novel. So how does a writer get it?

While “voice” is one of those qualities that can be hard to define and even harder to develop, there are some basic things writers can do:

Avoid overly manufactured “teen talk.” Teens have highly sensitive fake-o-meters. Adult-manufactured “teen talk” sets those meters spinning. Yes, each new generation of teen-age speech has its own slang, its own cadence, its own set of cultural references. But a little bit goes a long way. Overdo it, and you come off as unrealistic at best and grating at worst.

Listen to how teens (and people in general) talk. This is especially important for writing dialog (which is different from voice, but which does contribute to your writer’s voice). People don’t speak in complete sentences. They use contractions. They interrupt each other in conversation. They use shorter sentences when they’re excited and longer sentences when they’re waxing poetic. Your characters should, too.

Don’t generalize. I hope this goes without saying, but … teens are people, too! Not all teens are alike. In fact, no two are alike. So give them their own personalities, dreams, failings, and flaws.

Think like a teen. Writing with a teen voice is less about using the latest “hot” phrases and more about seeing the world and responding to it the way a teen sees it and responds to it. Remember how it felt to be a teen? Good. That’s all you need! Drawing on your own feelings and experiences is the best way to make your teen voice real and believable.

* * *

And now, just for fun, some things teens would NEVER say, as contributed by real-live teens (and a few former teens) from my church’s youth group:
I wish my curfew was earlier.
I wish there was less food in the house.
I wish I didn’t have a smart phone.
I wish my internet connection was slower.
(Kyle Snoich)

I wish school was 10 hours a day.
The school lunches are so yummy! I could eat them all the time!
(Andy Vest)

I wish I had to wake up every day at 6 a.m.
I wish there was no such thing as football.
I wish there was no such thing as summer.
(Thomas Crowson)

Video games are boring.
I wish teachers were super mean.
TV shows from the ’90s are so boring.
I love paying for textbooks.
(Teresa Artigas)

All high school girls are really nice to everyone.
No one is ever insecure.
I just love doing chores.
I’m not attached to my cell phone.
(Emily Gallihugh)

Yes! Another essay assignment!
(Andrew Dietz)

I wish the driving age was 21.
I wish we had year-round school.
I wish texting had never been invented.
My parents need to be more strict.
(Billy Vaughan)

I wish I had more homework.
I really enjoy cleaning my room.
I sure hope I get to wake up early tomorrow!
Let’s go to the library! (Aw, that one makes me sad.)
I hate it when people text me.
(Nick Yother)

I want to be a telemarketer when I grow up.
(Laurie Cummins Morris)