The Art of Dropping Breadcrumbs

By Annette Lyon

Imagine that you’re reading an Agatha Christie novel. In the last chapter, Poirot calls the cops, tells them who committed the murder, and goes on his way, saying that of course everyone knows why Jeremy Jones is the one being carted off to jail.

TTOF - Breadcrumbs

After your confusion clears, you’d probably hurl the book against the wall in frustration. (Unless you were reading on a Kindle, in which case, you’d delete the dang thing with a strong click.)

Every story has mysteries and story questions. One of the biggest jobs a writer has is making sure that as the mysteries are revealed and the questions are answered, the reader isn’t confused to the point of book throwing. Continue reading

How Far Is Too Far? How Much Is Too Much?

YA-bobby-socks-puppy-lovet

I didn’t actually set out to answer those questions. But over the past several months, they’ve been on my mind. A lot.

Let’s back up. My teenaged daughter is a voracious reader. She always seems to discover and read the “hot topic” books months before I even hear about them. She’d read all John Green’s books before I even got a whiff of The Fault in Our Stars, and she read Thirteen Reasons Why way before Netflix even thought about vandalizing the book as a miniseries.

In the run-up to my NaNoWriMo project last year, I decided I wanted to write the kind of YA book my daughter likes to read: edgy, real, and touching on the scarier areas of high school life. I settled on a revenge novel, one that used multiple points of view. Then she and I sat down and brainstormed about the horrible things high schoolers do to each other.

Some of the ideas we came up with together were pretty dark. But I was drawn to the characters they suggested, and I thought they made for a great story. I’m revising now, struggling with my beginning, but I’m still happy with the way the book is shaping up.

To help me get in the right frame of mind for this book, I’ve been reading extensively in the “edgy YA” category. Here are a few of the books I’ve devoured in the past few months:

  • Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher. Deals with suicide, bullying, violence, alcohol and drug use, rape and voyeurism.
  • King Dork, by Frank Portman. A comedy dealing with sex, drugs and (of course) rock ‘n’ roll—plus bullying, alcohol and assault with a deadly tuba.
  • Hate List, by Jennifer Brown. The main character is the survivor (and unwitting participant) of school shooting rampage. Also touches on bullying, violence, alcohol and drug use, sexual issues.
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Andrews. A very funny, profoundly weird story about terminal illness, bullying, racial issues, drug use and gangs. Contains copius F-bombs.
  • Looking for Alaska, by John Green. This multiple award-winning book deals with sex, smoking, death, more sex, and alcohol and drug use, with enough profanity to earn it a hard R from the MPAA.
  • The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner. Abuse and poverty, some surprising violence (domestic and otherwise), lots of language and bullying and mentions of kiddie porn mixed in. So far, my favorite book of 2017.
  • Castration Celebration, by Jake Wizner. Billed as “High School Musical—rated R,” this book revolves around sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, alcohol, suicide, and depression. And it’s a comedy!

Now, I live and write in southern Utah, so I work in a bubble. Though this isn’t an absolute, readers here tend to gravitate more toward sci-fi and fantasy, focus on “clean romance,” and stay away from heavy realism. The bubble is thick and isolating—so much so that, when I began introducing my current project to my writing group, one of the members asked, “Do books like this actually sell?”

Publishers don’t release sales numbers, but if we look at Thirteen Reasons Why on Amazon, we see the book has 29 separate formats and editions, including seven hardcover, nine paperback, two digital and four audiobook. There’s also the popular miniseries on Netflix. What this says to me is that Jay Asher probably doesn’t have to feel around under his couch cushions for gas money. Similarly, Looking for Alaska is available in 55 different formats and editions. Millions of copies of both books have been sold.

Obviously, books for teens with lots of “adult” material can be incredibly popular and make bucketfuls of money for their authors and publishers. But I’m still curious to know: how far is too far, and how much is too much? Are there specific topics that readers just don’t want to encounter in young adult novels?

I can’t answer that question. In fact, it’s a question I’m asking TTOF readers. I’ve put together a survey for you to fill out:

Take_Survey_button

Copy-and-paste link:
https://goo.gl/forms/AyEmZ23eLdXptYMt2

You’ll be asked about various thematic elements and  your level of comfort with them. I encourage you to respond to the survey, and to ask your friends to do so as well. I’ll summarize the results in a future column.


David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

4 Questions to Help Develop Characters

Nearly two weeks ago, I had a conversation with my agent regarding what she thought after the latest round of edits. While there isn’t anything that is totally overwhelming, there are still things that aren’t as they could be, things I could improve before we send this manuscript on to the next phase of its life.

As I was talking and listening to the feedback, my mind jumped to the possibilities of plot: I could change this, I could enhance that, I could make everything FLY!

Thankfully, I’d just finished reading Wired for Story by Lisa Cron, and I had her ideas swimming around in my head along with the feedback I was getting. In particular, I remembered one specific part:

“What sets prose apart from plays, movies, and life itself is that it provides direct access to the most alluring and otherwise inaccessible realm imaginable: someone else’s mind.”

When I took a step back from what was being discussed in regards to the story and edits, I could see that what I still needed to strengthen was the way I depicted the inner workings of my characters. Here are a few ways to do that:.

1. What is the history of the group of characters? 

In our modern society, we don’t have to look very far to find people who have rich histories and deep memories, who have been and are impacted by the way that people interact with them, with their relatives, with attempts at political correctness and total disregard for them as a member of humanity. I don’t think there are very many groups out there who haven’t had something happen historically that still resonates with us today. If that’s the case, the resonance would obviously be with our characters as well, in some way. 

2. What is the history of the families of the characters? 

On one side of my family, we have several instances when use of force got things done, and when use of force ended lives before their time. My grandmother on the other side passed down her sweet pickle recipe with instructions like “add enough salt to float a small potato.” Myself, my mom, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents, and so forth, can’t stand to eat several desserts without some kind of ice cream or whipped cream, a tradition passed down from our Danish heritage. Even if we don’t know the stories, these kinds of events impacted our parents, impacted us, are impacting our children. Same with our characters. If we can hone in on what makes the family entity we are writing about unique, it will add further depth to that “otherwise inaccessible realm.” 

3. What is the history of the familial relationship? 

This is slightly different from the previous point in that I’m talking about the immediate family. I’m sure we’ve all seen those articles that talk about birth order and personality types, we’ve all read archetypes of siblings and probably had at least one moment of agreement for the depiction we encountered. If there is more than one sibling there is probably a “golden child” and a “black sheep”, contingent, of course, upon the values of the family. These kinds of identifications, even unspoken, have a resonating impact on the fabric of our character, and tend to reappear in diverse, and often unexpected, situations.  

4. What is the history of the characters’ social relationships? 

Has a majority of their life been as a leader or an outcast? Has interacting with those outside of their family come easily to them, or been a skill that they tried to learn? Did they ignore attempts at social skills altogether? Are they using the people outside of their family to try and recapture a desired role within their family? Does their level of tolerance regarding difficult behavior in others align with their desire to belong, regardless of of the consequences? Have they adopted a persona when in the company of others to maintain the appearance of a desired role? 
While it is absolutely essential to factor in external plot points when crafting a story, failure to really hone in on the people who are involved in the external conflict will leave the story flat, meaningless, and unsatisfying. As Lisa Cron says, “Stories are about how we, rather than the world around us, change….Thus story…is an internal journey, not an external one.” Showing a dedicated and concentrated effort to depicting the internal story is what will elevate the reader’s experience. 

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Three A-Ha Moments: Wired for Story

I have been studying fiction writing and writing fiction since 2003, when I needed an outlet from my technical writing job. I have read approximately 100 books on fiction writing, most of them seminal about writing: Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, Donna Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, Conflict (GMC), Robert McKee’s Story.

After 13 years, it takes a pretty special book to teach me anything that I don’t already know (or state things in such a way that get through my thick skull).

Well, I found that book: Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. It’s by Lisa Cron, a former literary agent and supervising producer for TV shows. She now teaches writing for UCLA.

Wow. Can I just tell you…wow.

It discusses the psychology behind why a reader gets sucked into a story. And I knew I needed to find such a book. I’m awesome with the mechanics of writing—but I wanted to become an even better storyteller. (Note: Being a good storyteller is not the same as being a good writer, just as being a good writer does not mean being a good speller.)

Because I want everyone to buy Wired for Story (I have no ties to this book, and I don’t know the author), I will only name Three A-Ha Moments for me. Just so you know—I wrote 20 pages of notes, front and back, with A-Ha Moments. Just naming three is basically 3% of what I learned from this book.

1: Story equals the internal conflict, not the external conflict. 

Think about your typical action movie. There are pretty awful ones out there, and then there are pretty awesome ones out there. The difference? The action movies that made you feel for the characters (and showed you their internal conflicts) are the ones that stand out. This is why I love Twister, The Day After Tomorrow, and Independence Day. The screenwriters spent time showing internal conflict. The action movies that I didn’t feel as much were Captain America and the latest Avengers movie. They were more about the external conflict, and that made me not so invested with the characters…and as a result, I wasn’t invested in the story (i.e., I fell asleep during these movies).

2: Each plot twist and turn must make the protagonist deal with their internal issue. 

Let’s take a look at one of my favorite action films: Twister. When the twisters came, there was something that usually forced the hero and heroine face their internal issues: the niggling doubt that they shouldn’t sign those dang divorce papers. Imagine if Twister hadn’t had Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt dealing with finalizing their divorce—that it was just a couple throwing zingers at each other. I’ve seen many movies like this—the screenwriters think the mild agitation between the hero and heroine is a good enough internal conflict. Um, no, I don’t think so.

3: External vs. Internal Goals showcase who you think you are vs. who you really are. 

Back to Twister. The external goal is to get Dorothy up in a twister to get a reading on it, so that humans can better predict when a twister is coming. So the protagonist (Bill Paxton, since he’s the one who has to change the most by the end of the movie) has to face the fact that he wants to get Dorothy up in the twister (external goal). But what he’s really facing/who he really is? If he just wants to be a weatherman vs. a field scientist, and if he just wants to be married and safe and sound with the marriage counselor vs. married and adventurous with his storm-chasing first wife.

By the way, there are even MORE awesome nuggets of awesome in Wired for Story. So do yourself a favor and get this book. Read it. Study it. And apply it to your own writing.

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Sydney Strand is a fiction writer who has published two young adult books through New York and another six books via self-publishing. Over the last two years, she has focused on writing fun romances, but not of the Red Room of Pain variety. More like the Dan and Roseanne/Sam and Diane variety–humor is sexy, dontcha know. You can follow Sydney on Instagram (1st Favorite), Twitter (2nd Favorite), and Facebook (Not a Favorite). She’s also at www.sydneystrand.com. (Her favoritest of favorites.)

Writers are Readers: Best Lessons from New Adult Books

Read, read, read. And read some more.

We here at Thinking Through Our Fingers are strong proponents of the idea that writers must be avid and analytical readers in order to learn the craft. By reading in our genre especially, we can learn much from the example of others.

In this “Writers are Readers” series, several of our blog contributors will be sharing some of the best reads within the genre that we write along with the lessons learned from these gorgeous reads. I write both Young Adult and New Adult, and my spotlight will be on New Adult books. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this genre, these are stories that feature characters between the ages of 18-24. This is a time of newfound independence and freedom, of self-discovery and exploration, of trying out new and often risky things, of testing the waters of adult relationships, of incurring emotional hardship and damage, and perhaps most of all, of the tumultuous emotional development that brings us into adulthood and makes us who we are. Particularly popular within this genre is contemporary romance, likely because this age represents a time when we can explore and experiment with those adult relationships for the very first time.

As such, the following book picks are some of the New Adult contemporary romances that drove a lesson home…and in a few cases, a stake through my heart. ❤

Note: Due to the nature of the genre, all of the contemporary romances in this list contain mature subject material, including varying degrees of sexual content associated with emotional progression of characters (some more on the sweeter side, others definitely steamy). Everyone has different tastes, so you may want to check out non-spoilery book reviews or preview a sample of a book if you think this may be an issue for you.

For a lesson in realistic romance: Flat-Out Love by Jessica Park, Deep Blue by Jules Barnard


For a lesson in humor and voice: Imperfect Chemistry by Mary Frame, Imperfectly Criminal by Mary Frame, With a Twist by Staci Hart

For a lesson in building sexual tension: A Little Too Hot by Lisa Desrochers, Obsession by Jennifer L. Armentrout


For a lesson in emotional development: Wait for You by J. Lynn, Charade by Nyrae Dawn


For a lesson in damaged characters: Tragic by J.A. Huss, Unbreak Me by Lexi Ryan, Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire

For a lesson in external conflict/suspense: The Untamed Series by Jen Meyers and Victoria Green, The Chicago Underground Series (1-3) by Skye Warren (note: this is a dark romance)


For a lesson in romance that will break your heart into a million pieces: Maybe Someday by Colleen Hoover

If you want to catch any of the other posts in Thinking Through Our Fingers’ “Writers are Readers” feature, here they are! 🙂

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Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both YA urban fantasy and NA contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. Find out more about Helen at www.helenboswell.com.

A Lesson Plan for Elementary School Students: Story Essentials

I had my first official school visit this last week: I was an invited presenter at a university creative writing class. The presentation was a lot of fun–the students were smart, engaged, and asked great questions. Mostly, all I had to do was show up and talk about my forthcoming book and my road to publication. Easy peasy.

Next week, I’ve got a very different kind of school visit: I’ll be doing a series of creative writing classes for my 9-year-old’s third grade class. I’m already a little nervous: their attention span is much shorter, and they require a lot more interaction!

But, for the benefit of anyone else facing a similar school visit, I thought I’d share a few basic ideas.

Setting the groundwork

A long time ago when I first began teaching, I learned a trick to good teaching: introduce a concept, demonstrate it, and then let students apply it.

Since the class is starting a unit on narrative, there a couple of core principles I want to lay down.

1. Stories require conflict.

Most kids (and a lot of grown ups) think all you need to tell a story is have something happen. But that leads to stories that are variations on this happened and then this happened and then this happened and its hard for readers to care. Conflict happens when the main character is thwarted: in other words, as I saw recently on Facebook, if your character is running a race, make sure her shoe laces are tied before she starts.

2. This conflict needs to be character driven.

All good stories have interesting characters. They don’t have to be sympathetic characters, but they do have to be proactive–that is, they have to want something. And there needs to be something that gets in their way. Conflict unfolds naturally as the character tries to overcome their obstacle to get what they want.

Or, as Lincoln Pierce suggests in a recent Big Nate comic strip, writers need to focus on:

  • Somebody
  • Wanted something
  • But they couldn’t get it
  • So they . . .

Big Nate
*from http://www.gocomics.com/bignate/2015/03/08

3. The conflict unfolds in a distinct place

Arguably, there are a lot of elements that go into stories, but for our first unit, I want to focus on these three: character, conflict, and setting. The setting doesn’t have to be unique, but it does have to be clear, because where a story is set can dramatically affect what can happen in the story.

One of the easiest ways to introduce these ideas is to point them out in familiar stories. Since I’ll be teaching an elementary school classroom, I’ll probably focus on Disney movies that are familiar to most of the students. Take, for instance, Frozen: What does Anna want? (She wants to marry Hans, which her sister forbids). What does Elsa want? (To keep her secret, to be left alone). Since neither character can easily have what they want, their needs drive the story forward.

Demonstrate the Concept

Once students have the general idea of conflict, we’ll brainstorm a story as a group. I ask students to brainstorm a list of characters (one of the things I love about kids is how creative they are). And then we’ll pick one. Where does this character live? What does this character want? What might be keeping them from what they want?

Together, we’ll outline a story that has conflict, character, and setting.

Apply the Concept

Once we’ve worked through the story as a group, each student will have a chance to brainstorm their own story.

One of my favorite writing prompts involves putting a variety of characters and settings into a hat and having the students draw one from each hat. So, for this activity, a student might end up with a stinky ninja in a library . . . and they have to figure out what the ninja would want (to not get caught?) and what is keeping him from what he wants (his target can smell him?), and what the ninja does to try and overcome that obstacle.

Quality
Character
Setting
Shy
A student
An amusement park
Loud
An ogre
A campground
Stinky
A yeti
A library
Strong
A fairy
A secret laboratory
Smart
A unicorn
A cave
Cowardly
A super-hero
A beach
Invisible
A baseball player
A graveyard
Funny
A ninja
On a boat
Squirmy
A pirate
On a plane

Honestly? Mostly I’m excited to talk about words with my son and his friends.

What writing exercises have you done with students?