The Road to Perfection

My successes as a baker have been very hit and miss. I can make one recipe and a month or two later, when I try to make it again, end up with a failure. Same cook, same products, same mixer and house and stove and attention and . . . flop.

I was reminded of this a week ago when I made a family favorite – Blondies. This single pan of cookie joy is my favorite because I don’t have to stand in the kitchen for two hours putting in and pulling out baked goodies. I’ve made it so many times that I don’t have to flip through the book to find it, I just feel for the flour covered pages (I’ve never claimed to be a clean cook either).

When I checked on the cookies in the oven, the looked perfect. Golden goodness, chocolate chip gooey-ness, a little bit of crust on the outside, the smell made everyone ask when they’d be done.

At first, they were okay. Warm sugar usually is. But as they cooled, the top got hard, the inside stayed gooey and they literally fell flat. I let them stick around for about five days – after all, I have teenagers and they like food. But these didn’t even make the teen appetite cut. Finally, yesterday, I threw them all away.

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Coming from a family, particularly on my mom’s side, known for their cooking, there are times when this feels like a massive slap in the face. I can read and follow instructions. I’m using the exact same recipe they are. Theirs turn out amazing, mine turn out amazing to meh. But the real slap in the face (besides killing the whole idea that I’ll be “that mom” who has yummy treats whenever friends come over) is that these mistakes create disappointment AND cost money. I know, it’s not a lot – ingredients that I mostly have and the sacrificial bag of chocolate chips. The sting lingers longer, though, right now as I’m both gearing up for back to school (and my kids have all grown out of their clothes and two need new glasses) AND saving for a trip that I’m very, VERY excited about. Okay, there’s a little bit of disappointment from the kids I have to deal with too.

And still I bake. Or at least try. Because I like the taste of the yummy treats. I like when things turn out well and my efforts are rewarded. I like showing my kids that just because something doesn’t go right the first time, doesn’t mean I get to quit.

Why, then, do so many of us think that our writing is going to turn out well the first time? Why do we think our efforts to create character and setting and story are actually going to turn out the first time? Those of you who read the first part of this cringing because your cookies have always been awesome would probably, very quickly, tell me to try this next time or that, something that comes intuitively to you as a baker. Would you offer the same suggestion to someone (maybe yourself) when you are in the midst of writing a story? Because when you are writing and you make a mistake, you didn’t tease with the essence of goodness. You didn’t have to mourn the chocolate thrown away instead of eaten. And tossing words can be painful, I’m not saying otherwise. But it is absolutely, unequivocally part of the process if the desire you have for your end product is something that you will feel good about and, maybe, will even have the honor of having others feel good about too.

The reason why we utter “Practice Makes Perfect” so many times, in so many situations, isn’t to insist that each practice is going to BE perfect. It is acknowledging the road to perfect is paved with lots and lots and lots of imperfections.

But as far as I can tell, it is the only way to build such a road.

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TashaTasha 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 a board member for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Puzzling Out Your Revisions

I did it! I finished my draft! And now . . . ohhh boy, is it a mess.

I’m not talking about awkward sentences and sparse details—though there’s certainly plenty of that. I’m talking about huge plot and character shifts part way through, characters I introduced, then ghosted on, a beloved pet dog that appears in the first chapter only—that kind of a mess.

I have chapters I wrote, then moved, that now need to be rewritten so they’ll make sense within their new context. I have location shifts, missing parents, siblings that I may or may not add in. . . .

Basically, I have a TON of work ahead of me. When I look at everything that needs to be done, it’s overwhelming.

As writers, one of the most prevalent pieces of advice we’re given is to get the words down. Just get them down, finish that draft, worry about the mess later. We can’t revise what isn’t there, right? This is great advice; however, once we’ve followed it . . . what do we do next?

Puzzling

First, take a deep breath.

Then another.

Ok, just one more.

Now that you’ve calmed down a bit, open your document back up.

You might even want to go so far as to print it out so you can physically go at it with a red pen. Or, if you prefer, you can use the comments option in your word processing software program of choice. Do whichever feels easier for you when it comes to wrapping your head around the monumental task ahead.

First, read your manuscript and take notes—any and all thoughts that come to mind—but resist making any changes at this time. (I know, it’s hard.) If you make changes as you go though, you might find later that the changes you made at the beginning still aren’t going to work with the changes you end up needing to make at the end. Think of this as the Intel-Gathering phase. Right now, you’re a detective figuring out what best needs to be done to your story and how best to do it—how to fit the pieces of this messed up puzzle together in a way that makes the most sense.

Ok, so you’ve done that, and . . . you’re still feeling super intimidated, aren’t you? Maybe you should take a few more deep breaths.

Better? Good.

The next thing you need to do is categorize your notes. Just like separating out puzzle pieces into groups—grass pieces over here, sky pieces there, what looks like maybe the hull of a wooden boat? Maybe it’s a house . . . over there. I find organizing and separating the different types of fixes that need to be made in my draft, helps me break things down into more manageable tasks that make the entire process feel less daunting. Rather than go through the manuscript one time, tackling each note one by one, I’ll make multiple passes focusing on one problem at a time.

Big stuff comes first. (It’s ok to take another deep breath here if you need to. Ready? In . . . out . . . good.)

What is it about your draft that needs the most work? For me, it’s usually characterization. For you, it could be setting, or filling in plot holes, or smoothing transitions. Take the biggest task and go through only focusing on that. Trust me, you’ll feel so much better once you get that bit out of the way. Next, move on to the second biggest issue.

And keep on moving down the list this way. I haven’t finished taking notes on my current draft, but I’m guessing my big focus areas for example, in order from messiest to least messy, will end up being characters, setting, plot holes, transitions, dialogue.

Once you’ve finished these big picture tasks, move on to the nitty-gritty things, like grammar, punctuation, varying your sentence structures, and finally, removing unnecessary filler words (like, very, really, that, etc.) and adverbs.

And that’s it! Keep in mind, you might need to go back and adjust areas you’ve previously focused on after you’ve made some later changes, but it should be much easier now. And then, of course, you’ll absolutely need to go through the entire process again once you’ve let your critique partners and/or beta reads get a hold of it. But the hardest part should be over. Congratulations! You’ve now turned your huge, jumbled up, intimidating mess into something you’re actually willing to let people read! The puzzle is now complete.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

Lyrical Writing vs. Purple Prose

I have always been a line-level writer. I live for poetic prose, for dazzling descriptions, for the sentences that make you feel like you’re sipping something delightful as you read. I love writing that makes you see the world differently, that pulls you so deeply into its narrative that you can’t seem to leave that fictional world once you’re done. I love authors like Laini Taylor and Maggie Stiefvater, who have such a deft touch with phrasing that their books are not only engaging, they are positively delicious.

Recently I got into a discussion with some friends on Twitter about how to find the line between pretty prose and purple prose. Purple prose, in case you haven’t heard the phrase before, is—according to its Wikipedia entry—”text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself.” So how, exactly, do you know when you’re writing something that would be classed as literary or lyrical, and when you’re veering into purple prose?

 

1. Lyrical prose uses a light touch.

If you’re trying to write lyrically, it’s important to realize one thing: quality over quantity. True lyricism is a mix of plainer, more serviceable lines with lines that stand out and sing. If each line of your book is filled with metaphors, descriptions, and ten-dollar words, your story will quickly sink under its own weight.

Last month I read and loved Sandhya Menon’s bestselling young adult debut, When Dimple Met Rishi. One of my favorite lines from the book was this: “His eyes reminded her of old apothecary bottles, deep brown, when the sunlight hit them and turned them almost amber.” Can’t you just feel that description? Yet Menon’s followup is much simpler: “Dimple loved vintage things. She followed a bunch of vintage photography accounts on Instagram, and old apothecary bottles were a favorite subject.”

Notice how that first line is deeply poetic, verging on the fanciful; it uses description, an unusual metaphor, the striking image of sunlight through brown glass. But immediately, Menon grounds us back in the real world, with short sentences that give us the information without any adornment. If those lines had been as long and vivid as the first one, it would have taken so much longer for us to get to the actual crux of the scene—which would have brought us perilously close to purple prose, because…

2. Purple prose takes us out of a story.

The goal of truly great writing is to make the reader forget that they’re reading a book. As authors, we want our readers to be fully present inside our stories, to be so immersed in our characters’ worlds that we’ll feel disoriented when the book ends. Vivid, lyrical writing is a fantastic tool in our arsenal when we’re doing this—but if we overdo that vivid writing, it has the opposite effect, yanking us right back into the real world. Have you ever been reading a book and then found yourself stopping and thinking something like Good grief, I didn’t need to know that much about her dress or What does that scene even have to do with anything? Chances are, what you were reading could fall under the umbrella of purple prose.

I’m a highly descriptive writer, but I’m also a firm believer that description should be part of the lifeblood of your novel, not something that you intentionally break from your story to spend time on. Each time you use a descriptive passage, ask yourself: What is this accomplishing? Good description does more than just telling us what a person, place, or thing looks like. Good description heightens the book’s atmosphere, or gives us insight into a character’s thoughts and feelings, or even hints at character backstory. There are a lot of things that never really need to be described in a book—character clothing rarely matters, the precise layout of a house isn’t usually important, even what a character looks like can be mostly left up to the imagination. Vivid description, like poetic prose, is best used like salt: A sprinkle here or there to bring the flavor out on food, but not enough to overwhelm. Our readers shouldn’t spend more time noticing our descriptions than they do living in our novels.

3. Prose turns purple when you set out to impress.

Look, we’re all writers, right? And as such, it’s likely that we’ve spent a fair bit of our lives reading, building extensive vocabularies, and taking classes that have taught us all manner of cool literary devices. And let’s be honest: Sometimes it can be tempting to show all that off. But when we write with the intent to impress—even sometimes if we write with the intent to innovate—we often end up producing things that no person in their right mind would want to read. For an extreme, but still relevant, example, I turned to a source of unending purple prose… stuff I wrote as a teenage girl. Back then, my best friend and I played frequent letter-writing games, the first of which was a story between two Regency girls who wrote letters that were, well, about what you’d expect from two fourteen-year-olds trying to write in a Regency style.

Here’s a gem from one of those letters: “Our dear windowseat, I feel, will be such a place of endearment that when it comes time for us to spread our wings, we will shed many a tear over the parting of it and ourselves.”

Ridiculous, right? I mean, what I was angling for there could’ve been substituted with a simple “we really like this window seat, we’ll miss it when we get old.” But while I’m grateful to think that most mature writers won’t fall prey to quite such flights of fanciful language, the things in this sentence that make it ridiculous are sins of which seasoned writers can be just as guilty. When we replace words, drag our sentences out mostly for the sake of having longer sentences, or try to write in a way that neither feels nor sounds natural to our own writer voice, we fall victim to the dreaded purpling of our prose.

4. Prose can also become too purple if our authorial voice dominates our character voice.

Last week I got some editorial feedback from my marvelous agent on my latest book. One of the things that she mentioned was that she felt there were a few times where my writer voice leaked in to my character’s voice a bit too much—the book is about an eleven-year-old who can be described as lower middle class as best, and who isn’t shown to have a particular gift with words, but I have occasional moments like the one where she describes a fellow student’s hat as “unfathomable, in this kind of heat.” Though I totally hadn’t noticed it before my agent pointed it out, that is much more the kind of thing that I, not my protagonist, would say. When we allow our own vocabulary and aesthetic to interject when they’re not consistent with our character’s attributes or worldview, our attempts at lyricism fall flat and pull the reader right out of the story.

There is no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to avoiding purple prose, and some of it simply comes down to taste. Some readers and writers prefer stories that are told simply, with clean, spare writing that avoids fancy devices. To these readers and writers, anything that ventures into the realm of the poetic is going to feel over-the-top. More than once, I’ve heard somebody criticize a book that I loved by saying it was guilty of purple prose.

Still, for those of us for whom vivid language and careful wordsmithing is just as important as crafting a strong plot, it’s worth giving the matter some thought! A few resources I found helpful as I prepared for this blog post:

Purple prose definition on Wikipedia

http://thewritepractice.com/purple-prose/

Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Her debut middle grade novel, WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, is forthcoming from HarperCollin’s Children’s in 2018. Find her online at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter at @beingcindy.

Book Deals Come from Rewrites & Revisions

Last month, I got to finally announce my book deal. It was one of those days that you dream of for years and years and it was amazing. THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC is the second novel I’ve ever written, but the book that finally sold to a publisher is totally different from that first draft I started typing two and a half years ago.

I shared on Twitter that it took three rewrites for me to get an agent with this book and three large revisions after that to get a book deal. That tweet got shared a lot and I had a few people want more details about what those revisions were.

So, in the spirit of honesty, and because I feel it’s important for other writers to see what deep revision looks like, I thought I would give you the short version of how my book changed from first draft until now.

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First Draft

My story started out as a light paranormal about a girl whose two dead grandmothers come back as her guardian angels to help her win back her best friend and find her dad and bring him back home.

I wrote it in about two months and as soon as I typed “The End” I knew it had potential.

What it didn’t have was VOICE.

Rewrite #1

So I let it rest for a couple of weeks, maybe a month and then rewrote the entire thing from scratch. This time with a strong, clear voice that had only shown up occasionally in the first draft. Funny thing, that voice came out in second person. Weird. But I went with it.

After I finished that rewrite, I realized it was in second person because it was a series of letters this girl was writing to her dad. I also had beta readers tell me that the last half was awesome, but the first half was slow and I needed to add more of a goal to give it some direction.

Revision #1-3

Change each chapter into a letter. Add a goal. (If she does well on her math test, they’ll ride horses on the Mist Trail at Yosemite for her birthday.) Try to speed up the beginning.

I spent several, several revisions trying to fix my tension issues in the beginning. I worked on it from May-August

Then I got a second chance at Pitch Wars and a team of three volunteer mentors who were going to help me with my book. I sent it off to the first mentor feeling pretty confident. She got back to me pinpointing exactly why I was having tension issues. The guardian angels had no real purpose for the first half of the book. She said I needed to give them goals. But then made a gentle suggestion that maybe my book would work better a straight contemporary.

I thought that she just must not have gotten my book at all and wasn’t the right audience for it, blah, blah, blah. But she told me it made her cry and she loved the heart of it and I couldn’t get that suggestion out of my head. So after a week of thinking about it, I decided to give it a try.

Rewrite #2

No more guardian angels. One grandma with early dementia. A new idea to tie the story together. The three rules for creating the Everyday Magic behind friends, forgiveness, family, etc.

My CP loved it. My mentor loved it. But it still needed work.

Rewrite #3

Rewrite #3 was more like a series of two or three big formatting revisions that felt like a rewrite by the time I was done. See, I still had this problem of no tension in the beginning of the book. My first mentor suggested it was because all of the letters are written at some time in the future after the story had happened. So I rewrote the letters to being written as the story played out.

Then I sent it to the next mentor and she gave me probably the hardest revision note of all.

The letters weren’t working for her. They were too long and started feeling like regular prose and then all of a sudden went back to sounding like letters. She suggested I change it to a prose story with letters bookending each chapter.

My CP’s and first mentor didn’t agree. They thought I could make the letters work. They LOVED the letters.

***Side Note*** I rarely toss aside a revision note, but it’s so hard when you get conflicting advice. And this whole business is so subjective. How do you know what advice to follow? I have no great advice. All I can tell you is that one of my CP’s who read the earlier drafts of this book told me that she was still sad I got rid of the guardian angels. That she had really loved them. See? Subjectivity. This is hard! It’s okay if you don’t always know what to do.

I decided to try it for a few chapters and then run it by people to see which version won out. I got at least ten beta readers for the first couple chapters.

The version that was only partial-epistolary won by a landslide.

So I changed it and that was a really big revision. Then my mentor suggested I change the prose from past to present. So I did.

Phew! See what I mean about how this series of revision is rewrite #3 in my mind?

But guess what? That tension problem in the first half was so much better. Not totally, completely solved. But so much better.

Thorough Line Edits

Querying

Agent!

Post-Agent Revision #1-3

These revisions were a lot of character deepening for side characters, making certain ones more important, having some show up more, making my mom character more involved, making the bully less stereotypical.

Rewriting my first chapter.

Then two revisions focused on connecting the reader to my main character more. This required a painstaking line edit by a friend with a sharp, sharp eye who pointed out every single place in the manuscript where he felt disconnected from my character or like he didn’t know how she was feeling. It was beyond thorough. It was amazing. But also a lot of work.

I also added a cat. Because kids taking care of cats, I mean, that makes you love a character, right? These were my thoughts.

Submission

R&R from an editor!

This revision was a rewrite of probably 30% of the book at least. I added 3 or four new chapters to the beginning, a lot of memories that became kind of a tiny sub plot, I completely overhauled the bully character into someone who I felt barely registered on the mean scale. I did a lot more that I can’t even remember because I ended having to do it on a very tight timeline (10 days!) It’s kind of a blur, honestly.

Resubmit

Wait Anxiously

Book Deal!

Celebrate!

More Revisions!

You guys, my first round of revisions were a doozy. I had to rewrite about half the book. My beginning and ending were both too long, the beginning was still too sad. My bully was still too mean. I had to find ways to show how my MC was similar and different from her mom to draw out the tension and connection there more.

And then she asked me to cut stuff. All that stuff that I’d added to kind of be a bandaid for my tension and connection issues? My editor is so good, she saw right through it. She didn’t know that I’d added the subplot with the math test and the birthday in Yosemite so my MC could have a goal. Or that I added the subplot with the cat so readers would connect with her more. But she picked both out and said, “These are extraneous. You don’t need them. Take them out and you’ll find something else closer to the very heart of your story to replace it with.” Then she suggested something that had just barely come out of all those memories I added in the last revision that I hadn’t even thought were a big deal. She wanted me to focus more on that.

So, that’s two subplots cut. Another character overhaul on the bully. Three or four chapters deleted, two or three new chapters in their place. I cut the ending length in half and added a subplot that served to show my MC’s dad fall further and further into depression. I changed the timeline of the story from six month to four weeks.

It was a huge revision.

And you guys, it’s so much better.

But guess what I’m going to get soon?

More Revision Notes

This is publishing.

Writing is rewriting is probably the most truthful thing ever written about writing.

Not every book that gets published has to go through this many intense revisions. But mine did. And that’s okay. Don’t quit. Don’t get discouraged. Keep working and trying and rewriting.

You’ll get there.

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Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

Building Blocks of Character, part 2

This is the second installment of a two-part series on creating strong characters, based on principles discussed in the The Art of Character by David Corbett. Part one focused on:

  1. Sources for character inspiration;
  2. The protagonist’s driving need or end goal; and
  3. Using our own emotional lives to better understand our characters.

Now, in part two, we’ll cover three more essential elements: physical traits, psychological profile, and a concept known as the tyranny of motive.

Once you’ve identified your protagonist, remember that he should be the one with the most at stake in the story. As your main character, he is the one who feels the strongest motivation to act and “elicits deepest empathy from the reader.”

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Establishing the stakes is critical: what the character wants, why, and the risks he’s willing to take to get it. Your protagonist should engage in “meaningful conflict,” showing both vulnerability and strength along the way. A rich, layered portrayal of both physical and psychological traits helps readers connect with your character and makes the struggles on the page feel true to life.

Physical Traits

Some writers prefer to leave a character’s physical description to the reader’s imagination. Others envision—and portray—their characters down to the finest detail. Between these two extremes, identifying at least some physical attributes is necessary to flesh out how a character engages with the world around her. Consider how age, height, race, gender, health, and a host of other factors influence a character’s day-to-day choices and interactions. Physical traits serve a purpose beyond simple descriptors. Corbett poses three key questions:

-How does her outward appearance reflect her inner life?

-How does her appearance affect her behavior?

-How does her appearance affect others’ reactions to her?

He further urges writers to envision physical details not as a list on a page but scenically, i.e., how does each trait shape the story itself?

Psychological Nature

Your character’s inner world includes “her emotions, her feelings…her passions, her fears, her abiding loves, her poisonous hatreds, her hopes, her shame, her reservoirs of swagger, her echoing doubts.”

This is territory well beyond eye color and shoe size. Human beings are complex, fascinating creatures. Your main character (and secondary characters) should be, too. Explore the rich potential of your character’s psyche. Examine friendships and family relationships. Envision dreams, disappointments, slights, and successes. Even if every detail doesn’t end up in print, your readers will forget that this character is not a living, breathing person. They will identify with her, root for her, and keep turning the pages until they learn her ultimate fate.

Corbett asserts that the most revealing psychological factor is fear. In most cases, our reaction to fear is not something we can consciously control. It exposes hidden personal truths that we cannot suppress or manipulate. Your character’s fears are the clearest path to her strengths and weaknesses. “The measure of every act of courage,” Corbett writes, “is the fear it overcomes.”

The Tyranny of Motive

Tyranny of motive is defined as the urgency of what a character wants, the “vibrant way her craving and need defines her. It demands obedience—and inspires rebellion.”

As discussed in Part One, the protagonist’s driving need dictates the story’s momentum. It’s critical to the narrative. As authors, it’s our job to both serve and challenge this motivation. In other words, your characters must be given the freedom to act against expectation. They should be allowed to reveal themselves as the action unfolds. We may be their creators, but fully formed characters should surprise us with their choices, their failings, and their triumphs.

Above all, do not judge your character. Instead, make every effort to understand his motivation. Then, as you’re writing, keep in mind that “Characters reveal themselves more vividly in what they do and say than in what they think and feel.” Consider the times you’ve written out an entire inner dialogue or bluntly described how a character is feeling. This veers into the territory of show vs. tell. Instead, use action and dialogue whenever possible to show us what makes your protagonist tick.

To close, I’ll share my favorite quote from The Art of Character: “This balancing act [between expectation and surprise] requires creating an initial impression of the character that feels coherent or whole, then shoving her through a doorway toward the unknown, into a gauntlet of trials and reversals, revelations and confusions, that will shred her familiar, coherent sense of self and transform her utterly.”

I learned more from this book on craft than from perhaps any other to date. It’s a resource that I will return to with every new project as I attempt to bring new characters to life.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

Character Authenticity: How to Nail Shut the Trap Doors in Your Story

Lack of character authenticity is the trap door of the literary world. Readers can be skipping along, humming cheerfully to themselves as they explore a lovely story and then whoosh! Down they go. Because a character did something inauthentic. Because suddenly, NOTHING MAKES SENSE ANYMORE.

You can have the most FLAWLESSLY crafted plotline in the whole history of bloody creation, but if character motivations and actions don’t line up, IT WILL ALL BE FOR NAUGHT.

I’m using a lot of caps-lock here so you know this is serious stuff.

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Main Character Inauthenticity:

This. Is. The. Worst. Sometimes, we get such a firm vision in our minds of how the story is supposed to go, we forgot that the plot isn’t the only path that needs to be followed.

Picture yourself as a builder of roads, except you’ve got to lay two roads at the exact same time: the plot road, and the character road. These roads should never diverge from each other, no matter how many obstacles your character comes up against. What we sometimes see is a straight plot road with the character road wibble-wobbling all over the place. Those wibble-wobbles are the places where your main character is making no sense whatsoever.

For instance: Despite having been a complete coward thus far, the main character runs toward the bloodcurdling scream. Out of curiosity. I’m sorry, but cowardly people do not run toward bloodcurdling screams. It’s not in our nature. True story. I actually heard one once. And no, I’m not proud of the fact that I froze, wondered if I should call 911, and then decided everything was okay when the screaming turned to laughter.

Someone might have been tickled to death because of me. I will carry that shame with me for the rest of my life.

Say you need your main character to run in that direction. Pause for a moment and consider what motivation would be required. Perhaps they have reason to believe someone they care about is doing the screaming? Perhaps they finally mastered their power and are ready to kick bad guy behinds now? Perhaps they think it’s a television set playing a favorite horror movie they’re keen to see? Whatever the reason—make it a good one.

Another example: Your main character decides to go somewhere with a hot stranger who’s giving off a dangerous vibe. I see this situation in a lot of fiction for teens and frankly, it ticks me off. Just because a teenage girl thinks a guy is hot, doesn’t mean she’s going to ignore the warning signs and toss aside all the advice her parents have been hammering into her head since she was three years old. She’s much more likely to play the “Stranger Danger” card and make a run for it.

It comes down to who your character is, how they were raised, what their basic beliefs are, and how they react in difficult situations. And don’t forget the crucial element of what’s happened in your story up to that point. A character who’s been put through the emotional wringer will react differently than one who’s had a pretty happy go of things so far.

Consider the emotional angles of each scene. People don’t always make sense, looking from the outside in. But if you’ve got a decently deep POV going on (something I highly recommend), your reader will be looking at the story from the inside, which makes emotional authenticity all the more crucial.

Secondary Character Inauthenticity:

Does your best friend/sidekick character blithely go along with whatever the main character says, seeming to possess no free will or independent thought of their own? Do the parents never worry about their teen’s whereabouts? Can your adult main character skip work without their boss making a stink?

I sometimes mollify myself with the thought that these secondary characters might turn out to be cyborgs, but I am almost always disappointed. Usually, they’re just cardboard cut-outs of the people they could have been if the author brought them to life properly. Thankfully, there are ways to avoid this:

  • If your main character says/does something dumb, have a secondary character call them on it. Real friends don’t let friends be stupid. Unless they’re super sadistic and like watching the inevitable fallout, of course. Which could make for fantastic
  • While your main character’s story arc is important, your secondary characters should have some input. They can make suggestions. Try and fail at things. They can grow pissed off at your main character for ignoring them due to their pursuit of the main goal. They have feelings and opinions of their own. We should see them.
  • Try writing a scene from a secondary character’s point of view. Visit the inside of their head for a while. Characters are the windows of your story. Open all of them!
  • You should know what your secondary character’s personal goals are. Even (and especially) if their main goal is to support the main character. They need to have a reason for sacrificing their time and energy. If their goal contradicts the main character’s goal at some point, all the better. This is where conflict is born.

Your reader doesn’t have to love the decisions your characters make, but they do need to understand them to a certain degree. All of your characters should be three dimensional, flawed human beings (unless you’re writing about aliens, in which case, more power to you). In other words, THEY SHOULD BE LIKE YOU (unless you are an alien, in which case, AWESOME. Let’s do lunch).

Nail shut the trap doors in your story. Build your roads as parallel to each other as you can. And don’t mix your metaphors the way I always do. It’s kind of lame.

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kimKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.

Being the Language Police

There is a cute cartoon I’ve seen that shows an old lady using spray paint to correct a billboard advertisement:

Got milk?

\She changes it. Have you got any milk?

An English teacher gone rogue. She’d had it with incorrect phrases like that.

But I feel her pain. I’m one of those people who winces when good and well are interchanged. Or when may and can get confused.

Case in point. One of my children will say, “Can I eat a cookie?”

My eyes grow wide and I speak in exaggerated tones. “Can you eat a cookie? Of course you can eat a cookie! You have muscles in your jaw and teeth in your mouth and if you chew it, you most certainly can eat a cookie.”

As you can imagine, I get an eye roll and an exasperated sigh.

May I have a cookie?” they say correctly.

“Oh, you are asking for permission? Yes. You may have a cookie. Thank you for asking.”

My husband has put up with this for twenty years, the poor man, and it might be cause for his canonization someday. He grew up in a home where English was a second language for each of his parents. His mom is from Germany and his dad is from Italy. Good and well are thrown about without distinction. I give them all a big pass, though. It’s infinitely easier to resort to good. Such a useful, all-around word.

He did good on his test.

Argh. Nails on the chalkboard to me.

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Early in our marriage, I’d correct him until I realized that there were bigger things to work on. Like who was going to do the dishes after dinner.

But two decades in, he knows me well. He can read my silence fluently. Apparently, as a mother knows the meanings of her infant’s different cries, he knows exactly what I’m thinking even as I keep my mouth shut.

He did well on his test, he’d correct, knowing that it was grating on me.

My proudest moments are when my family uses correct grammar. Really. My heart swells.

But I have an admission. I have my own trouble spots.

Lay and lie. I don’t know why, but for the life of me, these twist my brain into knots.

Did she lay on the bed or did she lie on the bed?

The axiom is People lie, things lay.

So I understand the rule, but I still have to think about it. Forty-one years into speaking the English language, I am repeatedly stopping myself and applying it so that I can say my sentences correctly.

My other nemesis is toward/towards. All my life, I have used the version with an “s” at the end. But after my edits on my last book, my overworked editor, who earned every cent she made on it, had a zillion corrections to point out about this very word. I was so embarrassed! I pride myself on having grammar down pat! I admire the book Eats Shoots and Leaves! I am a proponent of the Oxford comma! How could I have missed the boat so thoroughly on this one?

There is another rule in life. It says Pride goes before a fall.

All my years of correcting the grammar of my family caught up with me. I had pie on my face in front of my editor. My 7th grade English teacher was rolling over in her grave.

So the moral of the story?

If you’re going to sit on your high horse, you’ll have to make your bed and lay in it.

Lie in it.

Lay.

Lie.

Yea, lie.

Oh, and don’t overuse clichés. But that’s for another blog post on another day.

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unnamed Camille Di Maio is an award-winning real estate agent in San Antonio who, along with her husband of 19 years, enjoys raising their four children. She has a bucket list that is never-ending, and uses her adventures to inspire her writing. She loves finding goodies at farmers markets (justifying them by her support for local bakeries) and belts out Broadway tunes whenever the moment strikes. There’s almost nothing she wouldn’t try, so long as it doesn’t involve heights, roller skates, or anything illegal. “The Memory of Us” is Camille’s debut novel. Her second, “Before the Rain Falls” will be released on May 16, 2017.