On Teaching

“He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” –George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

We’ve all heard this phrase before, often times in jest. I’ve spent most of my life as a teacher of some kind, from working at a tutoring center to teaching high school algebra and even homeschooling my kids for 11 years. In fact I’d guess that most people have taught in one form or another many times, whether at church or school or within their own families.

There is currently a severe teacher shortage across the nation. It’s no secret teachers don’t get paid much and are often underappreciated, but the shortage is so bad there are salary wars and schools scrambling to get anyone in the door so they have someone to sit in the classroom, no matter their credentials or lack thereof. There are also many college incentive programs and scholarships for those pursuing teaching to help counteract this education crisis we’re facing.

Why the abandonment of teaching? Some of the greatest minds in history were also teachers: Aristotle, Galileo, Mozart, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Stephen Hawking. They didn’t just research or study. They didn’t just write and publish. They also taught.

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In recent years a lot of the teaching I do is about writing at either conferences or schools. Though far from an expert, my brief experience and study of the writing craft is sometimes valuable information for others, and I enjoy encouraging aspiring authors to keep learning and moving forward. After all, I was in their shoes just a few short years ago, and it was the help of other authors who encouraged me to do the same.

Writers are some of the most giving people in the world, often sacrificing their time and expertise to teach and help those who want to write as well. But I often notice that at a certain point in their careers, some authors will stop teaching or interacting with aspiring writers altogether. I am 100% behind the idea of protecting one’s time and energy, something that becomes much more precious the busier we get. I am no stranger to saying no when I can’t help, but I think that amongst all the no’s, there should be an occasional yes. It would be a sad thing if those who can teach, just do.

I am in awe of those writers around me who give so freely to aspiring authors. They teach and they support and they uplift and they encourage. I would have quit this writing gig years ago if it weren’t for people like them. As we enter writing conference season, I would encourage everyone to thank those teachers and editors and behind-the-scenes helpers you run into for what they’ve given so freely, solely motivated by their love of writing. I’d also encourage authors to find an opportunity to say yes, especially if it’s been a while since you’ve taught others along their writing path.

Because I believe that those who can do, teach.

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Ilima Todd was born and raised on the north shore of Oahu and currently resides in the Rocky Mountains. She never wanted to be a writer even though she loves books and reading. She earned a degree in physics instead. But the characters in her head refused to be ignored, and now she spends her time writing science fiction for teens. Ilima is the author of the REMAKE series (Simon Pulse/Shadow Mountain) and is represented by Lane Heymont of The Seymour Agency. When she is not writing, Ilima loves to spend time with her husband and four children.

Needy Characters

One of the most important things you will do for any story you write is make your character needy. No, I’m not saying your character should be poor. And they don’t have to be clingy or insecure and requiring attention 24-7. I mean your character has to have a need. Or a purpose or a goal.

Make sure your reader knows what your character needs. Harry needs to stop Voldemort. Katniss needs to protect her sister. Juliet needs Romeo. For every story, you start with a character and a need.

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Having your character wake up, get ready for the day, eat breakfast, go to school, get bored in class, eat lunch, etc. is going to get really boring really fast. If we don’t know what your character wants, there is nothing there to motivate her. There’s no reason for her to do anything.

Even if you throw in a plane crash or a devastating natural disaster, or pull your character along in an epic adventure, your reader is not going to care if they don’t know what is important to your character. But if your character needs to make amends with her father before he dies, a crash or storm stopping her from getting to him in time makes those events matter—because we know her need, which gives her motivation to go through the events.

It’s good for your character to have both an abstract need and a concrete need. Perhaps your character wants to feel loved, or wants to survive. Those are great abstract needs (which will motivate her) but they are hard to show on the page, which is where the concrete need comes in. For example, to reflect a need to survive, a concrete goal could be that your character needs to find a bag of rice in the abandoned Walmart to feed her younger siblings. That is easy to show.

So now your character has a clear goal(s). Next step is to make your reader support that goal. The easiest way to do that is to make that goal a noble one. You’re more likely to follow a character who wants to save the orphans, not destroy them all. Also just a note here that those goals can change, and the goal your character starts out with at the beginning doesn’t have to be the main goal of the story. But within every scene or chapter, there should be something your character is working towards.

Your character has a need that motivates her actions, both abstract and concrete, and it’s noble. The rest of the story is easy…just make sure she doesn’t get it. Throughout the course of the story, it should become more and more difficult to obtain, seemingly impossible, until the end when she either gets it, or realizes she doesn’t need it anymore. These obstacles that you place in your character’s way are what drive your story. You’ve probably heard the line about how you should chase your character up a tree and throw rocks at him. Go ahead and throw everything you’ve got at him, and you’ll have a fantastic story.

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Ilima Todd was born and raised on the north shore of Oahu and currently resides in the Rocky Mountains. She never wanted to be a writer even though she loves books and reading. She earned a degree in physics instead. But the characters in her head refused to be ignored, and now she spends her time writing science fiction for teens. Ilima is the author of the REMAKE series (Simon Pulse/Shadow Mountain) and is represented by Lane Heymont of The Seymour Agency. When she is not writing, Ilima loves to spend time with her husband and four children.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

In real life, people don’t always say what they mean. It doesn’t mean they’re lying or even in denial. Sometimes characters think they’re telling the truth, or sometimes they don’t know the truth. Maybe they’re just not comfortable expressing the truth.

In a work of fiction, there are the words themselves and the truth behind the words. There is the text and the subtext. Subtext is what’s not being said. It’s the implicit, not explicit. Much of the subtext of a story is revealed through actions that characters make, whether simple gestures or big events. Actions tell the truth, even if the words themselves lie.

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Look at a character’s gestures. Sometimes they’re made on purpose; sometimes they’re unconscious. Small movements can be telling of what’s really going on in the character’s head. Like if they clean their gun slowly and methodically, or if they simply close their eyes when someone is speaking to them. Sometimes gestures contradict the words. Someone on the verge of being caught doing something wrong could act nonchalant, but the nails of his fingers bite into his palm as he makes a fist behind his back.

Every week I get together with one of my critique partners at a local café for a writing day. Once, there was a couple in the booth next to us that I couldn’t help watching. The girl kept trying to snuggle up next to her boyfriend. While he let her come close, he eventually leaned away, then scooted away, and even turned his shoulders away from her and crossed his arms. His body language said it all—he did not want to be close to her.

Sometimes people speak with their hand over their mouth. It could mean they’re insecure or aren’t sure about what they’re saying. Or maybe your character walks several steps behind the rest of his group of friends. Does he want to disassociate from them, or does he feel he doesn’t deserve to be with them? So much can be said just with body language.

Characters can tell us about a situation by their pace and rhythm. Do they act quickly? With energy? That could mean they want to get something over with, or maybe they’re running from something. Do they move slowly? Hesitantly? Do they linger, savoring a moment? Their speed alone can tell us so much.

Many people have behaviors that are habits, often times bad habits. If one of your characters is always late, it could be subtext for a number of things. Maybe they’re not good at organization or planning. Maybe they don’t care about anyone else, or they’re lying about where they’ve been. Do they like making an entrance and being the center of attention? It could even mean someone is young or uneducated and doesn’t know how to read a clock. Some other habits could be having superstitions, clenching teeth while sleeping, or always standing close to an exit. Most habits have a backstory and can inform us about the character.

We can often understand what is really going on by the choices characters make. For example in the movie AVATAR, Jake’s and the Colonel’s objective seem to be the same: to find a diplomatic solution to gaining the unobtanium from the Na’vis. But when we read into the subtext as the movie progresses, and the decisions each character makes, we learn the Colonel wants to blow them away, and Jake wants the opposite—to become one of them. Think of the first time Jake becomes an Avatar and experiences being able to run again. His excitement plants those first seeds of subtext of what Jake’s true objective will be.

Whether through gestures, body language, habits, decisions, or rhythm and pace, choose your character’s actions carefully, because it’s through the subtext of those actions that the truth of your story will be revealed. And actions speak louder than words.

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Ilima Todd was born and raised on the north shore of Oahu and currently resides in the Rocky Mountains. She never wanted to be a writer even though she loves books and reading. She earned a degree in physics instead. But the characters in her head refused to be ignored, and now she spends her time writing science fiction for teens. Ilima is the author of the REMAKE series (Simon Pulse/Shadow Mountain) and is represented by Lane Heymont of The Seymour Agency. When she is not writing, Ilima loves to spend time with her husband and four children.

Create Something

The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul. -Dieter F. Uchtdorf

This quote has been resonating with me as of late and is the theme of one of my current writing projects. I love to create. It could be sewing a dress for my daughter, cooking up a new Thai dish, or decorating a room in my house. In every case it’s: here, look, I made this. There’s just something about creating something from raw materials that brings out my happy gene.

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My children have it too. One would draw and color all night long if we let her and another spends hours building with legos and raiding our recycling bin for robot-building materials. One child films the most amazing stop-motion videos and plans to be an inventor when he grows up. My oldest is a piano virtuoso who composes music so beautiful I literally cry listening to her play—she plans on writing film scores for a living. If you can’t tell, I’m pretty proud of my little creative lot, which makes me realize parents feel this yearning too. Being proud of our kids is like saying: here, look, I made this.

Which brings me to writing. I think it may be the most ideal medium for creation. We create characters, conflict, entire worlds…there are no limits to what we can make. And a good writer leaves enough room for readers to fill in gaps with their own ideas and imaginings, letting them become creators in their own right. And when we finish that story, we can’t help but want others to share in our joy: here, look, I made this. It just feels so good.

So my challenge for you today is to create something and find joy in the process of creating it. 🙂

Do you have that yearning to create? What’s your favorite ‘creation’?

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Ilima Todd was born and raised on the north shore of Oahu and currently resides in the Rocky Mountains. She never wanted to be a writer even though she loves books and reading. She earned a degree in physics instead. But the characters in her head refused to be ignored, and now she spends her time writing science fiction for teens. Ilima is the author of the REMAKE series (Simon Pulse/Shadow Mountain) and is represented by Lane Heymont of The Seymour Agency. When she is not writing, Ilima loves to spend time with her husband and four children.

Narrative Modes

There are so many ways to tell the same story, and sometimes it gets overwhelming deciding how to do it.

First, you’ve got points of view. In a nutshell:

  • First person: I, we
  • Second person: you
  • Third person: he, she

Then you can have alternating POVs in the same story. And if your narrator is a character, he/she doesn’t even have to be the protagonist, either. Yipes.

Next, you have to decide if the reader gets to know the internal thoughts of the narrator.

Is the narrator an actual character in the story? And is he/she reliable or unreliable? Oh, boy. You could even unfold the story via documents like letters or diary entries.

And of course if you choose a third person point of view, you must decide if the narrator will be objective (unbiased) or subjective—conveying the thoughts of the characters. If subjective, will it be limited where the narrator only knows what one character is thinking, or omniscient where he knows everyone’s thoughts. Why not take it a step further…universal omniscient—the narrator knows things even the characters don’t know. Um…

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After you’ve sorted through that whole mess, you’re not done. Oh no. Now choose your narrative time: past tense, present tense, or future tense.

Of course, this is all assuming you already know your target audience (MG, YA, adult, etc.) and genre (sci-fi, romance, mystery, etc.) and that you’ve nailed that all elusive “voice” needed to make your book stand out.

But wait, are you sure you want to go with fiction to tell your story? Maybe you want to try non-fiction, poetry, a song, painting, or even *gasp* an interpretive dance.

Now even I’m confused.

After trying out several different combinations, I’ve discovered I’m very comfortable writing YA sci-fi novels told in first person present tense with a good cabbage patch or sprinkler dance move thrown in for good measure. You can read about why I prefer this narrative mode here, but I’ve tried just about every combination under the sun. For me, the story usually dictates how I should tell it, and it might take me several attempts to find the arrangement that feels right. But when I do, everything seems to click and the story flows much easier.

What’s your preferred narrative mode?
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Ilima Todd was born and raised on the north shore of Oahu and currently resides in the Rocky Mountains. She never wanted to be a writer even though she loves books and reading. She earned a degree in physics instead. But the characters in her head refused to be ignored, and now she spends her time writing science fiction for teens. Ilima is the author of the REMAKE series (Simon Pulse/Shadow Mountain) and is represented by Lane Heymont of The Seymour Agency. When she is not writing, Ilima loves to spend time with her husband and four children.

How to Hook your Reader

One of my favorite things to write is the very first line of a novel. It’s also the hardest thing I write.

Why is that first line so important?

The purpose of the first line of a story is to get you to read the next line. And the purpose of the first paragraph is to get you to read the next paragraph. The purpose of the first page? First chapter? It’s always to get you to keep reading. That’s why these firsts are so important. If a reader doesn’t like that first line, or in other words if the reader isn’t hooked, what are the chances they will keep reading?

Not only do you have to hook the reader in your first line, you need to grab them at all those points in which they’re likely to put down the book, such as a scene change, the start of a new chapter or section, or a point of view switch.

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Have you ever seen those ads on social media that say something along the lines of, This man tried to hug a lion; you won’t believe what happens next!? It’s total click bait, and you don’t want to do that in your writing. It’s bad form. You shouldn’t have to trick your reader into turning the page, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hook them.

A hook isn’t about holding back information to get the reader to keep reading, because that can get annoying really fast. It’s about revealing information at the right time. I personally believe if your point-of-view character knows something, the reader should too…or at least he better know it very soon. 

Try to start your book as late as possible. Sometimes after you have written your story, you may need to go back and cut-cut-cut until you reach the right moment to begin. The reader doesn’t need to know the detailed background of your character or world before you introduce the conflict or plot. You can weave those elements in as needed and ensure your reader will not get bored right at the start.

Try to begin each scene as late as possible as well. Writers often get caught up in trying to describe everything a character does. They wake up, brush their teeth, use the toilet, etc. It’s okay to leave those things out. The reader will assume your character eats his meals; you don’t need to describe it each time. Only include what’s pertinent to the story.

Take a look at this example of the start of a novel:

  • Charlie opens his eyes and sits up in bed. The red and blue comforter his mom bought him for Christmas is bunched at his feet, wrinkled with a drool stain on one side. He desperately needs to wash it, but that’ll have to wait until after school. After stretching his arms and yawning, he shakes his head out and slips out of bed, shuffling to the bathroom. He runs the water at the sink and splashes his face to wake himself up, then squeezes a glop of toothpaste onto his electric toothbrush. The bristles have started to splay, an indication of his brushing method more than the length of time he’s used it. After brushing and rinsing out his mouth, Charlie reaches for the hand towel to dry off, then glances up at the mirror and gasps at his reflection. He can’t believe what he’s seeing—the state of what he’s become. Not again, he thinks.

Does that start hook you? Does it make you want to read more of the story? Maybe. The writing isn’t terrible, and it gives us a little insight into the character. But it’s kind of boring, at least until the last line. But then it dives into a bit of that click-bait we talked about earlier—a trick to get the reader to turn the page.

Now take a look at this version of a start from the exact same novel:

  • Charlie’s shoulders slump in defeat when he realizes he’s dead. Again.

Which example hooks you better? Which version makes you more likely to turn the page? I think most readers would choose the second example. It’s void of click-bait and starts later in the story without unneeded backstory. Remember, holding back information doesn’t necessarily make a good hook. In this instance, it’s the revealing of the information that makes you want to keep reading.

Your first page should be an effective blend of character, story, setting, action, and a hint of conflict. How to write a first page is an entire post (or several) in itself, but remember that you don’t want to bog the reader down with any one of these elements. Instead, ‘hook’ the reader with those elements with a promise of more.

What are some of your favorite hooks?
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Ilima Todd was born and raised on the north shore of Oahu and currently resides in the Rocky Mountains. She never wanted to be a writer even though she loves books and reading. She earned a degree in physics instead. But the characters in her head refused to be ignored, and now she spends her time writing science fiction for teens. Ilima is the author of the REMAKE series (Simon Pulse/Shadow Mountain) and is represented by Lane Heymont of The Seymour Agency. When she is not writing, Ilima loves to spend time with her husband and four children.