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Creating Characters With Flaws, by Kashmira Sheth

When I was growing up I listened to the stories from the Indian epic Mahabharat. Even as a young child it struck me that the heroes were not perfect. They had their weaknesses just like anyone else.

When we write it is easy to identify with a person who possesses good qualities, so why create a main character with a flaw? Shouldn’t he or she be perfect in every way? Wouldn’t a reader want that?

We don’t have a perfect protagonist because it would be like trying to drink a glass full of sugar syrup: too sweet and utterly disgusting. Giving a hero flaws adds much to their personalities. In real life people are a mix of good and bad qualities, and when we mirror those qualities in our stories our readers identify with our characters more deeply and root for them. They worry about them and eagerly flip pages to make sure they are safe at the end.

Another advantage of creating such character is that they are engaging. They amuse and surprise us and sometimes ever make us cringe. If he has a quick temper he adds a fiery element to his dialogues when he is angry. His anger maybe short lived but his words can linger in reader’s mind. Our protagonist adds depth to her character when she can sting with her words, make the reader laugh with her sauciness or delight the reader with her cunningness. No simple, perfect protagonist can stand up to a character with a flawed personality.

The flaw or flaws we select for our characters demand care and sound reasoning. In YA novels our main characters are young. If our fifteen-year-old protagonist has smoldering anger there must be some reason for it. We must answer the question, “Why does he have so much anger?” It might be that he felt ignored and unloved because his older sister was brilliant and took up all his parents’ attention. It might be that his parents were busy fighting and had no time for him. Whatever the reason, we must know it so we feel grounded about our character’s past and understand his present.

The flaws we pick should become part of the story we’re writing. If the novel features a girl who is sassy and loud-mouthed, we could use those very same qualities to get her into trouble. During the course of the story, she may even overcome some of those flaws. However, it is not essential or even desirable to have our character grow out of all their shortcomings. Over the course of the story they grow and change, but in a believable way. They don’t turn completely perfect at the end.

Creating a character that is likable as well as flawed is essential to a story.

They are fun to write about and fun to spend time with. After all that is what we want.

***

Kashmira Sheth’s author website: www.kashmirasheth.com

Kashmira Sheth’s bio page

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My Tips For Writing Novels, by Pauline Francis

I don’t really have to write this post, do I? You could do it for me by now if you’ve been reading the others. But I’ll sum it up:

1. Read, read, read.

2. Write, write, write.

3. Write every day.

4. Always write down your ideas when you have them.

5. Never throw any of your work away. A short story might become a chapter in a novel.

6. Read your work aloud regularly for rhythm and tension.

7. Enter competitions whenever you have time.

8. Re-read authors who are most like you and try to work out why they are good.

9. Don’t be afraid to show your writing to somebody else for feedback.

10. Remember that others forms of writing can feed into your work: school essays, blogs, Facebook entries, diaries, letters/postcards will all tell you a lot about your style and genre. Why not volunteer to edit the school/college magazine for a term? Why not write/design posters? Why not take part in a school play/musical and help with the script?

I am a self-taught writer. I didn’t go to any creative writing classes. But I still had to learn my craft. I did it in two ways. At first, I just wrote. They were short manuscripts, with little re-drafting, which were all rejected. When I realised this was going to be a lengthy process – I’d gave up my job to be a full-time writer and there were bills to pay – I proposed a big project called Fast Track Classics to a publisher: I would abridge the classics for younger readers. This brought in a good income for many years. But the greatest benefit was reading great classics and seeing what made them endure and seeing why they might not be so popular with today’s young readers. I learned more about writing than at any other time in my life and I have great affection for these forty or so books.

I’ve also written many Readers for students learning English as a second language. They are graded at different levels, so I was restricted in vocabulary. This taught me what is essential in a novel: fast plot, strong characters set against interesting locations.

Everybody is capable of writing. But if you want to be published, you have to learn the skills, like any other job. You have to be patient. Think how long it takes to be the best gymnast, the best cyclist or the best piano player.

Of course the golden rule of good writing is SHOW – DON’T TELL. I didn’t put it on the list because I want to show this rule to you – not tell!  This is the magic that turns ordinary writing into something special.

This example below is from Raven Queen. Question: How can I describe Jane’s home (Bradgate House)? This paragraph is taken from the first draft (Jane is the narrator):

I lived at Bradgate House, a house built by my father’s father, Thomas Grey, who died when I was two years old. He used to boast that the forest beyond – Charnwood Forest – was big and that he’d laid water pipes from the stream to the house. The town of Leicester was about five miles to the east.

This would have sent my manuscript to the slush pile.

The final manuscript reads:

Visitors usually gasp with pleasure when they first arrive. It is thought to be one of the finest houses in Leicestershire; but Ned gazed past its red brick towers, past its gardens soon to be brimming with fruit and blossom, past the stream which fed water pipes to the kitchen – to the darkening trees beyond.
‘I like the forest best at dusk when birds cloud the sky,’ he said.
I glanced down at him. And now that he was standing closer to me, I no longer saw his tangled hair and grimy skin – only the smile that lit up his face.
Who was he?

Can you see what I’ve done? We see the house through a visitor’s eyes and it’s linked with an emotion that has already linked Jane with the stranger and leaves a question to be answered.

***

Paulines Francis’s author website: www.paulinefrancis.co.uk

Pauline Francis bio page

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Challenging Your Protagonist (Secrets Of Narrative Drive), by Sarah Mussi

I thought in this post I demonstrate how I harnessed all these secrets of narrative drive in Siege.

Here goes. Here’s the story concept (pitch style) that I sent to my editor (my comments in bold caps are for this post):

SIEGE

THE PLUG (THE ‘YOU MUST READ THIS’ FACTOR) 

 

A story for our times…

Of disintegration and carnage…

This is the beginning of the end…

SET THE TONE/PROVIDE A HOOK 

Teenagers long dissatisfied, out of control, seeing no future, respecting no one, feeling cheated, angry, mindless, feral…

…armed…

INTRODUCE THE ANTAGONIST AND WHAT IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN  

Siege is a disturbing YA novel, capturing the Zeitgeist and drawing its inspiration from our inner city schools.

Siege imagines an autumn term, when a bunch of Year 9 teens, tired of rebelling against the authorities, feeling belittled in a system that has already discarded them – disillusioned, humiliated and vengeful, decide to take power into their own hands, power and guns. Over one long day, they hold up a school with nothing more on their minds than revenging themselves on their peers who have always done better than them in class.

INTRODUCE THE STAKES AND WHY IT MATTERS TO THE CHARACTERS

Outside, anxious parents gather, news tycoons offer rewards, television cameras roll, sociologists try to rationalise, psychologists give opinions, the army stands by.

INTRODUCE THE PROTAGONIST, HER GOAL (SURVIVAL) AND IMMEDIATELY PUT HER IN JEOPARDY 

But can anyone really help Leah and Anton, hiding in the ceilings and air vents of YOU OP78 School, trying to feed themselves, trying to outwit their captors, trying to save some of the younger ones before the gang, the so called ‘Year 9 Eternal Knights’ finish their butchery?

PILE ON THE JEAPARDY AND THE DANGER 

… and Siege is only the beginning…

With unlimited access to the Internet, Damian the psycho leader of the Eternal Knights orders all the killings to be videoed on cell phone, or so it seems, and pasted in chat rooms and social websites. Soon the world is hooked as each killing is replayed a thousand times across the globe.

Like a real time Big Brother show, kids everywhere watch, horrified, mesmerised. Some try to hack into the system to close it down, others message in who they think should be killed next.

Soon there is a whole internet site dedicated to casting your vote on the next killing:  the Who, the How, the Why and the When.

Unable to intervene, a horrified nation watch as their future, their brightest and their best, are systematically butchered in front of their eyes by the rejects of our society: the hoodies, the dumbsters, the generation of wannabe gangsters and the bottom set kids.

FOCUS ACTION ON THE STORY GOAL AND DESCRIBE THE ACTIONS AND DECISIONS THE PROTAGONIST NEEDS TO TAKE TO ACHIEVE HER GOAL 

In a nail-biting narrative of unmitigated tension, that will have you scarcely daring to draw breath, you follow Leah’s story as she struggles to survive; struggles to help Ruby, an injured Year 7 girl; struggles to check out rooms for survivors; tries to carry out surveillance for the SAS as well as attempting to keep the world informed. But most of all, as she tries to figure out who and why and what she could have done to prevent it all from happening.

HINT AT DEEPER OBSTACLES THAN THE PRESENCE OF THE ANTAGONISTS 

There are no easy answers, for finally Leah must face her own role in the tragedy. She must struggle comes to terms with what might have happened to her brother, Connor: a brother she both hates and loves and is fiercely loyal to.  Is it partly her fault? Could she have changed anything?

Seige is tale of horror, bravery, sacrifice and savagery, and as it unfolds, it will change the way you see teenagers forever.

The above is part of the actual premise pitch I prepared to show my editor. Of course it changed somewhat between that and the book but the core elements of Narrative Drive remained the same.

So what next? Well to recap where I left off in post nine – the decisions of the protagonist are driving the action of the story and efforts to overcome obstacles to the story goal are initially unsuccessful. This failure to reach the story goal creates conflict and tension. So if conflict is the desire of the protagonist to pursue his motivation towards his goal despite obstacles, then the stakes are raised. The stakes are what happens to the protagonist if they succeed or fail.  They are the whips that drive him forward. In Siege the stakes are very serious. Life and death are at stake. Stakes show that things matter in the story.

Secrets of Narrative Drive

Secret Number 10

drum roll…  tada!

The strength of a story and therefore its appeal to readers lies in how much it challenges the protagonist. 

Why? Because challenges supply the powerful obstacles needed to arouse a reader’s interest.

So how you can use this secret? 

  • Make sure your antagonist is much stronger than your protagonist
  • Make sure each obstacle and challenge is significant and looks like the end of the line for your protagonist.

WATCH OUT FOR THE ELEVENTH SECRET OF NARRATIVE DRIVE COMING UP IN MY NEXT POST

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Sarah Mussi’s author website: www.sarahmussi.com

Sarah Mussi’s bio page

***

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Creating A Realistic Story World, by Andy Briggs

I think we’ve all read a book or watched a film and been immersed in a story that had fascinating characters and a plot that takes you on a rollercoaster ride, but you still felt strangely empty once you reached the end. Perhaps that was because the world inhabited by the characters felt flat and slightly unreal. The details were missing.

Personally, I’m a huge believer in research. I read, watch and absorb as much as I can when writing a story. I talk to people who may have had similar experiences to those my characters are about to endure and I travel the world to experience the locations.

The internet is a vast research tool and I use it extensively – but there are many other avenues you should take, because the Internet is just the tip of the research iceberg. Whatever you read on several pages of Wikipedia may give you a basic understanding of the subject but there are probably many books on the same topic, each hundreds of pages long, that give you a deeper insight. They present you the details that could bring your story to life.

I have stood on the edge of an active volcano in the name of research. You can pretty much imagine what it was like – and I could use those obvious details in my story but it wouldn’t challenge your imagination. Things like the smell, the effect it had on me physically, the taste the gases left in my mouth and the soundscape around me all add up to a more detailed picture. These details often stick in a reader’s mind.

Naturally, if your story is about the 15-year-old king of a fantasy epic, then it is difficult to research that and you could write pretty much anything you like. But, again, it’s the details that matter. If you invent things, make them stick in the reader’s imagination. Look at Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books – a flat word on the back of four giant elephants, carried through space on the back of a giant turtle is very memorable. Oddly, what makes those stories work is not only the wild concepts that imprint on your imagination but the familiarity of it all. The Discworld has its quirks but we can all relate to it. The characters in the books may be wizards or trolls but they all have relatable details that draw us closer to a character or story.

If your story is set in the real world, try to visit the locations. I recently enjoyed reading an adventure thriller. The story took me in unexpected places that I desperately wanted to experience for myself and I turned the pages eager to know how things would resolve. Then the story led the characters to the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, a place I had recently been to – but apparently the author had not. I spent the rest of the chapter thinking – no, that’s wrong. That’s not at all what it’s like. How did that happen there?

I was yanked out of the story with such force that the rest of the book felt very lackluster and it made me suddenly question what other falsehoods the author had thrown at me. The author had broken a bond of trust. This detail would have passed over most readers, but for me it ruined a perfectly good book. Perhaps a chapter I enjoyed would have had another reader thrown off track – all because of a tiny bit of poor research.

For me, poor research is akin to insulting your readers. Never treat your audience as fools, especially because most of the time there are readers already a step ahead of you…

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Andy Briggs’s author website: www.andybriggs.co.uk

Andy Briggs’s bio page

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I Was A Teenage Artist, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

I’ll dive right in and start this series of articles on teen writing by introducing myself, some of my work, and give a little insight as to how I got here, seeing as I was once a teenager myself. So, my name is Stephen Emond, I live in Connecticut, and I am a Young Adult author. My first book, Happyface, came out in 2010, my second book Winter Town came out in late 2011, and right now I’m wondering how I managed to write two books in such quick succession, because this third one is not going so smoothly! Before Happyface, I’d written and drawn a series of comic books for SLG Publishing called Emo Boy, which are collected in two volumes. And before that…

Despite having been first published in my late twenties, I’ve always thought of myself as an artist and storyteller. When I was 5 years old and sleeping over my grandparents house, I needed to have paper and crayons with me. I was always “the artist,” even when my drawings were wobbly circles with L’s for legs. In high school I’d gotten into comic books – the early 90’s were all about Image comics and Marvel comics for me, and I very much wanted to draw my own. I filled sketchbooks with doodles of my own characters and on rare occasions tried writing up worlds for them to exist in, and stories of hitting the streets to take down punks. These were not great stories.

Stephen Emond comic book art

In my senior year, I was drawing cartoons for the school newspaper, still nothing great, but I was “THE ARTIST!” now, with exclamation point! Even when I wasn’t good I had some kind of aura that said, “This kid’s the artist,” and aside from the occasional comment on how I gave everyone duck feet, it was just accepted that I was the artist. I think it was less about how well I could draw (or not) but more for the fact that I was always doing it. By graduation, as a gift for my circle of friends, I made a twenty-page book of comic strips that featured the few of us as characters. The art in these was still awful, and the characters infuriated my friend Mike with their lack of mouths and noses.

Stephen Emond - Steverino comic book art

The take away from this is that even though the art wasn’t great, I got a great joy from doing these things. Despite the brevity of your average comic strip, it was a way for me to communicate in a way I wasn’t always comfortable with in person. For me, drawing, and, I’ll add writing as a way for me to have something to draw, was a way of escape – it was a fantasy world I could escape to. But more than that, it was a bridge, a way for me to communicate, to explain who I am, what I’m like, and what I think about.

When people write to sell a hit book or make a ton of money or get famous, I shake my head. I think, more than wanting to create, you should need to do it – you should get a great enjoyment from it. Because I loved making those comic strips, and when Mike suggested I keep doing them and send them to our friends in college, I leapt at the chance. And every month for years I’d send out a pamphlet of new cartoons, new storylines, new ideas, and slowly I began to get better. Each month I struggled to learn from the last batch of cartoons and improve. I began sending my comic strips to newspaper syndicates, and as the editors there got used to my submissions, they began to watch my growth and offer feedback. Within a year or two I had communications with editors at most of the 6 main syndicates, even though I wasn’t ready for publication yet. It was all about learning and growing still.

In 1999 I won a national cartooning award, and in 2004 I had the idea for Emo Boy. By then I’d written enough comics to pull off a 24-page story. And in 2008 when I met my editor at Little, Brown Books For Young Readers, I’d written enough comics that I was comfortable in tackling a book.

I’ll close with take away #2: you’re never too young to start. It happens that occasionally someone later in life randomly decides to write a novel and has a hit with it but, for me and for a lot of creators I know, getting published is just a step on the way – and it’s usually not the first step. It’s a culmination of experiences, observations, short stories, poems, notebooks of ideas. It was for me, at least.

In my next article I’ll talk a bit more about Happyface and how else my teenaged self inspired the story. Until then!

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Stephen Emond’s author website: www.stephenemond.com

Stephen Emond’s bio page

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To Write Better, Read More, by Diane Lee Wilson

I believe that every novelist strives to become a better writer, and I find that the craft of writing is improved by reading. So with that in mind, here are a few suggestions:

Read Literature. I’m VERY particular of what I read for pleasure while I’m working on a novel—especially if I’m just starting out and still trying to identify voice and mood and pacing. That’s because I find that whatever I’m reading at night invariably influences my writing the next morning. If my chosen author uses long sentences with many descriptive clauses, I find myself fitting more words between my periods. If the mood of my previous night’s read was somber then my characters tend to mope a bit. So, as peculiar as this may sound, I now go so far as to select for my personal reading a literary quality novel that A) is told in the same viewpoint as the one I’m writing; i.e., first-person narrative if I’m writing in first-person and so on; and B) one that is written in a style to which I aspire.

Now, I know that I am not going to create a Pulitzer-winning novel with my current work, but I’m happy to be inspired by one. Beautiful writing and great storytelling move me to produce. We write, after all, because we love language and stories, right? So choose to read the best books that you can and hope that osmosis works for literary talent.

Read Everything. Stay creatively inspired by reading anything and everything. You never know where you’ll find inspiration for your teen novel. It might be a newspaper article about a rising teen athlete and the challenges he/she combats. An essay in an historical magazine might prompt you to research an interesting teen from an earlier time. A random quote in an on-line publication might prompt you to say: My character would think that same way, and that might send your story in a different direction.

Also read for style. Personally, I love reading any column by a talented sports writer. In a limited amount of space I’m presented with intense drama, vivid language and fascinating personalities. I once again fall in love with the art of writing. I also enjoy perusing essays on the opinion pages of my newspaper where I’m reminded how to write passionately as well as succinctly.

Read Aloud. Sometimes hearing your words voiced helps you critique your work. So, when you’ve finished a chapter and polished it to your very best, let it sit for a day or two, then pull it out and read it aloud. And listen—hard—as you’re reading. Is the magic there? Are you drawn into the story? Are there places where you could improve the writing? Be hard on yourself; where can you make it better?

Read with a Group. Sharing your writing with a group of fellow writers isn’t effective for everyone, but I’ve been in a small group (just three of us) for fifteen years and I find value in two ways. First, I’m accountable. I have to produce. Typically my group meets every two weeks for about ninety minutes. We each email the other two members a chapter (or more) a day or two in advance of the set meeting. Then, after a short “catch-up chat” over coffee, we begin critiquing each other’s work. And here’s the second value: I receive two independent opinions of what I’ve written. Those opinions aren’t always aligned, but I can trust my two co-writers to be honest, and to keep me on my game. I’ve sometimes presented a chapter that I thought was pretty darn good, only to have them both tell me otherwise. Harsh reviews are never easy, but it’s much better to receive them in the early stages of a novel rather than to send a completed manuscript to an editor and have it rejected. Reading my work with my group makes me a better writer.

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Diane Lee Wilson author site: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson bio page

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