Writing Shortcuts: (Part 4) Characters

This is the fourth post in the Writing Shortcuts mini series where I discuss all the things I learned in the second draft that I wish I had known (and done right!) during the first draft of my current WIP. Check out post #1 and #2 (setting) and #3 (pacing) to catch up!

Apparently everyone in the world besides me knew about this handy little writing trick. Even the non-writers of the world (I polled a few, so it might be an unreliable sample) knew. And when I mentioned my mind-blowing, brilliant, life-changing writing idea to them, even the non-writers paused and stared at me like I was crazy. “. . .  you don’t already do that?” some asked. “Doesn’t every writer do that?” others asked, inevitably referencing some world-famous writer who had admitted to the practice in an interview/magazine article/memoir.

Apparently, this is obvious to the logical people of the world.

But in case some of you out there never had this idea occur to you before (like me) and (like me) just go at a manuscript and writewritewrite 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 words with no real character knowledge, just kind of expecting each word to get you a little closer to the character having life breathed into them, I have news for you:

Characters back stories are the most amazing thing in the world.

Character back stories are a get-to-know you opportunity. They’re generally only one or two pages long and in them they include first impression information (what you’d notice right away if you met them for the first time), self-introduction information (the quick-and-dirty sort of elevator speech every person has when introducing themselves to someone you want to get to know. Think back to how you introduced yourself to your college roommate), and the deep dark stuff you’d only pull out of someone past 2:00 am when you’re laying on a trampoline together, staring up at the stars, and talking about life.

These back story write-ups were inspired by MG/YA authors Kit Grindstaff and Jennifer Hubbard, who gave this great session at the NJ SCBWI conference back in April that completely rocked my world. It was about dirty little secrets. About how important it is to know those secret, dark things about each of your characters. Only once you understood them like that, could you then throw them on the page, like I had been blindly doing, and expect any magic to percolate.

After reading the first draft and giving the first few chapters to a critique partner, I knew one of the greatest weaknesses of the manuscript–and one I didn’t yet know how to fix–was the main character. She was the most important person in the book, by definition, especially because I was writing the book in first person, but she almost barely existed. She had no personality and was overshadowed by the much clearer secondary characters. I was having her do all these things and say all these words, but she was not a fleshed out person with flaws and feelings and fears, and it was really obvious that I just didn’t understand what made this character tick. What was her motivation? Her favorite things to do in her free time?

I came up with nada.

The other characters were also pretty flat, so I systematically began approaching each character with a homework assignment: each one had to have this entire form filled out completely and satisfactorily before I could dive into revisions.


[Full name, occupation]

Motivated by: [i.e., truth, justice, fear, guilt, secret crush, etc.]

Instant description words: [i.e., adventurous, devoted, controlling, bubbly, lone wolf, etc.]

Biggest mistake ever made in life: [usually a flashback memory scene to a regret]

Biggest obstacle: [The thing the character finds most challenging, the thing they’re constantly trying to work on. Example: needing to fit in, mending a frayed relationship with a loved one, getting over fear of heights]

Least likeable quality: [Flaws are so much more illuminating of a character than why I like them. This question helped me figure out that one character was meek to a fault, for example. If I had just focused on her likeable qualities, I would have had a pretty flat character who was friendly, polite, and a loyal friend. But with that meekness shining through, she has an added depth and becomes more real.]

These are the basic things I always answer. A lot of other stuff gets written down and crossed out and doodled, but these are the bare bones I need to understand every character’s personal history. I write these out by hand, so they’re pretty much a hot mess of scribbles in a notebook that only I can decipher.

It took me about two weeks to do a character sketch for each of the secondary characters. I learned a lot of things I didn’t know about each one. But I kept returning to that blank page for my main character. I’d jot down ideas, tid-bits of the main character’s history, anything to get to know her better.

After a few weeks and a lightbulb moment thanks to a brainstorming session with my sister, I finally finished her character sketch. I understood her. I got her. And it made revising her scenes, her dialogue, her actions, and writing new scenes for her so much easier. I was able to edit away all the crap in the first draft that, it was very clear to me now, was simply not this character’s MO. If only I had done these character sketches to begin with, before I ever started the first draft! Writing that entire first draft over the course of about four months didn’t help me get to know the characters better. I wandered through that world and through that plotline as lost as any of my characters. It wasn’t an effective method for me. The characters just foundered for pages upon pages and even when I wrote “The End,” I was still lost.

Lesson learned? Always write character sketches for each and every character before the first scene they appear in. It’ll help make them consistent and it’ll help the scenes write themselves. Now, off to squeeze in some character sketches to prepare for the secret NaNoWriMo project…!! I can’t wait to spend the month practicing writing a speedy and much better first-draft process! Join me?

Writing Shortcuts (Part 3): Pacing

This is the third post in the Writing Shortcuts mini series where I discuss all the things I learned in the second draft that I wish I had known (and done right!) during the first draft. Check out post #1 and #2 (setting) to catch up!

While reading through the first draft, I slowly came to realize how uneven the days of the week were. The plot spanned across the course of six days. Nearly 40 percent of the book happened on Day #1. (!!!) Other days got as little as 5 percent of the grand total page count. (This was partly a symptom of my speed-writing need. I get really excited about a story idea during a first draft and want to get to the end so badly that I write only the barest of bones. I just want to write “The End” ASAP…and scenes, chapters, and entire day’s worth of events get increasingly shorter as a result.)

Something that would have REALLY helped me during the drafting process to slow down my writing pace and, as a result, create a manuscript that had better story pacing, would have been a calendar.

Like this one.

Plotting Calendar

Plotting calendar. Magical tool for measured pacing!

Once I read through the first draft, I bullet-pointed the scenes on the calendar. That’s when I started seeing the holes. Literally. Huge, gaping holes. Seeing it laid out like that, I realized that one day only had one scene: a random conversation that happened during the evening. Then, cut scene, the next day! Seeing all these holes was like instant inspiration to dig in and start fleshing out the story. I started envisioning the characters interacting together–these were detailed visions I was itching to get on paper–in scenes that didn’t yet exist in the draft, but which I knew HAD to happen and would fit in those holes perfectly. The calendar helped me see a lot of scenes that I should have written during the first draft but was too rushed to give them the time and attention they deserved.

So, lesson learned? Always have a calendar for a first draft. (A lesson learned just in time for NaNoWriMo! Anybody else doing it? Friend me!)

Writing Shortcuts (Part 2): Getting Setting Right the First Time

Attention! This post was graciously sponsored by Grammarly. (Thanks Grammarly!!) I use Grammarly for proofreading because, as I’m sure all the zombies in the crowd will agree, two sets of eyeballs are better than one! (Is anyone else as excited for Halloween as I am?!)

Now, onto our regularly scheduled program: writing shortcuts, first drafts, and setting.

This map of Philadelphia State Hospital campus (the first photo that appears in my book) served as a basis for my fictional setting.

By now, I’m pretty confident you’re all aware of the existence of my first book. I’ve talked about it once or twice. It’s a book defined by place, about a place. Set broadly in America, on the outskirts of a major northern city, more specifically on a 1,165-acre property with 124 buildings, the place served as the focus, the setting, and the main character rolled all into one. Place and setting defined every word that appeared in the narrative. If a photograph wasn’t taken of the place or on the place, then the photograph didn’t need to appear in the story.

So what does this have to do with writing the first draft of a fiction manuscript? With fiction-writing shortcuts and nailing the setting the first time around?

A lot actually.

After spending eight months researching and reading and sorting through hundreds of photographs from hundreds of angles and time periods, I knew that place inside and out. I was intimate with its secret hallways, underground passages, the mundane chores that occurred behind every single closed door. The world was pre-built, so to speak, and my imagination was free to run wild through it.

As a result, little fragments started popping into my head, all set in the same place, on those same hospital grounds: It was a collection of what ifs? and characters and love stories and dark secrets and complicated family trees. Once I turned in the non-fiction manuscript on deadline, I dove head-first into this new story that was a product of my own imagination.

Except for the setting. The setting already existed. It was real and solid and the perfect base for all the action that was happening on its surface, in its forest, on its rooftops.

The setting gave birth to the stories, the characters, the plotlines that started to creep across the page. It defined the characters’ personalities, their fears, their actions, their memories.

In manuscripts I’ve attempted before this, setting was an afterthought, overshadowed by the characters and the plotline. It was something I defined in only the broadest of strokes: City or the country? Year? Season? Done.

This thoughtless method developed landscapes with random trees and floating rooms that didn’t connect to a house and roads wandering around in my fictional world, unconnected, unclear, confusing. Sometimes, reading through these drafts I would end up pulling my hair, wanting to scream “WHERE ARE WE?!” and “THIS DOESN’T MAKE SENSE!” and “Now the fireplace is in the MIDDLE of the room?! In the last scene it was by the DOOR!”

Remember those books you read growing up that had maps? Fantasy books with brand new worlds and countries and mysterious dark places? I love those and I think every single story needs them. They might not need them printed on the endpapers, but every author needs that cheat-sheet map during the drafting process. When writing the first draft of my manuscript, I ended up getting a chapter in and then stopping to draw down a map, to make sure the things always stayed in the same place, consistently from scene to scene, to have a master reference instead of making it up as I went along. (I was thinking about sharing my own hand-drawn map, but it’s so egregious, I’m not sure you’d even recognize what a tree was…so I’m refraining. Also, I’m not quite ready to share my fictional world or story yet. For now, it’s all mine.)

The map got more detailed, more crowded, more filled in, as the story progressed because new things needed to exist for new scenes. I got to know the setting as I drafted, just like I got to know the characters better. But already having the basics of the setting down before writing the story made it so much easier. And when I rewrote the entire manuscript for Draft #2, it was a relief that setting wasn’t one of the things I needed to completely overhaul.

So, thankfully, setting was one thing I got right before the first draft–this time around, at least. But pacing certainly wasn’t so smooth in that first draft! Tune in next week for the next post in this writing shortcuts mini-series.

Writing Shortcuts (Part 1): Things I Wish I Had Learned Before Draft #1

For the past five months I’ve been plowing my way through what I thought was going to be a revision of my WIP but morphed into a complete rewrite. Though I kept pieces of Draft #1, and used it as a loose outline of the chronological events that occur in the plot, ultimately I cut 33,000+ words out of 54,000 and ended up with a completely rewritten Draft #2 clocking in at roughly 66,000 words. I guess that was to be expected, because as I was reading through I was adding comments like “add whole new day here” and “add another day here,” “delete this whole chapter,” and “add scene, add scene, add scene.”

This draft was a huge learning experience for me. Not only did I learn so much about my characters, but I also learned a lot about the actual mechanics of storytelling, the functioning parts of a scene, creating backstory, and I learned a lot about generating conflict (I hate doing mean things to my characters! It’s so hard to do to the ones I like, and the ones who remind me of myself!).

Now that I’m back and gearing up–finally–for the heavy revision process, I thought I’d share a few writing shortcuts I’ve learned that I’ll definitely be using in future drafting processes (which will be really soon with NaNoWriMo 2013 nearly upon us! I have a great story idea I’m dying to get onto a page this November. Are you joining me this year??), shortcuts that would have made Draft #1 a whole lot less of a pile of crap (not that a draft can ever be anything but, but it can at least be a little less). I’m trying tell myself that spending another five months writing Draft #2 after #1 wasn’t a complete waste of time. It was an experience. Ah, novel writing. The frustrations.

I went at Draft #1 in a sort-of pantsing method and Draft #2 involved a lot more strategic planning. Though I don’t think I’ll ever become a full-blown plot outliner, it would be useful to utilize some of these planning tools in the future, to make pantsing Draft #1 a lot more cohesive and consistent.

Having been out of the blogging game for more than a month now, I figured I’d ease back into the habit by making this a mini series, one post a week. Also, this will allow me an abundance of time each week to still dedicate to the revision! I want to get this manuscript DONE and OUT of my hard drive and INTO my beta readers’ inboxes!

So, in future posts in future weeks, you can look forward to discussions of writing shortcuts on the topics of:

1. Setting

2. Pacing

3. Character sketches

4. Scene outlines

Top 15 Books on My TBR ASAP Pile

Inspired by the Top Ten Tuesday meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish (I know, I’m a day late) I felt the need to pare down my intimidating TBR list of 800+ books on Goodreads to something a little shorter, a little more able to fit on a single post-it note when trotting off to the library, and a little more prioritized for the fall season. I hate reading books that I wanted to read but are in the way of me reading that other book that I REALLY wanted to read. It’s not nice to do to the books or to me.

Technically, it’s supposed to be a list of ten books but…I failed. The shortest I could make it was fifteen.

I noticed that when comparing last year to this year, I read twenty-seven 5-star books in 2012 while in 2013 (which is soon coming to a close) I only read thirteen 5-star books. I don’t think this is me getting stingy with my 5-star ratings, but rather a symptom of not prioritizing those books that I drool over at the thought of. So, here’s a chance to squeeze in all the books that I think I’m going to enjoy the most before the end of the year:

Book #2 in a Series

The Dream ThievesStar Cursed by Jessica Spotswood

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater. Following up probably one of the most amazing books I’ve read in years. OMG THIS CAME OUT YESTERDAY. Excuse me while I hunt a copy down. And read it for the next twelve hours straight.

Star Cursed by Jessica Spotswood. Book 2 in an alternate history New England…with witches! (Be still my heart.) I was eagerly anticipating it’s publication in June…and then I just let it pass me by.

Book #3 in a Series

Allegiant by Veronica RothRequiem by Lauren OliverSever by Lauren DeStefanoEmerald Green by Kerstin Gier

Allegiant by Veronica Roth. Won’t be published until October. Taps foot impatiently.

Requiem by Lauren Oliver. One of my absolute favorite series of all time. Cap that with the fact that it’s written by one of my favorite authors of all time! I think I’ve been putting this one off like Harry Potter 7, which I didn’t finish until nearly six months after it was published, because I wanted to push off the final chapter until the last possible second. Also, this is comp title research for the WIP.

Sever by Lauren DeStefano. Partially for comp title research for the WIP, but mostly just because I have to know how this fantastic series ends!

Emerald Green by Kerstin Gier. Not published yet. Saucy characters and great time travel adventures. I’ve been waiting for more than a year for October 2013 to roll around and finally deposit this book in a bookstore!

Historical Fiction

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat WintersCode Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters. I’ve been wanting to read this historical fiction since before it was even published, but I just never picked up a copy. Changing that ASAP!

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Everyone in the world loves this historical fiction and I’m ashamed I haven’t read it yet since it sounds so amazingly fantastic.

Writing Research

Breath by Martha MasonEve by Anna CareyLiving with PolioAsleep by Molly Caldwell Crosby

Breath: A Lifetime in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung by Martha Mason. A memoir and research for my own WIP.

Eve by Anna Carey. YA comp title research for my WIP.

Living with Polio by Daniel Wilson. Historical non-fiction and some research for the WIP.

Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine’s Greatest Mysteries by Molly Caldwell Crosby. See the above. (Also…doesn’t this title grab your interest and not let go?)

Stand-Alone Awesomeness

The Fault in Our Stars by John GreenThe Year of Shadows by Claire LegrandLady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Everyone else in the world, it seems, has read and recommend this to me. Time to jump on the bandwagon. Also, so I can see the movie!

The Year of Shadows by Claire Legrand. Ghosts+an orchestra? Obviously, this book is for me! Loved her first book and was so excited about this one I went to the bookstore and bought it the first week it was out. I honestly believe Legrand is writing some of the best new middle grade fiction there is right now, of Roald Dahl and Cornelia Funke (two of my other favorite middle grade writers) caliber.

Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey by Fiona Carnarvon. Publishing in November. Obviously have to do SOMETHING to hold me over until the new season, since I already read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey!

What’s on your to-read list this fall?

10 Fun Facts I’ve Learned from Books

I loved this post over at Shae Has Left the Room last week, about the trivia tidbits and larger facts that various young adult authors learned from their childhood reads. Inspired by the complete list of books I read in seventh grade that resurfaced in my life around the same time, I thought this would be a fun recollection.

1. How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell taught me that you can cut a worm in half and, instead of killing them, you will then have two live, mini worms who are no worse for wear and can go on their merry separate ways.

2. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George taught me that liver is a good source of a ton of iron and that you need iron in your diet or else your body will start failing you. (I considered, for a short few moments, of trying liver for this reason, and then decided that I would just eat more greens instead. Therefore, this book made me eat my vegetables! Books are magic!)

3. The War Within by Carol Matas taught me that Jews were persecuted during the Civil War. General Grant’s General Order #11 commanded all Jews to evacuate the territory for violating trade regulations; they lost their homes, their businesses, everything. Not only did I learn this, but, several years later, so did my eleventh grade history teacher. I brought up this fact during a class discussion and he told me I was incorrect and making it up. That night, I went to the public library, checked out the book again, and brought it to school the next day. The teacher was surprised to read the order, recorded word-for-word in the appendix. (Available to read on the Amazon preview, if you’re interested.)

4.The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind taught me that, apparently, getting stabbed in the kidneys is the most painful way to die. So painful that you can’t scream, so it’s therefore an effectively quiet murder tactic. I shared this fact while my two new college roommates and I were tucked into our beds having late night get-to-know-you sleepover talk during freshmen orientation week. My roommates like to retell the story that they were afraid to fall asleep that night, for fear that I might stab them in the kidney’s while they slept. I swear, though, that the fact applied to the conversation, somehow! I wasn’t randomly sharing secret murderous thoughts. Though it probably was a bad first impression, since they didn’t know me at all yet. Anywho, everyone survived, we all became amazing friends, we actually roomed together all four years (so they must have felt safe), and they understand the strange quirky directions of my brain now.

5. Tangerine by Edward Bloor taught me that being legally blind didn’t necessarily mean you couldn’t see. I had thought blindness always meant complete darkness before then.

6. The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot taught me that people, for fashion sake, have been known to shave off their eyebrows and get fake, perfectly-shaped eyebrows tattooed on in their place. This is a thing people do! [shudder] Oh, Grandmere.

7. The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare taught me that whether or not a girl could swim used to be a test for witchcraft. I recall being very alarmed, asking my mother what would happen to the girls who couldn’t swim. “They would drown. But they were ‘proven innocent’ so her name was cleared, even though she was dead.” I also recall thinking this was ridiculous because I was an excellent swimmer…thanks to swim lessons, not magic.

8. The Invisible Inc. series by Elizabeth Levy taught me that you can make invisible ink out of lemon juice and then heat it over a burner to be able to read it! (This led to many, parent-supervised experiments.)

9. Together Apart by Dianne E. Gray taught me the tradition behind brightly-colored front doors: So that, in the middle of a blizzard, lost souls can find those doors to warmth and safety in a sea of white. (Lesson learned: I will ALWAYS have a brightly-colored door! Even if my area of the world is not prone to ginormous snow storms. Just because.)

10. The Dear America/Royal Diaries/I Am America series taught me that: Hawaii had a royal family before it became a state, that children used to be captured by Native American tribes and raised as their own until they happily assimilated, that there was a terrible assimilation process Native American children endured generations later in Indian Schools, and that the Romanov royal family’s children used to roller skate around the palace halls.

What fun facts have books taught you?

Hey Girl, These Are a Few of Book-Lovers’ Favorite Things

Hey girl (or guy), if you haven’t heard about the recent Ryan Gosling fad in the book world yet, it’s about time you did. There has been a fiery explosion of popular tumblrs, one to satisfy every breed of book lovers, in which attractive photographs of Ryan Gosling are paired with variations of supportive, comforting comments and awesome pick-up lines that make the frustration of a broken copier (among other things) melt away.

Do you work in publishing?

Ryan Gosling Works in Publishing too. And he loves his coworkers.

Do you love reading YA literature?

Ryan Gosling Reads Young Adult fiction too. And sometimes he cries.

Do you love burrowing among the dusty shelves of a library?

Hey girl, Ryan Gosling likes the library too.

Do you typeset books, like Typographer Ryan Gosling? He understands your struggles.

And, personally, I just love that Ryan Gosling loves museums. Because they’re one of my favorite places in the world.

Also, I really love NPR and StoryCorps. The fact that Ryan Gosling hearts it makes it that much better.

There are some others, like Hey Girl, I’m a Serial Killer–which I think kills the mood–but this article provides some other options if none of the above float your boat.

Another thing which only reading/writing/grammar Nazi/English major nerds like us would enjoy is the new Broadway comedy, Seminar, starring Alan Rickman, aka Severus Snape.

In SEMINAR, four aspiring young novelists sign up for private writing classes with Leonard (Alan Rickman), an international literary figure. Under his recklessly brilliant and unorthodox instruction, some thrive and others flounder, alliances are made and broken, sex is used as a weapon and hearts are unmoored. The wordplay is not the only thing that turns vicious as innocence collides with experience in this biting new comedy. This is its world premiere.

It looks hilarious and I want to see it so badly. Writer’s Digest is currently holding a contest to win free tickets (see instructions on how to enter to win here), but if that doesn’t pan out, I’m catching the train up to NYC and paying full price to see it. Anybody want to come along?