Tag Archives: writing advice

Finding the Beats

Hello everyone!

Last year, I decided that I wanted to write a chapter book mystery series.  The problem was I didn’t know how chapter book mysteries were structured.

Magnifying GlassBefore I started writing, I read over 20 books from different mystery series.  Every time I read another book, I paid special attention to how it was similar to other books within the same series, and I also compared it to trends I had found in other mystery chapter book series.  It was a time-consuming process, but it paid off when it came to outlining the first book in my mystery series and editing the rough draft into a polished version.

Below is an exercise I did that I recommend to anyone who wants to get a better grasp on the established beats for books in a specific genre.

  1. Read a book in the genre you want to write.  (I think this exercise works best when done with a book that you have not read before.)
  2. Read chapter one.
    • Write down what you know about the protagonist.
    • Write down what you know about the antagonist.  (The antagonist might not be a person.  It could be an organization, a weather phenomenon, etc.)
    • Write down the information which you think will be important in the rest of the book.
    • Write down the names of characters who were introduced in this chapter and their relationship to the protagonist.
    • Write down what you think the main conflict will be for the book.
    • Write down any major events that occurred in this chapter.
  3. Read chapter two.
    • Write down the same information that you did for chapter one.
    • Write down any additional plot information.
    • Be sure to note if the protagonist attempted something in this chapter along with whether he/she succeeded or failed.
  4. Six Pages of NotesContinue doing this for each chapter. (If you hand write your notes, I recommend having a separate piece of paper for each chapter.)
  5. Once you’ve finished the book, go back and find the beats.
    • In which chapter was the conflict introduced?
    • In which chapter did the climax take place?
    • At what point(s) in the book did the protagonist fail or hit a setback?
  6. Now, read a second book in your writing genre and repeat the exercise you did with the first book.  (Subsequent books can be ones you have read before or books that are new to you.)
  7. Compare the two book outlines.  Which beats were the same and which ones were different?  (If you repeat this process with a third book, you will start to see the pattern for the genre emerge.)
  8. Use this pattern to guide your outline for your own book in this genre.  (I recommend reading no less than five books, 10-20 is better, in the genre you want to write before you start writing your own book.)

Happy writing!

Katie

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Developing Believable Protagonists

Hello everyone!

For me, the protagonist is what makes or breaks a story.  If I don’t like or relate to the main character, I won’t get on board with the plot.  I have stopped reading books when this happened.

The two crucial things to do are to make your protagonist relatable and to have him/her grow throughout the story.  Relatable characters are believable.

The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait ThesaurusTwo resources I like for developing believable characters are The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus, both written by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.  The lists for each trait really help with developing realistic, multifaceted characters.

As a way of ensuring that my protagonist’s thought processes, voice, and reactions feel real, I often endow my main character with part of my personality.  For a more in-depth discussion about this method, which some authors view as problematic, read “Who me? Not I!” by Gail Carson Levine.  She includes suggestions for writing characters that are nothing like you and some writing prompts designed to help you avoid accidentally writing yourself into your protagonist.  My advice is if you choose to write yourself into your main character, make it an intentional choice.

Below are three things that I consider vital when creating a believable protagonist:

  1. Know what’s motivating your protagonist and let that guide his/her actions and responses (“The Wonder of ‘Why?’: Getting to the Heart of the Matter”).
  2. Make sure your protagonist is not perfect (“Character Flaws”).
  3. Show how your protagonist feels through facial expressions and body language (“Writing Books with Emotional Savvy”).

Happy writing!

Katie

Cause and Effect

Hello everyone!

Cause and effect are vital to consider when telling a story.  Events don’t just happen.  Something allows them to happen.  Take a look at history.

What caused World War II?  Well, Hitler coming to power was a big part of it.  But what allowed Hitler to gain power in the first place?  Several things.  One being that he was a good orator, and Germany was weak both politically and economically.  What led to Germany’s predicament?  The Treaty of Versailles was largely to blame – Germany got a debilitating deal after World War I.  Why was the Treaty of Versailles so skewed against Germany’s interests?  You can keep unwinding this thread as far as you want.

Cause and Effect (1)Just as historical events led to World War II, something that happened before the start of your story should account for the state of your character’s world at the beginning of the book.  Equally important is making sure that events that occur earlier in your book lead to later events.  If an event does not force something else to happen, you probably don’t need that event.

An easy way to know whether or not you have good cause and effect in your book is to phrase the events of your story in a continuous run-on sentence.  You should always say, “this happened because of this.”  Never say, “this happened and this happened.”  “Because” means that the action is moving.  “And” is a sign of rambling, and rambling leads to bored readers.  After you’ve created your run-on sentence, rewrite any sections of the book where you found yourself saying “and” instead of “because.”

Keep your story moving, and happy writing!

Katie

Sensational Settings

Hello everyone!

Have you ever read a story and had trouble visualizing where it took place? Did you ever skip a paragraph because it was just description and you didn’t care enough to read it? As a writer, you must walk the fine line between setting the scene for your reader and giving too much detail.

This three-part exercise is to help you learn what details about your setting are essential to share and how to seamlessly work them into your story.

Binoculars 3Part 1: Observation

  1. Go outside. Close your eyes. What do you feel? What do you hear? What do you smell?
  2. Now open your eyes. What do you see? Walk around. Is the terrain uneven or level? Touch a tree, the grass, the side of a building. What is the texture like?
  3. Now shout. Whisper. Speak at your normal volume. Sing. Does your voice echo or disappear?
  4. Write down your observations. Try to write a minimum of three for each sense.

Writing 5Part 2: Write a Scene

  • Write a short scene that takes place in the location you observed in Part 1. Use sensory details to describe the setting. Be careful to work the details into your story instead of dumping them on the reader in one or two description paragraphs. If someone wanted to read paragraphs about trees, they’d study forestry.

Example of a well-set scene:

Stephany walked onto the front porch and looked across the street to where Mrs. McGuire was putting her flower beds to rest for winter. A gentle breeze chased dried leaves across the sidewalk and played with the stray wisps of hair that had escaped Stephany’s messy bun. She wrapped her hands around her mug and smiled. As she sipped her coffee, the delicious steam warmed her nose.

(The action begins in the next paragraph.)

In that paragraph, the reader has been given basic information about the neighborhood, time of year, and even a little about Mrs. McGuire and Stephany.  The reader can picture where he/she is and is ready for the action to begin.

Mood 3Part 3: Use the Setting to Enhance the Mood

  1. Choose a problem for a story.
  2. Write three crucial scenes in the location you observed. Use the details you share about the setting to help set the mood for each scene.
  • Beginning: introduce key characters and the baseline for their lives
  • Middle: the problem has been introduced and the protagonist is dealing with it
  • End: how it ends and how the characters have changed

Example:

Problem – The protagonist’s spouse is cheating on him/her.

Beginning – The protagonist doesn’t know his/her spouse is having an affair. The weather is good, and I only mention beautiful or pleasing things about the setting.

Middle – The protagonist knows about the affair and is trying to decide whether to ignore it or confront his/her spouse. I draw the reader’s attention to things that need fixing or to weeds in the yard or flower beds. The sky is cloudy.

End – The protagonist has just signed the divorce papers and is moving out of the house. It is cool and partly cloudy. The house is barely mentioned, and when it is, the stated features are either imperfect ones or ones that make the protagonist feel nostalgic. The focus is on the road, especially the point where trees block the protagonist’s view of it.

*Remember, this is an exercise. You do not need to write the entire story unless you want to.

Happy writing!

Katie

Character Interrogation

Hello everyone!

Have you ever mixed up the pieces from multiple games or multiple puzzles?  The result is a mess!  However, mixing up characters can be the key to getting out of a writing conundrum.

Naughty 1Occasionally, I will have a character who absolutely refuses to do what I want him/her to do.  No matter how hard I try, he/she will not do or say what I envisioned in a way that feels believable.  The reason is usually that he/she is underdeveloped.  In most cases, I am able to get to know the character better by asking and answering a series of questions.  In other cases, though, I am too focused on the story’s needs to be able to honestly answer the questions for the character.

Your writing prompt for the next two weeks is to learn about your characters by taking them out of their world.

1. Choose two characters from different pieces you’ve written and put them together in a scene that takes place outside both of their stories.

2. Choose one of the following situations to start the scene:

  • Put them in an interrogation room together. (One could interrogate the other or they could both be interrogating a third character.)
  • blind dateHave them go on a blind date. (Be sure to give some thought to the setting.)
  • Give them a task to accomplish. (It’s best if the task requires two people.)
  • Give them a problem to solve. (There must be consequences if they fail.)
  • Have the characters tell their stories to each other. (I did this with one of my villains from “The Four Crystals.”  Wow, the story was different from that point of view.)

3. Write the scene keeping both characters true to their personalities.

4. Read through the scene and note some of the following:

  • How did the two characters interact? (Were they friendly, civil, or hostile?  Could they work together?  Etc.)
  • Who took the lead?
  • Did either of them dominate the conversation?
  • emotions 1Did either character have a key mannerism or phrase?
  • What was each character’s primary goal in the scene (i.e. what was most important to each character)?
  • Did either character have a predominant emotion?
  • What did your characters do or say that surprised you? (For example, when I did this exercise, I discovered that one of my supporting characters was oblivious to her leader’s flaws.  Going into the exercise, I knew that she was a very loyal follower.  When she was talking to another character about her leader, I realized that she believed her leader to be infallible.)

Happy writing!

Katie

*I would like to thank sci-fi and fantasy author Olivia Berrier for sharing this writing exercise with me and for walking me through how to do it.

The Wonder of “Why?”: Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Hello everyone!

In my last post, I talked about how to ask your way though plot and character development.  In this post, I want to talk about my favorite question of all: Why?

Why 7The reason I like why so much is because the answer to that question provides the motivation or foundation for all of a character’s actions.  For example, think about your story’s antagonist.  It’s easy for the protagonist to observe or hear about the antagonist’s actions (what he/she does).  A smaller group of characters, which may or may not include the protagonist, knows the process or methods the antagonist uses to execute those actions (how the antagonist does it).  But why the antagonist does something can only be speculated about unless the antagonist himself/herself reveals the reason to another character.  The reader might never find out the antagonist’s motivation.  In some cases, even the antagonist might not even be able to explain why he/she does something, but you as the author should know.

In other words, Why? gets to the heart of an issue and reveals the true motivation of a character.  Check out the sample questions and answers below to see what I mean.

Why don’t two characters get along?

  • Prejudice
  • Bad or inaccurate first impression
  • Personality clash
  • Opposing ideologies
  • Past history

The answer to this question determines how hard or easy it will be for those two characters to reconcile their differences or if reconciliation is even possible.

Why does a supporting character steal?

  • He/She doesn’t have money for food or other necessities
  • Revenge
  • In his/her (country, family, or friend) culture, stealing is socially acceptable
  • Attention seeking
  • Boredom
  • Sabotage – He/She deliberately steals what someone else needs for a plan to succeed

The answer to this question makes the supporting character likeable, pitiable, reprehensible, or daring.  The reason he/she steals is far more interesting than the fact that he/she steals.

Why 9Why is the protagonist having recurring nightmares?

  • Past trauma
  • He/She has been poisoned and hallucinations are a side effect
  • Fear or anxiety about an upcoming event
  • He/She watches scary movies before bed
  • The dreams are divine warnings

Each potential answer gets to the root of the problem, revealing to you as the writer what the protagonist must change or overcome to resolve the conflict.

I hope you have a better idea of why Why? is so important and that the examples help you to apply this essential question to your own writing process.

Happy writing!

Katie

Asking Your Way through a Story Idea

Hello everyone!

Writing a book is a lot like exploring.  You start with a vague idea and discover the rest as you go.  For me, the most important part of the creative writing process is asking my way through plot issues and character inconsistencies.

stop watchWhenever I run into an underdeveloped point in the plot or a behavior in a character that I can’t justify, I try to summarize the problem as a question.  Then, I write down the question and brainstorm answers for about ten minutes.  (Think of this process as a structured free write.  No idea is too crazy during those ten minutes.)

When the ten minutes are up, I choose the potential answer that I like best and explore it further.  (Sometimes, this involves doing another guided question free write.)  If the answer I selected solves my problem, great.  If the answer doesn’t fix the issue, I look back at my list of potential answers and choose a different one to explore.  I do this until I have the answer that works for the story and that satisfies me as the writer.

Below is a list of question words with some sample questions from my own writing projects:

What if…? (What if the crystals had power?  What if the villagers were wary of 21st century technologically?)

Who? (Who betrays the group?  Who stole the sheep?)

What? (What is the ultimate insult for a fairy?  What is my protagonist’s deepest desire?)

When? (When did the elves and humans start attacking each other?  When does my protagonist start trusting authority figures?)

Where? (Where do they fight the soldiers?  Where does my protagonist’s grandmother work?)

Why? (Why won’t the dwarf take them into the caverns?  Why does my protagonist want to befriend the new kid?)

three paths*Which? (Which route is safest?) (*I personally don’t use “which” as often as I do the other question words.)

How? (How do I get them out of the fight alive when they are outnumbered ten to one?  How do I get my protagonist to be more respectful to adults?)

I hope this gives you some good ideas for how to ask your way through your own stories.

Happy writing!

Katie