Storm is a good word for what happens to my brain when a story erupts. I'm a fourth generation Floridian, I grew up with storms, and heard stories of hurricanes past. I love and fear them, as I do story. I love reading and creating stories and I fear I'll never do the stories in my head justice.
I just finished a book and passed it to my agent. I'm letting go of the story world I've lived in for the last year, saying goodbye to the characters. Next week, my agent will submit the book to publishers, hoping to find a good fit. I've learned it's best to not waste energy on wondering if I did my best or expectations for its success. Instead, I focus on the next project.
The idea for a new story came to me a while ago. I put it in a box. I lifted the lid every so often and peeked inside, but I didn't take it out of the box until last week. I listed all that I knew about the characters and their world. Then I shared it with my agent. She poked and prodded and asked lots of whys and what ifs.
My husband and I walk every morning and for the last two days those whys and what ifs have fueled our steps. I walked over three miles yesterday, trying to figure out where a boy named Ash came from and why a girl named Roan was allowed in the woods.
The answers to those questions lead to more questions. They twist and churn into a tornado. Soon, I hope, the beginning will pop out of that storm. It's a magical moment when the main character takes her first steps on a clean page, and she brings a steady rain of words to fill the pages after. I pray they're the right words to describe the storm in my head.
I think most writers collect bookmarks, not necessarily on purpose. Bookmarks are passed out to promote new books, so if you're supporting other authors, you'll take their bookmark. Friends and family add to the collection. What do you buy a writer? A pen, a notebook or a bookmark. I don't use most of my collection. They're just too pretty or they make dents in pages. Don't get me started on my feelings about disfiguring books! But I do love my bookmarks, no matter how dysfunctional they are. I shared pictures of my collection here several years ago, but it's grown so much, I thought it was time for an update.
Harry Potter and much loved animal bookmarks. I'm not a Gryffindor, I'm a Ravenclaw, but I don't think Hermione will mind if I use their bookmark. I know Harry and Ron won't. They shy away from books!
Bookmarks from my grandmother and favorite aunt. I use them in my Bible, my grandmother's Bible and mother's Bible. They connect me to these strong women, their faith and history.
Mementoes from museums, libraries and bookstores I haven't visited. Not in person. But these invite me to come. They invite me to imagine places I've never been.
Fancy doodads adorned with jewels, silver charms, silky tassels and dried flowers. Pure treasure!
And last are the bookmarks that promote stories. They don't sparkle or shine. They don't have magnetic grips or tassels. They're just plain, old printed paper. But I use them a lot and they work hard every day to remind me of the books they represent.
All of these bookmarks come from friends and family, so they'll always be special to me. Do you have a collection? A favorite?
That photo is hard for me to look at because of the feelings it evokes: sadness, loss and longing. Photos do that. So can books.
I recently did a workshop with screenwriter and New York Times best selling author Stephanie Storey. What struck me in her talk was the emphasis on bringing EVERYTHING when depicting emotion in a character. It's easy to capture emotion in a photo of beloved dog.
In writing, it's so. Hard. To. Do.
My critique group partners and I talk about this all the time. We love books because of the emotional connection, but we struggle to write emotion in depth. In a recent Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Insight interview, author Stephanie Garber said that it isn't a colorful cover or favorite genre that makes us keep reading a book. It's the feelings we connect with. She believes feelings are the heart of books.
Although I love novels with fantastic world building and intriguing plot, I agree with the Stephanies. What keeps me reading past midnight, what makes me slow down when I near the end, what makes me long for more pages, is my relationship with the character. I want to love a character so much, I dread every bad moment. I want to fight not to close my eyes when danger threatens. When their heart is broken, I want my tears to be unstoppable, and when they triumph, I want my heart to soar.
I think most writers try to achieve this and most succeed on some level. But few accomplish a heart-stealing read. I repeatedly ask myself why. I WANT, yes with capital letters, want to write that kind of book. But how do I make that happen?
Stephanie Storey goes to great lengths to explore her character's emotions. She visits museums as her character, takes online personality tests, even sees a therapist as her character. She says writers need to bring their deepest, most vulnerable feelings to the page. The part of themselves they're afraid to show to others. Those feelings are what make characters real.
So easy peasy, right? Bringing everything means revisiting places in ourselves we'd rather forget. It means remembering painful moments in great detail. So, no, it isn't any more easy or fun than looking at a photo of a dog I lost at a difficult time to a pain-riddled disease. But for books that stay with readers long after they return to shelves, we must go there.
Being an animal lover and a writer of children's books, I was fascinated with an interview I heard of an organization called Red Rover. Besides providing shelter, resources and finances for animals and people in crisis, they raise awareness in children through their Reader's Program. It's aimed at educators and provides a list of books for ages 5-11 that inspire understanding and empathy, like Buddy Unchained, Hens for Friends and Rescue and Jessica: A Life Changing Friendship. The books are sorted by theme: Domestic Animals, Pet Loss, Wildlife and Animal Behavior. A three-week online course teaches how to maximize the impact of the books with discussion questions and activities.
For kids who prefer a digital experience, Red Rover offers a bi-lingual app. It targets ages 7-11 and functions like a graphic novel, adding pop-up questions, discussion topics and games to help kids practice emotional awareness, critical thinking and compassion.
Red Rover also publishes Kind News magazine, for 8 and up, and Kind News, Jr, for ages 5-7. The magazine teaches how to care for pets and how to take action to improve animals' lives. In March, Red Rover participated in Read Across America and gave one lucky educator a $200 bookstore gift card, plus a year's subscription to Kind News magazine. I like to imagine the kids in that classroom being so inspired they become animal and human rights advocates.
I love stories about books making a difference. Red Rover is using them in a big way to make this world a better place. They have a host of powerful videos. Here's one:
Authors are often asked where their stories come from and they give a variety of answers: dreams, memories, an event that rattles the insides of their brains and demands to be honored, like the bombing of New York's twin towers.
Kelly Barnhill, who recently won the Newbery Award with her middle grade book The Girl Who Drank the Moon, talked about the book's origins in Publisher's Weekly. She said an image of a swamp monster spouting poetry sparked the story idea. That image percolated and mixed with her interest in how people see the same thing differently, and her setting was inspired by a trip to Costa Rica.
I think most stories evolve like that. A seed's planted, then another and another, growing a jungle of words in our heads. They have to get along at some point, come together in a cohesive way and they have to make us ask "what happens next? That's when our fingers start typing.
The book I'm working on now started with drawings I did of fantasy figures I saw in the wood floor of an old house my husband and I were restoring. I imagined a lonely girl finding those figures and the story was born. Another book grew from a longing to commemorate the days I spent riding and training horses and the last book sprang from living in a dynamic urban neighborhood.
I like to hear the main character's voice in my head before I start, but I'm not always that lucky. Sometimes, I have to write for a long while before that voice emerges. Since I'm a visual person, setting is vitally important. I need to see the world first, to understand the geography, the buildings and environment. If I try to write without that, the world doesn't feel real.
My critique partners and I have discussions about describing our characters. Should we be specific, so readers have clear visuals, or should we be vague so more people can identify with the characters. I rarely know much about my character's physical description at the start of a story. For me, physicality is not nearly as important as personality.
Let's not forget plot and conflict. It's what drives the story and I've learned the hard way not to start a story without knowing the protagonist's goal. If you have a story screaming to be written and you don't know the main conflict, take a deep breath, take a walk, take the time you need to figure that out. Explore issues that are important to you, like Kelly Barnhill's interest in the way people's perspectives color their world. Ask yourself how your interests and concerns might shape your character's world. Then ask what your character wants and what's the worst thing that could happen. Now, you have the start of a solid story.
What are you waiting for? Start typing!
Before readers launch into a literary journey and spend hours and hours reading a story, they must be charmed or fascinated by the protagonist. It helps if the character is funny or feisty. Everyone likes feisty. Feisty faces the world with chin up and eyes blazing. Readers can't wait to see what that character gets up to and they believe whatever she faces, she'll be up to the task.
It's tougher to start a story with a protagonist who's downhearted and pessimistic. In her excellent book The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults, Cheryl Klein likens the experience to listening to a negative person at a party who goes on and on about their bad luck and how it never changes. Who wants to spend time with that person? She says negative, defeated characters are unappealing. If you start a story with a protagonist who's downhearted, it's vitally important to show they're resilience and assertiveness. Immediately! And humor counts double in this story.
So, guess who starts every book with a dispirited, passive person?
Yep, that would be me. My muse NEVER imagines characters who wake up on the right side of the bed with a sword drawn to vanquish their enemies. In my critique group The Skyway Writers, my critique partners know I always want their eyes searching for the passages where my character lacks assertiveness. They help me see when she's reacting instead of acting, passive instead of active, finding problems instead of solutions and embracing defeat instead of believing in victory.
I think most writers tend to pen protagonists with personalities that echo their own. If you're not a witty and daring optimist, that doesn't mean you can't create appealing characters. You just have to dig deeper, find the parts of you that believe in miracles and have the courage to overcome the most dreadful events. Write the character you hope to become!
I devote a lot of blog space to artists and writers. But what this blog is really about is creating stories. And where would a story be without a reader? Every writer and illustrator I know cites a love of childhood books as the inspiration for their career path. So today's post features two opportunities for readers. Both have been mentioned in LikeWise before, but I felt they were worth a second look.
Are you the type who can't be without a good read? Do you stack books on your bedside table or in your Kindle? Would you like to be the first to read the latest books and best of all, get them for free?
Then check out Teenreads Teen Board. Teenreads.com provides books reviews, author interviews, previews of upcoming books, polls, a blog and newsletter. Their Teen Board consists of thirty volunteer teens who review books, write blog posts, provide feedback and answer a monthly "Teen Board Question." Volunteer hopefuls can apply this summer for the next session. Before you do, be sure you're willing to commit to a year of service, running from September 2016 through August 2017. Potential candidates should be avid readers and good writers. You have to live in the U.S to be eligible, but those outside the country are invited to apply as blog writers. It sounds like a great place to showcase your talents and meet other book lovers.
The second opportunity empowers readers. The Harry Potter Alliance connects readers and encourages them to make a positive difference in the world. They donate books to needy children, advocate for issues important to book fans and gather to share stories, motivate and inspire. There are chapters across the globe. If you can't find one near you, HPA gives you the tools to start one. And they do have a contest. Members are encouraged to join one of the Houses from the HP story: Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Slytherin or Hufflepuff. The Houses accumulate points by completing tasks, like donating books. The current champion is Ravenclaw, whose members accumulated over 200,000 points in the 2015 Accio Books campaign. So what are you doing this summer? Got room in your schedule for a HP chapter?
NaNoWriMo starts Sunday, so this is prep time for all you people itching to start a novel. The Young Writer's Program offers a novel workbook, author pep talks and venues to connect to other teen writers.
NaNo launched in 1999 and last year 325,142 participated. Since it's beginning over 250 NaNo novels have been published, including Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl and Marissa Meyer's Cinder.
Here's how it works. You go to their website, fill out a profile, hang out with other writers and commit to trying to write 50,000 words in a month. At the end of November, you stop. Not everybody makes the goal, so don't feel bad if you don't. There are badges that reward your best efforts. Display them with pride!
Fifty thousand words is a lot to write in a month. The great thing is, no one expects them to be brilliant. You just write the story straight from your head. It will probably be a mess. Like most first drafts, it might make you wince when you read it. But it might also be the beginning of a good book.
NaNoWriMo is a fast, fun way to prove you have a novel in you. It doesn't guarantee it will be a novel worth publishing. The value of the words you write depend on you learning to write them well. So if you start NaNo as a beginning writer, don't expect to create a blockbuster novel. Use it as a learning experience. Most authors start by writing books no one will ever read. Why not do that with a legion of new writer friends? And for experienced writers who are using NaNo to bring a third or fourth book into the world, who knows? It could be the next Eleanor and Park.
October 18-24 is Teen Read Week. Sponsored by YALSA, the Young Adult Library Services Association, the theme for this year's event is Get Away, and it encourages teens to take a break from their busy lives by escaping in a book.
Before I grew serious about writing books, I read fiction to escape. I loved finding new favorite authors, waiting for their latest titles to emerge and savoring every word. But for the last seven years, I've read with a focus on learning to write better. When you're dissecting sentences and analyzing plot, it sort of steals the pleasure from the story. I miss the old me that approached each book like a house full of hidden treasure, anticipation tingling up and down my spine as I opened the cover.
And it still happens. Even with my brain set on Study Mode, I find books that draw me into a story so completely, I abandon the analyzing and dissecting, latch onto the protagonist and follow them like an adoring puppy. Because I love books. I love picture books that tickle and dazzle with carefully chosen words and brilliant art. I love middle grade stories, especially the ones that touch my heart. And of course, I love YA books, and not just because I write stories for that age.
My favorite books are the ones that make me see the world in a new way. Sometimes that's fantasy, sci-fi or magical realism. But just as often, it's a contemporary or historical tale. Good books take us to another place and when we leave, we're changed. Our minds have stretched to allow room for new thoughts and perspectives. I just finished reading the graphic novel Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson. I'm not into comic books or super heroes, but somehow this book landed on my reading pile. And I loved it. It's a book after all, with a story to tell, so I shouldn't be surprised.
Do you have your literary vacation picked out for Teen Read Week? Is it one book or a stack? Will you cozy up with familiar authors or try something new? There's still time to search. Go on now, what are you waiting for? Oh, you're in the middle of Algebra II, squinting at the impossibly twisted formula the teacher just scribbled? That's okay then. But the very next time your fingers hop online, head thee to the library and reserve a book. You deserve a vacation from mind-tangling math formulas!
So Nerdcon: Stories, October 9 and 10 at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Will you be there? Because wow, oh, wow.
First it's hosted by Hank Green of Vlog Brothers and Nerdfighters fame. Second, it includes authors like Rainbow Rowell, Jacqueline Woodson, Maggie Stiefvater, Lev Grossman, M.T. Anderson, Holly Black and John Green.
Whew. I need to sit down after that.
Then there are performers, Harry and the Potters, for example, and storytellers who are also actors, rappers and comedians, plus lots more authors you don't want to miss.
Nerdcon Stories was created to bring book lovers and authors together to celebrate storytelling. It's another brilliant idea sprung from the Green brothers. John and Hank also started Vidcon in 2010, the first ever conference focused on internet video. It's now the largest event of its kind in the world.
This is the first year for Nerdcon Stories and according to the website, they're expecting around 3000 participants. Will you be one of them? Imagine twenty years from now, telling your children you were there. Of course, they'll be dedicated readers just like their parents, and they'll sit at your feet and ask, "What was it like?"
If you go, please, please come back and share your experience with the rest of us who are stuck at home with OCD dogs.
NOTE: Nerdcon Stories is not to be confused with Nerd Con in California. That one involves Cosplay, comics and video games. Nothing wrong with that, just a different crowd.
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist. I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Lit.
Lorin Oberweger - Freelance Editor