Using Theme to Plan Your Novel

When sitting down to write a novel, everyone has different strategies. Pantsing, plotting, loose outline, indepth character sheets first, there are as many ways to write a book as there are people writing them. As I get further into this writing thing, I’ve found that I plan a little bit more before I begin drafting, but that planning has changed. I now plan a book around the theme.

Not the plot.

Not the character arc.

The theme.

For me, I’ve found planning my book around the theme to be most effective in creating something cohesive and powerful. When I know the theme from the beginning, I see the heart of my story right away, and finding the heart of my story makes revision choices so much easier. I already know what is essential and what isn’t. I know what’s on the table to be cut and changed and the bare minimum few things that are not. This clear vision from the start helps me to shape the right characters at the beginning and when I’m focused on the theme, I usually leave little breadcrumbs in the early draft that I don’t fully understand how or why they’ll be useful, but in later revisions become extremely important. When you write and plan with a focus on theme, I believe your creative subconscious is able to really step in and help you more. (*Note* This is all “writing according to Amanda” and could be complete nonsense.)

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So you might be thinking, okay. But how do you plan according to theme? Well, sit down. Let me tell you. 😉

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First of all, and I know this is going blow your mind because it’s totally crazy, you have to know the theme of your book.

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Now, if you are a beginning writer, this will probably feel harder than for those with a couple novels under your belt. Each novel I’ve written, I’ve discovered the theme of my book earlier and earlier (Come to think of it, I still don’t know what the theme of my first novel was). And finally with this current WIP I figured it out before I began drafting but still needed to write a few chapters to really see how it played out. So don’t feel bad if you have to write 5-10,000 words to figure out what your theme is. I expect that before figuring out your theme, you at least know your premise and have some fuzzy ideas about where the book starts and where it ends and what your main character wants.

Here are some ideas to help you figure out your theme.

What is the big realization your character has at the end of the book? Or, what is the “lie” your character believes at the beginning of the book? Your theme will be found in the focus of these areas.

You’ve probably thought about what the external goal and struggle of your main character is, even if you haven’t 100% nailed it down. But to get at theme, what is the motivation behind it? How is it a reflection of the internal struggle? Your theme will be found mostly in the internal struggle, but also where the external and internal struggle meet and have things in common.

Is there an idea or imagery that repeats often as you think about your story? Your theme is probably found here as well (though it might be symbolic.)

When you think of your story, do you hear a piece of dialogue that is really some kind of wisdom? Your theme might be here as well.

When you picture the few scenes you have planned in your head and think about your story as a whole (even in its fuzzy state where you don’t know everything that happens) what is the feeling that you want the reader to walk away with? This is part of your theme too.

When you describe your book with the standard log line or 15 second pitch, if you’re like me, you probably want to follow it up with, “But what it’s really about is…” What comes after those words? Sure, your book is about a witch trying to take over the world using mermaids and satyrs. But what it’s really about is winning loyalty from people who are different than you….or…you know, whatever. You get the idea. This is your theme!

If you don’t already know the theme of your story, I hope these questions helped you nail it down better. The next post in this series, I’ll talk about designing characters around your theme.

Who even are you?!

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I’ve told you guys I hate drafting and I faux-hate revising. What do I even like about writing, you may ask? Like, seriously, I seem to hate all the steps. Why am I doing this to myself?

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Here’s what I like. More than like. Here’s what I love: I loveeee getting to know my characters.

I’m allllll about character motivations and feelings and mixing and matching different personalities in various situations. I show up for. the. characters.

So, how do I get to know my characters? Like, really, really, get to know my characters?

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I’ve developed a nice little character template I fill out for all my main characters before I get in too deep. And by little, I mean it’s pretty extensive and includes way more detail than will ever make it into the actual MS.

And since we’re all friends here on the internet, I’m happy to share it!

THE GREATEST CHARACTER TEMPLATE TO EVER EXIST (not that I’m biased or anything)

Check it out and read on as I explain a little more about how I use the doc.

The Basics: I mean…for the most part this is self-explanatory. But my favorite part of this is “The ____ One” category. No person is just one thing, but characters (especially in groups) can often boil down to one dominant trait that defines them: “the quiet one,” “the take charge one,” “the angry one.” Who’re we dealing with here? What’s the main perception of this character (even if sometimes it changes later in the story)?

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Physical: Pretty much quick reference stuff. It’ll keep you from having to catch silly things when editing and revising, like changing a characters eye color every other chapter.

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Personality: This is one of my favorites, especially the “What makes them…. They show it by….” When your character is happy how do they show it? Are they giddy? Do they keep it to themselves? What will make your character anxious? Is it confrontation? Being late to things? Small spaces? How do they show it? Do they try to redirect a confrontation? Are they a peacemaker? Are they an obsessive clock-watcher? Do they do absolutely anything to avoid being closed in small spaces? When I sit down and think through these things ahead of time I go in knowing my characters and how they’re going to react in almost any situation I put them in. And, most importantly, I can make sure they’re consistent in their reactions (until they experience a moment of character growth that would bring about a new reaction). Sure, sometimes they still surprise me, I’m always open to that, but it really helps to understand what in general makes my characters feel certain ways and how they typically react to those feelings. What’s their default MO?

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Memories: I don’t always fill out all of these, but I typically pick a few that feel relevant to the story. Thinking through a characters pasts, and what in particular sticks with them, will help you to understand their layers.

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GMC: Goals, Motivation, Conflict: Here’s the money section. As you know, your characters need to have a goal, they need to try to reach it, and something has to stand in their way…. or else you’ve got no story. I take some time to think about what the characters want in the beginning, middle, and end of the story as well as what gets in their way along the journey.

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For Fun: Ok, so this might really be my favorite. Because, as the name states, it’s JUST FOR FUN! But… can also be revealing. It includes the classics, like Meyers-Briggs personality types and Hogwarts houses (the real need to know stuff), but I also give thought to all the little things that make people, people. What’s their biggest pet peeve? Did they take piano lessons when they were younger? Do they have (or want) a tattoo? What’s their handwriting like, perfect and neat or barely legible? How do they drive – super aggressive or super safe? These are things that may never, ever, ever, make it into the actual MS. It may seem like a total waste of time to know that one of my MCs guilty pleasures is watching rom coms with his sisters. And maybe it is? But my knowing these details helps me really know my characters, they’re already well-rounded in my head before I dive in to the story itself.

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This is what works for me, but no guarantees it’ll work for everyone. I’m coming at this from a contemporary-ish YA standpoint, if you’re writing fantasy that takes place in a whole other world you probably won’t need to know what your characters favorite TV show is. But, some of the sections more related to what your character wants and what makes them tick will still be helpful, or, at least, give you some ideas or a jumping off point to find a method that works for you to get into the heads of your characters.

 

Passive Voice: To Cut, or Not to Cut?

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If you’re a writer, chances are you’ve heard the terms “passive voice” and “active voice” and heard the latter praised and the former pooh-poohed. But what exactly is passive voice and why is it so frowned upon?

Passive vs. active voice is all about the subject/action relationship. Simply put, in active voice, the subject is performing the action; in passive voice, the subject is being acted upon. It’s the difference between “I rescued the princess” and “The princess was rescued by me.”

Why is passive voice a problem? Well it isn’t always, but it can be, for a few reasons. It can be wordy and awkward to read, or vague due to missing agents (The hero was thanked…BUT BY WHOM?). Replacing passive voice with the active alternative will generally make your prose tighter, less confusing, and easier to read, not to mention it can cut down on unruly word counts and increase the pace of your story.

Speaking of pace, sometimes the passive vs. active rule can be confused with the show vs. tell rule, probably because, though technically different, the two can be closely related and both affect pace. My fellow 2015 Pitch Wars mentee, Elle Jauffret, explained the difference way better than I could in a recent discussion:

“Both the past progressive TENSE (“he was walking”) and the passive VOICE (“the dog was walked”) slow down the pace. The past progressive TENSE slows down the pace because it indicates continuing action (a long stretch of time–the action takes time, is slow) — while the passive VOICE presents the character as “being a consequence of someone else’s action” (a.k.a. “the victim” or “recipient”) (i.e. “she was given a rose” instead of “she received a rose”). Both should be avoided when the writer needs to increase the story’s pace.”

As I said above, passive voice isn’t always bad, so how does one decide if that passive sentence should stay or go? First, lets look at some ways to find it:

1. Read through your manuscript and pay attention to any sentences that sound awkward, or passages you’re having to read twice to understand. Make sure that awkwardness or confusion isn’t the result of passive voice.

2. Look at the subject/object/verb relationship. If the subject is performing the action, it’s active. If the object is performing the action, it’s passive.

3. You can look for certain “to be” + suffix combinations often found in passive voice (“to be” verb + -ing or -ed) but be aware that not every instance will be passive. For example, while “The princess was rescued” is passive, “I am rescuing the princess” is not.

4. Use the “by zombies” test. If you can add the phrase “by zombies” to the end of your sentence, it’s passive voice. (The princess was rescued…by zombies.)

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Now that we know how to identify passive voice, we need to decide what to do with it. As with most writing “rules” there are times when it’s okay — and even necessary — to break the rule. The tone or theme of your book, the POV, or even who is speaking might call for the occasional use of passive voice. For example, in a mystery novel, a police officer interrogating a suspect would say, “Where were you when the items were stolen?” Because the thief hasn’t been identified yet, there is no subject to do the stealing. Depending on the tone of your narrative, or how close you want your reader to the action, you may choose to write “The instant the doors were opened, all hell broke loose” instead of “The instant they opened the doors, all hell broke loose.” And a nurse would tell a doctor “He was hit by a car” rather than “A car hit him” because the patient (he) is the focus of their conversation, not the car.

In the end, it’s not about removing all instances of passive voice from your story. But if you’re aware of how passive voice affects the flow of your narrative, you can find the places where it’s causing a problem, adjust as necessary, and be on your way to a clearer, stronger manuscript.

Why You Need Good Critique Partners—And How To Find Them

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They say that no man is an island, and that’s probably especially true of writers. Sure, we spend a considerable part of our lives holed up in an office/couch/coffeeshop typing imaginary worlds in solitude—but when it comes to taking the next step, to seeing our writing ability grow and develop beyond what we feel we’re capable of, there’s one thing we really, really need:

Good critique partners.

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Critique partners are like the superheroes of the writing world. A good CP can do so many things for you: Help you hone in on the areas your writing is weak and build them up, keep you accountable to your writing goals, give you a pep talk when you’re this close to quitting altogether.

But the growth goes both ways—because in a normal CP relationship you switch work regularly, you’ll also have the chance to improve your skills by learning how to pinpoint the places that other writers’ books fall short… and then look for those same weaknesses in your own books. Both being critiqued and critiquing can be huge sources of improvement for your writing!

“Hang on a second,” you’re thinking. “I’ve had my mom read my books, and she’s a pretty tough critic. She caught all my typos! Isn’t that enough?”

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As much fun as it is to have family and close friends read your work (my dad is one of my go-to early readers!), there’s a 99.99999% chance that you’re not actually going to get good objective feedback from them. And, unless they’re talented writers in their own right, there’s an even higher chance that they won’t be able to give you the kind of feedback that you really need, because they won’t be familiar enough with writing techniques to be able to help you fine-tune things like plot structure, characterization, and emotional resonance.

And even if they’re not related to you, not all CPs are created equal. I’ve had a lot of CPs in my career, and they’ve definitely been a mixed bag—some that were lifesavers, others who were unhelpful or downright damaging. Sometimes, finding good CPs can be a little like dating: You might have to exchange first chapters (or whole manuscripts) with several different people before finding the one you really click with. It’s always wise to go into a new CP relationship with the understanding that it’s on a trial basis, and that there will be no hard feelings if you turn out not to be a great fit.

So how do you go about finding CPs?

Lucky for you, the internet is full of resources for finding good critique partners, and real life is, too!

If you’re looking for in-person writing groups or somebody you can sit down and grab coffee with while brainstorming or going over your MSs together, check out groups on Meetup.com, the calendar of your local library (many offer writer’s groups!), or local branches of national organizations like SCBWI or RWA.

If it works best for you to do your CPing on-screen, never fear! New resources pop up all the time. Here are some I’ve seen in action:

You can also meet online CPs through forums, Twitter, and online writing contests! I know several writer friends who have connected with CPs during online Twitter pitch parties like #PitMad. Many of my own CPs have come through my participation in Pitch Wars.

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It can take time to build up a circle of trusted critique partners, and at times it can feel discouraging—but don’t give up. Finding good CPs can take your writing to places you’ve never imagined you could go before, and while that may sound like hyperbole, it’s totally true! Good critique partners will help you stretch, grow, address your weaknesses, and deepen your strengths, all of which will take your writing up to the next level.

Going on the CP search can feel intimidating (which is also kind of like dating, come to think of it). But it’s important to remember that there are many, many writers out there in your shoes, eager to connect with potential critique partners. Developing a good CP relationship takes time, effort, and patience, but both your writing and your creative life will be deeply enriched by the process!

In Defense of Adverbs

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs...” — Stephen King

Yes, I’m writing my first post here about one of the most controversial subjects in the war of Writing Commandments: adverbs. They’re the rascally harbingers of authorial doom, slippery demons that breed like dandelions and ruin a solid piece of good prose with merciless glee. I get it. I do. But in defense of adverbs, I’d like to give them a fighting chance.

Because I love adverbs.

I truly, madly, deeply do. (Someone, please, acknowledge this ‘90s reference in the comments!)

Let’s begin with the definition of an adverb, because it might not be what you think it is. According to Merriam-Webster, an adverb is a word that describes a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or a sentence and that is often used to show time, manner, place, or degree.

The examples given?

In “arrived early,” “runs slowly,” “stayed home,” and “works hard” the words “early,” “slowly,” “home,” and “hard” are adverbs.

Wait, wait! Two of those adverbs don’t have –ly on the end? What devilry is this? But it’s true. The more you learn how to spot adverbs, the more you begin to see how stories simply can’t be enjoyed without them. You’d end up with some very boring sentences. Perhaps even nonsensical. There are adverbs for time (“I need you now, Romeo!”) and adverbs of place (“But you’re standing up there on that dang balcony, Juliet!”) and beyond. And not only that, some words with –ly on the end are actually just adjectives in disguise, modifying a noun, so there goes that rule. Grammar is complex. I don’t want to spend all day on it (ugh), and I definitely don’t profess to be an expert. But you can Google this if you’re ready for a fun little rabbit trail. You’ll learn things you never imagined.

Hopefully, though, I’m making myself clear: you can’t escape these dandelions, dear Writer.

But certainly Mr. King was talking about the -ly ones!” you say. “Surely he meant those ugly ones that come right behind ‘said’ dialogue tags.”

And on this, you (and he) might have a point. Running through a scene of dialogue where everyone is saying things sarcastically and coldly and gleefully can be a bit exhausting. So many emotions all at once. It’s an overload—and it’s distracting. But a cleverly placed adverb can blend seamlessly into the background, letting the reader know quite quickly how they should react or relate when you’re trying to jump from one important thing to the next.

Distracting:

“You’re a Red?” Mustang asks numbly.

“Yes, and I’m in love with Sevro,” Darrow replies solemnly.

“I should have seen this coming!” Mustang says angrily.

“Yes, you should have,” Darrow agrees, slowly and sadly.

Not Distracting:

“You are but a mortal,” Roque whispers in my ear, riding his horse alongside the chariot, as per tradition.

“And a whorefart,” Sevro calls from the other side.

“Yes,” Roque agrees solemnly. “That too.”

Isn’t that a clever use of “solemnly”? I smile every time I read it. These battle-hardened comrades are in the middle of a grand parade—with chariots and fanfare—and the adverb gives the reader a quick clue as to how Roque might have made his comment. With a tiny half-smile perhaps, feigning seriousness despite the ridiculousness of Sevro’s insult. The two stand in contrast. Without it, the humour fades. Or…is Roque serious? The possibility is there, and you’ll have to read the book to find out.

(FYI, credit for the awkward exchange goes to me. Credit for the good exchange goes to Pierce Brown.)

Let’s play again.

“It’s not just some dream, Darrow. I live for the dream that my children will be born free. That they will be what they like. That they will own the land their father gave them.”

“I live for you,” I say sadly.

She kisses my cheek. “Then you must live for more.”

The dialogue here packs a huge punch. Even if you’ve never read this story, or know these characters, you can read this tiny excerpt and grasp the immediate conflict—a people enslaved, a boy who loves a girl, a girl who believes in something greater. Taking the time to describe the boy’s face and posture and whatever else might show his sadness would distract from the punch of this exchange. The dialogue is the shining star. “Sadly” tells us exactly what we need to know and when we need to know it. Take it away and Darrow could be earnest or pleading or desperate. All valid emotions given the context of the conversation. You could argue we don’t need the adverb and could make an educated guess on our own, based on what came before. But I think the “sadly” adds something heavy and tragic and immediate to this exchange. It’s “telling” in the best sense. It gets to the heart of Darrow’s emotions and stands them in stark contrast to the ones in the girl across from him, who, with a more vague move (a kiss on the cheek) displays her less precise emotion. It’s a sharp division. His clear emotion. Hers open to interpretation—love? Sorrow? Pity? As the reader, we’re brought into the centre of Darrow’s conflict with very few words, the one which will drive much of his personal arc.

Isn’t this fun?

Look, you might not agree with me. I understand that. You might read through those same passages, littered with the occasional adverb, and say, “Burn them. Burn them all with fire.” That’s fine and entirely up to you. But the point is—we provoked a discussion. And perhaps my message here is not for the veterans, but for the rookie writers, the ones who are just starting out on their storytelling journey and have already had someone stomp through their manuscript slashing adverbs (or adjectives disguised as adverbs) left, right and centre. Perhaps, Rookie Writer, someone quoted Stephen King at you, and told you you were going to hell, and now you suddenly feel, in a panic, like you have no choice but to go on an adverb massacre. I was in your shoes once. I obliterated every –ly word in sight. Showed no mercy. And I can’t say I had a better story at the end. I simply had a very flat and formal tone, which isn’t a terrible thing to have, but it certainly wasn’t a thing I was going for. My voice was obliterated along with the adverbs.

R.I.P Voice.

Killed during the Adverb Slaughter of 2014.

Thankfully, I was able to nurture it back once I allowed myself to experiment with adverbs again. Like any other tool in writing, you want to use them sparingly and with great consideration for why you’re using them. Trust me, I forget to do this rather often. Some CP, or my agent, then has to kick me in the shins for a random, lazy, dangling adverb. But if you know what you hope it will convey to the reader and the reaction it will trigger, they can be a huge asset. They can easily add voice and flavour and rhythm to your writing. Remember, you’re trying to give your reader an experience that’s so wonderfully immersive and authentic they feel they’re right there with your characters, smelling the scents and hearing the sounds and tingling with the emotions. A flawless adverb will enrich that experience. It can do some heavy-lifting for you.

And that, my friends, is why I love adverbs.

I truly, madly, deeply do.

* (Bonus points to anyone who can count how many adverbs are in this post. I have no clue. I’m guessing at least a billion.)

* (Bonus Savage Garden as well, with free poster!)

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Chapter Endings: Pull Your Readers Forward

Chapter Endings: Keep Moving Forward

As readers, we’ve all been there, staring at the page at 1AM with bloodshot eyes, muttering, “Just one…more…chapter.” Of course, this has a lot to do with the story as a whole, but have you ever noticed that that desire to keep reading is amplified by how the chapter ends? As writers, it’s our job to craft chapter endings that pull our stories — and our readers — forward. But sometimes, finding the perfect end to a chapter can be tough, especially if your drafting method is to write one continuous document and split it up during edits. Staring at tens of thousands of words that suddenly need to be broken into two or three dozen neat little chapters can feel overwhelming.

Need some help figuring out where to begin end? Here are some popular types of chapter endings, with illustrations from a few of my favorite books.

The Cliffhanger

It’s the stuff of TV season finales. Your favorite character is sprawled lifeless on the ground as the screen cuts to black and the credits roll. Now, you don’t have to be quite that dramatic (though it’s definitely a viable option). More subtle suspense can still leave your reader wondering what’s going to happen, thereby enticing them to turn the page. Look for places in your story where something BIG happens. Once you’ve found that big event – rewind. When you’ve found the apex – the point where your character is teetering on the edge of that pivotal moment – FREEZE. Stop your chapter there, and don’t reveal what happens until the start of the next.

As we walked inside, I grabbed Mom’s hand. I was going to tell her thank you. I was going to tell her I loved her. But I didn’t. Because when we walked in the door, Dad was lying on the floor.
Megan Jean Sovern, The Meaning of Maggie

The Question

This one is similar to the cliffhanger, but slightly more specific. Is there a shadow gliding along the moonlit wall, slinking ever closer? Is your main character about to open an old trunk she found in her grandmother’s attic? Dangle the carrot in front of your reader’s nose, then end the chapter and leave them asking WHO IS IT? WHAT IS IT? WHAT’S INSIDE???

For a while we hold each other’s gaze. Then, without even rustling a leaf, her little hand slides into the open and points to something above my head.
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

An Emotional Note

This is particularly good if you’ve had an emotional build up to the chapter’s final line. It may be the end of an argument, when the final barb is thrown, or in the midst of a crisis when your character has a sudden epiphany about life. Or it could simply be that one amazing line that says so much in just a single sentence that you absolutely have to tweet it RIGHT THIS SECOND. Angry, sad, melancholy, sweet, or poignant — leave your reader feeling all the feels (and wanting more).

And so we sat, Father and I, primly, like two old women at a parish tea. It was not a perfect way to live one’s life, but it would have to do.
Alan Bradley, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

A Bit of Humor

Again, this is similar to the last suggestion, but more specific. I love when an author leaves me with a smile or a snort of laughter at the end of a chapter. Like the other emotions listed above, that reaction pulls me into the story. Now I’m even more emotionally hooked and I want to keep reading.

“I’m not going to be murdered,” Harry said out loud.
“That’s the spirit, dear,” said his mirror sleepily.
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 

The Natural Breaking Point

Look at most books and you’ll notice not every single chapter ends with a big cliffhanger or emotional punch. Some of them simply end at a place that is convenient for pacing purposes, like cutting out extraneous details by having your character leave home at the end of one chapter and arrive at their destination at the beginning of the next without describing everything that happens in between. Or the chapter might end where there is a natural pause, like a transition from one day to the next, or the conclusion of a particular scene. All of these things keep the story moving forward. When paired with a strong plot and interesting characters, even seemingly simple chapter endings will leave invested readers wanting to see what happens next.

“I don’t believe fine young ladies enjoy themselves a bit more than we do, in spite of our burnt hair, old gowns, one glove apiece, and tight slippers that sprain our ankles when we are silly enough to wear them.” And I think Jo was quite right.
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

And lastly: Go With Your Gut

The more you write the more you’ll instinctively know where to end your chapters; when to gently tug your reader on to the next scene, and when to jerk them forward on the edge of their seat. Just like the rest of your book, you’ll find that chapters have a rhythm and a structure, and soon you’ll learn to recognize each one’s beginning, middle, and…end.

More Than Fart Jokes: Humor in MG

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Want a quick laugh from a kid? All you have to do is use the word “butt” or “underwear” at the right time and you’re bound to get a giggle. Potty humor can be funny—just look at popular books like the Captain Underpants series and Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder. But don’t underestimate the strength of a middle grader’s funny bone. There are plenty of ways to make kids laugh, no whoopee cushion required.

Situational humor: Place characters in settings outside their comfort zones and let the laughs fly. In BETTER NATE THAN EVER by Tim Federle, Nate is a 13-year-old musical theater fan from Jankburg, Pennsylvania whose greatest claim to fame at the start of the book is playing a tree in a school play. When he runs away to New York City to go to a Broadway audition, his fish-out-of-water naivety is what drives the humor throughout the story. His lack of experience comes to a hilarious head when he acts out the parts of every single character during his big audition and shocks the snot out of all the jaded casting directors.

Characters who view life in unusual ways: In MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS by Lisa Yee, Millicent is an 11-year-old high school graduate. She’s so smart academically, but she’s completely clueless about her lack of social skills. Her worldview is unlike that of most kids, so they find her thought process hilarious because it is different than how they would approach situations. In THE STRANGE CASE OF ORIGAMI YODA by Tom Angleberger, Dwight is a character who uses an origami paper doll shaped as Yoda to predict the future of his classmates. They find it funny at first, but Dwight is dead serious. His seriousness about something many kids view as silly adds to the humor.

It’s funny ’cause it’s true: Stories about bra shopping or getting food stuck in your teeth in front of your crush or Dad showing up to school in a bathrobe are funny because not only can kids relate to mortifying moments (the more outrageous, the better), but reading about characters in awkward situations makes them feel better about their own humiliating stories. People laugh when they feel superior, so get those characters in some deep embarrassment!

Wordplay: Why have a fight when you can have a kerfuffle? Oranges are blah, bananas are better, but kumquats are the funniest fruits around. Wordplay can also involve witty dialogue and banter, running gags, and getting creative with similes and metaphors.

Expect the unexpected: The biggest reason people laugh is surprise. They expect one thing to happen, and something entirely different comes about. This can work on a character level (the big, bad athlete has a collection of porcelain kittens), a plot level (the MC shows up to a pool party in a speedo and flippers, but everyone is playing billiards), and even on a sentence level (There was a lot of bleating and squawking when we left the farm, and the animals were upset too.) Think about what readers will expect to happen, and then twist it!

Middle graders love to laugh, so injecting humor into your stories is always a plus. Give them credit for appreciating a wide variety of humor, and your tales will have them rolling in no time.

And if all else fails, throw in a fart joke.

6 Ways to Increase Your Novel’s Pace

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What is pacing in fiction? In short, pace is the speed and rhythm of your story. It’s how quickly — or slowly — a reader is pulled from one scene to the next, from the beginning to the end of your book.

Why is pacing so important? Because if the pace of your story is too slow, you run the risk of the reader getting bored and putting your book down. And if that reader is an agent looking over your query and sample pages, that can spell doom for your manuscript.

So, how do we fix it? It may seem like a daunting task, but small improvements can add up to big differences. Here are 6 tricks that can help you increase your novel’s pace…

1. Be Careful of Detail Overload

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
— Anton Chekhov

The key word in this quote is relevance. After all, details are very important for plot and world-building. A well-placed, seemingly unimportant object can turn out to be a smoking gun later, and a well-written setting paints a picture in your reader’s mind. But if your scenes are turning into long stretches of unbroken description or your action hero is pausing between punches to take note of the lush velvet weave of his nemesis’ new chaise lounge, you might want to stop and ask yourself if those details are essential to the story or just slowing down the pace. And remember, sometimes less is more. A short, vibrant description that flows easily with the rest of your narrative is better than a long, overly-specific one that pulls your reader out of the story while they try to piece it all together into one cohesive image.

2. Let the Reader Fill in the Blanks

“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”
Dr. Seuss

Joe can pull up to the curb, put the car in park, turn off the engine, take the keys out of the ignition, get out, close the door, lock the car, walk down the sidewalk and up the stairs, and then knock on the door… Or you could just drop Joe on the porch, nervously jingling the car keys in his hand as his girlfriend’s dad opens the door. Don’t get bogged down describing your character’s every move. Your reader is smart. Their brain will fill in the unspoken details because it knows how to get from point A to point B on its own.

(Bonus tip: Watch out for useless words, like sat down or stood up when describing your character’s actions. You don’t need the directional words in these instances — your character can simply sit or stand.)

3. Get Our Your Pruning Shears

As you read through your manuscript, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Is this scene/chapter moving the plot forward?
  2. Is it creating tension and/or character growth?
  3. If I were to cut it completely, would it impact the story?

If you can’t give a positive answer to any of those, you might want to stop and consider whether you need that scene or chapter at all. This is particularly important when you’re nearing a climax. I cut two chapters from the middle of my last manuscript, not because they were bad, but because they were slowing down the story at a point where the action should have been increasing. My MC needed to get to the conflict faster, and those two chapters were just making her pause along the way to do things that weren’t essential to her journey. Now, I know, when you’ve spent months writing a book, cutting scenes can be painful. But if those scenes aren’t moving the plot forward, it might be necessary.

4. Beware the Never-Ending Roller Coaster

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Does the action build, and then suddenly die? Does your tension increase, only to be followed by an inexplicable calm? Some up and down can be good; after all, in most storylines there are moments of calm before or after the characters face an obstacle (and in genres like romance, will-they-won’t-they is a popular plot device). But it can be overdone. Make sure you’re not constantly making your reader anticipate something exciting, only to leave them bored and wondering when they’re finally going to get to the good part.

5. Use Dialogue, Strong Verbs, and Varied Length

Pace isn’t just about cutting words, it’s about making sure you use the right words in the right places. Rapid-fire dialogue and strong verbs, as well as chapters, scenes, and sentences that vary in length are all things that help keep your reader interested and the story flowing.

6. Show, Don’t Tell

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This is the tip most often touted and for good reason — it’s one of the most effective ways of tightening the pace of your story. Are you interrupting action or dialogue to tell us what your MC is thinking or feeling? Show us instead. Search your manuscript for key words like “felt” “saw” and “heard” and replace the phrases that pop up with stronger, more active ones. “Jane felt the anger boiling up inside of her” might be better as “Jane’s fists clenched.” “Mike heard the sound of a car alarm” can become “A car alarm screeched down the block.” And this tip goes beyond emotions. Is your MC hatching a plan to take over the universe? Instead of a long inner monologue in which she thinks out every detail (or a long discourse with an accomplice where she lays out the plan in its entirety) take the reader along for the ride. Let them see the plan as it unfolds. You’ve seen this done in films — the half-grin and an uttered, “I have an idea” followed by a cut to the best friend sneaking through the bushes whispering, “Are you sure this is going to work?” You have a plan and the reader is in the passenger seat — you can explain on the way.

Which error do you most often battle in your own stories? What other things have you done to help tighten the pace? Share your tips in the comments below!

Reel In Your Reader: How to Increase Your Novel’s Tension

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Tension. It’s the potatoes to the meat of your story’s conflict, and a key element to receiving the coveted, “I couldn’t put it down!” review. While your novel’s hook gets the reader on the line, tension is what keeps them there. Not enough, and you may end up talking about the one that got away.

Want to reel in your reader? Here are three main areas where you can increase your novel’s tension.

1. Tension in Plot

The dictionary lists one definition of tension as, “a strained state or condition resulting from forces acting in opposition to each other.” In other words, most of the tension in your book is going to come from the main conflict (or conflicts) that make up your plot. One of the best ways to increase this tension is to ask yourself, “What does my character want?” and “What is going to happen if they don’t get it?” and then…

Put every obstacle you can think of in their way.

Just when your MC thinks that things can’t possibly get any worse, they do. Light at the end of the tunnel? Extinguish it. Your MC gets a win! Oh wait, somehow even that throws a wrench in things. Their worst fear? MAKE IT HAPPEN. And bring emotions into it. Make the reader care about your characters. Give them unique traits, a quirky personality, a heartbreaking backstory, an important mission, a problem your reader can relate to…and then make your characters feel ALL THE FEELS. When we’re emotionally invested in a character, every one of those feels will create tension.

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This is also the reason why stakes are so important and mentioned so often by literary agents. Without stakes — the something bad that will happen if your main character isn’t successful — there’s no story, because without consequences a character’s choices and actions don’t matter. So make sure your stakes are clear in the reader’s mind, and ever present in your characters’ motivations. The more the reader cares about those stakes, the more tension will be created.

2. Tension in Relationships

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Whether it’s a hero and villain, love interests who hate each other, or a parent who just doesn’t get it, there’s most likely at least one relationship in your book that provides a great opportunity for tension (in fact, your plot may rely on it). Even friendships can be breeding grounds for tension (Ron and Hermione, anyone?). Here’s a few ways to take advantage of that:

Use snappy dialogue — Let the anger and irritation seep through their words. Make them say something they’ll regret. Leave one of your characters speechless. Have them overhear a conversation that changes everything.

Throw the characters together at every turn — Make them lab partners, or co-workers, or teammates. Just when they think they’ve gotten away from each other, force them to sit in the same room.

Put them in uncomfortable environments and situations — The hero shows up at family dinner to discover the villain is there as his sister’s date. Your reluctant love interests have to behave at their BFFs’ wedding. Timmy’s just been told he gets to spend the entire summer trapped in an RV with his parents.

(To sum up points 1 and 2: Heartless author = great tension.)

3. Tension in Action

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In films, tension in action or suspense scenes is often heightened by tight camera shots, and of course, the perfect, spine-tingling score. So how can we use words to create that type of experience in our readers’ minds? First, we can zoom in by using strong verbs and cutting any extraneous details. Make sure you’re not pulling the reader out of the action by stopping to tell us what your characters are thinking or feeling. Show their reactions and emotions through the action. And just like a few short notes can get your heart pumping (dun-dun…dun-dun…dun-dun-DUN-DUN-DUN-DUN), exchanging some of your longer sentences for short, powerful ones will keep the story pumping and your reader flying across the page.

Lastly, remember that tension and pace go hand in hand. Tight pacing in your novel keeps the tension taut, too slow and the line will go slack. (For more on that, watch out for my next post: 6 Ways to Increase Your Novel’s Pace.)

What strategies do you use to keep readers on the edge of their seat? What’s the last book you couldn’t put down? Let us know in the comments!

Writing Action Scenes

Action scenes can make or break a book for me. No matter what else is going on, if you give me good, tense, fast-paced action, I’m in. To help bring out those elements in your writing, I’d like to offer two things to work on: Point of View and Focus.

When I read action scenes, the most common weakness I see is trying to show too much of what’s happening.

What? Show too much?

Hear me out. Picture a roller coaster. You’ve just entered the amusement park, and on the far side you see the giant coaster, cars zipping down the big hill. Maybe you can hear people screaming. You can see the entire ride, the path the cars will take, the blue sky above the yellow rails. This is the perspective from outside the scene. Consider what happens once we move inside. Instead of the panoramic view, show me that same scene from a seat in the lead car as it slowly crests the first hill and starts to roar down the front stretch.

 

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Both scenes show the roller coaster. The plot is the same. But which do you think is going to be more exciting? We see less of the world from inside the car, but by getting closer to the action, we bring the reader into it, ramp up the pace, and make it more urgent. If we do it right, the reader feels it. The reader never sees what’s going on in the cars behind that first one, but it doesn’t matter. The scene is all about immersing the reader in the experience.

Point of View. In our theme park example, we gain tension and pace by getting closer to the action. As you bring the camera in toward your POV character, your lens sees only what she sees. Certainly things happen behind her, happen to other characters in the scene, but does your POV character notice? Sometimes a writer has the urge to make sure we as readers understand everything that’s happening. And as the writer, you need to know everything happening. But the reader only needs to see part of the scene. That limited perspective adds to the tension and makes for a faster paced action scene.

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I walk into a bar with my friend, Bill. Bullets start flying, and I hit the floor. What do I, as the POV character, see? I’m on the floor, so maybe I’m looking between the legs of a table. I can’t see the whole room. What do I feel? My heart pounds in my ears. My mouth goes dry. Maybe I look for cover, maybe I look for the shooter so I can try to shoot back. As you notice, I didn’t look at Bill. Bill isn’t trying to kill me at the moment, so he’s not really a priority. Maybe after a moment, once I find a safe place, I give a thought to how Bill is doing. But in the action moment, I’m focused on the immediate threat.

There’s a tendency sometimes to think that we have to tell everything. Maybe Bill getting shot is a key plot point, and I really want the reader to know that Bill’s been hit. But not knowing can add tension. As your reader, I’m focused on your POV character and the action, but I haven’t forgotten that Bill is in the bar. If he’s a character I care about, you’re building suspense for me by not telling me right away. I’ll find out that he’s been shot when you’re ready to tell me, once the action slows.

Focus. On the surface, what your character focuses on seems similar to point of view, and it is, but it’s more than that. It goes beyond just what the character sees to what the character thinks. If the character’s mind strays from the immediate action, the reader’s mind goes with it. Consider my gunfight. The first shots fire, and I hit the floor. I’m deep in the scene. My  thoughts are fast. Who’s shooting at me? Why? What are my ways out? How many shooters are there? I’m thinking about things that keep me alive. This isn’t a great time to insert world building, or back story. If my character stops in the scene to reflect on the last time he was in a gunfight, back in Afghanistan, where the temperature reached a hundred and fifteen degrees, and he hid behind a mud hut, waiting for artillery fire to come in, I’ve lost the immediacy of what’s happening in the bar.

Sure, I might be doing some great characterization. I’m showing a lot about my POV character, and what made him. I’ve also killed all the action in my scene. If my character has time to think about the past, the present loses all urgency. After all, how worried can my character be if he’s got time to reflect? And if the POV character isn’t worried, the reader isn’t worried either, and I’ve bled the tension out of my scene.

By keeping the focus tight, both in what the POV character sees and where the character’s thoughts go, you keep the reader close to the scene. Like the roller coaster, the closer you get to the scene, the faster it appears to move.

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