Using Theme to Plan Your Novel: Main Character

Once you’ve figured out the theme of your novel, it’s time to start nailing down how that is going to play out and shape your manuscript. The easiest place to start with this is the main character.

I’m going to use Hamilton

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and Zootopia to illustrate this first.

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I’m also going to take you through the thought process on my current WIP so you can see it in action (also, it will help me jump back in and finish drafting this thing so it’s a win-win.)

First, you need to think of your theme in two ways. The first is as a general sort of topic, try for just one or two words.

Hamilton: LEGACY

Zootopia: BIAS

My current WIP: COMMUNITY (or WANT VS. NEED. Not totally sure yet.)

 

Now I want you to come up with a sentence that sums up the “truth” about this topic that you want your story to get across. The realization that your MC will have at the end of the book.

Hamilton: YOU HAVE NO CONTROL WHO LIVES, WHO DIES, WHO TELLS YOUR STORY.

Zootopia: CHANGE STARTS WITH YOU.

My current WIP: We are each part of a community and we use the community to address each other’s needs.

 

That sentence you just wrote is the end of your main character’s arc. Now, that means that your MC needs to start the story believing the opposite. This will help you figure out your main character’s weakness/lie they believe. We’re going to call it your character’s false truth or false theme statement.

Hamilton: I can create a legacy for myself by taking risks and doing big things.

Officer Hopps: I will make the world a better place by making sure EVERYONE ELSE does what they should according to MY world view.

MC in my current WIP: I am not important but maybe I can make everyone happy by granting their wishes.

 

These two statements will create your MC’s character arc. At the beginning of the story, they believe the false theme statement, but by the end they should understand the second theme statement. Your entire story revolves around getting your character from false theme statement to true theme statement.

With this idea in mind, it’s time to think about your MC’s internal and external struggle. The external struggle is what we really think of as the plot. But the internal struggle are those motivations that power the choices that fuel the plot.

So…

What does your MC want most? (external struggle)

and…

How does this reflect the internal struggle around theme that I just laid out?

Theme should relate to the external struggle, but the meat of your theme will be found in the internal struggle and the two of these need to be related. The interplay of internal and external struggle, character arc vs. plot doesn’t look the same for every book.

Sometimes the external struggle and internal struggle are very obvious and similar.

Look at Hamilton. His goal is to create a legacy and everything he does is powered around that goal. All of his external struggles are a result of his trying to fulfill that goal. So to me, the external struggle and internal struggle nearly overlap.

In Zootopia, it isn’t quite as obvious. Officer Hopps’ external goal is to become a police officer and, in the process, prove everyone wrong who ever put limitations on what small animals can do. Her internal struggle is about overcoming her own bias. These two struggles strongly mirror and affect each other (as the external and internal struggle always should.)

My current WIP: My MC’s external goal is to make her new neighborhood like her old neighborhood and have a fourth of July barbecue. A real community. Her internal struggle is about seeing herself as an important, integral, and change-making part of that community.

 

Now that you know the beginning and ending points of your MC’s character arc and have an idea of their external and internal struggle and how they relate, you’re ready to fill out those character sheets full of questions.

Yep, NOW.

Why not before? Because you are designing/creating a character. And you need to make sure that you are creating a character who really would believe that false theme statement at the beginning of the book. So questions about backstory are especially important. What has brought your MC to this place? Now that you know the attitude he/she needs to have, you can create a backstory and character details that support that.

At this point, you may be able to see some plot points. You may even be able to fully map out the character arc. But we’re not done planning yet, because next Thursday I’m going to talk about planning your supporting cast and they will be vital to your conflict and tension!

Publishing Mythbusters: Nope, You DON’T Need To “Know Someone” To Get Published

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I’ve been writing for most of my life, so I can’t count the number of times I’ve had somebody tell me in a lofty voice that I would never be able to make it in publishing because the only way to break into publishing is to “know” somebody. It’s a myth that, like many of us I’m sure, I’ve run into again and again—this idea that publishing is a massive conspiracy of well-connected people who close ranks against any newbies and allow only people they deem worthy to be published.

(As a Mormon, my favorite iteration of the one that blew up the internet many years ago, in which some people posited that there was a “Mormon YA Mafia”—composed of people like Shannon Hale and Stephenie Meyer—controlling who was successful at publishing YA. Yeah, guys, I’m 100% sure that’s not true.)

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This has always bothered me because it just seemed so patently false, and it’s bothered me even more this year as I and so many of my Pitch Wars friends have signed with agents—agents, I might add, whom few or none of us knew before we signed with them.

To see if my theory (there is no secret cabal of publishing gatekeepers; you are not less likely to be published because you’re not well-connected in publishing) held true, I decided to take a poll of writers who are or have previously been agented or published. It was a short and sweet poll, with only a small handful of questions designed to tease out whether or not the majority of writers who took it did, in fact, manage to get their agent/editor through means nepotistic.

The answer, unsurprisingly, is a resounding NO.

Of the people who responded to my poll, 48 (67%)—by far the vast majority of responders—found their agent/editor the old-fashioned way: through the slushpile (i.e., sending lots and lots of queries). The next biggest category was people who found their agent/editor through a contest, with 15 (20%)—though a lot of my network of writers were met through online contests, so it’s entirely possible that number is a little higher than in the population at large. Of all the writers who took my survey, only 6 (7%) met their agent through a client or other referral, and only 2 (3%) knew their agent before they signed with him/her.

Likewise, most writers didn’t consider themselves well-connected in publishing before they started trying to get published—only 8 (11%) had previous publishing connections.

And the kicker: Of the 72 who responded to my survey, fully 62 (86%) of writers said that they did not connect with their agent/editor through any previous publishing connections. Yep—the vast majority of us began our careers as absolute nobodys.

(And on a mostly-unrelated but further encouraging note, the majority of responders in my survey—23%—didn’t sign with their agent until after 2 or more years of querying.)

This has been mostly true in my experience, as well. While, ironically enough, I’m pretty sure I did get an offer from the agent I signed with because she also reps a friend of mine—only because my agent was so swamped with queries that I’m pretty sure she would never have seen my offer nudge if my friend hadn’t prompted her to search for my nudge e-mail in her inbox!—I also had offers from nine other agents on that manuscript, none of which came through nepotistic means. About half of those offers were from the #DVPit contest on Twitter, and the other half were through regular old-fashioned querying. In fact, the two agents with probably the biggest name recognition both offered just based on a query they’d pulled out of the slush pile.

Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule. And obviously, people who already have big-name notoriety—like Hollywood celebs—tend to get much, much larger advances than us ordinary human beings. (But not even always—there are plenty of stories of debut authors nobody had ever heard of before who were given seven-figure advances.) But if you’ve always dreamed of being traditionally published and been intimidated by the idea that you know nobody, take heart: You stand a great chance! In fact, I’d say that probably the BEST thing you could do for your chances at publication are find a few really solid critique partners to help your writing grow to the point it needs to be at for publication.

So go forth and query… and don’t worry too much about that mythical YA Mafia.

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.

 

Lies Books Taught Me: Stalking=Dating

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Someone needs to explain how dating works to me. I’m really bad at it, and, in books, dating is almost always the product of… stalking.

That can’t work in real life… right?

And I get that a lot of the examples that immediately spring to mind are older: Confessions of Georgia Nicholson, Twilight, Stephanie Plum. But I read a lot and I don’t think this phenomenon has disappeared.

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When I think about stalking=dating in the real world, I can come up with a few examples, too.  I have a friend whose parents started dating because her mom made every excuse she could to visit her dad’s place of employment in high school. They are still happily married.

Then, there are the less successful stories. I had a friend who wanted to marry rich, so she started hanging around places where she thought she would meet rich men. This worked for getting her dates, but not so much for a lasting relationship. Another friend is intent on going out with a guy and stops by his workplace to flirt at least once a week. Nothings come of it, but, who knows? Maybe there is a “yet” at the end of that sentence.

There is something to be said for making yourself available for the object of your affection. Nobody can flirt with you if you are holed up in your room playing Dragon Age. (Just me?) But… where is the line between being available and straight up stalking?

Personally, I haven’t tried this since high school. But mostly what I remember is I was so obsessed with “being available” for one particular person that I missed out on a lot of other opportunities that could have bloomed into teenage love and dramatic breakups.

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So tell me two things in comments: 1. What is the most realistic love story you’ve ever read? and 2. Have you ever stalked anyone into dating you?

What to expect in the CP relationship

In an ideal world, critiquing is an “I’ll show you mine, you show me yours” situation.

One of the biggest lessons through Pitch Wars 2015 was learning the difference between beta readers and critique partners. Here’s one of many good blog posts on the difference. I had found wonderful beta readers before entering Pitch Wars, but becoming a mentee under Laura Heffernan showed me what I had been missing – and needed.

Specifically, I needed deep criticism of my book, along with occasional soothing noises of how it would all be okay. MK England wrote a great blog post on handling criticism. But beyond the feelings (So Many Feelings), another aspect of finding a CP that works for you after Pitch Wars is not only critique styles, but expectations of time frame.

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Laura remains an excellent CP for a bunch of reasons, but I would be lying if I didn’t say I LOVE how fast she reads. I feel like I’m a priority, and I try to return that when I read her work. Another of my CPs uses Google Docs, which I like because, as she works her way through it, I receive an email with recent comments she’s made. When I critique these days, I try to send emails when I’ve made it through a chapter or section with questions or overall impressions so the person knows I’m working on it.

That’s not to say your CPs need to always give you a quick turnaround. Everyone reads at a difference pace. Life happens. People are working on their own revisions or took on too much or have children screaming at them. One of my beta readers started my book and received a cancer diagnosis, and stopped reading anything. I did not take that personally.

But it’s been weird to meet people who say “Yes, of course! Send me your chapter/book/query” and then they fall off the face of the Earth.

It invites questions such as: Did they receive the document? Do they hate it? Are they bored? Am I a terrible writer? Am I a bad person? What if EVERYONE HATES ME AND EVERYTHING I HAVE EVER WRITTEN?

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So if you are in this situation, let’s take a deep breath and break this down into more objective territory. I think there are a few likely scenarios: One, the person truly became too busy, grows guilty and flakes. Two, the person lost interest in the book and doesn’t know a way to say that while maintaining a friendship. Three, the person thought they could help, but then realizes they are out of their league. (For example, I enjoy reading sci-fi and romance, but can’t offer much in terms of criticism.)

The paths forward, I think, begin with honesty with both yourself and your CP. Some strategies:

  • Set expectations around how much time you need and keep the commitment. If you say, “I’ll have this back to you in a month,” don’t vanish. If there are extenuating circumstances, speak up.
  • Ask yourself if this is a friend or a CP. They can be both! But one thing I have learned is some people want more encouragement than honesty. That’s okay, but that may make for a better friendship than CP relationship.
  • Discuss whether batches of 50 pages work. If you’re slammed, see if it would work for you to exchange first chapters.
  • If you are critiquing and lose interest in the book, see if that can lead you to say what could help. Did the middle become soggy? Is it the characters? Is there something you’re seeing that made you realize the issue with your own book, and you had to run go and do that?
  • Finally, on both sides, ask what you can and can’t accept. If a friend has had your book for months and never said anything, good or bad, ask whether you can let it go. Or, if you’re not a confrontational type (cough), is it easier to cast a wider CP net?

There’s no reason to believe you will mesh with every potential CP. Don’t lose hope if it hasn’t gone well. Much like querying for an agent, it’s about the right match.

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.

Author Interview: Jenny Ferguson, Author of BORDER MARKERS (Plus Giveaway!)

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Today we’re chatting with Jenny Ferguson, author of BORDER MARKERS. Jenny happens to be a Pitch Wars 2015 alumni (and 2016 Pitch Wars mentor!), and we’re so excited to have her on the blog to tell us more about her debut novel. So, without further ado, here’s what Jenny had to say about her book, the inspiration behind the story, and her opinion on metaphorical snacks.

First of all, what is BORDER MARKERS about?

I am not good at this question. How about I let you read the blurb, something a group of skilled people came up with!

After the accidental death of a high school-aged friend, the Lansing family has split along fault lines previously hidden under a patina of suburban banality. Every family’s got secrets, but for the Lansings those secrets end up propelling them away from the border town of Lloydminster to foreign shores, prison, and beyond. 

Told via thirty-three flash fiction narratives, fractured like the psyches of its characters, Border Markers is a collection with keen edges and tough language. It’s a slice of prairie noir that straddles the line between magic and gritty realism.

See, I feel better knowing you read that and I didn’t mess it up by trying to do something I’m terrible at. I’m a storyteller, not a story-summer-upper.

What inspired you to write this book?

Through one of those silly acts of fate, I ended up living in Lloydminster, Alberta/Saskatchewan, Canada, for two years in the middle of my high school career. A rough move, to say the least. It gets cold that far north in Canada—the kind of cold where you need to plug cars in so that they’ll start in the morning. Once, I drove half way across town with a 50 foot extension cord trailing behind me on the icy roads—but that’s another story.

The other act of fate that turned me into the woman who would write Border Markers was that my parents enrolled me in the local Catholic high school so that I could continue my French Immersion studies, and not the public high school, where I would have been a lot more comfortable. But after all, I’d been studying French since kindergarten: I probably shouldn’t quit just because we moved to what I considered the frigid, middle-of-nowhere.

In the end, I really ended up loving Lloydminster, the people and the places, despite the town’s many problems.

And now we’re going to time warp a few years: I’m back in Toronto, and I’m working as a clerk in a busy maternity ward, and I get an email that sucks the air out of the room.

A friend of mine has been attacked on the street.

My friend dies later that night.

For a long time, I’m wrecked. For a long time, I don’t know how to process. When I can, I know that the town of Lloydminster, this place I thought I didn’t belong to, was the right place to go back to in order to move forward.

Of course, Border Markers is fiction. But the emotion and the weight of life in the pages comes from the town, from its people—and yeah, I’m one of them even if I don’t live within those borders today.

Places imprint themselves on you, and you imprint yourself on those places, as it should be.

What imprint do you hope your book leaves on your readers?

Always, always, always I hope that my book—and any other books I publish—hit a reader in the feels. Literature, in my heart, is always about transmission of emotion and experience. And by experiencing these things, we change. This is something I believe: Books change people, and by changing people, they change the world.

Okay, re-reading that, I come across as someone who has lofty goals. But, hey, that’s not a bad thing, right?

Do you have any writing rituals? Beverages, snacks, walking three laps around the room counter clockwise before you sit down at your desk?

I have to write alone. I guess you could say that I can be alone in a room full of people, but I need to feel isolated, and I need to feel empty.

That doesn’t mean I don’t snack. The empty feeling is more metaphorical. You know writers, we like metaphors. But not metaphorical snacks. That’s not cool.

The last three books you read:

Other than my Pitch Wars slush pile? Haha. Okay, then we need to wind back to my lovely vacation to Croatia/Montenegro this past June:

Erin Morgenstern’s THE NIGHT CIRCUS

Louis Carmain’s GUANO: A NOVEL (translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins)

Matthew Heiti’s THE CITY STILL BREATHING

Coke or Pepsi?

When I’m bad, coke with a squirt of lime, over ice. When I’m good: water with the same lime over the same ice.

What’s your best piece of advice for writers?

You have to love the process, even when you hate it. Because the process is writing. Publishing isn’t writing. It might be part of writing, but it’s not the whole thing. Oh and I’m going to add in a second, but related, thing: mental health breaks. Take them when you need them. Enjoy the time away from writing, from the process, so you can come back to it and still love it.

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Jenny Ferguson lives in a log cabin (without an internet connection) and names her pets after (dead) American presidents. She is Métis, French-Canadian, a feminist, and an activist. BORDER MARKERS is her first novel.

Twitter: @jennyleeSD

Thank you so much, Jenny, for being on the blog today! Congratulations on your debut!

BORDER MARKERS is now available to order on Amazon. And starting today, you have a chance to win a copy! Enter Jenny’s Goodreads Book Giveaway by clicking on the widget below! (Also, we’ve been told if you visit Jenny’s website, there just might be another surprise giveaway.)

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Border Markers by Jenny Ferguson

Border Markers

by Jenny Ferguson

Giveaway ends October 06, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

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

Startup Stock Photos
Startup Stock Photos

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.

via GIPHY

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?”

via GIPHY

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.

via GIPHY

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!

September Pep Talk: Lose the Timeline

Future I'm Ready

I’m going to tell you a secret.

When I got my agent back in January, I got this idea in my head. Not an idea that I really put into words to anyone except my husband. But an idea that ended up eating away at me all the same. Want to hear it?

BOOK DEAL BY FALL.

That’s what I thought to myself. After all, hadn’t I proven that I was a “good writer?” I’d scored the amazing agent, she loved my manuscript, I was going to rock revisions. It was all going to be perfect from here on out.

In the last seven months since then I’ve written and perfected a picture book, written and nearly finished revising a verse novel, drafted half of another book, read craft books, attended a writing conference, learned a ton, and become a Pitch Wars mentor.

But it’s fall now…and I haven’t sold that book yet.

And sometimes that little voice in my head that said, “Book deal by fall!” is now saying, “You’re a failure.”

But can you see how ridiculous that is?

I know I’m not alone in this. I’ve heard other people say things like, “I really wanted an agent by the time I turned thirty .” Or, “I had a goal to have a book deal within a year of Pitch Wars.” Or, “I’ve been writing for ten years and I really thought I’d be farther by now.”

It’s hard isn’t it? To work in this industry where we set goals and timelines for our projects, (write a novel in a month, finish revising by summer, beta read in a week.) but can’t do the same for the results of our work. The hard truth of publishing is that you can work and work and work but you have no control over how that work will be received.

You can’t force an agent to take you on, you can’t make an editor buy your book, and you can’t spend an hour every night making sure you only get good reviews.

Wdartboarde may make these arbitrary goals for ourselves. But in reality, you can’t put a timeline on success.
And so today I’m going to give you this pep talk.

 

There is no timeline for success. No date that if you don’t hit your goals by, you become a failure or a disappointment. Not the Pitch Wars mentee reveal date.

Not turning thirty or fifty or seventy. Not even dying. Because what you are doing right now? Creating and putting yourself out there and getting back up after you get knocked down. Learning, improving, trying again. It’s so much more than so many people ever do in their lifetime.

To pursue a dream so out of your control. And pursue it with passion and persistence. To open your heart and be vulnerable. How many people go a whole lifetime never experiencing that?

There is no deadline for success. You are not a failure or a disappointment. You are traversing a hard road. You are living a life where chasing dreams is not just something talked about in poems.

Writing requires being open and vulnerable. It requires you to pour your heart into something and then put it in front of the world to be ripped apart. It takes bravery and courage. It requires empathy and compassion. In short, it makes you a better human being. You’ve been writing for another year and feel like you have nothing to show for it? I beg to differ. Chances are you are now a better person than you were a year ago. Because that is what writing does. It changes us. It pulls us out of our comfort zone and challenges us. That may not be something you can put in your bio, but it matters.

So let go of expectations that you have no control over. By all means hope. Hope with all you have. But put away the measuring stick and the hourglass and step into that ocean of vulnerability and openness that comes with living a creative life and enjoy the swim.

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