The Importance of Questioning

by Riah

Question Marks

I recently discovered that my main character—my first official main character, who grew from a role play, was a Mary Sue.

This is an issue. Being a Mary Sue means that the character is too perfect. And more often than not, your readers have a hard time connecting with them. Characters need flaws. It’s what makes them relatable characters, because you’re not perfect, and they’re not perfect. It seems like it could be a match made in heaven.

This is about the time I started to question her and wonder about her life. Naturally, her life won’t be flawlessly easy. Imperfect lives create conflict, which is an absolute story necessity. But when she fights off monsters and bad guys with ease and isn’t even breaking a sweat, this is where me and my writing buddy realize that we needed to remove some of the qualities that make her wonderful, and replace them with qualities that make her flawed.

Being a writer, I feel as if this character is my child, best friend, sister, and guardian angel. I have spent endless days with her by my side, and I want her to be strong enough to protect me from my nightmares from the very start. I want her to be able to look over her shoulder, give the most perfect and terrifying glare and then walk coolly away as the opposition cowers.

But that isn’t relatable. Nobody is superb without a blemish. The reason any of us connect with people in stories is because they have similar struggles. The only difference is that a lot of the conflict for the people in stories comes from the villain or other anti-hero source. In real life, conflict comes to us from bad decisions we or other people make, and the consequences come naturally.

I would like to share a couple of questions I’ve been using to help me and my character find her flaws. These kind of ride away from the typical positive questions asking you to state what your character likes. We’re gonna throw ourselves in deep, because deep conflict is what our Mary Sues need (but don’t misunderstand—while the more positive questions are important, I feel as though they’re focused on a little too much. And they’re easier to answer, and therefore are often the first to be paid attention to).

 What is their past like?

Pasts are important aspects of their story. Their past specifically helped shape who they are now. How’s their family? Is it whole or broken? Or is it twisted? What about their home? Was it safe? Or was the world more threatening than their “safe place”? Did they have friends? Did they lose any friends? How? (You can expand on all of these—not only is it fun and easy to get lost doing, answering questions gives your character depth.)

What habits have they developed that don’t help them in any way?

I’m not talking about nose picking, spitting or other gross habits that would otherwise immediately come to mind. I’m talking about knee-jerk reactions or not thinking before speaking. What situations do they find themselves only digging themselves deeper into trouble? Do they fight it or not?

A yes or no response is good. Yes is good because it’s a moment where sweat breaks out and your character realizes that reacting instinctively might not be the smartest thing. No is good because it creates embarrassment and bad first impressions (or second or third impressions).

What do they hate about themselves?

Is their inability to put their thoughts into verbal conversation? Is it blushing to the max after a certain something happens or a certain someone else walks by? What thing about themselves drives them insane, that they would trade for absolutely anything?

And most importantly: What can’t they do, no matter what?

Yes, this is different from the question right before this one. For this particular question, big is excellent, and small is good.

Some examples:

Small: No matter what I do, I can’t seem to balance on anything higher than two feet in the air.

Big: no matter what, I find it really difficult just being around people.

Note: your character’s weaknesses, and difficulty thereof, can also depend on the story and its circumstances. For instance, if your character, for one reason or another, finds it difficult to crawl, maybe include a scene where they have to crawl. Medical handicaps can also be useful throughout the story, but remember: there has to be a balance, at least by the end of your story, between what they can do well, and what they struggle with. Also, the severity of your characters’ struggles can depend on pressure of their surroundings.

What’s even more important than the question of what can’t they do is this one:

How does your character fight through their greatest weakness and fears?

This is where the most important development happens.

So whatever you do, don’t just focus on the good stuff. Dive in and find a balance that works for you and your writing. And remember that your writing style will change a couple of times as you figure out how everything fits.

See you all at the conference!


 

RiahI’m Riah! I’m enthusiastic about reading and writing, but am also as enthusiastic towards music and art. I’ve recently been into makeup which includes the use of prosthetics, latex, silicone, and body paint–you know, your basic movie makeup. I’m constantly reading fan fiction, when I’m not eating or putting my time into my other interests. Like trying to figure out how I got so jumpy.

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Starting Your Book

By Heather B. Moore, 2016 TWC Chair

Success Starts Here Freeway Style Desert Landscape

When I meet writers who are looking to get published, they often ask me how I decide where to start my story, who the characters will be, and how I plot.

So as I’m preparing to write my next book, I thought I’d give you some insight into my process.

Thinking

Maybe mulling is the more correct word. I have to have the main character pretty well defined in my mind before starting to write. The secondary characters come into the story to support the main character—and sometimes they surprise even me.

Creating a Schedule

Writing, of course, is not always controlled by that effervescent muse (Annette—I’m probably using effervescent wrong). Writing is part creativity, and part science. Editing definitely falls into the science category, as well as actually completing a book. Like any writer, I’m constantly pulled in different directions. But once I decide on a book, I need to create the schedule to get it completed, and limit any other stories in my head that are trying to derail priority number 1.

Character Sketching

This is an evolving process and changes and grows as I get further into the writing process. For instance, when I write my first draft, my character motivations aren’t usually ironed out. I’m writing mostly plot and dialog. About half-way through draft 1, I’ve had to make solid decisions about my characters, so I’m adding information to my character sketches as I go. So during the 2nd draft, I’m inserting more characterization to the beginning of the book.

Point of View & Tense

I take into consideration who my audience will be and who the most important characters are. Will the story happen in real time (present tense) or past tense? Will my characters speak in first person (ideal for YA), or third person? It’s a lot of work to change this part of the process, so doing your research beforehand will save you a lot of time later.

Conflict

This goes hand in hand with character sketching. I have to ask myself what is the main conflict of the book, and of each character.

Beginning

Now that I have some basics going and I actually sit down to write, I usually concentrate on where I want the story to begin. Not to say that the first chapter I write will be the actual first chapter of the book, but I start pretty near the beginning. Before I start a chapter/scene, I ask myself: “What is the point of the chapter? What will be accomplished? What will it show that may/may not be relevant to the story as a whole?”

Creating a Scene

I create scenes in several phases:

Phase 1: I write, not caring too much about fleshing out the characters or the description, but I am nailing down the direction of the scene.

Phase 2: I revise the scene and insert more description, making more concrete decisions about the character.

Phase 3: This happens when the whole book is drafted and maybe new developments have happened along the way. Now have to go back through each scene to make sure the story is properly directed.

As you can see, creativity has just been replaced by careful analysis (science).

Okay, looking over this list makes me wonder why I even start a new book. Every writer has what works for them. My style might be convoluted, but you never know, it might work for you as well.


Heather Moore B&W

Heather B. Moore, the TWC 2016 Chair, is a USA Today bestseller and award-winning author of more than a dozen historical novels which are set in Ancient Arabia and Mesoamerica. Heather writes historicals and thrillers under the pen name H.B. Moore. She also writes women’s fiction, romance, and inspirational non-fiction under Heather B. Moore, including The Newport Ladies Book Club, the Amazon bestselling anthology series A Timeless Romance Anthology, the Aliso Creek series, and the USA Today bestseller Heart of the Ocean.

Just Do It!

by Kylee, Teen Committee Member

As my mother loves to tell everyone, those were my first words—”Just do it!”

When I was a small child, the popular Nike slogan had been ingrained in my brain, so they were the first coherent words that escaped my lips. Although, as we are all very well aware, “just doing” whatever “it” is is much easier said than done. Almost more so when it comes to writing!

You write consistently everyday for months and feel great, but then miss a day, then two, and then the next thing you know, it’s been a week, and you haven’t written. And you can feel it. If you’ve been writing and stop, you are most definitely going to feel it.

Writing Is Fingerprint of the Soul

 

Writing is a form of expression.

 

Everyone knows that, but very few people actually realize it. You know it’s true, but you don’t always treat it as such. If you’ve stopped writing, I know how hard it is to start again. I can never start slowly. I have to sit down, stare at the blank page as I eat a massive bowl of ice cream as my brain churns, then write for four hours straight! But slowly works for lots of people too. Write a little bit every day, write all at once—it doesn’t matter. Just write.

 

IMPORTANT!! I would HIGHLY recommend spilling your guts on paper before attempting to write anything else.

 

As creative people, we feel deeply, and things get stuck inside us. So your brain is either going all the time, or it feels empty. But you can’t write anything either way. Write about you. Write a story in first person. Feel it. All of your struggles—your character now has them. Hopes, dreams, fears . . . write it all. Take yourself on a well-deserved adventure.

She bled unspoken words from her fingers, 

Watched as they fell from the ends of her hands, 

Until the paper beneath her was smothered,

In thoughts she could not understand,

The words danced with glee on the paper,

As they worked upon forming straight lines,

They’d escaped from the cage where she’d locked them,

And jumped free of her bodies confines,

She couldn’t stop them from telling her stories,

Couldn’t hide them by biting her tongue,

So she watched with wide eyes as she shifted,

And each sentence was strung,

They told stories she’d long since forgotten,

Swept into the dustiest parts of her mind,

And stories she’d worked to keep hidden,

Ones she prayed nobody would find,

As she watched the word’s dances get slower,

And then finally come to a rest,

She felt a smile creep over her features, 

And a great weight lift off of her chest,

She’d thought that her words were all worthless,

But the paper left nowhere to hide,

And she finally noticed the beauty,

That she’d always kept bottled inside.

~e.h.

More Interesting in My Head

You don’t have time. I know you don’t. Nobody has time for anything. But you know how bad you want everyone to know your name as well as J.K. Rowling. Don’t lie. 😉 Everyone knows that’s exactly what you dream of in the deep dark recesses of your brain. Just admit it, ’cause DREAMING IS A GOOD THING!!! It’s okay to dream, even though it’s absolutely terrifying. Everyone is going to make fun of you cause even if you do ever manage to actually be halfway satisfied with one of those MANY stories you’ve been working on for forever, it’ll never get published. That’s way too hard. And even if it ever does actually get published, no one will ever buy it except for your Gramma, who then accidentally threw it in the fireplace because she thought it was a newspaper from 1973.

No.

It’s okay to dream.

The last thing I’ll briefly touch on is perfectionism. You want the story to be flawless. If you edit that sucker 12,000 times, if every single word in that manuscript has changed three times, and even if it started out about time-traveling monks and is now about Rebecca dumping her boyfriend for a bull rider, you’re still gonna hate it.

Doesn’t matter.

Quit stressing. Peace out, friends! Happy writing!


Kylee
Kylee Ward is a 17-year-old, fun-loving teenager who completely ADORES The Teen Writers Conference! Some of her many titles include major lover of literature, cowgirl, ballroom dancer, writer, quote addict, oldest of eight children and cosmetologist! She loves music and usually isn’t afraid to embarrass her friends (yes, there are many incidents of random song and dance, usually in aisles of grocery stores). Also, she’s apparently the only committee member who writes bios in third person.

A Non-Scary Guide to Research

by Jennifer Moore, novelist and TWC board member

You’re writing a contemporary story, so you don’t need to research, right?

WRONG!

While your characters live in basically the same world you do, there’s still plenty to learn—unless you are actually writing about a person who lives in your town, has your same job, and enjoys the same hobbies as you do. In that case, just x-out of this right now and get back to your MS.

But, for those of us who are not writing about people just like us living in our town, there’s plenty we need to know.

First of all, setting.

I love maps and travel guides. Most states will send you a packet with all sorts of information. Those are super cool, lots of pictures. Of course Google maps, and an almanac—you want to know what the weather is like. And does it get dark early in the winter? Things like that add depth to your story and make the reader feel like they are one step deeper inside. That’s what we want, right?

And find movies shot in the location you’re writing about. That gives you a whole lot of setting ideas and helps you picture it, especially if it’s somewhere you’ve never been. Coffee table books, post cards, and of course Google images.

Next up: culture

This is tricky. You can’t just learn a culture. But you can find out bits and pieces of what people there are like, and that will not only make you look like an expert on the region, it will help with your character development.

I like history books for this. Both fiction and non-fiction.  History of a place tells why the people there act the way they do now.

And what better way to learn about a culture than its stories?

And Now for Language

It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, every region has its own distinct way of speaking. Even twenty miles away from you r house, you can find something unique about how people talk. So, learn about it. I’m not saying you have to be fluent in a new language, but an accent, a unique speech pattern, even a few words from your character’s native tongue makes them more interesting. And who doesn’t like reading slang from somewhere new? It’s fun and can help make your story richer.

Keep your eyes open, you’ll find facts and interesting tidbits that can add to your story in the funniest places. I found this article in an airplane magazine about Irish surfers. Did you know they surf in Ireland? I didn’t. But a character in my Irish book would definitely know.

Surfing Article

Any time I go to a museum or some sort of historical place, I get the souvenir guides. They don’t cost much, and there are tons of things to remember. Plus, again pictures.

Museum

And last of all: Don’t be afraid to ask

Something I’ve learned is people love talking about themselves, their job, their family, their hometown. Just get up the nerve to ask.

I wrote a book about a girl that grew up on a cattle ranch and so I asked someone I knew about it, and he took me to his ranch when they were branding—it was an entirely new world to me, one that I can write into my story with details of smell, (bad) sounds, sights that I wouldn’t have ever known without experiencing it for myself.

Cattle Ranch

So, get out into the trenches, writers!  Don’t be afraid to get dirty, and of course take lots of notes, you never know when you’ll need them.


 

Jennifer MooreJennifer Moore is a passionate reader and writer of all things romance due to the need to balance the rest of her world that includes a perpetually traveling husband and four active sons, who create heaps of laundry that is anything but romantic.

Jennifer has a B.A. in Linguistics from the University of Utah and is a Guitar Hero champion. She lives in northern Utah with her family, but most of the time wishes she was aboard a British frigate during the age of sail.

10 (Contradictory!) Writing Tips

By Mikayla, Teen Committee Member

Arrows Opposite

Confession time: I’ve struggled with knowing what to write for this post. Like, really struggled. Life has been insanity, and that nasty little editor in my head (who I so lovingly call Anderson) has been at work, not allowing me to enjoy the time I spend writing. But– somehow—I’ve finally discovered something to talk about.

The following are 10 pieces of advice that I’ve followed. They may seem contradictory (okay, they ARE…), but we are all different, so different tactics will work for different people. And I’m going to do all of this with the help of some of my favorite fandoms!

  1. Share your writing with others.

Sharing your WIP(s) with friends, family, and other trusted individuals can help to provide needed and productive insight. Much as Harry shares what he knows with Ron and Hermione (and occasionally others), getting outside points of view can help you see what track you should be on, and can help encourage you to keep going. 

  1. Keep your writing to yourself.

I told you this would be contradictory. Sometimes the best thing for you to do is keep your precious story to yourself, at least until the right moment. Harry sometimes kept the things he knew to himself, waiting until the right time to tell people. You need to pick what’s best for you. I know for me, once I share a story with someone, my enthusiasm about it fizzles out.

  1. Write for an imagined audience.

Remember when Anne Shirley was first trying to get published? Or when she let her imagination run wild? She always had an idea of who she wanted these tales to be for, whether some distinguished publisher, or her dear friends. Having an “ideal” reader in mind can assist you in knowing how to guide your story.

  1. Write for yourself.

If you aren’t satisfied with your story, who will be? It wasn’t until Anne looked deep inside herself and wrote the story close to her heart, without any thought of it being published, that she created something that she could truly be proud of. Sometimes, we need only to write the stories that we want to read, in order to find the greatest success.

  1. Find a writing buddy.

I actually just found my own—the TWC Teen Committee’s own Ellie Robinson! Although we haven’t been at it for long, having someone to talk to about my writerly woes and to ask help from has been great! It feels much like Sherlock, who has John to talk to when he’s making his deductions. As Sherlock builds off of his friend, he becomes even more outstanding.

  1. Write alone.

Sometimes, we just need to be alone. We’re writers; the profession nearly demands that we be solitary. Sherlock uses his mind palace, not speaking to John or anyone else for long periods. Although this isn’t advisable, sometimes just being accountable to yourself allows you a bit of freedom.

  1. Plot the heck out of your story before you start.

It’s good to know where you’re going, like having a map or GPS for a road trip. Or how the Avengers come up with a plan before they charge into battle. Plotting your book is like having your battle strategy; it’s at the ready to help you in times of crisis.

  1. Fly by the seat of your pants.

Sometimes, the best discoveries are made when we aren’t looking for them. And sometimes the world can only be saved by rushing blindly into a situation, with only a vague sense of what you’re about to do. It provides a sense of freedom . . .

Isn’t that right, Cap?

  1. Ask for development help.

Getting assistance to figure out exactly where you want your book to go is a great thing. I used to pace around houses with my friends to develop my story ideas. It’s similar to how Walt Disney had his teams of Imagineers, and they would discuss film ideas. It provides you with a broader image of what your story can be.

  1. Pull from your own brain.

Sometimes when we get others’ help, we feel an obligation to use and keep whatever their suggestions were, not allowing our stories to freely unfold. Sometimes Walt chose to make decisions himself, and his stories blossomed. Being free from obligations can give us more creative freedom.


 

There you have it—10 very contradictory points that I hope will help you.

You can mix and match which points you follow, follow bits of all of them, or toss all of them to the wind and completely ignore me.

You’re an individual, and so what works for your writing style will be different from anyone else’s. Just keep writing!

See you this summer, Teen Writers!


Mikayla

Hello, I am Mikayla! I am 16 years old, and a fangirl to the core. Sherlock, Doctor Who, Harry Potter…the list goes on and on! I love writing dystopian and fantasy stories that pull you right into the world, but my absolute favorite is writing fan fiction! Sherlock is my forté, and if you ask any of my friends, they will attest to the power I have to crush your soul and break your heart with my fan fics. I guess that explains why their nickname for me is Regina. I am absolutely thrilled to be a part of this committee, and cannot wait to work with so many fabulous teens and writers!

Poisoned Apples

by Julie Wright, novelist and TWC board member

109ee3e96697ed9de793a8b539215839

A few years ago, I discovered the TV series Once Upon a Time. For someone like me, an avid junkie of all things fairytale, this is a delightful series.

While at ABC’s website streaming the first few episodes (then available for a short time only), I found the comments list. It was during the second episode. I was waiting for the show to buffer so scrolled down to see what else there was to do, because I am a chronic multi-tasker and really hate even a few seconds of idle time.

One of the comments:

“Inconsistency with the apples . . . she says honeycrisp tree then hands Emma a red delicious. I know, I know, it’s small, but details like that are important to me.”

There were several comments about the honeycrisp. Apparently a lot of people know their apples. I didn’t actually catch the error, because I don’t know apples, but I found the comments interesting—comments like, “I know it’s small, but details like that are important to me.”

There is power in getting the details right.

Don’t get me wrong. I totally understand the frustration that research brings. I know what it’s like to get to a place where I simply don’t know how it really works. That’s one of the reasons I set aside a book I’d felt very strongly about. I was lost in the research and realized that until I could commit to the research, I had no business writing the book. It’s easy to let little details go while thinking, “How many people really know what a honeycrisp apple looks like anyway?”

The answer is: A lot of people.

And their knowing the right answer when the writer got it wrong yanks them out of the story. Some readers will roll their eyes and dive back into the story. Others will roll their eyes and TRY to dive back in, but they’ll keep surfacing so they can do another eye roll, and the book loses some of its original excitement. And others will roll their eyes and walk away because they can’t get past the fact that the writer got it wrong.

For them, a wrong apple turned into something toxic—poisonous to their ability to suspend disbelief.

It takes time to get the details right, but it takes even more time to try to win back readers who feel like you’ve failed them. Don’t set a volcano in Sweden if you aren’t sure about whether or not such a thing could exist. Don’t trust to just Google or Wiki for your sources (though they are great resources). Take a moment and call the hospital to talk to their night shift nurse to find out a detail about how his/her shift works or what protocol is for seeing a patient. Call the post office to find out how much it would cost to mail a pot of gold back to Ireland. Call an STD hotline to find out actual statistics (though they might ask you what your symptoms are and think the “writing a book” is just a cover story). Go ride a horse, go rock climbing, go . . . DO whatever it is you have your character doing (within reason—if your character is jumping off the Empire State Building, you definitely should not do that).

I had a teenager who wanted to be a writer ask me for the most important bit of advice I felt I could give. I told him to: Go. Live. Life.

See, taste, smell, hear, touch life. Your own experiences are your best research.

Bite into a honeycrisp.

But make sure not to pick one from the tree where the queen used to live. Better to not take chances.

 


 

julies

Julie Wright has written sixteen novels and coauthored three. She won the 2010 Whitney award for best romance with Cross My Heart and the Crown Heart award for The Fortune Café. She is agented by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger Inc. She has one husband, three kids, two salamanders, one dog, and a varying amount of fish (depending on attrition). She hates mayonnaise.

 

The Importance of Taking Breaks

by Ellie, Teen Committee Member

beach shoes

Breaks can be a lifesaver. But only good breaks. Not the procrastinating kind that leads to surfing social media.

Sundays Off: I’ve chosen not to write on Sundays for religious reasons. I’ve heard multiple published authors talk about making the same decision. Not only do I feel as if I’ve been spiritually blessed because of this, but I feel much better physically and mentally.

In Creative Writing we were required to complete NaNoWriMo. We also received participation points for writing daily. My teacher allowed me to skip Sunday if I still reached 50,000 words for the month. It was a ton of work, but I lived for Sundays. I was the only one in class to complete the challenge, and I strongly believe it was because of the break. Sundays were the one day I could relax and recharge my creative juices.

Read!: I’ve found that there is so much you can do to get your brain moving without writing. Reading is fantastic. Read books in all genres (yes, even nonfiction) and write down whatever gives you an idea. If you find a character trait that fascinates you or a time period you like or anything, write yourself a note. Then, when you are trying to figure out what to write, pull out your notes.

Live a Little: Sometimes after school, your brain is too dead to write. So instead of taking a four-hour nap that will later seem like a waste of time, go into the world. Take a walk, people watch, or be around friends. The things you see and hear will add to your knowledge while strengthening the person you’re trying to become.


Ellie

Hello! I’m Ellie. I am sixteen. I burn microwave popcorn no matter what. I love nature, music, and all things that seem to be edged with magic and adventure. I love to write fantasy and realistic fiction.

I read whatever I can get my hands on, and I am very fond of many of the writings of the authors that teach at the TWC. I am very excited to attend the conference again and to be a part of the committee.