Character and new agent Alexandra Penfold

Alexandra Penfold

Agent Alexandra Penfold talks character.

In her first event as an agent, former Simon & Schuster editor Alexandra Penfold spent a weekend teaching writers about character, and I was thrilled to be among them.

After an impressive career in book publishing, Alexandra moved to the other side of the desk this year, accepting an agenting position at Upstart Crow Literary. And after spending the weekend listening to her lectures and workshops at The Writing Barn, I know she’ll be a brilliant agent. She’s smart, passionate, insightful and a lot of fun.

At The Writing Barn, the first of the venue’s Advanced Writing Workshops, Alexandra gave two lectures on characters. “Characters are the heart and soul of any story,” she said, adding that the story should flow naturally from character.

Readers know when plot is being forced and characters are doing things they wouldn’t normally do just to advance the plot.

So what is plot? It should come from what the character needs or wants and what’s standing in his or her way.

Samantha Clark and Varsha Bajaj

Me (l.) chatting with author Varsha Bajaj at the cocktail party that kicked off the weekend.

Readers also like to figure things out for themselves, Alexandra pointed out, and that’s why showing character, instead of telling, is so important. Character can be shown through their decisions and actions, but their emotion also can be revealed through things like how they walk and sit. Do they walk tall or hunch over, for example.

Alexandra gave us a worksheet of questions that we can ask our characters. I’ve seen a lot of character interviews online with questions like what our characters’ favorite food is, favorite color, what their bedroom looks like. That’s all fine, but I like Alexandra’s better because it offers questions that are linked to the emotions of our characters, such as, what’s the last thing our character thinks about at night and the first thing in the morning? How do our characters think of themselves? How does that compare to how others see them? And more…

Bethany Hegedus and Alexandra Penfold

Author and The Writing Barn owner Bethany Hegedus (c.) introduced Alexandra (far r.) to an eager crowd.

Characters can also be shown in word choice. And Alexandra read to us some wonderful examples of this, including the opening chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Anne of Green Gables and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. All brilliant.

Alexandra certainly knows a lot about character, and passed it on in a fun and informative manor. If you’re writing YA, middle-grade or quirky picture books, I definitely recommend you query her.

Next up in The Writing Barn’s 2013 Advanced Writing Workshop is National Book Award novelist Sara Zarr in April and award-winning author Francisco X. Stork in November. I can’t wait.

Three Cs Book Review: The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy

I’ve been wanting to do book reviews for a while to spotlight the great books I’m reading, but I wanted to lean my reviews toward writing and editing and couldn’t come up with quite the right format. Until I had a sleepless night during the Texas Library Association convention in Houston earlier this month and inspiration struck.

So here’s my first Three Cs Book Review, Three Cs for Character, Conflict and Concept. In each review, I’ll focus on these three — very important — aspects of a book.

In my first Three Cs Book Review, I’m thrilled to be picking apart The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, the debut novel by the wonderful Nikki Loftin and a fun middle-grade adventure.

The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid AcademyFirst a little about the book. Sinister Sweetness follows Lorelei as she starts a new school, Splendid Academy, which was practically built overnight after her old school mysteriously burned down. Splendid Academy looks to be too good to be true, with bowls of candy on every desk, optional homework, gourmet meals served by waiters in the cafeteria and the best playground any kid could want. When her new friend Andrew goes missing, Lorelei must solve the mystery about the school and take on their beautiful teacher, who’s really a witch.

The book isn’t out yet. I was lucky enough to beg Nikki for an advanced reader copy. But The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy will be released on Aug. 21 from Razorbill and is available for pre-order now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indiebound, among others.

Now onto the review…

Concept: Sinister Sweetness is definitely a high-concept story. It’s Hansel & Gretel for a modern audience. Instead of the gingerbread house, Lorelie (Gretel) and Andrew (Hansel) are enticed by Splendid Academy. And they’re not alone. Lorelie’s older brother Bryan, her best friend Allison and lots of other children from her neighborhood are thrilled to be attending the new school. And who wouldn’t? Here’s the description of the playground (note: the excerpts I’ve used are taken from the ARC, so the wording might be slightly different in the final version):

“It was the most elaborate, most breathtaking playground I had ever seen. It took up what must have been two acres, with every single piece of equipment you could imagine. There were monkey bars, swings, climbing frames and slides, all brightly painted and gleaming with newness. I even saw some of the old equipment that was practically outlawed at other schools — I counted two carousels, four seesaws, a high bar, and two high balance beams. … [Plus] a life-sized chessboard with red and black painted pieces as big as me. Just beyond that was a rock-climbing wall that must have been thirty feet tall, and two zip lines that stretched from the edge of a soccer field to a tall platform near a half-sized football field, complete with goalposts.”

And in the classroom:

“Every desk was decorated in gleaming jewel colors, and the name of each student was painted in large, looping cursive letters. Mine, which was next to Allison’s, had been written on with gold ink. I’d always liked the way my name looked in cursive, but this was the best handwriting I’d ever seen. The giant L was gorgeous; it looked like a swan swimming toward the edge of the desk.”

Writing in the first-person point of view of Lorelie, Nikki has done a great job of letting readers see the space the character’s in from her perspective. We don’t just get descriptions, we see everything through Lorelie’s eyes and understand how it feels from her emotions. Notice how she doesn’t just describe the lettering, but how Lorelie reacts to it, and what that L reminds her of tells us a little about the character.

Nikki changed the witch of the gingerbread house into a teacher, a beautiful, kind teacher who lulls Lorelie into her sinister plans. So, teachers who eat children and children enticed by a fabulous, shiny new school? High-concept indeed.

Character: The main character, Lorelie, is a determined yet self-conscious girl. Like many of us, she’s trying to figure out who she is and her place in the world. But for her, the dilemma is made worse because her mother died and she now has to accept a step-mother into their family.

This is where Nikki does a great job of delving deeper into the characters. Lorelie isn’t just a girl enticed by a gingerbread house type of school. She’s also a girl who desperately misses her mother — a fact known all too well by Splendid Academy’s evil teacher. It adds an addition layer to the Lorelie as a character and to the story as a whole.

And the writing gives us a clear view of Lorelie’s personality, a strong voice that we can hold onto and follow throughout the book.

“I stepped back, stunned. I didn’t even know her! If this was the sort of teacher they had here, forget it. They could bus me across the district. I didn’t care.”

The other main character of the story, Andrew, is also not two-dimensional. Facing childhood obesity, Andrew understands that food isn’t always your best friend, and when Splendid Academy puts whatever the children want on the menu, he becomes suspicious.

Not stereotypical, Andrew is smart and brave, although underappreciated by many of the children. And his strength helps Lorelei when times get tough.

All of Nikki’s characters are well-rounded, from Lorelie’s dad, who’s loving but pre-occupied with his new wife, to her best friend Allison, who’s taken in by the splendor of the school.

Conflict: With a school that calls to children and a witch who wants to eat them, this novel is obviously stuffed with conflict. But from that basic Hansel & Gretel inspired idea, Nikki took the story a step further, giving it more depth with other issues from the characters.

Lorelie’s relationship with her older brother isn’t stellar, although she’d like it to be better:

“I wished I could get Bryan to hand out with me again. We never did anything together anymore, not since Mom died. Well, besides fight.”

And she’s not getting along with her stepmother Molly and struggling with the fact that her father has asked her to welcome Molly into the family.

“…As if Molly knew anything about children. She’d never had any, and I’d heard her telling a friend on the phone she was glad she only had to be a mother two of the darn things. Except she used a different word than darn.”

But to really pile on the conflict, Nikki shows us that Lorelie is unhappy with herself. As much as she tries to be a good daughter, sister and best friend, she believes she’s a horrible person because she killed her mother.

Whether this is true or not isn’t important — the answer is in the book, and I’ll let you find out for yourself — what’s important is that the character development adds extras layers to this story and to the character. Even if readers don’t feel that they’re responsible for their mother’s death, they all have felt at least one time that they weren’t enough. We can empathize with Lorelie and understand how her pain affects the decisions she makes that drive this story.

Overall: The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy is a fun and inventive story, a re-imagined fairy tale that’s entertaining throughout. Like many of the best fairy takes, it has dark undertones, but nothing that’s too scary for the middle-grade audience it’s intended for. And it has enough depth to keep older readers happy too. I highly recommend this novel both for pleasure reading and as learning reading for writers.

Seven deadly sins of novel writing

Angela Ackerman (a.k.a. The Bookshelf Muse) has finished her collection of posts about her seven deadly sins of novel writing, and they’re good to read for writers at all stages of a manuscript. On Monday, I’ll be beginning what I think — hope — will be my last revision of my current novel, and as I go through the chapters, I’m going to make sure I haven’t made any of these sins.

Here are her sins:

1. Keeping the stakes too low for the characters. Conflict keeps our worlds going round.

2. Characters that don’t measure up. Characters should be unique, yet natural; likeable, yet flawed; active, yet true to character.

3. A weak voice. To quote Angela, “Voice is the song of the story, the heartbeat of the main character. It is nothing short of magic.”

4. Plot holes. Including, illogical steps, saggy middles and coincidences.

5. Bland writing. Use all five senses and choose words wisely.

6. Drowning the dialog. Too much, too little and “said” vs. anything else.

7. Giving away too much. Showing vs. telling and how much to reveal.

Thanks for these, Angela. A great guide.

Can you think of any more deadly sins of novel writing? What sins have you committed lately?

Make the most of 2010

Revision update: Things have been going well. I’ve been steaming through the chapters, getting about six done in the past few days. It feels good.

Utah Children’s Writers’ Scott Rhoades wrote a fun New Year’s blog post yesterday with some ideas to help writers in this year. I thought I’d share my favorites and add some of my own.

From Scott’s list:

Make more time for writing. I’ve let this slide over the holidays, but I’m renewing my dedication to writing every day. It helps my writing, and makes me much happier. 🙂

Extend your writing circle. Writing is so solitary, and it’s great to go to conferences, local and far away, and make friends who can broaden your support group. I’ve got two conferences in the first two months, and I’m excited about them.

Make every day an adventure. This is similar to something I read in The Artists Way years ago and have always kept to heart, that to replenish our pool of creativity, we have to get out and inspire ourselves, either by visiting a museum, or going for a walk along a pretty street. It would be great to do it every day, but with work and everything, that can be tough. But do it as often as you can, and when you can’t get out, here’s a tip from me: Take a couple seconds to Google “flowers images” or “architecture images” or whatever inspires you and enjoy what comes up.

Now some of my own:

Set goals. Don’t make them too big or too small. Set goals that you can reasonably attain in a short time and reward yourself when you reach them. There’s nothing more encouraging than a feeling of accomplishment.

Read, read, read. Reading is the best way to learn to write better, and reading the bestseller books in the genre you write, is great research — as well as wonderful entertainment. Seek out the best of the best, classic and new, and read.

Read blogs. No matter where you are in your writing journey, it’s a good idea to keep up with what’s going on in the industry. But blogs also help us see that we’re not alone. The blogosphere is filled with writers at all stages of their amateur and professional writing careers, and we can learn from them, empathise with them, by inspired by them.

Keep your characters in your head. No matter what you’re doing, washing dishes, driving, walking the dog, cooking, laundry, let your characters come into your mind and play around. Listen to them talking. Keep them in your head, and when you sit down at your computer or notebook to write, they’ll be right there waiting for you. And they’ll have figured out the next part of the story already.

Got any tips for making the most of your writing in 2010?

Write On!

Getting to know your characters

Revision update: Nada! I’m away on vacation, but I’m going to get back to it soon.

Anita Nolan posted a link to character questionnaires from the Gotham Writers Workshop. They’re very useful, and I plan to bookmark the page, but it made me think of how we get to know our characters.

I read about using character questionnaires a few years ago. Basically, the questionnaires pose a bunch of questions and you fill in the answers as they pertain to your character(s).

The problem for me, however, is that I learn about my characters as I write the story, often having to go back to earlier chapters and make adjustments because of things I’ve learned in later ones. So, filling out a questionnaire before I’ve started to write is difficult. I don’t know those answers yet, and just making something up seems forced; the character tells me the answers as the story develops through the choices he or she makes.

However, I do think questionnaires can be useful at all parts of your progress:

  • Before you start writing: Running through a questionnaire can help you decide what you know about a character so far and help you figure out what you’d like to find out as you write the story. But, don’t be discouraged if you don’t know all the answers yet, and don’t try to force them. This is a time for awareness.
  • As you write: Everytime you learn something about your character, write it down somewhere to save and see if it answers any of the questionnaire questions. Remind yourself of the questions you still don’t have answers to, so you can look for the answers as you continue to write.
  • When you’re stuck: If you’ve lost track of your character and/or story, you can revisit the questionnaire and the answers you have so far, fill in any new answers you have, and see if any of these point you in the right direction for the next part of the story.
  • When you’re finished the first draft: Once the whole story is done, finish the questionnaire as much as you can. If there are still questions you can’t answer, maybe they’re a part of your character’s life that you don’t need for the story, but try to imagine what they would be anyway based on what you know of the character. Write down everything you can, a bible about your character’s needs, wants, feelings, decisions, choices, beliefs, likes, dislikes, etc.
  • Before you revise: After you’ve given yourself a break from your manuscript for a while, use the answers for your questionnaire to familiarize yourself with your characters again. Then, as you revise, make sure every action, decision, etc., all match who the character is at that part of the story.

How do you use questionnaires? How do you get to know your characters?

Write On!

How research can lead a writer

Revision update: Too many late nights, and I haven’t moved forward. I must get up earlier tomorrow!

Today, Day By Day Writer is thrilled to be participating in the blog of author Therese Walsh, who’s debut novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, was just released. Therese has written a fabulous guest post on research and how it can help in our writing.

Before we get to that, however, the book’s publisher, Random House, has provided the first three chapters of the book in an online reader. Check it out here.

And now I pass the floor, er, blog, to Therese … take it away!

Therese WalshWhen I first began writing my debut novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, it was not intended to become what it did—the story of twin sisters and their everlasting bond—but was rather a simple best-friends-fall-in-love story that would kick off at an auction house. The story changed because of research that led me to interesting facts. The item of interest at the auction was a Javanese dagger with a wavy blade called a keris. It wasn’t until later, after a friend’s innocent inquiry, that I researched the blade and discovered a storyteller’s goldmine.

Some pros hate the idea of a writer stalling in her tracks for research, because it’s simply too easy to become derailed. Just do the minimum, they suggest, then get back to writing. Truth is, The Last Will of Moira Leahy wouldn’t have become what it did without the keris, and I wouldn’t have known about the keris if not for my research-related diversion. I am both a pantser and a pauser. I write as the story leads me, and I pause to “listen” along the way. Some might listen to their muse, and I do that too, but I also listen to my research. Hard. I don’t pause to research minor details necessarily, but I pause to research anything plot related, and I allow that my research may turn the course of the story. Sometimes it does.

The Last Will of Moira LeahyAn even more potentially impactful kind of research is immersion research, when you visit the place of your story and put yourself in situations resembling those of your characters. I visited Castine, Maine, for example, while writing The Last Will. My perceptions as well as my interactions with the people there influenced the plot of my novel, turned several characters onto different paths, and generally helped me to visualize the novel better than I ever would have without that experience.

I’m a researcher at heart, so I am biased toward lots and lots of research, but I can attest to its power. It can help your stories become more powerful by:

  • helping you identify new ways to inject a situation with conflict
  • providing you with first-hand accounts that can lend authenticity to your work
  • allowing you to hone in on the best settings for your scenes

and of course

  • leading you to story ideas you never imagined, that can turn your story into something so much better than you would’ve created left to your own devices.

I know this to be true. My personal zigs and zags made a world of difference for The Last Will—a story that might otherwise have been as predictable and commonplace as a straight line.

What is your relationship with research? How do you incorporate research into your writing? Do you control it, let it run wild over your pages, or do you practice something in between?

Write on, all!

Writing creates writing

Current word count: 19,901

New words written: 1,067

Words til goal: 20,099 / 436 words a day til the end of September

I had a good writing day and made my weekend goal in one day. Yay! Hopefully I can do the same tomorrow. We’ll see. The story is coming together again now that the characters are clearer. It makes such a difference.

But I’ve noticed two interesting things:

1. Although this novel is steaming along, I must admit, as I get closer to the third act, I am nervous I’ll mess it up. I felt the same way when I was writing my first novel, intimidated by the ending. There’s a voice deep at the back of my head that says, Ok, so you’ve been doing all right up to now, but there’s no way you’re going to write a really great ending, the kind readers will remember and cherish and want to read over and over again.

I’m ignoring this voice, keeping it far away. But it’s there. And I every time I write, I think, just see what the characters are doing today. Of course, my subconcious knows that with every word I write, I’m closer to that intimidating ending. I just won’t think about that.

Do you have this problem?

2. Last week, I had an idea for a new novel, and added it to my list of ideas. But it keeps creeping in. The characters are waving at me, not too close, but they’re there. The idea keeps popping into my head, and expanding. It’s as though my brain is on a creative streak, and I think it’s mostly due to the continued writing. I think writing creates more writing. When I started writing my second novel, it gave me a creative boost that helped me go back and revise my first novel — for the better, I think. Writing creates writing.

I’m beginning to feel addicted. 🙂

Do you?

Write On!

Chapter One

Current word count: 16,822

Words written today: 394

Words til goal: 23,178 / 367 words a day til the end of September

Additional writing: revised two chapters in first novel. Now on chapter 20 of 33.

Yesterday I said that, as well as working on my new book, I have been revising my original novel, especially the opening chapter. In fact, I moved a lot of parts around so that a scene in chapter two became the new opener, a scene from the original chapter one was placed in the new chapter two, and 4,000 words were cut. The opener of this book has had more facelifts than Joan Rivers (ok, maybe not that many, but close 🙂 ), but this is normal, especially for the opening scenes.

To me, chapter one is the most important parts of a book, because it has to draw in the reader. The first few sentences have the biggest job of all. After chapter one, the second most important part of a manuscript is every other sentence, because each one has to keep the reader turning pages, and those at the end must resonate with the reader enough that he or she will want to treasure that book, recommend it to friends and seek out more by the same author. But that’s all after the reader has been enticed by chapter one.

There’s a generalization that most of the time, what’s written in chapter three is really the best start for the story because it takes a while for the writer to get into the story. This was very true for this manuscript. As this opener has had so much work done on it, I thought it would be interesting to detail it for you guys:

First draft of chapter one: POV not protagonist’s; scene showed the discovery of an item that is the reason for the protagonist to move.

Second draft of chapter one: same reason for scene but I tried a different POV, again not the protagonist (he can’t be in this scene). The reason I tried this second version of basically the same scene was because the first version was in an adult’s POV and I thought it would be better in a kid’s.

Third draft of chapter one: at a writer’s retreat, an agent suggested I use the same POV throughout, which meant I couldn’t use the item discovery scene as my protagonist couldn’t be in that scene. So my old chapter two, in which the protagonist is back home and first learns about them moving, became chapter one. This scene was reworked about three times for action as I got to know the character, but I’m not including them as individual drafts here.

Fourth draft of chapter one: In my new chapter one, my protagonist learned about them moving, but in chapter two he learned more about it as he eavesdropped on his parents talking, then in chapter three they moved. In the fourth draft, I realized that the story doesn’t start until they get to the new place, so I cut down all that back story to a couple paragraphs (at least it ended up being a couple paragraphs after many edits) and put it in chapter three, which became my new chapter one.

NOTE: All of this was before I had even finished the book! It was around this time that I got more dedicated, starting writing every day, and decided to forge ahead to the end of the book before I did any more editing.

In subsequent drafts of the full novel, the chapter one didn’t change too much from that fourth draft, except getting tighter and using better word choices. Until…

Fifth complete draft of chapter one: This was my latest reworking of the section, in which chapter two (technically, I think it would have been the original chapter four) became chapter one. Now in the opening scene, he has already moved in and is starting to explore his surroundings, the surroundings that bring him into the story.

I haven’t listed all the little word, sentence structure revisions that have been done in the various chapter ones. This lists just the major reworkings. But rest assured, there were numerous revisions for writing.

This kind of reworking is not unusual. Each story is different, and every time you write a new story, it will be different. But working on finding the best opening scene can take multiple tries. But it’s important work, necessary work. Many readers won’t buy a book unless they’ve read the first few pages and want to read more. I’m like that, and I know I’m not alone. If I’m interested in the title, I’ll read the jacket copy, and if I’m interested in the jacket copy, I’ll open the book and read the first few pages. If I’m not bored, I’ll buy the book. So, to satisfy readers like myself, I have to make sure that those opening pages really sing.

In my critique group a few weeks ago, a member of the group brought in his third revision of his chapter one and he sighed — with a smile — saying he didn’t think it would be his last revision. No, it won’t be. But that’s ok. It’s part of the process and part of the journey of writing the story. As I wrote all those chapter ones that eventually got cut, I learned about the characters. I now know more about the characters than what’s in the final book, and I think that’s the way it should be.

So, if you’re on your third and fourth version of your chapter one, don’t worry, you’ll find the perfect opener, even if it takes a few more drafts. The important thing is to keep trying.

How’s your writing or revising coming?

Write On!

Day 4

Again checking in late in the day, but again reporting about an hour of writing this morning, as part of my unofficial participation in National Novel Writing Month.

I stuck with the new story this morning, and again the words flowed out. It’s strange; I approach it every morning with trepidation because I know that I don’t have a full plan worked out for the story. I didn’t even have the character fleshed out, not even a name. But, so far, the story is pouring out of me. I’m not sure yet if it’ll be a short story or something bigger. We’ll see. For now, I’m just exploring and it’s fun.

Surprises are the way the character is shaping himself, showing me who he is. His backstory keeps popping up, and I just write it down. I almost feel as though I’m taking dictation rather than writing.

Another surprise is that both that character and my novel are playing around in my head. The new story has definitely boosted my creativity. My muse is strutting around inside my brain and doesn’t seem to mind which story he/she focuses on. In the car today, I found myself inside my new character’s head, seeing the world through his eyes and it was fun. But then later, I found myself inside my novel character’s head.

It’s a good sign the my novel character is popping up. He hasn’t provided a solution to the scene just yet, but the fact that he’s visiting, breaking into my thoughts, lets me know he’s ready to talk — he just has to figure out what he wants to say. That’s ok. I’ll give him some time.

And in the meantime, the new character is proving to be very fun.

How’s your writing going?

Write On!