All posts by Darcy Pattison

About Darcy Pattison

Author, blogger and writing teacher Darcy Pattison is published in eight languages. Her books includes children's picture books, how-to-write books, teacher resource books, and middle grade novels.

30 Jul

What Went Wrong? Story Conflict and How to Make it Stronger

In your story or novel, something must go wrong.

Without conflict, there is no story. As you develop a plot, it’s helpful to think about what is the worst thing that could happen and then figure out if you can make that even worse?

The absolute worst thing–the thing your character fears most of all–MUST happen in the climax of the story. That’s good plotting and storytelling. Building up to that point, you should have a series of conflicts that deepen, that reach out into every aspect of your character’s life, that affects friends, family, or even the survival of the planet or the human species. The series should have a logical progression from bad to worse to worst.

Up the stakes. On way to escalate the conflict is to up the stakes by answering the “So-What?” question. This bad thing is going to happen. So what? Who cares? Who will it affect? How badly will it affect them? When the answer is that the worst thing will affect the most people, you have the stakes well in hand.

Up the emotions. However, even for stories with the fate of the world in the balance are boring if the reader doesn’t care. This means you must provide a wide range of emotions for your characters from the most ardent love to the deepest sorrow. How can I make my character laugh? What would wrench his/her heart? What is the deepest emotion possible in your story? Create that emotional impact. Then take it one level deeper.

Sacrifice. Characters who stupidly volunteer for kitchen duty aren’t sympathetic; they are stupid. However, a reluctant hero who only volunteers to save a loved one–that creates empathy. In HUNGER GAMES, Katniss volunteers to join the Hunger Games so that her younger sister won’t have to. This willingness to sacrifice herself for a loved one elevates here–and the ensuing conflict to new heights.

Jeopardy. When a character is in jeopardy–danger is looming and drawing nearer by the second–readers are on the edge of their seats. Violence, just for the sake of violence, does little to create the emotions needed. Instead, a character must be in danger and must stay in danger for a long time. When I first watched the movie, ALIEN, my stomach hurt because I was so scared. That’s jeopardy. The aliens were coming–and the movie drew out that suspense and jeopardy forever!

This marine is in jeopardy!

This marine is in jeopardy!



28 Jul

How to Write a Book Series: 3 Crucial Decisions

To write a series of books, my biggest tip is to plan ahead. You may get by with writing one book on the fly—plenty of people do that. But for a series to hang together, to have cohesion and coherence, planning is essential. Here are three decisions you should make early in the planning process.

Decision #1: What type of series will you write?

Strategies for a series vary widely. For THE HUNGER GAMES, the story is really one large story broken down into several books. Or, to say it another way, there is a narrative arc that spans the whole series. Yes, each book has a narrative arc and ends on a satisfying note; however, we read the next book because we want to know what happens in the overall series arc. Jim Butcher’s ALERA CODEX is another series with an overall series arc; it was fun to hang out in this world for a long time.

On the other hand, series such as Agatha Christie mysteries (in fact, many mystery series fall into this category) are stand-alone books. What continues from one book to the next is the characters, the setting and milieu, and the general voice and tone of the stories. Once a reader gets to know a character, s/he wants to spend more time with that character. These readers just want to hang out with a friend, your character. A sub-category is the series of standalone books that adds a final chapter to set up the next book in the series and leaves you with a cliff-hanger.

I distinctly remember when I first read Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter series about Mars. Each story is a standalone novel, but he hooked me hard. I started reading at noon on a Saturday and found myself hotfooting it to the bookstore at 4:30 pm because they closed at 5 pm and I had to have the second book to read immediately.

Rarer is the series that crosses genres. This type series begins with one genre, but moves into other genres as the lives of the characters progress. For example, a romance might continue with a mystery for the second book. And the third might move into a supernatural genre. These are rarer because one reason a reader sticks with a series is that they know what they are getting. It will be this type of a story, told in this sort of way and will involve these characters.

On the other hand, some series unabashedly cross genres but they do it for every book. Rick Riordian’s Percy Jackson series is a combination of mythology and action/thriller with a dose of mystery.

Notice that this decision centers on the plot of the stories in the series. Will you plot each separately, or will there be an overall plot?

Decision #2: Characters

Besides plot, you should make decisions about characters, and as with plot, you have choices. One choice is an ensemble cast that will carry over from book to book. Here, you have Percy Jackson, his friends and his family as constants. Each book introduces new characters, of course, but there is a core that stays the same.

Another option is to have just one character remain the same. Agatha Christie had Hercule Poirot traveling around and the only constant was the gumshoe and his skills.

Whether you choose one character or an ensemble, you can add or subtract as you go along. But the characters must be integral to the story’s plot.

In developing series characters, think about cohesion and coherence.

Cohesion: Elements of the story stick together, giving cohesion. For example, if one alien in the family can use telekinesis (moving objects with your mind), then that possibility should exist for all members of the family. Of course, some might not have the power, or it may develop slowly for a child, but the possibility should exist.

Coherence: Elements of a story are consistent from book to book. If Kell’s eyes are silvery in book one, they are silvery in books two, three and four.

Decision #3: How long do you want the series to continue?

Many easy readers series go on forever. Think of THE BERENSTAIN BEARS, who continue their adventures and lives throughout multiple volumes. For this type series, the story possibilities are endless. Or think of a TV series, where the situation set up is rich with possibilities. I Love Lucy ran for years and years on the premise of a slightly crazy wife of a musician.

On the other hand, some series have a finite life span. For stories with a narrative arc that spans a series, the life span is built into the plot. However even for these, there can be spin-offs into related series. Think of Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and Heroes of Olympia series. The A to Z Mysteries by Ron Roy and John Gurney had a built-in limit of 26 books.

The Buddy Files Series, Book 1, by Dori Hillestad Butler

The Buddy Files Series, Book 1, by Dori Hillestad Butler

Sometimes, the length of a series depends on the publisher and the early success of the series titles. When Dori Hillestad Butler’s first book in The Buddy Files series, THE CASE OF THE LOST BOY, won the 2011 Edgar Award for the best juvenile mystery of the year, the publisher contracted for more.

For Sara Pennypacker, author of the CLEMENTINE series of short chapter books, the answer of series length depended on something else. In a presentation about writing, she said that she had to ask herself what she wanted to say to third graders. She came up with eight things. Pennypacker focused on the themes of each book (friendship, telling the truth, etc) and found that eight was the natural stopping place for her. Of course, she reserves the right to many more, if other themes present themselves. But she deliberately stepped away from doing a Christmas book, a Halloween book, a 4th of July book, a fall book, a back-to-school book and so on and so forth.

9781629440217-Perfect-PB-CS.inddMy books, THE ALIENS, INC. SERIES, just released in August, 2014, is about an alien family that is shipwrecked on Earth and must figure out how to make a living. It’s been interesting developing these stories and thinking about these three issues.

They accidentally fall into party planning and each book features a different type of party or event put on by Aliens, Inc, the family’s company. KELL, THE ALIEN, the lead-off story, is about a birthday party and of course, it is an alien party. Can the aliens pull off an alien party? The second is about a Friends of Police parade, entitled, KELL AND THE HORSE APPLE PARADE. Book 3, KELL AND THE GIANTS, explored the world of tall and how to keep a giant secret.

Can you tell just from the description some of the decisions I made? There isn’t an overall series arc. Rather, the characters, setting and milieu are set up and there could be endless stories in the series. However, like Butler’s dog mystery series, I am starting with four books and their success will determine future titles. There is a main character who is surrounded by friends and family and, of course, a villainess. These characters weave through the stories and provide cohesion and coherence.

Plan ahead and your series will be stronger. For those who accidentally fall into a series, it will be harder to sustain coherence. You may realize in book three that it sure would be nice if your character had to wear glasses. Yes, you can add it—but you run the danger of it being obviously done for the story itself. So, in my series, early readers have questioned things like the art teacher who is from Australia.

They ask, “Does it matter that she is from Australia?”

“Not yet,” I answer. I just know that I have seeded these early manuscripts with possibilities. If the series goes to books 5-8, I will have hooks to draw upon. So, while I haven’t plotted those books, I have still allowed room for them.

Resource: Writing the Fiction Series: The Complete Guide for Novels and Novellas by Karen S. Wiesner (Writer’s Digest Books)

Want to write a series? What is your favorite series and how will your stories compare?

25 Jul

Take a Creative Risk – You Might Surprise Yourself

I’ve been writing for years. (Let’s not discuss how many exactly!) It’s easy to fall into habits and to think about stories in certain ways. The best creative people, though, insist that they are constantly learning and to do that, they try something different. They take risks.

Let me suggest some risks you might want to take:

Take a creative risk today! Try a new format, genre, audience, or marketing strategy.

Take a creative risk today! Try a new format, genre, audience, or marketing strategy.


Try a different genre. If you’ve only written nonfiction, try a novel. Love writing picturebooks? Try a webpost. Good writing is good writing is good writing. But platforms DO make a difference in length, diction (your choice of vocabulary to include/exclude), voice and more. Why not try writing a sonnet?

Try for a different audience. Stretch your genre tastes and try a different one. Write a romance for YAs. Or a mystery for first graders. Are all of your protagonists female? Then try writing from a male’s POV and try to capture a male audience.

Try a different process or word processing program. I took a class on Scrivener this spring and am continuing to explore what this amazing program can and can’t do. I’m also learning Dragon Dictate to lessen the ergonomic strain on my hands. I know that these programs have potential to change not just my writing process, but also the output. I’m just not sure HOW they will affect it. It’s a risk.

Market to different places. While we often separate the writing from the marketing–especially when we think about the creative process–I think you can still take creative risks with marketing. For example, identify a market FIRST, and write specifically for that market. In this case, you are letting the market sculpt your creative output. If you write a short story for Highlights Magazine for Kids, it’s got to be 600 words or less. If you write an op-ed piece for the Huffington Post, everything is different in your creative output. If you decide to self-publish, you may find yourself suddenly taking the question of commercial viability much more seriously.

22 Jul

Off-Stage Scenes Rarely Work – Unless You Are Scarlett

Here’s a common problem that I see in first drafts: the main action has happened off-stage.

Think about Scarlett O’Hara and the other southern women sitting at home waiting; in an attempt to avenge his wife, Frank and the Ku Klux Klan raid the shanty town whereupon Frank is shot dead. But the raid takes place off-stage.

NOOffStageScenes

Or, think about times when a weaker character stays home, while the adventurous character is off doing something. Sports stories are hard when the POV character is watching the on-field action.

This can be a real trap for children’s novels if an older sibling or parent is doing something fun/exciting/scary/etc off stage.

Another challenging situation is when a bully is planning something and the POV victim is just trying to avoid that.

Or, maybe you’ve planned a great scene, and the main character is present, but you don’t write that scene. Instead, what you write is something like this: “The next morning, Elise lay in bed and went over the previous night in her head.”

No. That doesn’t work!

Does this always need to be changed? No. But it’s a major problem and challenge as you revise. Here are some tips.

Recognize the problem. As you write the first draft and revise it, you should be evaluating the scenes. Ask: Who hurts the most in this scene. It should almost always be the main character. If it’s someone else, why isn’t THAT character the hero/ine of the story?

Put the POV Character in the action. When you find a scene where the main action is off-stage, look for ways to rethink the plot and scenes and put the main character in the thick of the action. It’s why Captain Kirk leaves the Enterprise and goes down to the planet over and over and over. Really? No Captain would be allowed to jeopardize his life that much and give over the control of the ship to a junior officer. It’s unrealistic–but great storytelling.

Make the story about how the off-stage action affects the POV character. In Gone with the Wind, Frank and the other men go off to avenge Scarlett’s honor, but the POV stays firmly with Scarlett. It’s about her growing realization of what the men have gone off to do, the opinion of the other women, and eventually the women’s reactions when the men come back. This is a risky way to write a scene, because the real stuff happens off stage; but it can work if you keep the focus right.

Write the scene. If your character is just thinking about what happened last night, it’s a simple fix. Write the @#$@#$@# scene! Sometime this happens when the author is afraid of the emotions in a powerful scene; the author avoids writing that scene and tries to jump forward in time. It never works. You must write the scene that you fear. you must write the exciting scene because your reader demands it; that is the exact reason why they come to your story. Don’t cheat them out of the emotionally experience.

16 Jul

Getting Your Novel Unstuck

So, I’m writing along on my novel and realize that I don’t quite know what happens next. I’m STUCK!

What next?

Work on a different section. Often, I look around the story and find something else to work on. Maybe, I can move forward a couple planned chapter and work on developing details of the setting. Perhaps, one character’s backstory is think and needs work. While the brain is busy with a side issue, your sub-conscience has time to reflect on the real problem.

In other words, I am still working on the story, but I’m avoiding the problem section for a while, giving my sub-conscience time to work on the problem. Or, maybe I’ll just come back when I’m fresher and can tackle the problem.
Stuck Novel?

Take a walk. A break is often a good strategy. Doing something active helps the mind take a break.

Tackle it straight on. When I am ready to tackle it straight on, lists usually help. My favorite is to create a sensory details list.

My goals are dual: avoid a full-blown writer’s block and make progress of some kind. I work on alternate tasks that need attention–and give the stuck area room to breathe. And almost always, I come back with solutions or at least ready to work on the problem.

11 Jul

39 Villain Motivations

I’m working on motivating my villain and have found 39 possible motivations. I’m sure there are more, but these should jump start your imagination. They are presented here with a statement from the villain’s point of view.
villainMotivations

  1. Romance: I want to marry the princess.
  2. Revenge – ruin a hero: I want to ruin the King.
  3. To distinguish oneself: I want the princess to respect me.
  4. To fit in/gain acceptance: I want to attend the princess’ coronation and eat at her table.
  5. Justice: The king killed my mother, so the king must die.
  6. Greed – get rich: I want to steal everything from the King’s treasury.
  7. Fear: I am afraid that our lands will be stripped bare by this evil king.
  8. Desperation: If something doesn’t change in the next week, I will be executed.
  9. Social cohesion: Us zombies need to stick together.
  10. Desire to better oneself: I was born a peasant, but I will die a king.
  11. Power to achieve a goal: I must be king, so I can change the laws about owning property.
  12. Escape destiny: At birth, a prophet said I would kill the king; however, I am stealing enough money to escape to another country and avoid that destiny.
  13. Achieve destiny: At birth, a prophet said I would kill the king; and that’s my plan.
  14. Persecution: Growing up in a wheelchair has been hell.
  15. Rivalry: Prince John wants to marry the Princess, but she’s mine.
  16. Discovery: I will find out the king’s darkest secret and use it against him.
  17. Ambition: I want. . . everything!
  18. Survival (deliverance): In the midst of this civil war, I will survive.
  19. Self-sacrifice: Someone must stop this evil king and I’ve decided to step up and do it.
  20. Love: The princess has stolen my heart; so, I’ll steal her.
  21. Hate: The princess is an evil woman; when she becomes my wife, I’ll make her suffer.
  22. Conspiracy: I’ve gathered twelve good men to help me overthrow this king.
  23. Honor: Men from my city never back down, even if it costs me everything.
  24. Dishonor: Men from my city are idiots; I’ll never do things the “right” way.
  25. Unnatural affection: I want to marry the princess and take the queen as a lover.
  26. Catastrophe: A volcano is going to erupt and when it does, I’ll plunder the city.
  27. Grief and loss: When my mother died, I lost all interest in doing good.
  28. Rebellion: I’m the leader of the guerrilla forces.
  29. Betrayal: I was engaged to the princess, and then she married Prince John.
  30. Spread hate and fear: I love hate. Hate, hate, hate.
  31. Corrupt everyone: Come join me as I rob the king.
  32. Control the kids: If those kids make noise one more time at midnight, I’ll get ‘em.
  33. Leave me in peace: I never wanted to leave my home town, but since you’ve made me, I’ll show you what’s what.
  34. Recover what is lost: The king took my mother’s locket as tribute, and if it’s the last thing I ever do, I’ll get it back.
  35. Save humanity: To save humanity, I’ll have to kill the whole army.
  36. serve a master (ex. The Fuhrer): I’ll follow King George anywhere, even if it means killing King Phillip.
  37. Destroy: Ha! Ha! Ha! I love to burn down houses.
  38. Rule part of the world: I want to be King of the Mermaids.
  39. Rule all of the world: I will rule the Earth.
09 Jul

Synopsis: A Google Example

A couple years ago, Google produced a promotional video, Parisian Love, which advertised its search capabilities in a very simple way. There are merely twelve phrases entered into a Google Search box. And yet–it tells a story and tugs at the heart strings. It evokes emotion. How good is this copy? The video has received over 7 million views!

The sound here is minimal, but effective. But it’s really the words that shine.

When I think about blurbs for books, this stands as a stellar example of what you can do with very tight text. If you could craft your synopsis–or blurb, flap copy, elevator pitch, tweet, or whatever promotional copy you’re working on–to get this strong an emotional tug, you’ll have a winner.

Here’s the Copy

Parisian Love

Study abroad Paris France
Cafes near the louve
Translate tu es tres mignon (You’re very cute)
Impress a French girl
Chocolate shops paris france
What are truffles
Who is truffaut
Long distance relationship advice
Jobs in paris
AA120
Churches in Paris
How to assemble a crib
Search on.

Watch the Video


If you can’t see this video, click here.

Try writing up some promotional copy for your story in just twelve phrases.
Does it evoke emotion?
Does it show a narrative arc?
Can you use this to craft a better marketing message?

07 Jul

The Power of BECAUSE: How I Created a Dastardly Villain

I am hard at work on an outline/synopsis sort of thingy for a new trilogy. I wish I could say it’s a true outline or synopsis, but I’m not an outliner. However, I’m not a panster either, to just start writing and write by the seat of my pants. I am a plan-ster, a person who halfway plans and then writes a while, and then plans again from the new and improved position halfway through the story.

While I’m outlining (term used loosely, as just explained), I am finding places where I am stuck. What happens next?

One word is changing things: Because.

My character argues with another BECAUSE. . .

By forcing myself to answer the BECAUSE question, I wind up going deeper into backstory, motivations and emotional depth. Why are they doing such and so? BECAUSE. . .

Backstory. Some of the because has to do with inventing backstory. This week, I found a villain that way. I knew Character V was acting up, but when I added the BECAUSE and started delving into V’s psychology and backstory, suddenly V took on a new–and much more interesting–role in the story. He became the antagonist, which I knew I needed, but I had been avoiding the work needed to figure it out. So, the BECAUSE work became a shortcut to finding out about a villain.

Motivations. For all the characters, the BECAUSE work meant I had to delve into the reasons for actions, the motivations. This deepened the story in important ways, even at this outline level. Partly, I am trying to find connections among characters and how they approach life at interesting tangents. As I worked on the BECAUSE answers, I made sure the answers weren’t clones, but held the possibility of interesting clashes.

Emotional Depth. This is saying the same thing as motivations in a different way, but it’s an important variation. Emotion is hard for me to pull into a story and planning for it up front is essential–or else my stories will be flat and revisions will be deadly. One question that helps here is, “Who hurts the most? X hurts the most BECAUSE. . .”

Fiction is about emotional conflict and how that conflict is resolved (or not). Generally, the person who hurts the most should be the main character. It’s not unusual to have to change the MC to a different character as you uncover and create the characters’ inner lives.

I am still stumbling around inside the ideas for this story. But one word is lighting a path toward actually writing a first draft: BECAUSE.


BECAUSE

02 Jul

NOVEL REVISION CHARTS: 2 Tools for Smart Re-Thinking of Your Story

An aid to smart revising based on Darcy Pattison’s techniques

Guest Post by
Claudia Finseth

I recently took Darcy’s Whole Novel Workshop and read her book, Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise. Between the two, there was a great deal of valuable new information to process. I’m very visual, so one way I worked through and organized the information was by creating charts. To what are mostly Darcy’s ideas, I added a few of my own, and some I’ve learned in other workshops. Darcy has asked me to share these charts here on her blog.

The first chart is The Novel Revision Chart. As Darcy teaches, there are many types of revision to consider once we have a draft of a novel.

Finseth's Novel Revision Chart

This Novel Revision Chart show the different types of revisions and helps you prioritize the revision tasks. CLICK TO VIEW FULL SIZE.




Darcy’s workshops are based on critique groups. Participants work in groups of four, reading and commenting on each other’s manuscripts and. Taking the three critiques of my novel, I made a list of all the types of revision my group suggested for my novel: not letting the tension flag, pulling all my theme threads all the way through the novel, keeping my character age-appropriate, etc.


Attend a Novel Revision Retreat

The Darcy Pattison Novel Revision Retreat will come to the Boston area in August, 2014. There are a limited number of spaces still available. See Anne Broyles site for details. Also available is a Build Your Website session and a Picture Book Workshop. Hurry! Spaces limited! And time is short!


Then, I identified where these types of revision landed on the Novel Revision Chart. If they landed somewhere on the Incremental Revision line, I figured I could work with what I had already written. The three types of revision mentioned in the previous paragraph all land there. If, however, the needed revisions landed on the Quantum Leap Revision line, then I figured maybe I should scrap this chapter or that and write it again from scratch. Or write the whole novel again in a new draft. Or take the novel apart and reorganize it in some major way. For instance, my second novel is probably really three novels. (Sigh.) But better I realize that now than waste time trying to fix it the way it is.

The point is, this chart can help writers identify how major or minor the next revision needs to be, as well as what kind of revision needs to be focused on next. It can save us spinning our wheels on the wrong kind of revision. How many times have we worked on verbs or sensory detail when what we needed was to introduce another character or change the beginning? Trust me: been there, done that, and it’s very annoying to realize I should have been working on a totally different kind of revision. The chart can make us smarter revisers.

The Line Edit Revision part of the chart is a reminder that the final revisions you do, once the novel is firmly shaped and sparkling with life, and just before submission, need to be these five types of micro-edits. Therefore, it is at the bottom of the chart.

Checklist for Revising Scenes.

But before we do any line editing, there’s the second chart to look at, A Checklist for Each Scene. As the first chart is a way of evaluating the revision needed overall, this second chart is for scene by scene revisions. As Darcy explains in Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise, each scene is a kind of whole of its own. Taking one scene at a time, a writer can use this chart in conjunction with Darcy’s book to make sure each scene includes all the elements required to create a tight, compelling scene that propels the reader into the next one.

Finseth Scene Checklist

After the major revisions and before the minor Line Edit revisions, you should do a scene check. CLICK TO SEE FULL SIZE.



I have these charts before me as I work. They are quick reminders of each step needed to flesh out and deepen a scene and ultimately write a novel that editors will want to publish because they are so rich and satisfying a read. I’ll make checks on the charts as I go, when I think I’ve accomplished each type of revision. And when I’m “done” I’ll put a big exclamation mark in sharpie marker, or a smiley face, or perhaps I’ll save them for the next novel.


Claudia FinsethClaudia Finseth is a writer and author living in Tacoma, Washington. She is published in non- fiction adult, poetry and short children’s stories in Cricket Magazine. Her goal now is to become an adept at the novel form. “Novels are hard!” she says. Her website is claudia.finseth.ca.

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