Tag Archives: how to create

06 Nov

Point of View: Inside a Character’s Head


How does an author take a reader deeply into a character’s POV? By using direct interior monologue and a stream of consciousness techniques.

This is part 3 of a 3-part series on Point of View: Techniques for Getting Inside a Character’s Head. Read the whole series.

  • Outside
  • Outside/Inside
  • Inside
  • Going Inside a Character’s Head, Heart and Emotions

    IvanOmniscience.Jauss says, “In direct interior monologue, the character’s thoughts are not just ‘reflected,’ they are presented directly, without altering person or tense. As a result, the external narrator disappears, if only for a moment, and the character takes over as ‘narrator.’” (p. 51)

    Here, “. . . the narrator is not consciously narrating.” In much of IVAN, he is consciously narrating the story. Sometimes, it might be hard to distinguish the difference because the character and narrator are the same, and it’s written in present tense (except when he is telling about the background of each animal). This closeness of the character and narrator is one reason to choose first-person, present tense. But there are still times when it is clear that IVAN is narrating his story.

    But there also times when that narrator’s role is absent. In the “nine thousand eight hundred and seventy-six days” chapter, Ivan is worried about what Mack will do after the small elephant Ruby hits Mack with her trunk:

    “Mack groans. He stumbles to his feet and hobbles off toward his office. Ruby watches him leave. I can’t read her expression. Is she afraid? Relieved? Proud?”

    The last three questions remove the narrator-Ivan and give us what Ivan is thinking at the moment. The direct interior monologue gives the reader direct access to the character. With a third person narrator, those rhetorical questions might be indirect interior monologue; but here, because of the first person narration, it feels like direct interior monologue.

    Or, in the “click” chapter, Ivan is about to be moved to a zoo:

    The door to my cage is propped open. I can’t stop staring at it.
    My door. Open.

    The first two sentences still feel like a narrator is reporting. But “My door. Open.” feels like direct access to Ivan’s thought at that precise moment. He’s not looking back and reporting, but this is direct access to his thoughts.

    A last technique for diving straight into a character’s head is stream-of-consciousness. Jauss says, “. . . unlike direct interior monologue, it presents those thoughts as they exist before the character’s mind has ‘edited’ them or arranged them into complete sentences.” (P. 54)

    When Ivan is finally in a new home at a local zoo, he is allowed to venture outside for the first time. The “outside at last” chapter is stream-of-consciousness.

    Bird. . . .

    What the reader feels here is Ivan’s wonder at the great outdoors. It’s a direct expression of Ivan’s joy in being outside after decades of being caged. We are one with this great beast and it gives the reader joy to be there.

    Or look at the “romance” chapter, where Ivan is courting another gorilla.

    A final note: Sometimes, an author breaks the “fourth wall,” the “imaginary wall that separates us from the actors,” and speaks directly to the reader. This is technically a switch from 1st person POV to 2nd person POV. But it is very effective in IVAN in the second chapter, “names.” Here, Ivan acknowledges that you—the reader—are outside his cage, watching him. It was a stunning moment for me, as I read the story.

    “I suppose you think gorillas can’t understand you. Of course, you also probably think we can’t walk upright.
    Try knuckle walking for an hour. You tell me: which way is more fun?”

    Do stories and novels have to stay in one point of view throughout an entire scene or chapter? No. Not if you are thinking about point of view as a technique to draw the reader close to a character or shove the reader away. You can push and pull as you need. You can push the reader a little way outside to protect his/her emotions from a distressing scene. Or you can pull them into the character’s head to create empathy or hatred. You can manipulate the reader and his/her emotions. It’s a different way of thinking about point of view. For me, it’s an important distinction because my stories have often gotten characterization comments such as , “I just don’t feel connected to the characters enough.” I think a mastery of Outside, Outside/Inside, and Inside point of view techniques holds a key to a stronger story.

    In the end, it’s not about the labels we apply to this section or that section of a story. These techniques can blur, especially in a story like IVAN, written in first person, present tense. Instead, it’s about the reader identifying with the character in a deep enough way to be moved by the story. These techniques–such a different way to think about point of view!–are refreshing because they give us a way to gain control of another part of our story. These are what make novels better than movies. I’ve heard that many script-writers have trouble making the transition to novels and this is the precise place where the difficulty occurs. Unlike movies, novels go into a character’s head, heart and mind. And these point of view techniques are your road map to the reader’s head, heart and mind.

    This has been part 3 of a 3-part series on Point of View: Techniques for Getting Inside a Character’s Head. Tomorrow, will be Inside: Deeply Inside a Character’s Head. Read the whole series:

  • Outside
  • Outside/Inside
  • Inside
  • 05 Nov

    Point of View: Outside/Inside a Character’s Head

    Partially Inside a Character’s Head: OUTSIDE AND INSIDE POV

    How deeply does a story take the reader into the head of a character. Many discussions of point of view skim over the idea that POV can related to how close a reader is to a reader. But David Jauss says there are two points of view that allow narrators to be both inside and outside a character: omniscience and indirect interior monologue.

    This is part 2 of a 3-part series on Point of View: Techniques for Getting Inside a Character’s Head. Here are links to parts 1 and 3.

    These posts are inspired by an essay by David Jauss, professor at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, in his book, On Writing Fiction: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About Craft. I am using Ivan, the One and Only, by Katherine Applegate, winner of the 2012 Newbery Award as the mentor text for the discussion.

    IvanOmniscience. Traditionally, “limited omniscience” means that the narrator is inside the head of only one character; “regular omniscience” means the narrator is inside the head of more than one character.

    I love Jauss’s comment: “I don’t believe dividing omniscience into ‘limited’ and regular’ tells us anything remotely useful. The technique in both cases is identical; it’s merely applied to a different number of characters.”

    He spends time proving that regular omniscience never enters into the heart and mind of every character in a novel. A glance at Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE, with its myriad of characters is enough to convince me of this truth.

    Rather, Jauss says the difference that matters here is that the omniscient POV uses the narrator’s language. This distinguishes it from indirect interior monologues, where the thoughts are given in the character’s language. This is a very different question about POV: is this story told in the narrator’s language or the character’s language?

    In IVAN, this is an interesting distinction because Ivan is the narrator of this story; it’s told in his voice. But as a narrator, there are times when he drops into omniscient POV. In the “artists” chapter, Ivan reports:

    “Mack soon realized that people will pay for a picture made by a gorilla, even if they don’t know what it is. Now I draw every day.”

    Ivan tells the reader what Mack is thinking (“soon realized”) and even what those who purchase his art are thinking (“even if they don’t know what it is”). Then, he pulls back into a dramatic reporting of his daily actions. Notice, too, that he makes this switch from dramatic POV to omniscient POV within the space of one sentence. And the omniscient POV dips into two places in that sentence, too.

    Because Mack is Ivan’s caretaker and has caused much of Ivan’s troubles, the reader needs to know something of Mack’s character. This inside/outside level is enough, though. The author has decided that a deep interior view of Mack’s life isn’t the focus of the story. It’s enough to get glimpses of his motivation by doing just a little ways into his head.

    Indirect Interior Monologue

    Another technique for the narrator and reader to be both inside and outside a character is indirect interior monologue. Here, Jauss says that the narrator “translates the character’s thoughts and feelings into his own language. “ (p. 45) The character’s interior thoughts aren’t given directly and verbatim. This is a subtle distinction, but an important one.

    Interior indirect monologue usually involves two things: changing the tense of a person’s thoughts; and changing the person of the thought from first to third. This signals that the narrator is outside the character, reflecting upon the character’s thoughts or actions.

    They are all waiting for the train. (dramatic)
    They were all waiting reasonably for the train. (Inside, indirect interior monologue)

    The word “reasonably” puts this into the head of the narrator, who is making a judgment call, interpreting the dramatic action.

    Interior indirect monologue most often seen with a third-person narrator reflecting another character’s thoughts. But in Ivan, we have a first-person narrator. Applegate stays strictly inside Ivan’s head, except for a few passages where Ivan reports indirectly on another character’s thoughts. Because the passages are already in present tense, she doesn’t have that tense change to rely on.

    Here’s a passage that could have been indirect interior monologue but Applegate won’t quite go there. Stella is an elephant in a cage close to Ivan.

    “Slowly Stella makes her way up the rest of the ramp. It groans under her weight and I can tell how much she is hurting by the awkward way she moves.”

    By adding “I can tell. . .” it stays firmly inside Ivan’s head. He tells us that this is true only because Ivan makes an observation. The story doesn’t dip into the interior of the other characters.

    But there are tiny places where the interior dialogue peeks through. This from the “bad guys” chapter. Bob is Ivan’s dog friend; Not-Tag is a stuffed animal; and Mack is Ivan’s owner.

    “Bob slips under Not-Tag. He prefers to keep a low profile around Mack.”

    Ivan can only know that Bob “prefers” something, when he, as the narrator, dips into Bob’s thoughts.

    But indirect interior monologue is also used by a first person narrator to report his/her prior thoughts. When the first person narrator tells a story about what happened in his past, he is both the actor in the story and the narrator of the story. Ivan tells the story of his capture by humans over the course of several short chapters. It begins in the “what they did” chapter:

    “We were clinging to our mother, my sister and I, when the humans killed her.”

    While Ivan’s story is most present tense, this is past tense because Ivan is reporting on prior events. Even here Applegate refuses to slip into interior indirect monologue. Instead, she just presents the facts in a dramatic manner and lets the reader imagine what Ivan felt. It’s interesting that withholding Ivan’s thoughts here evoke such an emotional response in the reader.

    On the other hand, in “the grunt” chapter, Ivan tells about his family. Again, he is the narrator telling about a past event when he was a main character of the event:

    “Oh, how I loved to play tag with my sister!”

    This could be called direct interior thought, but because he’s narrating a past event, it’s indirect interior thought. Otherwise, he would say, “Oh, how I love to play tag with my sister!”

    Or from the “vine” chapter, where Ivan talks about his thoughts after being captured by humans:

    “Somehow I knew that in order to live, I had to let my old life die. But sister could not let go of our home. It held her like a vine, stretching across the miles, comforting, strangling.
    We were still in our crate when she looked at me without seeing, and I knew that the vine had finally snapped.”

    If this was direct interior, it would be:
    “Somehow I know that in order to live, I must let my old life die.”

    Applegate could have chosen to stay inside Ivan, but here, she pulls back so the reader isn’t fully inside this emotionally disturbing moment. She uses indirect interior monologue, instead of direct.

    As Jauss says about a different passage, but it applies here, “This example also illustrates the extremely important but rarely acknowledged fact that narrators often shift point of view not only within a story or novel but also within a single paragraph.” (p.50)

    This has been proclaimed a mistake in writing point of view, but Jauss says it’s a normal technique. We dip into Mack’s point of view, but then pull back to a dramatic statement about what Ivan is doing.

    Indirect interior monologue often includes “rhetorical questions, exclamations, sentence fragments and associational leaps as well as diction appropriate to the character rather than the narrator. “ (p. 49) In one of my novels, I used a lot of rhetorical questions as a way to get into the character’s head and an editor complained about it. Now, that I know why I was using it (as a way to manipulate how close the reader was to the character), I could go back and use a variety of techniques. Knowledge of fiction techniques is freeing! Tomorrow, we’ll look at how to go deeply into a character’s head, heart and emotions.

    This is part 1 of a 3-part series on Point of View: Techniques for Getting Inside a Character’s Head. Join us tomorrow for the final part of the series, Inside: Going Deep into a Character’s Head.

    This has been part 2 of a 3-part series on Point of View: Techniques for Getting Inside a Character’s Head. Tomorrow, will be Inside: Deeply Inside a Character’s Head. Read the whole series.

    24 Apr

    Explore Your Characters: Be Surprised

    You know you should try writing your story in first v. third point of view, but for some reason, you put it off. Why? Because you’ve gotten a first draft of a scene or chapter and you just want to keep going.

    It’s exactly the feeling that elementary school children have: “Why do I have to revise?”

    Your answer is straightforward: because you are a professional writer. Revising will help you write a book.

    You must find the right way to tell this story. I often say that the purpose of a first draft is to find the story, but the purpose of all other drafts is to figure out the best way to TELL that story. Pros experiment, play, explore.

    Here are some explorations of character that you can complete in an hour. Just set a time for 5-10 minutes and write something on each of these. If the prompt reveals nothing, drop it. But if it strikes a chord—keep going!

    1. 1st v. 3rd. Write a scene using first person point of view and then rewrite it using third. If you want to play with present tense, feel free. Play!
    2. Attitude. Choose a scene and look to see what attitude your main character has. Maybe, s/he comes in arrogant, sad, discouraged, or excited. At the top of your page/file, write the opposite attitude and write the scene again, working to make the character’s opposite attitude work.
    3. Setting. Choose a scene and change the setting. If it’s in the kitchen, send your characters on a picnic. If it’s set on a spaceship, move the story to a cruise ship on the Mediterranean.
    4. Write a Letter. Give your main character a reason to write a letter to someone. It could be written to a family member or to a Congressman. Let your character vent, rant and cry on paper.
    5. Put something in your character’s hand. Put a physical object in your character’s hand. Perhaps a mother goes into a grown son’s room and picks up his old baseball glove and sits in a rocking chair and oils the glove and remembers something important about her son. Or, a grandmother is in the kitchen and getting ready to cook and pulls out an iron skillet. Write a couple paragraphs or a scene putting the object in the forefront.
    6. Cubing is a way of exploring a topic by looking at it from different angles. I’ve chosen just four ways, but you can think of others.
      • Describe. Using the character’s voice (your choice of POV, tense, etc) describe something important in your story. Repeat with a different POV, tense, etc. if you have time.
      • Compare. Using the character’s voice, compare something in your story. Maybe you want to compare what the character thinks about his/her current situation with where s/he was ten days ago. Or compare two characters. Or compare today’s supper with yesterday’s supper. Any type of comparison that makes sense for your story is grist for this mill.
      • Associate. When your character thinks of roses, what does s/he think? This prompt asks you to enter your character’s point of view and make some associations. While most of your writing in a scene should be pointed, there are places where you can slow down and give the reader a glimpse of how the character’s mind works. When faced with X, s/he thinks of Y or Z.
      • Analyze. What will your character do next? Stop and let him/her analyze what has just happened, thinking about the ramifications of the actions or conversations. If s/he goes this direction, what will it mean for the rest of the story? What is an alternate direction and why should s/he choose that alternate? Analyze, then let the character decide on a plan of attack for the next section of the story.

    Take the time to explore your story and your storytelling choices early in your drafting process. It will probably mean fewer drafts—and a stronger story. Great trade-offs for a mere hour of work.

    20 Feb

    2 Dialogue Tips from Studying SitComs: Just Spit it Out

    I learned that Sit-Coms just spit it out. On one episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, Raymond’s brother Robert comes over to take the kids to the zoo. Raymond realizes that the kids might even like Uncle Robert more than him. Robert actually spits it out: You’re not a good father.

    Of course, in a sit-com, all you’ve got is the dialogue. Like movies, you can’t get in the characters’ heads, you only have dialogue and actions to make a point. Robert clearly expresses his opinion of Raymond’s parenting skills–in the dialogue.

    Raymond, of course, retaliates and tells Robert that he needs to get a life.
    Fast forward to the end: Raymond has had a successful (sorta) day at the zoo with the kids and comes home to find Robert in the hot tub with two hot chicks.

    Robert: Looks like you are a good father.
    Raymond: Looks like you got a life. I’d get in that hot tub with you, but I didn’t come prepared.
    Robert: That’s OK, you can use my swim trunks, they are over there. (Beat. That means wait for the audience to get the joke and laugh and appreciate it.) Just kidding.

    I learned that the emotional content in a sit-com is laid bare. Characters actually say what the theme of the story is. Here, it’s a two-fold question: Is Raymond a good father? Does Robert have a life outside his duties as uncle? The important moments along the character’s emotional arc are so obvious. And isn’t that nice for the writer? We don’t have to imply, infer, implicate. Just spit it out.

    As a novelist, I know that I have more tools than a scriptwriter, so I can put some of the characters’ tensions, fears, and pains into interior dialogue, narrative sections and can use sensory details to fully flesh out a scene and create the right mood. But I’ve added a new tool: Just spit it out.

    Timing is crucial. Above, I had the aside about the BEAT, the pause for the audience to get the joke. Sit-coms work because the actors and actresses have superb timing. One book on acting in sit-coms emphasizes the importance of the actor/actress following EXACTLY the script, especially in terms of punctuation. Where should the character hesitate, pause, speed up, scream, whisper–in short, the scriptwriter is allowed to direct the pacing and delivery of the dialogue.

    I’ve taken a new look at my punctuation this week, with an eye to pacing the delivery of dialogue. Am I using silences, pauses, hesitations, stuttering, speeding up, etc. to create an extra layer of meaning, to make jokes work, or to characterize?

    07 Nov

    4 Things a Character List Reveals about Your Novel

    I am working on a series proposal and have been asked for a list of characters. Wow, what a lot you can learn from a list.

    • Name them all. First, I created a list that just names the characters. It’s interesting to see the variety (or lack thereof) in just the names. For children’s books, I am careful to avoid using the cliched names and to include some names that could represent ethnic groups (of course, being careful not to be cliched with that, either). Did you notice the huge variety of names of competitors in the 2012 London Olympics? I was inspired to push past the usual when naming characters. Try some of these girl names: Soulmaz, Reem, Shaza, Mouni, Layes, Tomomi, and Aminata. Boy names: Alaaeldin, Arnaldo, Amir, Kanat, Raidel, Georgias, Kieron, and Idrissa.
    • Write a paragraph about main characters. My next task was to write a paragraph or two about each of the main characters. One check of effective characterization that I like to use if to read ONLY the first five pages, turn over page five and write everything I know about a character from those pages (and ONLY those pages). That was telling! Of course, for this summary, I could add things from later, too. But I will go back and revisit those early pages to sharpen the characterization.
    • Minor characters. These characters need to be individuals, too, and I found that I am weak sometimes on this level, too. I need to make sure that each one has a quirky trait, identifiable physical characteristic or unusual way of talking. For example, Freddy has the unusual skill of being able to cram 30 french fries into his mouth at one time. I need to give him a full mouth each time he tries to talk. Indeed, a couple of the minor characters were only a name–not a real character. It’s OK to have placeholders, but before I send this out again, I’ll flesh them out a tiny bit more, at least give them a character tag.

    • Types of characters. This is a story set in a school, so I also looked at the type of characters I used. There are students, parents and teachers. Oops! I forgot to create a principal of the school! S/he can be a minor character, but s/he probably needs to be there in some capacity.

    What characters have you inadvertently omitted?

    15 Aug

    10 Body Language Tricks for Deeper Characterization

    I’ve written before about the importance of using strong body language for your characters. The September, 2011 Cosmopolitan magazine, featured an article by Mina Azodi on “Cool Mind Tricks that can Give you an Edge.” Really, she’s talking recent research on body language. Here are some extra body language tips to consider.

    1. Give your character a pair of sunglasses. The classic gambit of hiding behind a pair of shades actually frees a person to do and say anything. With inhibitions lowered, look out. It often translates into selfish or hedonistic behavior.
    2. Your character sits with one arm on a chair rest and the other draped along the chair’s back. Add an ankle crossed over the opposite knee. What do you have? Confidence. Only a confident character can pull off such an open, casual and yet commanding position.
    3. Your character nods yes. Angela and Judd are about to explode at each other. What can prevent the relationship from self-destruction? A simple nod of the head tricks a person into being more agreeable, and stops the escalation of an argument. Bring the characters to the brink, then pause and let one of them do a simple head nod to turn the scene toward a resolution.
    4. Your character washes his/her hands with soap. When Pilate washed his hands of Jesus death on the cross, he was practicing this body language technique. Studies show that when you make a decision, you are less likely to second-guess that decision if you wash your hands. Did Angela just lie to Judd? She’ll feel less guilty if she washes her hands. Even an antibacterial wipe works! So, after that argument when Angela just lied, send her to the kitchen to think about the relationship and let her wash away her worries.
    5. Your character picks up and holds a heavy object, like a paperweight. Is your character considering something important, about to make a decision? People tend to give their opinion more weight when they are holding something like a heavy clipboard. In the midst of decision making, send Judd down to lift weights. It will make him more serious and it’s likely the decision will be a better one.
    6. Your character presses up on the underside of a desktop or a table with his/her fingertips. Pressing up brings flexes the arm muscles you use to bring things closer to your body, which translates into more openness and creativity. Angela’s more likely to creatively solve a problem when she presses up with her fingertips. However, the opposite is also true: pressing down makes a person feel less accepting and more closed off. Press up and Angela gets creative about a problem; press down and she sulks.
    7. Your female character hugs a guy. Angela hugs Judd and–what happens? When women smell a man’s hair or skin, they instantly feel more relaxed. She doesn’t need that glass of wine, she just needs a quick hug and whiff. And it doesn’t have to be a flame that she hugs, just a brother or father will do.
    8. Your character takes a few steps backward. Stepping backwards seems to send your brain into problem-solving mode and you’ll be more likely to answer test questions with accuracy and speed. Angela and Judd fighting again (yes, fiction needs lots of conflict!)? This time, Judd takes a couple steps backward, away from Angela, which lets him see the big picture better and understand the correct next step for their relationship. In the end, it may send him into Angela’s arms, but he’s got to step backwards first in order to solve the problem.
    9. Doodle! Wow, I am so glad to see this one because I always doodle. Turns out that doodling can actually increase your memory by about 30%. Scientists speculate that the drawings engage the area of the brain which might otherwise be used for daydreaming and zoning out. Keep part of your brain busy, so the rest can pay attention–nice.
    10. Your character leans his/her upper body forward. Angela and Judd are discussing the possibility of getting married (I know, they argue so much, I am worried about them making it, too.) Scientists say that if you lean forward, it helps you visualize the future more vividly, so you’ll have an easier time planning. Angela leans forward and visualizes Prince Charming; Judd leans forward and Angela becomes the woman of his dreams. Together, leaning toward each other across the table, they might just imagine a future that will work.

    Read more at 15 Days to a Stronger Character.

    29 Jun

    My Character is Like a (Fill in the Blank)

    Stuck on character? Use a simile.

    • My character is like a shark: sleek, aggressive, willing to go after what s/he wants, dangerous.
    • My character is like a Siamese cat: aloof, gorgeous, lovely to touch but untouchable, owner not owned.
    • My character is like a goose: big, silly, aggressive; but in a group, s/he cooperates by sharing the duty of being the lead flyer.
    • My character is like Santa Claus: overblown clothing, overweight, jolly, generous, administrator and loves to correspond with people.
    • My character is like Marie Cure: dedicated to her work, loving wife, humble.
    • My character is like Elvis Presley: talented, charismatic, gorgeous, athletic.

    Use a simile to jump start your characterization. Choose an animal, historical figure, movie star, family member, or anything else to get you started. Feel free to create riffs or diversions on the theme; this is just a starting place.

    Of course, you can also do the opposite.
    My character is not like a horse; instead, s/he is slow, clumsy, weak, easily trained to follow orders and a couch potato. Of course, you’ll put this character on a horse farm, surrounded by the sleek race horses for a nice contrast.

    04 Jun

    Critique Groups: Why, How and Where

    Why X Heads are Better than I

    guest post by Katy Duffield

    We all know that writing is rewriting. As much as we’d like for it to be otherwise, early drafts just aren’t ready for prime time. It is imperative that we reread and cut, revise and rearrange, polish and restructure, and cut even more until our manuscripts are as strong as they can be. One of the best ways I’ve found to assist in the quest for the strongest possible manuscript is my writing group—or, in my case, my writing groups. If you know me, you know that I’m a strong proponent of the “two heads are better than one” theory. And even more “heads” are better still. And that’s just what writing groups can offer.

    I Love These Gals!

    I am a member of an online writing group that has been in existence for eight years. We originally met on author Verla Kay’s Children’s Writers Discussion Board—affectionately known as the “Blue Boards” (http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php). This particular group meets only online, through a dedicated Yahoo listserv group, and our writing runs the gamut: rhyming and non-rhyming picture books, middle grade and young adult novels (including verse novels), nonfiction, magazine writing, teacher’s guides and so on. And just as our writing varies, so do our geographical locations; we reside in Canada, Virginia, California, Missouri, Arkansas, and even Brazil.

    When the group first formed, we followed a rotating schedule where one or two members would submit a story, chapter, or other piece of writing each week for the others to critique. Our schedule is less rigid now, as we currently submit only on an as-needed basis, but setting up a particular rotation can be a good idea. Just knowing that you have someone anxiously awaiting a new piece of work or a revision when your turn rolls around is a great incentive to keep writing. And the online format is wonderful because you can read and critique on your own schedule.

    Back Row (l to r): Cassandra Reigel Whetstone, Sara Lewis Holmes, Anne Marie Pace, Alma Fullerton, DeAnn O'Toole, Loree Burns, Katy Duffield, Kristy Dempsey, Linda Urban. Front row: Kathy Erskine, Tanya Seale

    Over the years, this particular group has morphed and changed. We’re no longer simply critique partners; we’re close friends. We no longer simply share our writing; we share our families, our worries, our joys and heartbreaks—we share our lives. We’ve been known to generate more than a thousand messages in a month! At this point, it’s as much a support group as it is a critique group. It’s amazing to be a part of a like-minded group of people who understand the importance of celebrating the small victories and who understand the agonies that can be a big part of this business. I have no doubt that I have been richly blessed to find such an amazing group of women. A couple of years ago, we finally had the opportunity to meet in person at Boyd’s Mills for a Highlights Founder’s Retreat (where we happily added five new and wonderful writer friends!). And that is truly the definition of awesome.

    The No-Frills Group

    But, wait. Maybe you’re not into all that warm and fuzzy feel-good stuff. Maybe you’re more the all-business type. There’s a writer’s group for that, too. My second group consists of eleven writers, and although several of the members write for all ages, this group’s focus is picture books. Again, the group conducts business solely online, we share our writing, and we all live in different areas, but that’s where the similarities to the other group ends. In this group, we spend very little, if any, time chitchatting. We don’t have a formal Yahoo Group where we exchange messages. We simply share email addresses, and when someone has a manuscript in need of critique, we send out a group email asking if anyone has time to take a look. Those who have time reply and offer their critiquing eyes. This “no-frills” group carries immense benefits as well. It is a group of published picture book authors who are serious about their craft and who more than willing to share their knowledge with other members—and those are important facets of a writing group, too.

    Paper or Plastic?

    So which type of group is best? I find both groups invaluable. The members’ “fresh eyes” allow me to see my writing in new ways, and their constructive criticism helps me implement the necessary changes. They point out such things as awkward phrasing, places where my rhythm, structure, or pacing is off, or when my ending just isn’t quite working. They often call me on “logic” problems—“Ummm…this really doesn’t make sense.” And they often offer suggestions on how I might fix these problems. Do I use every single suggestion I’m offered? No. But I always try to keep an open mind. Even if I’m not sure something that someone’s suggested will work, I often go ahead and give it a try. And I’m often surprised by what I discover.
    Additionally, I’m continually amazed by what I learn from critiquing the work of others. If I’m reading a group member’s picture book manuscript, for example, and I’m enjoying the characters, the premise, but something’s missing that I’m having trouble putting my finger on, I begin to read more closely. I study the manuscript carefully until I (hopefully) discover what’s not quite right. Identifying these issues don’t only help the writer, they also help me when I’m working on my own manuscripts. It’s a win-win!

    Sign Me Up! How to Find and Create Your Own Group

    Joining a critique group can be daunting. It’s easy to be intimidated. You wonder if your writing is good enough. It’s easy to be afraid of making the time commitment, and sharing your work with others can be downright terrifying. Additionally, some people worry that other writers might nab their ideas and claim them as their own. These are all justifiable concerns, but if you want to take your writing to the next level, it’s necessary to put yourself and your writing out there (I would, however, caution against putting your work on open online forums for all to see).
    So where might you find a group of your own? If you’re a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), contact your Regional Advisor to see if any groups meet in your area. While I’ve participated mainly in online groups, in-person groups are another option you can explore. Writers forming in-person groups, or searching for groups to join, sometimes post on bulletin boards at bookstores, libraries, or coffee shops. In-person groups usually meet at a regularly scheduled times and locations and often have a structured rotation for submissions.

    One thing I would suggest for these in-person groups is that you try to arrange to send your manuscripts to the group prior to the meeting rather than sharing them at meeting time. I have a difficult time critiquing “on-the-fly”; I prefer to read and reread a manuscript, put it away and ponder a while, and then reread and think some more before making comments.

    Whether you’re looking for an online or on-ground group, check out the message boards available at many writing sites including Verla Kay’s (http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php) and the SCBWI boards (http://www.scbwi.org then “Discussion Boards” then “Critique Groups”). These websites have boards dedicated to locating writing group members.

    Also, when taking either online or on-ground writing classes, you might consider forming a critique group with some of the other students in the class.
    When writing for children and/or young adults, I would also recommend that you find group members that write for these ages as well. You may even wish to “specialize” by looking for or forming a group in your specific genre. Fantasy writers may wish to join a fantasy-based group. Or you may wish to find writers who focus only on rhyming picture books, or chapter books, or verse novels, or whatever.

    I was lucky with my groups in that all the members seemed to have “clicked.” Sometimes, however, it’s necessary to try out different groups until you find a good match. Whatever type of group you decide on, one of the most important things to remember is to strive towards a combination of honesty and caring in your critiques—and that’s what you should expect in return.

    Worth the Effort

    Whether it’s at a table in a cozy café or through the magic that is cyberspace, and whether it’s friendship-forming or strictly business, joining a critique group can be extremely beneficial. Writing can be a difficult, isolating process. Whether for encouragement, motivation, marketing information, strictly for the critiques, or for some combination of those, it’s a gift to be able to connect with other writers through a knowledgeable, dedicated group—because X heads are truly better than I!

    Katy Duffield writes fiction and nonfiction for children and is the author
    of sixteen books including the picture book Farmer McPeepers and His Missing
    Milk Cows. Her latest nonfiction book, California History for Kids:
    Missions, Miners, and Moviemakers in the Golden State
    , was released this
    year. For more information, please visit www.katyduffield.com or follow her
    at @KatyDuffield

    30 Jan

    Unlovable Characters

    In our continuing quest to write 750 words per day for a month, today we will look at unlikeable main characters.

    Which One is Unlovable? The Eye of the Beholder

    Here’s the thing: readers need to LIKE your character. Why else would they spend hours walking in their shoes? But what if your character is in mental anguish, or like to hurt puppies, or is a jerk to every girl he dates? How do you get the reader on your side?

    Donald Maass, in How to Write the Breakout Novel, says to make this type character self-aware. They know what they are doing is wrong, they acknowledge it. They take the sting out of the behavior by telling the reader they understand it is unacceptable. Nevertheless, they must do it. And of course, you’ll then add in the reasons why this behavior is reasonable.

    The date jerk was dumped when he was 13 and has never gotten over it.
    The guy in anguish is grieving over the loss of his family to a drunk driver. The guy who hurts puppies–oh, that’s a hard one! How WOULD you justify that? Oh, isn’t that the story, OF MICE AND MEN?

    A second way to turn a jerk into a lovable character is to have someone demonstrate that they do indeed love him or her. Scarlett O’Hara is jealous, conniving and a drama queen. But the family’s nanny still loves her. Because the nanny loves her, we feel more tender toward Scarlett.

    Today, write about an unlovable character.

    • They must say, do and think awful things.
    • Then, soften the character by having someone do a loving act toward them.
    • Soften the character farther by having him or her acknowledge the errors of his or her ways.

    Think like a writer: make me want to read about that unlovable character.

    11 Jan

    Give Your Character Something to Hold

    I am trying to keep up with my friend, Charlie, who has ridden his bike over 25 miles a day for over 3000 consecutive days. I want to write 750 words a day and I’m using 750words.com to keep track of everything. The point of this exercise is to make sure I am Thinking Like a Writer, doing my scales, keeping up the practice needed to be a great writer.

    For today’s creative writing prompt, look for an object around your house, something you can pick up and hold. It might be a camera, a needle and thread, a baseball glove, a salt shaker, a frying pan, a hair dryer, a favorite book–anything.

    Now, put that object in the hands of your character and write. Be sure to use lots of sensory details, what you see, hear, taste, touch, feel. If you need to, stop and make a list of those details first. Put the character in motion with that object in his/her hand and see what happens.

    It might precipitate a flurry of action, perhaps cooking a favorite meal. It might evoke a poignant memory. It might be the grounding for a scene you couldn’t make work before.

    Post a comment–what happened when you gave your character a solid object?

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