Wednesday, August 31, 2011

C is for Connecting to Readers

What makes you want to keep reading? Often, you feel a connection to a main character and his story so you care about what happens to him. How can writers create that connection?

Give your character a personality. A strong main character can often make me stick with a story, even if I don’t like what’s happening or the writing style. Notice that a strong character doesn’t have to be likeable, though I think 8- to 12-year-olds relate better to a character that has at least a few likeable qualities. But there has to be some reason why I want to see what happens to them, why I care to read their story. Sometimes, the reason might be simply that I see the character has the potential to change and I want to see if she does.

Use character voice. When the viewpoint character has a unique voice, it helps to create a sense that the character is real. But I think it’s important not to try too hard to play up the voice, because you can end up with forced writing that sounds like an adult trying to be a kid. Instead, tap into the character by getting to know them. Construct your character in the reader’s mind through showing how he acts and how he thinks. That’s when the character’s voice will emerge.

Add some shared interests. One of the reasons why you connect well with friends is because you have something to share—the same school, the same life goals, the same hobbies or interests. That's a good starting point for connecting to readers too. Make sure your story includes interests or hobbies that are relevant to middle-grade readers, then take it up a notch by adding a twist. Use things kids know about, like school and family, and add in something else that piques their curiosity, like dogsledding (Dogsled Dreams by Terry Lynn Johnson), having a zookeeper parent (Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs) or figureskating (Sugar and Ice by Kate Messner). Think: What would it be like to….?

Ultimately, you can’t predict whether a reader will connect with your story and characters. Not everyone wants to read every story. But if you can make the reader feel something for your character, chances are he’ll want to keep reading to see what happens next.

What do you do to help readers connect to your stories?

(*If you know of any other great articles on this subject, let me know and I’ll add them for our reference)

Lydia Sharp writes about how to connect with your reader.
Janice Hardy, author of The Healing Wars trilogy for MG readers, gives us strategies for creating characters that readers will care about.
Author Elana Johnson talks about the first thing a book needs — a character the reader can connect with. 

Tabitha Bird argues that connecting with the book you want to write is more important than connecting with readers.

Lucy Marsen at From the Write Angle writes about how slowing down can help you create connections with characters.

Monday, August 29, 2011

When You Want Write But End Up Doing Anything But...

One of the things I love about my writing is the way I can pick up the story where I left off, even if I haven't worked on it for a few weeks. Sure, I have to read over what was there and remind myself of what I was trying to do with it. But I can also just start typing stuff and see where it takes me.

That's assuming I actually open the story file and begin. And there's my problem.

For me, the hard part of getting back to writing is actually making myself start. I don't know why, but when I sit down at the computer, I end up doing anything but writing. Working on blog posts, checking mail, organizing my desk top, finding new quotes for my notebook. I tell myself it's getting me ready to write, but it really isn't.

This not-opening-my-file-and-writing mystifies me, because I know I love writing. I even have a project ready and waiting for me to continue. So why is it so hard to start?

Here's what I'm going to try. Beginning this week, I'm going to start back to my Five Minute Free Write. If I do that first, before anything else, I know it will help me get back to putting writing first.

What do you find hard about getting back to your writing when you've been away from it? Do you have any good strategies for "breaking the ice" in a writing session?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How Much Detail Does the Setting Need?

Since I've been thinking a lot about setting lately, I was thrilled to discover this great article on the importance of setting at Cynsations. Here's a quote that lingered with me (also included on my Cool Blog Quotes):

"You chose that setting for a reason, mine it so that readers can feel that sense of place for themselves. For your audience, a rich setting is the difference between watching characters and being there with them."

For me, one of the tricky things about building settings for MG is knowing how much detail to include. We know MG readers don't want to get bogged down in a lot of detail that isn't relevant to the story. When deciding about how much detail to include for a setting here are some things I think about:

1. Is the detail necessary to give the reader a clearer picture of what is happening or where the scene is taking place?

2. Does the detail help to strengthen a feeling or impression about the mood of the story?

3. Sometimes, it's helpful to stop and think about what the reader might already know about the setting. For example, there are things about a school setting or home setting that the reader will take for granted, from their own experience. As writers, we can use that and only include the unusual or interesting to build another layer on what the reader already knows.

How do you make sure you aren't overwhelming the reader with too much setting detail?

Author P.C Wrede has a great post on details vs. clutter.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What is Important About Your Character's Home Setting?

Very early this morning (around 1 a.m.), my family arrived back home after a couple of weeks away. Despite the mess still cluttering the front hall, the heaps of laundry waiting to be cleaned, and the piles of mail to sort, it's a wonderful feeling to be home. It's interesting, too, how everyone in the family makes contact with what is important to them. My younger daughter was barely in the door before she ran to check on her hermit crab; I snuck a peek outside at my garden with a booklight in the dark before I collapsed into bed.

It makes me think about story characters and how details about their home settings can add authenticity to a story. The details work to create the feeling or mood that you want to convey. Familiar and personal objects help project that feeling of comfort that comes when you are in your own place. But you could create a spooky or tense mood by including details that surprise your character or make them feel out of place -- a box that wasn't there before, lights that don't work, a mysterious puddle of water on the floor.

 If your main character was away from home for a while, what would they do first when they got back? What kind of home does your main character have? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about your character's home?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Online Writing Conference

Have you visited Write On Con? This online conference is really worthwhile and it's free!! There is so much information there, it's awesome!

I wish it wasn't always scheduled at the same time as my vacation, so I could catch more of it. The great thing about it is that it stays up so you can read it later, too (I'll be reading most of it that way).

Monday, August 15, 2011

Still Thinking About Setting

One of the things I do when I'm travelling is to keep a journal. I include the events of the day to help me remember later when I see my photos. But I also try to capture smaller things, like the food we ate, those funny little things that happen that you sometimes forget later, and a few details about what each place is like.

I know I will use some of these things later, in the scrapbooks I'm hoping to one day finish (like my novel, they are barely started). But I also think that someday, they will find their way into a novel or story.

This week I'm in Florida, and it's so different from where I live in Canada. The sun seems extra bright, the ocean water is so warm, there are lizards everywhere we go --- so many details that make it unique.  Those details that I find when I travel are the kinds of details that need to go into a story to make it seem real. When I create the world of my story, I like to imagine that I'm walking through it, seeing what my character might see. It wouldn't be a bad idea to take a "mental vacation" to the story world.

What strategies do you have for creating an interesting story world?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Using Settings from Real Life

I`ve been thinking about setting a lot lately. Most of the settings I create in my writing have some basis in places I've seen or visited. When I'm thinking about a setting in my story, I often choose a place I know fairly well, and conjure up those details in my mind. I've used the inside of a friend's house (they've since moved away), my own backyard, the elementary school my kids went to, and the woods outside a summer cottage we had when I was a kid.

I'm not sure anyone would recognize any of these places in my novels. My setting details create an atmosphere, but they are not specific enough for anyone to pin down a particular place. For the middle grade stories I write, my readers don't need to know a specific city or address. What they need is to feel the simple elements of a place -- its smell, the space it has for running around, whether there are butterflies sunning themselves on the porch, how the big tree in the yard is perfect for climbing, etc. |The details need to bring the story world alive for children.

How do you use details to create setting -- could other people identify your settings or not? Do you think readers need to be able to identify a specific place?

Monday, August 8, 2011

How to Stay Motivated: Revisit Writing Goals

I can't believe we're already well into August and I still haven't come close to accomplishing everything I wanted to do this summer. Revising Novel #3 is moving along at a slower-than-snail pace. I think I must have set my sights too high!

But let's look at the positives. I've managed to get a lot of needed tidying and organizing done around the house, and do some things done that weren't on my list (I think they were on my husband's list though), like painting the entranceway and upstairs hall. Even better, a novel idea I had a while ago is resurfacing and I have a different take on it this time. One that begs me to do more thinking and planning.

The only trouble is I'm not doing much writing. I find that if I don't revisit my writing goals from time to time, I'm more likely to fill my free time with things that are totally non-productive. For example, I've recently discovered Plants vs. Zombies. And I don't plan on writing a zombie book any time soon.

How is your writing going this summer? What is your latest craze that's eating away your writing time?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Have You Seen These Blogs?

This week I was lucky enough to get two awards. Wow! Just the thing to perk me up when I'm struggling to stay motivated. So, thank you to:

Laura at Laura B. Writer - Laura posts about blogs from a marketing perspective (FAMP) , Facebook and other interesting things.

Freya at A Writer's Endeavour - Freya posts reviews and recommendations of children's fiction in the fantasy genre, as well as looking at children's fantasy in film, media and games.
Although regular followers of my blog probably know that I don't pass along awards, I do read a lot of other blogs and I'm going to share a few I've discovered recently:
Juliette Wade at TalkToYoUniverse - Juliette's blog is full of interesting and thought-provoking commentary on writing.
Vicky Bruere at Dilettante to Dynamo: A Beginning Writer's Adventures - Vicky writes picture books and blogs about writing with an upbeat and positive perspective.
Melodie at Forever Rewriting - Melodie blogs about writing and about her life in Alaska, and I love learning about places that are different from where I live.
Kathy Stemke at Education Tipster - Kathy has an educational slant to her blog, with book reviews and activities for teachers. I think it's important to think about and be aware of how teachers might use what we write.
Emily Rittel-King at Get Busy Writing - Emily poses some thought-provoking questions that make me dig deeper and she has a cool Blogger Mentor Mondays feature.
Hope you have a great weekend!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Thinking About Minor Characters

When I'm writing, I pay the most attention to the main characters. Minor characters are kind of there, in the background, emerging when I need them. But I'm realizing they need some serious attention.

I don't want a lot of characters cluttering up the thoughts of my reader and getting in the way of the story. (As a reader, I sometimes put down a book if it has too many characters to keep straight). So how do I know if these minor characters should even be in my novel?

1) Is the minor character necessary?

In the chapter I'm working on, there are two or three minor characters that don't appear anywhere else in the story. When I think about it, they do have a purpose. They add to the realism and authenticity of the story (they show the point of view character isn't socially awkward, see my post on friends in middle grade novels for more on this). They also pass along some information to the POV character.

But are there other ways the main character could get the information? Of course. She could overhear a conversation or interact with a more important character. Or maybe there's another, more creative way (time for more brainstorming). A good way to test if a minor character is necessary is to re-write the scene or chapter without them and see if it works.

2) If the minor character is necessary, how much detail should I include?

For me, the more details I include about a character, the more importance they take on in the story.

A detail that I'm struggling with is the minor character's name. If the POV character knows this person, she's going to think of them by name, not by some reader-friendly description like "the girl in bunk 4 in my cabin at summer camp." As a reader, I really hate that.  But if my main character references the minor character by name, will my reader expect the minor character to be significant in the story? Will readers feel cheated if they don't see the named character again after this chapter? I don't have the answers yet, but I'm working on it.

Do you have any tips for dealing with minor characters? Do you include their names?

If you want to know more about minor characters, I recently found this article by David B. Coe, Basics of Writing part XII: Creating Minor Characters.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Holiday Fun & Middle Grade Books

It's a holiday here. We call it the Civic Holiday...not a very exciting name, is it? I can't imagine going around saying, "Happy Civic Holiday". Oh well, I'll take it anyway. Which means I'm not posting today. Instead I'll be hanging out with the family, enjoying my Monday. I hope you have a great one!

On Wednesday, I'll be back to talk about some issues with minor characters.

If you're looking for more great middle grade books to read, The Book Smugglers are doing a Middle Grade Appreciation Week.