5 Things You Need to Know about your Characters (That You’ll Probably Never Tell Your Readers)

So, it's the new year.

And you've promised yourself you're going to finish that novel, flesh out that short story, develop that video game... except your characters seem to hate you. They won't tell you about their lives and even if you have the best idea for a plot, they keep shrugging their shoulders in the ultimate expression of meh.

Oscar Issac, wearing a blue button down and a black jacket, answering an interview question by raising his hand in the air and saying "meh." Gif from https://cdn-enterprise.discourse.org/tnation/uploads/default/original/3X/4/1/411c1cd1fc04964cb6712fd84b5b65f833f3974e.gif

Oscar Issac, wearing a blue button down and a black jacket, answering an interview question by raising his hand in the air and saying "meh." Gif from https://cdn-enterprise.discourse.org/tnation/uploads/default/original/3X/4/1/411c1cd1fc04964cb6712fd84b5b65f833f3974e.gif

Except you really need them to work with you. You really do. 

So you keep trying to force them to muddle through the plot you have planned, or you keep trying to cajole them into revealing where they want to go and who they want to have a torrid love affair with next.

I've been there. Trust me. I know. Writing LOST BOY, FOUND BOY was a year-long exercise in, "seriously, Peter? Talk to me, man. Tink? What about you? No? Why? Why do my characters all hate me.

If you're anything like me, you might want to take a break from your actual narrative at this point and spend some time getting to know your characters better. Chances are, once you do, they'll help you bust through any plot devices you're having trouble with, because they'll be that much more multi-dimensional.

So, without further ado: 5 things you need to know about your characters (that you'll probably never even tell your readers: not explicitly, anyway).

1. What do they want in this scene? 

Yes. In every. Single. Scene. 

What do they want? Why do they want it?

Clear answers.

In every. Single. Scene.

It's okay if your character doesn't know: hell, we often don't know what we want, or why we want it, in the scenes of our everyday lives. But as the author, you should.

2. What Hogwarts House are they in?

And be careful, here. Hogwarts Houses are always super interesting to me: the only reason Harry wasn't in Slytherin, remember, is because he chose not to be. You can choose, at the tender age of 11. 

So, the question gets more complicated: would the House you think your character would be in now be different than what it would have been or will be when they're eleven? Why? What changed? What stayed the same?

Not a Harry Potter person? No judgment (mostly). The basics here are about knowing what qualities your characters value in themselves and what they value in other people. Does your character think it's better to be kind or to be correct? To have lots of friends or to have a small handful of intimate chosen family? To be on the front lines or in the background? Where are the complexities? The 'yes ands'? The conflicts of values? 

This is where your characters get rich in development.

3. What do they do in their down time?

In book cultures of chosen ones and plucky teens saving the world, we often forget the mundane, the "boring", the "oh my Rao I just want to go home and sleep."

Forget what they need to do to survive, for a moment: what do your characters do to thrive?

Or, what would they do if they weren't wrapped up in whatever intensive plot you have lined up for them?

4. Why do they like (or dislike) x person?

We love chemistry in our books, don't we? Two characters meet eyes across the room, and bam. An OTP is born.

And I'm all for that. I'm all about that.

But what sparks that chemistry (or the hatred, or the ambivalence, etc.) between two characters? What, indeed, keeps it going (or not)?

Sometimes, my favorite questions about my characters are the simplest ones. Someone asked me the other day, "What does Evelyn like the most about Sadie?" And I had to scratch my head and think about it for a hot minute. Hell, I'm still thinking about it. 

Because it was a beautiful question. And I can write an entire prequel and/or sequel as an answer to it. Make sure those things shine through, even if you're not writing about them explicitly. 

5. What is x's relationship with y?

What I mean by that is this: imagine a scene with four characters in it. Let's choose mine, for funsies. Sadie, Evelyn, Zaylam, and Jorbam.

Sadie and Evelyn are dating each other (or at least, they want to; even if they won't admit it yet). Zaylam, Sadie, and Jorbam are hatchling mates who grew up together.

And, Sadie is the POV character.



What about how Jorbam and Evelyn interact? Jorbam and Zaylam, when Sadie isn't there? Evelyn and Zaylam? The three of them, without Sadie? 

Fleshing out relationships between multiple characters, in multiple combinations -- even if you don't give a massive amount of tangible detail to your readers about these "side" relationships -- is extremely, extremely important, and it makes for a much richer narrative. 

My favorite scene in all of the Harry Potter series, for example, is a small one, an almost insignificant one, in THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE. Ginny is sitting on the floor in the common room, reading a newspaper with her back against Harry's knees. Some of her brothers are there, too, playing wizards' chess. They're all teasing each other and having side conversations with each other and something about Harry having a hipogriff tattoo. They're all doing their own things: but they're doing it, intimately, together. It warms my heart, every time.

Similarly, my favorite scenes in Grey's Anatomy are ensemble scenes: I love the relationships that aren't the main focus of the show. Alex and Cristina. George and Cristina. (I just really love Cristina, okay?) Burke and Alex. 

So, like in HARRY POTTER, one of my favorite Grey's scenes is a really basic one. An ensemble scene, where they're all studying for their boards, and they're all having side conversations and little nervous and excited mannerisms. They're all living their own, full, independent lives, and you can tell from how they're all doing their own thing: but they're doing it together.

It's those little things -- those tiny interactions between characters whose relationships aren't what the story is about -- that can make or break rich worlds and sweeping plots.

Build them out, even if it's just in your own notebook or google doc of character files. 

It'll show up in your writing. I promise.

Pro tip: these questions are especially important for characters who aren't your POV (point of view) characters. Make sure you're always, always, always thinking about the motivations and backgrounds of your "side" characters and love interests. Even if you don't go out of your way to explicitly tell your readers about it: trust me. They'll know.

And your stories will be all the richer for it.

Book Review: SPARROW, by Sarah Moon

Cover Page of SPARROW, by Sarah Moon. Sparrow is written in orange capital letters across the top of a white background, interrupted by the profile image of a girl with pulled up, natural hair. In the profile of her face, there is a Brooklyn apartment building with a person standing at an open window; green street signs indicating the intersection of Flatbush Ave. and Church Ave.; and a great deal of flying birds and musical notes in the blue sky. Some of the birds fly off of the girl's profile, onto the rest of the white page.

Cover Page of SPARROW, by Sarah Moon. Sparrow is written in orange capital letters across the top of a white background, interrupted by the profile image of a girl with pulled up, natural hair. In the profile of her face, there is a Brooklyn apartment building with a person standing at an open window; green street signs indicating the intersection of Flatbush Ave. and Church Ave.; and a great deal of flying birds and musical notes in the blue sky. Some of the birds fly off of the girl's profile, onto the rest of the white page.

I have a feeling this is going to get long, so the tl;dr right away: this is an absolutely spectacular book. As someone with BPD, depression, and anxiety, this book... it was so, so, so healing, not to mention an absolutely gorgeous piece of writing. Please read and share widely; Sarah Moon's YA debut makes me yearn to read everything else she will ever write. 

Sparrow -- both the girl and the novel -- takes readers on an immensely raw, immensely empathetic journey that feels, at its core, deeply authentic, deeply unique, deeply immersive. Sparrow's narration is compelling for so many reasons, not the least of which because her grow is subtle, immense, and believable.

The community she struggles to forge -- because social anxiety and a deep sense of alienation from the people around her is a tremendous part of this book -- is absolutely beautiful, as is the character herself. 

It's too rare that we get to see Black girls in literature loving and making rock music; too rare that their sadness in literature is not because of slavery or the grief of a civil rights movement; too rare that Black girls get to simply *be*, and get to *heal*, but not because they were made to by the artificially-imposed constraint of an uncomplicated happy ending.

Not once did this novel feel exploitative or the kind of "torture porn" that often occurs when authors try and fail to write a book centralizing mental health struggles and extreme alienation. At every moment, it felt real and believable; at every moment, I felt so much of what Sparrow felt, both for her and within myself.

When Sparrow cried, I cried. When Sparrow lost, I lost. When Sparrow sang, I sang (badly). When Sparrow spoke, I felt like I could, too, speak, and maybe even be heard. When Sparrow felt the stirrings of hope within her for the first time in too long, I felt hope warming me, buoying me, taking me on this marvelous journey toward both self and community.

By nature, I love books; by nature, I am grateful for books. But this book? I am uniquely grateful for this work of art.

My only sadness about this book is that I can only give it five stars.

cross-posted from my Goodreads account.

I Wrote my First Book: Now What?

Oh, the world of tumblr, where I get many beautiful questions from many beautiful people. Recently, a wonderful anon asked:

Hi, I'm an unpublished writer but with a finished book. What would your advice be to me? Should I send my book to any and all agencies and publishers, or be picky?

A great question! And first of all, congratulations!!!! You’ve written a book: that’s a huge, huge accomplishment, published or not! So, the first piece of advice? Celebrate yourself :D

A brown-haired white man wearing a collared shirt and a grin shifts from one foot to the other, turning his head as he asks, "Can we just take a moment to celebrate me?" Gif from https://media.tenor.com/images/dc46ef65b42a7061ea7871cf18147380/tenor.gif

A brown-haired white man wearing a collared shirt and a grin shifts from one foot to the other, turning his head as he asks, "Can we just take a moment to celebrate me?" Gif from https://media.tenor.com/images/dc46ef65b42a7061ea7871cf18147380/tenor.gif

^^ You. Celebrate you.

And, in addition to all the celebrating, make sure that your book is ready for querying: I rewrote mine I think 5 full times before I got my deal with @ninestarpress. There’s no formula, of course, but the step after you write, a lot of times, is not to query, but to rewrite. 

And if you decide you’re ready to get down to business – because publishing, remember, is a business! – to answer the question the way you asked it is, be picky, picky, picky. The last thing you want to do is to submit to agents and/or publishers who aren’t looking for your kind of work/send a form “dear sir/madam” letter to everyone. The publishing world is small, and people have long memories!

And don’t only be picky: remember that there is a process to this whole thing, involving query letters and partials and all that. Really, it takes a lot of research.

I wrote a lot in this post about the process of writing a query letter, and I hope it’s helpful (if you have follow up questions, feel free to ask!). But for the purposes of your question specifically, I want to focus for a more on the process of actually selecting agents who would be a good fit for you.

Though I do discuss the importance of research, research, research in this piece, I want to draw back for a moment to agent selection. Because getting an agent is often (but not always) the key to getting published. At most agencies, you’ll be prompted by the submission guidelines on their website to only query one agent at a time (or one agent, ever). So you’ve got to chose who that is very, very carefully (again with the research). You don’t only want to investigate what kinds of books the agency tends to get signed; you also want to look into the books the particular agent that you’re querying has signed, and what they’re currently looking for (assuming they’re accepting unsolicited queries).

Often, the key is to query a few select folks at a time: maybe 5-10 per batch. Wait the requisite amount of time (different agents/agencies will say things like ‘consider no response after x amount of a time a pass’, or ‘send a gentle reminder about your query if you hear nothing after x amount of time’) before sending new letters to a new batch of agents. If you get no “bites” the first time around – no requests to read more of your full or partial manuscript – that doesn’t mean give up! It means you’re a writer now! 

It also might mean that it’s time to tweak your query letter. That’s one of the main reasons it’s a rule of thumb to only send to a few agents at a time. Sometimes silence speaks volumes, and you might want to adjust your query letter. It’s frustrating, because theoretically by that point you’ve already written and rewritten it ad nauseum, but a query letter redesign can often mean the difference between a successful and unsuccessful pitch!

And keep going. Don’t give up!

As for querying publishers, most larger publishing companies won’t accept unsolicited and/or unagented manuscripts. However, there are many smaller presses – like mine! – that do accept, and in fact actively seek, unsolicited and unagented manuscripts. If you think this is the route for you, just be mindful that your submission is appropriate for what the press is looking for, and that you follow whatever submission guidelines they have to the letter. This includes the ever-dreaded rule against simultaneous submissions: if a publisher doesn’t accept simultaneous submissions and you choose to submit your work to them, it means you can’t submit anywhere else until their response time passes. 

That can be truly scary – trust me, I know – but it can also pay off, big time (trust me, I know that, too).

I’m sending you lots of support and luck, my dear: don’t give up, and feel free to reach back out and keep me up to date on your progress!!


Writing with Depression: Getting it Down when You're Down

Over on my tumblr, a brave and wonderful Anon asked: 

"ya girl wants to write but my depressed ass can't commit to a prompt/find the motivation to actually get anything down"

Hey dear – yep, this is super hard. Definitely something that I struggle with: I’m so sorry you’re going through it, too. It’s both comforting and not to know that a lot of people are in the same proverbial boat as we are: one of my best friends and I call it the struggle bus. So… welcome? We have snacks ;)

On a more logistical note, remember – and I know I’m always saying this, but I’m always saying it because it’s true – that you are always worth more than the sum of your “productivity”/how much/how well you write/do anything. I always remind people of this because I struggle with that tremendously myself: if I haven’t written anything today, was I a waste of life today? My answer is probably going to be yes, at which point I start the classic downward spiral: I was depressed, so I didn’t write, and I didn’t write, so I’m beating myself up, so I’m more depressed… And now I feel like Yoda.

Yoda from Star Wars, sitting in light brown robes on a red chair, saying, "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." Gif from https://media.tenor.com/images/caa3cd4450d22befb16e3976e4fd7535/tenor.gif

Yoda from Star Wars, sitting in light brown robes on a red chair, saying, "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." Gif from https://media.tenor.com/images/caa3cd4450d22befb16e3976e4fd7535/tenor.gif

Recently, I’ve been crawling out of my downward spirals more and more effectively: it’s something I’ve been working on for years, and will probably continue to work on forever, because we never stop growing and learning. 

The beautiful thing about writing, though? You said you can’t commit to a prompt: thing is, to start, you don’t have to! Sometimes, for me, it’s about forcing myself to get through that first sentence. When I do, the rest often flows. When it doesn’t, hey! I’ve written a sentence. If you haven’t got the motivation/aren’t feeling up to pressing forward, that’s alright: you’ve written a sentence. That is wonderful, truly. The only place to build is up, and you will!

One of my students that I worked very closely with on his writing once approached me with a similar question as you. He wound up writing a series of very short (I’m talking 4-5 sentences, sometimes even one sentence or a few words) drabbles that came to his mind at random intervals, and you know what? They were spectacular. They were short – short, because he was too depressed at the time to work on anything longer – but they gave us so much to talk about, and after a few months, they wound up serving as a basis for him to start a much longer story. The story was stirring around in his bones, and he couldn’t not write it. It was beautiful to experience with him, and very humbling.

For him, being held accountable to a person who was unconditionally supportive of him was important: he wanted me to hold him accountable without getting angry with him if he didn’t generate something new one week (and of course I’d never be angry at him for that!). Because that was his preference, we started a writing exchange: each week, we’d scroll through prompts that either made us laugh, or think, or cry. We settled on a few, and agreed that the next week, we’d meet back and share our writing. Sometimes, he didn’t have his. Other times, he had brilliant, long pieces. Other times, he had very, very short pieces, also brilliant. Each time, though, we learned something about each other’s writing processes, and that time and space was invaluable.

I guess my point is, for me – as well as for many of my students, this one in particular – having a writing buddy who supports you unconditionally, both as a person and as a writer, can be so important. This summer, I dragged myself to the library nearly every day with one of my best friends so we could work on our dissertations together. His presence was comforting, even and especially when I was too depressed to actually carry on a conversation. It helped me get the first draft of my dissertation done, even through an intense spell of depression: I don’t know how I would have done it without him!

Of course, the kinds of community-oriented things I’ve talked about here might not work for you. That’s okay! That doesn’t mean it’s hopeless! What works for some people doesn’t work for others, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Whatever you find starts to work for you, please try to never shame yourself for not writing, or for not writing “well enough”; never give up on your goals, even when you have to take them in itty-bitty steps (there’s nothing wrong with itty-bitty steps!); and please feel free to reach out with more important questions like this.

I believe in you: you got this!!!!


Writing Your First Query Letter? 4 Tips & the Letter That Got Me Published

Over on tumblr, a wonderful human asked:

"Does anybody have any tips or examples for writing a query letter pls help

(I’m looking at you @jpolish-writes-queer-ya-fantasy)"

Hi there @smellbig -- thank you for such an important question! And it just so happens that I do!

Now, before I dive in, you should know that there are a lot of fabulous query letter resources out there. A quick search will find lots of amazing resources, and I encourage you to dive into that, with specifications for your genre. That said, a few general query letter tips:

1. Research, Research, Research

Have I mentioned research? 

For each and every agent you submit to -- yes, every one -- you should be reading way, way more than you will ever write in your query letter.

First and foremost, you want to make sure that the agent you’re querying (a) works on your age range and genre; (b) is accepting unsolicited submissions; (c) seems like they’re a good fit for you and your novel.

What does a good fit mean? Well, check their Twitter if they have one, and Manuscript Wishlist (#mswl). And that’s the easy part. 

Because then you should dive into interviews with that agent. These are crucial; I will tell you below, for example, that it’s often important to tell the agent briefly why you’re querying them before diving into it. Some agents, though? They will say in interviews that they don’t want personal flourishes or an explanation, they just want to hear about your book. Many interviews will explicitly ask what agents like to read in their query letters, and what they don’t. Those are always super helpful.

More importantly, though, interviews will tell you more about what the agent’s style is; what kinds of books they’ve sold in the past; what they’re looking for moving forward. Remember that you’re looking to get your book represented, sure, but you’re also looking to form a relationship: so this kind of information is very important.

2. Make Yourself a Database

Okay, this isn’t about writing the letter exactly, but before you do, please keep track of it! Make yourself a spreadsheet with name, agency, email, relevant links, notes about why you want to work with them, specifications they/their agency have for query letters, how long they say it takes to get back to you, the date you sent your query letter, etc.

You want to send maybe 5-10 letters in one go, max. If you get no responses, you might want to tweak your letter! Remember that it’s always a work in progress, and that’s okay. Keeping track of agents you’ve sent to is hugely important during this; it can help you improve your letters, and it will help you avoid industry no-nos (like, for example, querying two agents at the same agency at the same time).

3. Structure It

Generally speaking, there’s a three-paragraph structure to your basic query letter. (You want to cater to each specific agent, as discussed above, but hey, we gotta start somewhere, right?)

Greeting (Dear xx -- please make sure to get the agent’s name right! You’d be surprised how many folks don’t.)

Very briefly introduce your novel and why you’re querying this agent: always include your genre and word count. So, for example, “LUNAV, a YA fantasy complete at 89,000 words.” It’s important to include that it’s complete, and it’d better be: never query with an incomplete novel! And, the ‘why I’m querying you’ should be short and sweet: “I read your interview on x site, saying y”, so your novel would be a great fit for them, etc. This is also the paragraph where you can have comp titles; titles that your book is similar to/would attract readers of. Don’t use industry things like Harry Potter, and don’t do the “I’m the next xx author” thing: if there’s one thing agents seem to unanimously agree on, it’s disliking that intensely.

Your novel: this part isn’t a summary, and you don’t have to include the ending. You do, however, have to “hook” your reader, and quickly. Most agents want to be compelled by your main character immediately; and, the assumption will be that your book is complex, with more than two or three characters, but you really don’t want to mention more than that. You also really don’t want to mention side plots. Stick to the central focus, which -- yes -- is so, so, so hard when you’ve written a whole darn novel! But you’ve gotta. To help you, read a lot of dust jacket copies (the blurb on the back of paperbacks and on the inside of the hardcover dust jacket) in your genre. How do they hook readers? Are there similarities in how the stories and characters are presented? Familiarity with your genre is important, and it will show in your brief, brief, brief (read point below) hook for your novel.

Author bio: This is where you give information about yourself that is relevant to your novel; if your novel is a detective novel, it will help to mention that you were a cop for x number of years. If your novel is a high fantasy with dragons and such, it probably won’t help to mention that. It will never help to mention that your best friend loves the book, etc. Keep this short and sweet; you want to give the agent a picture of you and why you’re qualified to write the book you have, not your whole life story.

Closing: Some people include their Twitter handle and such with their signature, and that’s alright. But again, keep it simple.

Sample: Many agents ask for a short sample of your novel along with the query letter; sometimes it’s the first five pages, sometimes it’s ten, sometimes it’s the first two chapters, sometimes it’s more or less. Whatever they request along with query letters (this info will be on their agency site), send that and only that under your signature. Copy-paste the text; never send unsolicited attachments. 

4. Keep It Short

You’ve written a novel! Congratulations. Truly. It is an amazing feat, and you should be so proud of yourself. 

Now you have to get someone to want to read it in less than 300 words. And that includes the whole letter, not even just the part about your book. Remember that agents are massively busy and receive an overwhelming amount of queries weekly; your letter’s length is almost like a form of respecting their time. Please do that, just like you’d want someone to respect yours.

5. Example Time

Alright, well. 

My query letter has changed a lot over time, but this version (with some comments from me in brackets) elicited several requests for full and partial manuscripts from agents, and ultimately helped get me a publishing contract with @ninestarpress

Dear Nine Star Team,

I hope this finds you enjoying the season. With excitement, I invite you into the world of my literary novel [this part is not typical: usually you wouldn’t say “literary novel,” you’d just say YA fantasy novel; but NineStar has specific querying requests on their site, so I followed them!] LUNAV, a YA fantasy. As a nonbinary lesbian author writing queer characters (including a lesbian protagonist, a main FF romance, and several genderqueer characters), I hope that you will find my novel to be a good fit, especially as you grow your collection of YA offerings. LUNAV is complete at 89,000 words and will appeal to readers of the SERAPHINA duology and OTHERBOUND. [Note that the industry standard is to all-caps book titles.]

They don’t have dragons where half-faerie Sadie was born – not living ones, anyway – but in the Grove, everyone knows that dragon eggs grow on trees like leaves and need dreams to hatch. Without faerie dreams, the dragons won’t survive. And neither will anyone else.

Brash, boyish sixteen-year-old Sadie thinks she can stop the worst from happening, but as a half-human, she looks far too much like the enemy. So she’s been using her looks to spy on the human monarchy. But spying is a risky business: it, like dreaming, is punishable by death. Slow death. Still, Sadie thought she was a pro. Until they sent a new human magistrate to the Grove. Evelyn. 

Evelyn might be the most beautiful girl Sadie’s ever seen, and Sadie might be betraying her family by falling in love with the ruthless leader who locks them up. But that’s not even the biggest obstacle between them: Evelyn is leading the charge against dreaming, and there’s something she doesn’t know. Sadie can still dream.

I run a Tumblr blog dedicated to queer women fandoms, and in the past four months alone, I have developed a following of over 5,000 people through my fan fiction writing (I continue to gain around 40 followers each day). Additionally, I teach writing at CUNY LaGuardia Community College. I have both published and forthcoming academic articles on dis/ability in YA fiction, and I occasionally write for GayYA (a blog dedicated to queer YA fiction). I’m currently a PhD candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Attached, please find my manuscript and synopsis. [They requested it, which is the only reason I attached anything.] Thank you so much for your time and consideration.



So. You should know that the novel part of this query, I originally wrote in the first person. My novel is in the first person, from Sadie’s perspective, and it was so much easier for me to craft an authentic letter in her voice. I edited it for third person before sending it.

Aaaand that’s all I got for now. Please feel free to follow up on this with further questions or more specific queries (see what I did there?).

The Sweet (and Stressful) Sound of Character Development

Ahh, tumblr. The home of wonderful and wonderfully important questions!

A great Anon with an unfortunate computer issue asked: "Hi Jenn! I was wondering if you had any character development sheets you used, or any that you really liked? I used to have one I used often, which helped round out my characters, but lost it when my computer got a virus and had to be wiped. Can't wait for your book!"

Oh my! I’m so sorry about your computer virus: boooooo.

I don’t use worksheets, per se, but I do have a bunch of exercises that I love using, especially when I’m feeling like I’m in a writing rut.

First, I absolutely love writing lists of “20 Things Readers Will Never Know about X Character.” I don’t like the idea of keeping secrets from readers; that’s not what the exercise is about for me. For me, it’s about all the little things that make a person… well, a person! Little facts about their first crushes, their friendships, their random fears, random incidents that they’ve experienced, that might not directly show up in the book, but will probably show through in their behavior and feelings somehow.

For example, think of headcanons that fans often make about TV show characters or book characters. For example, Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books has difficulty conjuring a Patronus, but can handle basically every other spell no problem.

Because of this, I have long-since believed ("headcanonned") that Hermione experiences some form of depression, like me: conjuring a Patronus Charm involves the ability to wipe your mind and body clean of fear and doubt and overwhelming sadness and just focus on a happy memory inside you. Hermione has so much trouble with that, consistently. But, nothing in the books ever says this about her flat-out.

Hermione Granger, in a buttoned-up coat over a hoodie, takes a deep breath and sighs, looking from one side of the Quidditch Pitch to the other, sitting alone high up in the stands. Gif from https://media.giphy.com/media/YbWZxkCmwxvZ6/giphy.gif

Hermione Granger, in a buttoned-up coat over a hoodie, takes a deep breath and sighs, looking from one side of the Quidditch Pitch to the other, sitting alone high up in the stands. Gif from https://media.giphy.com/media/YbWZxkCmwxvZ6/giphy.gif

So, if I were writing a “20 Things Readers Will Never Know about X Character,” I might write a lot about Hermione’s experiences with depressive episodes before Hogwarts and even during her Hogwarts years.

Then again, if it were me, I would explicitly discuss it in the books, as well, because representation is soooo important! That said, the “20 Things” exercise is such a great way to learn about your characters that it might become a “20 Things I Need to Make Sure Readers Know about X Character”!!! (Just make sure you weave the information seamlessly into the narrative so you’re not just info-dumping information about them!)

And, I also like writing fan fiction about my characters.

For example, with LUNAV, my debut novel, it’s set in a fantasy world, right? So, sometimes I wonder: what if Sadie and Evelyn went on a date in this world, in this very restaurant? What if they were students in New York City? What if they were my students? What if they met in a coffee shop in this world instead of in a forest full of snow and magic in the land of Lunav?

Those are super fun to write, and they give a lot of insight into who these people are, and how their environments shape them, and what the cores of their personalities are. Just like a well-written fan fiction AU, it takes a lot of knowledge of a character to keep them consistently in character even when you’re writing them in a completely different situation than the ones they usually find themselves in.

I know those things aren’t worksheets, but I hope they’re helpful anyway!! Feel free to ask more questions: this was a great one!

Your characters are going to be amazing :)

How Do I Plot? Storyboarding and Collaborative Plotting of Plots

Over on my tumblr, a wonderful Anon got right to the point and asked: "how to develop stable plots." And this is what I said.

Ahhh, a great and difficult question!! I’m gonna give you a novel-length answer. Hope that’s okay!

Stable plots come about in different ways for different people. Some people like to plot every last detail out in an outline or on a visual storyboard before they even start writing. Those wonderful people are way out of my league: storyboards only happen way later for me.

For me, I honestly write novels in a series of scattered scenes; the overarching plot might have a vague idea in my mind by the way I start connecting these scenes, but ultimately, my biggest lift when novel-writing is about somehow weaving all these scattered scenes together.

This involves plugging in transition and connective scenes, and then doing a huge edit that, in truth, is more of a total rewrite. That way, I can smooth out the writing style and pacing, as well as making sure I’m not repeating information or such from the stitched-together scenes.

How did I do this with my debut novel LUNAV? I wish I still had the pictures from my old phone, but alas.

I storyboarded! I got index cards and colored markers, tape and my living room wall (my fiancee was delightful about letting me do this; she even encouraged it and was central to helping me figure it all out!).

What did I do with said markers and index cards? Stable plotting! (And I think this storyboarding can work even for those of us who outline before we write, too, by the way.)

Basically, I made an index card describing each scene briefly and posted them to the wall in chronological order.

A wooden door drawn in a storybook starts to emit a golden glow from its handle, projecting out of the book and over Henry's shoulder. The teenage boy wearing a black coat and signature red-striped scarf, turns to watch the stream of light touch a keyhole on a wooden desk drawer behind him. From the ABC show  Once Upon a Time.  Gif from http://68.media.tumblr.com/c0c40113a3beb0c0b228b75ffd97a117/tumblr_inline_nm0hoocTk41ss1lam.gif

A wooden door drawn in a storybook starts to emit a golden glow from its handle, projecting out of the book and over Henry's shoulder. The teenage boy wearing a black coat and signature red-striped scarf, turns to watch the stream of light touch a keyhole on a wooden desk drawer behind him. From the ABC show Once Upon a Time. Gif from http://68.media.tumblr.com/c0c40113a3beb0c0b228b75ffd97a117/tumblr_inline_nm0hoocTk41ss1lam.gif

Underneath each scene, I posted three index cards. On these cards, I used different color markers to indicate important things about the scene: the color codes were “world-building”, “character development”, and something like “relationships.” For each category, I wrote about what the scene conveyed.

For world-building, I wrote things like “Lunamez massacre discussed” or “Dreaming explained.”

For characters, I wrote things like “Jax backstory” or “Sadie passes as a boy in the human Inn.”

This way, if I gave Jax a backstory in two different scenes, I would see it immediately. Similarly, if I never talked about Jax’s history, I would notice that, as well, because his name would be missing from the “character” index cards.

For plot-specific things, I also drew arrows between each scene/each pair of index cards. If I couldn’t draw that arrow -- if the scenes didn’t make sense next to each other, if the pacing was wrong, or I needed to move the cards/scenes around -- I knew something was amuck with my plot.

This storyboarding really helped me, because it combined the parts of me that learn visually (storyboard), from reading (the written words on the index cards), and kinesthetically (being able to touch and move the cards as though I were reaching into my world and moving my characters and settings around).

Of course, this method won’t work for everyone because we all have different processes, but it reallllly helped me.

As much or more than the board itself, it helped me to show my friends the storyboard. They were able to find holes that I couldn’t (because I was so close to it), in ways that would have taken much longer/might have been harder to spot reading the entire novel.

Wearing a blue plaid shirt and tie, Winn Schott from  Supergirl  offers a high five to Barry Allen, in his Flash suit with his hood down, as Supergirl watches them both. Gif from http://68.media.tumblr.com/c0c40113a3beb0c0b228b75ffd97a117/tumblr_inline_nm0hoocTk41ss1lam.gif

Wearing a blue plaid shirt and tie, Winn Schott from Supergirl offers a high five to Barry Allen, in his Flash suit with his hood down, as Supergirl watches them both. Gif from http://68.media.tumblr.com/c0c40113a3beb0c0b228b75ffd97a117/tumblr_inline_nm0hoocTk41ss1lam.gif

Collaborating about my plot with my friends and my fiancee was -- and still is -- indescribably helpful. They are not only patient with my oddities and writing insecurities, but they are beyond indulgent, insightful, and creative with their assistance. I couldn’t do it without them!

So, I suppose, I’m saying: storyboarding may help, whether you’re an outliner or a scene-jumper like me. And, friends who are writers/who love reading and who love you are absolutely invaluable.

Feel free to reach out with more questions: this is a great one!!

You got this :)

How do I Dialogue? The Strife of the "Said" Tag

Over on my tumblr, a wonderful anonymous reader/writer asked me:

Hi! :) I have some problem when writing, not in dialogues, those are the easiest part for me, but like after the dialogues, I always feel like I'm repeating the entence "she said" or "he said" wayyy too many freaking times, and it bothers me a lot. How do I kinda replace the word "say" and not make it appear 500 times in my 1000 word story? xD Thanks! And I cant wait for your novel to release :D

Hello my dear! Ohhh, dialogue tags. What an important question!!

Two things: the first is, check out this cool page about other words you can use for “said.” Remember that you probably want to convey action and emotion with your dialogue. The only thing “said” tells us is, literally, that someone… well, said something: which, mind you, is important!

But, other words – that more directly describe the way something is being said – can often be super helpful, and that’s where the link above can be very nifty.

The second thing: remember that you don’t always need dialogue tags. The goal with good dialogue is to have everyone communicate – as we all do in real life – with different cadences, with a voice all their own. So making sure your characters have their own rhythms and tendencies when speaking can help us as readers know who’s talking without necessarily having to be told. Relatedly, it’s fun to let readers see what characters are doing while they’re talking, and this can provide a lot of great alternatives to “said.”

Take this bit of dialogue, for example, from this delightful scene between true loves Emma Swan and Regina Mills in Once Upon a Time:


Regina Mills from Once Upon a Time looks up from her desk, hand delicately under her chin, with hopeful eyes, asking Emma Swan, "Is that a root beer?" Gif from https://68.media.tumblr.com/4cb1e6a038cbed831a81e00745b19d0f/tumblr_nkciynSO561sfomgxo5_250.gif

“How do you feel about kale salad?” Emma asks.

“Like someone found some place other than Granny’s for take-out,” Regina answers.

“I’m fine with her grilled cheese, but I know it gets to you,” Emma says.

“You eat like a child. Is that a root beer?” Regina asks.

“Two! I got you one. Thought you could use a break,” Emma says triumphantly.

Okay. Awesome. My heart is melted like that grilled cheese that Emma didn’t get because she knows it hurts Regina’s stomach be still my fangirl heart.

But, still. As written, it doesn’t convey everything that went on between them in that scene, does it? So, lets try it without once using “said”/”says” or synonyms for it.

“How do you feel about kale salad?”

Regina doesn’t bother looking up, either at the salad or at the woman who’d placed it there. “Like someone found some place other than Granny’s for take-out.”

Emma ignores her distant, distracted quip as she struggles to crack open the bottles she brought with her.

“I’m fine with her grilled cheese, but I know it gets to you.”

Regina scoffs with soft eyes and finally glances up. “You eat like a child.”

She pauses, then, and nearly gasps, her mask of disinterest finally gone. “Is that a root beer?”

“Two!” Emma quirks a small grin, holding up one bottle in each hand like she’s Henry, trying to be casual while proudly presenting his science fair project. “I got you one. Thought you could use a break.”

You see what I mean?

More melty-grilled cheese for Emma and warm fuzzy someone-notices-what-I-need feels for Regina, and more overall feels for us.

Sometimes, we need those actions, those facial expressions. And, it does two things at once: injects deeper forms of communication into the scene, and eliminates that pesky “said” repetition.

Remember, most of communication is held within the unspoken: don’t be afraid to put that in your writing!!

Have a great time, dear writer: you got this :)

And if you've got any more dialogue tips, feel free to toss them below here!

5 Things to do while Writing Your First Novel

Over on my tumblr, the wonderful invisible-galaxies asked:

"What are you best tips for writing a book? I just started writing one, so I would love some advice."

Well, my dear. Feel free to follow up here with more specific questions about your own writing process, but my first instincts (after mulling this question over since you sent it in) are as follows:

1. Congratulate yourself -- yes, already.

We're so ingrained to only celebrate ourselves, congratulate ourselves, when we have a finished product; when we have something polished and pretty and glossy; when we have something complete, and when we have extra money in our pockets from it.

But you have decided to write a book. You have started writing a book. You have, in other words, started creating something that will let you unleash an entire world onto the page, onto the screen; you have decided to bring life to an entire universe.

That deserves celebration; you deserve celebration. Because you've made a brave decision, a brave start; and because if you don't pause to celebrate yourself along the way, the journey's more likely to be overly self-loathing and lonely.

2. Write about... your writing.

Do you know what kind of novel writer you are?

Maybe you can sit down and bang out the first draft of a short story or a school essay or a project report for work, one shot, start to finish. It's linear and it's chronologically-oriented and sure, it needs editing, but it has a beginning, middle, and an end, right away.

Awesome! But that might not be the kind of novel writer you are.

Let yourself experiment -- let yourself write whatever scenes or character sketches are coming to your mind, even if you're not sure where they fit into your overall narrative. Because maybe you'll write a lot of your novel out of order (I sure did), and then have to stitch it back together/rewrite to iron things out. There's nothing wrong with that!

There's also nothing wrong with those of us who outline endlessly before even writing down the first chapter, or whose brains just work in order, getting each scene to flow into the next linearly, from the start.

Whatever your process is, let yourself discover it. Write about yourself as a writer. Ask yourself:

How do I tend to develop my characters into living, breathing people?

For me, does plot tend to come first? Characters? How do they feed off of each other?

Do I have to know everything about a scene before I write it?

Etc. Knowing these things about yourself as a writer can be such a huge help.

3. Share what you can, if Tip 2 indicates it would be helpful (and maybe try it anyway).

Grab a glass of iced tea and swing your legs off the fire escape with a friend, and talk things through with them.

Last summer, I don't know how many hours I spent in the ocean with one of my best friends, floating over waves and exchanging our novel ideas, bits and pieces of information and revelations about singing dragons, teenage superheroes, detention centers, and zine writers. I can't ever describe how central that was to my process.

These conversations weren't just conversations. When I went away to speak at conferences or to see friends, I would print his novel drafts and bring them with me, reading on the bus well past the point of motion sickness (because his writing is just that brilliant). And he would do the same for me.

Writing communities -- even if they're small -- are absolutely invaluable. Sometimes, we can find them online; sometimes, we can find them in school; sometimes, we can find them at free writing workshops in our communities.

We tend to think of writing as a solitary process, and that's so true, but it can also be a recipe for unhelpful ruminating: a lot of us need idea bouncing buddies, cheerleaders, and critique partners who will be honest but gentle when something just isn't working.

So maybe it's just me, but I can't write without the people I love, and I love the people I write with. Period.

4. Map it out.

Even if you're not a planner -- even if you write scene-by-randomly-ordered scene -- keeping yourself organized can help so, so much. I always keep documents of notes on my character descriptions, their likes and dislikes, their relationships with each other.

I have lists of "twenty personal things that readers will never know about x character."

I have fan fictions of my own characters where -- since I'm writing fantasy -- I place them in today's world, without magic, in a given situation, and learn more about them through how they'd react.

I have little maps of when this happens, when that happens. As x is happening to y character, why is a happening to b character? How does this all affect c character and d plotline? (Index cards or post-its and colored pens are super helpful for this sort of thing.)

I have drawings -- and my students will be the first to snort, here, because I cannot draw to save my life -- mapping out where different things in my book happen, and when.

I didn't do most of these things while I was initially drafting; I did most of them while I was editing and rewriting. If any of these things sound helpful, though, don't be me: try to do these kinds of exercises and explorations with yourself while you're drafting, because I know how much more streamlined and generative my process would have been, sooner, if I had.

5. Read, Read, Read, Read. Oh yeah, and write.

What genre are you writing? Young adult fantasy? Adult contemporary? Middle grade historical fiction? If you don't know, that's okay -- find out! Book research is fun. (And let me know if yall want a post about different genres, or have questions about them.)

And then, read. Read it all. All the things your library has in your genre, and all the things your library has out of your genre. I count watching certain television -- really well-written stuff, and even not-so-well-written stuff -- as reading when I'm preparing to write, because great images and stories can inspire me, and terrible images and stories can also inspire me (to make something better, to never have that kind of plot hole, to never kill the lesbian).

I know sometimes when we're writing, it's hard for us to read.

We want to keep our own voice, and we want to be, quite frankly, not intimidated by what's out there. But part of the journey you're beginning -- writing your own book -- is trying to rewire the competition-thinking that makes us intimidated into the collaborative-thinking that makes us inspired by others' beautiful work. It can be hard, and might even take longer than it does to draft your book -- but it's a worth-while process to start off on.

And, of course, while you're reading... write. It's okay if it's out of order, and it's okay if it's outlined down to the finest detail. Just... write.

If you're the kind of person that likes internal deadlines, set them. If you need an accountability buddy to help make sure you stay on track, get one.

And when you accomplish a mini-goal -- like answering a series of deep questions about your main character or finishing that first chapter and moving onto the second or finishing that random scene that doesn't fit in the plot yet but hey, you wrote it -- reward yourself!

Because -- and now we're looping up to Tip 1 again -- you are on an awesome journey, and you deserve to treat yourself awesomely.

Writing on Vacation; On Vacation from Writing

Earlier this week over on my tumblr, a wonderful Anon asked this question:

"Hi Jenn! I'm going on vacation for two weeks today and I have a (personal) deadline for one of my chapters. I know I'm on vacation to relax, but is there any way you think I could get some writing done? -K.M"

I responded to K.M. here, but I wanted to take this weekly writing tips time to expand on that answer in three parts