Middle Grade Critique: Workshop Submission #8

Thank you to our last writer of this workshop series, E.S. This is an early draft of a middle grade fantasy.

Get the creepy factor across with action, rather than telling.

The Workshop Submission

It started when the two faceless men knocked at the back door. If I’d known it was them, I would never have answered.

The potential for some solid tension here. The one thing I’d keep an eye out for, however: “I would never have answered” leaves the present moment. There’s this “If I’d only known” vibe. We go into some hazy, undefined future, from which the narrator is writing. It risks pulling the reader out of the moment to wonder, “When are we relative to the present moment?” My preference is to only use tension that’s available in the present. But since we don’t really know what’s going on in the present yet, I’ll allow it. 😉

Usually I wouldn’t have answered. I hate answering the door. It’s never anyone for me, anyway. All I want is to be left alone to mind my own business and have everyone else mind theirs.

“I wouldn’t have answered” and “I hate answering the door” are redundant. Consider this post about writing description. We get even more into the same point with the discussion of minding one’s business. This is also telling about the character, which I’d much rather avoid.

But I figured it was Mom with her arms full of groceries or something, so I answered the door. Because who else would come around the building and through the gate in the fence and past our sorry excuse for a backyard and knock on the back door? Anyone else would go to the front door. And Mom should have been home already, anyway. It was way past the time she usually gets home from work, and she hadn’t even called. She can be a real pain like that.

This is much more relevant to the present moment. I think that Mom not being home yet (tension) meets the element that it’s the back door, not the front door (tension) should be played up from the beginning, eg, “Nobody ever knocks on the back door. Only Mom comes in that way, and Mom would never knock…” Though I do love “our sorry excuse for a backyard” for voice purposes. This could be cherry-picked and used to start the novel.

So I just unlocked the back door and opened it. I expected Mom to come bustling into the kitchen, saying, “Samantha, young lady, have you finished your homework?” and puffing loose hair out of her face. But it wasn’t Mom. It was two tall, faceless men.

The difference between this opening and what the writer currently has is that this opening is in action. Samantha is expecting Mom (neutral) but it’s not Mom (tension!), it’s two faceless men (tension!!!!!!!). Give it to us in the moment. All the discussion of wanting to be left alone and blah blah blah is just telling. Give us the action instead.

Maybe they actually did have faces under all that bristly hair, but it was impossible to tell. Plus their tall furry hats were jammed down so far on their little heads that the hats would’ve covered any faces they had. Their arms and legs look like giant pipe cleaners. Creepy. And not brand new pipe cleaners either.

The rambling here (the long sentence about the tall furry hats) and the humor (though I love humor) undermine the shock or tension of the moment. Two random strangers have shown up at Samantha’s back door, and you ideally, I think, want the reader to be scared. But by making fun of their hats and faces and head shapes, you let the true fear out of the moment. Is she meant to be scared? This would be better for tension. Or is she just going to hang back and poke fun? This would be better for voice but … for the beginning, tension should be king.

That’s all they wrote! Thank you so much for joining me for this workshop series, and thank you to all the writers who have furnished your openings for potential workshop. I’m planning the next one as we speak.

If you’re struggling with your beginning, bring me on board as a novel editor and trusted writing partner.

Writing Fantasy: The Kiss of Life by Gail Carson Levine

I’m very excited to present this article on writing fantasy, exclusively for Kidlit by Gail Carson Levine.

writing fantasy, gail carson levine, fantasy writing
The key to writing fantasy is relatable detail.

The Magic of Fantasy Writing

The great thing about reading fantasy (and writing fantasy) is that we get to have experiences not available to us in ordinary life. The great thing about writing fantasy is that we’re able to take a deep dive into what those experiences might be like.

As a reader, I feel disappointed when the dive is a belly flop. For example, an invisible force field hitting an invisible, immovable object frustrates me, especially if the hero I’m rooting for is trapped behind the object. How can she engage with it if she doesn’t know what it is? Then, if she does engage and it gives way but I don’t know how, I’m doubly annoyed. I can’t rejoice with her if I don’t understand her triumph.

Here’s a confession: I don’t believe in magic or elves or fairies.

Seven Suggestions for Writing Fantasy

So I know that I face a high bar to persuade at least some readers to buy what I’m laying out. How do we do it? Here are seven suggestions for writing fantasy:

  • Start the fantasy early, before the reader has time to imagine a realistic world. Take Ogre Enchanted, my latest novel, a prequel to Ella Enchanted. My main character, Evie, is a dedicated healer, but her methods wouldn’t survive scrutiny by the American Medical Association. I introduce the magic in the first sentence of the book, when Evie’s friend Wormy forgets to mash her inglebot fungus—there’s no such thing as inglebot. Grimwood, a fever remedy, shows up a page later, and, soon after, pig bladder, which certainly exists, but no one uses it to heal sprains!On page 5, the adolescent giant Oobeeg is mentioned, though he’s too large to fit through Evie’s mother’s front door–a mite of sensory information. Oobeeg is there because his mother’s leg was gashed by an ogre and a healer is needed. Now we have giants and ogres. On page 9, Evie herself is turned into an ogre by the fairy Lucinda of Ella Enchanted fame. Giants, fairies, ogres, and weird medicine. The world taking shape and we’re just on page 9.
  • Writing fantasy elements that develop characters. With Evie’s transformation, I give the reader an understanding of how it might feel to be an ogre. Coarse hair grows on Evie’s hands. Her fingernails are long and filthy. She’s bigger than she was before, so seams have split; her apron is squeezing her stomach; the soles of her shoes are flapping. Significantly, she’s ravenous, even though she had breakfast only a little while earlier. Even more significantly, she calls Wormy’s earlobes “the sweetest part.” Not much later, I let the reader know how easily she gets angry, which is unlike her human self. Rather than an invisible force field, Evie’s ogre side becomes one of her antagonists. The way she deals with it, including what she eats and doesn’t eat, are important in defining her.
  • Set things up beforehand to prepare the reader. Much later in Ogre Enchanted I need Evie to get the better of a dragon, and dragons in this world are vastly bigger than ogres, plus they have flames and flight. It took me a while to figure out how to do this when writing fantasy, but when I did, I introduced on page 82 a historical enmity between dragons and ogres, and I showed the over-the-top reaction of Evie and the ogre band she’s with to the sight of just a dragon’s tooth. When she faces an entire dragon forty pages later, the reader is ready to believe she can survive.
  • Include detail, especially sensory detail. Sensation puts the reader there. Once we’ve made our world solid with sight, sound, touch, and smell, we can’t write an invisible force field, because it won’t fit.Smell isn’t our species’ strongest sense, but it’s uniquely tied to our emotions. In her ogre form, Evie sweats copiously–and stinks. Baths last only briefly. Her ogre side likes the smell, but her human side wants to crawl out of her hairy skin.
  • Make the humans and the creatures relatable. Evie, who craves relief from her isolation from humans, is painfully aware of her looks and her odor. And she can barely tolerate the terror she strikes in people. Anyone who’s ever felt unwanted, even for a moment, suffers with her.Not that appearance is the only way to make readers identify with fantasy writing. They feel for Ella in Ella Enchanted because of her curse of obedience–we’ve all many times had to do what we don’t want to. In my Princess Tale, For Biddle’s Sake, the very flawed fairy Bombina (who loves to turn people into toads) is sympathetic because of her desperate love for a girl named Parsley.
  • Writing fantasy that embraces the reader with touches of wonder. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, sorcerers are born when lightning strikes marble, which ignites a flame that contains the new sorcerer, who rockets into the sky. Just dreaming up this kind of thing makes me happy, a feeling I hope readers will share.
  • Invent your own creatures. Don’t go with stereotypes. Dragons don’t have to be big, and elves don’t have to be small, as Tolkien proved. At a conference, I once mentored a young writer who had a charming voice. My only criticism about his fantasy writing was that he leaned on stereotypes. When describing a certain wizard, he used direct address to say to the reader, “You know how wizards are.” I don’t. I have my own ideas, but this was his story, and I wanted to meet his wizard.

    Writing Fantasy Isn’t Easy, But It’s Worth It

Just saying, all of this isn’t easy. Maybe none of it is. A young writer I know has an ongoing dispute with her brother about which is harder, writing or basketball. Writers know, and it isn’t even close. But it’s a joy to invent worlds with creatures who live under an unknown sun and to invite readers to share the fun.

Find Gail Online:

If you’re struggling with writing fantasy that pulls readers in and doesn’t let them go, hire me as your developmental editor.

Novel Scene Description

Scene description tends to flummox many a novel writer. The devil is in the details, you’ve heard. Well, it’s possible to have too many details, and also too few. Then there are static details. Ack! How to walk this fine line when crafting your own scene description? Read on.

What do you want readers to see? How to write novel scene description that’s just right.

The Ideal Balance of Scene Description

Scene setting exists to not only bring your reader into your story, but give mood to each scene, and do world-building. A 1950s kitchen will be very different from an alien world. The issue is, many writers don’t know how much scene setting is too much, or how much is too little. They don’t know where to put it in their prose. They struggle with its overall arc as the novel progresses. Here are some thoughts for achieving that ideal balance.

Considerations About Reader Attention

When you write scene setting, you are directing reader attention. You are either highlighting a place, or downplaying, according to the amount of description you choose to include.

Yes, it’s possible to get bogged down with description, and, as a result, scene setting. We’ll talk about that in a moment. It’s also possible to skip scene setting altogether and end up with a strangely ungrounded project.

Remember this when you write: How much you describe something directly ties into how important a reader thinks that something is. As you decide how to describe a scene, how much, and when, keep this in the back of your mind.

You can describe a scene more liberally the first time a character visits. This is their introduction to a place, after all, and you want readers to create it in their minds. But don’t do a few big paragraphs of description at the beginning of every scene. This will be a pattern readers grow tired of. Instead, think of places to pause and insert description throughout the scene that takes place in a certain setting.

Once that groundwork is done, future visits to that place can do with less scene setting. But you don’t want to abandon it completely.

Too Few Scene Description Details

If you suffer from too little scene description, pick some evocative details of each scene. A big problem in novels without setting is that scenes often turn into talking heads. Just dialogue and human motion. These tend to read very quickly and readers won’t feel grounded. Can you pick evocative details, maybe that match the emotion of the scene? Pepper them on pages where you see a ton of dialogue and little action.

Maybe three or four details will be all you need. Maybe you’ll sit and start thinking about the room and be inspired to describe it more. As a good rule of thumb for you, try a few sentences of scene setting at the beginning of each scene that your characters enter. Then, when they go back to a location, note any changes or comment on how the setting might feel different because of all that has happened since the characters’ last visit there.

Too Much Scene Setting

Indulgent scene setting is an opposite problem. Usually, writers lavish the first page set in a specific scene on description. This can stop action cold. Redundancy also becomes an issue, especially if description is ongoing, even though a character has visited a place many times.

Think of a new scene or a new chapter as an invitation to the reader. You are asking them to join you for the next installment of story. If you immediately bombard them with colors, smells, the various textiles and appointments of a room, the vibe in the air, the music drifting in, and all of these other small details—that’s a lot to keep in mind. It makes the beginning of a scene, which is ideally a light and inviting thing, seem heavy and too complicated.

If you struggle with this issue, limit yourself to three significant details and three more specific details. And don’t introduce all of them when a character first enters the scene. Pepper them throughout.

How Scene Description Changes Throughout

Think of the scene setting in your novel as having its own arc. You will be doing more scene setting at the beginning of a novel, simply because you are introducing readers to a world and its environments. They have never been to each place before, they will want to see the big picture and a few evocative details.

But as the story moves forward and the settings become familiar, don’t drop your scene setting. Simply shift your focus. Is the diner dreary on this foggy day, as the character goes to sulk over a milkshake? Does the brilliant sunshine over the field cheer the whole place up? As characters go through a story, they will develop relationships to the places they have been. These relationships can change the character’s viewpoint of a place. They can add emotion to the place.

Pick three locations that your character visits a lot. Can you give them an emotional “tone” every time the character goes there? Add some specific scene setting description that teases out a sense of arc? Even more neutral settings can contribute to story with a few well-chosen descriptions.

Work with me as your developmental editor and we can address your questions about scenes, arcs, and writing description in a focused encouraging one-on-one setting.

Avoid Long Sentences in Colloquial Writing

I work a lot with voice, especially colloquial writing, with my editorial clients. Aside from dry voice, which is a topic in and of itself, I have been battling long sentences quite a bit recently. I write this post as a reminder to all writers: Bigger isn’t necessarily better. (Cue my thirteen-year-old self giggling.)

long sentences, colloquial writing
Today’s voice favors colloquial writing and eschews long sentences. Especially for young readers still finding their reading confidence.

Long Sentences Are Hard Work

There are two common ways in which writers elongate sentences unnecessarily. One is via the semicolon, one is by stacking action. Unless you are British or from another Commonwealth country, the semicolon is largely leaving modern trade fiction. (An interesting anecdotal study done for The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer found that semicolon use is inversely proportional to commercial success. Plus, not a lot of people use semicolons correctly.)

I personally encourage clients to avoid them because they create awkward long sentences that drag on. They are especially undesirable in picture books, early readers, and chapter books, and some early middle grade because those readers are not yet comfortable with complex sentence structures.

Another tendency I see is the stacking of action, especially by using “as.” I encourage writers to limit a sentence to three actions, for example:

She shut her laptop, sipped her coffee, and stared absently at the wall.

(This happens to be my favorite activity…)

Here’s what happens to the sentence, which is long enough already, if “as” comes to the party:

She shut her laptop, sipped her coffee, and stared absent at the wall as the cat prowled for puzzle pieces along the hallway and the mail carrier knocked at the door.

It’s too much for one sentence to do comfortably. (Also, my cat can’t be the only puzzle enthusiast out there, right?) Your work shouldn’t be, well, work to read. When you’re tempted to use a semicolon or “as” to keep something going, consider either zooming out and conveying less action (because you might not need such detail) or breaking up the sentence.

Reading Long Sentences Aloud

Another trick I love to use, especially for picture books, is to read the work aloud. Not only will this help you get a visceral feel for colloquial writing and voice, but it will absolutely indicate which sentences are too long. Why?

People need to breathe. And if you need to breathe in the middle of one of your sentences, it’s too long. Especially in dialogue. We tend to speak in shorter sentences than we’d use for narrative and description. If you have characters speaking in 50-word sentences which are exactly the same as your narrative writing style, that’s an issue. Speech should have its own cadence.

Read your work aloud to focus on long sentences and either eliminate them or break them up. Colloquial writing is here to stay, and shorter, more energetic sentences are going to help you a lot on the voice front. A win for you, and a win for your readers!

If you struggle with voice, I can step in as your manuscript editor and guide you in the right direction with personalized, encouraging feedback.

Character Development Questions to Ask and Answer

Perhaps this is a contrarian approach to character development, but I don’t care what your character’s favorite flavor of ice cream is. I don’t necessarily want to know what sport they played, or what their spirit animal is (unless these factor into the plot, of course). A lot of character development that writers are coached to do doesn’t really translate into great story. So what should you focus on? Keep reading to find out.

character development, character development questions
“If you were an island, what color would your sand be?” Huh? Ask significant character development questions instead.

Why Ask Character Development Questions?

A lot of writing books suggest getting to know your characters. Act like you’re interviewing them. Ask them questions. This, the logic goes, will lead to deeper and more nuanced character.

But you have to ask the right questions! I have seen spreadsheets that writers have created of a character’s hometown, favorite TV show, etc. None of these things move the needle. A key part of writing character, in my opinion, is creating vulnerability. Inner struggle is crucial to character and story. Those are the deeply human elements that are going to reel your readers into the heart of your characters and stories. If you’re not asking these types of questions, it’s never too late to start.

Things to Consider When Doing Character Development

Here is a list of character development questions I wish more writers would ask their characters or about their characters:

  • What is your deepest conscious desire?
  • What is your deepest unconscious desire?
  • What, if anything, is preventing you from achieving either of the above?
  • What do you want from yourself?
  • What do you want from other people?
  • What, if anything, is preventing you from achieving either of the above?
  • What’s your most positive and supportive relationship?
  • Is there any conflict to it?
  • What’s your most negative relationship?
  • Is there any positivity to it?
  • If there were no obstacles, what is one thing you would do in a heartbeat?
  • What obstacles (internal and external) are preventing you from doing that?
  • How do you feel about yourself on a good day?
  • How do you feel about yourself on a bad day?
  • What does an ideal life (referring to the character’s own life and situation) look like, to you?
  • What does an ideal world (referring to society at large for the character, his or her loved ones, and people in general) look like, to you?
  • What three experiences from the past defined you in the present?
  • Where do you see yourself in three months? One year? Three years? Ten years?
  • What is the inner wound or inner struggle that keeps you up at night?
  • What is your ugliest side? How do you manage it? Does it ever overtake you?
  • What is your most noble, best side? How do you encourage it? What’s keeping it from shining more often?
  • What does it feel like to you when you’re stressed? Bored? Angry? Proud? Happy? Excited?
  • Is there any friction between how you see yourself, and how others see you? If so, what is preventing you from closing that gap?

These questions aim to address a few crucial (I believe) components of character development: What are the inner struggles? How does the character deal with adversity? How do they see themselves in their mind’s eye and in relation to others? How do conflicts and tensions affect them?

The rest of the decisions you make about their favorite subject in school and what kind of cake they like … those are fun but fluffy. Here, I aim to drill down to the very real. Why? Because these are the relatable things that your readers will connect to on a deeper level.

What to Actually Use

One big mistake I see is that writers do all of this character development, and then shoehorn all of it into their manuscripts. They can’t bear to leave any behind. But some of those spreadsheet ideas need to stay in the spreadsheet. The purpose of doing any kind of “getting to know you” work with your character is that you sit down and do the work. You get to know them. You plan them out.

Invariably, some of that work will end up on the “cutting room floor.” It’s for you, it’s not for the reader. Though you’ve developed it, you don’t necessarily have to use it on the page. And you don’t want to be terribly overt with the answers to the above questions, either. Avoid putting these things on the page. Real people don’t walk around saying, in dialogue with others, “My childhood wound is that I wasn’t loved enough.” But if this is true, it drives a lot of their behavior anyway.

Think of it as homework, not necessarily something for the final product. Focus on what’s really important when it comes to character. Leave the rest for your spreadsheet.

If you struggle with character development, you might want custom, actionable advice from a novel editor. I can help take your protagonist, and therefor your story, to the next level.

Choosing Your Main Character

Some writers don’t have to decide on their main character, the protagonist has been in their imagination forever! Others, though, struggle with the choice or protagonist. These writers having big casts of characters, multiple POVs, or small, tightly knit ensembles. If you find yourself struggling to define the main character in your story, read on.

If you have trouble selecting the best potential main character for your manuscript, you’ve come to the right place.

main character, protagonist, novel hero, picture book main character
If you have trouble selecting the best potential main character for your manuscript, you’ve come to the right place.

Choosing Your Main Character

One question I’m asked a lot is: Does a character have to change from beginning to end? This is otherwise known as a character arc. My answer has always been a resounding yes. Unless you’re writing an antihero (a tough proposition, especially for younger readers), a character’s change arc is going to be one of the more interesting parts of your story. Whether your character learns something by solving a problem (common in picture book) or undergoes a fundamental identity shift (as seen in MG and YA), their potential for change is a big determining factor in who you should select for a main character.

Remember what readers want. They read to care and feel. That’s it. Change is messy, it’s emotional, it’s usually very gratifying. The character who changes the most is also the character who has the potential to connect most with your reader. If this isn’t currently your main character, you might have a decision to make.

Main Character and Emotion

One of the cornerstones of my teaching philosophy about writing is interiority, or access to a character’s thoughts, emotions, reactions, and inner struggle. The character with the biggest change arc usually also has the most potential for emotional scenes. The character is going through a lot, they feel deeply, they aim to learn or grow … readers will want to see this on the page. By choosing this dynamic character, with deep, nuanced feelings, for your main character, you will be putting more emotion into your story. The scenes of your plot will have more feeling to them. What you write about will seem to matter more to readers. If your character floats along, not changing, not really feeling that much, do they have enough potential to be a true protagonist?

The other thought here is about  novel theme. Every book has something that it’s about, in a big picture sense. Character will often be tied into your theme, meaning that if you want to write about loss, then maybe a good protagonist in that type of book is grieving. So when you choose your protagonist, and you think about their journey, and their potential for emotion, you’ll also want to think about how all of these things align with your bigger picture. If your book is about self-acceptance and your main character spends most of the story in denial, while their friend plays a supportive and emotionally vulnerable role, maybe you’ve chosen the wrong point of view. Let the lens of the character match the thing you want to do or say with your project.

Special Consideration for Picture Book Main Characters

I was speaking to a client this weekend who has this problem with a picture book. He has three potential candidates for the protagonist. In addition to all of the thoughts, above, I gave him the following advice:

Since it’s generally a bad idea to use adult or teacher characters to dispense picture book lessons, the main character in a picture book should be the character who realizes the moral of the story themselves. Which character here can realize the strongest solution to the problem, and present it to readers in a kid-friendly and realistic way? That should be your main character.

This client had one character who would’ve been a good mouthpiece of the message, which was about dealing with change (a perennial picture book theme). But there was another character who was actively going through a change. I counseled this client to pick the character who was experiencing change, because readers would be much more receptive to hear from that particular character about how to deal with it. That character would be speaking firsthand about the topic, rather than giving a more passive lecture.

In summary, follow the change, follow the development, follow the emotion. Connect these back to your theme. The person who hits as many of those points as possible is your book’s main character, and if they’re not, they should be.

Struggling with creating a relatable protagonist? I can be your developmental editor to help you create the necessary depth and nuance.

How to Avoid One Dimensional Character

Too often, one dimensional character translates to predictable fiction. Flat character descriptions have the potential to sink your novel before it really gets off the ground, especially in children’s fiction. Picture books suffer from caricature as well. Here’s why one dimensional character is harmful, and how to avoid it.

one dim
If I’ve read your character many times before, you have a one dimensional character. But how to fix your sheeple, er, people?

The Danger of Flat Character

One dimensional character is, basically, quite boring to read. A lot of manuscripts I’ve seen over the years pick an attribute for a character (“the brave one” or “the shy one”) and then … that’s it. The Brave One can always be found doing something brave, the Shy One is always hanging in the shadows without speaking, and the whole manuscript proceeds along these lines.

It’s as if the writer has boxes they feel they need to check, and various attributes they want to include, and that’s it. But these caricatures aren’t true characters, and they’re no fun to read. They’ve also been done thousands of times before … the definition of flat character. This goes for protagonists, secondary characters, antagonists, even the helpful librarian (I’m talking to all of you  middle grade mystery writers!). The kid who loves adventure (shout out to my picture book people).

Every type of characters deserves nuance. Something to make them surprising, something to make them relatable, something to make them complicated. So take your thumbnail sketch of the character you’re writing and thrown in a few wildcards. The thing is, nobody makes sense all the time, or plays to “type” consistently. And if they do, there’s something wrong.

How to Fix One Dimensional Character

Throw a surprise into the works. Does the Shy One come up with a bold idea? Add struggle. Maybe the Bold One hates being the daredevil, but they’re overlooked in their large family if they don’t stick out–sometimes with disastrous results. What’s something the reader can’t tell about your character at first blush? What’s a secret your character is keeping? An unexpected desire? A rebellion against their identity, or what others think of them?

Imagine a scene in your manuscript that will make readers change their opinions of your character. Maybe it’s after your character says or does something controversial, dangerous, tame, or “out of character.” Write this scene. Aim to change not only the reader’s mind, but the minds of other characters who think they know the person in question. You’ll have a flat character no more!

You may find that you like playing with impressions and expectations. You may uncover a character attribute that you will then incorporate into your manuscript. How does what you learn change your character’s arc? Objectives? Motivations? You may be inspired to do this “second impression” scene with your other important characters.

Surprise yourself. Surprise your characters. Make sure you never suffer from the one dimensional character pitfall again.

Character is the window to story for your readers. If you’re struggling creating a compelling, multi-layered protagonist, I can offer customized advice and feedback as your developmental editor.

Writing Motivation

As spring comes to my corner of the world (finally!), I am thinking about writing motivation. This is a conversation I have endlessly with my editorial clients. How does one stay motivated? How does one stay motivated despite dealing with rejection, which is, unfortunately, part of the writing life? How does one maintain writing motivation when life threatens to get in the way? Here are three common scenarios where writers find themselves needing motivation. See if any of this resonates.

writing motivation, writer motivation
Unexpected writing motivation for those of us out there who need to hear it.

Writing Motivation When You’re Not Writing

All you want to do is write, dang it, but life keeps getting in the way. You made a goal to write fifteen minutes a day at one point, but paying bills and cooking food and showering seem to steal that time.

This may sound like strange advice, but don’t focus on finding time to write right now. That will only make you feel worse about not writing. Instead, fill your creative well with indirect writer motivation. Take a walk. Binge Shark Tank (or is it just me?!). Sketch something funny in the margins.

The harder you push yourself to write, the more stressed you’ll become. And sometimes, it pays dividends to be nice to yourself. Maybe this isn’t your time to write right now. Maybe this is your time to recharge. After all, burnout is a very real thing. Do something else creative and see if it inspires you to go back to the page.

I had this conversation a few days ago with a client who hadn’t done their scheduled revision because life got in the way. I told her what my midwife said to me a few weeks ago at an appointment: “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” So before you try to pour, refill your cup in other ways, if possible. And if it doesn’t happen every day, or on any kind of schedule, that’s fine, too.

You’re not doing your best work when you’re stressed or forcing yourself.

Writing Motivation When You’re Stuck

When you’re stuck on one thing, the best writing motivation is to start flowing elsewhere. Either skip over the section where you can’t seem to catch a break, or work on an entirely different project. You can always go back and splice sections of writing together, or switch documents when inspiration for the current dilemma strikes again.

But too many writers, in my experience, buy into the idea of writer’s block and let their momentum slow in front of it. If you’re otherwise on a roll (and not taking some downtime, as advised above), don’t let a problematic section slow you down.

I firmly believe that writer’s block is just fear talking. You might be trying to avoid writing bravely about something vulnerable or true. Ditch it for now and work up to it. If you’re finding it difficult to generate writer motivation, you may want to fly in the face of common sense and start with a totally blank page. Face the enemy head on! Freeing yourself from what you’ve already written can be a good way to generate new ideas.

Writing Motivation When You’re Discouraged

Nothing stops writer motivation cold faster than rejection. Whether that’s rejection received from others or, even more dangerous, rejection received from yourself. Writing can be a lonely, long road and it’s hard to paste on that smile and get to it when you feel low.

Good writing motivation in this case is doing something else proactive, where you can see results more easily. For example, posting to your social media and getting a tangible response from your audience. You got two new followers? Great! Instant gratification is a cheap thrill but it can feel good when you need a win. You can also do something proactive for someone else. Have you been putting off working on a critique group submission? Is there a beginning writer you could mentor? Can you attend a friend’s reading to show your support?

Reminding yourself that there are successes out there, and celebrating them, even if they aren’t yours, can be a good way to reinforce that there’s room on shelves. And one day, your book might fit there. This may be easier said than done but it’s worth a try.

Finally, reading is always inspirational. Read a writer you admire, or a new book you’ve heard a lot about. Read an old favorite. Read something that has nothing to do with what you’re personally writing.

Or, you know, eating an entire pizza works, too. You do you.

If you’re hitting a wall with your writing, let personal, actionable feedback energize you. Work with me as your book editor.

Character Objective and Writing a Strong Protagonist

Writing objectives for your characters creates strong protagonists with nuance and drive. Remember, you want to focus on writing a proactive protagonist into your novel. Character objective is a top notch way of doing that. Here’s what I mean by that, and how you can use this powerful idea to move your story forward.

character objective, writing objectives
Strong goals and reasons for them form the foundation of compelling character objective.

What is Character Objective?

Character objective is easy to understand: It’s what a character wants.  Objective also goes hand-in-hand with character motivation. The reason why a character wants something. If you don’t know this about your protagonist, you are in deep, deep trouble. Writing objectives should be top of mind. Why?

All characters should want something. Wanting is universally compelling, we can all relate to it. When I know what a character wants, I am that much more excited to root for them. When I understand why they want it, that feeling only grows. (Making a reader care is one of the cornerstones of how to hook a reader, after all.)

Writing Objectives That Compel Readers

The act of writing a character objective is a bit more tricky. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Establish the objective ASAP. Don’t leave readers hanging. Within the first chapter, make sure the character has at least an initial objective that they’re pursuing. This can tie into their bigger picture want and need as a person, or it can be something short-term. But let’s show them wanting something.

Make the objective specific. “To feel happy” is a very vague objective. It is too broad, and doesn’t have a clear way to know whether it has been achieved or not (since “happiness” is so nebulous). “To help Mom get her job back by impressing her boss” is much more specific.

Let your character imagine the possibilities. Add nuance to the objective by letting your character think about the ramifications. What happens if she does get Mom’s job back? How does she plan to impress the boss? What happens if the gambit fails?

Add stakes. Create a sense of ramifications for success and failure, and don’t forget to add nuance here, too. Maybe if Mom gets her job back, that will solve a lot of problems, but then she’ll be away from home. If Mom doesn’t get the job, maybe the family will fall into dire straits, financially. What might all that mean for your character and plot?

Weaving Character Objective Into Story

Finally, let objective translate into a larger sense of story. This is where the rubber of writing objectives meets the road. Let the character come back to the objective often, mentally. Dream about it. Worry about it. Take action toward it. The latter should then translate into plot.

Start with a strong sense of objective and let the character work toward it. Make it important. Give it layers. Not only will this help your character be more compelling, but your entire narrative as well.

Still struggling with character, objective, motivation, or creating a truly three-dimensional protagonist? Hire me as your novel editor and get in-depth, personal advice from an experienced publishing professional.

Authorial Voice and Third Person Voice

I got a great question the other day about authorial voice and third person voice from an editorial client. He was writing in alternating close third POV chapters with a cast of several characters. Basically, he was telling his story in third person from several character perspectives. Even though everything was in close third person, he was still dipping into different character heads per chapter. Would that influence the voice? Basically, he was wondering what the difference was between authorial voice (his natural voice as a writer), the third person voice of his overall narrative, and how (and if?) close third is influenced by character voice. A lot to unpack here!

authorial voice, third person voice, third person narration
What’s the difference between authorial voice, third person voice, and character voice?

Basically, it’s a balance. There is the author’s own voice, and then the narrative voice, which is informed by POV character, at least slightly. Or at least it should be. Because if your third person narrative voice is the same from Character A Chapter to Character B Chapter, then why bother segmenting the narrative into separate characters?

This writer made the choice to use different close third POV characters. The modern trend is to “flavor” your POV chapters with narration that reflects the POV character at least somewhat, even in third person. This obviously happens more conspicuously in first person because then the entire voice is assumed to be the characters’.

But in third person, you wouldn’t write a third person grandfather POV with the exact same language as you would their grandchild’s POV chapter. Overwhelmingly, I’ve heard agents and publishers comment about adding voice and style to close third person POV that at least takes the character whose chapter it is into account. The consensus seems to be that they should be able to open your book to a random page and know which character’s POV we’re in based on voice, even if they can’t see the chapter heading, and even in third person.

So let’s break it down further.

Character Voice

This is the voice of your character. In first person POV (“I said”), that is also the voice you’re writing in. In third person, it is widely preferred in contemporary fiction to let your character’s voice inflect the narrative, especially if you are writing in close third person on that one character. This basically means that you are writing in third person (“He said”) but only go into the experience of one character, usually your protagonist.

Other opportunities to express your character’s voice come in dialogue, where they are literally speaking, and interiority and direct thought, when you render their exact thoughts on the page. This is when you will want to think about voice, which words they’d choose, how they’d say them (syntax), and the content of their self-expression. It’s good to consider these elements for each character you put on the page.

Sometimes, the narrator him or herself is very intrusive and becomes a character in the story. The classic example is the narrator of the Series of Unfortunate Events, written under the pen name of Lemony Snicket, but really by Daniel Handler. There are people acting out the plot but the story is told by a first person raconteur character as well. This is yet another type of voice to consider.

Third Person Voice

If you are writing third person, you are either in close third (your POV is limited to one character), alternating (you hop from character’s head to character’s head but in a more structured way, like my client who asked this question) or omniscient (where you float around and “head hop” at will into the experiences of a wide cast of characters, like The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, but note that omniscient third is widely considered the most difficult to pull off and not a good fit for every market).

This means you are also now thinking about narrative voice, your baseline voice for telling the story. Unless you have a Lemony Snicket-type narrator, but in third person, to account for, your third person narrative voice is going to be more neutral. I would still recommend tinting this voice to share elements with your character(s) if you are writing in close third, alternating, or omniscient. Per my example above, a chapter in third person voice that focuses on a young child should not read like a chapter in third person that explores an older man’s more wistful or reflective (or bitter!) experience.

If the voice sounds the same on every page, even in third person, despite going into the experiences of different characters, this is an issue. You may not be exploring or inhabiting your characters deeply enough. They should affect your voice. Not as much as they would in first person, but enough to have some bearing on the writing.

Another thing to note is that narrative voice can change from book to book. Your snappy YA romance is not going to be written in the same voice as your coming of age MG. It just shouldn’t be. Those are completely different categories, character ages, plots, and reader expectations. So it’s important to realize that narrative voice, whether first or third person, changes according to the characters used and the story being told.

Authorial Voice

Finally, there’s authorial voice. This is the element that doesn’t change, your signature. Are you known for clever dialogue, like John Green? Froth and fun, like Meg Cabot? Heartfelt honesty, like Judy Blume? These are classic examples but when we read these authors, we know what we’re in for, no matter what the book. That’s because of authorial voice.

If you’re just developing yourself, don’t worry. Authorial voice is something you discover, not force into existence. It falls into place much later in the writing journey, and sometimes people can’t predict what their signature is until it emerges.

My client, though, was wondering if authorial voice should dominate the third person writing, or if he had to make allowances for character to creep into the narrative. Especially since he was writing in alternating chapter close third person, I told him that character had to lead the day. Authorial voice will emerge, but it should not be your primary storytelling concern. Especially if you are choosing to render multiple POVs.

The overall voice with be yours (authorial voice), and that sense of voice will get stronger, the longer you write. But I would encourage my client, and anyone reading, to add lenses of more stylized voice/narration that are going to be unique to each POV character.

If you are curious about POV and want more exploration and examples, I highly, highly recommend Writing the Intimate Character by Jordan Rosenfeld.

Struggling to develop voice? It’s usually the last writing and storytelling element to fall into place. With me as your novel editor, we can work toward your own narrative style together, in a focused, supportive, and actionable way.