Twice the POVs, Twice the Fun! (Kind Of)

When I finished an early draft of You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, my debut YA about twin protagonists grappling with opposite results from a genetic test, I vowed to never write another dual POV book. Two female narrators had been a challenge—there weren’t many other single-gender dual POV YAs I could use as a guide, and it took me a long time to figure out how to make the voices distinct.

Naturally, when my next book idea hit, it was clear that it, too, needed to be dual POV. (Our Year of Maybe, out January 15 and following two best friends in the aftermath of a kidney transplant.) The two characters’ arcs were so closely intertwined that showing one side would have felt like half a story. Dual POV had ensnared me again.

Now that I have some distance from both books, I’ll admit I do have a certain fondness for dual POV. It can be an extremely powerful storytelling tool—if it’s right for your book.

So, how do you know if your book should be dual POV?

(Disclaimer: none of these are rules, and even if they were, there will always be exceptions!)

  1. Each character should have a complete arc. That means they should start out wanting something, and an obstacle should stand in the way of them getting that thing. They should also stand to lose something if they don’t get that thing. (Pretend I didn’t use the word “thing” four times in two sentences.)
  1. Ideally, the two characters are linked somehow. If it’s a romance, maybe you’re writing each side, or the characters are siblings, or friends, or they’re living separate but parallel timelines.
  1. The characters should share page time somewhat equally. I usually switch POVs every chapter, but I’ve also seen it work well when the POV switches every few scenes.
  1. I also love it when the characters’ arcs follow the same general beats, with the rising action, climax, and resolution taking place around the same time.

The trickiest part of dual POV is crafting two distinct voices. A reader should be able to open your book to a random page and know, without reading the section heading, whose POV it is. It took me a while to figure out how to do this most effectively, especially with so few resources available. Here’s a list of suggestions to help vary the sound of your characters’ voices:

  1. Play around with sentence rhythm. Maybe one of your characters speaks in longer, flowery sentences, and the other prefers shorter, punchier sentences.
  1. Give your characters a couple words or phrases that are unique to them. In Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun, one of the characters replaces “God” with “Clark Gable,” so “OMG” becomes “OMCG.” Or in E. Lockhart’s Ruby Oliver series, Ruby is always saying “ag!” as an exclamation. These are little details, but they really help your characters feel like fully fleshed people. Case in point: I read both those books years ago, and those exclamations stuck with me!
  1. Compile a glossary of words for each character based on their personality and interests. This is probably what helped me the most. In You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, Adina is a viola prodigy, and Tovah wants to become a surgeon. I spent a while brainstorming music-related words for Adina and science-related words for Tovah, and then I combed through the manuscript to see where I could replace a generic word with something more specific. In Adina’s voice, the doors of an elevator “sing open,” and her heart “thumps allegro” in her chest. In Tovah’s voice, a slice of pizza is “membrane-thin,” and she gets a B in a drawing class because her “apples and oranges looked like cerebral hemispheres, not fruit.”
  1. On a related note, you might also incorporate metaphors and similes that match your characters’ passions or hobbies. When something good happens for musician Adina, she describes it this way: “Inside my chest, a tiny orchestra bursts to life with ‘Spring,’ the sunniest of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.” When she’s stressed, she describes it as feeling like she’s balancing a grand piano on her shoulders. I also decided that when Tovah is anxious, she calms herself down by assigning meaning to what’s happening around her. So when she’s running in the cold, she focuses on the reason she’s getting goose bumps: “The tiny muscles attached to the hair follicles are contracting, making the hairs stick straight up, causing my skin to pucker.” Or when she thinks about how she and Adina aren’t very close these days: “the gap between us could span an entire geologic era.”

These are small moments, but they add up in a way that subtly reminds your reader whose head they’re in.

I hope this helps! If you have any questions or just feel like chatting dual POV, feel free to @ me on Twitter.

I’ll wrap up with a list of my favorite dual POV YAs:

Just Visiting by Dahlia Adler

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

The Vow by Jessica Martinez

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Althea & Oliver by Cristina Moracho

RLS smaller - croppedRachel Lynn Solomon writes, tap dances, and collects red lipstick in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of two young adult novels, You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone (out now from Simon Pulse) and Our Year of Maybe (out January 15, 2019).  Once she helped set a Guinness World Record for the most natural redheads in one place. You can find her online at rachelsolomonbooks.com and on Twitter @rlynn_solomon.

So, You Wrote a Marginalized Protagonist

So, you wrote a marginalized protagonist…. But you’re not marginalized yourself.

Maybe your dream agent mentioned wanting one on their manuscript wish list. Perhaps you saw a book deal announcement featuring one on the weekly rights report. Or maybe you wrote this book to give marginalized readers a character they can relate to.

“Yes! I’m so excited to edit and then query and then publish it and then—”

Easy, tiger. One step at a time. Let me tell you a story first. My story as a reader.

Even as a kid, I loved books. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on. Fantasy, science fiction, contemporary, mystery—you name it, I read it. I lived in the Philippines (I still do), and books from the United States dominated our stores (they still do). Those stories fascinated me. I felt like I was given a window to a world so different from my own.

Still, there was one thing Kid Reader Gail always wondered about. Were there no Filipinos like me in the US?

I had cousins, aunts, and uncles who lived there. They spoke English, and had cereals for breakfast instead of steamed rice, fried egg, and dried fish. But it was hard for me to imagine them going on adventures like the fair-skinned boys and girls I kept reading about. They just weren’t there—brown heroes and heroines didn’t exist.

Kid Reader Gail never saw herself in the books she read.

“That’s a touching story, Gail. So sad. What does it have to do with me?”

I’m getting there.

If your reason for writing this story is to have marginalized readers to see themselves in your protagonist, you’re on the right track. But before you start querying that amazing, agents-will-fall-all-over-themselves-to-rep novel with a marginalized protagonist, take a moment to ask yourself this: what is the point of your story? I’m not asking that to be mean, but I need you see how your character’s marginalization intertwines with your story theme.

“Story theme? What’s that?”

It’s not really what this piece is about, so here’s the short version. Plot is what your character wants, while theme is what your protagonist needs. Simply put, theme is the heart and soul of your story.

A character’s marginalization can and will affect your story theme. How they’ll sacrifice their Want to attain their Need depends on the experiences that shaped them as a person. For example, let’s say you want to have a 12-year-old Filipino protagonist who lives in Metro Manila with his weird grandma and his stingy parents. His name is Juan.

Juan wants a bike as awesome as the ones his rich friends have (the Want). But his parents won’t buy him one, so Juan goes through all these obstacles you throw at him. Soon, he realizes that it’s not because his parents didn’t want to buy him the awesome bike, it’s because they can’t afford it. Juan eventually learns he doesn’t need “friends” who’ll only like him if he has a nice bike. There are people who loves and accepts the way he is, and that’s what matters the most (the Need).

It’s pretty rough and typical of an “acceptance” story, but there are a few things at play here you might have missed:

  • Juan’s need to be accepted by rich friends. Here in the Philippines, having money gives you power. The divide between the social classes are far apart, and corruption is so entrenched in our system. It’s really difficult to move up without help. It’s common to see themes of social divide in a culture like ours.
  • Juan’s parents didn’t tell him point-blank why they couldn’t buy him a bike. It would have been easier, right? I mean, if they just told him, Juan wouldn’t have to go through all that trouble. But as somebody who has been poor, it totally makes sense to me. There is shame in admitting your financial difficulties. Like, you have failed somehow. It’s a burden you wouldn’t wish your kid to carry.
  • Juan’s grandma lives with them. Inter-generational families living under one roof is very much the norm in my country. We have close family ties. While living alone is more common in the cities, it’s not the case for most of us in the suburbs or the rural areas. Had Juan’s story been a real book, you can bet the grandmother and everyone else who lives with him will have some role to play in Juan’s quest to turn his Want into a Need.

There is a layer of nuances in our example above, a layer unique to the identity your protagonist ideally should have.

This brings me to my next question: can your story stand on its own even if the character doesn’t have the marginalization?

Thing is, writing a marginalized protagonist isn’t as simple as slapping identities to your character. You can’t just say, “he’s Filipino. And gay. Oh, he’s blind too.” You need to bring to life the subtle differences that make your character Filipino, gay, and blind. At the same time, you need to show how these identities intersect. Your marginalized protagonist must live, breathe, feel, think, and speak these nuances.

“But freedom of speech, Gail! I can write what I want!”

That is true. No one can stop you, nor should anyone stop you, from writing / querying / publishing what you want. But hold that thought. Let me tell you more about the story of Kid Reader Gail.

I was already in high school when a novel for young readers came out with a Filipina-American protagonist. I got excited. I mean, finally, a main character I could relate to! Well, not exactly. But she was part-Filipina, and that was more than enough for teen me.

Then, I started reading. They misspelled some Tagalog words, but it was okay. The protagonist didn’t seem like she had trouble navigating life while being brown. Sometimes, it was hard to imagine her being brown at all. Still, I shrugged. The book was only fiction, after all. Maybe the characters lived in a utopia where micro-aggressions to brown people never existed. But when the main character began doing weird and offensive things that were supposed to be “Filipino,” I’ve stopped making excuses and closed the book. It was a DNF—Did Not Finish. I could not finish.

It’s true that people experience marginalization and culture differently. What is true for me, may not be true for you. But when you’re writing someone else’s experiences outside your own, it becomes an entirely different ballgame.

“So, are you telling me I shouldn’t have written outside my lane?”

No. You technically could, if you felt you must. But you need to have done the hard work.

I’ve already discussed how your character’s marginalization intertwines with your story’s theme and overall plot. However, it doesn’t stop there.

This short list isn’t definitive, but hopefully, it’ll point you to the right direction as you edit your book.

 

Avoid stereotypes

Relying on stereotypes isn’t just offensive—it’s a failure in characterization, and laziness in writing. Harsh, right? Maybe, but you also need to put yourself in the shoes of people you might offend.

By “stereotype,” I don’t just mean racist words or ethnic slurs. It’s also the subtle things, the micro-aggressions we don’t notice because we’re not affected. For example, describing a man with “he looks Japanese.” It may seem harmless, but these sweeping statements imply that Japanese men all look the same. You are basically relying on the reader’s preconceived stereotype of what a Japanese man should look like. You need describe your Japanese characters like you would your other characters.

“But I might get them wrong!”

Yeah, you might—if you don’t do your research.

 

Research, research, research!

I don’t mean just scouring Wikipedia for answers. Go deeper. Search and read articles and blog posts from people who share your protagonist’s experience. Visit the place you want to set your story in, meet the people and get to know them. Research about the experiences and cultures as much as you can.

 

Get a targeted beta reader

A targeted beta reader, popularly known in social media as “sensitivity reader,” is like a beta reader but focuses on the cultural accuracy of your story. They are authors, editors, or avid readers who share the marginalized experience of your protagonist. The reading they do is emotionally exhausting, and speaking as someone who’s done it—it can be triggering. Don’t expect them to read for you for free.

Like any editor or beta reader, you, as the author, have the prerogative to accept or ignore their suggestions. You can even be stubborn and insist on the problematic stuff. I get it. It hurts to be called out. But remember, you have a chance to fix things. Take the opportunity to learn from your targeted beta reader’s notes, and your book will be better for it.

Thing is, even if you have your book read for cultural accuracy, it still doesn’t shield you from criticism. But it’s a start.

 

Read books by marginalized authors

This is probably the crucial—and the best—part of the process when writing a book with a protagonist whose life experience you don’t share. Read books by marginalized authors. It’s a great way to “pick the brain” of a marginalized author without invading their privacy or obliging them to help you. See what it’s like to be in their shoes by reading their experiences translated into fiction. You’ll be surprised at how different they are from your perceived notion of their experiences.

 

Support marginalized authors

Uplift them. Follow them on social media. Listen to them. Support their work. Promote their work. It’s hard to authentically write an experience when you don’t walk the talk.

 

I’m not going to deny it—this is a lot of work. Even though you have a partner / wife / husband / best friend / neighbor / dog / cat who “has lived experience,” you’re not absolved from doing the work. I mean, I’m brown, and I still don’t get a pass. We all need to do our homework, especially when we’re writing outside our experiences.

Once your book is out in the world, it’s not just yours anymore. By publishing, you’ve chosen to share it. And by sharing, you will affect people with your words. Even if you wrote this book with good intentions, there’s still the potential to hurt.

I was already sixteen when I first encountered a hurtful stereotype of Filipinos in children’s literature. I encounter them more often now in the books I critique for cultural accuracy check. It still hurts when I see them, but I’m used to it.

Imagine what it would be like for a kid, or for somebody who will take your words like knives to their hearts. Books can be life-changing to our readers. Sometimes, they even become lifelines to those who need them.

It’s scary, I know. But that’s part of being a writer.

Like I said, no one is going to stop you from writing and publishing a book with a marginalized protagonist. However, it’s important to note that every time an author outside the marginalized group they’re writing about gets their novel published, it’s one less space for an author who actually lives the experience.

So. It all boils down this final, but most important question. Are you the right person to write this story?

You might have written the book for a noble reason. You’ve done—and you’re willing to do more of—the hard work. Sure, you might even be able to do the perspective justice. But sometimes, we need to concede to the idea that it might be better to step aside from writing this marginalized perspective, and show our support for authors who share those experiences. Hard as it may be to accept, there are just some stories that aren’t yours or mine to tell.

Be compassionate. Learn to empathize. Recognize your privilege. These are just a few things that would help you understand if this marginalized perspective is a story best told by you, or its shelf space should belong to an author who has lived experience.

Don’t be afraid to take out the editing knife if you have to. Remember,  you are your own person, unique with your world views and life experiences. They add flavor to your stories, giving your readers a perspective that’s totally, undeniably, you.

Find your voice, and listen to your heart. Write those stories only you can tell.

Gail HeadshotGail D. Villanueva is a Filipino author born and based in the Philippines. She’s also a web designer, an entrepreneur, and a graphic artist. She loves pineapple pizza, seafood, and chocolate, but not in a single dish together (eww). Gail and her husband live in the outskirts of Manila with their dogs, ducks, turtles, cats, and one friendly but lonesome chicken. Her debut novel, My Fate According to the Butterfly, will be released on July 30, 2019 by Scholastic Press. Gail is represented by Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group. Learn more at www.gaildvillanueva.com.

You can find Gail online:

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Creating Compelling Secondary Characters

Last week, we learned about character motivation and the importance of your main character having an “I Want” song. Two weeks ago, we learned all about agency–how to make sure your main character has an active role in their own story. Now that you’ve crafted motivated main characters, ready to take charge of their story… it’s time to talk about everyone else! Today is all about “everyone else” — also known as, secondary characters!

Finnick Odair in Catching Fire. Leah Burke in Simon Vs. Kenya in The Hate U Give. Wylan Van Eck in Six of Crows. Iris in Foolish Hearts. Chris in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. What do all of these characters have in common? They’re all phenomenal secondary characters. While they are not the stars of the stories they are in, they are fully rendered and complex, and it is easy to imagine these characters at the center of their own stories. (And some even get those stories! Wylan becomes a POV character in Crooked Kingdom & Leah Burke is the star of Leah on the Offbeat). Secondary characters can be as nuanced and fleshed out as main characters, and today we’re going to talk about how to do that!

Secondary characters are just as crucial to your story as your main characters, because they are the characters who make the world of your story come to life. There are two types of secondary characters–supporting characters and minor characters. While your main character might briefly interact with a minor character, supporting characters are essential to the plot. Supporting characters are the people that your main character interacts with daily, the ones whose relationship to the main character have the ability to affect the plot. For example, in The Hunger Games, Haymitch is a supporting character, someone who influences Katniss as a mentor. Madge, Katniss’s friend and the daughter of the mayor of District 12, is a minor character who, while part of Katniss’s world in District 12, has no effect on the story once Katniss enters the Hunger Games.

Secondary characters are responsible for progressing the story in some way. They might offer support and encouragement to your main character. They might challenge them, or get them into trouble, or teach them a lesson. The takeaway here is that secondary characters exist to influence plot, by influencing your main character.

However, this does not mean that secondary characters should be treated as plot devices! Do not treat any character as a plot device! Nothing pulls me out of a story faster than lackluster, one-dimension secondary characters. Sometimes, these characters feel flat because they rely on stereotypes–but most of the time, they’re flat because they read as plot devices, as though they only exist to affect the main character’s life. When a secondary character is poorly rendered, it is difficult to imagine who they are as an individual, who they are outside of the central story.

So. How do you create fleshed out, complex, secondary characters?

Pre-writing and character sketches! When I’m crafting secondary characters, I character sketch as much as I would for a POV character. I write up short bios for each character, I answer the 7 questions on motivation, and I even face cast my secondary characters to help further bring them to life in my head. In pre-writing, I separate my secondary characters from the plot of the story and fully flesh them out. That way, when I insert them back into the central story–they feel real. Like they exist within the story, not because of it. 

For every secondary character, these three questions drive their character sketches:

  1. How does x character relate to the main character?
  2. What does x character want outside of the central goal / arc of the main character?
  3. What is going on in x character’s life outside of the main character’s story?

Answer these questions for every secondary character, both supporting and minor. No role is too small! For questions two and three, you’ll see that the point is to take the main character out of consideration. For this exercise to be effective, the point is to treat each character like they are a main character. This will deepen your understanding of your characters, who they are, what they want, and how those goals align with or oppose the central arc. Though this is all pre-writing and a lot of the details will not make it into the draft, it will help define your secondary characters and create more meaningful interactions between them and your main characters.

Secondary characters are the foundation on which your central story arc rests. If each secondary character is treated as a main character, if only for a moment, your entire story will be strengthened.

Marisa HeadshotMarisa Kanter is the author of the YA novel TO BE (MIS)READ, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster BFYR in 2020. You can follow her on twitter at @marisakanter or on her website, www.marisakanter.com.

Character Motivation: The Why Behind the Action

Last week, we discussed character agency–the active role your main character should take in your story. Active characters make for engaging plots and tighter pacing, but how do you make an active character? Characters with strong agency aren’t just wildly active, doing things to move the plot along willy nilly. Their actions need to make sense for their character, and these actions and choices should stem directly from their primary motivation.

Today, we have Jessica James on the blog to talk a little about what motivation means, and why it’s so important. Take it away, Jessica!

I finished a music degree before I ever finished a novel, and one of my favorite things is discovering ways one craft can inform the other. For the longest time, character motivation was a difficult concept for me to grasp—until I heard it’s simply “the why behind what the character wants.”

And then I thought to myself, “Oh. It’s an ‘I Want’ song.”

In musical theater, the ‘I Want’ song functions for a character to explain their goal, the thing that will propel them forward throughout the story. It’s hard to find a successful musical that doesn’t have an ‘I Want’ song, and usually it happens before the 20 minute mark. Showing a character’s motivation early helps the audience invest in their story, and as writers, solidifying an ‘I Want’ for a character as they’re introduced builds an important connection for readers.

Here are some examples from musical theater you might be familiar with:

Hamilton: “My Shot”

Wicked: “The Wizard and I”

Rent: “Rent”/“One Song Glory” (in ensemble casts, all the characters want something)

West Side Story: “Something’s Coming”

Beauty and the Beast: “Belle”

Cinderella: “In My Own Little Corner”

Legally Blonde: “What You Want” (yes, that’s literally the title)

‘I Want’ songs connect the audience to a major character. Take Hamilton for example:

I am not throwing away my shot

I am not throwing away my shot

Hey yo, I’m just like my country

I’m young, scrappy and hungry

And I’m not throwing away my shot

From the first bars of the song, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics tell us that Alexander Hamilton is ambitious to a fault when it comes to his personal success and his vision of America. “My Shot” explains his desire to escape his poverty and make a name for himself (he even spells it out!) That’s imperative to understanding the character’s motivation, and later, his actions. Especially when they become questionable in the second act.

Understanding a character’s motivation draws a vital personal connection between the character and the audience. It’s what makes us clap when our hero succeeds or cry when they fail. ‘I Want’ songs are often the most memorable, the ones we hum to ourselves far after the finale—because when they work correctly, these songs impact our experience of the entire story. They make us care.

So what does that look like in a novel?

You need your readers to root for your characters. That’s what’s going to keep them reading. So you have to make what your characters want—their motivation—clear.

It’s not always going to mean your characters explicitly state what they want before the inciting incident. But sometimes, it’s very effective. For instance, in The Hunger Games, Katniss says, “I protect Prim in every way I can, but I’m powerless against the reaping.”

And then she shows us that she protects her sister. It’s why “I volunteer!” gives us chills.

Suzanne Collins shows us the driving motivation that Katniss lives by: her desire to protect her sister more than anything. It’s the thing that shapes her life-changing decision to volunteer for the Games in Prim’s place. And it makes us care, right away, in that first chapter.

Maybe you don’t need to state your main character’s motivation explicitly, but it has to be clear to the reader. Because when the reader cares about your characters, they’ll root for them, and keep turning those pages until the very end. You can have the coolest world building, the highest concept, the prettiest prose, but it all means nothing if your audience doesn’t know why they should care about your characters.

So if you’re worried that connection isn’t happening, you might be missing an ‘I Want’ song.

Thank you, Jessica!

As Jessica said, building a compelling character motivation and establishing it early is key to a strong, character driven narrative, and creating a meaningful character arc. So let’s get into it–here’s a list of questions you should ask about your main character to nail down what their primary motivation is. Keep in mind, you can do this exercise for your book as is to see what your character’s motivations are in this draft, but you should also think about whether these answers are working. Don’t be afraid to change direction and make your characters different for your next draft if it’ll sever your story better.

  1. What does the MC think they want?
  2. Why do they want it?
  3. What do they actually need?
  4. Why do they need it?
  5. How do they plan to get it?
  6. How do they need to get it?
  7. What’s stopping them?

To ensure a satisfying character arc with lots of tension, consider one or more of the following:

  • Make 1 and 3 in conflict so they must learn how to shift their goal.
  • If 1 and 3 are the same, consider making 2 and 4 in conflict so it’s about re-contextualizing why they want something.
  • Make 5 and 6 in conflict so they make a conscious choice to change their plans, or to change their aims.
  • 7 should be a list of multiple things–consider the physical/tangible barriers as well as emotional/internal barriers.

To create engaging character conflict, look at the motivations of multiple characters and see where their motives align and where they’re in conflict. This will create meaningful differences between your characters that will create tension in their relationships, but also have greater impact on the plot itself.

Once you’ve completed this exercise and you feel good about the direction of your character’s motivation, you can revisit last week’s homework. See what changing your character’s motivation does to their agency, and which events can now be directly linked to their actions and choices.

Jessica James PhotoJessica James is a SciFi and Fantasy writer living in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two Lapponian Herders, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Neville Longbottom. You can find her on Twitter at @literarilyjess yelling about the stories she loves and running the #ThursdayAesthetic hashtag, or in the wild with a giant cup of coffee and her laptop.

Rosiee Thor is the co-creator of BYOMentor and the author of the YA novel TARNISHED ARE THE STARS, forthcoming from Scholastic in 2019. You can follow her on twitter at @rosieethor or on her website, www.rosieethor.com

Character Driven Narratives: Charting Character Agency

When reading submissions, either for mentorship contests or in the slush pile, the most common problem I find is a lack of character agency. In a rejection letter, this often translates to “I didn’t feel as swept up in the story as I’d hoped,” or even the dreaded “I just didn’t connect.” It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what those rejections mean, or how to turn that rejection into actionable feedback, but speaking from experience, your best bet is to take a look at your character agency.

Character agency is vital to any story. Most interesting characters are successful in captivating readers because they take an active role in their own story. These characters don’t have to be physically strong, hyper-intelligent, witty as heck, or even likeable in order to be fascinating; they just need to push the story forward through their actions and choices.

Take, for example, Katniss Everdeen. Katniss is, by all means, a multifaceted character in many ways, but she is also highly relatable because she’s something of an everygirl. Any one of us can find something in her that feels familiar, and this is a technique that’s used often to create characters that anyone can see themselves in. What makes Katniss exceptional is not that she is chosen for the Hunger Games; it’s that she chooses the Hunger Games. Anyone can have their name pulled out of a hat, but Katniss makes a choice to save her sister and put herself at great personal risk to do it. Without this choice, she would just be a random draw, nothing special about her. With this choice, she is brave, loyal, and fierce–the kind of character who makes readers care.

We can’t all write Katniss Everdeens, but we can all take steps to increase our characters’ agency to make them more engaging, and make our plots more character driven… with a little help from our good friend Spreadsheets!!

Last week, Jenny Howe gave us her revision tool: the reverse outline. This will come in handy here so you don’t have to double up your workload. Grab your reverse outline, or if you missed it go ahead and create a list of every chapter/scene in your book. You may want to make a clean copy of this if you’ve already made notes on your reverse outline. If you want to start fresh, click here for a blank spreadsheet specifically for this exercise.

In the first column, go ahead and list out your chapters/scenes in order. In the second column and beyond, list the events that occur in that scene or chapter–this means everything that happens at all, big or small. Give each event its own cell in your spreadsheet.

Once you’ve done that, take a look at each event and think about what causes that event. You’ll need at least 3 highlighters if you’re working on paper, and if you’re working on a spreadsheet, you’ll need at least 3 carefully selected color choices–and you should spend at least 10 minutes thinking about this, let’s be real.

With your first highlighter/color, look for events that are caused by an action your main character takes. You may need more than one color here if you have more than one main character.

With your second color, highlight any event that is caused by the action of a side character, including the villain unless your villain is one of your main characters (again, you may want more than one color for this—or perhaps different shades of the same color).

With your third color, highlight any event that is caused by an external force or minor/offscreen character, like a tornado or a new law passed by the government. You can also simply leave these unhighlighted if you prefer.

Now, take all of the events that are not highlighted for your main character and consider if these events force your MC to make a choice or take an action. If so, circle them–or bold them.

Congratulations, you made a rainbow! Joking aside, you now have a visual representation of your character’s agency and to what level they affect the plot. Using this map, you can see if there’s an imbalance:

 

  • Are too many spaces highlighted for external forces?
    • Some things need to happen to the MC in order for them to take action, and that’s okay. If you’ve circled or bolded these events because they force your main character to take action, they might be just fine! Look at the bolded/circled events too, but focus on the ones that don’t make your character act first.
    • This might be indicative that your character has low agency. You can resolve this by examining how your MC can cause the event to happen through their own choices and actions instead. This might mean changing the cause, and it might mean changing the effect, but that’s okay! Revision is change, and change is good. Don’t be afraid to shake things up.

 

  • Are too many spaces highlighted for side characters or the villain?
    • It’s good to have side characters and villains affect the plot as well, so don’t immediately change all of these! You want your antagonist to be active as well, and side characters shouldn’t be all set-dressing with no substance. It’s good if they’re active, but are they overshadowing your main character?
    • Look at where side characters might be stealing the show. If you can give those choices to your main character instead, that’s a possible solution.
    • If a specific side character is overshadowing your main character, take a good hard look at why they’re a side character. Would the story be better if you told it from their POV? Are they really the main character of your story?

 

  • Are too many spaces highlighted for your main character?
    • This is super unlikely, since you want your main character to have the majority of spaces highlighted, however it is possible to overdo it! This might be indicative of an underdeveloped world/setting that doesn’t affect your character’s story enough, a villain that lacks a dynamic role, or ineffective side characters that act more like set-dressing than people.
    • To solve this problem, try combining side characters if there are a lot of them–this can help make your side characters more engaging and well rounded. You can also look at deepening your side characters’ and villain’s motivations.

 

Don’t forget to account for the ripple effects of changing these character actions. Adjusting your story’s character agency should have larger effects on the entire plot, on relationships, and on the character’s internal arc. These changes shouldn’t be isolated, and if you find they are, it’s probably not a big enough change.

Don’t know where to start with developing your character’s agency? Don’t worry! Just chart it out as it is now, and come back next week when we’ll give you the next step.

Rosiee HeadshotRosiee Thor is the co-creator of BYOMentor and the author of the YA novel TARNISHED ARE THE STARS, forthcoming from Scholastic in 2019. You can follow her on twitter at @rosieethor or on her website, www.rosieethor.com

Building a Revision Tool Box

One of the most difficult parts of revision is figuring out where to start.

You have this whole story (and for me they are usually 100k-word monster documents because I write LONG) that you may have spent weeks, months, years, writing. You probably also have pages of notes from CPs, betas, your mom, your sister, your BFF, your dog, etc. And now you have to figure out how to use all these things. How to make your story “better.” Whatever that means.

I am, generally speaking, a big planner. I like to make to-do lists, and then break down those lists into smaller to-do lists. I love spreadsheets and post-it notes and notecards and anything that helps me get things in order.

That need to plan trickles over into my revision process as well. Before I can even start thinking about making changes to a story, I need to figure out what’s not working in it, and I have a few tools that I use to do that. In this post, I will be discussing one of those tools, which I use at the start of a big revision.

The Reverse Outline 

If you’ve never heard the term “reverse outline” before, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Rather than outlining the paper, the story, the proposal, etc. before you write it, as you would with a traditional outline, with a reverse outline, you outline the project after you complete a draft.

I know that might sound completely backwards and counterintuitive, but for most writing projects—and, in my opinion, fiction ESPECIALLY—being able to separate the words from the structure is so important. It’s a forest-from-the-trees problem, really. When you’re reading along paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, your attention is going to be drawn to the immediate issues: the words that repeat or aren’t working, the inconsistencies in character responses between paragraphs, the things that are right there under your nose on the page. But while you’re focused on the words in front of you, it can be easy to lose sight of the BIG PICTURE stuff: pacing, character arcs, world-building, etc. Reverse outlining helps you to push aside those words, those immediate things, for a moment to look at the big picture.

I do my reverse outlines in an Excel spreadsheet. What I like about the spreadsheet is that it allows for endless column creation and plenty of customization. You can add as many or as few columns as you like, depending on what you know you want to track.

Since pacing tends to be one of my biggest struggles as a writer, I usually create columns that help me outline the central narrative arc and smaller subplots to make sure they are unfolding properly throughout the story. Here are some examples of categories I’ve used in my reverse outlines in the past:

Sample Column Categories 1_JH post

Sample Column Categories 2_JH post.JPG

The great thing about this tool, though, is that you can switch it around to focus on whatever you feel you need. If you’re struggling with multiple points of view, you can use it to track what happens in each point of view to make sure the right points of view follow the right scenes. If you have trouble with character development or emotional arcs, you could focus solely on those in the columns. And all this ability to customize what you track makes the reverse outline useful not only for your first big revision after you finish writing a draft, but for any other major revisions you do (it can even be used as a way to check that everything is where it needs to be as you finish revising and get ready to send your document off to readers, your agent, etc.).

(If you’re new to writing and haven’t figured out what your strengths and weaknesses are yet, that’s okay! This tool can help you start to recognize these things as well. Just reverse outlining the central plot of the story and the development of your main characters will help you start to notice holes, repetitions, etc. This will help you start to see—especially as you write multiple books—what your particular quirks are.)

Once you’ve chosen your columns, then it is just a matter of going through your book chapter by chapter, or scene by scene, and filling in the columns.

I try to sum up the plot of each chapter/scene in one or two sentences—if I can’t, this is one major indicator to me that maybe there’s too much happening in the chapter.

I use the other columns to track various subplots or other pieces of the narrative. Usually I’ll use short-hand or quick bulleted items to list what details occur in that chapter that develop world building or the character’s arc or how relationships are developing.

Here’s an example of what a row might look like (please don’t judge my made-up examples—LOL).

Sample row 1_JH post

Sample row 2_JH post

The notes column is there to help you track things you notice as you write up the reverse outline, or ideas for changes you might want to make.

If you fill out the columns for the entire document, you should have a very thorough outline of exactly how your book looks in this draft. I recommend being really literal about what you put in the columns. Only write what you see there on the page, not what your intentions *might* have been.

For instance, in the above example, if I had meant for the first scene between Anna and Bard to show that Bard has a temper, but nothing ended up happening in the scene that illustrated that fact, then I cannot put that in the column for character development. I could, however, make a note that I want that scene to show these things when I revise.

The best reverse outlines are those that give a clear, accurate depiction of what’s on the page, as this will allow you to truly see what needs the most work (and also what is working well!).

Once you’ve completed your reverse outline, you can go back through it and see what you notice.

Here are some questions I always ask myself as I review my reverse outline:

  1. What chapters seem to have too little or too much plot?
  2. Are there any chapters that seem to repeat the same purpose of other chapters? (Having columns that track character development or important subplots can really help you notice this.)
  3. Are there any chapters that don’t seem to connect to the central plot line? Are there any chapters that only connect to the central plot line and don’t develop any other aspects of the story?
  4. Is there anything missing that I’d intended to include in the story?
  5. Are there chapters that I could combine or even remove?

Once you’ve studied the reverse outline closely, you can use it to make a plan. The notes section can be great for this, especially if most of your revisions are going to be at the chapter level (i.e. making big changes to chapters rather than doing a lot of cutting and reorganizing, etc.).

I find the reverse outline most useful for checking pacing and plot holes and making sure all my chapters are carrying the weight they should be. My 2016 Pitch Wars mentor once gave me the fantastic feedback that every chapter in a book should do more than one thing, and I find this reverse outline tool really helpful to make sure that this is happening in all my chapters.

You can find a blank spreadsheet attached here with my most used categories for columns, if you’d like to try using a reverse outline to help you make your own revision plan!

JLH pic

Jenny Howe is a writing and literature professor and a YA writer. When she’s not dreaming up stories about complicated girls, swoony kisses, and magical monsters, you can find her on Twitter (@jennylhowe) and Instagram (@jennyhowebooks) yelling about books and writing and posting pictures of her dog, Murray.

 

 

How to Write Yourself an Edit Letter

If you’ve ever received an edit letter, you know how helpful one can be in guiding your revision. For those of you who don’t know, an edit letter typically comes from your editor or agent, and it lays out the specifics of what you need to tackle in your next revision. I received my first edit letter as a Pitch Wars mentee in 2016, and it changed the way I revise. After that, I never wanted to tackle another revision without one. The only problem is that we don’t always have a mentor or editor around to read our manuscript and write one for us.

So I started writing edit letters for myself.

At first I felt ridiculous, writing a letter to myself about all the things I needed to change. But here’s the thing: when you have so many competing priorities in your head about what to revise, it’s easy to lose track of things. The edit letter becomes the document that fuels my entire revision: I use it to decide what order to tackle things, and it becomes a living document throughout the course of the revision. As I revise, undoubtedly other things come up that need fixing as a result of changes I made, and I keep track of all those things in my edit letter.

So, how do you write yourself an edit letter?

The first step is, unsurprisingly, to read your manuscript. Ideally, I’ll let my draft sit for a month before reading it, but I’m an impatient person and usually don’t make it that long. I like to print my manuscript out because I find that I catch different things when I’m reading on paper versus when I’m reading on screen.

Processed with VSCO with h4 presetHelpful hint: Before I even begin reading, I usually have a few things I know I need to revise for (you should have some too, if you completed last week’s assignment!), and I mark those things as I read using color-coded tabs. For example, weather and botany both play large roles in my novel, but I don’t stop to research when I’m drafting because I lose too much momentum, so both aspects needed a lot of work in revisions. As I read through my manuscript, I used the tabs to mark everywhere weather or botany came up, so I could easily find them when I started revising.

Next, most of my edit letters have the same sections, especially for earlier/larger revisions (if you’re unsure of how to revise for any of the sections below, don’t worry! We’ll be covering all these topics in detail through Be Your Own Mentor):

–          A section for every main character

–          A section for prominent secondary characters (love interests, friends, parents, etc)

–          Stakes

–          Pacing

–          Worldbuilding

–          Random

As I read, I keep a notebook next to me and take extensive notes as I go. And I ask myself a ton of questions scene by scene: do I know how my character is feeling in this scene? What does this character want? How does this scene drive the narrative arc forward? What has to happen as a result of this scene? If I’m unable to satisfactorily answer those questions, I make a note and move on.

The read through is one of my best resources for evaluating the pacing specifically. Any time I reach for my cellphone, I mark where I was in the manuscript when I reached for it. Any time I go to the refrigerator looking for a snack, I mark it. Any time I put the pages aside and snuggle with my dog, I mark it. I want to know the areas in my manuscript that are easy to walk away from, and if I get bored at all, I definitely mark it.

Anything I wonder about as I’m reading goes down in my notes as well. Things like: Huh, my main character doesn’t have any friends, or the love interest disappeared for six chapters, or I introduced a character then never mentioned them again, or the stakes aren’t high enough. All of these are examples of things I’ve written down as I’ve been reading, then subsequently went on to fix after putting them in my edit letter.

Once I’m done reading, I ask myself more questions: is the setting vivid? What does the atmosphere of the novel feel like? Can I easily state the character arc of each main character and the change they went through? Do I know what the book is about—not the plot, but the actual story the book is telling. Is it about grief? Loneliness? Longing? Selfishness? What is the story I’m trying to tell, and did this draft address that?

Finally, take note of the things you love about your manuscript. Revisions are hard, and it’s easy to forget why you started. That’s why it’s nice to have a section you can go to that lays out what’s working and why your manuscript is special to you. That way, when you do need reminding, it’s right there. Plus, it helps guide your revision in terms of keeping what you know is working, and building up the things you love.

Now it’s time to write your letter! Compile all your notes and separate your letter into sections. Every note you took for your main character will go in your main character’s section; every time you marked an issue on pacing, put it as a bullet point under your pacing section; if you had a lot of things come up with magic or the rules/systems of your world, note those under worldbuilding; and any small, isolated notes you took that don’t seem to have their own section go under random.

If you have any notes from CPs/beta readers that you know you want to address, grab those as well and incorporate them into the sections of your letter. This is also a great time to incorporate what you wrote down in the “things you want to change” column from last weeks’ post, if you haven’t already.

One final note: I don’t only add things I know need revising, such as “build up the setting more.” I also note how I want my setting to come together, like “I want the reader to feel the salty air and endless gray, and never forget that the roar of the ocean is ever-present.” For me, writing an edit letter is as much about identifying what needs revision, as it is about reminding myself what I want the final product to be like.

Finished? Congratulations! You’ve written yourself an edit letter!

Your edit letter will guide your revisions. I revise for one thing at a time, starting with the hardest/most extensive edits, and work my way through my letter to the smallest. As I go, if I think of anything new or “break” one thing as I revised for another, I add it to the list so I’m sure it gets addressed.

That’s it! Grab a hot beverage, curl up with your manuscript, add tabs, take notes, ask questions, and write that letter!

DSC07310Rachel Griffin is the co-creator of BYOMentor and writes YA novels about magic, hard choices, and (oftentimes) kissing. You can follow her on twitter at @TimesNewRachel or on her website, www.rachelgriffinbooks.com