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 

Reframing Failure: Revision is a State of Mind

Revision is a state of mind.

If you’ve ever revised before, you’ll know it’s different from drafting in a few major ways, and the part of your brain you used to craft your new, sparkly, fun idea is not the same part of your brain needed to revisit that idea to make it better. While drafting, you have to stay positive–keep moving forward no matter what, get the words on paper, finish the book. But with revision you need to think critically about your work, see it from different angles, and be willing to take it apart and rebuild it stronger.

For me, the biggest thing that holds me back from a revision is impostor syndrome. This is when you feel like the thing you’re doing is too big, and you feel like you aren’t good enough to accomplish it. So basically… all of publishing, all the time. Publishing is rife with rejection at every corner, whether it’s from editors and agents, pitch contests, or even critique partners. There are so many ways for publishing to tell us that the impostor syndrome is right and we aren’t good enough.

But the thing is, it doesn’t matter if we’re good enough or not. “Good enough” is subjective. There’s no one way to be a good writer, and publishing rarely functions as a meritocracy. Becoming “good enough” isn’t a guarantee for getting an agent or a book deal. So much of publishing is out of our control as writers (the market, other people’s taste, luck etc.), so it’s best to focus on what we can control: the writing. Impostor syndrome, sometimes masquerading as Almighty Publishing, may rear its ugly head, but the best way to fight it is to keep creating, and keep revising to make your work the best it can be.

Before we dive into the revision process though, we need to get into the revision mindset. This means reframing the juxtaposition of success and failure. If we treat them like opposites, then rejection will always be bad, but I’ve found that rejection can propel me farther if I choose not to measure it like failure, but instead like success.

Get a sheet of paper and a pen, or a word document, or an ancient slab of stone and a chisel–whatever your preferred tools are–and make three columns.

 

In the first column, list what you’ve learned so far.

This can be a list of everything you’ve learned since you first picked up that quill and penned your first story using the blood of your enemies as ink… or you can measure the last year, or the last month, or the time since you entered a pitch contest, or since you sent your first query. However you want to guage this is just fine. Write down everything you’ve learned in that time about writing–this can be things about craft, about the industry, about yourself and your process.

 

In the second column, list the improvements you’ve made on your manuscript so far.

Again, you can measure this in whatever time frame you want. Write down everything you can think of that you’ve done to make your MS better. This can be things you’ve rewritten or edited, changes you’ve made to your query or synopsis, anything that you’ve done that’s improved your manuscript.

 

In the third column, make a list of things you want to change in your manuscript.

This can be anything! It can be based on feedback you’ve received (a caveat: not all feedback will be in line with your vision for the book, and it’s okay not to take certain feedback if it doesn’t feel right for you) OR it can be based on your own intuition about your book. It can be specific or vague. It doesn’t matter if you know how to fix it, just that you want to is enough. Put it on the list!

These three columns represent your accomplishments, past and future. Use moments of failure or rejection to assess what you’ve learned since the last one, what you’ve improved since then, and what you plan to improve next. Instead of viewing each rejection or failure as though it’s a step backward, try reimagining it as measurements on a ruler or ticks on a timeline. They’re there, but they don’t move you back. Time still keeps moving forward, and so do you.

 

Congratulations! You just made a revision plan–or at least the start of one. These lists you just made will come in handy next week when Rachel Griffin talks about how to write yourself an edit letter, so don’t lose them!

Rosiee Headshot

 

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

We. Are. LIVE!!

We are SO EXCITED to announce Be Your Own Mentor, a website dedicated to helping writers revise and get query-ready on their own.

We have both benefited greatly from mentorship programs: we were Pitch Wars mentees in 2016, we both went on to get agents, and Rosiee’s book comes out from Scholastic in 2019. Now we each mentor in different programs (Rosiee is an Author Mentor Match mentor; Rachel is a Pitch Wars mentor) and love it. But we’re struck by the number of writers who don’t get into these programs, or don’t apply because they don’t feel that kind of program is right for them.

We created Be Your Own Mentor for the writers who are ready to revise, who want to put in the work and make their books as strong as possible but just don’t know where to start. We want to give you the tools you need to tackle big revisions on your own, and ultimately get you ready to query.

Every Monday, we will post a new article on some aspect of revision, craft, or the industry in general. Topics like: writing yourself an edit letter, dialogue, world-building, character arcs, revision tools, finding CPs, setting, and the best craft books.

And the advice you’re getting isn’t just from us: we’re posting articles from some of the best authors we know, many of whom are current mentors, and all of whom are incredible writers. You can take this program at your own pace: the articles will be there whenever you need them. Many will come with assignments to help you deep dive into the aspect of revision we’re covering, and all of them are meant to help you apply the principles presented in your own writing.

We also want you to find community here. We’ll be active on the hashtag, so post questions, comments, or topic requests using #BYOMentor. You can also follow Rosiee, Rachel, or the BYOMentor account on twitter for updates. And say hi to one another! Our hope is to see many of you follow along, use the weekly posts to help guide your revisions, and use the hashtag to build a community. We’re all in this together.

To kick us off, we’re offering a query critique over on Twitter. To enter, retweet the announcement and follow BYOMentor.

We hope this becomes a rewarding, engaging experience, and happy revising!!