Stylish Blogger Award!

A nice surprise awaited me on Monday—my first-ever blog award, gifted to me by Mel Chelsey over at Writings, Musings and Other Such Nonsense. I’m not sure my blog is “stylish”, exactly, but hey! I’ll take it!

The rules seem to be 1) I get to pass this award along to five other bloggers, and 2) I need to tell you seven random things about myself.

Random Things…

  1. After years of not owning a television, I’ve been lured into watching a few series via Hulu and Netflix. Purely for writerly research, of course (cough, cough…)
  2. I love to sing. I mean, really really love to sing. Certain tight harmonies—or when a chord resolves—makes something unknot inside me, this physical shift that makes me happy and teary all at once. (Hmm, could this be why music plays such a role in my fiction?)
  3. I grew up on a farm and spent most of my life living in the country until we moved into town about eight years ago so kids would be closer to school…and our “town” house still doesn’t feel like home. I’m looking forward to moving back to the mountains!
  4. parkour2I want to learn parkour.*
  5. I love the perfume Red. Unfortunately, it does not love me. When my sweetheart bought me a bottle for my birthday (also Valentine’s Day), I sprayed it on and seconds later had hives swelling my eyes shut…just before leaving for our romantic evening out :).
  6. I’m a Firefly fanatic. And a Joss Whedon fanatic. And I love Nathan Fillion, too, and think Castle is one of the Best Shows Ever.
  7. My favorite dessert is Italian Cream Cake—made from scratch, with lotsa butter and pecans and cream cheese frosting. It’s a pain to make, but wow, it’s delish.

Now to pass on the award…this was difficult, because I’ve been finding so many terrific blogs lately! Oh, the agony of decisions! Here are my choices, though. Please check out these fantastic writing blogs:

  1. Kelly James-Enger at Dollars and Deadlines, a great resource for anyone who freelances, particularly those who write nonfiction
  2. Andrea Mack at That’s Another Story, where you can find lots of information for writing middle grade fiction
  3. Jill Kemerer of Jill Kemerer, Exiting Safe, Chasing Fantastic, for writing information and inspiration
  4. Rachael Harrie of Rache Writes for everything you want to know about writers’ platforms
  5. Patrick at The Artist’s Road for interviews, articles, and thoughts on creativity and art

*Photo courtesy of Marco Gomes on Flickr Creative Commons

When Characters Lie: Eight Questions to Ask

Do your characters lie? Lies can lead to additional untruths, misunderstandings, problems that grow bigger each time the character tries to solve things—in other words, lies are a terrific way to build story conflict.

Having your character lie is a terrific plot device—but one that can backfire if you aren’t careful.

nealcaffrey

Here’s what I mean. In the TV series White Collar, con-man and FBI “consultant” Neal Caffrey tells the occasional untruth. You’d expect as much from a con-man, but the funny thing is that he’s more likely to get what he wants through charm and wit than by lying; and when he has something to hide, he’s more likely to do so by keeping his mouth shut than by concocting an explanation. When he does lie, it’s always for a good reason: to protect someone, to accomplish a purpose that can’t be accomplished otherwise, to hide information from someone he doesn’t trust.

The result? Neal may be a con-man, forger, thief, and professional smooth-talker, but he makes a decent, loyal, and (mostly) trustworthy friend.

Chuck-season3-WIDE In another of my favorite TV series, Chuck, our hero is loveable in oh-so-many ways…but as an unlikely spy, he ends up in the position of lying to friends and family on more than one occasion. Sometimes it works. Sometimes his lies create great conflict and amusing situations. But sometimes, (sorry, fellow Chuck fans) I want to give him a good shake—not because he lies, but because he lies when he doesn’t have to do so, to the people he should be honest with.

The first time he does this, the viewer thinks he’s making a bad choice. The second time, we wonder what he’s thinking. The third…well, I stopped watching the series at that point.

Lies are an important storytelling tool, but make sure to use them in a way that doesn’t annoy your reader or make them dislike your character. Next time your character wants to embellish the truth, consider these questions to keep your story on track:

  1. Does your character lie often? Dishonesty doesn’t just make other characters distrust your hero—it can make the reader distrust (or worse, dislike) your hero as well.
  2. Does the lie have a purpose? On the other hand, if your character lies to protect someone else, to keep an important secret, or because he thinks it’s the best thing to do, this can spark terrific inner conflict.
  3. Does the lie have a purpose for plot or character? Like every story event, a lie needs to forward the plot or reveal something about character—or, even better, do both. What does the lie do for your story?
  4. Has your character lied in this sort of situation before? If so, did it make things better? If a lie (or theft or cheating or…you get the idea) works once—if it gives the character a short cut solution to her problem without repercussions—then she’ll be tempted to try it again.
  5. …or did the lie make things worse? Don’t insult your reader’s intelligence by letting your character make the same mistake over and over—if a lie doesn’t work the first time, he better think twice before setting the same type of situation in motion again. He may decide to lie again, but he’ll remember his previous failure and perhaps try a different approach.
  6. Does the lie lead to more lies? We’ve all seen it happen: one “little” lie leads to another, which leads to another, and so on, until the character is mired in a web of untruths. This can be a great way to complicate life for your character.
  7. What are the consequences for discovery? Creating clear consequences for the lie raises the story’s stakes. Discovery might mean failing a class, losing a friendship, losing respect, getting kicked off the soccer team, losing a job.
  8. What would bring your character to ‘fess up? Dishonesty may make your character less likeable, but if your heroine realizes the error of her ways—or decides to do the right thing, or decides her lie is hurting someone—and decides to tell the truth, she wins our respect. A moment of truth can be a great place for your character to show strength and growth.

What characters have you seen lie? Did it work or did it flop?

How Plot Development Is Like Navigating a Maze

It struck me, as I was working my way through my latest first draft, that plot development is very much like navigating a maze…

maze2

*Photo courtesy of Mecookie on Flickr Creative Commons

…and the similarities give some insight into how to tackle a tricky plot problem.

  • A methodical approach can work—but sometimes you just have to go for it. As an avid “plotter,” I usually know in advance the course I want my book to take. There are moments, though, when the muse tugs me off the beaten track. I always follow!
  • Sometimes you have to go down dead ends. No matter how well you’ve planned your route, sometimes the only way to know a particular path leads to a dead end is to go there…and sometimes the only way to know a scene doesn’t fit is to write it. Those efforts aren’t wasted: now you know where *not* to go!

 maze

  • A view from above helps—sometimes you need to get the big picture to figure out where to go next. Have you ever explored a corn maze? They often have a tower or raised platform somewhere near the middle, where you can look out over the whole thing, see where you’ve been, and see where you have to go. Sometimes I need to do the same thing with my book, spreading out plot points on my floor or taping them to my wall. It helps!
  • If you take the most direct, most obvious route from point A to point B, you miss surprises along the way. Whether you’re writing a book or exploring a corn maze, the joy is in the journey. Arriving at the finish line isn’t the point. That’s why corn mazes usually contain surprise “treasures” along the way. A dead end might not take you closer to the end, but it may lead you to a farting outhouse or a tower for a birds’ eye view.
  • Sometimes it’s easier to figure out the best path by starting at the end and working your way backward. This might be cheating when working a maze, but it works—for mazes and for plots. Can’t find your way forward? Start at the end of the story and consider what needs to happen for you to get there.
  • The better you know every possible twist and turn—including the dead ends and loops—the better you can map out the final route you want to take. I spend a lot of time exploring plot dead-ends and writing scenes that won’t make the final cut; it’s nice to know that time isn’t wasted. 

Whether you’re a “plotter” or a “pantster,” there are times when you need to figure out how to get past a tricky plot knot. What approaches do you find helpful?

:-) Cheryl

Up Your (Story) Game: Seven Tips

I wrote last week about games in middle grade fiction—especially in books that appeal to boy readers. Great, you may be thinking, but how do I do that?

If you’re like me, maybe you weren’t the most athletic kid in the PE class…maybe you were more likely to spend your spare time with your nose in a book than kicking around a soccer ball…

bookworm*Photo courtesy of kainr on Flickr Creative Commons 

But if you write for young readers, you don’t want to limit yourself to fellow geeks and bookworms (much as we love them). And that means that many of the kids in your intended audience will love games: sports, contests, puzzles, challenges, games of all forms and shapes and sizes. Actually, even geeks and bookworms love games—different ones, maybe, but still games. So why not consider whether a game might play a role in your next project? For instance, a game can…

  1. Illustrate a character’s strength or weakness. Without Quidditch, Harry wouldn’t have nearly as many opportunities to to shine. Quidditch is also where Harry gets to show off his abilities on a broomstick—an essential skill later in the book. Sometimes a game can be the perfect place for your character to excel when he’s failing everywhere else.
  2. Advance your plot. J. K. Rowling also uses Quidditch as the backdrop for multiple major plot points. In the first book, Quidditch is the setting for one of the first attacks on Harry—revealing both that someone is out to get him and throwing out Snape as the red herring. Later, Quidditch is the vehicle that brings the entire wizarding community together in one place. You can also use an ongoing challenge to unfold a secondary plot that mirrors your main story.
  3. Provide a familiar forum in which to endanger your character. Your readers understand the idea of games and competition. They also understand that a “game” can provide opportunity for physical intimidation; actions that wouldn’t be tolerated on the playground are easily dismissed on the playing field. 
  4. Subject your hero to public humiliation. When a game is public—and especially when others are counting on the character to help them reach victory—the opportunities for failure and humiliation multiply. You can up the stakes by making your character’s challenge public—and a game is one vehicle with which to do so.
  5. Depict unique features of your world. When your story takes place in unfamiliar territory—whether that means 18th century England, a fantasy setting with werewolves, or modern day Peru—you need to take every opportunity for world-building. Games can reflect a culture’s wealth, beliefs, and priorities. For instance, in Epic, an action-packed novel by Conor Kostick, members of a peace-loving society use a massively multiplayer online computer game for conflict resolution.
  6. Create character depth. When you think of your main character’s interests and abilities, is there an area where he can excel? An area where he might, willingly or unwillingly, compete? Just as you might give your character a hobby, you can give him a competitive arena that he cares about.
  7. Create puzzles for your character to solve. In Chasing Vermeer, author Blue Balliett presents her characters with puzzles and pentominos (mathematical puzzle pieces) on their quest to recover a missing painting. And, of course, Harry, Ron, and Hermione each have to overcome a challenge during the climax of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Ron triumphs in the chess game; Hermione solves a logic puzzle; and Harry races his broomstick to capture the needed key. Games and related challenges can add creative plot twists and turns to your story.

If you have more ideas about how to use a game to further story, additional examples, or inspiration to share, I’d love to hear from you!