Friday, February 16, 2018

Time Out: Letting First Thoughts Settle Into Place

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

As a routine part of my writing process I give myself days at a time to do nothing but think. Well, not nothing. I'm usually scrubbing the bathroom, or preparing a Sunday school lesson, driving my kids around town, or putting together a conference talk. Sometimes I'm actually out in nature, hiking a mountain or splashing in the ocean. Those are the glorious days, but the truth is, so long as I make it a priority to come back to my manuscript sooner rather than later, these thinking days are incredibly valuable and, in truth, necessary.

If you've been following my writing process on Fridays, you'll know that at this point I've committed to a story idea and I've begun the process of discovery writing the opening scenes. I have the beginnings of a protagonist and the problem she's working to solve. A cast of characters is starting to take shape around her and my storyworld is blurry but is slowly coming into focus.

I've noticed that I've started to contradict myself here and there within the manuscript. Some days my hero has two brothers and some days she has three. Some days her father has a beard and some days he's clean shaven. During my first writing session, I set the story in the springtime, but I've since decided that autumn makes way more sense. I have the frame work of a religious system in place and I'm trying to decide if I want to include magic or not.

What I need to do now is stop and give the story time to become more than just an idea. I need to walk away from the business of writing and let the story settle into place in my gut.

Ever cooked a tri-tip? You pull it off the grill and it smells amazing, but if you cut into it right away, the juices inside the meat spill out and you're left with a dry hunk of cow. What's needed is not more time on the grill or even another dose of marinade. What the meat needs is time. If you leave the tri-tip alone for just ten minutes, the juices will redistribute and every slice will be full of juicy yumminess.

That's what I'm trying to do here. I've done a little cooking and now I need to let my story rest. To let it breathe. To let all the juicy ideas I have racing through my head redistribute. I need them to settle into place. 

When a break like this is successful, I come back to the page excited because I have clarity. The influx of first thoughts that pummeled me during my early writing sessions have begun to settle into place.

I know how many brothers my hero needs and her father's appearance has started to solidify in my head. I'm more certain than ever that I should start my story in the autumn. Like magic, those springtime images of budding flowers and new grasses suddenly become mulch underfoot with orange and gold leaves blustering about on a warm fall breeze. 

Time away from the page allows the warring images inside my own self to adjust organically. As I settle in to write again, I'll go back through my first scenes and I'll tailor the words on the page to match the images I now have in my head. I'll likely come across other things that need to be stewed on, but since I'm back from my thinking break and ready to move forward, I'll just highlight those sections and push on. Remember, this is a first draft. I don't need to figure EVERYTHING out now. Just enough to keep me writing.

Do you routinely take timeouts during your writing process? What does that look like for you? Is it challenging when you come back to the page or do you find a renewed sense of energy?

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Go Teen Writers Live Episode 8: Resubmitting after rejection, character creation, and Wattpad

Hey, it's Jill. I've been working diligently on too many things lately, which means I haven't made much progress overall in any one area. :-/  I'm recording audio books, building storyworld for Onyx Eyes, working on my classes for the Mount Hermon Teen Track, and trying to write my last Spencer book. All at once. I've always been more of a "one project at a time" girl, so this schedule has not been my favorite, nor does it enable me to be my most productive. But in everything there are seasons, and my life right now is no different. So I'm going to continue to peck away and see what I can accomplish. *fingers crossed*

Today, I'm excited to bring you our eighth installment of Go Teen Writers Live! In this video, we answered the following questions:

1) If you query an editor and they reject your manuscript, but you've made a lot of changes, is it okay to resubmit, or is that considered rude?

We talked about how it really depends on what kind of rejection you received, and that sometimes an agent or editor will invite you to resubmit. The one thing you should never do when offered a reason for rejection is to argue with them. Nothing good can come from that.

2) The next question we answered is about how to create characters "from scratch." 

This is a complicated question. For several entertaining minutes we struggled to explain how we come up with characters, and then we moved onto the third question, which was about Wattpad.

3) We were asked about Wattpad, and whether or not we think it's a good idea.

Stephanie talked about some authors she knows who were discovered by publishers on Wattpad, and how that's absolutely a thing. But she also talked about how that's really rare, and that's not really the best reason to use a site like Wattpad.

Hope you enjoy the video!

Please feel free to ask any follow-up questions in the comments below. And if you have questions you'd like to have answered on Go Teen Writers Live, email Stephanie at Stephanie(at)

Monday, February 12, 2018

The 3 Questions You Need to Answer About Your Main Character Before You Start Your Novel

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

I've always wanted there to beand have often attempted to createa step-by-step process for writing a novel. And while there are some things that happen in a clear, orderly fashion, many other pieces feel a bit like the chicken and the egg. 

My character forms my plot, but also my plot forms my character.

So even though I've chosen to talk first about my plot and my research, it's not like I cross those off a list before I get going on my characters. The creation process is all very entwined for me, so when I'm working on my blurb or research, I'm also thinking about and working on my characters.

For me, it isn't until I've written my first draft that I feel like I really know my characters. Before the first draft, it's like when there's a person in your life who you've talked to a time or two, but you've never had a shared experience. Yeah, you know them ... but after you go on that mission trip/play that season of volleyball/survive being lab partners, then you know them.

I've tried character interviews, figuring out their Meyer Briggs personality type, archetypes, but none of that has ever served me real well. If you feel like those tools are helpful to you, then stick with it.

The first thing I do, and that you probably do too whether you think about it or not, is mine the story idea for intrinsic character information.

For Within These Lines, there were a few things about my characters that were obvious from the concept of the story. One being that both my main characters, Evalina and Taichi, were the type of people who could be persuaded to break social customs. Since interracial marriage was illegal in California in 1942, obviously dating someone of a different race wouldn't be very popular either. But they haven't told their parents, so they're not rebelling for the sake of making a splash. To me, that suggested that they loved and valued their parents and their opinions.

So just what little I knew about the story has already informed the characters. Before I begin writing or creating a synopsis in earnest, however, I do have three questions that I answer for all point of view characters. I didn't come up with these on my own, I should say. These are craft questions that are so widely taught, I wouldn't even know who to give credit to.

What does my character want? 

What are they trying to accomplish during the story? If the goal isn't strong enough, your reader is going to think, "Why don't they just not do this?"

If the authors hadn't done their job in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pride and Prejudice, or the movie Tangled, you would think, "Why should Harry Potter look for horcruxes, or Lizzy Bennett wait for true love, or Rapunzel risk leaving her tower?" But you don't because from the beginning of these stories, you know what the main character's goal is, and why.

Because my two main characters, Evalina and Taichi, want a happily ever after with each other, I knew in those early chapters my job was to show the reader how good they are when they're together, and how unfair it is for them to be kept apart.

What lie do they believe, and why do they believe it?

Before the opening of my stories (and most modern stories), my character believes something untrue about his or herself, or the world around them.

The lie is one of the hardest things for me to identify before I write the story, and it sometimes morphs a bit for me as I write the first draft. (Which is frustrating because that inevitably means more work in rewrites.)

When you're trying to identify the lie, you want something that feeds into the overall message of your story ... which means you need to have an idea of what you're trying to say with the whole thing. For Within These Lines, I knew I had a lot of anger over the way the Japanese Americans were treated, a lot of admiration for how submissive and gracious they were through the whole ordeal, and a ton of frustration with how few people advocated for them outside the fences. I didn't really know what my theme would be yet, but I knew those were all topics I wanted to touch on.

Taichi's lie came to me much easier than Evalina's. Taichi's lie is, "If I just do what I'm told, everything will be fine." I knew that lie would feed Taichi's decisions about how to handle cruel treatment from guards and poor living conditions.

Evalina's lie started out as something different, but eventually became, "I'm just a teenage girl." Evalina would lean on her low place in society as an excuse to not speak louder, to not be angrier, to not be more active. She's just one person. What's she supposed to do?

Your characters also need a reason to believe what they believe. Sometimes this is called "an origin scene." For Taichi, I decided he has an older sister who has been very rebellious and gotten into a lot of trouble. From watching her, he learned how to stay out of trouble by obeying. With Evalina, it was a bit murkier to come up with a defining moment of when the lie took hold. I think anyone who has gone through childhood understands that most of the time you feel like a second class citizen who will only really matter once you're an adult.

The best lies for your characters will have truth in them as well. Take Taichi's lie as an example. It's true that if you obey the authorities in your life, things tend to go your way. But what about when the authorities are morally wrong? Or it's true that Evalina is a teenage girl and doesn't have much (or any) clout to her name. But that's not a good enough reason to stay quiet in the face of injustice.

What truth do they need that they'll discover over the course of the story?

Your main character believes they are working toward something specific (and they are) but they also need to be moving steadily toward learning the truth that will defeat their lie. 

Evalina, I knew, would have to learn how to be bold and use her own voice even in the face of oppression from someone who "ranked higher" in society. Taichi would need to learn that there's a time and place to question authority.

Once I've answered these three questionswhich sometimes happens easily and other times takes trying and trying again to land on the best optionit's amazing how much of the plot starts to take shape in my mind. More on that next week!

Do you do very much to get to know your character before starting your first draft? What tools work for you? What have you tried that hasn't worked?

Friday, February 9, 2018

Discovering My Setting

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

Today, as we continue our Grow An Author series, I'm moving from characters, which has been my focus for the past three weeks, to the setting of my story. Like characters, I depend heavily on discovery writing to determine the look and feel of the stage my story will play out on.

If you're playing catch-up and want to read more about how and why I consider myself a discovery writer, check out these links:

Discovery writing, as we've established, is the process of sitting down to write with little or no plan for your manuscript.

Sometimes when a story idea presents itself to me, it will come with a handful of ready-made set pieces. I just finished a manuscript about an ice road trucker and when that idea came to me, it arrived in my head as this Frozen-meets-Mad-Max-Fury-Road epic fantasy. I knew, from the outset, that I'd need a big rig capable of trucking ice roads. Everything else about the setting grew from this one idea.

While I spent a considerable amount of time developing my setting through discovery writing, I knew that everything I created had to support the idea of this massive set piece and its driver. The entire story came about because I wondered, "What would it be like to be a female ice road trucker and what if the ice road itself was magic?"

The book I'm working on now is different. The idea came to me as a character and a problem. The solving of that problem becomes my hero's goal, but I'm still left with a world of possibilities when it comes to place and time. Where and when is this hero's journey going to play out?

One of the things that must be decided early on is whether or not you're going to set your story in a place that exists or has existed at some point. If so, you're going to need to do some research into the location and the era. If you're creating your own setting, you have a little more freedom to discover details along the way.
In my case, because my story idea requires royalty and kingdoms and people groups at war with one another, I decided to start by modeling the world my hero lives in after Europe in the middle ages. 

I've never written a medieval-inspired fantasy, so before I sat down to write, I googled pictures of medieval villages and taverns, castles and cathedrals. I found concept art that appealed to me and I saved the links so I could pull them up again when necessary. I dug out some of my favorite YA fantasies and I purchased a few new ones. I immersed myself in comparable settings for a couple weeks so that when I sat down to discover my own world, I'd have no shortage of words and images in my head. 

It's important that the fantasy world I create is mine and mine alone, so my goal is not to steal other ideas, but to glean inspiration from them. Books, movies, artwork, theater, music--anything that feeds your creative soul is good for this. Take ideas, concepts, questions, and images from outside yourself and thoughtfully change them: update, switch, darken, enlarge, age, embellish, combine, or destroy and rebuild. The goal is to make them your own.

When at last I sit down to write, I don't discovery write my setting separately from my hero and the cast of characters who surround her. As mentioned in previous posts, I select a possible opening scene and I continue forward. Moving from one scene to the next, I discover my characters and my setting simultaneously. 

This is vital to my process because I believe wholeheartedly that readers experience storyworlds through characters. If you can move your cast to a different storyworld and nothing changes, you've missed a crucial element. By discovering these big foundational pieces of my story simultaneously, the world and the characters become inseparable from one another. The writing will not be perfect, but that's not the point. I'm writing to understand my characters and the world they inhabit. I'm writing to understand how they work together.

In these early scenes, here's what I'm hoping to discover about my setting:
What genre am I writing? Just like with character choice, the genre I'm writing will come with certain expectations. An urban fantasy will likely require a human location, a location where paranormal characters exist separately, and a way to move between worlds/realms. A cozy mystery might indicate a small town or village with a quiet exterior and some drama brewing beneath the surface.

Since I'm writing a medieval fantasy, readers will expect horses and carts, they'll expect taverns and castles and soldiers. They might expect magic and dragons and journeys through dark forests. They'll expect kings and a court. And while I am under no obligation to include any of those things, the genre itself is a great place to start when deciding what a setting might look like. 

What are the locations that are most crucial to the story? If 90% of my story happens in a city, I need to devote most of my story building time to developing the city. I don't need to understand or waste time exploring the countryside. One of the tragedies of world building is that we often mistake rabbit trails for writing. We do not need to know everything about every corner of a story world. We need to spend our creative energy on the locations that will be featured heavily in the story.

What does my hero's home say about her? Does she have a dependable place to lay her head down at night? Is food easy to come by? Is she wealthy, well-loved, poor, despised? Does she take pride in her surroundings? Is she connected to them?

Do you see how it is impossible to separate story from character? One informs the other.

What does this world look like year-round? In my ice road trucker fantasy, the world has two seasons and both of them are winter. The differences between one winter and the other are subtle and the freezing cold touches everything. In the medieval fantasy I'm working on, the seasons will be more traditional with winter, summer, spring and fall playing a role in both peace and wartime, in harvest and the general wellness of the people. 

How are technology, religion, and magic viewed in the world you're building? If you're writing contemporary fiction, this may or may not matter, but as I like the weird stuff, this is always something I have to consider as I construct my people groups and the culture they make up. Does science play a role in your story? What about religion? Are the peoples in your world monotheistic or polytheistic? Is magic something you plan to include? What does your magic system look like? It should have rules and while you don't need to flesh all of these things out right away, these early sessions give you an idea of what your storyworld could look like.

In each of the categories listed above, we have the opportunity to make the setting of a book truly ours. By pinning down unique details specific to our storyworlds, we can set our books apart from other comparable titles. 

I'd be lying if I said I ONLY discovery write my storyworld. That's not true at all. But it's where I start. It's where the ideas come from. After a few discovery writing sessions, I go back through these early scenes and I allow myself to pick the world apart and edit a bit. I take the ideas that I dumped onto the page and I stew on them, consider whether or not they should stay or go. I adjust, adjust, adjust until I feel like I have the beginnings of a world for my characters to move around in. When I'm satisfied, I jump back into discovery writing and go again. It's a process, but it allows me to be creative and it works for me.

Today, I've given you five things I look for as I'm discovery writing my early chapters, but there are so many more. 

What do you consider a priority when it comes to setting, location, and story worlds in general?

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

When You Need More Research and Worldbuilding

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She has a podcast/vlog at You can also find Jill on InstagramFacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. Tagboth (Tag for short) is a goldhorn dragon from Belfaylinn, a hidden fantasy realm on the western end of the Sargasso Sea. Jill is working on the first book of this tale for this year's Grow an Author series.

I need more world building.

At this point, I've done A LOT of brainstorming and making lists. I have a list of fairy names. Lists of types of stones and what their magic will be. List of colors and their meanings. Lists of different types of fairies. Lists of place names to use if I need them. List of character names. I have a map. I have research on thin places. I have pictures I printed off the internet for all my main characters and many side characters. The list goes on and on. In fact, I have a file folder filled with research and a 3-subject notebook full of worldbuilding work and research. (See pictures below.) I once had tentatively called the Belfaylinn series Ultraviolet, so that is what is written on the tab of my file folder and the front of my notebook. I think you can get an idea of how much worldbuilding I've done so far. That's about two inches of stuff.

It's a great start. But I'm still finding it difficult to answer some of the "why" questions I had from the initial list in my first blog post, specifically: Why are these fairies peoples fighting with each other? Why are they hiding from the modern world? And why do they continue to live without technology?

I think part of my problem here is that I haven't developed the culture of the three fairy types beyond the physical and the location of their homes. Arials have wings and live in the mountains. Grounders live on the ground. Merrows have webbed fingers and toes and live in or near the ocean. That's all good to know, but it's surface stuff. I need to go deeper. I need to know why there are three types. I need to know what each type (race? species?) values. I need to know the goal of their ruler. That will help me as I set out to answer those three "why" questions. I can't really answer them well until I know more.

Besides that problem, I've found some other areas lacking in this story. I spent a lot of hours the past few weeks reading over everything I had in that series file and notebook. I also read the chapters of Onyx Eyes I wrote and made a list of plot holes and problems I need to fix. So, I've taken all of that and made this updated "To Do" list for more research and worldbuilding.


-Develop the culture for the three fairy types. Include a history for their land, how they came to live there, what each kingdom cares about, and why they are fighting.
-Why are they hiding from the modern world?
-Why do they continue to live without technology?
-Fill out a detailed character chart for Drake and Kaitlyn. Perhaps also for Tagboth and Roose.
-Brainstorm sayings or popular phrases that have to do with colors to incorporate into fairy dialogue.
-Research the Hebrew "Breastplate of the High Priest" that has twelve each to represent a tribe of Israel. See if I can somehow incorporate it into the story or backstory.
-Interview a Hebrew speaker on some of the words I'd like to use.
-Make a list of books or series to read for inspiration that either have to do with fairies or Celtic mythology. I want to know what is out there so that I can make my story different.

That's where I am so far. Before I can really dive in and get writing, I need to figure out a few more things. I have several charts I've made over the years to help me brainstorm, but for the most part I really only need to know the following about all three people types to get me going:

Chief resource:
Type of government:
Ruler's goal:
Ruler's motives:
Internal political problems:
Nation's colors:
Nation's flag/standard/sigil:
Type of dress:
Adjectives that describe these people:
Types of food:
Any important animals:

So while I'm working on that this week, I'd like to challenge you to answer a question about the culture of one of the peoples in your story. I'd like to know:

1. What does that culture most value? (Wealth? Power? Freedom? Happiness? Family? God? The environment? Survival? Food? Water? Individualism? Loyalty? Logic? Tolerance? Etc.) Share your answer in the comments.