My Nevada Experience – Creating Memorable Characters

When I was in Nevada I became kind of obsessed with seeing a bear. I guess in the same way that visitors to Australia seek out kangaroos and koalas.

Needless to say, I did not see a bear other than a stuffed one in a bar/gun shop who was quite willing to be photographed with me because well, it was stuffed so it didn’t have a choice.

Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 10.50.15 PM I did however meet plenty of other memorable characters including Stinky and his donkey, Bernadine.

Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 10.43.27 PMI’d been having some trouble with my verse novel creating two truly distinct voices for my characters. Meeting Bernadine and Stinky got me thinking about what makes characters memorable, what makes them stand out from the crowd, not just each other?

I started thinking about people I know or have met, and what makes them stand out in my mind.

When we come face to face with people, we can see clearly what distinguishes them from others, but when it comes to a book, we have to create this distinction for our readers.

WHAT’S UNIQUE ABOUT A CHARACTER
So to me, the things that make a character memorable are the unique things about them. These can include:

  1. Physical appearance
  2. Background
  3. Motivations
  4. Personality – especially their key personality trait
  5. Their qualities and flaws
  6. Their emotional responses to situations
  7. The decisions they make and the outcomes of these decisions
  8. How they deal with the outcomes of their decisions
  9. The character’s ability to stick in your mind while you are writing them]
  10. Their name
  11. The way they talk – their speech patterns and body language – their vocabulary choices
In Virginia City I  caught up with a writer who was a master at creating memorable characters.

In Virginia City I caught up with a writer who was a master at creating memorable characters.

WRITE A PARAGRAPH ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER
This helps to get them cemented in your mind. Pretend you have just met them.  They are a real person you have found intriguing and you are telling your best friend about this fascinating person you have just met.

Example
Here’s what I mean – I’ve taken these examples from my YA thriller WIP.  These two characters are sisters and being the same gender and coming from the same family makes it even harder but more important that their differences stand out.

Mindy (older sister)
Mindy doesn’t like to let her guard down. She’s not afraid to speak her mind, and this can upset some people.  She worked hard to get her life back after a serious childhood accident which left her physically and emotionally scarred so she doesn’t suffer fools or wimps. She doesn’t like to lose control, and sometimes uses sarcasm as her defence. Since her life threatening accident, Mindy has had psychic visions that she has chosen to ignore up till now.

Lia
The youngest, she has always been protected from harsh realities so she sees the good in everyone. She is artistic and sometimes distracted, which makes her accident prone, and vulnerable to screwing things up because she’s not paying complete attention. This can make her seem clumsy and awkward. Lia hasn’t found her own confidence yet. She’s easily influenced and a bit gullible. She’s always trying to fix things – wants everything to be perfect. She is quite shy and doesn’t like the limelight. She is in the background a lot so she sees things that other people don’t.  She’s a keen observer and although her clumsiness can make her appear ditzy, she’s actually very thoughtful.

Some other memorable characters in Virginia City

Some other memorable characters in Virginia City

TEST YOUR CHARACTER
Once you’ve created these two characters that you want to be distinctly different, put them in the same situation and see how they react.  If you have created distinct characters, their reactions should be completely different.

For example, how would these characters react if:

  • A film producer came up to them in a cafe and asked if they would star in a movie
  • An earthquake destroyed their home
  • Their best friend told them they’d done something really bad

Different characters would react completely differently to these situations.

How do you create memorable and distinct characters?  Feel free to share your tips in the comments section of this post.

Happy writing:)

Dee

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It’s all about the Journey

Screen Shot 2014-04-26 at 9.03.44 AMTravelling is like writing a book. It takes you in unexpected directions – brings surprising joy and throws in a few obstacles along the way.

My latest trip to Nevada as part of the SCBWI Nevada Mentorship Program has been an amazing experience.  I’ve reconnected with old friends, and in the snow-covered mountains and sandy hills of Nevada, I’ve fired up my inspiration again.

The illustrators

The illustrators

A quiet night at the haunted hotel

A quiet night at the haunted hotel

There’s nothing like spending time with an enthusiastic group of illustrators and writers (plus the odd ghost) to get you delving deep into your stories again.

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We stayed at ‘ haunted’ St Mary’s Art Centre – and it certainly had a vibe. A great setting for a story.

So I guess that’s the theme of this week’s post. If your writing feels stale and you can’t bear to look at that manuscript you’ve already reworked at least ten drafts of, take a break. Change the scenery.

IMAG6340IMAG6218IMAG6194IMAG6188Go somewhere new to stimulate your senses.  Somewhere the air is different, the roads don’t look the same as where you live, somewhere with new sights, sounds and scents.

And when you gather your travel memories together, it’s kind of like getting your storyline back under control. You take the best pieces, discard the extraneous detail and only keep the parts that are most powerful.

You retain the things that are memorable, keep the vision and the experience in your head. It’s something to apply to your characters too.  When a publisher or agent reads through the ‘slush pile’, it must be your character that sticks in their mind.

In much the same way that landscape has distinguishing features, characters do too.

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The view from the bedroom window of our ‘spooky’ room.

Our spooky room

Our spooky room

So if your writing has hit the brick wall, try to think of it as an adventure – a journey that will take you to memorable places that you wouldn’t otherwise visit.

Enjoy the ride.

Happy writing:)

Dee

Tuesday Writing Tips – Stay Calm and Keep Writing

IMAG4714It has taken me a long time learn to be patient about my writing, but I feel like I’m finally getting there. Hard as it has been for me to accept, the fact is that writing and getting published is a long term process that can’t be hurried. You just have to stay calm and keep going. It takes as long as it takes and that’s just the way it is.

My SCBWI Nevada Mentorship has been an amazing ride and it’s far from over yet. I have hopes to be published as a result of the mentorship, but no expectations.

For me, I’ve already achieved so much.  My verse novel manuscript has gone from an initial draft of 17,000 words to the current version of around 50,000 words – and I know that there’s still a long way to go.

I have a plot that I’m reasonably happy with and two characters that I feel I know almost as well as my own children.  There are still scenes to develop and places where I know I can make the words work harder.

IMAG4710My goals for the project were to hone my verse novel writing skills, learn more about global readers and find an international publisher for my book.

I feel like I’ve already achieved the first two goals. My mentor, Ellen Hopkins has been truly amazing with her helpful, encouraging and perceptive feedback. Under her guidance, my characters have gone from admired acquaintances to close family members.  She is pushing me to be the best writer I can be.

So I guess my point to all this is that nothing happens overnight in the world of writing and publishing. We have to just keep calm and keep going.  We have to be patient.

My verse novel Hating Ric started out life as Street Racer back in 2008 (I’m still debating about which name I prefer). Here are some of the steps I’ve gone through to get it to its current stage.

2008 – First draft and another three drafts completed.
2009 – Rewrote in prose as an experiment to see if I liked it better – I didn’t.
2010 – Back to writing in verse. Queried with a couple of agents with some positive feedback but realised manuscript wasn’t ready – back to the computer.
2011 – Good friend Svetlana Bykovec wanted a YA novel to make into a book trailer. Here’s the result.
2011 – Attended the SCBWI LA conference and did a verse novel writing workshop with Ellen Hopkins
2012 – Many more drafts
2013 – Apply for SCBWI Nevada mentorship to work with Ellen Hopkins.
2014 – Finish the novel and submit it to agents (I’m still working on that one.)

I’m off to Nevada again on 20th April for the next part of the mentorship.

It’s going to be great to catch up with my mentor and all my writing and illustrating buddies again.  I’m looking forward to finding out how everyone else is going with their projects, and I’m going to be attending  a session on how to write a query letter and synopsis – definitely things I need to perfect.

IMAG4962Don’t be disheartened that things aren’t happening fast for you in the publishing world. Stay Calm and Keep Writing.

Writing is like a good wine it has to have time to mature – it can’t be rushed. Eventually, I’m hoping to send Ric off into the big wide world, but not until I’m absolutely sure that he’s ready.

If you have tips on what keeps you going with your writing, feel free to share them in the comments section of this post.

Happy writing:)

Dee

My mentorship experience was made possible thanks to the generous assistance of the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund which provided me with Creative Industries Career Funding. http://www.copyright.com.au/cultural-fund

Writing Tips – Another Nevada Epiphany – Don’t Rush Out of a Scene

My mentorship with Ellen Hopkins through SCBWI Nevada continues to inspire, and teach me so much about writing and about the way I write.  I’m learning more about my own weaknesses – the things I have to watch out for – the mistakes I keep making with my writing.

I have realised that I have a tendency to rush out of a scene – to be in too much of a hurry to see what happens next for my characters, to not savour the moment and explore what’s happening in the ‘here and now’.

And I’ve come to realise that it’s one of the things that can cause me to tell and not show – that can leave my readers feeling a bit breathless.

IMAG4716Here’s what I mean.

EXAMPLE 1

This is a ‘scene’ from my verse novel, Hating Ric.  My character Kate has just come out of a coma and her best friend Abby is visiting.

My first version

A blonde girl walks in,
says she’s my best friend ,
Abby.

So why don’t
I know her?

ELLEN’S COMMENT:  Can this be a scene? Abby trying to talk to her about stuff she cant remember?

MY CONCLUSIONS:  I can’t believe I didn’t see this myself – that Abby WOULD try to talk to her best friend – and that there would be strong responses from both Kate and Abby. This is too big a moment in the story to gloss over.

IMAG4801My revised version

A VISITOR

Walks into my room smiling.
“Hey girlfriend
welcome back.”

She’s blonde and gorgeous
with a voice like
the rhythm of
the sea.

She sits on the
edge of my bed
leans over
to hug me.

I pull away
Do I know you?

Her eyes
look into mine
uncertain

IMAG4714a single tear
trickles down
her perfect
unscarred
skin.

“It’s me, Abby.”
She glances
across at
the nurse
who nods and
mouths
“Amnesia.”

Pain rips through
my neck
when I shrug.

IMAG4788The girl’s eyes flash
from the nurse
to me.
“I’m Abby.”

She repeats her name
as if that
will help me
remember.

She opens her wallet
and pulls out a photo
of
us
standing close
heads together
laughing.

In the photo
my skin is
perfect too.
no missing hair
or teeth.

I push the photo
and her hand
away
watch mesmerized
as another
single tear
slides
down
her perfect face.

EXAMPLE 2

In this scene, Kate is learning to walk again with her new leg, without using hand rails.

IMAG4962My first version

I get to share it
with Abby.

She’s here to see me
and can’t believe
how far I’ve come.

ELLEN’S COMMENTS: Can this be a scene?

MY CONCLUSIONS:  This really does need a scene to show the reader more about the relationship between the girls, Kate’s strength and Abby’s character.  It’s another important moment that I raced past in my original version.

My revised version

FAST TRACKED

to walking around the room
without rails.

I try increasing my
distance
and
pace
with
every circuit.

IMAG4954This morning
I’ve pushed it
as far
as I can
go

too far.

My good leg
collapses
under me
and I have to grab
onto a wall
to catch my balance.

There’s a gasp
behind me
and Abby rushes over
tries to help me
to a chair.

“No… I can do it.”
sweat trickles
into my mouth
and pools
under my arms.

“Kate, that
was amazing.”
Abby’s eyes
are shining.

IMAG4979I wanted to share the knowledge I’m gaining from this mentorship because we are often told we need to tighten our text, but sometimes we actually need to expand it and delve deeper, to draw the reader more closely into the story.

I hope you’ve find this post helpful. I’ll be sharing more from my amazing Nevada journey – and I’ll be going back there in April – can’t wait:)

Do you have any ‘bad writing habits’ that you have worked through? If so, feel free to share your experiences and solutions in the comments section of this post.

Happy writing:)

Dee

P.S. I’ll be talking about my mentorship at the SCBWI Victoria meeting on March 15. Might see you there:)


Finding the Muse in the Veggie Patch

One of the first things I did when I got back from Nevada was plant a vegetable garden. It wasn’t what I expected to be doing. I thought I’d end up glued to my computer, tapping out everything I had learned, and applying it post haste.

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My head was overflowing with inspiration and that was part of the problem. I needed time to let everything settle – to absorb all the wonderful experiences and writerly suggestions – to put things in perspective..

When I think about it, it wasn’t all that surprising that I felt the need to plant something. Growing vegetables is all about nurturing  – putting care into something and watching it flourish. It’s pretty much like that with story ideas.  They have to be nurtured but they also have to have time to grow and flourish.

IMAG4979Nevada was full of epiphanies, not just in relation to the manuscript I am working on with Ellen Hopkins (although there were plenty to do with that as well.)

I found things that people said, and tips they gave were things I could use in so many different ways. A comment here or there, someone’s observations about their own manuscript – small things that triggered ideas for big changes in my own works.

IMAG4954In fact at the moment, I have a number of manuscripts competing for my attention – main characters jumping up and down saying, “Pick me, Pick me.”

My verse novel characters need more back story and problems,  my YA thriller needs more contrast in character voices – and my mid grade needed an element to ground the character and the story.

IMAG4962Over the coming weeks I’m going to share the things I learned and the changes they will bring about to my writing.

But for now, I’m still savouring the experience and sorting out priorities in my head.

My tips

  1. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with ideas and suggestions, take time out. Do something completely different, something creative in a different way. This will allow your brain time to process everything and work out priorities.
  2. Write down everything that’s going on in your brain – have a separate page for each manuscript or project – that way you don’t get confused or stressed from trying to keep it all in your head.
  3. When you’re ready, give yourself time to write.
  4. Write down everyone’s suggestions, but don’t feel you have to take them all on board – some you will disregard completely – others will be triggers for completely different ideas.
  5. Decide which project you are going to focus on, and go for it – the others can wait.
  6. When you are considering everyone’s suggestions, don’t lose sight of YOUR vision for the story.  I write down in large letters, “My character wants …” I keep this piece of paper with me to keep reminding myself what my story is really about.
  7. Don’t put pressure on yourself. Allow the creativity to flow in whichever direction it wants – don’t try to force things or contain your ideas.
  8. Walk the dog, relax and follow your creative heart.

I’d love to know how you handle things when your brain is overflowing with ideas and stimulus. Feel free to share your tips in the comments section of this post.

Happy writing:)

Dee

My Nevada Writing Adventure – Day 1

One of the characters I encountered at the airport

One of the characters I encountered at the airport

Finally, I’ve made it back here (to the blog I mean). I’ve just had the most amazing, inspiring, productive weekend at the SCBWI Nevada writing retreat at Fallen Leaf Lake – but it has been so busy – and my head is spinning with all the information I’ve absorbed and the memories of the wonderful people I have met.

So I’m finally sitting at the computer a couple of days late to do the first post. I’m still confused about time – went to bed after midnight last night because I didn’t know what time it was. I might just get used to the time difference the day I hop on the plane to go home.

I boarded the plane from Australia at 11.45am on 24th October and arrived before I’d even left, at 11.15am on 24th October.  I’m not a science fiction writer, but if I was, I’m sure I could make a great story out of that.

NZ to San Francisco was a twelve hour flight – so I watched a lot of movies and read The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson. I figured it would help me get into the writing mood.

Unknown-1One of the things that really resonated with me was Martha’s suggestion not to dwell on your start – to just keep writing. As she points out, once you’ve finished the novel, the start will probably change again anyway.

As we soared over the Pacific Ocean I gained many other great insights from Martha’s book. She has a great plot planner, and one of the things I really like about the Plot Whisperer is that Martha identifies that there are different types of writers so different things work for different people. I read Martha’s book into the wee small hours.

IMAG4542OPPORTUNITIES EVERYWHERE

I love the way life constantly throws up opportunities for a writer – whether it’s dialogue you can use, an interesting character or something you overhear.

Most amusing moment of the flight was when the person next to me ordered a vegetarian meal, but it was accidentally given to someone else. (That wasn’t the funny part).

Flight attendant:  I’m sorry you didn’t get your vegetarian meal. Do you eat fish?
Passenger:  No I’m a vegetarian, that’s why I ordered a vegetarian meal.
Flight attendant:  Oh, so you’re a serious vegetarian?

IMAG4548MAKING THE MOST OF CUSTOMS AND OTHER QUEUES

Queues are a fabulous place for a writer to either read a book or to observe and let their imagination roam free.

On the first day of my trip I stood in many queues, perfect for people watching.  I love watching people’s actions and reactions – how they relate to each other. I love trying to guess their relationships to each other, where they have come from, where they are going, why they are going there.

It’s one of the greatest things about being a writer – even without a pen or computer, there’s so much you can do to develop your craft, just by harnessing your people watching skills and injecting your characters with some of these same traits, habits and circumstances (either real or imagined).

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So I guess my tips from day one are:

  1. Embrace the experience.
  2. Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities.
  3. Look for traits, body language, dialogue etc that you might be able to use in your own characters and their stories.
  4. Have something to record your notes on.
  5. Use long plane flights to read good books about the craft of writing
  6. A lot of the time involved in writing a book actually involves thinking about your characters and their lives so allow yourself the time to do this.
  7. Be excited about the journey ahead.

If you have any travel tips for writers or information to share about making the most of your writing journey, please feel free to share.

Happy writing:)

Dee

Tuesday Writing Tip – Dare to Dream

We writers talk about it often – writing is hard. It’s hard at every stage of the journey.

It’s hard to come up with the idea for your story, it’s hard to formulate that idea into a compelling plan, it’s hard to get the whole story down on paper, and it’s hard to force yourself to sit at the computer for hours upon hours honing, shaping and polishing that story till it’s as good as you can possibly make it. And all that’s before you even attempt to enter the publishing fray.

But sometimes there are golden moments, splashes of brightness in a seemingly bleak landscape, events that make everything worthwhile – that  make us realise that writing is exactly what we are supposed to be doing – and that it’s okay to dream.

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Years ago I wrote a young adult verse novel about a boy who makes a split second mistake that he and the other teen character in the story will be forced to live with for the rest of their lives.

Every one of my writerly colleagues who read it  found it compelling. In my heart, I knew this was a story I had to tell. In my heart, I knew that verse was the way this story needed to be told.

But verse novels aren’t easy to get published; particularly here in Australia.

So I was persuaded to rewrite my verse as prose – replace  the sparse text and powerful imagery with continuity and conversation.

It didn’t work for me or the publisher.

But I couldn’t let this story go. I went back to the verse format, which I knew was the right for me and my story. In spite of having rejected it already, the publisher asked to see the work again.

But after all the rewrites and resubmissions they advised me about “the danger of writing too much bleak realism” and rejected the manuscript. The went on to say that they “couldn’t imagine any teenager wanting to stick with it”.

I admit that I was gutted. In fact I couldn’t touch a keyboard, pen or manuscript for at least six weeks.  But then my spark of determination and belief in my story returned.

This was helped by my two teenage boys who read the manuscript and said what the publisher said was ‘crap’.

I squared my shoulders, took a deep breath and started working on my novel again.

I knew it wasn’t perfect, and  I wasn’t really sure what to do with it next. Then I met the amazing Ellen Hopkins whose verse novels had inspired me to try this format in the first place.

She suggested I apply for a mentorship through SCBWI Nevada to work with her on my verse novel.

img010

It seemed like an impossible dream. I’d have to compete against many other writers  for a mentorship and not only that, how was I ever going to be able to afford to do it?

The mentorship wasn’t expensive, but it involved two trips to Nevada with two lots of $2,500 air fares from Australia.

It WAS an impossible dream, but I knew I had to at least try.

I ran writing workshops to raise money, and I applied for every piece of funding known to man or woman – and I kept working on my manuscript.

In late June I was over the moon to find that I’d been award funding by the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under their Creative Industries Career Fund.

In late July, SCBWI Nevada advised that I had been accepted into the Mentor Program with Ellen Hopkins as my mentor.

I haven’t stopped Happy Dancing since, and I’m not sure I ever will.

My faith in my story has been restored. I have been awarded funding and given a mentorship based on this piece of work – on a story so close to my heart that I can’t abandon it.

img011I’m about to embark on an amazing journey, being mentored by a writer whose books have inspired me for so long.

Whatever the outcome is, I know I’m going to grow as a writer and meet  extraordinary people and learn a lot about myself and my work.

But what this whole experience has taught me already – it’s okay to Dare to Dream –  to strive for a writing goal that seems impossible.

I can’t thank my writerly friends and family enough for their belief in me through all this – and especially Mo Johnson who gave me the initial push I needed to follow my dream.

And I’m so grateful to Ellen for choosing to mentor me, and to CAL and to SCBWI Nevada for making all this possible.

MY TIPS FOR ACHIEVING YOUR WRITING DREAMS

  1. Set yourself a real, tangible writing goal.
  2. Stay forcussed on the ‘prize’.
  3. Surround yourself with people who offer positive suggestions and encouragement.
  4. Develop a plan for how you hope to reach this goal.
  5. Follow each step of your plan, but don’t be afraid to vary it or try new things along the way.
  6. Accept help that’s offered by people who unconditionally want the best for you.
  7. Don’t give up.
  8. Be realistic, but Dare to Dream.

I’m going to be blogging about my mentorship so I hope you’ll share the journey with me.

Happy writing and dreaming:)

Dee

Photos: courtesy of Dana Robinson

My mentorship has been made possible thanks to the generous assistance of the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund which provided me with Creative Industries Career Funding. http://www.copyright.com.au/cultural-fund