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Friday, July 30, 2021

Character Arc in a Series…how does that work? (by PJ Sharon)

 Happy end of July! Hope it's sunny where you are. I live in rainy New England and wish I could send a week's worth of precipitation to the West Coast. Godspeed to those battling wild fires, floods, and drought conditions across the country and around the globe. My heart goes out to you! 

Now, on to our topic for July...  

After all the great posts from my author pals this month, I’m sure you’re all familiar with character arc. That journey our characters endure from being somewhat of a mess at the story’s beginning…to finding a hopefully ever after in the end—a sign of emotional growth on the part of our deserving hero and heroine. After all, they had to go through hell to get to that HEA. 

But what happens when you get to the end of the story and it feels like your main character’s journey is just beginning?

I felt that way after I published Savage Cinderella in 2012. Brinn had been through so much and had come so far--surviving eight long years in the mountains of North Georgia after having been kidnapped as a child and left for dead at the age of ten. 

I won’t spoil the story for you, but let’s just say that after some interesting and harrowing twists and turns, the story comes to a satisfying conclusion. 

The problem was, Brinn kept talking to me. She was only just beginning her journey, but I was busy listening to other characters, writing a dystopian trilogy and another YA romance. It was five years later that I finally couldn't ignore her anymore and began writing a series of novellas based on Brinn’s recovery, reintegration, and apparent talent for crime solving.

As she repeatedly "told' me her dream of becoming a law enforcement officer, I found I had tons of ideas for new cases to be solved, even as I knew she would have to deal with the emotional turmoil of recovery and learn to navigate the difficulties of living in the world and juggling would-be suitors. Being that impulsive behavior and confusion over feelings are pretty normal issues for twenty-year-old's, I'm not sure myself where Brinn will end up. Of course, I leave a little teaser at the end of each story so readers know Brinn isn't done growing yet, but I also have to wrap things up neatly in each novella to deliver that warm, lovely, and satisfying feeling of everything being as it should be when we finish a 150 page reading snack.


A consistent challenge for me while writing this series has been figuring out Brinn’s overall growth arc as it happens over time as well as through each individual novella. There are general overarching themes of healing and finding her independence while building healthy relationships, but her growth from one book to the next sometimes feels like a mystery...even to me. 

I think keeping it real, forcing her to face her demons, and seeing her overcome, learn, and grow from those experiences is what makes her a character worth rooting for. It certainly adds another element to the challenge of writing a series that will keep readers engaged. Adventures in and of themselves aren’t enough to carry a story through a lengthy series unless the character continues to grow, learn, and change, moving ever closer to his or her best self. I’m working on book six in the series (because the first line of the book wouldn't leave me alone.) I have to trust that Brinn will tell me where she needs to go next. I hope I’ve done justice to her character arc so far!

Now, the trick is in knowing when the character has reached their full potential or is at the end of the proverbial road.

What has been your experience? How do you know when to end a series? How do you know when you’ve gone too far?


A licensed massage therapist by day, PJ Sharon is also an award-winning author of young adult novels, including PIECES of LOVE, HEAVEN is for HEROES, ON THIN ICE, and Holt Medallion-winner SAVAGE CINDERELLA. You can follow Brinn’s story in the Savage Cinderella Novella series which includes FINDING HOPE, LOST BOYS, SACRED GROUND, BROKEN ANGEL, and LIBERTY’S PROMISE.

In addition to her contemporary YA lit, Ms. Sharon’s YA dystopian trilogy, The Chronicles of Lily Carmichael, which RT Book Reviews calls “An action-packed read with a strong female lead,” is a sci-fi/fantasy adventure inspired by her fascination with “prepping” and her passion for environmental causes, as much as by her love of romance and the unending “what-if’s” that haunt her imagination.

PJ has two grown sons and lives with her brilliant engineer of a husband in the Berkshire Hills of Western MA where she writes, kayaks, and plays in the dirt as often as possible.


For more info on PJ’s books and updates on new releases, sign up for her newsletter or visit her website.


Thursday, July 29, 2021

Raiders of the Lost Arc (Brian Katcher)


 Conventional wisdom tells us that there are three stages in the literary story arc:

1) Character faces seemingly insurmountable problem, often resulting from a personality flaw or weakness

2) Character overcomes problem but is forced to face their own fears through intense self-examination and courage

3) Character brings dancing back to Bomont!

 

Now in contemporary, realistic YA, there seems to be about half a dozen standard character arcs:

*I'm ugly or unpopular/I've learned to love myself

*I can never fix this injustice/Hey, we fixed the injustice!

*I'll never win the attention of the person of my dreams/the person of my dreams was there the whole time...my best friend! (or the person I initially found irritating but grew to like)

*My dream is impossible/my dream was possible (though with drawbacks I never expected)

*Society doesn't accept me/It's society that's wrong

*We'll never pull off this wacky heist or prank/hey, we did it!

*Welp, they're dead/They're still dead, but I'm dealing with it (also applies to lesser tragedies)

 

I understand that in YA science fiction there are dystopias and vampires and things, but it still all comes down to a few basic plot devices.

Also, and I cannot stress this enough, Mad Libs are incredibly helpful when you're stuck for an original plot:

One day a GREEN woman awoke to find that her RHUBARB had HILARIOUSLY DANCED. Teaming up with a(n) UGLY VOLLEYBALL, they hop in their SUBMARINE and drive 5,000 miles to PLANO, TEXAS to face the evil ZYZYBALOOBA.

There. I just plotted your next book. You're welcome. 


Brian Katcher is the author of the award winning books Almost Perfect and Playing With Matches, the award nominated books The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak and Deacon Locke Went to Prom, and the unloved Everyone Dies in the End. Visit him on the web at www.briankatcher.com


Sunday, July 25, 2021

Writer’s Arc (or where I am right now on my path as a writer)

 Writer’s Arc (or where I am right now on my path as a writer)

 

Weeks ago, sitting outside a coffee shop, I overheard a couple of writers talking about what’s selling right now in publishing. According to Espresso-drinker, graphic novels were the ticket. Iced tea-drinker agreed, adding that the fantasy/dystopian movement is also huge. Both were planning their next projects, looking to trends to help decide what to write.

 

Admittedly, I was half-tempted to interject with my point of view, for whatever it was worth. But I kept silent – (why squelch their excitement?) – as they feverishly Googled winning graphic novel plots and dystopian-fantasy tropes trying to generate their own ideas while also keeping things fresh.  

 

To be honest, I couldn’t begrudge them at all. For one because what do I know? I’m very much a work-in-progress myself, trying to figure out what works best for me, writing-wise. And, for another, I too used to look to trends, trying to predict what editors wanted and what the market “needed.” And did that method work? Sometimes, yes. But sometimes not so much.

 

When I think back on my career, the books that have been most successful are those that were (in some way) the most personal for me. Which brings me to something fellow author Lara Zeises Deloza said of the time when we were back in grad school at Emerson College – that writing was so “romantic” then. We were in love with the allure of being writers, sharing our work, and getting published... We hadn’t yet been exposed to market trends, sales numbers, platform pressure, or the fear of being “pigeon-holed" – or at least not in the way we’d later become. Simply put: we wrote the stories we wanted to tell, those that we cared deeply about.

 

Sixteen books later, I came back to that place with my novel Jane Anonymous, which in many ways is a very personal story to me. I’d stopped thinking about everybody else was doing and publishing and shifted my focus, asking myself what it was I really wanted to write. 


This notion may sound simple on the surface, but let me tell you; it wasn’t. It took reflection, discipline, self-confidence, and also time. In that time, I focused on the story I really wanted to tell – as well as my intention in telling it. 

 

So, I guess, in a way, my writer’s arc has come full circle. I started by writing what I truly wanted and I’m doing the same now. Do I sometimes get tempted by trends? You bet. Did the two writers at the coffee shop itch my curiosity in graphic novels. Absolutely. (I actually love the graphic novel form and would love to one day write another.) But will I be writing in a genre purely because it’s trending? Today, I say I wouldn’t, but tomorrow who knows; maybe I’ll have a different answer. As I mentioned, I’m still evolving as a writer – still arc-ing, so to speak. I don’t have all the answers, which is why I didn’t butt into the conversation at the coffee shop that day. But, for whatever it’s worth, this is where I am right now, iced black coffee in hand.

 

 

 

Saturday, July 24, 2021

The Hero’s Character Arc (Brenda Hiatt)

 Every good yarn needs at least one good character arc. In my experience, the most satisfying stories are the ones where the main character evolves throughout their journey, coming out on the other side as a better, stronger version of themselves. That evolution is the character’s “arc.” It sounds simple in theory, though in practice it can be anything but. Still, there are a few near-constants that crop up over and over in stories with enduring popularity, probably because we humans are hard-wired to respond to those elements. 

For that reason, many writers, and possibly most screenwriters, follow some version of “The Hero’s Journey,” famously introduced by Joseph Campbell in his Hero of a Thousand Faces and then made more accessible by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey. Why? Because it works! Many, many successful films and books employ that same “formula,” including The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit), and Star Wars. 

Since I’d much rather take the “easy” path than attempt to reinvent the wheel, I’ve tried to incorporate at least some of the steps from The Hero’s Journey into my own work, as well. (Because, why not?) 

Boiled down to its basics, The Hero’s Journey consists of twelve steps or phases that may (or may not) roughly correspond to a three-act story structure. I’ve seen this illustrated various ways. Here are two:



There’s an excellent breakdown of The Hero’s Journey (using the movie Rocky as an example, along with The Hobbit) in this Reedsy blog post: https://blog.reedsy.com/guide/story-structure/heros-journey/

Quickly, the 12 steps are:

Ordinary World
Call to Adventure
Refusal of the Call
Meeting the Mentor
Crossing the First Threshold
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Approach the Innermost Cave
The Ordeal
Reward
The Road Back
Resurrection
Return with the Elixir

At a bare minimum, I think the protagonists needs a call to adventure, acceptance of the call (after some initial resistance), tests/obstacles along the way leading to a serious struggle (this is where a lot of character growth happens), then some kind of reward. The elixir is what the character has learned and how he/she has grown as a result of the journey. 

In my Starstruck series, my main character Marsha progresses through most, if not all, of those stages. She starts off as the most ordinary of ordinary teens, but is soon called to step out of her boring world to take part in a destiny greater than she could have imagined. Sure, she’s reluctant at first, but a Mentor or three convince her to take up the challenge, not only for her own sake, but for the sake of thousands of people she never knew existed. Needless to say, there are Enemies lurking who don’t want her to succeed, who repeatedly Test her resolve until she is finally able to vanquish them, with the help of her Allies. Finally, she gets to return to her Ordinary World, though with what she’s learned and achieved (plus the Reward of a swoon-worthy soulmate), it doesn’t feel nearly so ordinary anymore. 

And that’s just the first book! Some version of that journey is repeated in each subsequent book, with a (relatively) complete character arc achieved by the end of book 4, where Marsha has evolved much, much further from her original self than she could ever have dreamed. 

Think about a few of your favorite books or movies. Can you spot the elements of The Hero’s Journey in them? Let’s discuss in the comments!

Brenda Hiatt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of twenty-five novels (so far). The most recent, Convergent, released October 27, 2020 and she hopes to release her next before the end of the year. She’ll do her best to make the character arcs worth waiting for! 

Thursday, July 22, 2021

"Loving That Journey for Me" by Patty Blount with apologies to Schitt's Creek

 I'm watching the various Marvel Universe offerings -- movies and the limited TV series on the Disney Channel -- and am in awe of the writing. It's not hyperbole to say these shows are like a class in character arc development. 

What is a character arc? 



Simply put, it's the journey your character faces that's comprised of a series of decisions and actions through which your character emerges at the conclusion CHANGED from the start. Let's use Anakin Skywalker as an example, but out of canon sequence and use his age. He starts as a cute child, living in desperate times and because he has talent, is taken from his home to apprentice as a Jedi. As he grows, we witness his emotional weakness grow just as his Force strength grows. That's no accident. His devotion to the Force is at near-constant odds with his emotional need for love -- first by his mother, then by his wife. By the time he emerges, first broken and then "repaired," the first question he asks as Darth Vader is about his wife. When he learns of her death, his emotions conquer him and he goes full Dark, where he stays until his fight-to-the-death with his son. It's not until he sees the Emporer zap Luke that Anakin/Vader is able to tap into that long buried love of family, and while he couldn't save his mother or wife, he CAN and WILL save his son. 

Anakin's arc comes full circle. 

In the Marvel universe, every character is following his or her own arc and it's been a delight for me to watch. Warning: some spoilers follow. Tony Stark is the original narcisist. If he were real, you can bet he'd be launching a rocket to space right now and it would be twice the size of Musk's or Bezos's. He's a self-indulgent jerk with enough money to fund the playgrounds his genius brain requires. He rarely puts the needs of others before his own. 

We see that in the Iron Man movies where he holds a press conference and tells the world "I am Iron Man." (Jeez, every other super hero has an alter ego to protect their identities.) In Avengers: End Game, we see Tony sacrifice himself for the greater good. The selfish turns selfless. He emerges from his journey a changed man. 

Likewise, Captain America, the too-good-to-be-true Steve Rogers, has lived for decades by a code of honor that always put the needs of others above his own. Consistently and repeatedly, he suffers a lonely extra-long existence saving everyone but himself. At the end of Avengers: End Game, we see him as an old man because for the first time in his life, he does something you might call selfish. He stays so he could love Peggy. The selfless turns selfish. He also emerges a changed man. 

How do you do this in your own writing? How do you create character arcs so compelling, readers gasp at the end of your novel? 

By focusing on the conflict. That's the secret. (Not a coincidence that Tony Stark and Steve Rogers didn't get along throughout the Marvel movies!)

There are different types of conflict in fiction. There's inner conflict, born of the wounds we each carry through life whether from deprived childhoods, broken hearts, strife, grief, etc. There's interpersonal conflict, when key characters clash. The best stories have a conflict or conflicts that work on multiple levels. (again, see Tony vs. Steve)

One of my favorite novels is PUSHING THE LIMITS by Katie McGarry. Bad Boy Noah falls for good girl Echo. But both characters are broken - Echo, literally. She bears disfiguring scars from an accident she cannot remember. She grieves the loss of her brother in the service. She misses her mother, no longer welcome. She resents her father for trying to replace her mother with a new step mom and her brother with their new baby. Echo's goal in life is to remember what happened to scar her so badly and what her mother had to do with it. She believes if she can just remember, her family will be healed. 

Echo has a lot of issues. But so does Noah. He's lost both parents. He lives in the cold basement of yet another foster home while his younger brothers live separately in someone else's home. Noah's goal in life is to get custody of his brothers and raise them himself. 

Two different characters. Two different back stories, two different goals, yet they are on the same arc. 

Noah and Echo both want their families back. 

At the end of the story, Noah emerges no longer the bad boy slacker, but a man devoted to being someone his brothers can look up to as they're adopted by a loving family -- without him. His family is with Echo now. Echo emerges no longer haunted by a past she can't remember, but a young woman who now sees her parents for the flawed human beings they've always been instead of the perfect images she imagined. In other words, there's no going back -- only forward -- and both must make the family they want. 

(I've read this novel about ten times now and I still feel that gasp of satisfaction at the end.)

In Susan Elizabeth Phillips' NATURAL BORN CHARMER, football god Dean Robillard is sheer male perfection. He models underwear and a bunch of other products in addition to his quarterback career, women love him, men want to be him. Then there's Blue Bailey, a human train wreck of a woman, who lives a vagabond life while wearing combat boots with skirts, and a bad attitude. 

On the surface, they are as opposite as two people can get. But SEP gives them each a past. Dean's father is a rock legend and his mother, a drug-addicted groupie who followed his dad's band from concert to concert. Dean didn't even meet his dad until his teens and he hasn't spoken to his mother in years. Blue's father is absent; she never knew him. But her mother is also absent; she's an activist off fighting social injustices around the world -- frequently stealing money from Blue's bank account to fund those fights. 

How do you resent that and not get hit by a lightning bolt, Blue often wonders?

Blue's childhood was marked by a series of hand-offs from one friend to the next. She learned too young to stop loving each temporary family because it hurt less when she was given away to the next. She hid behind sarcasm, her scary fashion choices, and her constant moving. Dean learned too young that parents cannot be trusted. He hid behind his natural born charm and good humor, and learned to depend only on himself. 

Blue's goal is to stay with Dean long enough to save some money for her next move. But Dean's goal is to get everyone away from him so he can be alone. There's a juicy conflict. As the story unfolds, we get glimpses of each character's inner conflict. She is unlovable, he is loved by everyone. She wants TO MATTER, just once, and he wants TO MATTER, as well, for himself, not what his fame can offer. 

By the end of this novel, the journey each of these carefree/moment by moment characters who never had conventional families culminates with each ready to put down roots and promise to create a family of their own. That's one heck of a journey. 

So...step 1 is decide what wound your characters bear and how it looks on the surface. Are they slackers like Noah? Adored by the masses like Dean? Surly and always moving like Blue? In denial, like Echo? 

Step 2 is to give each character a goal that is at odds with that wound. Bonus points if you can develop goals for each character that put them at odds with each other, at least at first, like Tony and Steve. 

Step 3 is to give them ample space to make mistakes as they pursue their goals, and finally realize the key to their success is doing the opposite. (For Anakin, it was defying the Emperor and for Blue, it was resisting the urge to keep moving. For Noah, it was accepting that he can't raise his little brothers as well as their adoptive parents could.) 


Tell me about the character arc in your favorite story in the comments. 


Award-winning author Patty Blount writes compelling character arcs like Ian in SOME BOYS, who must decide who's lying about what happened that night in the woods, or Derek in SOMEONE I USED TO KNOW, whose sister blames him for her sexual assault. Visit her at pattyblount.com. 


Wednesday, July 21, 2021

My Writing Arc (Holly Schindler)

It's not done, of course. In five, ten years, the arc that maps out my writing journey will look completely different. It should, anyway. Nobody strives to be a writer who quits growing.

Right now, though, the main difference in me as a writer is not the writing itself but the way I approach it. 

When I first started writing full-time, it took some time to find my groove. And then...

it was all about pushing myself to complete more. A bigger word count. A higher number of pages edited. Constantly--more, more, more. When drafting, I was unhappy if I didn't hit 5K words a day. When editing, I'd feel like I wasted a day if I didn't comb through at least 100 pages. 

I don't know if it's age, or a result of the pandemic, but all that just drives me nuts now. And to a great extent, it seems like pushing yourself to the brink of collapse all for a bunch of inferior work. I mean, is every single one of those 5K words going to be in the final draft? If you're reading through a manuscript that quickly, are you sure you really edited, or did you just skim? Are you going to have to read the whole thing over again?

If so, how fast are you really moving?

There is something to be said for taking a deep breath, giving yourself room to think. 

There is also something to be said for enjoying yourself. Working in the garden. Spending time with the dog. Sitting on the back porch with a book and a beer. 

I don't want to wake up every single day and feel like I'm racing a nearly-impossible deadline. 

If you're wondering how this has impacted my output, so far this year, I have published one full-length romance novel. I republished an MG novel after the rights reverted and published a corresponding activity book for the MG (which meant I was forcing myself to learn to become a decent line artist using Clip Studio Paint). I published a humor novella. And I am currently line editing a Christmas novella and drafting a full-length mystery. 

Not bad for a year that's really just a little more than half over. 

And not bad for a year that's been spent taking deep breaths...

~

Holly Schindler is a critically acclaimed and award-winning author of books for readers of all ages. She is currently working on a re-release of her first YA, A Blue So Dark.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Arc or Mobius Strip

 

John Clark starting with a breakfast table epiphany from last week. “Trying to understand family dynamics will drive you nuts, or make you a better writer.” I’ve been an avid reader all my life, but writing came later than for most. I got that from Mom who had her first book published when she was in her sixties. Much of my early stuff was professional writing-a chapter called Revamping and Marketing the Mental Health Library in a book published by Scarecrow Press in 1997. That led to a stint as the internet columnist for Behavioral and Social Science Librarian for almost ten years, coupled with weekly newspaper columns on entering and winning sweepstakes, computer gaming, progressive Maine politics, and interesting Maine people. I also was a regular contributor to a now defunct Maine literary magazine called Wolf Moon Journal.


Fiction came almost by accident. During my career as a mental health librarian, I added quotes from a nonexistent book called The Berek Chronicles as tag lines to my email signature. After several other librarians tried to find the book, they confronted me and said ‘write the damn thing.’ An older reference librarian at the Lewiston Public Library even sent me a three page character profile of Kallista Wolfblood, a minor mage thief she’d created in her role as a dungeon master. Little did I know what would follow.



Berek Metcalf became a socially awkward teen with an extra finger on his left hand. When his parents discussed removing it so he would fit in, his uncle Leland scared the heck out of them, insisting that they would do no such thing. After being beaten up by a high school bully, Berek hides out in a stone circle on the family farm so he can figure out what to do. Going back to school the next day terrifies him. When a strange bird flies overhead and drops a silver flute in his lap, it sets in motion a journey taking him halfway across the universe to a planet called Ballicore It is there that Berek falls in love, realizes his extra finger allows him to create magic and forces him to cross dangerous terrain, meet interesting entities, (not all of them human) and confront a band of baddies to save an endangered race known as the Snow Lords. Kallista becomes one of his group after they meet in a rowdy tavern.


When I finished the book, I left Berek in a very painful situation. That led to Hither We Go which finds him in a state mental hospital when his mind can’t accept his abrupt exile back to Earth. During his attempt to return to Ballicore, he befriends two ‘seemingly flawed companions,’ as described by a spider he meets in a blueberry field. The journey back to Ballicore is difficult, but not nearly as is what he has to do to rescue his girlfriend, Elspeth once he gets there.


That led to book three Married With Familiars which begins on a mist shrouded intergalactic train platform called Kurdzen Waystation. Berek and Elspeth make their way to COTU, a huge artificial city sphere that serves as the hub for intergalactic travel and commerce (Think Blade Runner meets Diagon Alley). There, they use the huge library maintained by a mouthy, sarcastic holographic librarian who helps them figure out how to travel to Senbec, a world where Berek’s supposedly deceased uncle Leland is. Berek’s hope is that his uncle will be able to help him return to Earth, but there are complications, the biggest involving the issue of Senbec having an illness that Berek and Elspeth must cure. The story ends on a tragic note.


At that point, Kallista began harassing me, insisting she deserved a stand alone about her, so I wrote Like A Thief In The Night where her greed gets the better of her and a very sex-starved ghost gets stuck in her mind with unusual consequences. Since Kallists’s a very private and distrustful person, this is the ultimate in vexation. How she learns to adjust while fending off pirates intent on enslaving the inhabitants of Ballicore was fun to write.

At that point, I found myself struggling to write, back problems and the inability to sit and write without distraction for more than half an hour, made anything new hard. Coupled with my sister Kate’s seducing me into writing short stories as she was an editor for Level Best Books, delayed the final book about Berek and his entourage, In My Father’s Footsteps, for a number of years. Building on the last line in book two, this one begins in the New Zealand rainforest, moves back to Maine and then takes a new character to Ballicore in search of Berek. Josiah is seventeen and not long after arriving in the unexplored part of the planet, he rescues an elven girl named Gilraen. While she’s young for an elf, she’s more than two hundred years in earth terms, making the budding romance between them a challenge at times. Their journey involves them connecting with most of the original characters, a mind blasting discovery about what the universe really is, and an eventual reunion with Berek.


Writing these five books led to more novels (some complete, some still in process). Most feature Maine teens dealing with adversity and fall into the magical realism genre, reflecting my growing up in hardscrabble circumstances, as well as my twenty seven years working in the mental health field. This post is long, so I thank you for bearing with me.


Mind remains the same, body not so much, alas.

John Clark is a retired Maine librarian who sells used books online, reviews audio books for School Library Journal, still reads 200-300 books a year, and is intent upon helping his three grandchildren develop their sense of humor and creativity.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Did Twitter Break YA? (Reposted from Misshelved)

 Consider Twitter's tumultuous history since its launch in 2006, which happened to follow the launch of Twilight by mere months in this thought-provoking essay by Nicole Brinkley, who launched the website YA Interrobang, first posted on Misshelved.





Are you a YA reader? Do you agree with Nicole's assessment? One comment the author made really resonated with me: "The internet, in its current form, does not let you change and grow."

Speak out in the comments. 


Sunday, July 11, 2021

Publishing News from Nathan Bransford

 Former literary agent Nathan Bransford shared publishing news on his blog this week. 

Some highlights:

  • There is GOOD news. Book sales are up!
  • NFTs might just be good for authors. 
  • Check out a pre-launch checklist for debut authors

and so much more! 



Tuesday, July 6, 2021

My Growth Arc: One Big Ol’ Mess (Mary Strand)

This month at YA Outside the Lines we’re talking about character growth arcs (which are, basically, the way characters in a book or movie change in the course of the story in order to become whatever they’re meant to be, or need to be). Or, if we prefer, we can instead blog about our “growth arc” as a writer: how we’ve changed over the years, ALSO presumably in order to become whatever we were meant to be, or need to be.

I don’t like to analyze my characters or their growth arcs too deeply in front of other people, so you’re stuck with my growth arc as a writer. Lucky you!

(Note: I would rather talk about the album I’m currently recording.)

It occurs to me that a writer’s growth arc is not AT ALL like a growth arc for a fictional character, because fictional characters basically go from a mildly screwed-up person with potential to a fairly evolved person, who isn’t perfect but deserves a happy ending.

A writer, in contrast, is a somewhat screwed-up person ALL THE TIME, and as far as I can tell, that never changes. That’s not necessarily good news for us personally, sure, but it’s good news for the stories we write.

Writers have to delve into characters and really FEEL them, deep inside, so we can describe what it’s like to be anyone from a little kid like Ramona the Pest to Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles to Iron Man to Elizabeth Bennet to Hannibal Lecter. And so on. I think that requirement makes us a bit of a mess. Yes, most of us gravitate to the same genres over and over, with presumably the same TYPES of characters, but every character is different.


A contrived way to insert a picture of JAKE in my blog? Why, yes!

 

My Bennet Sisters YA series, about a modern-day version of Jane Austen’s famous Bennet family, had the same basic group of characters, but each book was written entirely in one Bennet sister’s point of view, and the sisters were all totally different. I frankly couldn’t identify with someone like Kitty (or Cat in my books), so I couldn’t FEEL how she might feel ... until I gave her a few traits and adventures that I did understand, like a love of art, and road trips, and the waterparks at Wisconsin Dells. Finally, after a mighty struggle, I could write about how she felt.



 

Back to my own growth arc: all I can say is that I’m continually changing, including in what matters to me and what I’m willing to do, but I wouldn’t call it an arc. The pandemic made me even more screwed up (as a writer) than I started out. As we come out of that, I find that I’ve changed in the sense that I don’t need to write in a particular way: while hanging out at Sebastian Joe’s, eating triple-berry scones, which I did for YEARS. I just need to get the job done. It’s more streamlined as a result.

But I’m still screwed up: I’m an extrovert in a writing world filled with introverts. Right now, for instance, I actually need to go into some form of the “writing cave” that writers often talk about, in order to write like the wind and churn out a first draft, but writing caves are lonely places, and I need to be around PEOPLE and have ADVENTURES and listen to and play MUSIC. For most writers, that is CRAZY, because at some level writers need to live inside their own head in order to write a book. Even I do. But, being me, I tend to go AWOL from my own head ALL THE TIME.

So, yeah. In the fundamentals, I’ll probably always be a mildly screwed-up writer with potential. But, like the characters in the books I write, I think I still deserve a happy ending.

Mary Strand is the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Push-Up Bras and three other novels in the Bennet Sisters YA series. You can find out more about her at marystrand.com.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Triple Arc

Hello readers of YA Between the Lines.  I'm so excited to be part of this amazing group of authors.

First a short intro and then on to the topic of the month--character arcs.

I am a NYC-based queer/lesbian Jewish author with a full-time day job.  I've just published my fourth novel, The Papercutter, which is also my first, full length young adult novel.  It is book one of a trilogy that follows three Jewish teens who are part of the first generation to come of age after the United States has split into two countries. 


I've written YA short stories here and here, and I loved writing them so much (and also reading many YA books!) that I wanted to focus my own novels in the genre.  My previous three novels are F/F contemporary romances, one of which is New Adult.

So now let's talk about character arcs.

The Papercutter has three main characters, each of whom narrates a chapter in rotating order (first person present tense).  There's a lot to deal with in this structure. It was easy in the opening chapters to rotate narration so that each of the three could be introduced to the reader.  But now that I'm writing book two, it's more difficult staying true to the rotation at the same time that I'm moving the plot along and including secondary characters from book one while introducing new secondary characters. This is especially tricky because my overall design is to emphasize the arc of each of the three in one of the books.

Maybe more specificity would explain this better.

Judith Braverman is the title character of The Papercutter.  She is a gifted artist in the craft of papercuts, which has its roots in ancient times when a rabbi's ink froze and he continued writing in Hebrew by cutting the letters into paper.  Here's an example:



Judith is an Orthodox Jew living in the more conservative of the two new countries. She is comfortable in observing her faith but not certain that she will be able to follow the path laid out by her mother: marry a nice Jewish boy and have many children.  Judith also has the mystical gift of seeing the souls of people that tell her if they are good or evil. 

While Judith's arc is still a work in progress by the end of book one, she is definitely in a different place at the start of book two than she was before.  Some of what seemed cloudy and unformed to her before is coming into focus and she is becoming more confident in her abilities and her value.

Dani Fine is the focus of book two, though we meet her and follow her story in book one. Dani is an openly queer, Jewish teenager living in the more politically progressive country. She and her family are secular Jews, except for her older brother who has resettled in the other country and is Orthodox. Dani lives with a low level of anxiety, worried about her brother, unclear if she'll ever find love, and caught between the radical politics of her friends and the more moderate views of her mother. She is also obsessed with the Holocaust and has read every book about it she can lay her hands on. At the end of book one, Dani's anxiety and confusion haven't resolved but she has a new worry added that concerns Judith and our third character Jeffrey.  In book two, Dani's arc will be developed more fully.  The working title for that book is The Border Crosser.

Jeffrey Schwartz is our third narrator.  We meet him early in book one as the cynical, curmudgeon who is eager to leave Orthodox Jewry, defect to the other country and live his authentic life. As a closeted gay teen, Jeffrey is holding onto more than one secret. He copes with own brand of humor and an obsession with Jewish food. Jeffrey's arc is followed closely in book one.  By the end of the novel he has made a critical decision about his life and has become a bit less self-deprecating. Luckily, his focus on food and his biting humor remain. 

Jeffrey's arc continues to advance in book two, but he reaches his full potential in the third book.  We get a tiny bit of foreshadowing of what he is capable of in book one when Judith learns the meaning of what she experienced when she saw Jeffrey's soul.

What propels all three character arcs are the external events they experience, as violent acts of antisemitism escalate in the conservative country and government officials begin to isolate Jews from the rest of the country "for their own protection." Judith, Dani and Jeffrey, along with their friends, become agents of resistance, each in their own unique way.

Now that you know what I'm dealing with, you can see how challenging it is to maintain the three-character narration rotation while focusing each book on the arc of one of these characters.  This is especially difficult for me as someone who is not an advance plotter.  The events of these novels come to me as I write. Even when I have some of the big plot points figured out ahead of time, I still can't get to the scene-by-scene and chapter-by-chapter sequences until I'm in the chair with the manuscript in front of me or lying in bed in those moments before sleep takes me.

What I do have is faith. Not exactly the kind that Judith has, but the kind that makes me feel like this will all work out in the end. Call it writer faith: the belief that my three teenagers will make sure that I get them to where they're supposed to be.