Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Making Characters Come to Life With Character Worksheets

In the last year I have read at least four books on the craft of writing, trying to incorporate what I am learning into my current and future works. Any one of those books has a number of tips for improving as a writer of fiction. One of the tips I am applying to my WIP is the use of character worksheets. I have seen these in various forms on different websites and in several of my writing books this year. So what are they and how do they help?

Basically, a character worksheet is designed to help an author get to know the characters within their story in order to make the character read more life-like. If done right, the worksheet answers various questions about the personality and backstory of the principal and secondary characters, sort of like a questionnaire from a dating website. A good worksheet will also have the author asking questions about characters’ motivations, intentions, weaknesses, strengths, and quirks in light of the plot, but will contain large quantities of information that may not make it into the final product.

For my WIP, I started with a basic description of each member of my MC’s family, as my plot hinges around familial relationships. Then I added a couple of important minor characters, including a best friend and a villain. These descriptions started much the way real life introductions do, with the physical observations of hair/eye color, height, build, etc. and moved into personality types. Using prompts from Mary Cole’s WritingIrresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers, I came up with each character’s main objective (a great way to look for tension-building conflicts), strengths, weaknesses, and general outlook. I highly recommend Cole's prompts (and the entire book!) as she is very thorough.

In the process of doing all this reflection on who these people are, I found what I learned about my characters had an impact on the plot, of which I had made a very rough sketch prior to thinking much about the characters. As I made decisions about the characters, the plot filled itself in (and slightly changed). Initially I knew I was writing a story about a tween wallflower who struggles with the shame of an alcoholic father going through a stint in work-release jail. When I filled out my worksheets, I realized I wanted to add more dimension to the story by introducing a villain, who comes on the scene during the dad’s absence. By thinking about what makes each of the players in my story unique, I realized where certain characters could make the story sparkle more using information from my worksheets. Studying their characteristics and how they interact with my protagonist also has helped me in trying to keep my plot focused, and made it easier for me to decide how to use each character in furthering the plot. And there is always the huge concept of voice. By acquainting myself with my protagonist in the earliest stages of writing, I have found expressing who she is so much easier than in my previous works, where I focused on writing a plot-driven first draft and trying to add character depth in revisions.

Obviously, this topic could fill a book in itself, but here are a couple of character worksheets on the web if you want a quick start.

http://www.epiguide.com/ep101/writing/charchart.html: more detailed

Please use the comments section to add your own recommendations!

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Book Review for Friday: Hollow City

The peculiar children from Miss Peregrine's home flee their time loop on the island in Hollow City: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children #2 to seek out another ymbryne who can help cure her. The pacing is excellent as Jacob and the others continue to face threats from both hollowgasts, horrifying creatures with multiple tongues, and wights, people who work with hollowgasts to kill peculiar children, each of whom has a special ability. There are also other threats during their travels in history, including gypsies and bombs in WWII England. The suspense is intertwined with more peaceful moments, such as when Emma kills a hollowgast who somehow has penetrated a loop,followed by the children spending time with the creatures of Miss Wren's loop.

They receive hints on where to go in their search from a book of stories written for peculiar children, while we learn more about the true conflict behind the ymbrynes who turned bad and the good ymbrynes, who maintained loops for the protection of the peculiars but now have all been kidnapped. Jacob's ability to detect hollowgasts and fight them becomes more honed during the time they are chasing after Miss Wren in London.

There are lots of things to love in this book, including a great tension over what's right and wrong when life is at stake. The world in Miss Peregrine's universe has so many original intricacies. Jacob's ability develops in a very cool direction, particularly at the close of the novel, and the other children all make real contributions to the success of their quest. Some criticisms: the book of stories that provides the clue to finding Miss Wren's loop was negected after that, and I would have loved to hear more about it. Also, with quite a few peculiar children on the journey, I had forgotten what some of their abilities were and had trouble remembering each character until it was time for their talent to help on the quest. I particularly did not like how Jacob works through an internal conflict toward the end.

Finally, I both loved and hated the ending. There is a great plot twist that is a bit of a mind-blow, but the cliff hanger ending leaves the fate of most of the children in jeopardy. Overall, I think the next book can't come out soon enough and give this 4 stars.

For my review that includes some spoilers, see my GoodReads review here.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Fizz and Peppers at the Bottom of the World-A Great Read!

There are book recommends all over the place on social media. If something about the title or the author strikes me as interesting, I try to add the title to my GoodReads TBR list, knowing if I don't have a reminder, I may never get back to that book. Sometimes titles languish on theTBR list for months before I get to them. In fact, several titles have sat there for a year-not because I changed my mind or don't read much, but because trips to the library and impulse downloads to my Kindle capture my attention and hog up my reading time. Occasionally, inspired by guilt, I pick one of the older titles, get it on my Kindle, and dive in only to find that I've been neglecting a real gem. Fizz and Peppers at the Bottom of the World by M.G. King is one of those gems.

Colin and Pepper are frenemies who, in their battle to best one another, inadvertently wake up a bunch of trolls with a fizzy raspberry drink in this highly entertaining fantasy. Before long the trolls kidnap Colin's grandmother and take her to their underground city. Of course, Colin's parents don't believe in trolls so it is up to Colin, his younger brother, and Pepper to find a way to save not just Grand, but the whole town, when the trolls start a civil war that threatens to create an earthquake.

From the very beginning, I thought this story was captivating. The style is humorous without being over the top, and Ms. King effortlessly weaves in themes of about the importance of family and friends during the children's adventures underground. The tension builds in true page-turning fashion as each time Colin thinks he's figured out how to defeat the trolls, a new twist puts him further from his goal. Another excellent touch is that each character, including prickly Pepper and feeble-minded Grand, has a heroic moment before the adventure is over. I highly recommend this story-it's earned all 5 stars.

Friday, March 7, 2014

10 Tips for the Writing Novice

The best laid plans for blogging regularly have been way laid by life. Most everything is good, though: there's an upcoming wedding (mine!), a high school graduation (oldest daughter's), college visits, tons of concerts/recitals (my kids' and my students') and, finally, a real start on my WIP. In the latest contest I entered, #midgrademadness, part of the submission requirement was a seven sentence bio about the entrant's writing journey. If I make it into the top ten, you can read that entry next Thursday, but condensing my writer bio into such a short paragraph has made me reflect on what my writing experience has taught me.

Since I finished the first draft of my first book, The Princess Who Was Not, I have learned so much. Here are my top 10 tips for the writing novice:

1) The first draft is easy.
2) Revision is when the (seemingly) never-ending work begins. :D
3) Studying the craft of writing through books, classes, and conferences is essential.
4) Social media, especially twitter and blogs, provides a wealth of resources.
5) Plan your writing time if you want it to happen.
6) A rough outline is a great roadmap for staying on track with your plot.
7) Filling out a character worksheet between outlining and beginning to write helps flesh out your plot and (bonus!) find that elusive "voice."
8) Mary Kole's Emotional Plot* is a great supplement to the three act structure.
9) Critique partners improve your writing immeasurably.
10) Perseverance is a writer's most important virtue!

*I got this from Kole's excellent book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers and she isn't kidding about the subtitle-its the most invaluable writing craft book I've  read this year.

Okay, most of these tips are at least a blog post topic by themselves, and I will try to follow up, but please don't hesitate to ask questions in the comments!