Setting: Different Perspectives

Last week during Teachers Write (which I am trying to keep up with!), there was a prompt about setting (you can read it here). Setting is a weakness of mine, an inconvenience at best. I usually just scan right past the setting in the books I read. I never thought about it as a way to reflect character, like Elana K. Arnold talks about in her blog post.

The exercise she had the teachers/librarians do was to observe a place near us. I, of course, was at Starbucks, so I wrote about the table I was sitting at.

Mahogany but a false one. Irregular grooves to look authentic. A little space between the edge of the table and a dark brown rim that mysteriously catches crumbs—useful to keep the floor clean, but a little odd to look at. What are the stories of these crumbs? Usually eight chairs, but a few taken to add to other tables. After all, this is a working table. The light is the best here. Not the place to be comfy and cozy with friends, but sometimes used that way when there’s no other space. For four people, two frappuccinos, one iced latte, one iced tea; tall, tall, grande, grande. One book, three phones, two computers, one tablet. The future of the coffee shop.


Then, a challenge: write about the same table, but this time, from a few different perspectives.

Lost 6 year old: I sit at the huge table. All these people here, and I don’t know who to ask about my mommy. Maybe Mommy is in the bathroom or maybe I’ll see her out the window. These people all look too busy to talk to me so I look at the table again. They don’t even look up at me. I lay my head down on the hard wood and try not to cry.

Satisfied house cat: Ah, a lovely place to stretch out. I sniff at the table and smell bitter and sweet. I stretch out like a tube. Not comfortable yet. I stand up and walk in circles until I find the exact spot to flop down. The wood is hard but the space is mine. I give my best glare to the people around me and they get up and leave, one by one. The table, and the universe, is mine.

15 year old, just heard about her parents’ divorce: I stumble over to the long table, the only area not crowded. I’d much rather be on one of the comfortable red chairs near the fireplace. Why am I here if all I want to do is hide? I open my journal and pretend to write, but all I do is sketch, my mother and my father, and then me and Skye, with a jagged line in between us. I want to take a paper clip and carve the picture into the table, because this is permanent and there should be a permanent record.

Fun! Maybe I’ll even examine the setting of my book. Maybe.

NE-SCBWI Conference 2014


Last weekend, May 2nd-4th, I went to the NESCBWI conference. (For those of you who don’t know really long acronyms, that’s the New England Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators.) The theme was Create Bravely: Make Your Mark. The keynote speaker was Peter H. Reynolds, author of The Dot and other picture books. If you haven’t read it, The Dot is about a girl, Vashti, who is convinced that she can’t draw. She finally makes a dot on a paper, and, encouraged by her art teacher, begins to explore her creativity through dots and more. I’m no artist, I was about to say, but why? Peter talked about how if you ask a young child if he/she is an artist, the answer is always yes. By about 4th or 5th grades, fewer and fewer children agree. So going along with the theme, creating bravely, there’s no reason why I can’t make art. Does making art have to please anyone but me? No. He made me want to go buy a sketchbook and draw. Create bravely.


There were some great workshops that I went to. Some of my favorites:

“From Stage to Page: Using Creative Dramatics to Inspire Writing” with Lisa Kramer – I love starting the conference every year with something loose like drama. This class was so fun. We alternated improv with writing. For some parts, we were our characters, and for some we created other characters. At the end we wrote scenes between two different characters that had been created in the workshop. I started a scene between an alien and a cool teenager. Although, being realistic me, ended up turning the alien into a pesky little sister who was just pretending.

“Writing a Book in a Weekend: How to Fast-Draft without Word Vomit” with Taryn Albright – I took this class because Taryn worked with me on my book, and she’s amazingly awesome. I have no interest in writing a book in a weekend. And I am NOT a planner. But I did take away how planning can enable you to write a fast draft. I’m trying one of Taryn’s ideas right now, writing a several page synopsis of my book (not a pretty one, just plodding sentences of basics). I’m hoping this will force me to think out the middle/end of my book better.

“Beyond OMG: Writing Authentic Dialogue for Teens” with Sashi Kaufman – I think dialogue is actually one of my writing strengths, but it’s always good to make sure my teen talk is believable. We talked about slang, swearing, and what makes different teenage voices unique. We read dialogues with teen characters with each other, which I totally loved.

I do have to admit there were two workshops I didn’t enjoy too much, basically because they didn’t do what the descriptions said. For example, no writing during a “writing-intensive” class?

Other bests:

Book signing – This has gotten crazy for me. I *have* to buy and get signed a book for me, each daughter, and each daughter’s teacher, with a special request for one extra teacher.

Hanging out with my critique group (who I never get to see recently) and some folks I only see at this conference.

SO glad I went and I will return next year!

Personality Tests: You and Your Characters

Last night, I remembered a personality test I’d taken once at work. All I could remember is that it gave you four letters as a response, and it told you about how you learned and worked best. I looked up the test, and it turns out it’s called the Personality test based on C. Jung and I. Briggs Myers type theory. I found it at


I took the test for myself, and my husband did too. I found out I was an ISFJ, meaning introvert/ sensing/ feeling/ judging. He came out the same except thinking rather than feeling, which makes total sense if you know the two of us. Anyway, according to the website, I am “the nurturer,” I have a rich inner world, I feel a strong sense of responsibility and duty, have a strong sense of inadequacy, and desperately need positive feedback from others. I will let anyone who knows me decide if that’s accurate. 🙂 Famous ISFJs include Jimmy Carter, and Frederic Chopin. Good jobs for me include social work, teaching, and jobs in the medical profession.

As I was writing, I was thinking: did I know my main character well enough to take a personality test as her? I gave it a try, and I was pleased that I could answer the questions easily. According to the test, Alexis from my first book is an ISTJ. Her numbers on the scales for introversion and judging are high, much higher than mine. (Interestingly, she is the exact same type as my husband, and I wouldn’t say there were alike at all!) ISTJs are “inspectors,” concerned with right and wrong, and can sometimes be perceived as aloof. They are frustrated with the inconsistency of others. Famous ISTJs include George Washington, Andrew Johnson, and George H.W. Bush. Good career choices would be in management, accounting, and computer programming. To some extent, these aspects reflect Alexis; she’s certainly an “inspector,” and the other traits fit. But I certainly can’t see her with any of those career choices or having a similarity with presidents and generals!

Anyway, this was an interesting exercise, and I think I’ll try it with the main character of my second book, Rachael. I’m pretty sure that answering the questions as Rachael will show me how very much I *don’t* know this character, so it should be a valuable exercise.

Has anyone every taken this test? What were you? Dare to try it as a character?

New England SCBWI Conference 2013, Part Two


There was so much I wanted to say in my last post that I had to break it in two! Here were some of the other highlights of the conference for me:

-Our other keynote speaker was the amazing Sharon Creech. She spoke about  the power of words, how to find them, cherish them, and set them out into the world.

Sharon Creech

-Volunteering: I volunteered at the conference for the first time this year. I was way too shy the first two years I went, so this was progress for me! I worked at the registration table, not that I knew the answers to many of the questions! It was nice to introduce myself to so many new people. And c’mon, I got to wear the yellow volunteer name tag. The YELLOW one.

-Book signing: I love this every year. I choose a book for me, a book for each of my children, a book for my classroom, and a book for both of my children’s teachers. Gets pricy! The autograph is great, but the greeting and personalization are even more important to everyone… a real live connection to the author. I may have had just a few books signed by Kate Messner…

Kate Messner

-Restaurant dinners with friends old and new: Catching up with people I’ve met before was great. But some of the best conversations were with people around the table that I didn’t know. You start with, “What do you write?” and before long you’re explaining premises and plot twists and your inspiration, and the other person truly CARES. There’s no glazed-over look like you get in the real world. Writers eat this stuff up.

-Find-a-Fit: Researching Agents panel with Lynda Mullaly Hunt: This talk was the perfect level for me. I’ve been doing my own research for querying agents, but Lynda had great strategies that I hadn’t used before, and also pointed us to some websites I hadn’t seen. And she was funny enough to keep us alert and jazzed up even though it was the last session.

Can’t wait until next year!

New England SCBWI Conference 2013, Part One


Yesterday was the last day of the NESCBWI conference. It was a great weekend as always. This was my third time going, and each year my knowledge and connection to other writers has deepened.

Here were some of the highlights for me:

-A panel on Edgy YA: Right up my alley. The panelists focused on questions like what is Edgy YA, the importance of voice, and if kids should be able to self-curate their books their own reading. The panelists were Scott Blagden, Adah Nuchi, Carter Hasegawa, and Rubin Pfeffer.

-A meditation/writing workshop, run by Laurie Calkhoven. We meditated for five minutes, visualized an aspect of our story, and then wrote for five minutes, pen moving across paper the whole time. I discovered a quick back story scene I hadn’t thought of before. At another point, one woman in the audience discovered that her main character had a twin! Unfortunately, some people (including me) had to leave for their agent critiques, which kinda interrupted the flow of the meditation…

-A Save the Cat! workshop, with Dawn Metcalf, based on the book by Blake Snyder. I’m a total pantser and I end up outlining after the fact, if at all, and then only if something isn’t working.  But it was helpful to see how very structured screenwriting is, and to see how that structure can apply to novel writing. I may not be a convert to this system, but it’s good to know about at least!

-Grace Lin. ‘Nuff said.

Grace Lin

photo by Alexandre Ferron

Oh, and so much more…

I just edited my title to say Part One. More later!

Third Person? First Person? Crazy Person?


When I started writing my first novel, I wrote in third person. I’d never really written fiction before, so I assumed that third person was the way to go–most books I read were in third person. It seemed to work out fine. I wasn’t quite sure about the rules for how to show thoughts in the third person, but I knew I’d figure it out.

In 2009 (one year into the long process of that book), I went to my first writing conference, and someone asked me if I’d thought about writing my book in first person.

Why not? I tried it. I changed every Alexis to I, every her to me, every them to us. It took FOREVER.

And, to my total surprise, the tone of the story changed. (This is probably a big DUH to everyone else, but it was a fresh insight to me.) It was easier to access Alexis’s emotions, and to make her seem real. The language became less formal. “Alexis was disoriented” changed into “I couldn’t figure out where I was.”

I wrote one chapter in first person, and sent both versions to some reader/writer friends, and almost every single person thought that the first person version was more effective.

You’d think I would’ve learned my lesson after the first book, but with the second book, the exact same thing happened. Third person (to prove I could do it), a trial chapter in first person, comparison of both by friends, change to first person, language tightening, story getting better…

Lisa is grateful that everything she writes doesn’t have to be in third person.

Reading My Manuscript Aloud

computer thing

I’ve been done with my first manuscript for a while, but recently went through some serious revisions after feedback from an editor. I had some recent full requests, and I needed to get it sent in! So, for my last step, I followed advice I’d been hearing, and read my manuscript out loud.

First of all, let me say it took a LONG TIME. I seriously underestimated the amount of time it would take. I thought a few hours one afternoon would do it. When I’d only gotten through 40 pages in 2 hours, I realized that audio books have lots of CDs for a reason. It took me a week or so, given that I only have snatches of time here and there.

I had a problem, though.  I almost never write at home. Too many distractions, especially child related. So I did a lot of the reading at Starbucks, inside a turtleneck, or with my back to everyone, or near someone with headphones on. I’m sure people wondered if I was totally crazy.

Here’s the most amazing thing. I’d thought my book was, finally, as good as I could possibly make it. But I made SO many changes when I read it to myself, almost all of it word choice. If I substituted a different word when I read aloud, I reread and usually changed it. I had changes on every page. I also had fun with the dialogue; since I know my characters so well, it was cool to act out their voices.

I also noticed a few tiny plot holes as I went, mostly sequential problems. I’d moved around a few chapters, but I still had a few inconsistencies.

I’m sure I’ll read my current WIP out loud, perhaps earlier this time, to get the dialogue as natural as possible.

Guess the experts know what they’re doing!

The Power of Pictures

I’ve never been much of a visually observant person. My husband laughs at me all the time because I won’t notice a new building going up or what color house someone has. I respond that I’d notice anything truly important, and he says that I don’t know what color his eyes are. Brown, I think. Right? Honey?

When I write, I have to force myself to add visual description (or any kind of sensory details, for that matter). I agonize over those sentences. Dialogue? Flies out pretty fast. Emotional reactions? No problem. But ask me what style of clothes my main character wears and I’m at a total loss.

A few authors I follow on Twitter or their blogs mentioned that they use online images for their main characters, and it really helped them visualize their characters. So I went searching, found a few images that maybe/sort of/kind of looked like my characters, but it didn’t do much for me.

When my writing group met last time (hello Jeannie, Rachel, and Kate!), they suggested that I make the antagonist of my new book much younger. I resisted for a while before I realized they were right, since there would be more intrigue involved that way. So I went on a hunt, and this is what I ended up with.

Marianna’s a high school teacher, so this isn’t exactly how she’d look in the book. But something about the joy in her expression and the bounce of her hair seems to help me imagine her so much better. The hair helps me, especially – those curls are quite the defining feature.

The other image that I found helps with how she dresses. In my online critique group, someone mentioned that it sounds like Marianna wears 50s clothes. I wanted her look to be distinctive, so I started looking for images of 50s clothes, and ended up with this:

The best thing about these pictures (dresses and character) is that it grounds me. I can describe one of these dresses exactly as I see it, and not be hampered by my lack of visual memory.

I’m keeping the picture of Marianna on my desktop right now, so when I need to remember what she looks like – or her spirit, even – I can remind myself with a glance.

“Placeholder” Characters

So here I am, finished with yet another draft of my Contemporary Young Adult WIP (work in progress). It feels pretty good. I know I have a few layers of revisions left to do, but I’m getting there. Most of the things I need to revise are story structure things, like where exactly is the climax of this book, and am I totally screwed if I don’t know where it is?

But then, one of my critiquers on  (a fabulous peer critique group for writers, check it out!) asked if one of my characters was a placeholder or whether she was supposed to be a real person.

Agh. So that was yucky. You know why? ‘Cause she was right.

As I looked at the character of the main character’s roommate (are you following me here?), it’s true, she’s just a placeholder. She moves the plot along once or twice. Otherwise she’s totally one-dimensional.

Apparently if she’s important enough to be in the story, she’s important enough to have a personality.

Crap. You know what that means?

More revisions.