Using Isolation for your Novel Characters

Waiting out Hurricane Irma with no power, and no phone service got me thinking about isolation. Humans are inherently social creatures. We seek the company of others. I was fortunate to have my husband with me so there was plenty of conversation, but also time to contemplate. We as humans need conversation, we want to be included in groups, whether it’s a sports team or a religious group or even a fabulous critique group. I thought about the long term effects of isolation to a person and how it could affect one’s character.

Psychologists say that socialization is critical for the mental health of children and seniors. There are two types of isolation: social and physical. Social isolation occurs when someone feels they don’t fit in. Bullying is a prime example as is the archaic practice of shunning. Physical isolation occurs if someone is tangibly prevented from interacting with others like in a kidnapping. People can both mentally and physically isolate themselves from intense fear like a survivalist who lives in the woods.

Social isolation has been used as a tool in many thrillers. Children who are bullied can become serial killers as in The Wilderness of Ruin, a true crime novel about Jesse Pomeroy, a boy who at the age of fourteen became a serial killer.  Adults can be bullied at work, leading someone to ‘go postal’. The Shunning by B. Lewis is a story about a bride shunned by the Amish.

Think about how isolation would affect you. If you suddenly ended up alone in a desperate situation would you shrivel up and cry or organize your thoughts to figure out a necessary strategy? Would you become increasingly depressed until you couldn’t function, or would you be so anxious you’d have a heart attack?

 

Studying how isolation affects human nature can be useful in plotting or as backstory for one of your characters. The effects of isolation can enhance your characters actions and motivations. Use isolation to increase tension, and heighten suspense to keep your readers turning the pages as fast as a hurricane.

Writers, like the rest, need be dexterous and deft

By Faran Fagen

Tuesday Tips

“You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.”
– From “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”

One of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite books of all time.
This time of year, as I set up my classroom, get my kids’ school supplies, and re-assess my writing goals, always tests my time management skills.
Every year, it all works out.
If you feel the same, you’ll enjoy these quotes about juggling and balance from writers, celebrities and other famous folks. See if you can guess who said what. A few of the authors are Benjamin Franklin, Ellen Degeneres and comedian Chris Rock. Enjoy!

“Life is a juggling act with your own emotions. The trick is to always keep something in your hand and something in the air.”

“Juggling and balancing effectively required that we make clear, legacy-driven choices about what we’re trying to keep in the air and how we sequence our movements down the beam. Because the ultimate grade in life is not based on how far and fast we’ve walked the beam or how many things we’ve juggled—it’s based on how much we’ve enjoyed the exercise.”

“Most of us have trouble juggling.
The woman who says she doesn’t is someone whom I admire but have never met.”

“Do three things well, not ten things badly.”

“I’m happy when I’m juggling, but I feel like I’ve gonefrom, like, 3 balls to 10 bowling balls. But, that’s a good problem. I don’t really have a complaint about that.”

“Juggling is sometimes called the art of controlling patterns, controlling patterns in time and space.”

“The fact of the matter is, when I’m on tour,
I’m juggling so hard to keep all the balls in the air that I don’t often get to really enjoy what I’m out there doing.”

“The world cannot be governed without juggling.”

“Some scenes you juggle two balls, some scenes you juggle three balls,
some scenes you can juggle five balls.
The key is always to speak in your own voice.”

“Speak the truth.
That’s Acting 101.
Then you start putting layers on top of that.”

“My grandmother was a Jewish juggler:
she used to worry about six things at once.”

“A jazz musician is a juggler who uses harmonies instead of oranges.”

“Motherhood has relaxed me in many ways.
You learn to deal with crisis.
I’ve become a juggler, I suppose.”

“It’s all a big circus, and nobody who knows me believes I can manage, but sometimes I do.”

“My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She’s ninety-seven now, and we don’t know where the hell she is.”

“The world cannot be governed without juggling”

“When I hear people talk about juggling, or the sacrifices they make for their children, I look at them like they’re crazy, because ‘sacrifice’ infers that there was something better to do than being with your children.”

“Juggling is an illusion. … In reality, the balls are being independently caught and thrown in rapid succession. … It is actually task switching.”

“You need not feel guilty about not being able to keep your life perfectly balanced.”

“Juggling everything is too difficult. All you really need to do is catch it before it hits the floor.”

“Writing is one of the few careers for which you essentially train yourself, the other two major ones being juggling and acting.”

“I like being busy and juggling a lot of things at the same time. I get bored easily, so I need to do a lot.”

“I need to recharge creatively, and get off the clock of having to be somewhere just because, and having to keep juggling all these things.”

I’ll leave you with this quote about learning from mistakes. One of my favorites:
“Our wisdom comes from our experience, and our experience comes from our foolishness”-Sasha Guitry

Strongest writer warriors: Patience, time

By Faran Fagen
Most Tuesday Tips, we bombard you with craft and publishing advice.
Thought I’d change it up this week and offer some famous words on patience.
In every facet of writing and publishing, our tribe has to rely on patience. Patience to find just the right word, or pacing in our work in progress. Patience to connect with the right agent or publisher.
In this spirit, I combed the internet for some well-known quotes on patience. Hope you find these helpful. You may even recognize some of them (there’s some Emerson, Ben Franklin, Tolstoy, even one from Winnie the Pooh). Have fun trying to think of the author of any of these words:

“A moment of patience in a moment of anger saves a thousand moments of regret.”
“The trees that grow slower bear the greatest fruit.”
“Don’t lose hope, just lose your ego with work and patience.”
“Good things come to those who wait, Better things come to those who try.”
“The hardest tests in life is the patience to wait for the right moment.”
“Patience is not the ability to wait, but the ability to keep a good attitude while waiting.”
“Patience and silence are two powerful energies. Patience makes you mentally strong, silence makes you emotionally strong.”
“Be patient. Good things come to those who wait.”
“It is very strange that the years teach us patience – that the shorter our time, the greater our capacity for waiting.”
“Inner peace can be seen as the ultimate benefit of practicing patience.”
“Patience and self-restraint strengthen you. Impatience and self-indulgence weaken you.
Patience is learned through waiting.”
“Be positive, patient and persistent.”
“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”
Patience, grasshopper,” said Maia. “Good things come to those who wait.”
“I always thought that was ‘Good things come to those who do the wave,'” said Simon. “No wonder I’ve been so confused all my life.”
“Trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.”
“The two hardest tests on the spiritual road are the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what we encounter.”
“There are times to stay put, and what you want will come to you, and there are times to go out into the world and find such a thing for yourself.”
“He that can have patience can have what he will.”
“Patience is a conquering virtue.”
“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”
“Patience Is Not the Ability to Wait: Patience is not the ability to wait. Patience is to be calm no matter what happens, constantly take action to turn it to positive growth opportunities, and have faith to believe that it will all work out in the end while you are waiting.”
“The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.”
“Why is patience so important? Because it makes us pay attention.”
“A waiting person is a patient person. The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.”
“There’s no advantage to hurrying through life.”
“Persistence. Perfection. Patience. Power. Prioritize your passion. It keeps you sane.”

Do you use a Checklist for Revision?

I’m in the process of revising my work in progress. I love revision because it gives me a chance to catch weak areas and deepen what I’ve written. I’ve always been a checklist person as well. I find them efficient and time saving. Here’s a revision checklist I’ve created for myself from the classes I’ve taken and how-to books I’ve read.                                         

Opening:

  • Does the story start with momentum or too much backstory?
  • Mood of Chapter 1 where I want it?
  • Strong first line and first page?
  • Is the main character likeable?
  • Is the hero in a situation that shows the conflict or what needs to change?

Plot and Structure                                                         

  • Do the main plot points fall at about ¼, ½, and ¾ of the way through the book?
  • Does the plot escalate?
  • Can I raise the stakes?
  • Does each scene have an arch?
  • Is the chronology correct?
  • Is there any point where a reader might feel like putting the book down?
  • Is there a symbolic death in the middle so the hero can rebuild?

Language

  • Watch for clichés in sayings or action that is too typical.
  • Check for dead verbs. (I use ‘moved’ way too much)
  • Look for boring, non-specific nouns that can jazz things up with better description.
  • Watch for accidental alliteration or places to use alliteration to intensify a situation
  • Check the exposition. Does it enhance mood or tone?
  • Does the dialogue have conflict with very little stage direction?

Characters                                                                    

  • Do the most significant characters each have an arch?
  • Can the reader feel the character’s emotion?
  • Is my main character’s dilemma too strong for him to quit?
  • Is there a strong reason the characters have to stick together?
  • Does the villain have the ability to kill my hero or crush his career, his health, his family?
  • Does my hero’s voice have substance? Does it fit the age, gender? Does it draw in a reader?

Theme

  • Is the theme evident?
  • How have I brought out theme? Recurring patterns, viewpoints, messages?
  • Does the theme come out organically? Does it feel lectured?

Endings

  • Does each scene end in the right place? Could it stop a paragraph or two sooner?
  • Can I split a scene to create a cliff hanger?
  • Can I make the ending of a scene stronger with more worry, a big decision, a strong statement?
  • Is the climax a do or die situation?
  • Does the resolution wrap up all loose ends and feel satisfying to the reader?

First drafts are a blur of ideas arriving on the page as fast as you can get them there. Revision is a calculated process with lots of checking and re-checking all the components that make up your novel. Slowdown in revision and enjoy the world-changing power and privilege of writing.

Querying for the soul

Tuesday Tips

Faran Fagen

Recently, I returned to query mode, and as I hit the send button to each agent, I reflected on the evolution of my query letters.

Here are ten tips I picked up over the years.

1. Start off with a hook that illustrates your interest with the agent. If you met the agent or heard them speak at a conference, lead with that. If it’s a referral, lead with that. I usually try to merge my connection with the agent with a tease to my novel (this usually involves a baseball reference for me) 🙂

2. Spell the agent’s name properly. Seems simple, but if you get it wrong, no matter how good your book is, it will get tossed aside. I never fell victim to this blunder, but I have caught this mistake in proofreading my query a few times (phew!).

3. The hook should be one or two sentences and then get right into a brief synopsis. Here, I follow the advice of one of my writing idols, YA guru Chris Crutcher, who told me in an interview that you reveal to your audience just enough so they want more.

4. An agent once told me that the best format for a synopsis should be two meaty paragraphs about 3-4 sentences each, followed by a 1-2 sentence paragraph that serves as a kicker. Since I tried that format, I got more requests, so guessing that formula works.

5. For the part about yourself, another agent said to keep it short and sweet. You list profession(s), any publishing/writing credentials, and any writing organizations like SCBWI.

6. I usually end with thanking them for the opportunity, and depending on submission guidelines, either “manuscript attached for your convenience”, or “manuscript available by request”.

7. Check all spelling and grammar before sending. I usually read each query three times once it’s finished before I send.

8. Learned this one from my mentor Joyce Sweeney: Send out queries in batches of five. Easier to keep track of so you can follow-up.

9. Research the agent before querying. Some agents are only open to submissions at certain times or have certain requirements.

10. My mom has a phrase: “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.” Querying can get monotonous, so try having fun by spicing up your hook or adding a cool teaser to your synopsis. I know that’s helped me stay in the batter’s box over the years.

Hope these tips are helpful, and best of luck to you on your publishing journey.

Tuesday Tips: How to Keep Readers Invested in Flawed Characters

Every protagonist in fiction needs a major character flaw. Part of the satisfaction of reading comes from finding out how a character changes for the better.

Of course some character flaws are greater than others, and when you make your protagonist seriously flawed (as I like to do), the question becomes: How do I keep the reader invested in the story? How do I keep the reader from wanting to throw the book across the room?

In my first novel, A WORK OF ART, my main character, Tera, refuses to believe that her father is guilty of a crime. Her naivety evokes a certain reaction in the reader. I myself wanted to grab Tera by the shoulders and yell, “Wake up!” And yet (if reviews of my book are any indication), most readers stayed deeply invested. They wanted to know what happened to Tera. They wanted things to work out for her. So how did I accomplish this?

I discovered that one way to make readers care about your character is to bring out the character’s vulnerabilities. Tera is a loner at school—to the point where she eats her lunch in the girls’ restroom rather than sit in the cafeteria alone. Also, her home life isn’t that great. Her father is dominating, and her mother is manic-depressive. Through flashbacks, the reader gets an in-depth look at how Tera has always had to struggle to get her father’s approval.

So Tera’s character flaws make sense to the reader, and that, I think, is why the reader continues to care about her even when they see her making poor decisions.

In the novel I’m working on now, I also need to make sure the reader stays invested in my main character, despite her poor decisions. Layla is a teenage girl who’s been living in a homeless shelter, but suddenly she gets to move in with her rich aunt and uncle. Sadly, she lets all that good fortune turn her into something of a snob, and other characters in the story get hurt. My job as a writer is to make sure the reader doesn’t end up hating Layla for her poor decisions.

I’m doing that by showing Layla’s vulnerabilities. Layla is constantly struggling to keep what she has. Her father died before she was born, and her mother is an alcoholic who can’t seem to get her act together. Because Layla is struggling for stability, the reader can understand and even forgive the decisions she makes. In the end, Layla learns a valuable lesson, and that, in essence, is the whole point of storytelling—to show how characters overcome their own flaws (along with all the other obstacles in their path) so they can triumph in the end.

Less is more: Such a simple idea

By Faran Fagen

Tuesday Tips
A few years ago, I had the fortune of meeting YA boy writing guru Chris Crutcher at an SCBWI conference.
In addition to exchanging a wealth of sports knowledge, he took a look at some of my work.
I learned a lot from his critique, but probably the most helpful hint he gave me was, “Don’t give away all the good stuff at the beginning.”
Since then, as I polished my manuscript, the idea of saving important pieces for later or trimming pages has come up a lot.
In Tuesday critique group, just about every week, I read a scene which my critique chums say can be tightened for effect.
At conferences, agents and editors often say “less is more”.
Since that fateful critique from Crutcher, I find myself asking, “do I really need this quote, or this narration, or description?”
Stacie Ramey often says in Tuesday’s class to “trust your reader” to pick up a subtle change or detail.
As I’ve embraced this idea, I’ve found it creeping into other aspects of my life.
At school, I’ll be typing a letter to faculty, and leaving out any extraneous information they don’t need.
With my kids, I’ll omit details that might confuse them (which might happen anyway – they’re 9 and 4).
Just two weeks ago, I attended another SCBWI event at the Boynton Beach library with illustrator/writer Fred Koehler called “Writing Between the Lines”. It too stressed the important of saying more by writing less and allowing your readers to use their imagination.
One exercise had everyone write a death scene without any screaming or blood or any use of the words ‘dead’ or ‘death’. Some of us wrote about tires screeching, and metal and bones crunching.
This idea of less is more goes back all the way to the eternal writing guidebook, “The Elements of Style”, by Strunk and White. They say to “Omit needless words”.
Sounds like such a simple idea.

4 Ways to Figure out Your Book’s Genre

Why is genre important? Readers use genre to find a book because it gives them an idea of what will be in it. Defining genre has been a challenge for me. Everyone else in our Tuesday Writers group writes Young Adult or Middle Grade novels. My main character is eighteen years old and in college, so my novel doesn’t fit into the young adult category. Here are some of the things I’ve learned about defining genre.

1) Learn Genre.

Go to a bookstore. Spend time familiarizing yourself with the various mainstream novel genres that exist and which authors write in each category. What sections are you drawn to?

  • Mystery and Thriller can seem similar but there is a difference in the set up. A mystery is a mental exercise about discovering who the villain is. Agatha Christie was a favorite author in the mystery category. With Thriller, the bad guy is evident. There is a time clock set for when he will cause great harm. There’s lots of life threatening action involving the the main character in order to prevent that harm. Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code contains the elements key to a thriller.
  • Romance novels are happy ending stories about relationships and the love between to people. Some noted authors are Nora Roberts and Nicholas Sparks, author of The Notebook.
  • Horror has the intent of scaring the reader by inducing feelings of terror. The primary danger can sometimes be disguised as a metaphor for the larger fears of society. Stephen King is the master of horror with his exploits of the dark side of human nature. King’s novel The Shining has often been the dubbed the scariest book ever.
  • Young Adult books feature a main character who is under eighteen years of age and still in high school. Middle Grade novels have characters that are usually age eight to thirteen.
  • Sci-Fi writing combines science and fiction in imaginative concepts often involving the futuristic worlds of technology, space or time travel. Frank Herbert’s, Dune is a prime example of science fiction.
  • Literary Fiction has a form or style that has been accepted as literature. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s,  The Great Gatsby and Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol are considered classic literary fiction.

2) Assess the sub-genre of your manuscript.

Each of the mainstream genres has multiple subsets. Here’s where the process can get confusing. A Writer’s Digest article shows thrillers can be categorized as suspenseful, psychological, technical and supernatural, even horror or romantic thrillers.  Does your story have elements that fall into another category? Ask yourself what percentage of the novel’s plot applies.

3) Write down your main plot points.

What happens at your inciting incident? What’s your binding point where your protagonist can no longer return to his world as it was? What’s the low point of your story? What’s the crisis at the turning point that leads to your climax? These key parts of your plot should help indicate which of the mainstream genre categories your book fits into.

4) Who is your screaming super-fan? 

What else would he or she want to read? Find half a dozen other novels that you think your super-fan would have on their bookshelf. Are they books that interest you? Do they fall in the same genre you feel your novel fits into?

Choosing the right genre improves the odds of selling your book not only to readers, but to an agent. Give your readers everything you can to make it easy to find your book.