by Fae Rowen
Not often, but sometimes I return to my teen experiences to help connect with a past emotion. It helps me get into a deep point of view by remembering something that happened. Since Young Adult Science Fiction is one of the genres I write in, this is a cool trick. But I also use it for my adult science fiction.
I vaguely remember my mother's words when she tried to soothe my first teenage love-gone-wrong.
Puppy love. He didn't deserve you. He lives too far away.
There were a lot more comments ranging from sympathy to aggravation on her part. For my part, I was just miserable.
How did it happen?
I was accepted to a National Science Foundation math program at State Diego State University. The six-week summer course included fifty math students and fifty chemistry students from around the U.S. It was an exciting way to spend the summer between my junior and senior year in high school.
I was in the math program, taking the equivalent of sixteen lower division units and nine upper division units of math and computer science classes from specially selected professors for the program. The female math and chemistry students were housed on the top floor of a dorm at the far end of campus.
The male students were housed in a dorm on the other end of the huge campus. You had to walk past fraternity row to get to the classroom buildings and the guys' dorm. Since the female curfew was 7 p.m., the chem guys, who had no curfew, visited our dorm. Every night. (I'm sorry to say that the math guys stayed in their dorm and did homework.)
Now, I was supposed to be doing tons of homework every night. But the chemistry guys were all so cute, and I didn't ever get to talk to them unless I hung out downstairs in the rec room, which I was happy to do since there was a pingpong table.
Did I mention I'd been playing pingpong every night since my eighth birthday, when my parents gave me a ping pong table for my birthday?
We set it up in our unfinished living room. Every night I'd lose to my father, who never believed in letting me win at any game.
But I got better. Unfortunately he did, too. Finally, I started winning. Sometimes. By that summer, I was unstoppable. In the dorm, the word spread, and every night there was a line of guys waiting to try to defeat me. That's how I met John.
Not John, but a close facsimile...
John was not only a gifted chemistry student, he was on his school's debate team and football team. And he was cute. After a week, he'd be waiting outside my math classroom to walk hand-in-hand with me to lunch and dinner in the cafeteria. When a food fight broke out the third night we were served "mystery meatballs," he shoved me under the table and threw volleys of food across the room until security broke up the fight. Nothing happened to the high school students, but we all got a lecture in our classes the next day.
On week-ends the program took both groups to local points of interest, including the beach. Even though my studies were suffering, I finally got my first kiss. It was so amazing. I don't think it was John's…
We promised to write, and we did. That summer, my family vacation came within a hundred miles of John's hometown. I went on a hunger strike for four days, and my father finally caved and agreed to drop me off at John's house and wait for an hour. I was so excited.
John's mother opened the door and told me John was at football practice. He wouldn't be home for two more hours. When she found out my dad was outside, she invited him in, and gave us something from the kitchen. I don't remember what it was. I was in shock. I don't remember what they talked about, either. It probably wasn't anything good for John and me.
After an hour, my dad and I left. He didn't lecture or tease me.
John's letter arrived in two days. Full of apologies. In a month he'd be traveling five hundred miles to a college two hours away from me for a debate tournament. Could I meet him there?
I talked my dad into letting me take the car there. Alone.
I watched John debate. He was good. He won the tournament. And it was football season. He looked great. But we didn't have that much time to talk and I drove home, feeling sad. I knew my long-distance romance wasn't going to last.
We wrote-not so often-into our freshman year in college, but we were just friends by then. He told me about his girlfriends; I told him about my boyfriend.
With the wisdom of age and experience now, I recognize the bittersweet feeling of loss. I understand that first blush of love—innocent and laced with boundless hope and excitement.
And that's what I relive when writing in my YA voice. I become that girl on the roof of my three-story dorm throwing water balloons at the guys arriving at the dorm. I become the wishful, dewy-eyed innocent wishing for that first kiss—afraid to make the first move because I had no idea what that move should be and, heck, I was a mathematician-in-training. I needed to be able to prove everything was correct before I committed.
Young Adult stories are all about the new emotions, the conflicted yearnings, the fears—if you get what you want AND if you don't get what you want. Yes, it's not easy going back to those times and reliving your own feelings, but that's where your own YA voice is. Reminisce. Dust off your teen voice. Your adult WIP will thank you.
Have you used your own YA experiences in your writing? A riff on them?
Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.
P.R.I.S.M., Fae's debut book, a young adult science fiction romance story of survival, betrayal, resolve, deceit, and love is now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.Fae's second book in the series will be available for pre-order October 1, 2019.
by Chris Lentz
Every “book baby” presents challenges. But when I was honored to be asked to write the biography of an incredible entrepreneur and philanthropist—who’d just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which briskly became a death sentence—my latest book baby became a unique challenge altogether.
As if the project wasn’t daunting enough, the subject was my father-in-law.
I write fiction, but I found that much of the strategy and craft authors use with a romance or a thriller applies to constructing a biography, like:
- Introducing the hero and his/her dreams and desires
- Enabling readers to experience the hero’s journey, with its many conflicts and conquests
- Presenting the hero’s transformation
After researching, compiling and writing Opening Doors: Jim Swenson’s Life of Grit, Gratitude and Giving, I came away with a list of top five lessons. They may work for you. They may not. All I know is this approach resulted in the book landing at #5 on an Amazon HOT NEW RELEASES list for biographies and a review that said, “I couldn’t put it down and I burned the corn on the stove.” Cool, huh?
Lesson #1. Do your homework
If the person is alive, your best source of information is that person. Before you start interviewing, make a list of questions that dig into:
- Events that shaped or changed the person’s life
- Obstacles the person overcame
- Risks that paid off and those that didn’t
Also, ask questions that go beyond the what the subject did to focus on the why.
It was clear that Jim was going to have to be vulnerable for this book to work. For a first-born, overachiever, Jim was not known for vulnerability. I had to strategically and creatively approach him with questions and prompts to get the stories behind his stories.
I also asked about the parts of his life that were more jagged than smooth. Like hunger. Like alcoholism. Like death. Those kinds of struggles often spark a significant change and accomplishment in life.
My advice: Surround yourself with mountains of information that you can mine later in the writing process.
Lesson #2. Think broadly
I suspect that many first drafts of biographies resemble history textbooks. But if you’re hoping to attract, enlighten and entertain readers, then a different approach is needed. With Opening Doors, I determined the best book I could write wouldn’t be Jim’s entire life story. Rather, it would be a story about his life and the impact he had—and continues to have—on others.
I needed to review and study the high points of his life so I could tell his story in a panorama with the broadest of strokes and unify it with a theme. The idea: opening doors…doors that had been opened for him and the many more he continues to open for others.
My advice: Identify a theme and connect as much as you can back to that theme.
Lesson #3. Write narrowly
The book needed a structure that met the needs of today’s readers: bite-size nuggets, easy to scan, lots of dialogue and some clear takeaways.
My decision was to work within a three-part structure:
- What he did
- What he learned
- What he’s remembered for
In the first section, the milestones of Jim’s life are laid out in decade-specific chunks. To help transport the reader back in time, I incorporated some headlines of the day. The goal here was to set the context for the next section.
In the middle of the book, the focus is on 13 tried-and-true tips for opening new doors that Jim wished he’d known back when he faced far too many closed doors. This is where his recollections and anecdotes support each of the 13 tips.
The final section is all about tributes. Readers will find eulogies, testimonials and various articles and posts about Jim and his accomplishments.
My advice: Let the subject of the book tell the story, but also allow other voices to tell their stories about the impact of the biography’s subject.
Lesson #4. Capture and connect moments
Jim was a storyteller. And, thankfully, he was a consistent storyteller. His stories were usually grand on their own telling. No fish-story treatment was needed or occurred over his lifetime.
What we did together during his final weeks was search for and capture the meaning of those stories…the feelings, the emotions and, most importantly, the lessons.
In researching ways to write a biography, I realized and shared with Jim that we needed to keep in mind that his stories are his, the events they’re about are not. Memories of those events also belong to friends, family members, co-workers…none of whom asked to be in the book.
After Jim’s passing, I scoured the manuscript to find any passages that might be problematic. And, I held back entire incidents and/or details to protect people who may not be ready to have that information shared about them.
My advice: Tell the truth.
Lesson #5. Write with your heart
You’re going to be devoting much time and energy to this project. You might as well care deeply for your subject, either positively or negatively. Your emotional connection to the subject will bleed through.
I worked hard to publish a book that creates an emotional journey…one that puts the reader in the subject’s shoes. I wanted readers to come away knowing what Jim dreamed about, struggled with and was successful with.
My advice: Devoting your energy and resources to a project like this should be for the joy of it.
Some readers will need more than text, so the print version of Opening Doors features more than 130 photos. And, because of Jim’s love of reading, education and children, the purchase of Opening Doors supports Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library book-gifting program.
Those are the top five lessons I learned writing my first biography. I suspect everyone’s encounters with projects like this one are different. Please take a moment to share your thoughts below.
Are there any tips you’d like to offer about writing a biography? What do you like most/least when you read a biography?
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Christopher Lentz is the acclaimed author of Opening Doors (biography, 2019), My Friend Marilyn (historical fiction, 2018) and The Blossom Trilogy (historical romance). His books are about hope, second chances and outcasts overcoming obstacles. But most of all, they’re about how love changes everything.
Lentz made his mark as a corporate-marketing executive before becoming a full-time storyteller. He resides in Southern California with his high-school-sweetheart wife and family. To learn more, please visit www.christopherlentz.org or www.blossomtrilogy.com.
"Where do you get your ideas?" Every writer has been asked this at least a dozen times. In fact, famous authors have come up with outrageous answers, so they don't have to go into it. Think I'm kidding?
"From the Idea-of-the-Month Club." – Neil Gaiman
"The Idea Book. It’s loaded with excellent plot ideas," he said. "I have a subscription, of course, and as soon as I get my copy I write in and select half a dozen ideas and get clearance on them, so that no other subscriber will go ahead and write them. Then I just work up stories around those ideas." – Lawrence Block
I don’t get them, they get me. – Robertson Davies
I've always been fascinated by this subject. At the same time, I'm reluctant to talk about it. Because I don't know. After all, if you're not in control of the ideas, they could just stop coming, and then where would you be? It's probably my biggest fear as a writer. Every new idea I have for a book is golden, because I wasn't at all convinced I'd get another.
Stephen King said once (sorry, I can't find the exact quote) that it's like there's this invisible stream over our heads, and writers tap into it, and the idea flows to them. Someone also said an idea is like a buried stone you trip over, and you think, "What is that'?" And dig until you see it all.
Michelangelo had another version:
Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.
I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.
Wherever they come from, our job is not only to recognize ideas, but to get GOOD ones. Who hasn't had their interest piqued by an interesting tidbit, only to realize that it's not enough for a full-blown story? (And the goal is to discover this before you write the whole book, right?)
I don't pretend to know where ideas come from, but I do know where I'm more likely to get them. I don't mean a physical location—I mean my state of mind. My best ideas came when I was bored. I got my very first plot idea on the back of my husband's motorcycle (I hadn't started riding my own yet). We lived in Southern California, and it's hard to get anywhere without going through desert. Nothing against deserts, but after hours, your mind wanders, plays, and begins to put disparate things together. That's the state of mind we avoid in our busy everyday lives, but for me, it's where ideas live.
I've talked to a lot of artists—painters, writers, musicians—many of whom have had great ideas on trains. The only explanation I have is all that stuff is coming at you while you're relaxed, so somehow it kicks you into hyperspace in terms of brain function. – Peter Gabriel
Neil Gaiman told his daughter's class of seven-year-olds: "You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it."
Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any. – Orson Scott Card
Let's get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up. –Stephen King
Like the ideas for some of my other novels, that came to me in a dream…I fell asleep on the plane, and dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig and bound his novel in human skin. His skin, the writer’s skin. I said to myself, "I have to write this story." Of course, the plot changed quite a bit in the telling. But I wrote the first forty or fifty pages right on the landing here, between the ground floor and the first floor of the hotel. – Stephen King on Misery
One night, I was lying in bed and I was very tired, and I was just sort of channel surfing on television. And, I was going through, flipping through images of reality television where there were these young people competing for a million dollars or a bachelor or whatever. And then I was flipping and I was seeing footage from the Iraq War. And these two things began to sort of fuse together in a very unsettling way, and that is when I, really, I think was the moment where I really got the idea for Katniss’s story. – Suzanne Collins
Where do you think ideas come from? What is your state of mind when ideas come to you?
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by Tasha Seegmiller
The other day, I had a writerly existential crisis.
One of the greatest benefits of being an MFA candidate is the opportunity I have to work closely with incredible professionals who help me hone my craft. While there are agents who advise on stories a bit, and editors who help writers make their stories better, possibly even critique partners and beta readers, the chance to have someone who is literally paid to help me make my writing better is not something that is likely to appear again.
The reality of spending time, I mean really spending time looking at writing, thinking about writing, analyzing books, sitting in a room where other people are talking about craft and life and inspiration and story is that the writer realizes they have A LOT of work to do.
So much work to do.
I only get to work with each advisor once, for a single short semester. For those short months, I get to rely on them and their insight and their suggestions for my writing.
And so, in true neurotic fashion, I had a bit of a freak out about it.
If you are laughing about that right now, that probably means you know what I’m talking about.
I'm no stranger to these kinds of crises. They've shown up before, usually when I am on the cusp of something significant. A revise and resubmit request from an agent or an editor, a conflicting set of comments from beta readers you admire, or perhaps an editorial letter that appears to go against everything you have thought about for your story.
In the midst of my little freak out, I sent an email to my agent, who replied, “I see a writerly existential crisis as a great opportunity for creative breakthrough.”
That’s why we keep people like this around. And, after a new Diet Coke and a chocolate-covered cinnamon bear, I realized that she might be on to something.
There can be so many situations, as writers, when we are certain this is our ONE CHANCE and if we don’t get everything exactly right RIGHT NOW, it’ll never happen, we’ll be a hack forever, the ship will sail and our writing will drift into oblivion.
Spoiler alert: that kind of thinking isn’t healthy. And it’s not realistic. I’m not going to take the time here to give you examples of people who were not overnight successes but I recommend you go out and google your favorite actor, band, writer, artist – especially the ones who made it big, and see what work they had out before they made it big.
People who have been creating and on the internet for any amount of time have probably heard or read Ira Glass talking about “The Gap” (I personally love the video here).
Cate Kennedy, an advisor in my program said, “Be grateful for the gap because without it, you are creatively tone deaf.” We need to feel a little bit overwhelmed by the work that we are trying to do. We need to understand that seeing something that is amazing and not quite being able to also do the thing that is amazing is where growth happens.
I know. Blech. Growth hurts and it’s slow and it involves a bunch of readjustments. And worse of all, it takes time.
So what’s a writer on the verge of an existential crisis to do?
Keep a place where you can play with your ideas.
When I have a new story idea, I refuse the audacity to tell that idea I can’t pay attention to it right now. But sometimes I can’t play with it right now.
So I build it a sandbox, whether that is a folder on my computer, a single document, a note on my phone. In my conversation with my agent, I shared several ideas that I have. Two of them are only ideas – I’m talking concept and maybe a paragraph. But that lets me see what I’ve got going on, and sometimes, jotting down a sentence or two in the “fun” story is just what I need to shift my brain into drive.
Recognize that ground and pound might not be the best way.
If you aren’t familiar with the idea of ground and pound, you probably haven’t seen an MMA fight. The method there is to get the opponent on the ground until they tap out. If you have put yourself in a position where you view your writing as an opponent who needs to be conquered, guess what the reader is going to experience?
I’m not saying writing is easy. Besides parenting, it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve done in my life. And I know there are deadlines and such in the real world, but there are ways to meet those deadlines without beating yourself to death. I think we need to be engaged in writing all the time, maybe even every day, but sometimes writing looks like "ideas while folding clothes" or sorting out a character in a process notebook or doing research on a region or idea.
Nurture instead of beat. Think about it.
Remember: Finished is better than perfect.
There are a gazillion suggestions out there about how writers should write, and I’m never going to be the one to tell anyone what their process should be. However, if you have been working on the same poem, the same short story, the same chapter, the same scene for a LONG time, if you are not sharing your work with someone because it’s not good enough yet, and especially if you don’t have the blasted thing done...
My friend, you are caught in a dangerous loop.
Listen closely: you will never make it perfect on your own. No, seriously. You need others to look, to listen, to suggest. You need someone to say what they experienced when reading your story, to point out where they got confused, to reveal where the sentence structure or the exposition or the dialogue didn’t resonate as true.
You will never catch everything alone. Declare it finished for now and see how it sits in the world.
Finally, I have one more suggestion.
Write down when you have a little bit of a freak-out, whether that is in a running document or a journal or whatever. It is nice to be able to look back, to see how you thought that was the hard thing and then realized it wasn’t – not yet.
Too often, creatives are so caught up in the process of creating that we forget to check in on how the creation is going. A journal like this allows us to see where we had gaps, to remember that we figured out how to narrow them before, and gives us confidence that we can narrow them again.
What writerly existential crises have you survived? Any tips for how to stay grounded when the creative winds threaten to uproot you?
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Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. She is the current president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and studying in the MFA in Writing Program at Pacific U. The former high school English teacher now assists in managing the award-winning project-based learning program (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven, is the mom of three teens, and co-owner of a cotton candy company. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.
Deep point of view really isn't difficult, but it requires a shift in your mindset in how you craft your fiction. Choosing setting and description details becomes very crucial to making a story come alive for readers. All things being equal (assuming you don't have a broken story, flat characters, lack tension, or poor writing), the details you choose for your story can do so much more than create a setting in your reader's minds. They can put your reader IN the story with your character.
Your Character Is Telling The Story - You Aren't!
Whatever your character walks into - a new setting, a new conflict, a new emotional trauma, really try to pull yourself out of the story. You have a whole setting in your mind - that's actually important for you to have, but what's not important is that your reader pictures everything precisely as you do. The reader isn't picking up this book to make you feel better or pat you on the back, they're looking for an emotional journey and an escape from real life. This isn't about you.
Avoid the temptation to tell the reader what YOU’RE seeing or the urge to impress readers with how much thought you’ve put into the setting or backstory for a character. Focus on what’s important to your character in that moment – not what’s going to be important, not what was important. In deep pov, we want to write with as much immediacy as possible.
Filter Everything Through Your POV Character's Priorities
Instead, see the new setting, trauma, conflict, or another character as your POV character sees it. What's important to them RIGHT NOW? When my son comes home from school, he's always hungry (he's 16). He heads immediately to the cupboard where I keep the Mr. Noodles (his go-to after school snack) or searches the fridge like he's catalogued everything that was there in the morning and zeros in on what might be newly purchased or still available.
He notices first what's important to him IN THAT MOMENT. Everything he takes in is filtered through that priority - I'm hungry. Do you like the new paint color in the front hall? You painted? How the house looks doesn’t even register on his priority list. When your character is focused, they will miss or over look a lot of things except what's important in that moment.
Your character should have a goal for each scene - what are they trying to accomplish? That priority, need, whatever -- that will create a unique-to-that-moment filter through which they take in information – and this is how show how your character feels.
Avoid Cataloguing Details And Use Setting To Show Emotion And Desire
Your character visits the hospital. What do they notice? If they walk in and note every aspect of the setting objectively - like they're starting at point A and moving in a circle 360 degrees and capturing everything they see, the reader has no idea what’s important or stands out to your character, or how they feel about what they see. You've put the reader in the theatre seats watching the story (and in deep pov we want the reader to feel like they're IN the story). Instead, drill into why your character is there, what do they want/need/aim to accomplish. Let them focus on details that bring out emotion/desire/goal for readers.
Let the character feel their way through the setting or scene (instead of describe). When they interact with the setting in some way, that’s a more natural reason to think about what’s in the room. Don’t catalogue the broad coffee table, have them bump their shin on it or have to walk around it to get to the sofa.
Here are two different ways to describe the very same setting. Notice how the priorities or needs of the POV character dictate what they notice and how they describe it. Exactly the same setting.
Woman with bad past experience:
The searing antiseptic in the air stung her nose. She sucked in a breath through her mouth and held it. She clutched the new teddy to her chest and raced for the open elevator. She punched the up button and kept tapping until the door shut out the smell and the indifference of the white walls.
Woman with positive/neutral past experience:
She strolled in the front entrance of the hospital, new teddy under her arm. She squinted against the bright light. The new wall of tinted windows looked modern and a little cold from the outside. She tipped up her face to the warm sun. But all of this sunshine must be very healing.
Do you see how they’re feeling their way through the setting? Now you know how they feel, instead of simply what pieces of furniture are present.
Use Setting And Description To Show Familiarity
We notice different things when walking into our own home that someone who's never been there before doesn't see. Or sees differently. How we feel about our home, our vulnerabilities, or pride, show through the cracks of any facade (especially in internal dialogue).
A person concerned about first impressions, who is a perfectionist, or wants to impress, might zero in on the scuff marks on the wall by the door. The person who is frustrated with her kids might apologize for the mass of tangled shoes in the front hall. The person who feels vulnerable, less than, or self-conscious might apologize for imagined dirt or mess.
The person who's new to the home may not notice those same things at all, or see them in a different way. A friend, someone who's gracious or an empath might try to put the other at ease - it's lived in. Don't worry about it. Someone who's a perfectionist might smile and put a host at ease, but in internal dialogue critique everything they see or find fault with.
By overlooking the obvious big items and zoning in on small details, you cast an impression for readers. Using verbs and descriptors that are either negative or positive help the character feel their way through the setting. Instead of walk (which is neutral – doesn’t connote any emotion), let them stomp, march, skip or stroll. Any of those verbs give more of a hint of how a person feels than “walk.” Used sparingly, like spice in a casserole.
Keep writing and dive deep!
How do you infuse more emotion into setting and description when writing in deep point of view? Do you have any deep POV questions you wish to ask?
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Lisa Hall-Wilson was a national award-winning freelance journalist and author who loves mentoring writers. Fascinated by history, fantasy, romance, and faith, Lisa blends those passions into historical and historical-fantasy novels.
Find Lisa’s blog, Beyond Basics for intermediate writers, at www.lisahallwilson.com.
Join Lisa’s deep point of view challenge group. Three to four times a year, participate in free training on writing effectively in deep point of view – https://www.facebook.com/groups/5daydeeppovchallenge/