So - about that story. You know - the one that's been buzzing around in our mind for months or years. You finally have the courage to put pen to paper (or hands on a keyboard) and there it is - your baby laid out in black and white. Revision means tweaking the dialogue, massaging the dialogue tags, and eliminating those pesky double spaces after a period. Only the story feels hollow. You know it in your gut but you reward yourself for finishing the project. It's an accomplishment. You NaNoWriMo'd the heck out of it.
The protagonist has a goal. He or she reaches for it, like the prized fruit high up on a tree. And they get it. Easily. Because that's what you - the author - wanted for them. Aren't you proud. But is that what the character wanted?
It's a classic problem I see when I critique something. The author had one agenda but the character had another. So the author fashioned a lasso and kept the character in line. And in doing so fails to understand what motivates the character. Fails to know how they will react to a failure and what they do to improve it.
So this is a short blog - because honestly - many writers read blogs hoping to get "the answer" but it's not that easy. So I'm going to give you a few short tips to help you on the journey:
1. The story isn't about you,
Children today aren't the same children that existed when you were a child. The technology changes rapidly and the media leaves them exposed to much more information (some of it not so good) than we had. If you are not surrounded by the age group you are writing for, go volunteer at a school or local community gathering. Eaves drop in public venues. Get a feel for rhythm and pattern. Then let go and let the character talk to you.f
2. Show AND Tell, (but skip the agenda)
We often hear "show, don't tell" but a wise editor I once said a story is a little bit of both. You write a story then substitute exposition for more subtle clues such as an expression, or a lilt in the voice. Sometimes you can't do that and have to overtly explain (lightly with a feather) what is happening. It's a balancing act. A duet between you and the character(s) appearing on the page. Still, many books fail because aspiring authors already "know" the journey and want to teach a lesson. Those books don't sell.f you've got a lesson it better be subtle but honestly - characters are not actors you hire to perform your pre-written script. They have their own agendas and it may be better than yours. So agaiin - let go. It isn't about you. The characters are not you (or your kids, or relatives, or neighbors - unless this is a memoir then - oops - ignore this section). You may have high hopes for your character's path, but like real kids, they may end up going down a different path. And that's okay.
2. Rhythms matter.
A child that lives in New York isn't necessarily going to have the same rhythms as someone who grew up in Kansas. My children don't sound like their counterparts in the next town over. There is a lot that goes into rhythms, none of it easy to define. Know your character's rhythms and make sure there are many in your book for readers to latch on to. In a family, there are different rhythms though they may be close or similar. Beyond that, if everyone in a book sounds like you, well - there's work to be done.
Here's a link to a blog article I did using music videos to explain what I'm talking about:
3. Voice Matters.
It is common for characters to begin to sound like "mini-versions" of the author. That's a non-starter. And sometimes all the characters sound like the same person with different names attached. Stop. Don't pass go. Read #2 above. Get into the heads of your character and see life through their eyes. Even secondary characters have a lot to tell you that won't make it into your book in an overt way but will greatly strengthen your narratives. Voice is not just about what a character says, but how they say it, why they say it, and when they choose to say it.
4. Stop protecting the character (and yourself) from difficult situations.
Books are about emotion. Even in books about love or great adventure, books are about emotional responses from readers. Get into the heads of the characters, even the secondary characters. If that's scary to you, then it's a good sign. It should be. Remember? Being a child or teen with all the conflicting emotions that come with it is a joyful place. It's also fraught with fearful things none of us ever wants to repeat.
So here's some advice. Read. Read. Read. Note how your favorite authors handle dialogue, characterizations and plot. Not how different the styles are, then look for commonalities. Read a second book by the same authors and see if there is growth in skill. If the voices of a different cast of characters have their own spin. Bookmark pages where the author handled something well that you're struggling with.
Stephen King's "On Writing" and Anne Lamotte's "Bird by Bird."
Because in the end - they both point out that your first and second drafts of a book are for your own edification. They are the "down" draft meant for your eyes only. You're still in "Training" no matter how many books you have under your belt. Your characters for this book have different ideas for you than those in previous books. So write your heart out without editing. When finished (and only when finished) go back and revised - again for only your eyes. By the third draft you'll know the characters well enough to see if you've let go of your own agendas so they can take you on a journey. If they surprise you, thrill you, and tell you stories you didn't know before you started. You'll surprise your readers too.
Christine Taylor-Butler is the author of more than 75 books for children. Her current passion is her contemporary sci-fi/fantasy series The Lost Tribes and its upcoming sequel Safe Harbor about five children who learn they play a role in saving the world. When not writing, she is a freelance editor, and community volunteer. She's also a closet ballroom dancer, artist and personal servant of a cat and tank of fish. You can find her on Twitter: @ChristineTB Facebook: ChristineTaylorButler.ChildrensAuthor, or www.ChristineTaylorButler.com.
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First Fridays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer , man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
Second Fridays will feature awesome multi-award winning author Marsha Diane Arnold who will be writing about character-driven and/or nature-based books and/or anything she likes :)
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