Guest Blog Post from Deborah J. Ross: History, Gender, and Characters

This week, I am lucky to have a fascinating guest post from Deborah Ross, whose new book, Collaborators, just released this month.

Deborah J. Ross is an award-nominated writer and editor of fantasy and science fiction, with over a dozen novels and six dozen short stories in print. Her work has earned Honorable Mention in Year’s Best SF, and nominations for Lambda Literary Award, Gaylactic Spectrum Award, the National Fantasy Federation Speculative Fiction Award for Best Author, and inclusion in the Otherwise Award List, Locus Recommended Reading, and Kirkus notable new release lists. She has served as Secretary to the Science Fiction Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and chaired the jury for the Philip K. Dick Award. When she’s not writing, she knits for charity, plays classical piano, and practices yoga.  

Without further ado, here is Deborah!

History, Gender, and Characters

Collaborators is an occupation-and-resistance story, which at its heart is about the uses and abuses of power. In order to talk about power, I had to address the issue of gender. Gender and race inform every human interaction; from our earliest years, we are trained to respond to others as “like me” or “not like me,” and all too often treat them either kindly or harshly as a result. Rather than delve into 20th Century human gender politics (I wrote the book mostly in 1992-95) I decided to create a gender-fluid alien race in order to highlight the assumptions humans make. I wanted to create a resonance and contrast between the tensions arising from First Contact and those arising from gender expectations. What if the native race — inherently “not the same color/race/ethnicity” as humans — did not divide themselves into male and female? How would that work – biologically? romantically? socially? politically? How would it affect the division of labor? child-rearing? How many ways would Terrans misinterpret a race for whom every other age-appropriate person is a potential lover? Or, in a life-paired couple, each partner equally likely to engender or gestate a child? Maybe by the time we achieve interstellar space flight, we’ll have evolved beyond sexism and racism, not to mention homophobia and religious intolerance. One can only hope.

For my alien race in Collaborators, I also wanted sexuality to be important. I decided that young adults would be androgynous in appearance and highly sexual. Sex would be something they’d enjoy often and enthusiastically with their age-mates. However, the intense intimacy created by sex exclusively with the same person would lead to a cascade of emotional and physiological effects resulting in a permanent, lifelong pairing. The pairing, a biological bond obvious to everyone around the couple, would lead to polarization with accompanying mood swings, aggression, inability to focus. Each partner would appear more “female” or “male,” which would inevitably set up occasions for misunderstanding with Terrans, who think and react in terms of those divisions. The natives, on the other hand, would wonder how people who are permanently polarized can get any work done, and react to Terran women as if they were all pregnant, and therefore to be protected at all costs because their own birth rate is low.

Just as we’ve instituted the canonical talk about the birds and the bees, or sex ed in schools, so the natives would have traditions of preparing their young people, trying to ensure that pairing does not have disastrous political or inter-clan consequences. We know how badly that works in humans, so it’s likely to be equally ineffective with native teenagers, too. 

The central inspiration for Collaborators – that individuals respond in a variety of complex and contradictory ways to a situation of occupation and resistance – immediately suggested many types of characters: the rebel, the idealist, the opportunist, the political player, the merchant willing to sell to anyone if the profit is high enough, sadist who exploits the powerlessness of others for his own gratification, the ambitious person who doesn’t care who his allies are, the negotiator, the peace-maker, the patriot.

I lived the better part of 1991 in Lyons, France, and I was repeatedly struck by how history permeated every aspect. Some buildings showed damage from cannon balls during the French Revolution. Plaques marked places where citizens were executed by the Nazis or Jewish families were deported. After visiting the tiny Musée de la Résistance, I became interested in how many varied ways the French responded to the German occupation. Some protested from the very beginning for religious or ethical reasons, but others went along, whether from fear or apathy or entrenched anti-Semitism, or simply because the war did not affect them personally. Yet others sought to exploit the situation for personal power or financial gain. Some became active only when their own personal lives were affected.

One of the first characters to speak to me arose from an unexpected source. I never knew either of my paternal grandparents, for both had perished in the lawlessness and pogroms in the Ukraine shortly after the first World War. My father told me about  how his mother ran a bookstore that was the center of intellectual (and revolutionary!) thought in their village, how when that village was destroyed, she kept her two children alive as they wandered the countryside for two years, going from one cousin’s house to another but never staying very long. He spoke of her courage, her idealism, and her unfailing love. Some piece of her, or her-as-remembered, stayed with me, and I wondered if I could create a character with that strength and devotion to her children. I began to write about Hayke, who opens the book as he lies in a field with his two children, gazing up at the stars and wondering what these star-people might be like. Hayke had other ideas about what his life was like besides merely following in my grandmother’s footsteps, and everything changed once it became clear to me that the alien race were gender-fluid. Hayke, like my grandmother, was a widow (using the term generically to include both sexes), and one of his children was born of his own body, but the other of his dead spouse’s, and he told me he felt an especial tenderness for the latter child.

Even though the ground action takes place in an area roughly the size of Western Europe and most of the characters live or come from the central nation, Chacarre, I didn’t want all the national territories to be the same. I wanted differences in language, dress, attitudes toward authority, etc., between Chacarre and its rival, Erlind, and also within Chacarre itself. Every once in a while, a new character would surprise me, like Na-chee-nal with his “barbarian” vigor and his smelly woolen vest, or Lexis, the dangerously repressed academic poet.

The Terrans presented a different challenge because they were more homogeneous than the natives. They inhabit a single spacecraft and although there is a natural division between crew and scientific personnel, for the most part their goals are shared and their hierarchies are well-defined. Left unchecked, that’s a recipe for boring, so I added some friction, a few divergent motives, a highly stressed environment . . . and into this walked Dr. Vera Eisenstein, eccentric genius. Most of the inspiration for her character came from the women engineers and physicists I’d gotten to know (thank you, Society of Women Engineers!) with a touch of Dr. Richard Feynmann thrown in. She doesn’t play by anyone’s rules, she cares far more about science than diplomacy, she’s simply too good at what she does to disregard, and her mind never stays still. I had a ball cooping her up in the infirmary and watching what kind of trouble she’d get into, but I didn’t realize at first that she would become a pivotal character, one capable of acting for the greatest good despite the depth of her loss. I’d been thinking about her passion in terms of science, not in terms of her capacity for love nor in terms of her ruthless commitment to understanding everything she sees around her, whether it is a problem in laser spectroscopy or alien psychology or the nature of her own grief. In the end, that dedication to truth, inner and outward, made her the ideal person to reach across the increasingly blood-drenched rift and find a mutual, nonviolent path forward for both the Terrans and the natives whose lives have become entangled in theirs.

Collaborators Order Links

Amazon (ebook and trade paperback)

B & N (ebook, trade paperback, and hardcover/laminated cover)



Trade paperback: 9781952589003

Hardcover/dust jacket: 9781952589027

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Bud, Not Buddy and a Child’s Point of View


When I sat down to read Bud, Not Buddy, I thought for sure that my takeaway from this book would be all about voice. After all, Bud’s voice is soooo strong. His voice is funny and distinct and part of what makes this book so memorable. But even more important than voice, to me, was the way Christopher Paul Curtis was able to place himself so believably in the mind of a child.


As children’s book writers, it’s our job to place ourselves in the minds of children. It’s what we attempt to do each and every time we sit down to write. But too often, I think, we tell the stories in our books (at least in our early drafts) through a child’s point of view that is filtered through the brain of an adult. What we need to do as writers is sit down and really remember what it feels like to be six, eight, ten, and twelve years old. To remember the emotions, the joy, the fear, the confusion, the powerlessness, the body sensations. In the early pages of Bud, Not Buddy, Bud thinks: “It’s at six that grown folks don’t think you’re a cute little kid anymore, they talk to you and expect that you understand everything they mean….Six is a bad time too ‘cause that’s when some real scary things start to happen to your body, it’s around then that your teeth start coming-a-loose in your mouth…it shakes you up a whole lot more than grown folks think it does when perfectly good parts of your body commence to loosening up and falling off of you. Unless you’re stupid as a lamppost you’ve got to wonder what’s next, your arm? Your leg? Your neck?” (4-5)


Through each and every moment of this book, Curtis stays firmly in the point of view of a child. This leads to misunderstandings and humor throughout the book, when often the reader suspects a few things Bud does not (for example, that the dark item in the shed is not a vampire bat….).


Some writers may find it difficult to stay so closely inside the mind of a child. In the workshops I teach, I often see emerging writers struggle with point of view, often switching point of view or shifting into the point of view of an adult character when they are struggling to get some piece of information across. But I see this constrained child point of view as an opportunity, not a limitation. It is an opportunity to really FEEL what your character is feeling, to experience that character’s emotions. When your character is afraid, what does it feel like in his or her body? Are her shoulders tense? Stomach tight? Being true to your character’s limited point of view is going to create a much stronger connection between reader and protagonist than if you hop around. And staying firmly inside the head of your child character is going to make that character feel much more real to readers than if the child character thinks, speaks, and behaves in a way we suspect is a bit “adult-like.”


An exercise:


Sit down with a pen and paper and think about a time between the ages of eight and twelve. Who were your best friends? How did you feel about your parents? What were you afraid of? What were your favorite foods? Who were the kids in your class at school? What did your bedroom look like? What secrets did you have? Did you have any special objects, or belongings, that were important to you (like the items in Bud’s suitcase)? How much freedom did you have to go places on your own? What was your favorite activity to do with friends? Did you have any hobbies?


Try to place yourself back in the point of view of your younger self. This is a good exercise to repeat time and time again to remind ourselves what it feels like to be a child, which will in turn help us write better books for children.

Next Up: Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell!



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Lessons from Sarah, Plain and Tall

Wow, I feel like I got so behind on this challenge! I haven’t forgotten about it – I promise! I had planned on reading But, Not Buddy for my next Newbery book, but I’ve been distracted because I’ve been reading so many other books lately. I’ve been doing research for a new project I’ve been working on, reading manuscripts for the creative writing class I teach, and reading ARCs of some of the new books that are coming out this year. I’m part of the Electric Eighteens debut group, and we’ve been passing around ARC copies and reading everyone’s books before their releases. There are some AMAZING middle grade and YA books coming out this year – I feel so lucky to be part of this wonderful group.


So that is why I got behind, and now, instead of writing about Bud, Not Buddy (which I will talk about next time), I wanted to write instead about the 1986 Newbery winner, Sarah, Plain and Tall. We read and discussed it in my children’s book writing class this week, and it was so fascinating to return to this book I loved so much as a child and discuss it with a group of writers.


The lesson that I took from Sarah, Plain and Tall is all about simplicity. It’s such a powerful novel that when I remember reading it as a kid, I remember it being much longer, but it’s actually only around 9000 words. This novel is beautifully and compactly written. The language is simple. Everything that does not need to be in the novel is stripped away. We get only what is absolutely necessary to the story. The complexities of character relationships are revealed in very subtle and specific details that speak volumes. For example, Anna’s inner turmoil about the fact that her mother died giving birth to her brother, Caleb, is painted so vividly with the simple phrase “Mama died the next morning. That was the worst thing about Caleb.” MacLachlan allows the details to stand on their own, without over-explaining things to the readers.


The plot, too, is not too complex, or cluttered up with subplots or extraneous characters and events. Every event and character serves an important function in the story. Even Maggie, who plays only a small role in the novel, serves as a “mirror” character: like Sarah, she too, was a mail order bride.


Another thing that’s lovely about this book is that it is historical fiction, but MacLachlan never states in the book what year it is, nor does she bog the reader down with historical information. She allows the historical details to stand on their own: they are part of the world the characters move in, and the characters are a product of their setting, but MacLachlan uses only what she needs for the story and nothing more. I’ve heard some writers worry that there isn’t a big market for historical fiction lately, but I think we simply need more historical fiction that is written like this: simple and spare, with compelling characters and engaging stories that kids will love.

Want a writing challenge? Check the simplicity of the language in your work-in-progress by pasting a section into this Fry Graph Readability Tool. It will give you information about the grade level associated with your vocabulary and sentence lengths.



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Lessons From The Girl Who Drank the Moon

The Girl Who Drank the Moon (2017 winner) by Kelly Barnhill


It took me much longer to read and respond to this book than I thought it would! It has nothing to do with the quality of the book – it’s fabulous – but I was a bit of a slow reader because I was also preparing for the beginning of the semester, finishing up round two of my edits on UNWRITTEN, and brainstorming/outlining a new project I am working on. Plus the book is nearly 400 pages, quite a bit longer than most of the middle grade published today. Which actually brings me to my main topic: what I learned from this book.

Do not be afraid to break the rules!!!!

By its very length alone, this book starts breaking rules. Most middle grade is around 45,000 words. Fantasy middle grade can go as high as 65,000 words because of the world-building involved, but this one clocks in at over 80,000.

The book doesn’t just break the size rules, though. Some of the main things children’s writers are told over and over are:

1. Children don’t want to read about adults. Stick to a child’s point of view.

2. Child protagonists must solve their own problems. Get the adult characters out of the way.

This book does neither of these things. For much of the book, we are in the point of view of adult characters. Luna, our protagonist, begins the book as a baby, and so we see her from the point of view of others:

Xan, a witch

Gherland, the grand elder

Antain, who starts as a boy but grows up and is an adult for much of the book

As the novel continues, we also enter the point of view of:

The madwoman

Sister Ignatia

Glerk, a bog monster

Other than the brief period where Antain is a child, Luna is the only child point of view in the book. For about a third of the book, she is younger than the intended audience (another “rule” – kids don’t want to read about children younger than themselves). And in the end (though I don’t want to give anything away), she doesn’t solve the plot’s main problem on her own: she does it with help (and instruction) from adults.

How does Barnhill get away with breaking so many rules? Why does the book work so well?

I think as children’s writers, it can be easy to get caught up in “the rules.” Though there are good reasons for these “rules,” it is also important to know when to break them. The story’s demands must always take precedence over any rules, and an author must make choices based on what is best for the story.

For example, if everyone followed the “rule” about not writing stories about adults, then we wouldn’t have characters like:

Mrs. Piggle Wiggle

Frog and Toad

Amelia Bedelia

Kids LOVE these stories about adults. The key here is that these characters are very “child-like” – their concerns, characters, and story problems are very similar to ones children face. For example, Amelia Bedelia, who has the best intentions but never seems to quite follow directions the way she is supposed to, has a problem that many (if not all) children can relate to: misunderstanding directions/doing things wrong. (Also, she is silly! Kids love the humor of these books!) Are kids going to want to read stories about adults going to a nine-to-five job and fighting traffic and stressing about the mortgage? No! But they can relate to adult characters like Frog and Toad. Or Xan, Gherland, and Glerk, who in Barnhill’s novel function in much the same way adults do in fairy tales. They represent fantasy and magic, as well as good and evil. Gail Gauthier gives an interesting discussion of adult characters in children’s books here.

Barnhill’s entire novel reads very much like a fairy tale. It is filled with magic, myth, and fantastical creatures. She is not afraid to tackle tough subjects like the nature of evil, forgiveness, and mortality.

Luna, the protagonist, does not solve the final problem on her own, but in this book, the ending feels just right. Barnhill has created multiple plotlines, with multiple points of view, and she has crafted an ending so that all of these separate plotlines converge and come together in the end to form one satisfying conclusion. Barnhill’s ending feels just “right” — I suspect it is much more satisfying than if she had imposed a different ending on the story, one that made sure Luna did everything on her own. It feels right that all of these characters we have been following throughout the story should work together in the end. Barnhill did not sacrifice the demands of the story to arbitrary rules.

(I could write an entire essay on how brilliant Barnhill’s ending is, by the way. It takes real skill to make so many plotlines come so perfectly together the way she did.)

This just barely skims the surface of all the lessons I could glean from this book, but as I was reading, it was the lesson that popped out at me over and over again. Break rules!

Are you looking for a challenge? Here’s an exercise:

Create an adult character in the vein of Amelia Bedelia, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, Xan, Glerk, or Frog and Toad, one you think kids will be willing to follow. What will make this character appeal to kids? Why are their interests and conflicts ones that will resonate with kids?


Next up on my list: Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

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Book One of my Newbery Challenge: The One and Only Ivan


I’m so glad I started with this book because it’s one of my favorite middle grade novels of all time, and it was a fun way to kick off the challenge. No matter how many times I read this book, I always end up in tears (though I won’t say too much about that because I don’t want to write any plot spoilers).

For each one of my Newbery books, I want to post about one writing lesson I glean from its pages, and as I was reading this book, I knew the lesson would be about character. Character is at the heart of what makes this book so special, at times funny, at times heartbreaking, But how does Applegate accomplish this? What makes Ivan so special as a protagonist?

Well, for starters, Ivan is a gorilla. More importantly, Applegate lets Ivan BE a gorilla.

What do I mean by that?

The first novel I ever completed was about a character named Charlotte. Charlotte is a small plastic doll who lives in a Victorian dollhouse with a family of porcelain dolls. I was writing the novel as my MFA thesis, and when I submitted some of my early drafts for workshops, my thesis advisor, the wonderful Maggie DeVries, asked me: “But she’s acting like a human character here. How does she know about things outside? Would she know what a car is if she has spent her entire life living in this dollhouse? What words would she know? What things would be important to her?” And then Maggie asked the most important question of all:

“If she is not going to think, act, speak, and behave like a doll, if the point of view is not going to be filtered through a doll, then why tell this story from her point of view at all? Why make Charlotte be a doll? Why not tell the story through the point of view of a human?”

Maggie was right. I rewrote the story. And it was much better once I let Charlotte’s “dollness” shine through.

I was thinking about Charlotte as I read The One and Only Ivan because that is EXACTLY what makes Ivan so successful as a protagonist. He is a gorilla, and more importantly, as readers, we see the world through a gorilla’s eyes. Everything Ivan says, does, thinks about, reflects his “gorilla-ness.” Applegate does not treat Ivan like a human character who just happens to be a gorilla. No, Applegate dug deep into what it means to be a gorilla. She considered Ivan’s history and experience. She considered the things that would be important to him. She considered what the world looks like from Ivan’s perspective. She let his “gorilla-ness” determine the course of the story, rather than trying to impose plot events from the outside. Every thread in the story, everything that happens, stems from Ivan’s “gorilla-ness.”

Applegate does not try to make Ivan sound like a human. She lets him fling his “me-balls” (balls of rolled up poop) and eat his crayons when he is tired. He pounds his chest when he is angry. He calls shopping “foraging,” and money is “green paper, dry as old leaves” (Ivan lives in a shopping mall).

This is not an easy thing to do. As a writer, it can be difficult to get information across to the reader when your point of view character’s perspective is so limited. But resisting the urge to slip out of that perspective is worth the extra work. It makes characters feel real. It leads to wonderful discoveries about your characters. And in the end, it leads to a much more satisfying plot, one that stems organically from the protagonist’s goals, desires, and internal character wounds. Being true to who the character is (gorilla-ness and all) will mean that the novel has stakes that matter to that character, which is what will keep your readers engaged.

So my writing lesson gleaned from this book: Let your characters direct your plot. Dig deep into your characters, who they are and what matters to them, and then use their unique goals to guide the events that shape your story. This matters even if they are not gorillas.

Next up on my Newbery Challenge: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. I have not read this book before, so I am very excited to get started!

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A New Year and a Newbery Challenge

2018 is here! And now I can finally say: “I have a book coming out this year!”

2018 is bound to be an exciting year for me as I see my novel go out into the world. (October!) I am so grateful to everyone at Jolly Fish for taking a chance on my book and making my dream come true.

I am also happy to say goodbye to 2017.

2017 was probably the most tumultuous year of my life, filled with both extreme highs and lows. I dealt with some serious health problems and lost a family member to cancer, but I also started a new job teaching creative writing (that I love!) and sold my first novel. It has been a year of whirlwind emotions, but I leave it feeling strong and confident.

I also leave it feeling mentally exhausted.

It is time to refill the creative well. For me, there is no better way to inspire myself to write, and to write better, than reading good books. I became a writer because I am at heart a reader. I didn’t read nearly as much in 2017 as I usually do, and my writing suffered for it. I was less productive. I read A LOT of student manuscripts this year, but I didn’t read as many books as I usually do. I’d love to say I was too busy, but I did manage to find time to watch thirteen seasons of Gray’s Anatomy on Netflix…..

So this year, I have a plan.

A couple years ago, I read about Mr. Schu’s Newbery challenge. (You can learn more about it here.) The idea is to read all of the Newbery-winning books in chronological order, starting with the 1922 winner, The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon. Every year, I look forward to reading the Newbery and honor books (and the Printz books as well): many of them remain my favorites. I decided to take the challenge. I started with the 1922 winner, then moved on to the 1923 winner, Hugh Lofting’s The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle.

And then I quit.

There were so many books I was looking forward to reading (and rereading) but I felt obligated to plow through these early books first, and they were taking a bit of the fun out of it. I wanted to start reading stories, and instead I was reading a long history book, followed by a novel I didn’t care for. It made the challenge stressful, and that was the last thing I wanted.

This year, I start over. I am going to do the challenge my way. I am still going to make my way through the list, but I am going to read the books in whatever order I want. I am going to see what I can learn about writing from each one. I am going to feel inspired.

I am going to learn.

I am going to grow.

I am going to read.

Here’s to 2018 being the year of good books! First on my list is The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. I’ve already read it (twice) but I chose it because I am assigning it to my writing students in my spring Writing Children’s Books course (you can find info about that here). This week, I’ll see what writing lessons I can glean from it and post them here.

If you would like to join me in this challenge, the full list of Newbery winners can be found here.

Happy Reading!


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Letter Writing

It’s been a while since I posted here, and the truth of it is simply that I was stuck. I had been clobbered over the head by a series of personal and professional failures, and my writing was suffering for it. My novel revisions had stalled, and I was questioning my ability as a writer, whether I had what it took to get the book completed. It’s much more complicated than any novel I had attempted before, and my focus on the end goal of publication had led me astray and caused me to lose faith in myself and the writing process.

But then a friend of mine sent me a letter. The letter wasn’t addressed to me: she had written a letter to an artist she admires, and she sent me a copy of the letter she had mailed because she wanted to share it with me. In the letter, she detailed her connection with the artist’s work, how she had, as a young woman, bought a painting she really couldn’t afford because of the immediate connection she felt to it, the way she had been lucky enough to be traveling with a group of women when she first saw the painting, strangers, soon to become friends, who helped her get the painting home.

This letter touched me. My friend is a beautiful writer, and the story was full of vivid detail and engaging scene, just the right amount of reflection on what these events and this painting meant to her. Any literary journal would have been lucky to publish this story. But that’s not the main reason this letter touched me, and publication was not my friend’s goal. Her intention was simply to write a letter, to send kindness to this artist, who is aging and in poor health, and let her know that her art touched someone. This letter gave me a lesson I needed in the power of writing, what writing can do, how the beauty of writing can be in these small moments between writer and reader, these connections forged.

I think as writers we often focus on publication as our end goal, meeting a word count, revising that next chapter, sending our work out into the world, often to faceless, nameless editors who we (mistakenly) believe are pronouncing judgment on the worth of our words simply by deciding whether or not to publish them. But this is not the only function of writing, nor is it the most important one. Writing’s power is in the way our words can affect those who read them, and this is why letter writing is so wonderful. Letter writing is all about intention and audience. When we write letters, we write for a specific person and for a specific reason. We can write to send them kindness, as my friend did; we can write to them to relate stories or impart information; we can write out of anger, to make accusations. But the wonderful thing about letter writing is we are not writing to a void: we are writing for a specific reader, and our only goal is to communicate with that person. When we write letters, we are not writing for publication or posterity (or at least most of us aren’t). We are writing as part of a conversation. We are writing to communicate. We are writing to forge connections, and as my friend did, to send light and love out into the world.

This, then, is the power of writing, and I will keep reminding myself this as I  complete yet another draft of my novel. Writing is about so much more than publication. It is about a conversation between writer and reader; it is about using words to help others, to brighten their days, to tell stories they can get lost in, to bring our words to life. When we take a step back from our writing, and think more about the reader and less about publication, we can remove our egos from our writing and simply write because we love doing it and because we want to touch our readers.

An exercise:

Have your characters write letters to one another. Have one character describe a moment in which the recipient of the letter has touched his or her life. What would your protagonist say to your villain? Or the villain to the protagonist? It can be a kind letter or an angry letter, but it should have emotion attached to it. What can you learn from writing the letter about the relationship between these two people that you can include in your story? I think characters reveal much about themselves through letter writing: remember they are writing for a specific person and with a specific intention.

(For more about the power of letter writing, this is a Ted Talk that details the impact letters can have on us: )



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What Jury Duty Taught Me About Writing

I had jury duty a few weeks ago and was picked for a felony trial. Whenever I mention it, people always kindly say something about what a pain it must have been, or it was too bad I couldn’t get out of it, but to be honest, I’m glad I was picked for the trial. I went into it thinking about how at least it was a new experience, and as a writer, I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to have new experiences so I can file them away in my brain to use as details in a story later (what if someday I need to write a courtroom scene?), but the experience ended up being so much more than that. I learned about people. I learned about character. I learned about writing.

It’s strange sometimes how much life teaches us about writing. As writers, I think sometimes we can tend to shut ourselves away with our books and our laptops, living in our story worlds. But being outside in the world and thinking deeply about people is so important to improving our writing. Being a juror on a trial forced me to think so deeply about characters, about motivation, about reasons for the things we say and do. I had been focusing heavily on plot in my book, and this experience was a much-needed reminder about how important character is in our novels. Character is everything. Whether or not a reader believes in the story, believes in the events, the actions, the dialogue that make up the plot depend entirely on whether the reader believes in our characters. Are they fully formed? Are they credible? Why do they say and do the things they do? After all, the characters move the plot. Plot and character are inseperable.

The trial I was on was a sexual assault case. There wasn’t a lot of physical evidence, and the physical evidence that was presented wasn’t enough to convince the jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty. So what the trial came down to was witness testimony. The accusers’ testimonies. The defendant’s testimony. The testimony conflicted. Who was lying? And how were the jurors supposed to decide? Both sides had motivation to lie. One of the accusers had lied about things before. She hated the defendant. She had reason to lie. She gave several versions of her story. The other accuser seemed more credible. She had less motivation to lie. She didn’t contradict herself. Both of these witnesses were emotional. The defendant obviously had motivation to lie: he was facing life in prison.

The defendant’s testimony was not emotional. It seemed rehearsed – which it likely was. And who can blame him – I’d have rehearsed my testimony too if my fate was on the line. But it also seemed calculated. A few of the things he said seemed unlikely. I didn’t believe he did the things he did for the reasons he claimed to have done them. I didn’t believe he was in the location he was for the reasons he claimed to be there. He and his lawyer were trying to create a story about the accusations and events, but the material they used was flimsy. It wasn’t based on emotional truth. They were trying to construct a narrative and get the jurors to believe their story, but it was a lot like when beginning writers try to force events into a plot and make their characters say and do the things they want them to without taking the time to think about how likely those events are based on who their characters are. We can not just make characters speak and act the way we want them to as if they are puppets. We must think about each character, the way that character has behaved in the past, who that character is, what that character’s motivations are.

In the end, we found the defendant guilty. We thought long and hard about why we didn’t find one of the accusers’ testimony credible. As I said before, she gave conflicting versions of the story. She had lied before. But she was also very young. The events had taken place more than four years earlier. She was emotionally distraught. The events had occurred over a long period of time, and so she may have been confusing one instance of abuse with another, which would explain the conflicting stories. Other witnesses corroborated her testimony, and we found the other accuser very credible. We also thought long and hard about why we didn’t find the defendant’s testimony credible. His entire family had testified to his character and shown he had a history of being physically abusive. He was controlling. His own testimony, the language he used when speaking, the words he chose, revealed who he was. Some of the words he used made my skin crawl. Based on our observations of character, we decided that the story the accusers brought was the truth. The defendant tried to present another story about the events, but it didn’t ring true with what we knew about him. It didn’t ring true with his previous behavior. His version felt contrived. Forced. It depended on actions based on nothing (i.e. actions he supposedly took that he did not have motivation for and contradicted all his previous behavior) and coincidence. These made his story unbelievable. And they would make any story unbelievable. Both in real life and in novels.

Character is everything. Think deeply about what makes your characters do the things they do. What are their motivations? What events of their past have shaped who they are?

A challenge: Reread a scene from your manuscript where your character takes an important action. Think about why your character takes this action. What drives him? As an exercise, write another scene about a previous event that helps explain why your character acts in this scene the way he does. If in this scene your character runs away rather than face a problem, think about why. Was there a scene in his past in which he also ran away? Is this action consistent with previous actions? If not, is there another event you can point to that explains why? For example, if the last time your character ran away rather than faced a problem, did bad consequences follow? Did he learn from the experience? Is that why he acts differently here? Characters need reason to do the things they do. Writers are not puppet masters, as much as we would like to be. In writing stories, we must create characters who feel like real people.

Good stories depend on well-drawn characters. These characters don’t have to be perfect. They don’t have to be likeable. But they do have to be believable.


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When You Just Need a Break….

The standard advice given to writers is that they must write every day. There is good reason for this –writing takes practice, just like anything else, and it’s best to make it a habit. The only way to finish a novel is to get your butt in the chair and write.  It’s too easy to let a few days off become a week and then a month and then two…..until you’ve lost momentum for your story, thrown up your hands, and shoved the unfinished manuscript in a drawer. I speak from experience. But what about when you really do need to take a break from a project? Sometimes life gets in the way. Whether it be that you’re going away on a fun vacation, dealing with stress at work, or have an emergency like the death of a family member or friend, sometimes you just need to put the book away for a while. But putting your manuscript away for a set period of time doesn’t have to spell disaster.

These are some of the exercises I do to keep me thinking about my book when I’m not actually working on it – the kind of exercises that will keep the story rolling away in your subconscious, even when you’re taking a break. Though breaks can be refreshing and bring a fresh eye to the work when you return to it, they can also be risky because sometimes if you take too long of a break, you lose sight of the story, and you can come back to it without the same passion for it as you once had (or at least that has been my experience and the experience of some of the writers I know). So, the important thing when taking a break is to keep the story in your mind and spend a little bit of time with the story or the characters each day, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes or so. Here are some of the things that have worked for me:

  1.    — Read over a section of the story each day. (This is the easiest one to do, and probably best saved for when you are short on time.)
  2.    — Take a section of the story and read through it, looking to see how many unnecessary words you can cut. I do this one a lot, because it keeps me working on the story, fine-tuning it, even if I’m not creating new material. Cutting unnecessary words always makes a story stronger. I often go after my dialogue tags when I’m cutting, or see where I can rephrase something to shorten without losing clarity.
  3.    — Go for a walk while pretending to be one of your characters: you could be your protagonist or even a minor character. What do you see? What would the character think of the things around you? How would she react? I do this one a lot. I have a friend who does this while grocery shopping and comes up with some lively writing because of it. If you have time, when you return from your walk, you could come home and write a short scene from the character’s point of view about what you saw. The fun thing about this one is you can do it over and over again, and it’s different every time.
  4.    — Write a short scene about one of the characters in your story that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual novel. It could be a scene from the character’s past, or a scene from the future, after the events of the story are over. Or perhaps it takes place during the same time of the novel, but just happens off-stage, an event that is unrelated to the plot of the novel. The fun thing about this one is that there is absolutely no pressure. You don’t have to worry if the scene is good or if it fits into the story because it’s not intended to be part of the story. And who knows where it will take you? I know writers who have had luck publishing short stories about minor characters in their novel, stories that started out as exercises like this. No matter what, the exercise will help you get to know all of your characters better. To keep the pressure off, don’t spend more than twenty minutes or so on it.
  5.   — Do some research on an aspect of your novel. If there is a fantasy element to your novel, fairies, for example, do some research on fairies in traditional folklore. Or if your protagonist is obsessed with football, look up some statistics on specific players. If a minor character loves science, read up on science journals for ideas of things this character might read and talk about. This kind of detail will help you flesh out all of your characters and bring your story to life. (I do this kind of research all the time, but sometimes it can become a procrastination tool, so be careful too.)
  6.    — Read books similar to the one you want to write, or books in the same genre. If you’re writing historical fiction, read novels that take place in the same time period. If you’re writing science fiction, read all of it you can get your hands on. The best way to learn how to write the kind of books we want to is to read the work of others who have done it well.

And remember, don’t let your break go on for too long! If you’re giving yourself a month off, as soon as those thirty days are up, get right back in and start writing again! Give yourself a set date when you will resume work on your project, and don’t let your break go on for too long. After all, we’re writers, and writing is what we love most! If you don’t write your story, who will?



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When Self-Doubt Rears Its Ugly Head

I was recently talking to one of the writers I’ve been working with about ways to stay motivated when your confidence gets shaky and you’re hit over the head with writer’s block, and since this is such a common problem, I thought I would share some of my thoughts here as well. I wish I had better news about writer’s block and a lack of confidence, but after experiencing A LOT of it myself, I have come to the conclusion that they are one and the same: I always find, in my case anyway, that writer’s block is 100% due to a lack of confidence. And that’s something that I have never gotten over, and every writer I know struggles with it too. One of the things that helps me push past it is giving myself permission to write badly. My rough drafts are awful, but I know that I can go back and revise them as much as I need to to make them better. I get these great ideas in my mind, but they never turn out on the page the way I had envisioned them. And that’s okay. I’ve been in a lot of workshops over the years, especially in my MFA program, where I was in workshops with other students who I felt were light years ahead of me (some with many published books under their belts), and one thing I discovered there was that we were all going through the same process and struggling with the same things: brainstorming, drafting, revising, etc. That helped me gain a lot of confidence because I saw that I wasn’t alone in my doubts — we all had them. And awful as it is, I think those doubts are actually really useful (when we use them in the right way, rather than letting them stop us from writing) because they are what push us to become better writers, to revise and polish and get the stories just right, though I realize that’s not always very comforting when we’re in the midst of those doubts.

So here are the main tips, techniques, and resources that help me stay motivated when self-doubt rears its ugly head:

— My workshop group. It’s my number one motivator. We workshop a member’s story online once a week and chat throughout the week about writing. We’re also there to help each other with writing goals and crises, whether one of us needs feedback or just a place to vent about a writing problem. If you don’t have a writing group already, that might be a huge help to you. I met my writing group through school, but I know a lot of writers who have had great luck finding writing groups through SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators SCBWI is a great resource, and it only costs about 80 dollars a year to join. I’m a member and have had great luck with it. SCBWI is how I met my agent: she was at a local conference I attended. One of the perks to SCBWI is also that once you join, they can connect you with other writers and find you an online workshop group. I’ve also heard good things about the site Scribophile ( but don’t have any experience with it myself, so I can’t vouch for it.

–Another thing I do to stay motivated, especially when I’m stuck, is read books by my favorite authors, and I often reread my favorite children’s books to put me in the mood to write. There’s something inspiring to me about reading these books — they always make me want to write. I also watch You Tube videos of my favorite writers talking about writing. Some of my favorite writers are Donna Jo Napoli, Kate DiCamillo, and MT Anderson — they have some great videos on You Tube that are really inspirational to watch. (I also spend A LOT of time procrastinating writing by doing this…)

— The books on writing I find the most inspirational are Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Stephen King’s On Writing. I’ve also heard good things about Julie Cameron’s The Artist’s Way but haven’t actually done that one, though I own the book (it includes a three month plan to get you back on track writing).

— Gail Carson Levine has an EXCELLENT blog on writing: with lots of practical and inspirational advice. My friend Michelle Barker also recently started a blog on writing, and I started reading it because she was my friend, and now I just read it every week because it is so GOOD. I find it hugely inspirational, and she touches on writing problems so many of us face.

–Another strategy is to do some writing exercises or work on a project that you have no intention of showing anyone ever. I just finished a rough draft of a novel that started out that way. It was just supposed to be my fun project that I never showed anyone, but then I really started liking it, and now I’m beginning revisions on it. But the good thing about this is that there is no pressure to write well because it is just for YOU. You can just have fun with it and explore the story and characters and let the story go in whichever directions it wants to.

–Exercise. You don’t have to get sweaty, though I do think there is nothing like a run for clearing your head. But even going for a short walk is enough to bring me back to the page with fresh eyes and fresh confidence.

I hope some of that is helpful. The truth is, I don’t know if it’s ever possible to be completely confident as a writer, but there are strategies to not let the doubt freeze you completely. Good luck. And now after typing this, I realize it’s time for me to go do some of these things too. 🙂




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