Wordy Wednesday: Character Development Tricks

Heads up that I’m writing this Tuesday evening, because I have a big project due in my screenwriting class Wednesday (and, like, procrastination is fun).

I spent this past weekend at home with my family for Memorial Day. We played lots of Wii U games and ate a thousand tons of ice cream and it was really nice. Now I’m back at school, I just got off work, and a freak rainstorm has trapped me at No Thai. (Not the worst place to be, except I already finished eating and it smells so good and NO YOU DO NOT NEED MORE SPRING ROLLS DON’T YOU DARE.)

SO MUCH IS HAPPENING THIS WEEK. Ch1Con just announced another speaker (Kaye M.!), our blog tour is finishing up, and Thursday I’m off to BEA and Bookcon in NYC!

Speaking of which: As always when I get to attend big writing events, I’ll be blogging throughout the weekend. HOWEVER, I’m probably not bringing my laptop with me this year, so warning that the posts will likely be short and a little typo-ridden (because iPhone). But I promise I WILL blog!

Anyway. This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

So, one of the things that can be hardest to get across without straight up handing things to the reader (aka: the accursed “telling”) is character development. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of having your protagonist look in a mirror, or just outright tell the reader his or her entire life story out of context of the scene at hand, or something else unsavory.

However, there are also some easy ways of avoiding those weak methods of developing your characters. The trick is to focus on the things around your character rather than your character him/herself. For example:

Bedroom/Locker/Car/Etc.

So I’m not going to take a picture of my current bedroom, because it’s a bit of a mess (I’m mid-BEA packing), but this is what it looks like: Lots of bright colors, walls coated in posters and white boards and photo collages, with a zigzag of white Christmas lights across the ceiling. I have two bookcases, both overflowing, and there’s an exercise mat by my door that I have long since given up putting away. My bed is all fleece blankets and cuddly pillows, and my desk is buried under notebooks and Ch1Con flyers.

You can tell a ton about me from my room, and the same goes for your characters. Maybe your protagonist doesn’t do well with mess, so she keeps her room neat and clean. Or maybe he loves Star Wars, so his room is coated in movie posters and figurines. And within these types of traits is a second, deeper layer of development: If she’s a neat freak, chances are she’s also a very responsible, orderly person, and that’ll dictate how she acts and reacts throughout your story; if his entire room is coated in Star Wars, that shows that he’s a fanboy and nerdy and can be obsessive about things.

You can use this method with other spaces your protag occupies, as well. Think locker, car–really anywhere that is his or her own.

Appearance

I talked about this one already in a previous post (read it here), but basically: The way your characters dress, wear their hair, etc. (and why) says a lot about them. Maybe your protagonist has to wear a uniform to school, so he likes to wear really bright, crazy stuff on the weekends. Or maybe your protagonist really likes music, so she wears a bunch of band merch. Is your character trendy or classic? Does she prefer dresses or jeans? All of these things can help you flesh out your characters.

Name

Names are a little tricky, because they define the parents as much as the kid. But does your protagonist choose to stick with his long, formal first name even though he easily could go by a nickname? Or does your protagonist’s friends call her by a different nickname than her family does? How does your protagonist refer to him or herself? What does s/he think of his/her name? All these things go a long way towards helping you pin down your characters’ personalities for the reader.

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What are some of your favorite ways of developing your characters?

Talk to you this weekend!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: Raising the Stakes

It’s been a busy week.

I had my first day of work at the bookshop Thursday, then promptly found out that my roommate Hannah needed someone to go to Chicago with her for an emergency trip to the Brazilian consulate (don’t ask). So I traded off Ch1Con Chat duties for the night with the incredible Kira and off we drove to Chicago.

We spent a good part of Friday running back and forth between the consulate and other places, then we got our reward for enduring all of that: a few free hours in downtown. We ate lunch in the cafe in Millennium Park with the Bean as our view, then took the river walk to Navy Pier, where we sat for a while and watched the boats and waves. Afterward, we took the water taxi back to the Magnificent Mile, and from there spur-of-the-moment decided to do a river boat architecture tour. We finished the afternoon with stops at a candy shop and Garrett Popcorn for provisions for the long drive home, then headed back to Michigan.

Despite the fact that in total we were only gone for around thirty hours (and we spent almost half of that in the car, another seven hours or so sleeping, and the entire morning doing the emergency consulate stuff), it was a fun trip. We listened to the Order of the Phoenix audiobook on the way there and back, and got to hang out for the first time since winter semester ended, and yeah.

Then on Sunday my family decided to go into downtown Detroit for the day to celebrate my brother’s recent birthday (HAPPY TWENTY-FOURTH, DUDE), so we hit the Detroit Institute of the Arts to see the special Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo exhibit, then wandered around Campus Martius and Greektown and got dinner. And it was a really wonderful day.

However, what both those trips meant was that come Monday, I was insanely behind on everything. So I’ve been playing catchup with all my various jobs and responsibilities ever since. Fingers crossed that in the next couple days, I finally get there (because then next week is BEA/BookCon, which means I’m going to get behind again).

Anyway. This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

So this week in my screenwriting class, we’re sharing something called our “five minute pitch.” (The name is pretty self-explanatory.)

I’ve pitched projects a billion times before, between telling literary agents at conferences about my novels and sharing ideas at meetings. But doing the five minute pitch for class was honestly terrifying, because here’s the thing: We haven’t worked on our scripts at all yet.

AT. ALL.

We’d just finished sketching out some quick character profiles and our loglines, and all of a sudden our professor wanted us to have our entire plot ready to go–with all the twists, subplots, and character development fleshed out.

I’m a pantser and a procrastinator, so of course I went into class (assigned to pitch first) with next to nothing prepared and just winged it. And it went pretty well for me making up the story as I went.

However, in the critique afterward my class pointed out a pretty big flaw in my idea. This is a flaw I regularly run into, and probably the fact that my class got the very roughest draft of the plot for my screenplay made it even more apparent than usual.

I’m bad at stakes.

Not always, of course. Within stories themselves, my here-and-now stakes are generally pretty solid. (In the case of my screenplay, a girl’s best friend has been kidnapped and if she doesn’t find her fast, the kidnapper will kill the BFF.) But my why-is-this-story-happening stakes often need help.

Generally, we call this type of stakes “motivation.” Why is someone doing something? Why would they approach the issue in this specific way? What do they hope to obtain from it or fear will happen if they don’t succeed?

It’s that last question that transforms a character’s motivation into a form of stakes, but it’s the combination of the three that I have trouble with. In order for a motivation to feel realistic and justifiable to a reader/viewer, it has to be a single thing that realistically and justifiably answers all three questions.

When pitching my screenplay idea, I talked about how the kidnapper wanted vengeance on the BFF for something she’d done in the past. So, technically I’d answered the first question–but my pitch didn’t really cover the other two, and I hadn’t really thought about those yet.

And, unfortunately, my answer to Question #1 wasn’t the greatest, either.

“The stakes aren’t high enough,” my professor cautioned. My classmates offered ideas for ways I could make the kidnapper’s motivation stronger by making the BFF’s past mistakes worse.

And sitting there in front of the class, furiously taking down editorial notes, I realized something: The mistakes I’d already assigned the BFF were deplorable, so it wasn’t that they weren’t realistic or justifiable motivation for the kidnapping. It was that they weren’t for a kidnapping in fiction.

If this story was happening in real life, the best friend wouldn’t need to do as bad of things to justify someone kidnapping her. The kidnapper wouldn’t need as much riding on her decisions. Real life allows for chance and illogical actions and spur-of-the-moment choices (like Hannah and my one day road trip). But while real life certainly thrives on order, fiction needs it to survive.

You don’t need justification in real life, because it’s really happening. That’s justification enough. But because fiction is, you know, fictional, the reader/viewer no longer is required to believe what you’re telling him/her. So it becomes your job to make it just oh so painstakingly without a doubt believable that s/he has no choice but feel that what you’re telling him/her is the truth.

And this is the part that I’ve had issues with in the past. I know how to justify things IRL; it’s a whole other story to do it in fiction.

The easiest way is to quite simply raise the stakes. Make what’s going on bigger, worse, harder to come back from.

In one of my novels, I was dealing with an organization of dastardly vigilantes that the government wants to shut down. I originally had them at only a couple hundred members, which my critique partners immediately said they couldn’t believe. (“Why would the US government care about an organization that small?” they asked.) (Because, yeah, the real life United States totally wouldn’t care about a couple hundred unknown people running around with guns, killing whoever they felt like.) So I upped the number by a couple hundred. Then, when that still wasn’t believable, had to up it again.

Your in-story motivations have to be larger than life. They have to be impossible to disprove or disagree with. You have to move beyond realistic and justifiable–to indisputable.

So: raise the stakes.

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: Characters and Plot

I found out yesterday that I landed a part-time job at a local bookstore! I’ll be working there for the rest of spring semester before moving to NYC for my internship in July, and I’m super excited.

Also, I’ve got a guest post up today on Newbie Writers (which is pretty cool), and tomorrow Ch1Con is hosting our monthly live video chat at 8:00 PM eastern. We’ll be discussing world-building. You can check it out on our Youtube channel at www.youtube.com/ChapterOneConference.

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

Earlier today I was working on a screenwriting assignment when I ran into a bit of an issue. I was supposed to write a two hundred and fifty word character profile for my protagonist; in theory, easy enough. I ran through all the tips of things to discuss that our prof had given us (speech patterns, backstory, character arc, etc.). I filled out one of those character questionnaires with which the internet’s obsessed. I thought I had a really good handle on my protag.

Then I tried writing the actual profile, and it kept coming out sounding like, well, plot instead of character.

I couldn’t figure it out. The entire thing was definitely about my protagonist. I talked about her defining characteristics and hobbies. I brought in her backstory to show why she is the way she is and discussed the way she’ll have to change from the beginning of the screenplay to the end in order to achieve her goal. But when I read the profile all together, it reeked of plot.

Getting desperate, I turned to a couple of my writing friends for help (which is really what I should have done in the first place, because those guys are brilliant). After reading the profile, the always intelligent and wonderful Kira replied that I was right that the character profile felt like it contained plot. But I was wrong that that was a bad thing.

Because, as Kira reminded me, for a story to work, your characters and plot need to be so tightly interwoven you can’t separate them. Your characters need to influence your plot and your plot needs to change your characters. The reason my character profile seemed so plot-heavy was because I included my protagonist’s character arc. And a character arc is literally how a character changes due to the plot.

This is important to remember. When writing a story (whether it be a screenplay or novel or something else), you need to think about not only why you’ve chosen to write that plot, or about those characters–but why you’ve chosen to write about those two in conjunction with one another. If you could change your characters without greatly affecting your plot, or vice versa, something’s off.

Characters and plot should be in a reciprocal relationship with one another. Removing one should irredeemably damage the other.

So, try some writing exercises. Write character profiles for your protagonists and antagonists, and write out the arc of your plot. If you can successfully talk about one element of the story without the other, tweak until you can’t. Make your characters and plot need one another.

Then (like I’m going to, just as soon as my screenwriting prof lets us): get writing.

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Thanks for reading!

 

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: Writing Tips from Other People

Sorry this post is going up so late! Today’s been kind of crazy. (On the upside, as of like a half hour ago I officially have housing in New York, so yay for not being homeless!)

Since I’ve been writing a billion blog posts lately (again, if you want to check out any of them, here’s a coolio list), I figured I’d do something different for this week’s Wordy Wednesday. So, instead of sharing my own writing tips, here are some of my favorite blog posts with other people’s tips.

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Voice” by Ava Jae

Voice is so difficult to talk about, which is ironic. But Ava does an exceptional job here.

“Things I Do Wrong (But You Don’t Have To): Redundant Sentences” by Veronica Roth

I got absolutely addicted to VRoth’s blog freshman year of college (I blame the proximity to finals) and ended up reading every single one of her writing advice posts. This is one that really stuck with me and I’ve worked hard to apply to my own writing.

“The Words of the Writing World” by Kira Budge

My CP Kira put together a writing/publishing dictionary and it’s super helpful, especially if you’re just starting out.

“Tackling Revisions” by Susan Dennard

Susan Dennard is a queen of writing advice (find more on her blog here), but I especially love this post she did on Pub(lishing) Crawl. It’s an overview of her revising process and brilliant.

“How Well Do You Know Your Characters?” by Sarah Faulkner

Sarah tackles the myth of character questionnaires here and gets down to the good stuff for learning about your characters.

“Creating a compelling story” by Victoria Marini

Victoria is a literary agent who also has a wonderful blog. In this post, she talks about the bones of what makes a story, well, compelling. And it’s fantastic.

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Well, that’s it for now. Have an idea for a future Wordy Wednesday? Feel free to share it in the comments.

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: How to Come Up with Ideas

Before anything else: the Chapter One Young Writers Conference announced our 2015 blog tour today! It’s going to be so awesome, with lots of interviews, giveaways, and insider conference information. Check out the schedule on the Ch1Con site here.

Anyway: I’ve been sitting here (“here” being a lounge in my sophomore year dorm) for over an hour now, trying to figure out what to write about this week. (Also avoiding walking home from class, because my right shoe kind of attacked my foot on the way over here, which means I’m now semi-stranded a mile from my apartment.)

This is one of the worst parts of writing, for me. Finding something to say.

It’s stupid, because when I don’t have time to write, or am already writing something, I suddenly have a thousand ideas. But as soon as I need to write? Nada.

I always do end up coming up with something, though. And that’s something to talk about. So, this week’s Wordy Wednesday writing process post is on how to come up with ideas to write about.

Write Down Your Ideas

This should be the most obvious one on the list: When you have ideas, write them down. Save them for when you don’t have ideas. Even if you don’t end up using exactly what you’ve put down, if an old idea can help inspire a new one, you’re gold.

Write Down Fragments

I have random lines and phrases written ALL OVER THE PLACE. Mostly in my planner and on the notepad app on my phone. Whenever I’m struggling to come up with something, I glance through those. I try to build a story around one or combine a couple to create a character of scenario. More than writing down ideas, I write down fragments, and build from these.

Pay Attention

Another great place to go to for story ideas: your classes/work. I take a lot of literature classes, which obviously help with writing, but I’ve actually found it’s my other classes that inspire me the most. Especially my science courses. There are just so many good story ideas lurking in preexisting facts and ideas. (Bonus: I’ve found that thinking of class as research towards writing something later helps me pay attention.)

Live

Easiest way to come up with ideas: live your life. Don’t sit at home all day, staring at a blank Word document, hoping for something to hit you. Go out and do things. Go to the coffee shop. Go on an adventure.

Chances are, an idea will hit you at precisely the moment you stop thinking about needing to come up with an idea.

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What are some of your tips for coming up with ideas?

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: Change of Plans

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

My plan for last night involved me, my bed, and a good book.

It’s been a long week. We’ve long reached that point in the semester when both midterms and spring break have passed and the only thing worth looking forward to is a summer break that’s still over a month away. So yesterday I was ready for a night off from homework/revising/Ch1Con stuff/internship applications/job applications/blog post writing/etc. I was ready for tea and pajamas and snuggling under a pile of blankets.

Then around three PM my phone started blowing up with text messages.

One of my friends, who’s super into astronomy-related stuff, had found out the Northern Lights were supposed to be visible only a few hours north of us that night, and would I like to come along to see them? No promises how far we’d have to drive or if we’d get back in time to sleep before morning classes or if we’d see the Northern Lights at all. But there was the promise of adventure. And the potential of seeing something incredible.

So at ten PM I ditched the book, threw on my warmest coat and hat, and off a group of us went to traverse the state and chase something we’d only ever seen in photographs.

I didn’t know everyone in the car going into the trip, but we couldn’t get the radio to work so we ended up spending the entire ride north sharing stories about ourselves and our friends. We got lost on back roads and in sleepy silences.

The Northern Lights are easiest to see if you’re in a clear, dark place, so we dodged around lakes, searching for one large and secluded enough to give an unobstructed view of the sky.

Around twelve thirty, we finally found the perfect place: a massive lake in a state park in the middle of nowhere. We pulled down a teeny, tiny road leading to a boat launch on park grounds, ignoring the signs warning us that visitors weren’t allowed in after ten PM, and found ourselves in a parking lot that brushed right up against the lake with only a single orange street light glowing against the sky.

We bundled out of the car and walked as far from the light as we dared. We took in the absolute silence–the kind you only get at night in winter when there’s no wind and you and your friends are the only people for miles. We looked up.

No Northern Lights. But the stars were dazzling.

Hundreds and hundreds of pinpricks of light interrupted the inky blackness. The sky curved away from us, a dome for once not obstructed by buildings. We spun in circles, huddled close, pointed out constellations and planets. We took in our universe. We let ourselves feel small. We remembered we were parts of something so, so huge and amazing.

We went chasing the Northern Lights and instead we found the stars.

I’m telling you this story not because I had a really great adventure last night (even though I did and definitely suggest getting out of civilization to look at the stars once in a while). I’m telling you this because when I woke up yesterday morning, I had no plans whatsoever to go on a road trip in the middle of the night to the middle of nowhere. I wanted to sit home and get caught up on the books I’ve been neglecting. I wanted to go to bed early.

Essentially, the opposite of what happened.

And the fact that last night did happen, and I now have this story to tell you, proves that sometimes the best things not only are those you didn’t plan for, but are things contrary to the plans you did make.

So, how does this pertain to writing?

Don’t be afraid to change directions with a story. Don’t be afraid to make a bad guy good, or completely rewrite your opening on a whim, or start a new project. Don’t be afraid to enter a contest, or try out a new style, or totally destroy your protagonist’s world.

Make plans. Plans are wonderful. But don’t let them restrict you from writing the best story you possibly can.

And don’t be afraid to put aside working on your writing (whether it be actually writing, or just getting caught up on your TBR pile) every once in a while to have an adventure.

Who knows. Maybe you’ll end up with a new story to tell.

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: Best Critique Partner Traits

IT’S SO WARM OUT.

It was thirty five out yesterday and already it’s forty today and I’ve just been wearing a light utility jacket to class the past couple days and I never want it to be cold again.

Also I forgot to mention in Monday’s post, because I’ve already talked about it everywhere else (but I should probably share it here too): I got hired to write for The Huffington Post last week! I’m going to be a blogger for their College section and I am SO FREAKING EXCITED. Watch out on Twitter and Facebook for me to obsessively share the links to my posts.

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post. And since I’m currently in the midst of sending a novel back and forth with critique partners, I figured I’d talk a little about that.

Critique partners (and/or beta readers) are so, so vital to writing. I’ve been working on this particular novel for three and a half years now–this particular draft for over a year–and every time I think I’ve finally fixed everything, I send it off to a round of CPs, only for them to find even more issues.

On the downside, this has started feeling like an endless process. On the upside, these issues have been growing smaller and smaller with each subsequent round of notes (so I’ve got to reach the end eventually).

Because I’ve been working on this novel for so long and it’s gone through so many rounds of critique, I’ve worked with quite a few CPs at this point. All of them have brought something different to their critiques and all have been crucial to getting the novel to where it is now and I’m so grateful for each and every one of them.

I’ve noticed, though, that there are certain traits my CPs’ critiques share that make them particularly effective. Some of the critiques have all these traits; others have only a couple, but do those things really well. So I figured I’d share them as kind of a checklist for how to effectively critique someone else’s writing.

Question Everything

First and foremost, a great critique partner reads actively and is constantly on the lookout for things you could improve. This doesn’t mean, like, questioning your every choice as a writer. But also not accepting everything you say as fact. (For example, I had some issues with character motivation a couple rounds of critique ago and one of my CPs basically said, “I could go along with this, because the text has told me to, or you could show me why I should and actually make me want to.”)

Let You Know What They’re Thinking

If a CP has any qualms about something, big or small, it’s his/her job to tell you. Sometimes something might not seem like that big of an issue to a critique partner, but in mentioning it to the writer s/he uncovers a larger issue that really does need to be fixed.

It’s also nice if, say, you’re working on a whodunit and the CP keeps you updated on who she thinks, you know, done it throughout the manuscript. (The novel I’m revising involves a kind of tricky red herring situation and it took a couple rounds of critique to make it work right. I never would have known there was a problem with it in the first place if one of my critique partners hadn’t kept me updated on who she thought was the bad guy, because it didn’t look like an issue from the outside, but definitely was one.)

Editorial Letter + In-Line Notes

This might be more of a Me Thing than anything else, but my favorite way to receive critique is to have both a letter detailing the overall state of the novel in the CP’s opinion (big issues, overall reactions, etc.), along with notes right in the text (usually as comments on Track Changes) for the smaller stuff. This helps you sort through the feedback so you can quickly figure out what’s going to be a big, time-consuming, difficult fix versus an easy, quick one. (And if you’re having trouble deciding whether or not to change something based on a critique partner’s reaction, the fact that s/he thinks it’s significant enough to mention in the letter means it’s probably something you really should change.)

For example, one of my CPs had mentioned in a comment in the text that she was having trouble with a character’s motivation in one scene, but none of the others had mentioned anything there. I probably would have written the comment off as an individual issue (brought on by being tired or having to take a long break between chapters or something), except that the CP then went on to talk in more detail in her letter about why she was having an issue with the motivation there, and it turned out she was completely right and the other critique partners in that round had just simply missed it.

Compliment the Parts They Like

This is such a vital part of critique, because while it’s important to know what’s bad so you can fix it, it’s also important to know what’s good so you can:

A) Aim for bringing the rest of the manuscript up to that level.

B) Not accidentally ruin something that’s working well.

C) Remember that you don’t entirely suck at writing.

I like to think of reading critique partners’ compliments as the reward for slogging through the rest of their comments. If a critique partner compliments a certain sentence or plot twist or scene, it makes fixing all the issues s/he’s also pointed out seem so much more doable (and worth it).

Additionally, this is really useful when juggling several CPs’ comments. A couple rounds of critique ago, one CP absolutely hated the way I’d ended a chapter and another loved it. I hadn’t been sure if I should change it per the first CP’s advice or not, because I really liked that chapter ending myself. The fact that the second CP complimented it reminded me that while my CPs’ opinions are important, they are just that: opinions.

Not everyone is going to like the way you phrase every sentence or end every chapter, but as long as someone likes it, you’re doing something right. And I wouldn’t have known that that chapter ending was okay if all I’d seen was the criticism.

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What are some of your favorite traits of your critique partners? Share them in the comments so we can fangirl over these wonderful people who put up with the worst of our writing. 🙂

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: Cliche, Cliche

I’m writing/scheduling this post ahead of time, because Wednesday I’ll be in Chicago on a spring break work trip (Ch1Con 2015 flyer campaign and researching for a novel).

So far this week I’ve been buried under preparations for going out to Chicago, plus doctor’s appointments, plus internship applications–so it’s nice to have midterms behind me and this week off from classes, even if I am using it to work. (Although also, let’s be honest, talking to librarians/bookshop owners/teachers about the conference and being a tourist downtown are probably the best job descriptions ever.)

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

The one other thing I’ve been doing a lot of since spring break began is ingesting stories*. I’ve been watching a ton of movies, catching up on TV shows, and, of course, reading.

And, of course, taking in all these stories in such rapid succession means that the similarities they (and a ton of other stories) share are extra obvious.

Welcome to the sweet torture of reading/watching a really good story only for a love triangle/Chosen One/green-eyed romantic interest to pop out. (One of the books I read this weekend actually had all three of those cliches. Amongst others.)

Cliches drive me insane. They’re lazy writing, they make the story boring because they take away from its originality, and they take me out of the story because I’m noticing these things caused by them.

Different cliches annoy me at different levels, though. Like: A love triangle can ruin the book for me. A green-eyed romantic interest, on the other hand? I honestly couldn’t care less, beyond the fact that I do notice it. (2% of the world’s population has green eyes vs. 185% of YA boyfriends.) (But also, green eyes are really freaking awesome for symbolism. And pretty. And there are lots of fun ways of describing them. So I’m good with them.) (Okay, you caught me. I’ve totally done the green-eyed romantic interest thing, too. Shhh.)

Considering the book with all the cliches from this weekend, I realized that the reason some cliches are more annoying than others is because they affect the plot more. There’s a good chance it doesn’t matter in the long run that Mr. McSwoony Pants has green eyes, but love triangles are rarely things that get brushed aside in favor of a larger plot. Instead, they get woven into every fiber of the story, so that you end up with things like Katniss fretting over whether to choose Peeta or Gale in the middle of a FREAKING REVOLUTION. (Or, you know, the entirety of Twilight.)

So here I am. Rattling on about how terrible cliches are. Which, in itself, is kind of cliche at this point.

–But I don’t believe in a black and white nature to cliches.

I think even the worst of the worst cliches can be awesome if done right. I’ve seen so many good boy vs. bad boy or childhood BFF vs. new kid love triangles that it’s really hard for one to seem original now. But I still have hope for wonderful, new, unique love triangles. Because the thing that annoys me about love triangles isn’t love triangles themselves, but the way they’re handled, and this is true for all cliches.

Everything has been done before. EVERYTHING. I can’t tell you how many times a friend or I have wallowed in self-pity over the fact that we just had a shiny new idea, or have been working on a project for several years, only to see something that looks exactly like it come on in a TV spot for a new movie.

Heck, a professor is saying every story ever written can be summarized in one of six plot types. Even Romeo & Juliet wasn’t an original story. (Hello, rip off of Pyramus and Thisbe.)

There’s no such thing as a completely original story.

So it isn’t about what you write, but how you write it.

That book I read this weekend with all the cliches annoyed me (a lot). But there were also a lot of good points to it and I’ll definitely keep reading the series.

So don’t worry about writing cliches. Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing. Write what you want to, do your best at it, and everything else will fall into place.

It’s nearly impossible to write a 100% not-cliche story. Embrace where you do fall into the cliches and make them your own.

You never know. Maybe you’ll be the one to come up with a new twist on the classic love triangle. (#TeamEdward? #TeamJacob? No. #TeamAuthor.)

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

*I apologize for this. I’m starving right now so the only form my brain can function in is food-related verbs.

Wordy Wednesday: Every Story Is a Mystery

This past week has been busy. I spent the weekend skiing up north with my family, then Monday afternoon one of my film classes had a Skyped-in guest lecture by one of the head guys from New Line Cinema, which was super cool. Monday evening I was honored and grateful to get to read a short story at the university undergraduate library as part of an annual event in which the creative writing professors nominate students to share their work. It was my second year in a row doing it and I still can’t get over how talented the other writers here are. I’m so lucky to have gotten to share the stage with them.

I read “All She Hears,” a short story that appeared in the collection that won a Hopwood Underclassmen Fiction Award and the Arthur Miller Award last year. SUCH A COOL EXPERIENCE.

I would have loved to have stayed to listen to all the students reading that night, but my family and I left a few after I read because Conrad Pope (Hollywood orchestrator and composer) was giving a guest lecture across campus and who knows when my next chance to hear someone speak on their involvement in Harry Potter and Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean and a billion other amazing things would be, right? (And dude, he was awesome.)

Anyway, this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

I feel like I’ve probably talked about this before and just forgotten, but in case I haven’t: a big epiphany moment for me in writing was realizing that every story is a mystery.

For some reason this didn’t hit me until I was reading Harry Potter for the first time in tenth grade, but I can totally see why that’s what finally got that through to me. Harry Potter is marketed as fantasy, not mystery, but while fantasy plays a big part in setting and character development and all that, what truly drives the plot forward (and keeps the reader reading) are the mysteries at the center of each book. (Fun fact: JK Rowling has hardly read any fantasy books, but is super into reading crime novels. So of course her fantasy unfolds the same way as crime.)

But it’s not just the Harry Potter series (MG-YA fantasy) that does this. It’s all books. Anna and the French Kiss (YA contemporary romance)? You spend the entire book chasing the mystery of whether or not Anna and St Clair will get together. The Hunger Games (YA dystopian)? You try to figure out what’s truly going on in the Games and Panem. And all stories rely on the resolution of the mystery in order to leave the reader satisfied at the end.

Basically: stories rely on leaving the reader guessing what will happen next. Whether you’re writing a thriller or realistic fiction, to write an interesting story you have to establish questions to keep the reader invested, lay clues for what your resolution will be so that it doesn’t seem out of nowhere, keep the reader in the dark for as long as possible so that the story feels smart and interesting all the way to the end, etc.

While your story may not rely on a crime as the central element to the plot, you can treat pretty much anything like a crime in the way you unfold the story from there: Have your character act as a detective, going out and interacting with the world, being an active agent in his or her plot. (A solid protagonist relies on action over reaction.) Make your protagonist learn things slowly but constantly, with the pace of learning speeding up exponentially as you move towards the climax, like how the pace of a crime investigation speeds up as the police get closer to figuring out who the murderer is and making the arrest.

Foreshadow. Lay red herrings. And most importantly: treat your reader as an intelligent and active part of the story. Someone who it is your job to trick and mislead–but also charm–until the very end.

So, if you’re having trouble with keeping your plot moving or don’t know where to go next, think about how you think Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would do it. Or even JK Rowling. (Sorry. Robert Galbraith.)

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

TCWT Blog Chain: Music and Writing

The prompt for this month’s Teens Can Write, Too! blog chain is:

“How does music relate to your writing?” 

Music is such a big thing for me. These days I pretty much always write to movie scores, because they help get (and keep) me in the mindset to work, and they can be great for getting me in the mood for writing certain things. (So like if I need to write something sad, you know what’s wonderful for that? HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART 2.) My favorite composer is Hans Zimmer, but I also listen to a lot of scores from James Horner and James Newton Howard.

I’ve posted before about how when I work on a novel, I generally end up with a single score that I listen to nonstop while writing (check that post out here), but there are also a lot of scores I listen to that aren’t connected to a specific novel.

They’re all great for their own reasons, so I figured I’d share some of them today.

The Theory of Everything by Johann Johannsson

This is one of the two movie scores I’m currently obsessed with. The entire score is beautiful, but I’m especially in love with the opening song here. I love how playful and almost desperately hopeful it is, and the way the music feels like it, I don’t know, blossoms. I especially love how listening to it reminds me of how being at Oxford felt (which makes sense, since it’s about Cambridge).

Interstellar by Hans Zimmer

This is the other score I’m currently obsessed with. I wasn’t a huge fan of it the first time I saw Interstellar, but after the second time it got stuck in my head and now I can’t stop listening to it. This track (“Stay”) is especially good. It makes me want to write desperate, scared, hopeful things.

The Amazing Spider-Man by James Horner

I mainly love this score because it sounds so similar to my favorite of James Horner’s scores, Titanic. I wrote the novel I’ve been working on the past few years to Titanic, and have kept listening to it during the billions of rounds of revisions since, so it’s nice to have another score to fall back on that’s still similar but also different.

The Dark Knight (Rises) by Hans Zimmer (and James Newton Howard)

So really just all the music from the Dark Knight trilogy is fantastic. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard collaborated in composing for the first two films, then Zimmer did the last one alone. These scores are great for really intense stuff, especially action sequences.

“Aurora” by Hans Zimmer

Not an actual film score, but so heartbreaking and haunting. Zimmer wrote this after the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado opening night of The Dark Knight Rises, with proceeds going to the victims’ families, and it incorporates motifs from the Dark Knight trilogy.

The Hunger Games Series by James Newton Howard

I’m honestly not a huge fan of a lot of these scores. I thought the first was excellent, then it’s been downhill from there. But each movie does have some really great parts, especially when the arena collapses at the end of Catching Fire. These scores are wonderful for emotional, action-y stuff.

The Chronicles of Narnia Series by Harry Gregson-Williams

These were the scores that first got me into listening to scores. Gregson-Williams’s work on Narnia is absolutely gorgeous. Light when need be, heavy and pounding in the battle sequences. I used to listen to these on long car rides heading up north to ski, notebook open across my lap and farm fields frozen and sparkling beyond the windows.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by Howard Shore

I don’t actually write to The Lord of the Rings scores that much, but these are AMAZING for homework. It makes writing papers feel like going on adventures.

Do you like to write to music? What kinds? Do you have any favorite movie scores to recommend?

Like this blog chain topic? Check out the rest of the posts throughout the month.

6thhttp://jasperlindell.blogspot.com/ and http://vergeofexisting.wordpress.com/

7thhttp://novelexemplar.wordpress.com/

8thhttp://www.juliathewritergirl.com/

9thhttp://www.freeasagirlwithwings.wordpress.com/

10thhttps://ramblingsofaravis.wordpress.com/

11thhttp://butterfliesoftheimagination.wordpress.com/ and http://www.pamelanicolewrites.com/

12thhttp://randommorbidinsanity.blogspot.com/

13thhttp://miriamjoywrites.com/ and http://whileishouldbedoingprecal.weebly.com/

14thhttp://kirabudge.weebly.com/

15thhttp://lillianmwoodall.wordpress.com/ and http://erinkenobi2893.wordpress.com/

16thhttp://theedfiles.blogspot.com/ and http://fantasiesofapockethuman.blogspot.com/

17thhttp://irisbloomsblog.wordpress.com/ and http://musingsfromnevillesnavel.wordpress.com/

18thhttp://semilegacy.blogspot.com/ and http://from-stacy.blogspot.com/

19thhttp://horsfeathersblog.wordpress.com/

20thhttps://clockworkdesires.wordpress.com/

21sthttps://stayandwatchthestars.wordpress.com/ and http://arielkalati.blogspot.com/

22ndhttp://loonyliterate.com/ and https://www.mirrormadeofwords.wordpress.com/

23rdhttp://unikkelyfe.wordpress.com/

24thhttp://themagicviolinist.blogspot.com/ and http://allisonthewriter.wordpress.com/

25thhttp://missalexandrinabrant.wordpress.com/

26thhttp://awritersfaith.blogspot.com/ and http://thelonglifeofalifelongfangirl.wordpress.com/

27thhttp://nasrielsfanfics.wordpress.com/ and http://thelittleenginethatcouldnt.wordpress.com/

28th – https://teenscanwritetoo.wordpress.com/ (We’ll announce the topic for next month’s chain.)

~Julia