Writing Q&A: Writing Tips
I got a lot more questions for my Writing Q&A then I had expected, so I’ve been trying to figure out how to best organize them. I think that, for now, it would be best to break them up by category and do several posts answering similar questions.
So, today, I’m starting out with some basic questions asking for writing advice. I’m hoping to make this a weekly thing, so if you think of any more questions you may have, you’re always free to fire away and I’ll answer when I can!
- Is there any way to make your characters more real, and their own person?
I absolutely love answering this question. Because, honestly, people ask me this all the time, and it’s probably the one question that I never get tired of answering.
I think the key here may be to change the way you view writing. I’ve talked about it in blog entries before, but I always take the “Characters first, story second” approach to writing. The only way you’re going to gain those amazing, three-dimensional characters is if you center your stories around them. Try not to focus on the plot turns or scenes or dialogs. Focus on your characters.
You have to think of your characters as real people in order for them to come across that way. If you’re thinking of them as just letters on a page or pawns in a story, then that’s all they are ever going to be to you. But once you start thinking of them as real people with real emotions and thoughts and dreams, then you can start relating to them on a deeper level, and your writing will reflect that.
Take your main character for example. What do you know about her? Other than the fact that she is a sixteen year old princess with two dead parents and long blonde hair, do you really know anything about her? Think about the little things. Maybe she’s embarrassed of the freckles on her nose because women in her country are supposed to have flawless skin. Maybe she has a really loud laugh that makes everyone around her laugh, too. What if she was obsessive compulsive about eating the same breakfast every single morning (taking a jab at myself here ;P) or had a paranoid fear of dogs licking her? Thinking about little character quirks like that will make your main character so much more lifelike and realistic. Because don’t we all have odd aspects to our personalities?
Once you’ve figured out your main character’s personality, start thinking about her dreams and motivations. What does she want more than anything else in the world? Is it to take revenge on an evil king or to break the princess stereotype and become her own person? What is she willing to do to accomplish that and who wants to bring her down? The more you think about it, the story will just naturally unfold. Because your character will lead it.
- How do you know when you’ve happened upon the right name for a character?
Hmm… Good question. And one I’ve never really thought that much about. To tell the truth, I’m not that into picking out names. I usually just use the first name to pop into my head. I keep a Baby Name book on my bookshelf that I’ll flip through if I’m really desperate for ideas. And I always look through church directories and phone books when searching for the perfect last name, which to me has always been more important for some reason.
There are a few exceptions, though. Take Allie, for instance. In my book Interrupted, the main character’s name is Alcyone Everly, nicknamed “Allie”. When I first started writing the book, I named her “Anna”. But it didn’t feel right. Even though “Anna” is a beautiful name, it didn’t fit her personality at all. It was simple, and old-fashioned, and a little boring. Then one day, when doing research on some different stars (Allie and her mother both loved star-gazing), I came across an article on the star “Alcyone” in the constellation Taurus. “Alcyone” is a star named after a character from Greek mythology. The moment I came across that name, I knew I had found the perfect name for my main character. Allie’s mother was always a dreamer and a romantic, before her husband broke her heart. She was also very unusual and interested in poetry and history. So it made sense that she would name her daughter after a star or a Greek nymph! Plus, “Allie” was just such a fun nickname, and suited her personality so well. It was perfect.
- Any recommendations for making a story’s setting seem real?
Do research. Really, that’s just the best advice I can give you. The only exception I can think of is maybe if you’re writing some kind of sci-fi or fantasy book. Then I guess you can do whatever you want and no one can question you because you made it all up yourself! It’s a little more complicated if you’re writing realistic fiction.
Another tip I would share is to write about what you know. I grew up in the country and I’m very familiar with simple, country life. So that’s what I tend to write about. It’s just the world I know! Everyone knows everyone and gets in each other’s business. Normal life consists of gardens and sitting on the porch drinking lemonade and going to the local restaurants where you know the owners and all the waitresses. That’s life to me, and that’s the kind of life I write about. Whether it’s in small town Maine (which I modeled after the historical towns nearby) or the rolling hills of Tennessee (which I’ve visited) or hot and sticky Georgia.
- How do you write a sad, emotional scene without making it sound sappy or forced?
Writing sappy scenes can be very difficult. But, despite that fact, they are some of my favorite scenes to write. Because I think it’s through those emotional, compelling scenes that you really get to connect with the main character. It’s a challenge, though. As the writer, you have to really feel those emotions yourself in order to portray your character’s feelings in a way that will touch your reader.
Maybe it’s because I enjoy doing it, but I do always try to include at least one very emotional scene whenever I write a book. I do this in part because of some advice my agent gave me when I was working on my second book. He told me that a good writer should always “Thrill the heart and break the heart”. There has to be a balance. You have to have those knee-weakening happy moments, and then those tender, crushingly sad moments.
Whenever I start writing a sad scene, I have to get myself in the mood. I put on a playlist on my computer that I titled “Sad scene” and let the music—um—depress me. And then I start thinking about whatever’s going on in my book and try to get into the head of my main character. What is really saddening her right now? The more connected you can feel with your character, the better. If you can actually cry about it, great! I always cry when I write sad scenes. It may sound corny, but it’s true. It really breaks my heart to break my character’s heart. But I know I have to do it.
As far as not sounding sappy, I think that mostly comes down your own personal ideas about what is sappy and what isn’t. I guess I always aim for sentimental, but not sappy. It’s all about how your character thinks about things. A thought like, “Oh, my beloved Mother, I will never see you again!” is sappy. “She’s never going to look at me with those eyes or touch me with those cool, soft hands again” isn’t sappy. At least to me.
Also, one last thought. (Gosh, this post is getting long!) And that is: Always notice the details. Details are by far the most powerful thing in a sad scene. Having your character wail and wallow in her own self-pity probably isn’t going to move your reader. Here’s a quote from my book, following one of the saddest scenes I’ve ever written. After Allie’s mother dies, Allie returns to the bedroom and finds the following:
“It was as if nothing had happened. The bed was still unmade and one of the windows was open. The curtains fluttered in the breeze. A book that we had been reading was still sitting on the nightstand.”
To me, that is sad. It may not seem that sad or sappy, but it is. Because it’s a painful reminder that Allie’s mother is gone, and that even though things may look the same, everything has changed. And it will never go back to the way it was before.
So, those are a few of my thoughts on some excellent questions. I’ll do my best to answer some more questions later this week!