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Friday, April 29, 2011

All-Day Writing Marathon, May 1

That's the day after tomorrow!

I know I haven't mentioned this in a while, but I wanted to remind you all that the big end-of-DIY-MFA writing marathon will be happening on Sunday (all day) May 1st.  For more details and to join in, head on over to our Facebook event page.

Basically how it's going to work is this: you sign up on the page so we know you're doing it.  On Sunday, tweet (#diymfa) or leave a comment on the event page when you start writing, then write your heart out!  When you've finished, tweet your end time and word count if you wish.  Also, don't forget to cheer on your fellow writers.

Don't worry if you can't write for a full day on Sunday.  You can do a half-day (half marathon) or just a super sprint.  The important thing is that you take some time that day to make writing a priority.  I hope you all will join me in this!

Write on!

YA Cafe: 3 Tips for Capturing the Teen Voice

Welcome Back to YA Cafe, where book lovers can gather and chat about teen literature.  I'm your barista, along with Ghenet from All About Them Words.

Each Friday we pick from a menu of topics and share our thoughts on our respective blogs.  We've also got plans brewing for interviews, events and even some exciting giveaways, so stay tuned!  Join the discussion by responding in the comments, on your own blogs or on twitter using the hash tag #yacafe.

Today's Special: What's your favorite YA voice?

Just as I couldn't decide on a favorite YA character, I also can't pin down one YA voice that I love because there are so many good ones out there.  Instead, today I thought I'd talk about ways to capture that teen voice.  As many of you have said in the comments voice is one of the main things that differentiates teen literature from adult fiction.  Sure, there are other considerations (like the age of the main character) but voices is generally what makes YA stand out from other categories.

So how do you get that teen voice?  There are no hard and fast rules, but here are a few tips that have helped me nail down the voice of my own characters.

1. Listen to how teens talk.  Ever done that eavesdropping exercise where you go somewhere and listen in on people talking?  You can learn a lot about teen slang and the rhythm of how they speak just by listening.  Whenever I ride the subway or bus, the temptation is to zone out but listening to how teens talk can give you insight about your character's voice.  (They say Nabokov nailed down the teen voice for Lolita by riding the TCAT bus in Ithaca and listening to local high school kids.)  When you listen--really listen--to teens talking, you'll notice things: not just what they talk about but how they talk about it.  Here are a few examples:

     "Did she tell you we used to play checkers all the time, or anything?"
     "I don't know.  For Chrissake, I only just met her," Stradlater said.  He finished combing his goddam gorgeous hair.  He was putting away all his crumby toilet articles.
     "Listen.  Give her my regards, willya?"
     "Okay," Stradlater said, but I know he probably wouldn't.  You take a guy like Stradlater, they never give your regards to people.
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

     "Oh."  Her voice was mock-pouty.  "Are you sure?  He's no trouble.  He hardly takes up any room.  All you have to feed him is a Mini Wheat.  Or two grapes.  And he won't poop on your rug.  Will you Cinnamon?  Go ahead, stand up and tell him you won't.  Stand up, Cinnamon."
     Cinnamon stood on my sneaker.  His eyes shone like black pearls.
     "Doesn't he have the cutest ears?"
     Who notices a rat's ears?  I looked.  She was right.  "Yeah," I said, "I guess he does."
Jerry Spinelli, Stargirl

2. Don't be afraid to add imagery.  Just because the voice captures the way teens speak doesn't make it any less sophisticated in terms of imagery and language than adult fiction.  Teens respond to beautiful imagery, as long as the language fits the style of the voice.  Don't be afraid to use metaphors or similes either, if it fits the voice you're going for.  Some examples:

     Cassie killed the snowmobile engine.
     Total silence, her favorite sound.  Ice crystals sun in the Arctic air.  Sparkling in the predawn light, they looked like diamond dust.  Beneath her ice-encrusted face mask, she smiled.  She loved this: just her, the ice, and the bear.
Sarah Beth Durst, ICE

     Then the worst thing happened.  A boy noticed me.
     He was the most unattractive boy in the room, a dog-face, a Poindexter, the one who hadn't asked any girl to dance, because he knew that no girl wanted him to.  But I was a stranger so he figured, why not?
Judy Blundell, What I Saw and How I Lied

3. It's OK to break the rules.  Some YA novels do a great job capturing not only the voice, but the vernacular of teen speech.  To write in vernacular, not only must the author have a great ear for dialogue, but depending on who's narrating the story, the vernacular can carry over into the narration as well.  In Coe Booth example below, the vernacular is not over-powering, but it's carried through out the book both in the narration and dialogue.  Even just a touch of vernacular in this book gives us a better look into the protagonist's world than if the book had been narrated in standard English.  In the M.T. Anderson, the vernacular is completely made up, invented by the author for this futuristic society, but it fits the characters and gives us an idea of what this society is like.

     I mean, she the one that called my cell this morning and told me she needed to talk.  Then all the way to her place it's like she wanna say something but don't know how to tell me.  Se we just walk without saying a whole lot, which is alright 'cause I got a lot on my mind anyway.
Coe Booth, Tyrell

     Everything at home was boring.  Link Arwaker was like, "I'm so null," and Marty was all, "I'm null too, unit," but I mean we were all pretty null because for the last like hour we'd bee playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall.  We were trying to ride shocks off them.  So Marty told us there was this fun place for lo-grav on the moon.
M.T. Anderson, Feed

Now I want to know, what's your favorite YA voice?

Want to hear more about voice?  Fellow barista, Ghenet shares her thoughts on her blog: All About Them Words.  Check it out, then tell us what you think!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

5 Ways to Tell if It's The ONE

So far we've been talking about ways to spark ideas for new projects, but DIY MFA isn't just about coming up with a billion new ideas; it's about eventually choosing one idea and seeing it through to the end.  But how do you know if an idea is really the ONE?  Here are five things that often happen to me when I get that idea that I know will be the ONE.

1) A voice (or series of voices) starts chattering in my head.  Yes, I know this might make me sound crazy, but the truth is, when I start actually hearing my characters in my head, I know that this idea is the ONE I'm supposed to work on.  For me projects always start with the voice of the narrator or main character so if I don't hear that voice, I know the story's not ready to be written.

2) I want to know how the story will turn out.  This is why I write to begin with.  I want to know the ending so I have to write the whole thing to see how the story turns out.  If I don't care about the story or characters enough to want to know the ending, then I know it's not the ONE.

3) I get protective.  When I first start a project--if it's something I really care about--I don't tell most people about it.  Only when I'm at the stage where I need to get feedback do I open up and share the project with a few trusted readers.  If I'm too open about the project at first, I know it's not something I'm really invested in--it's not the ONE.

4) I can't wait to write.  This goes hand in hand with #2.  When I know the story is the ONE, I can't wait to sit down and write it.  At least that's true at first.  After the "honeymoon" wears off, motivating myself to write can become more of a challenge but at first when I start the project, nothing can come between me and my writing.

5) I stick with it.  Perhaps the best test of whether a story is the ONE for me is if I stick to it even when another, sparklier idea comes along.  If I can shake off that new idea and stick to my guns on the first story, then I know it's the ONE.

What do you think?  How do you know when an idea is the ONE?
Homework: Think about all the things you've worked on during DIY MFA and choose one that you'd like to pursue further.  Don't worry, this doesn't mean you won't ever get to work on all those other ideas (they'll still be waiting for you when you finish with this first one) but it's important to have the experience of finishing an entire project.  So, choose one idea and plan to see it through over the next however-many months you choose.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

You Tell Me

Dear friends of DIY MFA,

I can't believe April is only a few days away from being over.  DIY MFA has gone by so super fast and I can't believe we're drawing to a close.  I realized that many of you are new to DIY MFA and weren't here for September's extrabloganza, so I've been thinking of doing a few "review session" posts each week through May and June, covering the basics from the first DIY MFA.  I do have some new themes and series planned for May and June so it won't be all DIY MFA like it's been this month, just a couple of days each week.  What do you think about this plan?

Also, I wanted to take some time today to get your feedback on the blog in general.  Are there topics you want to hear more about?  Topics you've heard enough of already?  Please tell me what you think because I'd love to know!

In the meantime, for Homework today, I'd like you to take some time working on your work in progress.  Today's a wild card day so work on whatever project you feel needs some attention.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Setting Limits

Limitations can be liberating.  I know it sounds like a contradiction, but hear me out.  Sometimes having too many choices can be paralyzing and the best thing we can do for our writing is to set some limits.  To that end, here are a few exercises that help me keep those pesky choices in check.

Minus an "E":  Inspired by Ernest Vincent Wright's Gadsby: A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter "E" in this exercise I challenge you to write for 15 minutes and the only limitation is you cannot use the letter "E."  For variations on this assignment, choose a different vowel (no fair choosing "Y") and write for 15 minutes without that vowel instead.

The idea here is that by limiting which vowels you can use, you have to stop and really think about each word you choose.  It exercises your brain in a way that regular writing doesn't.  Sure, you might not produce a work of genius with this exercise, but it trains you to think about word choice and you'll start seeing the results in your writing in general.

Single Syllables:  Another exercise I learned from a favorite writing teacher is to write for 15 minutes using only one-syllable words.  Not only does it make you stop and choose your words carefully, but by using only one-syllable words you'll infuse your work with energy and punch that you don't get from words with multiple syllables.

Sometimes when I feel like a piece I'm writing needs more punch, I'll go back and rewrite a section, trying to use more one-syllable words.  The change in the energy never fails to amaze me.

What do you think?  Do you think you need to set some limits in your writing?  If so, what tricks have you used that work?

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Day for Poetry

April is National Poetry Month and today I'd like to take some time to enjoy that genre where words really count.  In poetry the wrong word--no matter how small or innocent-looking--can be the difference between pretty or pathetic, inspiring or insipid.  Words rule in poetry in a way that isn't possible for any other genre.

I can already see some of you rolling your eyes.  "Here she goes... getting all ga-ga over poetry.  Gross."  I promise I'll keep my love of verse under control.  All I ask is this: before you click away, take 30 seconds to read the following poem.  Not because I told you (though that's also a very nice reason), but because you're a writer and you love words in all flavors.  Take these 30 seconds to recharge your inner muse and enjoy words for their own sake.  This poem by Billy Collins is about reading poetry, but it continually helps refresh my perspective on all literature, regardless of genre.

Introduction to Poetry
by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Homework: Today I'd like you to visit or break open an anthology and read one poem you've never read before.  It can be a poem with an interesting title, or a poem that you've been wanting to read but never got around to.  There are no requirements except that it be a poem.  Once you've read it, I'd love to hear about what you read.  Also, do you like poetry and read it for fun, or was this new for you?  If you love poetry, what about it speaks to you?  If you're not a poetry-lover, what turns you off?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Words, Glorious Words!

All writers--whether they write lofty literary fiction or spunky sparkly vampire stories--have one thing in common: an intrinsic love of words.  We can't get enough of words.  We're like Oliver, lifting up his bowl and saying: "Please, sir, I'd like some more."

Today's post is about glorious words that enrich our love of language.  One tool I've developed that helps me rekindle my love of words is the Word Box. 

The concept is simple, really; you just cut up a sheet of paper into lots of little slips and write a random word on each slip.  They can be words you love or hate, words that sound funny or that are fun to say aloud.  The point is that the words be random.  Once you're done, put your word slips in a container (an envelope, bag, small box.  The only requirement is that it should be easy for you to reach in and pull out a few words at random.

How to Use the Word Box: Pull out 3-7 words at random.  Write for 15 minutes and use all the words.  Note: No fair using a random word in a way that doesn't make sense or feels forced.  All the words have to feel like they belong in the piece.   Tips: (1) Start with with 3 words and work your way up to 7 with practice.  (2) Keep adding new words to your Word Box over time, to keep things fresh.

Homework: Start a Word Box of your own.  With a little help from friends, the task of finding random words can be easy.  Share some of your own word finds in the comments and borrow suggestions from each other!

Here are 20 words from my Word Box to get you started:

galaxy, gamble, fissure, scamper, flutter, flash, troll, manipulate, secret, nefarious, snarl, flinch, croak, glitz, arabesque, pirate, swirl, windswept, totem, no.

A note about DIY MFA Chat today, (5pm ET) I know it's Easter so I wasn't sure if any of you were still up for a chat.  Please tweet or comment if you're still up for chatting and I'll be there.  If enough people respond saying "yes I'll be there" then we'll proceed as always.  Watch the #diymfa thread for a twitter update on the status of the chat.  I'll a couple of hours before and let you all know if the chat's still on or if we're taking the holiday off.  Sound good?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

There Is No Finish Line
We've been working our way through DIY MFA and suddenly it has occurred to me that this is our the last week of April (and therefore also the last week of DIY MFA 2.O).  I have to admit, I panicked a little.
"OMG, what am I going to do in May?" I thought as I hyperventilated and gasped for air.  And then I remembered: there is no one finish line in writing.  You finish one phase and you start a new one.  Once one goal is met, you move on to the next one.  There are small victories along the way, of course--and we should definitely celebrate those--but ultimately there is no finish.
This news might be hard for some of us to hear.  After all, it can be nice to think of one writing project as this big goal and once we finish it, we're done.  It's the same way with traditional MFA programs.  Some students focus on the thesis and the program as the end-all-and-be-all, but it doesn't work that way.  You need to see beyond that finish line to the millions of projects that come after.  It can be overwhelming, to say the least.

Ultimately, I like to look one or two steps ahead.  If you look at all the millions of possibilities, it can make you freeze up.  I prefer to look at just the next step.  Here are a few quotes that have always inspired me:
 "My idea of life is the next page.  The next paragraph.  The next sentence."
~Charles Bukowski
"Writing is like driving a car at night.  You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."
~E.L. Doctorow

Homework:  Go to a writing space that's comforting to you.  Bring a beverage or snack that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  The point is to coddle your inner writer a little today because you'll be doing some hard work.
Before you start your sprint, take 10-15 minutes and think about the next step.  This is not a time for stressing, but a time for dreaming.  Let yourself imagine the possibilities of what could be next after your current project.  Once you've finished brainstorming, bring yourself back to the present, set the dreams aside and do your sprint for today.  (Sprint badges are posted in the photos section of our Facebook page.)

Here in NYC it's rainy and disgusting so I thought it would be a nice day to write "in."  I'll be curling up with my notebook and a pot of hot vanilla-coconut tea and will be brainstorming what's next after this round of DIY MFA.  I promise to fill you in on the details once I've figured it out!

Would anyone like to share what they think their next step is?  I know I'd love to hear it!

Friday, April 22, 2011

YA Cafe: 5 Essentials For a Story Starter

Welcome Back to YA Cafe, where book lovers can gather and chat about teen literature.  I'm your barista, along with Ghenet from All About Them Words.

Each Friday we pick from a menu of topics and share our thoughts on our respective blogs.  We've also got plans brewing for interviews, events and even some exciting giveaways, so stay tuned!  Join the discussion by responding in the comments, on your own blogs or on twitter using the hash tag #yacafe.

Today's Special: What makes for a successful story starter?

Starting a novel or short story is like making a promise to the reader.  You set up rules and expectations that your readers will rely on as they read your piece.  Specifically, there are five things that you should establish early on in your story to gain the reader's trust.  Delaying or changing these elements on your reader will create tension and while that might get the reader's attention, it will also mean you'll have to work that much harder to gain back the reader's trust during the rest of the story.

5 Essential Things You Promise to Your Reader:

1) You promise a character.
From the get-go your readers will want to know who they're supposed to root for.  Sometimes writers will artfully delay the appearance of the main character in order to create anticipation or to reflect the character's personality, but this is very unusual.  In most cases, the protagonist usually appears in the first chapter, and is often the very first character the reader sees.

A great example of a delayed main character from children's literature is The Wainscott Weasel by Tor Seidler, in which the protagonist does not appear at all in the first chapter.  (OK, this example isn't YA, but it's such a great example, I couldn't resist.)  Another example, of course, is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, in which Elizabeth's ultimate love interest--Mr. Darcy--doesn't appear until well into the story.  In the case of both books, these characters are introverted and shy.  By holding the characters back and making the reader wait for them, the authors show us this facet of their personalities.

2) You promise the voice.
The voice of the narration is central to establishing the mood of the story.  Compare the opening sentences to the following novels and notice the different moods that they convey.

"Everyone thinks it was because of the snow.  And in a way, I suppose that's true."
                  ~Gayle Forman, If I Stay
"We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to totally suck."
                  ~M.T. Anderson, Feed
"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."
                  ~J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Point of view (POV) is also central to the voice and mood.  Notice that in the three above examples, all of the narrators were in the first person, which allows us to hear the character's voice.  There are other scenarios where the narrator is not the protagonist, but the voice of the protagonist still comes through loud and clear in dialogue.

3) You promise the world.
Promise the world?  As in the whole world?  It might sound huge but it's not just any world you're promising, it's your world.  It's the world of your book.  It doesn't matter what genre you're writing either.  Whether you're writing contemporary YA set in a regular suburb, or some elaborate fantasy story set in another world, you have to let your reader into that world and it must feel real.

4) You promise a problem.
From minute one, your reader has to know that there's a problem the character is facing.  Whether that problem is explicit (like the family's financial state in Pride and Prejudice) or a mystery (like in If I Stay) we know from the first moment that the character is facing some difficulty, some problem.  This promise is essential because whatever this problem is, it will be crucial in establishing the central conflict for your story.

5) You promise an event.
Every book opens with some sort of event that kick-starts the story.  In If I Stay, the event is huge and turns the characters' lives upside-down (not gonna say what it is, in case any of you reader-friends haven't read it yet).  In Catcher in the Rye, Holden leaves boarding school and that sets off the chain of events that is the story.  In Feed, we start by going to the moon to have fun and the story unravels from there.  Whether the event simply nudges the story into motion or gives it a sharp shove, there must be an event early on that gets the story started.  Your reader will be waiting for that event, so you will need to deliver.  Try not to delay it for too long.

What do you think?  Any promises I missed and any you'd like to add? 

Want to hear more about YA story starters?  Fellow barista, Ghenet shares her thoughts on her blog: All About Them Words.  Check it out, then tell us what you think!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mood Music

This past week we've discussed how to set the mood for writing through reading, collage, color theory and writing rituals.  Today I want to talk about music.

I've played the violin on and off since I was four years old, and music has been a central part of my life for even longer than that.  I love music that tells a story.  Here's a list of the essentials in my music library.

  • The Four Seasons by Vivaldi.
    This classic piece of music sets the tone for each of the four seasons.  For a different take on this piece, check out the recording by Il Giardino Armonico, where the orchestra plays entirely on period instruments but give the piece a contemporary, edgy feel. 
  • The Planets by Holst.
    In this piece, each movement represents one of the planets.  The music captures the personality and sets the mood for each planet.  
  • Such Sweet Thunder by Duke Ellington.
    This jazz suite is based on various plays by William Shakespeare.  Each track represents one play or one set of characters from Shakespeare's plays.  My favorite is "Up and Down" where the different pairs of instruments are supposed to depict the different couple pairings in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
  • Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral" by Beethoven
    In my opinion the most beautiful piece of music ever written, Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony captures the mood of a day in the countryside, complete with waterfalls and streams, a country village and a thunderstorm.
  •  Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens
    A great piece--especially for introducing newcomers to classical music--the Carnival of the Animals captures the feeling of being in a carnival.  From the lion to the aquarium to the aviary, each movement of the piece represents one group of animals in the carnival.  A great recording of this is the one conducted and narrated by Bernstein where he explains each of the movements and what to listen for (a great recording for introducing kids to classical music).
If I had to limit my inspirational writing music to just five albums, these would be the ones I'd choose (and it would be a tough choice because I left off some of my absolute favorite pieces).  I chose these five because I feel like they give me the most mileage for my writing.

Homework: Today I'd like you to choose a piece of music and listen--really listen--for at least one track.  Try to hear the story being told in the music.  If you're not sure of a piece to choose, feel free to borrow one of my selections above.  After listening, jot down a few notes so you remember the story you heard in the music.

Then tell me how it went.  What piece did you choose?  What did you hear in the music?  What story did it tell you?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Writing Rituals

Today, I'd like to talk about writing rituals--you know, those little things we all do to get us in that writing mood.

What are writing rituals?  They can be anything, as long is it sets the mood for writing.  I read once about a writer who literally wears different hats when she's writing or editing.  Another writer I've heard of lights a candle when it's writing time.  The writing rituals can be as simple as a turning on your iPod or using a specific pen or notebook.

My writing ritual is that I always use an unlined notebook and a fountain pen.  Something about writing with a fountain pen makes me feel like I'm channeling the great women writers of old, like Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters.  I also have certain playlists I listen to for different projects.  Right now I'm listening to the GLEE soundtracks because I can always use more glee in my life.

Why are rituals important?  Rituals signal to your brain "OK it's writing time now."  Just like having a bedtime routine can help kids get in the mindset of going to sleep, writing rituals tell your inner writer that it's time to get in that writing frame of mind.  Writing rituals are also a great way to pamper your inner writer a little bit.  Scented lotion can be soothing, a pretty potted plant on the window sill can make you smile, a favorite poem or reading passage can inspire the writer within.  Whatever you choose, having a small writing ritual can help set the mood for writing.

What if your ritual becomes too routine?  Every so often, it's good to shake things up.  Break your routines and do the exact opposite of your writing ritual.  This can be a challenge, because stepping outside our comfort zones can be uncomfortable and scary.  But a healthy dose of fear can be energizing--exciting even--so don't shy away from breaking your rituals now and again.  Take a risk!

Why it works:  All writing is the act of making rules, then shaking them up.  When we write, we establish rules for our readers and the reader gets lulled into a comfort zone with the story.  When we shake up those rules (give the story structure a twist, introduce a new character, add a new plot element) it gets the readers' attention.  They sit up and start listening again.  The same is true for our inner writers.  When we shake up our writing "rules" it grabs our inner writer's attention and helps it engage with the work again.

Homework: If you don't already have a writing ritual, think of something that would help get you in the writing mood and do it today.  Establish a ritual so that in a couple of weeks, when you break it, your writer will respond.

If you do have a ritual already, I want you to break it today.  Do something outside your routine, something exciting and maybe a little bit daring.  (I know some of you already did this for the first writing sprint, but that was weeks ago and it's time to shake things up again.)  Remember, it doesn't have to be a huge change; it can be just one small, meaningful thing.

Please share in the comments because I'm dying to know: Do you have a writing ritual? What is it?  What small thing did you do to break out of your comfort zone today?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

True Colors

As you might have noticed, I'm really into design.  A graphic designer and product manager in a past life, you could say I'm a little bit obsessed with clean lines and balanced designs.  I love problem-solving so that form and function work together seamlessly.  One of the areas that most fascinates me in design is color theory and color symbolism.  I find it remarkable that certain colors seem almost to have certain personalities or identities.  Much like characters in a story.

Colors and their meanings:

Certain colors have intrinsic meaning.  Red means "stop" or "warning."  Orange is an attention-grabbing color, green suggests growth and life, and blue generally has a calming influence.  Even before we add the layers of other influences, these colors already have a certain symbolism inherent in the color itself.

Traditions and cultures help shape symbolism.  In Western culture, the color white implies innocence and purity while in other cultures it is actually the color of mourning.  The phrase "green with envy" has added a different layer of meaning to the color.

Combining colors lends nuance.  Blue alone might symbolize peace and calm, but add red and yellow, and you get the primary colors which imply youth.  Replace the yellow with white and you get a patriotic color combination.  When you pair colors together, their meanings can change or acquire nuance.

A little color theory:

Red, Yellow and Blue are the primary colors.  They are called primary colors because you cannot mix any other colors together to get these three.

Note: red, yellow and blue are primary colors for pigment.  When you're talking about color and light, the primaries are actually red, green and blue but that gets us into crazy physics stuff and I'm not going there.

Orange, Green and Purple are secondary colors.  They are called secondary because you can make them by mixing only two primaries.

See the color wheel below for primary and secondary colors.  Primaries are marked with a 1 and secondaries are marked with a 2.
Image Credit Tiger Color: Color Lab

Opposites provide good contrast.  Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel are called complementary colors because they complement each other well and provide contrast.  Each of the primary colors has a secondary color as its complement.

But, what does this have to do with writing?

Color can set a mood.  It can inspire a feeling or set the tone for a piece of writing.  You can use individual colors or a color scheme to capture the essence of your story without words.  Think of it as a wordless summary.

Characters are like colors.  Often the best way to draw a character out is to pair it with someone completely opposite.  If your character is best represented by a shade of purple, try pairing her with someone who's a yellow and watch the sparks fly.

How I use color: When I develop a new character with an acrostic bio card, I tape a paint chip to the back of the card.  The color becomes like a wordless bio for the character, telling me almost as much as the written bio on the other side of the card.

Homework: Field trip!  Next weekend, take a half hour and go to a hardware store to browse the paint aisle.  Most stores give out free paint chip samples so grab a few.  No wait, grab a bunch.  Try to find the perfect paint color to represent your character or your story.  If you're really ambitious, pick out colors for each of your important characters.  See where the contrasts are, as well as the harmonious combinations.

If you're really really ambitious, skip the paint store and browse a fabric store instead (where you can play with color as well as pattern and texture).  If you don't have time to browse the stores, break out the markers, colored pencils or better yet, paints!  Mix and match and play with color.  The point here is to have fun and to look at your characters and story in a new and different way.

What did you discover about your story by playing with color?

Monday, April 18, 2011

A little R&R

Sometimes we need a little R&R, and I don't mean "rest and relaxation," I mean "reading and recharging." Of course, writing is important because if we're writers and we're not actually doing any writing, then there's something seriously wrong with the equation.  At the same time, if all we do is write and we don't stop to read what else is out there in the world, then we're living in a vacuum and that can be very lonely.

Yesterday in #DIYMFA chat, the subject came up of reading as a warm-up to writing and the idea really seemed to resonate with a lot of people in the chat.  With that in mind, I thought today we could talk about literature that inspires us and puts us in that writing mood.

But first, I wanted to tell you all of a great tool I've been learning about.  It's called Goodreads.  Sort of like Facebook--but a lot cooler--Goodreads allows you to follow friends and get updates on what they're reading, what they thought about it and what books they recommend.

Personally, I haven't really started to scratch the surface of what Goodreads offers, but I Love reading list function.  You can put books on your to-be-read list and mark them off as you read them.  There's even a 2011 reading challenge (for which I'm totally behind schedule!) that tracks how many books you read this year.  If anyone happens to be a Goodreads expert, please feel free to add more tips in the comments because I feel like this is such a great online community but I've only begun to explore its many benefits.

If you are on Goodreads (or you happen to join), please feel free to friend me (Gabriela Pereira--you'll recognize me because I'm the only person on Goodreads with an iggi as a profile pic).

As for today, I'd like to hear about what you read.  What snippet of literature puts you in the mood to write?  For me, it's a poem.  In fact, this poem always helps me see the lighter side of writing (and receiving criticism) so I like to read it as a warm-up when I'm feeling stressed-out by a writing project.  This poem makes me giggle and helps me not take myself too seriously.  After all, writing should be fun or else why do it, right?

Here's the poem that inspires me: Workshop by Billy Collins

Homework: Please share in the comments a snippet of something you've read that has inspired you or helped put you in the writing mood.  Let's inspire one another to write by sharing the literature that we love.  If it's a short quote, you can tweet it too. Because literature that awesome can't be kept to oneself; you have to share it with the world.  Write on!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Mood Collage

Remember back in grade school when we used to cut up magazines and glue pictures together to make beautiful artwork?  Well, believe it or not, collaging is actually a great way for writers to explore and express the mood of their project.

I actually learned the benefits of this technique when I was in art school.  "Mood boards" were an integral part of each portfolio presentation and we learned the importance of capturing the essence of a project through imagery.

How do you make a mood collage?  There are no rules.  You can clip pictures from magazines or cut out letters and words in different fonts.  It doesn't even need to be concrete objects or words; you make a cool background by using printed fabrics or pretty papers.  Use whatever inspires you.  Lay out the pieces in a way that inspires you and move things around until you've got a design that you love.  Finally, break out the glue-stick or glue-gun and start sticking the pieces down.

I happen to have Photoshop and I'm into that techie stuff so I actually do my collages digitally.  That way I can print them out in different sizes, email them to people or even post them here on the blog.  To that end, here are a few mood collages I've done.  The ones included below are for products I've designed, but the same idea applies to mood collages for writing projects.

Mood collage for a road trip project.

Mood collage for a tween fashion project

Mood collage for a project representing the experiences
of girls and women from different cultures.

Homework: Set aside an hour sometime this next week to make a mood collage for your work-in-progress.  Clip pictures from magazines or print images you find online and cut them up.  If you like, while you're clipping pictures and gluing, listen to some mood music that inspires your story.  The idea with this project is to get completely immersed in the mood of your work-in-progress.

Once you've finished your collage, give it a place of honor in your writing space.  You could even take a picture and share with us it on the DIY MFA FB page if you like.  Can't wait to see what you all come up with!

Now you tell me: what do you do to capture the mood of your current writing project?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sprint #3: Growing Your Story

Last week was all about character, so today I'd like you to focus on story.  Look at your work in progress (WIP) and determine where the story needs the most work.

•  Do you need to work on planning out the story?  Maybe an outline technique can help.
•  Is one particular scene is giving you trouble?  Try using morphological forced connections, using different aspects of your scene as the categories in the exercise.
•  Are you having trouble with story arc?  Try the ABC method.

Don't forget tomorrow we have our chat at 5pm ET! You can always tweet comments or thoughts using the #diymfa hashtag or add your thoughts in the comments.

Also, I'll be sending the eWorkbook out this weekend so if you haven't already joined my DIY MFA list, you can register here.  You'll get the free workbook and be entered for a chance to win an iggilicious journal!

Tweet or comment and tell me how YOU made life difficult for your character today.  And don't forget to grab a badge after you do your sprint!

Friday, April 15, 2011

YA Cafe: Is it YA or Not? 5 Ways to Tell

Welcome Back to YA Cafe, where book lovers can gather and chat about teen literature.  I'm your barista, along with Ghenet from All About Them Words.

Each Friday we pick from a menu of topics and share our thoughts on our respective blogs.  We've also got plans brewing for interviews, events and even some exciting giveaways, so stay tuned!  Join the discussion by responding in the comments, on your own blogs or on twitter using the hash tag #yacafe.

Today's Special: What makes a story YA?

This is a topic I've been struggling with a lot lately.  How do we know if a book is YA or not?  I've had countless discussions with other writers on this subject and the conclusion is always the same: YA is hard to define but most readers know it when they see it.  Here are five ways to tell if a book is YA or not.

1) Is the main character a teen?
I can't think of a single YA book where the protagonist is not a teen.  The only example I can think of is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, where the main character starts out as a child and is only a teen in the latter part of the novel.  For the most part, if the main character is a teen, then there's a good chance that the book is YA.

2) Are teens the intended audience?
There are many books that are not YA but have teenage protagonists, for example: J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.  While these books may have been embraced by teens, they were first written for an adult audience.  This is why in my mind, these books still fall outside the YA umbrella.  We have to look at the author's intent; if the author intended to write a book for adults then I'm hard-pressed to label it YA.

3) Does it deal with teen issues?
While not every YA novel is all sex, drugs and rock 'n roll, they do all have to deal with issues that are important to teens.  Romance and love.  Friendship and betrayal.  Grief and pain.  If the main theme of the novel is not something that matters to teens, then the book is probably not YA.  Most likely, it's some sort of crossover between YA and either middle grade or adult fiction.

4) Is there hope?
The main theme that differentiates YA from adult fiction is hope.  In fiction for adults, it's perfectly acceptable to end a book with no hint of hope that things will get better.  Adult readers seem to enjoy books where everyone winds up miserable, but teen readers are less likely to stand for it.  Teens want to see a glimmer of hope on the horizon, even if everything seems to be falling apart.

5) Does it have that YA voice?
Voice is probably the element that best defines YA.  While some books might be about teens or have themes that appeal to teens, if the voice of the narrator doesn't have that YA quality, it's hard to think of the book as truly YA.  A vast number of YA novels are also written in first person so we definitely get that teenage voice telling the story.

What do you think?  Which of these elements resonates most with you?  Also, is there anything you'd add to the list? 

Want to read a more about what makes a book YA?  Fellow barista, Ghenet shares her favorites on her blog: All About Them Words.  Check it out, then tell us what you think!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Outline Techniques for Those Who Hate Outlines

This past weekend in #diymfa chat, we had a great discussion about outlines and whether we plotted out our stories in detail or wrote by the seat of our pants.  As you can imagine, the responses were as varied as the number of people in the chat.

This discussion got me thinking about my own writing.  I'm not a seat-of-my-pants writer--not even a little--but I hate traditional outlines.  Something about long lists (I.A, 2.b--it's all Greek to me) just doesn't work for my visual brain.  I think it's my background in design that means those outlines are too logical and sequential for me.  To that end, I wanted to share some plotting devices that have worked better for me.  These techniques help me organize my writing without killing the spontaneity.

Mind Mapping
I give a detailed How-To for this technique in the first DIY MFA.  Unlike traditional techniques, this type of outline forces you to look at a topic from multiple different angles. It also makes it easy for you to see an entire project in one glance, rather than having to read through line-by-line to get a sense of the full story.

How to Apply this to Fiction: Try mind-mapping your story or novel by making each of the main branches as chapter topics or major events in the story.  The sub-branches can be scenes that sub-divide these larger branches.  There are no rules with mind-mapping so feel free to doodle and make notes (I use thought bubbles and speech bubbles to add notes to my mind maps, as you can see in the image.)

Here's a mind map I used to brainstorm the very first DIY MFA back in September.

Story Maps
I love subway maps.  What can I say, I'm a New Yorker so it's in my blood.  Recently, I started outlining stories using New York-style subway maps.  Just as subway lines intersect, different subplots weave in and out of the main plot thread in a novel or short story.  I like to think of writing as a journey so to me, this idea of mapping out a story works for me.

How to Apply this to Fiction: The different threads in a story are in different colors.  Scenes in each thread are marked as subway stops.  If a scene applies to more than one story thread, then it becomes an intersection.  What I love about this technique is that when I sit down to write a scene, all I'm writing is a "dot" of the story.  Dot's aren't big and scary; they're cute and round.  They're just dots for crying out loud.  Somehow in my mind, it seems a lot more manageable.

Tip: If the subway concept doesn't work for you, think of this as a road map instead.  The main story threads are interstates, subplots are smaller roads and the dots are the stops you make along the way.

Here's a subway map I designed to use for DIY MFA.

Scene Cards

This technique is super-portable, which is one of the reasons I love it.  Take a stack of index cards and make one card for each scene you know needs to happen in your story.  What's nice about this technique is that you don't have to write the scenes in order (you can move the cards around), and you can always add more cards later if you think you need them. 

How to Apply this to Fiction: On each card write the following information.
  •  Scene Title: Something easy to remember like "Scene where Jimmy falls from the tree."
  • Characters: Who's in this scene?
  • Events: What happens?
  • Setting: Where are we?
  • Purpose: Why do you need this scene? (Character development? Important plot point? Reveal important information?)  This last one is important because if you can't think of a purpose for the scene then you have to question whether you need the scene at all.
Some computer programs actually have an index card function built in (Scrivener, for instance) which is nice because it makes editing and moving the cards around even easier.  I still like the old-fashioned method because it means I can grab a handful of cards and take it with me anywhere.

Homework: Choose one technique and try it out. Then tell us about it in the comments or on twitter!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

5 Tips for Keeping Up with Writing and Life

It starts with the best of intentions.  We set big goals.  Thousands of words a day.  Finish a novel in a month.  You name it.  It's all done with the noblest ideals at heart.  Trouble is, sooner or later we all get burned out.

Today, as we near the midway point of DIY MFA 2.O, I wanted to talk about keeping up: both with DIY MFA itself and with your writing in general.  It's easy to feel overwhelmed, especially when the goals get big and there's a lot at stake.  I know.  I've been feeling that way myself lately.  Here are some tips that help me when deadlines loom large and the stress monster rears his ugly head.

1) Work in short spurts.  I've talked about the Pomodoro app before, but this idea of working for short spurts then taking breaks has worked brilliantly for me.  When I know I only have to focus on something for a short while, it makes it easier to ignore interruptions.  I let the phone go to voicemail.  I let emails sit in my inbox just a little bit longer.  And it's OK, because it's only for 25 minutes.

2) Take breaks.  It's really easy to work through your breaks, especially if your "work time" before that was only a short spurt.  Even so, take a few minutes every hour or so to get up and stretch.  You'll want to stretch your arms and wrists (to prevent repetitive motion injury) as well as your legs, since writing is so sedentary.  Also if the bulk of your work is done at the computer, take a minute or two to look out the window.  Not only might it give you some writing ideas, but it can help rest your eyes and prevent eye strain.  Most importantly, taking breaks helps you rest your brain.

3) Save some writing for later.  Don't stop working at a logical stopping point.  If you wrap up your writing day too neatly (at the end of a chapter, or short story) then it's all that much harder to pick it up the next day.  Instead, try stopping in the middle of a scene or even in the middle of a sentence.  If you're writing a goal number of words, stop when you hit that goal even if it's in the middle of a thought.  When you come back the next day you'll find it that much easier to jump in and keep going.

4) Avoid binging.  As with anything in life, moderation is key.  If you're starting to feel like you're going on a writing binge, dial back the intensity.  Better to write 200 words per day for a week, than to write a thousand in an hour and not write for another two weeks.  Remember the fable and aim for slow and steady.

5) One thing at a time. This goes back to the idea of the short spurts and Pomodoro.  One of the reasons that technique works so well is that you focus on one thing at a time for a set number of minutes.  Not only is this good for maintaining focus and efficiency, it also helps maintain sanity.  These days, everyone tries to do eight million things at once.  Talk on the phone while they surf the web and walk across the street.  Check email and work and tweet all at the same time.  I prefer to do one thing mindfully at a time, give it my full focus and when I'm done, I focus on something else.

Bonus DIY MFA Tip: Use Your Idea Bank
I know it can be tough keeping up with all the prompts this time around.  DIY MFA 2.O is not like the first DIY MFA where all you had to do was read the posts and the homework can get overwhelming.  If you can't get to a prompt, don't worry.  Just write it on a slip of paper and tuck it away in your Idea Bank.  Just like saving pennies for a rainy day, you'll be saving writing ideas for when you're ready to use them.

This week, at our Facebook page, I'll share pictures of the new Idea Bank I found at a thrift store.  Feel free to share pictures of your own Idea Bank too.  I'd love to see what you come up with.

Homework: Today your homework is to give yourself a break.  It doesn't have to be a long break--30 minutes will suffice--but it needs to be a break nonetheless.  Do something fun.  Something relaxing.  Something that's not writing.  This is not optional.  You are not allowed to work and call it "fun."

When you're done doing your something fun, please share it in the comments or on twitter!  I'm dying to hear all about it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Prompt Builder

This writing tool was inspired by the board game Clue. You know, the game where you win by saying something like: "It's Colonel Mustard in the ballroom with the revolver!"

As a toy designer in a past life, I had the opportunity to tease apart different games and see how they worked on a fundamental level.  The game Clue was always one of my favorites because it essentially comes down to telling a mystery story using only four elements: a character (one of the suspects), a situation (the murder), a setting (one of the rooms), and a prop (one of the murder weapons).

That got me thinking that storytelling really boils down to two things: a character plus a situation (preferably one rife with conflict). The props and settings add detail to make the stories unique, but ultimately, a character in a conflict-filled situation is what makes a story. From that idea came this prompt builder technique that I've used with various groups of students.

What I love about this technique is that with one index card and one standard die, I can have over 1,200 possible writing prompts at my fingertips. Also this writing tool is completely customizable so if you write a certain genre, you can tweak the different lists to make them more applicable to your own writing. I myself have devised various versions of this activity, including one for fables and fairy tales to use with younger students, and one mega-set that has over 28,000 possible combinations!  Talk about prompts that will last a lifetime.

Today I'd like to share with you the pocket-sized version.

Instructions: Copy the four lists below onto one index card or into a pocket-sized notebook (make sure to include the headers "character," "situation," "prop," and "setting"). Roll the die four times to determine which item you'll use from each list. Now write.

1.  Child Prodigy
2.  Driver's Ed Instructor
3.  Shopping Mall Santa
4.  Clerk at MegaMart
5.  Father of 12
6.  Wedding Planner

1.  Runs into an Ex
2.  Visits a Psychic
3.  Discovers a Secret
4.  Has to Hitchhike
5.  Loses a Bet
6.  Flunks a Test

1.  Red Shoes
2.  Evidence of a Crime
3.  Superstition
4.  Regret
5.  Mask
6.  Someone Else's Spouse

1.  Wedding
2.  Funeral
3.  Middle of Nowhere
4.  Fancy Hotel
5.  Rowboat
6.  Beach

Monday, April 11, 2011

ABCs of Story Analysis

Today's technique is one I learned from my thesis adviser and I found it so helpful that it's stayed with me.  While you can use this technique to develop your own stories, you can also use it as a method of analyzing stories that you read.  Today, I'd like you to take a few minutes and read Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find.

This story is one of my favorites in terms of plot development because while it follows the ABC method beautifully, it is by no means predictable.  In fact, even though you know what's going to happen, it's one of the most suspenseful stories I've read.  What keeps you reading is the How.  You might have a hunch what the ending will be but you want to know how we get there.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  First the ABC method of Story Analysis.

A = Action.  The action sets the story in motion.  Some teachers give this a fancy name--"inciting incident"--but really all that means is that an action has to kick-start the story.  (Tip: If it takes too long for an action kick in, maybe you need to start the story closer to where the action starts.)

B = Background.  At some point early in the story, you need to establish who these characters are and what their story is.  This doesn't mean giving pages and pages of back-story.  Rather, a few well-placed details can give us all the background we need.

C = Conflict.  This is probably the most important element in your story.  Without conflict, you might have a great sequence of events or a lovely character study, but you don't have a story.  90% of the time, the conflict comes from the character wanting something and an obstacle getting in his/her way.

D = Development.  Most of the story or novel occurs in this phase.  This is where we see various obstacles get in the character's way.  This is where subplots emerge.

E = Ending.  The ending consists of 3 C's: Crisis, Climax and Consequences.
  • Crisis: The events leading up to the climax.
  • Climax: This is the final showdown, the big event at the end of the story/novel where everything unravels.
  • Consequences: Also called "Denouement" is where some or all of the plot threads are tied together.
Now you know the ABC method, I'd like you to look at the Flannery O'Connor sometime this week and try to identify the different elements in that story.  It's not a very long story, but take your time with it and really try to pick apart how O'Connor crafts this story.  The ABC elements are your guide.

Homework:  This week I would like you to read and analyze A Good Man is Hard to Find.  In addition, today, I'd like you to take at a piece of your own writing and examine it using the ABC method.  Jot down some notes on how elements A-E and the 3C's function in your piece.

What did you discover from your analysis?  Did you notice any elements missing from your story?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

DIY MFA: Morphological Forced Connections

Hello Friends of iggi!

Welcome to Week 2 of DIY MFA.  Last week we talked about using characters to spark ideas.  Now we'll be shifting gears and looking at story elements that can generate ideas.

Today we'll be talking about Morphological Forced Connections, a technique I learned when taking a creativity seminar in graduate school.  I've blogged about this technique in DIY MFA before, but this time we're taking a slightly different approach.  Before, we used this technique to brainstorm ideas for new stories but today we'll be applying it to your current work-in-progress.

Step-by-Step Guide to Morphological Forced Connections:

What you need:
• Paper and pencil

Step 1: Answer the following questions.

• What does your character want?
• List at least 5 possible obstacles that will get in the way.
• List a set of worst-case scenarios that could happen.
• List a set of settings where the big show-down could happen should a worst-case scenario occur.
• 4 possible outcomes to the story:
  1. Character gets what he/she wants.
  2. Character doesn't get what he/she wants.
  3. Character decides he/she wants something else.
  4. Character gets what he/she wants but realizes he/she didn't really want it.
Step 2: Make a pretty little chart, like this:

Obstacles   Worst-Case              Settings         Outcome
Option 1          Option 1                 Option 1        1.  Gets what he wants
Option 2          Option 2                 Option 2        2.  Doesn't get what he wants
Option 3          Option 3                 Option 3        3.  Wants something else
   etc.                    etc.                         etc.            4.  Doesn't really want it

Note that for this exercise, you don't have to make the same number of options in each column.  You can brainstorm as many options for the first three columns as you like.  The only column with a set number of options is the outcome because there are four basic possibilities.

Step 3: Use to choose an option from each of the four lists. will choose numbers at random from 1 to whatever number you choose.  Just plug in how many options you have for each column and it will pick one at random.

Step 4: Write!  Take that show-down scene where the worst-case scenario happens and write that scene.

Homework: Try out this technique, then check-in in the comments, to let us know how it went!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Sprint #2: Working With Character

This week, we talked about characters and how to come up with new ones or use existing characters to develop ideas.  Now today, I'd like you to take some time to apply what you learned about your characters to your own work-in-progress (WIP).  Here's an exercise to get you started:
  • Choose a character.  Write down his/her name.
  • What does your character want most in the world?
  • What is standing in his/her way?
  • Name 3 of your character's biggest weaknesses.
  • Come up with a situation that would make your character struggle.
  • Now think of something even worse and put your character in that scenario.
  • Write a scene or two of your character in that situation.
Hint: If you can't think of a situation, look at your character's weaknesses and the obstacles to getting what he/she wants.  Use them to come up with a situation.  Examples: If your character desperately wants to be part of a family, make her an orphan and put her in a horrible foster-family situation.  If your character's weakness is his short temper, put him in a situation where he's constantly being provoked.

Don't be afraid to let your character suffer.  Often we can become protective of our characters (especially if we like them) and we might resist making life difficult for them.  Today you have permission to make life difficult for your character.

Tweet or comment and tell me how YOU made life difficult for your character today.  And don't forget to grab a badge after you do your sprint!

Weekly Check-In:  How has Week 1 of DIY MFA been for you?  Have you gotten some good writing done?  What has been most helpful?  What would you like to see more of?

Don't Forget:

Friday, April 8, 2011

YA Cafe: 5 Reasons Your YA Character Might Flop

Welcome Back to YA Cafe, where book lovers can gather and chat about teen literature.  I'm your barista, along with Ghenet from All About Them Words.

Each Friday we pick from a menu of topics and share our thoughts on our respective blogs.  We've also got plans brewing for interviews, events and even some exciting giveaways, so stay tuned!  Join the discussion by responding in the comments, on your own blogs or on twitter using the hash tag #yacafe.

Today's Special: What are your favorite characters in teen literature?

The truth is, I don't really have a favorite character in teen literature, but I have lots of characters I dislike.  Some I even hate.  Like Holden Caulfield, Alaska from Looking for Alaska, and Harry Potter (especially in book V but, pretty much throughout the latter half of the series).  These characters got me to thinking, what makes me like YA characters or hate them?  And if a character doesn't work, what's the reason behind it.

Your YA Character May Flop Because He/She is...

1) Pathologically Self-Centered.  OK, let me start by saying that everybody is at least a little bit egocentric; that's normal.  What's not normal is when a character is so pathologically self-centered that he or she doesn't care about anyone else.  At all.  Not even a little bit.  Take Alaska from Looking for Alaska: she's so wrapped up in this persona of "traumatized-and-depressed teen" that she couldn't care less how her actions affect the people who care about her.  Of course, her quirkiness makes her endearing at times so that's her saving grace.  But if you really want to make your character the worst YA character ever, you need to make sure he has no endearing qualities whatsoever.

2) Pathologically Quirky.  More than the egocentric protagonist, one type of character I detest is the I'm-so-unbelievably-quirky-even-I-can't-stand-it character.  A mild form of this character is Stargirl, who is quirky in a charming, funny way.  But if you push this quirkiness too far, you end up having a character who's annoying and just plain weird.  And seriously, if your character's in high school--don't you think she has enough problems already? 

3) Pathologically Stupid.  Some characters have plenty of good things going for them, but they are in the habit of making one bad decision after another.  Good ol' Harry Potter falls into this category (though despite his lack of sense, he still seems to come out on top and that makes him all the more infuriating).  My favorite Harry Potter moment happens in the first book when Neville Longbottom earns the winning points for Gryffindor by standing up to Harry and his buddies for breaking the rules.  If you want your character to annoy the living daylights out of your reader have your protagonist always make bad decisions, then make everything turn out OK for him anyway.  It'll drive your readers nuts.

4) Pathologically Whiny and Self-Righteous.  With this rule we return to my favorite least-favorite character: Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye.  He whines from the moment the book starts to the very last scene.  He believes he's entitled to whatever he wants.  He thinks he's SO above everyone around him.  *rolls eyes*  As if.  Self-righteous characters who think they're so much better than everyone else are easy to hate.  Add a dash of whiny entitlement and you'll have a thoroughly despicable character in the making.

5) Not A Teen.  That's right.  If you want your book to have the worst YA character of all time, you need to make the protagonist not be a teenager.  Try writing a YA novel about an eleven-year-old.  Or maybe a twenty-something frat boy.  Because teens just love to read about middle schoolers almost as much as they're dying read about adults (if you could call a twenty-something frat boy an "adult" but that's beside the point.)  While there are many crossover books that are originally marketed to adults but have teen protagonists, I am hard-pressed to think of one truly-YA (i.e. not crossover) book with a protagonist younger than thirteen or older than eighteen.

What do you think?  What other reasons are there for YA characters that just don't work?  Tell me because I'm dying to know.  Especially since I want to make sure my main character doesn't reek of awfulness.  (Yes, I know it's an ulterior motive, but help a girl out, 'k?)

Want to read a post that's actually about favorite YA characters?  Fellow barista, Ghenet shares her favorites on her blog: All About Them Words.  Check it out, then tell us who your favorite characters are!

Also, the winner of last week's contest (for a signed copy of BITTEN by R.L. Stine) is K.V. Briar!  Congratulations!  *throws confetti*  Thank you to all who entered the contest.  K.V., please email me at iggiNgabi[at]gmail[dot]com with your address so I can mail you your prize.  

Thursday, April 7, 2011

iggilicious Caption Contest on the DIY MFA FB Page

Dear Friends of iggi!

I have decided to start a tradition at our DIY MFA Facebook Page. It's an iggilicious Caption Contest and I invite you all to join.

Here's how it's going to work:

  1. I'll post an iggi picture on the WALL on Thursday.
  2. In the comments for that picture, you all can post captions of what you think iggi is saying.  You have until Sunday night.
  3. Monday I'll post a poll with my 3 favorite captions--the "finalists." I may also include a caption of my own.
  4. You guys vote for your favorite by Wednesday night.
  5. Thursday, I post the finished iggi-comic with the winning caption.  I'll also post a new iggi and the contest will start again.
My plan is for this to be a weekly meme, with a new iggi every Thursday on the Facebook page.  Eventually, I also plan to use my favorites of the iggi+caption combos in designs for various iggilicious writerly products (journals, mousepads, stickers, mugs, etc.) There is no tangible prize for this contest.  Winner gets bragging rights, plus there's a chance they'll get to see their words on an iggilicious product!

AND it'll be oodles of fun and a great way to get to know other DIY MFA people.  The contest is going on right now so come join the fun and if you haven't already, come visit our Facebook community.

Acrostic Character Bio

Now that you've gotten to know your characters a bit more, you'll need an easy way to keep track of all this new information.  After all, if you're writing on-the-go, you can't exactly tote around stacks of pages with character dossiers.  This is where the Acrostic Bio-in-a-Nutshell comes in.  This technique forces you to choose the most important details of your character and organizes it in a compact way.

First a word on acrostics.  I got the idea for this exercise from acrostic poems written by Lewis Carroll, in which the first letter of each line spells the name of the person to whom the poem is dedicated.  It occurred to me that you could use the same technique to organize information in a character dossier, using the character's name as the basic structure.  Here follows an example of a character bio for one of the character's I've worked with for a story that is now in press.

Lucy Marie Watson

Loyal to her friends
Unaware her best friend (Jake) has a crush on her
Crush on Ralph (leader of her group of friends)
Young (age 11, 6th grade)

Moral compass of the group
Always wears hair in a pony tail
Incredibly close to her dad
Efficient (plans ahead)

Willing to take risks and break rules if it's for a good reason
Two sisters: Danielle (older) and Caroline (younger)
Smart (smartest kid in her group, though the boys would never admit it)
Obedient (usually) so when she breaks rules, she feels guilty
No idea she what to do about her crush (not even aware she has one)

Notice how most of the information is focused on the interpersonal relationships (not a lot of appearance or demographic detail).  For Lucy the relationships were the most important part of her character development so the acrostic bio reflects that.  If your character has a unique appearance or a job that is central to his/her character, then those things are likely to be the ones that pop up on the acrostic.

I like to write my acrostic bio-in-a-nutshell on an index card.  That way I can carry it with me in my notebook and have it right at my fingertips when I need it.

Homework: Choose one of your characters (preferably one you've worked with this week) and write an acrostic bio that reflects who that character is at their core.

Then tell me, how has your study of character gone this week?  Discover something new about a character or two?  Anything surprise you?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Character Interview

Another technique I use when I need to get to know my characters is the Character Interview.  In this case, I ask a character various questions and then answer them in the voice of the character.  I find this exercise useful even when my novel or short story is written from different point of view (i.e. not that character's POV in first person).  Even if I only use the character's voice in dialogue and not in narration, it's helpful to hear these questions answered from the character's own perspective.

Some questions I like to ask are:
  • What was your scariest moment?
  • What was your happiest moment?
  • What's the most dangerous thing you've ever done?
  • What is your biggest regret?
  • Who do you love most in the world?
  • What is your most prized possession?
  • Do you have a nemesis? Who?
  • Who was your first love?
  • Where is your favorite place?
  • Who or what makes you feel safe?
  • Who makes you jealous?
  • Who or what makes you feel inadequate?
  • What is your theme song?
  • What is your signature color?
  • What is your favorite season?
  • What is your catch-phrase?
  • What is your pet peeve?
  • List your character's ten favorite things (Example: raindrops on roses, etc.)
For more interview question ideas, check out these Character Questionnaires from Gotham Writers' Workshop.

Homework: Answer all these questions quickly in your character's voice and point of view.  Now go back and choose three answers, and follow-up like you would if you were a reporter doing an interview.  Don't let your character get away with easy answers.  Dig deep.  Ask who, what, when, where, why and how.  Whenever your character starts to shy away from answering, press him or her further.  Keep asking: "tell me more about that" until you get to the juicy information.

Now I'd like to know: what's the most surprising thing you learned about your character?  Feel free to dish in the comments.

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