Crafting Success: Seven Writing Contest Finalists Share Their Favorite Writing Tips and Techniques

Crafting Success: Seven Writing Contest Finalists Share Their Favorite Writing Tips and Techniques

by Martina Boone

When I’m doing a panel with other authors or doing a blog, radio, or TV interview, I’m often asked whether a story begins with character, plot, or setting. The truth is, every book is different for me, and most of the time, it’s a small grain of inspiration combined with a lot of agonizing work. I’m always looking for ways to make that easier, which is why I include so many “tips” posts for both AdventuresInYAPublishing.com and the 1st5PagesWritingWorkshop.com.

Because I know I’m not alone in searching for insight, Sandra Held, Sarah Glenn Marsh, and I have asked the finalists in our recent Red Light, Green Light WIP contest at Adventures to give us their favorite writing tips and techniques.

Interested in test-driving the opening and pitch for your own WIP? The next agent-judged Red Light, Green Light contest opens for entries on 4/7/16.

Seven Writing Contest Finalists Share Their Favorite Writing Tips and Techniques

Joan Albright: The characters rule all. I can control what happens TO them, but trying to force the plot around characters which aren’t behaving never results in a satisfying scene. Instead I write the plot to the characters, letting them show me the path. This of course requires that I know the characters. Sometimes the entire first draft of a novel is about discovering who these people are and what motivates them.

Don’t be afraid to write out a long and complicated backstory for each character – but also don’t feel obligated to lay this backstory out in your novel. Like the pipes and wires behind your painted walls, those things need to be there, but it’s better if they do their job invisibly.

Laurine Bruder: I’m a sucker for fairy tales, princesses, friendships, family stories, and fantasy. It’s my bread and butter and what I grew up with. I love a richly drawn world with characters that struggle against all the odds, who cling to each other because they’re the only ones who can understand the situation, and who succeed, or not, but they do so together. In my manuscript, my two leading ladies have been described as old war buddies and that resonates with me because it implies a relationship that’s gone through hell and still come out strong. Just thinking about it now is inspiring me to write! Speaking of inspiration, I find it everywhere: music, movies, books, watching people in their everyday lives, it’s amazing where the smallest spark of inspiration can come from.

Holly Campbell: The setting is so important to the story. I try to make the setting another character. I don’t like writing about places I’ve never been–it feels like a lie. If the story doesn’t feel right in a setting I’m familiar with, or I can’t adequately research a place, I will sometimes just make it up (it’s fiction, right?). For example, my novel Foreshadowed is set in my hometown, but my other novel Without Curtains is set in a fictional farm town. In both books, the setting plays a huge part in the story.

Dan Lollis: I need a t-shirt that reads “I’d rather be drafting.” I usually cheat and do a good but of revision during drafting…I don’t subscribe to the theory that all first drafts are garbage. Maybe my finished first draft is actually a first-and-a-half draft. Then I do usually do several rounds of read-throughs where I make changes and ask myself questions. Then I ask my writing partner or a critique partner(s) or beta reader(s) to mercilessly tear into it. Their advice is often the most helpful, but it can be difficult to know what to change and what to keep. Time away from a manuscript to draft something new can be helpful. I prefer to obsess over…er…work on one manuscript at a time.

Patti Nielson: For me there’s nothing more discouraging then sitting in front of your computer screen and being unable to think of anything to write. I’ll often try to power through but sometimes even that won’t work. Lots of times I leave the word document and wander into the world of social media, but I find that never helps. Usually it leaves me feeling worse. What helps me the most is going for a walk alone. I try to find an isolated area so I can talk to myself without anyone thinking I’m crazy and work through some of the problems I’ve having on my manuscript. Invariably, I come back refreshed and energized. Last week I went for a walk and came back with three titles for a series I’m working on, which might not seem like much, but it’s a big deal for me.

Ellie Sullivan: I really love using the three-act structure to map out major plot points, and then pantsing my way from one major point to the next. It keeps me from veering too far off onto useless tangents and keeps me focused on the core of the story, but also allows some flexibility. When I’m done I put it away for a couple days, and then I’ll return to read it through. Before that readthrough, I’ll probably already have a list of things I think are problematic, and as I read, I’ll add more (probably much more) to that list! My first drafts are absolutely terrible, and usually I’ll have to scrap and rewrite about half the content for the second draft.

Cassidy Taylor: I am not a very detailed plotter. I do like to have a few key scenes in mind before I start, specifically the opening scene, the inciting incident, the “darkest hour,” the climax, and the final scene.

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“You don’t grow out of YA”: My Interview with International Thriller Writers

Last fall, The International Thriller Writers interviewed me– they’re a great organization of highly respected authors who do a wonderful job supporting new thriller writers, with Lee Child, M.J. Rose, R.L. Stein, and other greats on the board. Here’s that interview!

From ITW:

A rural Missouri girl, Kate Brauning fell in love with writing at a young age. She was that child who practically lived in the library, discovering all its treasures. Now, she resides in Iowa with her husband and a Siberian husky, and works in publishing. She loves to connect with readers. If you see her and say hi, she might invite you for a coffee and to talk about books.

Her debut novel HOW WE FALL is a young adult tale about two cousins with a secret relationship, a missing best friend, and strange girl with secrets. Will this strange girl be a harbinger of doom? Will they find their friend? THE BIG THRILL sat down with Brauning to find out more.shadow

When did you start writing?

Oh, I was pretty young. I wrote my first “story” at ten or so, I think. I’ve always had fun writing stories, and I wrote a novel all through high school. I loved it, but it just never occurred to me that I could write for a career. I kept on loving it, though. In college I decided that I loved it too much to not try.

Did you ever want to be anything besides a writer?

I decided early on that I wanted to be an author, so no, not really. Along the road to becoming an author, I’ve discovered I love the publishing world and I love editing, so if I couldn’t write anymore, I’d continue to work with publishing houses as an editor.

What got you interested in YA Fiction?

Great question. I didn’t imagine myself as a YA author to start with, actually. I started out writing adult, but it didn’t quite fit the stories I wanted to tell. Young adult fiction explores the teenage years of a person’s life, and those years are a significant point of change for most of us. Teens are tackling adult issues for the first time—serious relationships, jobs, shifting authority structures, new limits and opportunities—but they’re doing it without the experience, and often without the resources, that adults may have. It’s a vulnerable, heady, thrilling stage in someone’s life. Teens are also adjusting to greater independence and more authority in their own lives, but might still be dealing with limitations at odds with those things, like curfews, not having a car, house rules, and the structures of school. YA tackles that.

The experiences we have in our teenage years are formative ones, and the mistakes and choices we make can follow us into adulthood. There’s great opportunity, uncertainty, and passion in those years, and they leave a mark on us. I didn’t start reading YA until I reached my twenties, and I wish I’d found it earlier—seeing so closely into the lives of other teens who are wrestling with the same changes and struggles I was would have been so helpful as a teen. I still find myself identifying with the characters in these stories, because people never stop struggling with change. You don’t grow out of YA.

Did you have a favorite character to write?

HOW WE FALL is a YA contemporary story about two cousins who are hiding a relationship. I chose Jackie as the perspective character for this story because I really love how she thinks. She’s not really honest with herself, and often says the opposite of what she means, so it was a really interesting voice to write. Since it’s first person, the reader is really close to her thoughts, but I still needed to communicate the difference between her thoughts and reality. It was a really fun style I’m looking forward to doing more with.

What was the road to getting published like?

I’ve been writing since I was a teen, but it wasn’t until after college that I finished a novel I wanted to get published. I researched agents and query letters, developed an interest in the publishing world, and started working first as an internship with a publishing house. Then I worked with a literary agency, and started sending out query letters for my novel. I then moved to a job as an editor with a publishing house. While I was querying, I started writing my second novel, which was HOW WE FALL, and the response from agents was much more encouraging than for my first work. I did revisions and signed with an agent after about six months, then we went on submission right after the holidays and I had an offer in late February. It happened pretty fast and I couldn’t have done it without such a fantastic agent. My debut just released in early November, and it’s been a tough but really wonderful journey.

How would you describe your writing process?

I spend a long time working on the concept of the story—living in the story mentally, churning scenes around, and figuring out the focus—before I actually start drafting it. Once I start drafting, I try to fast-draft the first act so I can see how things work out when I write characters into the situation and the environment. Then I go back and heavily revise that first third to get all the layers in place and make any changes to the plot/characters that I thought of along the way. After I have the first act solidly drafted and revised, then I finish drafting the rest of the book. Of course, it depends some on the book and how well I know the story before I start writing it. Doing revisions in that first third makes starting a manuscript slow for me, but I do find it helps me avoid having to change major parts of the story.

What does 2015 hold for you?

I’d love to know that, myself! I’ve just moved to a new publishing house (Entangled Publishing) where I work as an editor with YA fiction, so I’ll be acquiring and editing some really wonderful YA titles. I’m also hard at work on new projects, both adult and new adult, that I’m really excited about. I’m also attending a lot of conferences (I’m a conference junkie), so be sure to say hi if you see me!

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PS Did you know there’s a narrative Pinterest board for How We Fall? Have you ever seen a narrative book board? I worked so hard on it! And I love it so much. Tell me what you think? ~Kate

 

On Classic Movies In How We Fall

Below is a really fun interview Kiersi from over at The Prolific Novelista did with me!

I’m so excited to have author Kate Brauning and her debut YA novel, HOW WE FALL, on the blog today! She’s got some really fun, exclusive content for us.

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I was lucky enough to get an ARC of HOW WE FALL, which I reviewed on Goodreads. It’s thrilling, emotional, fast-paced and un-put-downable. I may have cried a couple times.

One thing that features prominently in the novel are classic movies, so I decided to ask Kate a couple questions about how they found their way into HOW WE FALL.

  1. How did you personally get into classic movies?

When I was growing up, we frequently had family movie nights– something all seven of us could do together. But since my mother used to insist nothing good was made after 1960, that meant we watched a lot of classic movies. Musicals, especially. Men in suits, smoky bars, lavish parties with women in Grace Kelly gowns. Political intrigue, heady romance, subtle, character-driven stories. In some ways, I think it skewed my perception of adulthood, but I also learned to watch the stories carefully.

  1. So, in HOW WE FALL, Jackie absolutely adores her classic movies—is this characteristic, by chance, a reflection of you? Because she sure seems to know a lot of them, and a lot about them. ;)

I love a good story well-told, and that means there are a lot of classic and modern movies I love, but I particularly liked the classics for Jackie as a way for her to sort through her life.

As a teen (and even earlier), we watched Singing in the Rain, White Christmas, and The Sound of Music, of course, but also The King and I and My Fair Lady. The somewhat taboo relationships of those last two caught my interest even then. The boundaries and hurdles between the main characters fascinated me. Roman Holiday, actually, was another favorite of mine with a taboo love story, but I also really hated it the first few times I saw it. It enraged my optimistic teen self that the writers didn’t find a way for Princess Anne and Joe Bradley to be together. I thought it was ridiculously unfair, even though the tragedy of it makes more sense to me now, and I’ve learned to love an edge of tragedy in a story. I didn’t know it at the time, but even as a twelve-year-old girl my brain was gathering up material that would one day make it into How We Fall.

I also fell in love with Rear Window and Jimmy Stewart, and that was my introduction to Hitchcock, which was less my mother’s taste, but definitely mine. The symbolism and tragedy and obsession in Hitchcock’s work made a huge impression on me as a teenager, and I started looking for that in both my reading and my writing. I also learned to love sharp wit and black humor– Walter Matthau and Rex Harrison are always fun to watch, and to this day I don’t think I’ve seen anything funnier than William Powell’s Life With Father.

  1. Why do you like them? Are your reasons the same as Jackie’s?

Great question. I gave classic films to Jackie as a way to think through her life, partially because the slower pace and the more traditional, old-fashioned lifestyle fits with what Jackie wishes she had. Her combined family is loud and chaotic, and living in an earth-sheltered home with somewhat hippie parents draws too much attention for an introverted, uprooted teen to enjoy. But as she digs into these movies, she starts to realize so many of those stories deal with the same things she’s working through, even forbidden or taboo relationships. The parallels help her figure out what she wants out of life.

What I enjoy in my favorite classic films is the same thing I enjoy about great story in general—a gripping character, sharp wit, and a story that makes me think.

  1. What’s your favorite film of all time, and why?

That’s about like asking me what my favorite book is. Narrowing it down is tough. One of my definite favorites, though, is Stranger Than Fiction, with Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, and Emma Thompson. It’s has a fun angle on an author’s life, sure, but more than that, I love a story that works a character toward fully living life, and this one does it with unexpected depth and charm. I love the way it tackles the idea of killing of characters, too, and it’s so wonderfully funny and hopeful and thought-provoking.

Thank you so much for appearing on the blog today, Kate! I have to agree with you on Stranger Than Fiction. That’s one of my all-time favorite movies, too!

 

I originally wrote this post for The Prolific Novelista as part of my blog tour for my book release– I wrote about 30 posts that went up on different sites over November and December, and with all that content out there, I’d like to keep it all in one place, so I’m posting it here for archiving purposes. Hope you enjoyed!

Revisions, #Subtips, and Tumblr

Happy Tuesday, readers! I’m back from my week in Colorado to visit my brand-new nephew (born 6 weeks early!) and help my sister out a bit. He’s great, she’s great, and it was so great to have some time with family.

I’m back to writing and editing now, and I have a few fun things for you today.

First, I posted a guide to handling revisions for Pen and Muse’s summer school, where I discuss everything from receiving an editorial letter to turning that advice into specific action items, and from writing your own editorial letter to handling opposite feedback from critique partners: A Guide to Handling Revisions

Second, I recently had several people ask me to storyify some of my #subtips. I’ve put up a few on pacing, character development, writing romance, and gender roles, so in case that’s of interest to you, here they are! #Subtips on Storify

Third, Jamie Adams interviewed me about the best and worst writing advice I’ve ever received, the hardest scene for me to write in HOW WE FALL, my favorite scene (oh my), and my life phrase, in which I quote Kingsley Shacklebolt. Interview with Kate Brauning

Finally, I’m on tumblr! I’ve been figuring out how I want to use it, and since this blog is so writer/publishing-focused, I wanted something more reader-focused. So, if you want awesome content for readers who might not necessarily be writers, follow me there! Here’s what the content looks like:

Music Mondays: Most writers love music, and I’m no exception. Mondays I post a music video that has inspired me or my work. It’s often something from my WIP playlist or one of those life songs that you feel like all your friends need to know.

Ted Talk Tuesday: Tuesdays I post a Ted Talk about creativity, intelligence, literacy, efficiency, or anything else related to life as a creative. They’re fun, challenging short videos from experts in their field and a great way to challenge yourself and learn something valuable.

Wednesday Word Love: I post awesome quotes from writers or their books, news stories about awesome things writers are doing, and awesome new cover reveals and releases. Basically, anything awesome. 🙂

Thursday Thought: On Thursdays I try to post either something I’ve been thinking myself, or something thought-provoking I’ve found elsewhere, usually about books or creativity or literacy or social justice issues.

Fangirl Friday: Posts on Fridays cover anything I’m fangirling over– Game of Thrones wedding cakes, Harry Potter GIFs, YA books-turned-int0-movies that I want to see, etc.

Weekend Reads: Either Saturday or Sunday, I tell you what I’m reading that week, and if I think you should read it too!

So, yeah, if any of that sounds fun to you, feel free to follow me on tumblr!

Thanks so much for reading, guys!