Author Archives: ragnell44

Character Creation: The Importance of Why

The Reasons for Telling Why 

Human beings are naturally curious about other people—either real or imaginary—and why they do what they do. Think about recent mass murders in Las Vegas and Texas. The question most of us ask is “Why?” We want to know what made a person do what they did.

“Why?” is asked about all kinds of behavior, not just in traumatic situations. We may ask why

  • someone continues to work for a company he hates
  • some people are hoarders
  • a person who is obviously ill doesn’t go to a doctor
  • a child misbehaves
  • someone robs a bank

If you say your character robbed a bank to get money, you have given a surface reason. Many of us need money, but we don’t even think about robbing a bank to get it, so why does your character? What is in his or her background that makes illegal activity an attractive option? Surface answers explain current behavior, but you must look for deeper reasons, go beneath the skin of the situation, to the heart and guts of the matter if you want to satisfy your audience.

Getting to Your Character’s Inner Self

You may be thinking you don’t have time to fill out one of those lengthy character profile forms. The good news is that it isn’t necessary to know every detail about your character’s past. You only need to know—and feel—those past events that are driving his actions in the story. To get to them, use the shortcut of the character interview. Imagine you are your character’s best friend, psychiatrist, or some other caring person, make a list of three or four relevant questions to ask about his or her behavior, find a comfortable spot for your talk, maybe have a coffee or other beverage, and get to know what makes your character behave in questionable ways.

Sample Questions

These questions are just to get you started. Fill in the blanks with events or actions relevant to the character’s action in the story.

  • Why is ___ so important to you?
  • When did you first realize ___ was necessary to your success or wellbeing?
  • What was your first (or last) experience with ____? How old were you? Who was with you? How did you feel? What did that experience teach you about life?
  • What is your greatest fear and what happened to cause that fear?
  • Who taught you about ____?

Additional sample questions

  • What do you believe to be true about yourself and the world? How and when was that belief formed? At what age? Who was there? What happened that left an emotional mark? How does that mark show itself in the character’s current story?
  • What secret do you keep and why? What would happen if others found out your secret?
  • Is there anything you regret not doing? What is it? Why do you regret your lack of action?
  • Is success even possible for you?
  • Is love possible or something you will never have?
  • What is the worst thing that ever happened to you? Where did it happen? How old were you? Who was there? What was said? How did you feel at the time? How did you feel later? What did you learn about life from it? How does it affect your beliefs about yourself and how you should behave in your current situation?

Recording the Character Interview 

Writing out the answers is the traditional way, but you don’t have to be traditional. You can make a voice recording in which you act as both interviewer and character, or you can make a video. You might even get a friend to ask the questions so you can concentrate on being the character.

If you are both the interviewer and the character, do not answer the questions from the writer mind, but from the character mind. Once the question is asked, you are an actor playing a part, sinking into your character’s heart and mind and answering the questions from that place of being.

The Benefits of Interviewing Characters

The interview is a quick way of learning what motivates the people in your stories. It helps make them real for you and for your readers. Try it, and let me know how it works for you.

 

 

 

 

Ellen Plumb’s Children’s Section

In today’s interview with Marcia Lawrence, we take a look at children’s books from the perspective of the owner of a new bookstore. Take a tour of her shelves and be amazed at all she packs into them. Then check below the video for a list of publishers that accept children’s book manuscripts, from picture book to young adult.

Given the costs involved with publishing children’s books, particularly those for the younger set, Marcia recommends finding a traditional publisher. To help author’s begin the search for a publisher, I researched a few that accept unsolicited manuscripts or queries with sample chapters. The links will take you directly to publishers’ guidelines.

The Publishers

Lee and Low Books specializes in multicultural themes.

Albert Whitman and Company publishes picture books, middle grade, and young adult fiction

Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers publishes picture books, middle grade, and young adult fiction and nonfiction.

Workman Publishing has several imprints, and publishes books for adults as well as children.

Arthur A. Levine, an imprint of Scholastic, accepts queries with sample chapter but not complete manuscripts.

Boyds Mill Press  publishes Highlights in addition to children’s books.

Before Submitting

This post on Chronicle Books Blog is from 2014, but it contains some excellent tips on what to do when looking for a book publisher. You may end up submitting to this publisher.

Good luck with your children’s book. Leave a comment if you would like to share your experiences in finding a publisher.

To Sell Local, Buy Local

Small Business Saturday was occurring as I was editing this week’s video interview with Marcia Lawrence, owner of Ellen Plumb’s City Bookstore in Emporia, Kansas. As I listened to the local radio station advertising all the terrific, locally-owned businesses, I thought of the nutrition store where I once worked that closed its natural foods lunch counter for lack of customers. Two and three years after the closure, someone would come in and ask what had happened to that “wonderful lunch buffet.” When they expressed disappointment, I wondered how disappointed they could be. After all, they were just finding out after years had passed that the lunch in our store was no longer available.

Admiration won’t keep your favorite stores in business; only paying customers will. If you love your local bookstore, wherever it may be, show your love with your purchases and send your friends its way as well.

That leads me to today’s interview in which Marcia reveals her favorite sections at Ellen Plumb’s: new books, the classics, and travel books. Her enthusiasm is obvious as she points to new books on current issues, including White Trash and America and Its Guns.  Next, she strokes the covers of “pettable” classics, and, finally, takes us to the growing travel book section. In the final minute, she says it’s not too late to special order books for Christmas. If there is a favorite book you think a friend would enjoy, get in touch with your local bookstore, wherever it may be, and share your love of books.

If you have a favorite local bookstore in your town, please leave a comment about it.

What Bookstore Owners Want

Yesterday, I had the pleasure to interview Marcia Lawrence, owner of Ellen Plumb’s City Bookstore at 1101 Commercial in Emporia, Kansas. Ellen Plumb’s opened September 6, 2016, and I thought getting to know something about Marcia’s book stocking/purchasing processes might be useful to authors looking for space on the shelves of independent bookstores. Check out her interview to learn more about book distributors, consignment sales, and the challenges an independent bookstore owner faces. Also, check her out on Facebook.

The Book Pitch and Characters’ Names

book-pitch-question1

In preparation for Authorpalooza on October 20 at the Hyatt Regency in Wichita, I am updating my novel pitches. Of course, I couldn’t resist doing a search for advice and spent an hour reviewing articles. My top choices included two with conflicting ideas on whether characters’ names should be included in the pitch. The Friendly Editor had a pitch checklist and some excellent examples of pitches that did not use names. On the other hand, Rachelle Gardner said in an evaluation of one pitch, “I don’t care about her if she doesn’t have a name.” This point is seconded by another blogger.

What do you do? Post a comment here or on Facebook, and if you have a pitch with fewer than 25 words, you might post that as well.

New Directions

new-directionsWhen I started this blog, I was teaching composition at a community college and envisioned the site as a place to answer students’ questions about writing. Now I have expanded the purpose of this site and added editor and writing coach to my services, so in the coming days, you will see new blog topics for writers at varying levels of accomplishment. Have a look around and let me know if you have questions.

Photo of Hazel Hart

Prewriting Steps 3 and 4: Connection and Purpose

How are connection and purpose related to each other?

When you write non-fiction–essays, articles, blog posts, and even research papers–readers will want to know your background in the subject. What qualifies you to be giving information or advice on your chosen topic? Blogs have “About me” pages to let readers know why you are blogging about raising children, finding jobs, repairing old cars, or selecting vacation spots, among the thousands of possible topics you might have picked. Have you experienced being a parent, looking for a job, restoring antique cars, or traveling to tourist areas? Have you taken classes in your subject area? Did your parents teach you? Did you learn your information as an employee or business owner? Your connection to a topic gives you credibility with the reader. It also helps you to form a purpose for your essay, article, or post.

Three writing purposes: Inform, entertain, and persuade

When asked what the purpose of their essay is, students sometimes say, “To get a good grade.” True, that is what students want their essay to do for them, but the question about purpose is what the essay will do for their readers.

If you are the parent of four teenagers and have given each a birthday party every year, you may write about how to give a successful birthday party (inform), how a birthday party went terribly wrong (entertain), or how small family parties are preferable to elaborate parties with thirty or more guests (persuade).

If you have spent time looking for a job, you might write about what you did to find a good job (inform), the worst interview you ever had (entertain), or how attitude matters in the job hunt (persuade).

What if you are assigned a topic and have no connection to it?

Perhaps your instructor wants you to write about alternative energy sources. Find someone who does have a connection. Perhaps a friend works in a field related to your assigned topic. If you do not have such a friend, look for someone who belongs to a related organization and set up an interview. While you may not be passionate about the assigned topic, many people are. Find one. The excitement the interviewee brings to the topic may inspire you as well as your readers.

 

Photo of Hazel Hart

Prewriting Step 2: Audience Analysis

Once you have a topic in mind for an essay or article, it’s time to start thinking about audience.

Even with all my experience writing, I freeze up when someone asks, “Who is your audience?” I want to reply the same way my former students often did: “Everybody.”

Everybody!

Really?

Why doesn’t “everybody” work as an audience? Let’s take a look at who is included in the category of everybody:

  • Newborn babies
  • The world’s oldest living person
  • All the people in between
  • People who do not speak or read the language you write in
  • People who can’t read any language or don’t want to
  • People who don’t care about your topic

With the above list in mind, let’s consider a topic college women often write about: weddings. Look at the list above, and you will see there are a number of groups you can cross off as not a part of your possible audience.

Let’s assume children under the age of twelve won’t be interested. But wait. If the essay or article is written about a child being part of a wedding, perhaps as a ring bearer or flower girl, and the language is appropriate to the age level, you might have found an audience.

What about men as an audience for your wedding article? Consider that most wedding magazines have “bride” in the title, and take that as a hint about the number of men who are interested in reading about weddings. That is not to say no man will ever be interested, but most will not. While men are a part of everybody, they are probably not part of your target audience.

So women make up the target audience. But which women? What is the age of the bride? Your essay will probably appeal to women of the same age. Are you writing about how to prepare for a church wedding? Those most interested will be potential brides with the money to invest in the wedding you describe. Are you writing about some disaster at your wedding that you laugh about now? Women often enjoy these stories long after they have been brides themselves. Each slant will have a different audience. Note: If you are writing your essay for a class, you may want a different topic because your instructor has probably received at least six wedding essays in the current group and may be tired of them.

What about topics college men write about?

If you are a man and you’ve gotten this far, you are probably getting tired of all the wedding talk. You may be thinking that this blog post is only for women writers. Not so, but you see how examples matter. Frequent topics of former male students included cars, hunting, and becoming a father.

For college men, a first car, from buying it to keeping it in running condition, along with the freedom the vehicle gave them, is a frequent topic for a narrative essay, one that tells a story. Buying your first car could have a broader audience than the wedding example I used above since women may also be interested in how to get the best deal. However, the mechanical aspects of do-it-yourself car repair will appeal mostly to men. But what men? All? No. Your audience might be young men with their first cars and not much money for repairs. They might be men fascinated by the mechanical workings of a vehicle. But some men will not be interested in spending time on cars. They may be men who are working full time and don’t want to spend their free time repairing and maintaining a vehicle. They would rather pay someone to do the work. Wait. Do you have any tips on finding a good mechanic? Make a list of likely readers before you start writing the rough draft of your essay. Note: I have yawned over five or six change-the-oil essays from one set of process assignments. If this essay is for a class, changing the oil is not a good topic. However, it might be an excellent topic for other circumstances.

Factors to Consider:

Age: Pick a topic common to all reading ages, such as training a dog. Go to your public library and look at books on your chosen topic in the child, young adult, and adult sections. Examine the differences in the way the subject matter is handled. Note such things as word choices, the length of sentences, and types of examples.

Experience level and interest of the reader: As you look at the books on your chosen topic, select several from the same age group and skim the table of contents and first chapter. Look for the perceived experience level. For the dog example, how does the writer perceive the reader? Is the likely reader someone with a new pet who needs to know how to train the dog to not jump on people and not chew up shoes? Is this a book for a dog trainer? Is this a book for people who want to breed dogs and sell them? Is this a book for people who want to show dogs in a competition?

To recap: Why Audience Matters

Whether you are writing for a class, a blog, a letter of application for a job or scholarship, or any other situation, knowing your audience will help you select the correct language level and examples for those readers.

Questions about audience:

If you have questions about audience, please ask them in a comment.

What’s next?

In the next post, I’ll be writing about your connection to a topic and defining the purpose of an essay or article.

Photo of Hazel Hart

Prewriting Step 1: The Blurt

When I began this post, I thought I knew what I was going to write. Then I opened Microsoft Word, typed the title, and stared at the blinking cursor. What now? If you are like most writers, you have had the same experience. What is the best way to get past it?

Blurt.

When you blurt, you say or write something without stopping to think. Blurting often reveals what you really think.

I realize you may have a negative reaction to blurting. After all, if you say something without thinking, it can get you into trouble. In fact, it probably has. But blurting can be good. You get your honest feelings out without stopping to worry about whether someone will be hurt by them or disagree or be bored.

You may be thinking “That sounds suspiciously like freewriting.”

I confess. The Blurt is freewriting. Calling it something else was my way of arousing your curiosity so you would give it your attention.

How to blurt

To blurt or freewrite, set a timer for ten, fifteen, or even twenty minutes and write without stopping. You can use blurting when you are searching for a topic or after you have a topic and are trying to find what you want to say about it. In April, I took a WordPress course, Writing 101. The first assignment was a twenty-minute freewriting. My effort is a good example of what freewriting (blurting) looks like, so take a look at my freewriting now. After reading it, come back to this post for more information on the blurting process.

As you can see from my freewriting example, I had no topic, only an assignment to write, so my thoughts were scattered. At the end of twenty minutes, I had touched on many possible topics including the act of freewriting and how I was spending free time in retirement. While writing about retirement, I touched on reading, walking, shopping at the farmer’s market, and marketing my books. I also mentioned a desire to travel.

What to do with a blurt once it is written

Review what you have written. Highlight those topics or sentences that say “Write about me.” I have chosen to write this post about how to blurt because writing is what this blog is all about. However, for my Seasoned Aspirer blog, I might have chosen to write about my desire to travel because that blog focuses on things I have always wanted to do and what I’m doing now to accomplish them.

When to blurt again

If your first blurt was not topic specific, then you may need to do a second one, this time focusing on your chosen subject. There are times when you may return to the process as you continue to narrow your topic. There will be more about that in a later post.

What should be included in a topic-specific blurt

Whether you have come to your topic through a series of general to specific blurts or have an assigned topic from an instructor or editor, when you arrive at the subject you know you will write about, you need to write about your connection to that topic. What qualifies you to write about the subject? Do you have personal experience with it? Have you taken a course on it? Watched television documentaries? Read news articles? Know what your Facebook friends think of it? In other words, what do you know about the subject and how did you come to know it?

As an example, I will choose my desire to travel as my topic. In my blurt, I might discuss my desired destinations and whether I should tour with a group or take my own car. I might write about costs, finding hotels, and the types of attractions I wanted to visit. My connections would include my past travel experiences, including one in which I was standing with a friend at a bus stop in downtown Denver at 1:00 a.m., having missed the last bus to her house and seeing a homeless person sleeping on a bench across the street and vowing to never again go anywhere without my car. My experience taught me that traveling by car is best for me.

What if I don’t know anything about the topic?

If you have been assigned a topic you don’t have direct knowledge of, say so. Then write about all the places you might find information without giving any thought to how you might actually do any of the things you write. If you start judging your options as you write them down, you might discard the very action that would be most valuable. Write first. Then think about how you might accomplish each task.  Is there anyone you might ask? Are there YouTube videos? Can you do an online search? Is there an expert in your town you can interview? Where else can you get information? In this instance, the blurting will help you develop a plan to get the details you need to complete your assignment.

What’s next?

Once you have blurted on a specific topic and highlighted useful material, you are ready to identify your audience and narrow your subject, steps I will cover in the next two posts. In the meantime, go do some blurting.

 

 

Writing 101: My Freewriting Assignment

I am taking Writing 101 from WordPress and the first assignment is to freewrite for twenty minutes without stopping. This is actually fitting well with what this blog is about. I have been trying to write a blog about freewriting for a week now and nothing is coming out the way I like. this will be a good example of freewriting for people to read. I think too often people find this process hard and stop to think. In fact, I am doing that now. I want to correct my typos I want to put in missed periods Oh my, this is  hard.

I stopped to breath so I changed paragraphs. It is difficult for me to let mistakes go I think that is probably true in my life as in my writing. I should have done is a favorite maybe frequent is a better word thought process.

Another breath. What now? I first thought I would write about retirement. I “retired” in january, a nicer term that quit my job. But I am 70. It’s time to retire, right? But I still need money, which was why I was still working. So i thought I would have time to promote my books and write more. Where does time go? Why do people think they will have time to do things when they retire? How can be people be bored and say there is nothing to do?

Anyway, another breath. What now? I am still messing around correcting my punctuation. Have to stop that. It is not freewriting if you are correcting stuff. I want better word choice, but there is no time for that. Have to stop using the backspace key. Anyway, taking a lot of classes and activities. Library book discussion. Took up a lot of time reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, almost 800 pages. Then didn’t make the discussion because it was cold and snowy the night of the discussion. There’s those repeated words. Once and English teacher, always an English teacher. Anyway, I like the book but reading almost 800 pages takes a lot of time. Then I did Blogging 101 and now this and I am signed up for other stuff, Like Walk Kansas. Must walk 150 minutes a week and eat 14 fruits and 21 vegetables a week. That means that there is lots of prepping to eat fruits and vegetalb.es. They take time.

What else is taking up time instead of writing. Well there is marketing which I know next to nothing about, so I am trying to figure that out. Everyone says you must be on Facebook and Twitter, but I don’t know what to do with them. I also signed up with Pinterest and LinkedIn. Lots of stuff to feel guilty about not doing.

Went to the farmer’s market for fresh vegetables on Saturday. Walked in to the hallways where vendors are lined up. It was packed. I was claustrophobic. Walked the length of the booths and saw some nice things, fresh greens, turnips, green onions, plus baked goods, crafts, fars of honey–thats jars folks. Anyway, I scurried back to the front door and out. Cannot make decisions when there are so many people. Maybe when they move outside next month.

Really, the timer has not gone off yet. I am not a fast typist but it feels like this is going on forever. Pity the poor reader. But my readers for the blog, the ones I  am telling to use freewriting, I call it the blurt because you are meant to do it without thinking, will at least have a good example of what it is and what may come oout.

What else? there must be something else happening. I wish the timer was beside me instead of in the other room I didn’t even look at the time I started, just punched the timer button. I am glad I tell people to do this for ten minutes instead of twenty. My wrists are wearing out.

When I was teaching, I had students who thought their freewriting would work for a final draft. Not so. But then before I told them about the writing process, freewriting was their rough draft and often the final one.

So what will i do with all these words that are disconnected. I do see possible topics for my other blog, Seasoned Aspirer. I want to travell. Did I mention that? I think not. When I was working I didn’t have time to go anywhere. Now I am not and I don’t have money to go anywhere. Life did not provide retirement plans and now I am studk. Where do I want to go. The rec center has some good trips coming up– South Dakota and Mount Rushmore and another to Nashville. I want to go. Aloways wanted to go to Elvis’s home–can’t remember the name this second so I have to keep moving. It will come later.

What time is it anyway. I am starting to stress.. Did I really punch the button that started the timer. I hope so. If not, when will I give up and stop. There it is! Yes!