Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mary: A Character’s Controlling Belief

Time to bring out the writer’s bag of tricks again!  I’m deep into my novel’s second draft and I’m getting that twisty-turny-twingy uh-oh feeling right in the center of my chest: something’s off about my main character.  You know the feeling.  You can run from it, but you can't hide. It’ll catch up with you sooner or later.  Time to dig deeper.  Again. But this time, how?

Thinking about a character’s “controlling belief” is one way writers can dig deeper into their characters.  I first heard about the notion of controlling belief from National Book Honor Award Winner Kathi Appelt when I was studying with her at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Kathi says, “The controlling belief is the primary belief that ‘pushes’ the character.  It shapes and colors every action and reaction that the character does and serves as the motor or engine that motivates the character.”

A character’s goal is different.  Goal answers the question, what does a character want? Controlling belief answers, why does she want it? To author Sarah Aronson, “the controlling belief is the emotional core of the character. You can ask what he wants...but more important...why does he want it?”

For example, in Appelt’s stunning picture book biography about Lady Bird Johnson, MISS LADY BIRD’S WILDFLOWERS, Lady Bird’s controlling belief was that wildflowers could heal a broken heart.  Lady Bird’s goal was to change the way our country treated its natural heritage.

Sometimes controlling belief and goal can be the same for a character.  In E.L. Kionigsburg’s SILENT TO THE BONE, Connor believes that there’s no way in the world his best friend, Branwell, could have ever hurt his baby sister, even as “the authorities” come to believe he did.  Connor’s goal is to break through Branwell’s silence in order to prove his innocence.

And sometimes a character’s belief proves flat-out wrong. Gilly, in Katherine Paterson’s The GREAT GILLY HOPKINS, believes that her absent mother will come for her and it’s her goal to make that happen.  This steadfast belief makes Gilly distrust her new foster family and keep seeking out her mother.

When a character such as Gilly’s belief is wrong, that character suffers a painful crisis of faith… but, oh, such a satisfying (for the reader, at least) opportunity for growth and change.

When we can clearly state the controlling belief of our characters, they will more readily move the story forward.  Try it for each character, not just the main character, and watch the fireworks begin! (The controlling belief is never outwardly stated in the text; rather, it serves as a compass for the characters and their author in revision.)

So I’m back to my draft considering all sorts of CBs for my MC: loyalty to my friends is more important than doing the right thing; having the right friends raises my social status; I need these friend because I am a geek…. 

What’s the controlling belief of your main character?


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Lisa: Three cheers for librarians and ALA!

I went to my first big ALA (American Library Association) conference a couple of weeks ago. My young adult novel, I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME made the 2009 ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers list, and as a result, I was invited to attend a coffee klatch sponsored by YALSA. At this event, authors go from table to table of librarians to talk about their books. Because I don’t have any books coming out for awhile, I couldn’t do any signings or other promotional events, but I still wanted to go. I wanted to go, if for no other reason than, to be around a lot of people who love books as much as I do. I can tell you now, I’m so glad I went.

A conference like ALA allows you to connect with people in a new way.

I met authors I’ve known on-line for years. Our on-line friendships quickly became more, and I can't wait to see these friends again!

I met librarians who told me about the teens who read and love my books.

I met book bloggers who tirelessly share their love of books with the blogosphere because they simply want to spread the word about good books!

I got to spend some time with someone from my publisher, and talk to other authors over dinner about promotion and reviews and all kinds of things.

And finally, I attended the Caldecott/Newbery award banquet and heard the winners’ acceptance speeches. Neil Gaiman’s speech (THE GRAVEYARD BOOK won the Newbery, in case you’ve been under a rock) was honest, witty and heartfelt, and I loved every word of it.

You walk away from an event like that with mixed feelings. On the one hand, you think, so many amazing authors – and then there’s little old me. On the other hand, you think, how blessed I am to be a part of the world of books for kids and teens.

Librarians are good at reminding us that there are many, many different kinds of kids. There are kids who want the literary books, there are kids who want the fantasy books, there are kids who want the non-fiction books, there are kids who want the romantic books, etc.

It felt good to be told that there are also kids who want books like the ones I write. I had one librarian tell me there is one teen who has been in her Teen Book Club since it began, but the teen had never finished a book until she read I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME.

Librarians get books into the hands of teens. Not only that, they get the *right* books into the hands of teens. In case it’s not obvious by now, I’m a big fan of librarians. And ALA is a great place to celebrate all they do for us!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


First off, let me just say that there are multiple definitions of the word "niggle." In case you are one of those noble people who concerns yourself with such trifles as "accuracy," well, here you go. http://mw1.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/niggle.

For years, it would--ahem--seem that I have been using the word Niggle incorrectly. But my incorrect usage has become such a part of my personal lexicon that I'm afraid we're just going to have to let it stand. Onwards.

So what, you might ask, does the The Annoying Niggle mean to Alexa Martin?

Well--it's complicated. Hijacking words for your own personal usage is inherently a risky business. That said, The Annoying Niggle has been a hallmark of my literary career. The Annoying Niggle begins as a little whisper in the back of your head, usually at a HIGHLY INAPPROPRIATE MOMENT, like say, for example, when you finally think you've got your story all mapped out and you're imagining the Oprah interview.

At first The Annoying Niggle will be just a mosquito of a sound.

Let me assure you right now: there will be blood.

"What if?" the annoying niggle asks.

The what if is always--ALWAYS--something HIGHLY INCONVENIENT that will spin your story or character 180 degrees. It will involve HARD WORK. It will involve LETTING GO of VERY IMPORTANT THINGS like knowing the outcome of your book. In worst case scenarios, The Annoying Niggle suggests QUITTING a book that ISN'T WORKING!

The horror. The horror. But there is hope, dear reader. Soldier on!

As I write this from my dad's computer--let me also just add that I am, temporarily, at the age of 36, living with my parents again (this is another story altogether and one I won't titillate you with today, but suffice it to say this little adventure is very much helping me to get in touch with the mindset of my teen readers since I have reverted back to being a moody adolescent who mutters expletives under her breath when asked to do the dishes) there is black cat sitting beneath the window outside. It meows.

This cat showed up on Saturday. I had just returned from a run. Sitting on my parent's front porch, sweat dripping from my brow I heard this plaintive cry coming from underneath our hedges. Being somewhat familiar now with The Annoying Niggle I knew. I knew.

My mother came out a short while later. "It's a stray," I said.

"It's a neighborhood cat," she insisted.

Hours later the cat was still there, meowing at the front door.

"This cat is looking for a home," I said. I knew.

"Don't you dare feed it," my father said.

"It's a neighborhood cat," my mother insisted again. But later on that night she sent me out on a black ops mission to feed it some tuna. "Just don't let your father see." She knew.

The cat was still there in the morning. This time with its nose pressed to the glass door at the back of our house. Meowing louder. Much louder. "It will go away if you ignore it," my father said. "It's not our problem." He sounded just a little too defensive though.

Over the past several days this mysterious black cat has flitted back and forth between our house and that of our next door neighbor's. It has become the primary conversation topic around here. "This is a smart kitty," my mother (who claims not to like cats) says. "An exceptionally nice kitty." She pets it. She has bought it food.

Our next door neighbors have fallen in love with the cat--with the exception of the dad. Who also claims to "not be a cat person." Whatever. He doesn't understand that he doesn't really have a choice about the matter. The mom smirks and tells me her daughter Megan arrives home from camp on Saturday. "It will be a done deal then."

Last night as I was doing the dishes, I glanced out the window and saw my father petting, nay, encouraging it! "He seems to have wormed his way into all of our hearts," he says to me later, disgusted with himself but resigned.

The black cat personifies The Annoying Niggle. It quiets down just as soon as you pay it some attention. It weasels its way into your lap. It makes you smile in spite of yourself. It has defined our week. Having heeded its cry, it is now impossible to imagine NOT having it around.

Is the cat convenient? No. Cats are NEVER convenient. I know. I've had several.

You can't control a cat. You are at its mercy.

The Annoying Niggle has defined my writing of late. My first book was initially about a thirteen-year old girl, a school bullying, and a horse. Then I got bit by The Annoying Niggle. There is no longer a horse in my story. Or a school bullying. Or a thirteen year old girl. The book I've just recently begun? After abandoning a great idea? This too is the result of The Annoying Niggle. And after a whole lot of sighing and hair-pulling, I couldn't be more pleased.

The Black Cat. The Annoying Niggle. Listen! Meow.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Christine: Wrestling the Bear That is Writer's Block

I had the toughest time breathing life into the main character of my newly completed young-adult novel.

And not just because she was dead.

The story: Shannon dies in a car wreck en route to high school on the first day of her senior year. Her distraught parents have a new baby to fill the void. Fast-forward seventeen years, when younger sister Summer uncovers a journal Shannon kept the summer before she died. The journal connects Summer not only with her sister, but with long-buried family secrets.

I blogged a year ago that this project plunged me into my worst-ever case of writer’s block. I dug deep to make the story real and relevant, and the writing process started to feel a lot like therapy. It was thrilling, enlightening, cathartic … and terrifying. Terrifying enough to make me come up with excuse after excuse, distraction after distraction, to avoid my novel. Jack Nicholson’s voice rang in my head every time I walked past the computer without so much as slowing my pace: You can’t handle the truth.

So being a chicken was one problem. My other problem was decidedly more prosaic: Writing this novel was technically really tough. I was juggling two story lines at once: the dead sister’s and the living sister’s. I had to forge a “relationship” with two protagonists who were intimately enmeshed yet had never even met. I had to deal with characters involved in both girls’ lives (their parents, for instance) who had to display subtle differences from one time period to the next. I had to bring Shannon to life solely through her journal. I had to continually swing from one generation to the next and back again, somehow making it all hang together.

But angst and frustration notwithstanding, I really wanted to write this novel. I felt more connected to it than anything I’d ever written. I knew I would emerge stronger and wiser if only I kept pushing forward.

And I did. I love my novel and what it taught me about myself. I love what it taught me about writing. And I love what it taught me about wrestling the bear that is writer’s block. Here are a few tips I cultivated along the way:

- I find that writing a novel is a lot like reading one. In both cases, if I stop at a boring part, I’m totally unmotivated to return to the story. Follow the showman’s adage of always leaving your audience wanting more, keeping in mind that the audience when writing a book is you. Be sure to feel excited, intrigued, agitated –anything other than bored – when you walk away from your manuscript, even if that means stopping in mid-sentence. Make sure you’re always champing at the bit to pick back up where you left off.

- Fill out a Facebook survey or personality quiz … only fill it out as a character in your book. Answering even mundane questions (your character’s middle name, what she had for breakfast this morning) will help you slip into her skin. The insight might even lead your character in new directions or otherwise help shape the plot.

- Google a word, any word. Bread, you say? Okay, bread. Now click on a random hit. (Mine was Wonderbread.) Read a few paragraphs from whatever Web site you’ve just wandered onto. Now incorporate something … anything … from what you’ve just read into your manuscript. (Mine was yoga, which improbably is included on the Wonderbread homepage copy.) Now incorporate that word, or a concept associated with that word, into your manuscript. Ridiculous, you say? Ludicrous? Pointless? Do it anyway. If you somehow make it work, you’ll forever after smile knowingly when you reread the passage. If it doesn’t work, you can delete it later. Either way, it just might jumpstart your brain.

- Write out of sequence. If you’re plodding through a tedious yet essential passage and tempted to just walk away (and remember, you can never walk away when you’re bored), jump ahead to an exciting part of the plot. Chapter one can lead to chapter 13, which can lead to chapter 21, which lead to rewriting chapter 13, etc., etc. It sounds like a lot of trouble … but at least it keeps you writing. I’d rather rewrite than stare at a blank computer screen.

- Talk about your manuscript to someone you trust. This was a tough one for me. I’m eerily protective and secretive of my projects when they’re under way. They feel so intimate, and I’d feel vulnerable cracking open that door. But I broke the pattern on this novel. It really helped when I was stuck to mull over a character or plot point with a close friend or family member. I got unique perspectives, varied feedback, great ideas and heartfelt support. What took me so long?

- Take a walk. Watch a movie. Weed a garden. In other words, step away from your novel (but not at a boring part!) and trust it to whisper in your ear when you’re doing something else. That’s what my novel did for me. It never abandoned me.

The least I could do was return the favor.

(P.S.: Congratulations, Sara, on the beautiful addition to your family!)