Pub Rants

Category: Writing Craft

This Month, NLA’s Tallahj Curry had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna MacKenzie’s client Sarah Zachrich Jeng, author of upcoming novel The Other Me.

In The Other Me, Kelly is trying to make sense of a life that feels unfamiliar. She finds answers that lead to more questions. What is your process of mapping out a mystery that grows throughout the novel?

I spent some time brainstorming ideas for how Kelly could investigate—what if she interviews a certain character? What if she finds some sort of document?—and tried to figure out what she might discover using each method, what bearing that new information would have on her “case,” and where else it might lead. Since I did a lot of this in revisions, I knew most of what she would ultimately need to find out. It was just a matter of getting her there in a way that didn’t feel like too much of a leap.

Do you write the novel ending first, last, or somewhere in between? How does this help you build suspense?

I usually don’t have the ending written or even outlined too exactly when I start. Though I like to have some idea of where I’m going, the last couple of things I’ve written have ended up in very different places than I thought they would. With The Other Me, I wrote two or three different endings, because the middle of the book had changed in ways that demanded the ending change as well. Generally revisions are where the real attention to pacing and tension gets paid.

Kelly goes through a massive, unexpected jump that tests her own memory. The life she is told she lived does not match the life she thought she lived. What is your method for making two versions of the same character?

Spreadsheets. Really. I had a tab for her Chicago life and a tab for her Michigan life, with dates and key events from birth until the novel’s present. I also made lists of things that might have changed, such as her appearance, and the ripple effects of those differences, like how her brother Nick now has a son and a decent job, because since Kelly didn’t go to an out-of-state school he had no excuse to keep living at home to look after their parents. 

Not everything was super precise. Our memories play tricks on us all the time, and I figured in a parallel universe kind of situation, some things would just be different because a butterfly flapped its wings a thousand years ago. But I tried to include enough plausible anomalies to keep Kelly off balance.

What was your process for writing a different take on a familiar trope? How did you follow the rules of the fictional world as you wrote the story?

I’m going to try really hard to answer this without spoilers. The short answer is “more lists.” (Can you tell I’m a list maker?) I had a list of the way events proceeded linearly, as well as according to each key character’s perception. I had a list of the principles that a certain important piece of technology in the book operates under, and theories that either correspond with or contradict what happens in the novel. I wasn’t too concerned with accurate science (for reasons that will be obvious once you’ve read the book), but I was concerned with consistency.

I also wanted to make sure that by the end, I’d made it clear(ish) to readers why Kelly’s life changes all at once, at the exact moment it does. So I spent a lot of time thinking through the implications of what happens to cause that, and writing and rewriting. I drew this really ugly diagram of [redacted thing that happens] so I could have a graphical representation to refer back to when I forgot what a certain character was supposed to know about at a certain part of the story.

How much did you draw from your own life when creating the characters for The Other Me? Do you believe advice to write what you know is helpful or restrictive?

I played in rock bands in my twenties, but once I got a “real” job and had a child, that lifestyle wasn’t practical anymore. However, I found myself missing both the creativity and the feeling that something exciting could happen at any time. (When you live in the suburbs and go to bed at 10pm, not much happens that’s unexpected, except maybe getting puked on.) So writing The Other Me was both a creative outlet and a way for me to work out my feelings about the ways in which my life had changed.

“Write what you know” can be helpful when you’re feeling your way into a new project or trying to evoke emotions. My writing is always more resonant if I’m trying to capture a feeling or an experience that I myself have had, even if I’m coming at it from a different direction. That said, like any writing guideline it’s not absolute. If you decide you want your main character to have a job you don’t know anything about, that’s what research is for. “Know what you write” might be more apt advice in those situations.

I do think writing is enriched by personal knowledge. As I’ve learned more about the zero-sum nature of publishing, I’ve come to believe that white, privileged writers (who are still the majority of published authors) shouldn’t appropriate the stories of marginalized people, when those stories could be better portrayed by authors from those groups. 

What is the greatest lesson one of your characters has taught you?

That one thing you think you want is probably not the thing that’s going to make you happy.

What is one of your favorite lines from The Other Me?

Kelly: “Everyone has regrets. If you don’t you’re either an a**hole or you’re lying to yourself.”

The Other Me by Sarah Zachrich Jeng releases August 10, 2021. Preorder the book here!

Four Ways to Create Inter-Character Conflict

I was reading a manuscript recently that featured a strong, interesting protagonist and a strong, interesting antagonist. Off to a good start, right? Well…

As I continued to read, I realized there was a problem. While both characters were developed well on the page, I couldn’t nail down why they were experiencing such conflict with each other. More to the point, the conflict playing out between them was inconsistent, seemingly about Thing A in these chapters, but then morphing into Thing B in those chapters, and later on, it was all about Things C, D, or E with Things A and B abandoned and unresolved.

Eventually, as a result, the plot fell apart, and the inter-character conflict devolved into nothing more substantial than snarky dialogue…all the way up until one tried kill the other for no apparent reason other than the author couldn’t figure out how to wrap up the manuscript. (Nothing like a tacked-on climax to reveal that a story needs revision!)

This was a case of an author who started out with a solid sense of how to create good characters and scene-based conflicts, but who hadn’t yet figured out that scenes are the building blocks of a central story line. With no central story line, conflict exists merely for conflict’s sake—and it often comes off as contrived or melodramatic.

As you outline, draft, or revise, remember that conflict drives your plot, or central story line. Therefore, to improve your story’s cohesion, focus on developing a single conflict-driven through-line. How? The following are four easy ways to set two characters at compelling odds with each other:

  1. They want the same goal but only one of them can have it. There is only one piece of pie, gold medal, promotion, throne, whatever.
  2. They want the same goal but have different motivations. Jane and Ben both want to steal the diamond, but Jane wants to return it to its rightful owner, and Ben wants to sell it on the black market.
  3. They want two different goals that are mutually exclusive. If one achieves their goal, then the opportunity to attain the other goal disappears. Sally wants to be promoted to partner at her Colorado law firm, but her husband, Mike, wants them to move to the coast and live on a boat. They can’t both attain their goal and keep their marriage, so either one or the both of them must abandon their goal.
  4. One has a vested interest in preventing the other from achieving their goal. If one achieves their goal, the other will lose something of importance. Sam bets Carrie $500 that she won’t spend the night in the haunted house, but now it looks like she’s going to do it—that is her goal—so Sam’s goal becomes to convince her the house is actually haunted so he can keep his money.

Take a look at your work-in-progress and articulate why your main hero and main villain are at odds with each other. If you have an ensemble cast, then nail down the various types of conflict that exist between various pairs or groups of characters. In all likelihood, there will be all sorts of conflict going on throughout the manuscript, but what I’m asking you to do here is distill the primary nature of your story’s conflict down to a central story question in the form “Will A happen or will B happen?”

  1. Will Ann or Ian win the race?
  2. Will Jane return the diamond to its rightful owner or will Ben sell it on the black market?
  3. Will Sally accept the partnership in Colorado, or will she give up her career to move to the coast and live on a boat with Mike?
  4. Will Carrie spend the night in the haunted house and win Sam’s $500 bet, or will Sam succeed in scaring her away?

Now make sure that whatever distilled, central-story question you came up with here is the question that gets answered at the end of the manuscript. You might be surprised to learn how many manuscripts we read in which the author loses sight of their original story question. (It’s a lot!) Preventing that misstep can be as easy as re-orienting yourself around your story’s conflict.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Honoring AAVE on the Page

When you’re writing Black characters, how you use African American Vernacular English (AAVE) on the page will reveal whether you’ve honored their voice or whether you’re using dialect as a gimmick. Here are some things to consider before tackling AAVE.

Structure. There is a right and a wrong way to go about using African American Vernacular English (AAVE). When AAVE is used as a trend, the structure that native speakers follow is often left out. This lack of structure makes it obvious when a writer is using AAVE with little to no understanding of its meaning. Using AAVE without following its grammatical rules is like playing a game of telephone: you can try to recreate the language as you heard it, but you will be misinterpreting a misinterpretation of the original. Because trends come and go so quickly, some writers aren’t taking the time necessary to understand and honor the vocabulary of AAVE speakers before they use it, and it shows. 

Misrepresentation. Recent internet discussions have perpetuated the mislabeling of AAVE. Mainstream media is crediting Generation Z for words that originated in AAVE generations ago. When used as a trend by non-natives, AAVE is seen as profitable, yet when used as a language by its own natives, AAVE is seen as a detriment to professionalism. The labeling of “a trend” and the open-arms acceptance of this robs those who fought to keep the language alive—despite consistent attempts of erasure—of due credit and accolades. This trend isn’t raising awareness or recruiting allies for the fight for recognition, as some argue. Instead, this trend is mislabeling coined AAVE words as “internet slang,” giving credit where it is not due. 

The source from which you learn a language is evident when you’re utilizing it. Beginning with an authentic source exhibits true allyship and the necessity for understanding.

What does this mean for fiction writing?

Non-black authors can write Black characters. There are many great examples of how this can be executed well. For example, Emmett Atwater from NLA’s own Nyxia by Scott Reintgen is a very well-thought-out character who isn’t presented like a trend. Emmett and his interplanetary journey created a different story and point of view because Emmett was Black. His blackness extended outside of his description. And more importantly, his purpose existed independent of his white peers. 

A non-black writer truly needs to justify the language they use when writing characters like Emmett. AAVE isn’t just a set of sounds, words, or phrases—it’s a fully formed language that many of its native speakers have been forced to discontinue. AAVE isn’t recognized as an official language. It’s often called “broken English” and is forced out of young Black kids in school. They are taught that they speak incorrectly and must convert to Standard English in order to move forward. Safe practice of AAVE requires a proper time and place. This must be reflected in how Black characters are written in fiction. Thinking of AAVE as a trend disregards this. Trends come and go, but a language native to so many important voices must be approached with the patience to understand. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Jernej Furman

Author Bio: In 2016, Tallahj Curry joined the NLA team as a sixteen-year-old intern. Now, five years later, she has earned her Bachelor of Arts and now works as the Literary Assistant at NLA handling the newsletter alongside her other work.

Zoom culture definitely opened up the ability for writers, where ever they reside, to attend wonderful writers conferences across the nation and around the globe. I participated in a few myself. Still, nothing beats the personal interaction and camaraderie of spending a weekend ensconced in an intimate hotel setting with a hundred-plus other writers, agents, and editors. Are you ready to gather again? Here are four questions to ask yourself. 

Question 1: Do you have an at-risk person in your immediate family or gather bubble? If so, 2021 might not be the year for an in-person conference. Although we would like to think that other attendees will monitor themselves accordingly and stay away if sick, this is not a certainty. It would also be great to assume that everyone attending will be vaccinated, but conferences will not be policing that. It really is on the honor system. If I had an at-risk person in my life, a big conference would feel too risky for me. In the past, I washed my hands multiple times a day anyway and always kept hand sanitizer near, since conferences were dubbed “coldferences.” As an agent, if I were going to get the cold or flu, I would most likely get it right after an industry gather. In fact, I always returned from the Bologna Children’s Book Fair with some kind of cold. Inevitable, despite dosing up on Echinacea and keeping Emergen-C handy. 

Question 2: What is your threshold for people in your immediate space? Writers conferences mean a lot of people in small spaces. The hotel bar is always crowded in the evenings, and such bars are often not spacious. Although terrific for networking, that means folks may be talking within a foot of you. As we know from the six-foot standard social distance during Covid, droplets spray when someone is talking. It will be inevitable. Not too mention the lunch gather will be at a round table with at least six or eight other attendees Then there are agent pitch sessions, where you’ll sit one foot across a table from an agent to pitch your story. Rick Springfield might suggest “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” but at a conference, there’s no way around it. (Although I’d like to advocate for plexiglass partitions, like what grocery stores have.)

Question 3: What is your capacity for not observing standard American social niceties? At every conference I’ve attended, writers introduce themselves by extending a hand for a handshake. Personally, I’ve always felt that the Japanese were on to something with the steepled hands and a formal, short bow instead. In a post-Covid world, I’m not as interested in hand-shaking. And don’t even get me started on the European tradition of cheek pecking at the Book Fairs. At a conference, you might have to hold your ground and decline certain traditions. Definitely be sure to feel comfortable with your capacity to do so. 

Question 4: What is the cost-benefit ratio for attending in-person versus virtual? If you’re going for craft guidance and instruction, virtual may still fill the need. If you are craving the human connection, then weigh the factors of catching a cold, flu, or worst-case scenario, Covid. 

Just yesterday I discovered that a gal in my immediate circle who has been fully vaccinated for Covid started having flu-like symptoms after flying. A rapid test proved she is Covid-positive. Vaccination is not foolproof armor. 

Something we all need to keep in mind as we start to gather again. 

Game? Here are some Upcoming Colorado Gathers:

Writing in the Wilderness – July 16-19, 2021 Retreat

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference – October 15-17, 2021

Murder in the Mountains – October 29-31, 2021

Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels

Fan Favorites and Likability

This month, we asked three NLA authors about their fan-favorite characters and what makes them so likable.

Which of your characters is a fan favorite? What makes them likable? Is that important? Why or why not?

Stacey Lee, author of The Downstairs Girl and Luck of the Titanic

Jo Kuan of The Downstairs Girl seems to be a favorite. As an advice columnist, she is principled, and opinionated in a way that real life doesn’t allow her to be. She also has a bit of a wit, and I think that endears her to readers.

Swati Teerdhala, author of The Tiger at Midnight series

One of the fan favorites in my series, The Tiger at Midnight trilogy, is actually a side character. Alok, the best friend of Kunal, one of the main characters, quickly became the character that garnered fan mail and questions. He also got into my heart as well, refusing to let me push him to the side in the later books. Alok is the type of character who is fiercely loyal but isn’t afraid to take Kunal, his best friend, down a peg or two. He’s also the person in the room who often says what everyone’s thinking. We all have a friend like that, or we are that friend! He’s a character that is really easy to understand and root for in all situations and that relatability is what makes him so likable. I don’t think fan favorites have to be likable necessarily, but there needs to be something about that character that makes people connect.

Celesta Rimington, author of The Elephant’s Girl and Tips for Magicians

I’ve had very positive reader responses about the character of Roger in The Elephant’s Girl. He appears to be quite the fan favorite, and he even made some “Favorite Fathers in Middle Grade” lists on Twitter. Roger is the train engineer at the zoo, an aficionado of “old things,” and the rescuer of the little girl he finds after the tornado. He turns his life upside down to become Lexington’s foster father and to protect her.

Roger is likable because he is both strong and gentle, he’s extremely patient with Lexington, and he shows unconditional love for this quirky young girl as though she were his own. He’s also a bit quirky himself as a man in a contemporary world who restores steam trains and believes in ghosts. I think for my young readers, Roger represents support and safety. For my adult readers, he also represents the memorable qualities in beloved father figures they may have known or admired.

I think that in middle-grade books especially, it’s important to include likable characters with whom young readers can feel safe. A book isn’t interesting without conflict, but perhaps it isn’t memorable without characters the readers would wish to know in real life. And if you want your readers to keep reading, you’ll want to write characters who cause your readers to care about what happens to them.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

The Making of Meaningful Backstory (Part II)

How much page-space you devote to building backstory depends on what type of story you’re telling and how you want to develop your lead characters. There’s no one-size-fits-all backstory formula, but there are some pro tips that can help you strike a masterful balance between What Came Before and What Will Happen Now.

The Balance

When I’m working on a manuscript or reading a book for pleasure, here’s how I think of backstory:

  • The more complicated or developed the backstory, the more I expect it to impact the current story.
  • The simpler or less-developed the backstory, the less I expect it to impact the current story.

That’s because the more page-space you devote to something, the louder you’re shouting at the reader, “Pay attention to this! It’s important!” If it turns out not to have been important, readers have every right to scratch their heads and wonder what the heck was the point of all that wasted page-space. That’s Page Economy 101.

What do I mean by “impact the current story”? I mean affect the plot. And by plot, I mean the external arc. Remember that all stories have an internal arc (what’s happening inside your protagonist’s head and heart) and an external arc (what’s happening in the world around your protagonist). A lightly developed backstory might inform the internal arc, explaining why a character is they way they are. But with a heavily developed backstory, the reader isn’t wrong to expect a big plot tie-in later on.

Here’s an example: If you briefly mention somewhere in the setup that your protagonist used to build houses for Habitat for Humanity, then readers think “this guy is caring and capable” and move on. But if you devote lots of page-space to his backstory (how his father taught him to swing a hammer, how he wanted to be an architect but couldn’t afford the schooling, how he got involved with Habitat, all the many life lessons he learned and wonderful people he met along the way), then my story-brain starts whirring. It now feels set up for a third act or final battle that can only be solved by someone with his unique set of knowledge, skills, resources, connections, or experiences. In other words, it feels set up to expect that you’re planting an ace up his sleeve that will get played at a critical, climactic moment.

Wound Events vs. Inciting Incidents

One key reason backstory is so important is that it’s where the wound event lives. (The idea of a wound event has been explored extensively by story experts like Michael Hauge and John Truby, so check them out if you want a deeper dive.) I’ve worked with lots of writers who’ve never heard of a wound event, or who confuse their wound event with their inciting incident, which can wreak havoc on a story’s structure later on. So to clear it up in the most basic terms:

  • The wound event happens before page one and kicks off the internal arc.
  • The inciting incident happens on or after page one and kicks off the external arc.

In other words, the wound event is a single, critical backstory event that weighed your protagonist down with whatever emotional baggage they’re already carrying when they walk onto page one of your novel. It’s this emotional wound they must overcome by the novel’s end as a direct result of the events that make up the novel’s external arc. In other words, the internal and external arcs are intertwined and resolve together.

Prologues

Here’s a secret: Many prologues in both novels and movies exist because the writer wants to get the wound event in front of the audience first thing. This is an A-OK reason to open your story with a prologue. You’ll know you’ve experienced a wound-event prologue if chapter one starts with a leap forward in time—the ol’ “one year later” technique (though it doesn’t have to be one year). Examples of movies that open with a wound-event prologue are Return to Me and The Ritual.

The Takeaway for Plotting and Revision

What does all this mean for you as a storysmith? A wound event, because it is both structurally significant and thematically meaningful, is the least amount of backstory you should focus your efforts on developing. It might also be the most amount of backstory you should develop. Again, it depends. But here’s where I want you to pull out those pages I asked you to write last month. Whether you feel like you wrote too much or not enough, my only question is this: Can you identify a solid wound event in what you wrote? A wound event that resulted in the emotional baggage your protagonist will shed or otherwise confront head-on at the end of your story?

  • If no, can you scratch what you wrote and start building a meaningful backstory from the wound event up?
  • If yes, can you cut all the other backstory that’s not related to the wound event?
  • If cutting all the other backstory feels difficult, can you articulate how all of it will affect your plot? Yea verily, why your plot—not your character development or protagonist’s internal arc—will fall apart without it?

I already mentioned that the wound event sometimes shows up as a prologue. It can also be a flashback. Or it doesn’t have to be a scene at all. It can be something your protagonist discloses in dialogue. Or something you reveal to the reader through your protagonist’s internalizations. How and when you reveal your story’s wound event is up to you. But one piece of advice I love is that the writer should write the wound event—not necessarily to include in the novel, but so that she can stand beside her protagonist as he endures that event. So that she can bear witness to that formative moment, and then later imbue his scenes with the raw emotional residue it left behind.

The Takeaway for Querying, Pitching, and Opening Pages

Finally, when it comes time to pitch or query your novel, lean away from backstory. Sure, a sentence or maybe two of setup might be a necessary foundation for your actual pitch, and that’s OK, but the sooner you get to the story story—the one that starts on page one—the better off you’ll be. I’ve read query letters where half to all of the proverbial ink on the page was devoted to explaining everything about What Came Before. I’ve also sat through entire pitches where at the end of the eight-minute appointment, the writer is still talking about their hero’s or world’s backstory. These are missed opportunities! After all, the agent has their ear open for something they can sell. Story sells. Concept sells. Backstory alone does not.

Likewise, in your opening pages, avoid big, long, explainy, expository passages meant to lay out your novel’s backstory. That’s all stuff that can (and, for many agents and editors, should) be more elegantly woven in only after the story is rolling forward and gaining compelling momentum. Your opening pages are an agent or editor’s first impression of you and your work, and if those pages read like a history textbook, you might be in trouble. Open in scene, with character, setting, and conflict, you’ll have a much better chance of engaging and hooking the reader.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Nenad Stojkovic

The Making of Meaningful Backstory (Part I)

I was working with a client recently who had spent quite a bit of page-time developing a complex backstory for their protagonist. Their agent and I, looking for ways to tighten the plot and reduce the word count, saw all this backstory as an opportunity to trim. Since it never had any effect on the story as it was currently structured, it felt not only superfluous, but also unnecessarily complicating. Yet the author was reluctant to cut it.

We asked why, and their response made sense. They needed the protagonist to have a particular personality and temperament, a certain unique way of looking at the world and making decisions. Their instinct said that type of person isn’t born but made. So they created a backstory that explained why their protagonist was the way she was.

That’s a great reason. However, it did get me thinking more about backstory. Backstory is one of the crucial elements of the craft of fiction, so it definitely deserves our attention. But should backstory be a workhorse that earns its place within your manuscript’s structure by serving more than one weight-bearing function? Or should backstory be part of the wallpaper, passively decorative and meant to be glimpsed only now and then in the background? Is there a point at which too little backstory makes a novel feel flat? Or a point at which a big backstory is too big?

First, let’s look at some backstory basics. Next month, we’ll look at some ways to think about backstory in plotting, revision, opening chapters, and even query letters.

Backstory Basics

Every story is two stories. There’s the story that happened before page one and the story that starts on page one. Some stories rely heavily on a rich and well-developed backstory, and that’s OK—other stories, not as much, and that’s OK, too. In general, the human brain perceives time as a linear chain of causes and effects. When you set out to tell a story, you choose where the story starts. The second you do, you have divided your timeline into two stories: What Came Before and What Will Happen Now.

The two stories are linked. What Came Before informs What Will Happen Now. That’s cause and effect (or stimulus and response), and it’s how story works. When readers dive into chapter one of a new book, they immediately begin to form questions. Why is food scarce in this world? Why is the ship’s captain afraid to sail into that cove? For whom is this spy risking her life to gather information? Why does this man not trust his wife? What caused the people of the Badlands to despise the people of the Tundra?

In linear time, the answers are part of your backstory. But in story time, which doesn’t have to be linear, you get to decide when and how to reveal the answers to the reader. For master storytellers, such decisions are made with respect to balancing (a) the potential for maximum dramatic effect with (b) reader engagement. That’s because readers kept too long in the dark tend to disengage.

Backstory shapes character. Story-craft wisdom tells us we need to give our central characters a goal and a motivation, and that we should establish those things fairly quickly, whether on page one or not long after. Therefore, what a character wants and why they want it are the products of backstory. In other words, goal and motivation are the effects of some cause that occurred a moment, a week, a year, a decade, perhaps longer, before page one. In short, backstory is why characters are they way they are. This is sometimes referred to as a “wound event” and should not be confused with your story’s inciting incident—we’ll come back to this next month in part II.

Backstory shapes world. The world in which your story takes place also has a unique effect on What Will Happen Now as a direct result of What Came Before. Whether your story world is a vast, war-torn star system, an island nation struggling to survive a devastating natural disaster, a seemingly idyllic suburban neighborhood, or a courtroom where the fate of an innocent man will be decided, that world has a backstory. Your world’s history is a collection of causes that resulted in the laws, norms, codes of conduct, and social hierarchies (written or unspoken) that govern what your characters can and can’t do and what’s at stake for them if they stray. Backstory is why your world is the way it is.

Your assignment: Write one to two pages for each major character detailing that character’s backstory. Now write one to two pages detailing your world’s backstory. Set your pages aside. Did anything surprise you? Did anything pop up that you want to explore more in your manuscript, or perhaps in a sequel or prequel? Did you have a hard time making it past a sentence or two, or did you go way past two pages and find you had a hard time stopping? This assignment is just to get you thinking about your relationship with the What Came Before of your story. We’ll do more with these pages next month, so tuck them away in a safe place.

Next month: Ways to handle backstory in plotting, revision, opening chapters, and query letters.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Nenad Stojkovic