Friday, June 20, 2014

Graph Your Novel (Seriously!), by Amber Keyser

If writing a first draft is like trying to out-run an avalanche, revision resembles digging out with a shovel. Any tool that can cut through the details and provide a panoramic view of the shape of our story is useful. Try a graph—seriously!

Pick 1-3 things that you want to focus on and that you can rate on a 1-10 scale. Some examples include voice, pace, likeability of a character, emotional intensity, conflict, fluidity of language, narrative coherency, moving plot forward, or a character’s transition from one state to another. If a critique partner is doing this for you, asking if s/he’s “lost” will help analyze backstory components. One of my critique group members analyzed the “turn the page factor” on a scale from 1, completely uninterested, to 10, can’t stop to pee.

Next make a graph that has all the chapters of your book on the X-axis (that’s the bottom line) and the numbers 1-10 on the Y-axis (vertical line). Read each chapter and try to give a gut-level rating for each of your factors. Connect the dots with a different color pen for each factor (e.x. red for conflict, blue for emotional intensity).

Patterns will emerge. For example, if properly plotted, conflict should trend upward (zigging and zagging a little on the way) toward a peak at the climactic chapter and then resolve downward quickly to the end. One recent novel analyzed this way showed three distinct peaks at the end. The author gave equal weight to the resolution of three major plot lines. The book felt like it didn’t know where to end. A line tracking reader’s involvement of the story will identify flabby chapters.

Graphs like these can be powerful tools to help writers identify the parts of their manuscript that aren’t doing enough work or aren’t doing the right work. They help you see where to focus your revision work. And they’re pretty cool—seriously!


Amber Keyser is the author of five books for young readers, including a picture book, three nonfiction titles, and a forthcoming novel that is part of Angel Punk, a transmedia storyworld. More at and

Friday, June 13, 2014

Writing the Emotionally Resonant Character, by Rosanne Parry

One of the pleasures of great fiction comes when a character you love takes an action that you didn't foresee and yet is so right for the character that it feels inevitable. You find yourself saying, "Of course! That's so like her!" The flip side of the experience is the character whose action so surprises you that you scratch your head and flip to the cover just to make sure you're still reading the same book. That's emotional resonance at work (or not at work in the second example.) Character interviews and charts listing personal appearance and habits are an excellent beginning, but how do you move into the realm of what makes a character internally consistent and emotionally true? To get at the deeper character, a writer has to ask herself deeper questions. Here are two to get you started.

What is the virtue that my character's family or friends or community values most highly? What is the worst sin this character could commit in his social circle?

For example, soldiers don't leave men behind. They will risk everything to bring the body of a fallen soldier home. This has been true since Hector and Achilles were fighting at the gates of Troy. The worst shame and guilt that a soldier suffers is from a failure to protect his men, even in death.

This question gets at the heart of what motivates your character's choices, and gives you a basis for escalating the conflict in your story. The more you put a character at odds with his personal moral compass, the more tension you will have in your scenes. It also protects you from unintentionally making a character choose something that is inconsistent with his values. For example a good soldier may well leave bodies on the field in retreat, but he would never do so without exhausting every option and suffering remorse. Having your character's core virtue or sin firmly in mind helps keep that character consistent and emotionally resonant.


Author Bio: Rosanne Parry

Rosanne is the award-winning author of Heart of a Shepherd and two other novels. She has taught workshops at Fishtrap, SCBWI, NCTE and numerous schools and book festivals across the country. She lives in Portland.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

At the Willamette Writers Conference, You Can Fly!

by Mary Andonian

Ever get a song in your head you can’t seem to shake?

For the past few weeks my inside voice has been doing a rousing rendition from Peter Pan. You know, the part when Wendy asks Peter how they’re going to get to Never Land, and then Peter teaches Wendy how to fly.

Peter talks about many things to help Wendy get off the ground: think your happiest thoughts, use a little pixie dust, picture snow globes and toys, and make sure to have faith and trust. And if you do (cue music), “You can fly, you can fly, you can fly…”

As writers, aren’t we a little like Wendy? Somewhere deep inside we have the imagination of children and we want to let it loose with our words. We want the words to lift off the page and into someone’s heart. It can be a story about a neglected child, a poem about nature, a harrowing adventure filled with love and loss, or even a business plan that will take a small company to the next level. But the words create the magic – the pixie dust – and before you know it, it’s in flight.

When there’s a smile in your heart
There’s no better time to start
Think of all the joy you’ll find
When you leave the world behind
And bid your cares good-bye
You can fly! You can fly! You can fly!” - Peter Pan

I’ve been singing “I can fly,” because our 45th annual writers’ conference is just around the corner (August 1-3) and I can tell you right now, writers are going to learn to fly.

And here’s why:

Conference Chair Stefan Feuerherdt is leading us to Never Land by moving the conference to the DoubleTree hotel, Lloyd Center. It’s scary to move to a larger place where things are new and different, but “new and different” is what takes us out of our ruts and into something creative and imaginative. It’s a good thing.

We have a new Willamette Writers president, Jenny Schrader, who is smart, witty, inspiring, and a creative genius when it comes to website design. She revamped our conference website and it looks amazing.

Alina Blankenship and Shannon Bodie added to our new look by redesigning our marketing brochure and program. Didn’t you get excited when you opened the brochure and it kept unfolding like origami to display all the many facets of the conference? I thought it rocked.

Cornelia Seigneur is bringing in – bar none – the best group of Lit Agents and Editors I have ever seen at the Willamette Writers conference. The bios read like “Who’s Who” at Publisher’s Weekly. Honestly, I’ve been a part of the conference for almost a decade and have NEVER seen a line up this stellar. If you want your words to fly with a traditional publisher, this is the year to do it!

And for you screenwriters, I’m bringing in a group of film agents, managers and producers who are representing or making hit movies and deals like you’ve never seen before. I have agencies coming that have topped the charts in deal-making on The (Tracking B) Hit List and The Black List, and one of my agents even CREATED The Blood List. You want to “levitate” into the film world? You can, and these connections will help you do it.

Jason Brick created a program that combines the best of both worlds: Learning all you can to crack the traditional publishing and film worlds, plus gather all the tools necessary to Do-It-Yourself. No matter which side you’re on, it doesn’t hurt to know as much as possible about both sides of this debate before you market your next writing project. Jason’s bringing back power players like Gordy Hoffman, Larry Brooks and Hallie Ephron, and this year he has a new LA screenwriter – Stephany Folsom – sharing her lessons on screenwriting craft and breaking into Hollywood. (And by the way, Stephany has broken in BIG this year. More on that at the conference.)

Yep. I’ve been singing lately. And so should you.

At the conference, you’ll have everything you’ll need to take your writing to new heights. “You can fly!”

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Cynthia Whitcomb on Willamette Writers

Cynthia Whitcomb, a past president of Willamette Writers, speaks about the programs the non-profit group offers, including Books for Kids (collecting new and used books for organizations that serve children), YWW, for students in grades 5-10, and the Herzog Writing Scholarship, for high school seniors and college freshman and sophomores. Willamette Writers has five chapters, in Portland, Eugene, Central Point, Salem, Newport, and Corvallis.