Posts Tagged ‘Flyaway’

Manuscript Marinade

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

Today I’m going to diverge from the usual and share a recipe with you. I call it Manuscript Marinade.

Ingredients: 1 completed manuscript

Directions: Allow manuscript to marinate in its file for 1 week to 1 year. After a suitable amount of time, open file and read.

I know it sounds ridiculously simple, but allowing your manuscript to sit – and your brain to rest – before reading your work and passing judgement, is an essential writing step. Time away allows you to approach your story as a reader, to see what works, and to gain new awareness of what doesn’t work. More importantly, a break from your manuscript will help you get a sense of what your book is truly about.

To mix cooking metaphors a bit here, think of your manuscript as a stew. You assemble all your ingredients (first draft) and then toss them in the slow cooker (time away). In the process of cooking, the meat becomes so tender that it falls off the bones. And it’s the “bones” of your story that will jump out at you when you come back to your manuscript for that all-important first read-through.

Sometimes those bones may surprise you. For example, my first draft of my YA novel FLYAWAY contained a lot of ingredients that didn’t end up in the completed book. I’d muddied the story by including a character with fetal alcohol syndrome who took up a lot of page space. When I read the manuscript after letting it sit, I saw that although he was an interesting character, he didn’t really belong in the story and took up too much valuable page space. Time away helped me realize that the bones of my novel were my main character, Stevie, and her relationship with her mom and her aunt. I let the unnecessary ingredients fall away to give those essential “story bones” room to grow.

Right now, I’m in the process of letting my current work-in-progress marinate – or stew, depending on which metaphor you prefer. Next week, I’ll open the lid of the pot, breathe in the steam, and then take a big spoon and plunge in, searching for the bones. I can’t wait to see what I’ll find!




5 Steps for adding a new character to your (completed) novel

Thursday, November 17th, 2016

When my agent told me that I needed to add a new character to my novel – the one I’ve been working on for years and have revised countless times and considered this close to submission-ready – I wanted to make like my butterscotch tabby, Sunny, and curl up under a blanket and shut down.


But then I remembered that I’d done it before. When I was working with my editor on FLYAWAY, she also suggested that I add a new character – a “decoy boy” to distract readers from the inevitability of the main character, Stevie, getting together with the major love interest, Alan. My character The Professor was born, and he actually became the character who generated the most comments and questions from students in my school visits.

So in my quest to add a new character to my current WIP, I went back to the process I had used before and came up with these five steps:

1. Clarify the new character’s role in your novel. Will this character serve as a decoy, as The Professor did in FLYAWAY, or will they fill another role? Other possible roles might include ally or mentor to the main character or proxy for the antagonist. Being clear on the new character’s role in your novel will help you determine how much weight to give him in terms of page time and backstory.

2. Determine the relative importance of the character. Is your new character a walk-on in one scene, or will she play a major role throughout the book? The new character my agent suggested that I add in this revision only appears in a few scenes and has little direct impact on the plot. Because of his relatively minor importance, I was careful not to flesh him out so fully that he drew undue reader attention.

3. Decide which other characters the new character will connect with. How tightly is this character woven into the weave of the story? Does he interact mostly with the main character, or will he connect to one or more minor characters as well? Will he live in one plot line or be part of several subplots? In order to weave my new character more closely into my story, I gave one of my main character’s friends a secret crush on him.

4. Create a name and a backstory relative to the character’s weight in the plot. This step is tricky. We writers love to create characters. I could have easily written a 10-page biography of my new character in which I explored his childhood and how it has impacted his current hopes, dreams, and fears. But since my character has relatively little importance compared to my major and supporting characters, I fleshed out only the essential elements of his backstory. I made notes on his name and age, his status in the school hierarchy, his interest in music, and why he’s attracted to my main character. That’s all the information I really needed. And because his relative importance to the plot is so minimal, I decided that my main character wouldn’t refer to him by name; she calls him Knit Hat Boy.

5. Choose the scenes in which the character will appear. Now that you’ve determined your character’s role in your novel, decided on her relative importance, and created an appropriate name and backstory, it’s time to “shoehorn” her into your already completed book. To complete this step, I read through my manuscript, and using Comments in Track Changes, noted the location of each scene where my new character would appear. Some of these were scenes I’d written previously that I planned to revise to include him; others were scenes I needed to add.

With your backstory notes and Comments in front of you, the final step, of course, is to write your new character into the novel. Easy? No. Worth it? In my case, yes. Thanks to my agent’s advice, I now have a new character who adds one more subtle layer of depth to my story.

Have you ever had to write a new character into an already completed manuscript? How did it go for you? What were the challenges you encountered?

Three important questions to ask your (unreliable) narrator

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

I recently finished the first draft of a novel. As I let it sit and percolate, I find myself wondering whether the story would be more interesting if I made my narrator, who is also my main character, a little less reliable.

I love books with unreliable narrators. Some of my favorites are INVISIBLE by Pete Hautman


LIAR by Justine Larbalestier


…and INEXCUSABLE by Chris Lynch.


Unreliable narrators add a layer of interest to the story because you, as a reader, are never sure that what they’re telling you is true. I even paid homage to my favorite books by making Stevie, the main character and narrator of my YA novel FLYAWAY, somewhat unreliable.

As I think about adding this narrative layer to my current WIP, I realize that there are three questions I need to ask my narrator/main character in every scene:

1. What do you believe about the situation at hand? A character’s unreliability can stem from several different causes. In some cases, the character may not be telling the truth because he or she is unaware of it. In my WIP, for example, my main character, Desiree, knows that something is different about her, but she has made a wrong assumption about what that difference is. So she is not really lying to the readers, the other characters, or herself; she simply is unaware of the truth. She believes that what she is conveying to the reader is true, even though it isn’t.

Other unreliable narrators, though, are actively hiding the truth. In these cases, it’s important that you, as a writer, know what the character actually believes and why they are obscuring that belief.

2. What do you want the other characters to believe? This question will help you decide how much your character will disclose to others in the world of the novel. In my WIP, Desiree desperately wants to hide the fact that she is different from her best friend, Emmy. So even though readers know that Desiree believes something is wrong with her, they will see her behaving as if everything is normal, especially when she’s around her friend.

Be aware that your narrator might answer this question differently for each character she interacts with in. In other words, there may be some characters that the narrator is willing to disclose her secrets to and others from which she wants or needs to hide it.

What do you want the reader to believe? This last question is the essential one in creating an unreliable narrator. Will your narrator share secrets with the reader, even ones that he doesn’t share with other characters, or will he tell the reader one thing and, by his actions in the story, show another?

In a few weeks, I’ll be diving in to revise my novel, using these three questions as my guide.

Do you like books with unreliable narrators? What are some of your favorites?

Odds and Ends

Monday, January 7th, 2013

It’s a new year, so it feels like time to take care of a few odds and ends. First, I’m getting excited about my appearance at the Olympia Timberland Library this Friday at 6:30 p.m., along with YA authors Megan Bostic (NEVER EIGHTEEN), Jennifer Shaw Wolf (BREAKING BEAUTIFUL), and Kimberly Derting (THE BODY FINDER series).


The title of our program is “Writers on Writing,” so it promises to be informative as well as entertaining. Our books will be available for purchase and signing after the talk, so please come  on out if you’re in the area. We’d love to see you!

Second, I’m anxiously awaiting feedback from beta readers on the latest draft of my WIP. I’ve gotten one response already, and she loved it! A quote from her email:


HELEN! YES, I’M SCREAMING OVER HERE! I was up all night with your revision because I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN. It’s really perfect. I loved every part of it. And the tension is so thick throughout, it kept me turning pages. (or scrolling) I would absolutely pay to read this – and I will when it gets published – I’m going to have a copy of the hardcover on my shelf. This has to be published. 
Pretty strong praise, but I’m trying not to let it go to my head. I’ll wait and see what my other two readers have to say, then do another revision addressing their comments and any weak spots I find when I read the draft. Then, and only then, it goes off to my agent.
Lastly, there’s a lot of talk in the air about New Year’s resolutions. I don’t tend to make them, since my life is rife with rules and structure, anyway. But this year, I want to remind myself to keep a sense of play alive in my work. What’s the point of writing if I don’t enjoy it?
Any odds and ends you’d like to get off your chest? I’m all ears!

Reflections on my debut year

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

Exactly one year ago today, my debut YA novel, FLYAWAY, released from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


I’d had books published by small presses before, but this was the biggie: my first novel with a major publishing house. Like most debut authors, I went into my launch with a naive sense of optimism, and in typical Aries fashion, I had fantasies of taking the YA world by storm. I envisioned stellar reviews, awards, perhaps even a movie deal! (A little over-the-top, I know, but we Aries folk are nothing if not ambitious.) At the very least, I was sure that this was the start of a distinguished career, and that in no time I’d be signing contracts for more books. One way or another, the release of FLYAWAY was going to change my life.

None of that has happened. FLYAWAY has garnered mixed reviews – some glowing, some not so much. It hasn’t received any awards, and I haven’t heard a hint of a movie deal. So far, I have yet to sell a second novel. And I’m still working the same jobs, still struggling to pay the bills, still squeezing writing into the cracks in my overstuffed schedule.

To say that I’ve been disillusioned would be a little strong; disappointed, perhaps. The truth is that I’ve had to take a big bite of a reality sandwich of my own making.

Not to say that there haven’t been wonderful things about having my first YA novel out in the world. I’ll never forget the walking-on-air giddiness of having my lifelong dream come true or the show of support at my book launch. I’ve loved getting to know other YA authors, both online through communities like The Elevensies and in person. I’ve had a blast at book events and discovered a passion for talking to teens about books. My debut year has been an experience I’ll always treasure.

And now that I think about it, my life has changed profoundly, though not in the ways I imagined it would. This year has taught me to manage my expectations – not to give up hope, but to set my sights on achievable goals, goals that are within my control. I can’t control how reviewers and award committees will react or whether an editor will make an offer for my next book. But I can control the quality of my work, which is where I’m now putting my focus.

This year, I’ve had to recommit to my writing. Like someone who’s been hurt in a relationship, I’ve had to open myself up to  falling in love with the process of creating a novel all over again. And this time, because I now understand that there are no guarantees that my work will be published, my sense of commitment is stronger and deeper than before.

I’ve also had to recommit to my “real life.” Now that the dream of a star-studded literary career is fading into the distance, at least for now, I feel a new gratitude for the work that allows me to make a living, and for my family and friends who are so deserving of my time.

Don’t get me wrong: more than anything in the world, I’d love to publish another novel – or two or three. I’m still gunning for some awards and – who knows? – maybe even a movie deal. The difference is that now I have hopes instead of expectations. And I think I can live with that.