From A to Z: Who are you, anyway?

From A to Z is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that examines the nuts and bolts of the writing (and publishing) process.

question markI recently submitted an application for a volunteer position that included a prompt for a brief personal essay: Tell us about yourself.

I’ve been thinking about that prompt in the context of writing fiction, since I’m transitioning from a manuscript whose characters I’ve gotten to know over six years to a brand new world with characters I’m still feeling out. I’d really love for them to tell me more about themselves.

When a reader comes to a story and meets new characters, it’s with this same question. But readers aren’t afraid to pry—in fact they’re expecting to—so the real question they’re asking is much deeper: Who are you, anyway?

In my opinion, this question must be answered on at least three levels. Today I’m going to walk through what those levels are, how to touch on them in your own writing, and how they interact with one another.

1. We are who people perceive us to be.

In middle and high school, this reality seems inescapable. Even after that, most of us remain conscious of it for the rest of our lives.

This is the most basic way to answer the Who are you? question: it includes age, race, cohesion to gender norms, and perceived sexuality. It includes the way we dress, the color of our hair, our posture and mannerisms and accents, the names we were given and the names we choose to use.

We might not like it, but humans are creatures of habit and prone to snap judgments: Who we are on the surface will always color the way we’re able to navigate the world. This reality should impact our characters too. That’s why you can’t only tell me that a character is, for example, an immigrant: in order to believe it, I need to see how that surface-level detail impacts other aspects of their lives.

Which brings us to:

2. We are the person inside our own heads.

The image we project on the outside matters, but so do the conversations that happen in the privacy of our own brains. These conversations are directly impacted by how others perceive us, but they also include all those moments of self-doubt, of pride, of desire, of superiority, of cruelty, and of regret that we might never share with other people but that are nevertheless part of our identity.

This comes through especially clearly for characters in first-person or close third, but it should be felt in any perspective. Who we are in our heads informs the things we choose to talk about and how we talk about them. It informs the options we think we have available to us and our perceptions of right and wrong.

The people we are in our heads are often the most interesting, and these quirky, specific things are what bring characters most to life—but to be fully realized you have to be honest about them, including times when your characters’ values and beliefs come into conflict.

In the privacy of our heads, we tell ourselves secrets. When we’re writing a story, we’re letting our characters share those secrets with strangers.

And in sharing those secrets, we realize that…

3. We are the choices we make, given the constraints we’re handed.

We all have constraints. Some constraints hang out for everyone to notice (see point 1), while others live below the surface but are still very real, including trauma, mood disorders, and emotional baggage. Other constraints might include income, geography, and the expectations of the communities you’re part of. In a story, a character’s constraints will also include the overarching plot.

What we believe influences what we do, though it doesn’t control it. A character might believe himself to be brave, but that won’t stop him from committing a hit-and-run. A character might believe herself weak, but that doesn’t preclude her from jumping into a lake to save a drowning child. Individuals who seemingly face the same set of constraints may react differently given their personalities, experiences, and other constraints we may not see or fully understand.

It’s easy to write characters who do stuff, but that’s not actually why readers are coming to your story. More often than not, they’re picking up your story because they want to see characters make tough choices (and subsequently do stuff). Your plot should seem to grow out of these choices, rather than the other way around.

The more clearly you’ve drawn your characters’ internal life, the easier it will be for you to understand the choices they would make (beyond what the plot might want to dictate). This will also make it easier for a reader to understand and believe a character’s choices, even if they disagree with them.

When you ignore one or more of these levels of identity, you create flat characters.

You won’t capture everything in the first draft, or even in the second. Think about how much learning you’re still doing about yourself, and you’re inside your own head 24/7!

Give yourself permission to write flat characters as you come to understand who they are. But also push yourself to ask how each aspect of their identity informs the others. How do their beliefs contradict or facilitate their actions? How do their actions cause others to change their opinions about them? How do the opinions of others influence their self identity and their future choices?

The interactions between how others react to us, what we tell ourselves, and what we choose to do in a given situation are what make us fully human. They’re what make us fascinating and contradictory and frustrating and heroic and unique.

So. With that in mind, let’s go craft some characters and find out who they are, anyway.

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This post is brought to you by Anna Waggener at ChiYAwriters.com.

From A to Z: Imagination as Empathy

From A to Z is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that examines the nuts and bolts of the writing (and publishing) process.

Mohsin Hamid empathy quoteSometime in the early 2010s, I heard an interview with a woman who was homeless. She lived in a car with her children, and she said the worst part was at night when she would try not to wake up the children with her crying.

This story stayed with me and eventually became the very real inspiration for a fictional story. Instead of writing the mother’s perspective, I imagined the experience of one of her children. In my mind, this teenage child was not sleeping but rather pretending to sleep while listening to his mother’s tears.

Writing is an intimate exercise in empathy. I would never claim to know the exact dimensions of another person’s experiences, but through writing, I can take what I know of life and use it to imagine others’ lives. For example, I have not been homeless, but I have slept in a car. I know the stiffness that comes from spending the night at crooked angles. And I have not faced food insecurity, but I have skipped meals. I know the dull ache and distracted attention that come with hunger. The specificity of the details is what creates the illusion of reality, so I start with my own experiences and extrapolate from there to create the landscape of my characters’ lives, inside and out.

And when it comes to the important things, to fear and jealousy and love and longing, I don’t have to stretch too far. I have felt all of these emotions myself, and although the reasons might differ, the result is the same. Much as an actor draws on her own personal history—her own moments of shame and pride, of joy and sorrow, of anger and calm—I unearth my own deep wells of emotion to reveal these feelings in my characters.

So when my main character, Ben, hears his mother crying in the car at night, I can feel not only the pain of being crammed sideways in the passenger seat of a car but also the pain of witnessing another person’s grief and being unable to do anything about it.

And if I have done my job properly, my readers will feel the same.

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This post is brought to you by Lizzie Cooke at ChiYAwriters.com.

From A to Z: Surviving the Query Trenches

From A to Z is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that examines the nuts and bolts of the writing (and publishing) process.

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I’d planned on writing an article about being in the query trenches, and how hard it was to keep motivated when the rejection rate is so high. But then I got an offer from the wonderful Caitie Flum, so I wondered if that topic was still relevant.

Friends, it is. I’m FRESH out of the trenches, so a lot of the feelings are still there. Querying authors know what I mean. The fear, anticipation, and hope that comes when sending out a new query. Then the paranoia! Rechecking the sent email, praying no typos snuck their way into the email mid-send! And then the waiting. Some agents respond quickly, some take a while, some not at all. And it’s such a roller coaster of emotions. I went through a myriad of them while in the trenches, to the point of “quitting” several times. The beauty of quitting a thing like this, though, is that the next day you can start again.

I’m very lucky. I have several writing communities and friends that helped me through the rough spots. Allowing me to step away when I needed to, for as long as I needed to, but gently encouraging me not to give up. And it worked. I survived the trenches long enough to sign with an amazing agent.

So now that I’m out of the trenches, here are a few things that kept me going, and still do:

  1. Community, community, community. Having safe people and spaces where I could vent my frustrations, my insecurities, my worries, and fears is so important to me. They are a shoulder to cry on, a pillar of support when I just want to crumble. I doubt I’d be here if I didn’t have that.
  2. Remembering who I was writing for. Every time I got determined to throw in the towel, I remembered little me, desperately reading anything and everything, trying to find even a little bit of myself in those characters. I don’t want any more little girls and teens to feel that desperate and erased.
  3. Plain old stubbornness and persistence. Being determined to make it no matter the odds. And the odds are so much harder for a black woman writing about black characters in publishing, especially when those characters are outside of stereotypical lenses. I simply refused to let the rejections completely wear me down.
  4. Comforts. Every time I got a pass, especially if it was on materials, it stung. Every single time. Even if I could nod along with the feedback and think, “OK I get that.” Some of the sting was because I felt like I should’ve known better. Some of it was guilt, feeling like I wasted that agent’s time. And of course, despairing if I had what it takes on many levels, to keep going in this business. So, I’d chat with my writer friends, pull out a Harry Potter book or movie, and eat junk food. Self-care is definitely important, but even more so when feeling rejected and vulnerable.
  5. Keeping it in perspective. Especially at the query stage. When I go to a bookstore and pick up a book, read the jacket, and think, “Nah, not for me,” and put it back, it’s no reflection on the author or the author’s talent. That story just isn’t my jam. I do this with NYT bestsellers all the time. Obviously those stories are resonating with a lot of people if they’re selling that many copies, but again, it might not be my jam. And that’s OK. When I think of a query rejection that way, it helps ease the sting. It really is subjective.
  6. Having a strategy. Some people send out queries in batches of 5, test the waters, revise/rework, and try again based on feedback. Others send a huge load at once and hope for the best. There are some who send a new query as soon as a rejection comes in. I was one of the send 5 at a time lot. I tried to be very deliberate, and I ended up querying fewer than 30 agents over the course of my year in the trenches.
  7. Distractions! Most people start work on another book while they’re waiting. I was worried I’d be a one-trick pony (even though I’d written full novels in the past, many times), but somehow, I began brainstorming 2 books! I also worked a LOT. Working a 9–5 plus freelance jobs keeps one busy. Also holidays, family, Netflix, day-to-day life, and a major surgery kept me distracted enough so I wasn’t refreshing my inbox over and over or stalking Query Tracker. Much. Also, I made a commitment to keep learning the craft. There are so many free writing resources out there. Pinterest has a plethora of links to explore, and there are even agents giving query and writing advice. Filling my life kept me from obsessing about query/submission status.
  8. Patience. That’s the hardest part. You’re excited about your work, and you want to move forward NOW. But, publishing is SLOW. At least to outsiders. Why does it take 2 years from announcement for a book to come out? Why do some agents take several months to respond to materials? The answer: Everyone is swamped! On the inside, there’s never enough time to do everything that needs to be done . . . but somehow, it all comes together in the end. Keeping that in mind helped me reflect on really pursuing this. As a matter of fact, I’ve come to embrace publishing’s slow burn.

I queried Caitie on August 2, 2016, and officially signed with her March 1, 2017. I’m excited and thrilled. She gets me and she gets my book, and her passion, her smarts, and her dedication makes me think we’ll be a great team.

The point of all of this is: Don’t Give Up. Every no, every hiccup, is a nudge toward the right agent. Keep going, keep working hard, and keep believing. And in the meantime, there’s chocolate.


This post is brought to you by Ronni Davis at ChiYAwriters.com.

From A to Z: Writing Diversely in YA

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From A to Z is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that examines the nuts and bolts of the writing (and publishing) process.

Take a look at bookish Twitter, and you’ll see a hot topic in YA popping off nearly every day. Most YA authors are passionate about their work and their audience and it’s amazing. They care about their readers and want to get them books they will love and embrace.

However, one topic comes up more often than not, with good reason. Diversity in YA Literature is very near and dear to me as an #ownvoices author. In this post, I’ll break down some hard questions about this heated topic.

Why diversity in YA?

Picture it, Cleveland, 1986. Little me, reading book after book and enjoying those books… but wondering why my life didn’t match the life in those books. I TRIED to make it match, but I often got made fun of, like when I wore a fancy dress to a school dance in 7th grade and got laughed at because everyone else was wearing their regular school clothes. Maybe if I’d read about a school more like mine (predominately black, all honors students, 7th and 8th grades, teachers who were strict in the best possible way), with a girl like me (a black girl nerd with big glasses and light skin), I wouldn’t have looked like a complete idiot at that school dance.

My point: representation matters. And not just one type of representation (i.e. the tragic gay coming out book, or the black person living in the ghetto book, or the Indian dealing with arranged marriages book), but ALL kinds of representation. All those books have their place, and those readers deserve to see themselves… but there are many readers whose narratives don’t fit that at all. They deserve to see themselves as well, and they deserve not to be told their lives, their experiences, their realities are “unrealistic” or a “fantasy world”—unless of course, it is a true fantasy with dragons and magic and so on.

So many people are desperate to see themselves in books, little me (and “grown up” me) included. And we don’t only want to see ourselves in the narrow boxes that have become the default and accepted narratives. Why can’t a black kid have magic, go to a wizarding school, and be the hero of that story? Why not a Chinese girl having a swoony relationship while she finds herself? Or why can’t we have non-binary characters having adventures with characters in wheelchairs? Why are most of the highly imaginative stories, stories with happy endings, stories with swoony love, given mostly to white characters? Exactly!

Who should write diverse literature?

So OK. It’s been firmly established that diverse books are needed. Organizations such as We Need Diverse Books and Rich in Color are doing great work in getting this message out there.

Now, who should write the books? Who has permission to write these stories? My answer? People can write whatever they want, but they should ask why they want to write those stories. And then be willing to do the hard work to give the representation in those stories the nuances and fair rep that the readers deserve.

The main questions authors should ask themselves before deciding to write a marginalized character as the POV character:

Am I the best person to tell this story, and why? Is it about ego? About chasing a “trend”? About mixing up the cast because you think that’s what’ll sell? Or is it because this person’s story is burning, burning deep inside you and you must tell it? I get that. It happens.

This question is not just for white, cishet authors. It’s for anyone writing outside of their own experiences. Part of the fun of writing is exploring, right? In my opinion, people shouldn’t feel limited in who they write about… but they should be careful about writing it.

Say you’ve asked this question, answered it the best way, and you decide to go ahead and write the story. Now it’s time to ask yourself:

Am I willing to do the hard work to get this character right? This means research, research, research! Using resources such as Writing with Color, Writing the Other, or Disability in Kidlit. Getting sensitivity readers and listening to their feedback. Actually interacting with people from marginalized backgrounds, rather than allowing stereotypes to shape your character. You’ll probably still mess up, so taking critiques graciously and being willing to learn is important. And that’s just to start.

Is what I’m writing going to hurt someone? I don’t mean hurting someone’s feelings. I mean large scale hurt that can have deadly repercussions. Stereotypes that enforce negative feelings about certain groups. Those feelings causing people to act out around people of those groups. People dying because of hatred fueled by what some consider art, or freedom of expression. Except all it’s causing is pain.

This is a delicate topic. But if you’re writing for children, why would you want to hurt them?

Representation. Matters.

Now that you’ve answered those questions, are you still the right person for this story? If so, great. Now it’s up to you to do the hard work to get the representation of marginalized characters right, just as you would do the hard work regarding scene structure, plotting, and character arcs. Good luck!

Now I’ll answer a few more questions about Diversity in YA.

What is #ownvoices?

According to the Google machine: #OwnVoices is a hashtag/term coined by Corinne Duyvis, co-mod of Disability in Kidlit, for a book featuring a marginalized perspective authored by a person who shares that same marginalized characteristic.

You can read more about the hashtag, and its creator, here.

What’s so great about #ownvoices? 

I read a LOT of YA. Not as much as some people (like librarians) but I try to plow through as much as I can in a given year. My first choice is contemporary, but I’ve been branching out. And this is what I’ve been noticing about #ownvoices books: They have rich layers that give readers a nuanced glimpse into a world they may not have been exposed to. Small things that an outsider wouldn’t notice or include, but those small things (and big things) make #ownvoices books special.

What can I do to uplift #ownvoices and marginalized authors, including those who may be getting passed over in favor of dominant “more relatable” voices?

The fact is that published books about marginalized groups, especially POC, are very few. Too few. And that number goes down when factoring in books BY those groups of people. Now, I’m not saying there is a quota in publishing, but when I hear of people saying their book was passed over because “we already have a [insert marginalization] book on our list for this year”, it’s hard not to think along those lines.

Look, I get it. Publishing is hard for everyone. The amount of rejection can be soul crushing. I’m still in the query trenches myself. All the layers to go through, and you’re still not even guaranteed a place in a bookstore. It’s rough out there. But there are groups who have it decidedly worse than others, and we all need all the support we can get. This can be mentoring, or beta reading, or critiquing. Referring them to your agent. Promoting their books when they finally make it past sales and marketing. It’s going to take all of us to get more diverse books on the shelves and into the hands of our kids, but the hard work will be worth it.

Who’s with me?

I want to read more diversely. Can you recommend some diverse books and authors?

Yes! There is a Diverse Reads 2017 Challenge, which lists loads of diverse books for you to check out. Click here to find out more.

Diversity in YA is very, very important to me, not just as a writer, but as a reader. Art can and does change lives. And writing diversely, with care, is an amazing way to do so.

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This post is brought to you by Ronni Davis at ChiYAwriters.com.

From A to Z: Negotiating with Your Muse

From A to Z is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that examines the nuts and bolts of the writing (and publishing) process.

teaThere are days when my vocabulary and creativity slip through pores in my skin, leaving me a thin, hollow husk of a writer. There are days like these and, sometimes, these days stretch into a week, two weeks, longer.

For me, worse than facing a blank page is facing a half-full one. An empty page leaves me alone with my thoughts—an unfinished one presents perfect rows of words I must’ve written in another life, all of them taunting.

Before I know it, my ideas are dusty and stale. Then the guilt settles and becomes, itself, suffocating. That’s when chores, errands, and freelancing start to feel like a balm. Anything to avoid the blinking cursor.

I’ve found a few tricks that moderate this slide into writer’s block, and I hope they might be helpful to you, too. For me, the hardest part is taking the first step:

Forgive yourself. Don’t let this turn into “I forgive myself for not writing today, and I’ll start tomorrow,” as I certainly have. Instead, make a quick-but-special treat (a fancy tea in a fancy cup is one of my favorites), sit down in front of your closed notebook or computer, and acknowledge that you’ve come further than the day before. Then forgive yourself for taking the time needed to get here, open to the waiting page, and get started.

If thirty minutes later the words still aren’t coming, I switch up my tools. Personally, I find writing longhand lets me be less critical of the words coming out, so sometimes I’ll power down the computer and give myself the freedom to write total crap and the pleasure of scratching it out and trying again.

For advanced stages of writer’s block, I get a change of scene. This is great to do on any given day, but can be especially helpful when you’re struggling to write. Take a brisk walk and think only about your story or character, or pack it all up and go to your favorite coffee shop. Exercise can also get creative juices flowing, and I’ve found hitting the gym for an hour helps relieve frustration and anxiety while sparking new ideas.

For truly advanced stages, I’ll bribe my muse. After 500 words I get to take a 15 minute break and read blogs, watch Netflix, or tidy the kitchen.

Finally, there’s one method that always works for me: Set up a brainstorming date with a friend whose opinion you trust—preferably someone who knows something about writing, editing, and/or work in your genre. Before you meet, take the time to summarize your project. Explain the things you hope to achieve and the questions you want to answer. Explain, also, the loose threads and worries that are swirling in your brain and keeping you from writing. You’ll untangle some things for yourself while doing this preparation, and will untangle many others thanks to your excellent friend.

Go into the conversation with an open mind and no ego: be willing to change anything in the project, to kill off a character or erase a plot twist—to start from scratch if you really have to. As you talk, jot down the specific points that get you excited about the project again. Collect your changes or next steps in one place and reiterate them at the end, treating them like a deliverables list that closes out a business meeting. Talking through your hopes and worries will help you see the project more clearly, give you new ideas you wouldn’t have thought of on your own, and lay out specific steps for moving forward.

I try to treat conversations with my muse like a negotiation, since I’ve personally never had luck with bashing through writer’s block by forcing myself to put down words. Everyone is different, though—if you have other tried-and-true tactics, please share in the comments!

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This post is brought to you by Anna Waggener at ChiYAwriters.com.