Why I write

Write what you loveI’ve been a reader since very young. At 3 years old, I memorized Peter Rabbit… literally knew which words went with which pages, even though I wasn’t associating words with meanings quite yet. I knew that story so well, backwards and forwards, what happened when… we have a recording of my 3-year-old voice “reading” the story to my aunt, and when I get to the end of it, I just start the whole story over again…

I think that being a reader, falling in love with books and stories, is part of how one becomes a writer. There’s something magic about the way that words unlock the world. They lift you out of your current experience and thrust you into another place and time, be that world fictional or utterly real. We are transported by the words on the page, made to think of something other than ourselves if only for a moment. And once you connect with that magic in such a personal way, who can resist the draw of being able to harness the power yourself?

I wrote my first book when I was in elementary school about dolphins, on construction paper and stapled together, complete with researched and organized chapters and oil pastels illustrations. (If I can find it, I’ll post pictures here.) After that I was hooked. I created stories in my head and in spiral notebooks, about horses and unicorns in elementary and middle school, and about angsty love and rejection when I was a little older. Nothing that was worth publishing, most of which I would never share with anyone, not even my most trusted companions. I stopped writing in college (got distracted), but I picked it up again a few short years later.

Now I write light YA fantasy, crafting strong female characters to speak directly to that angsty, rejected teenager I was all those years ago. I’m planning a self-publishing adventure this summer (follow my progress at http://www.elisabethkauffman.com) and the fulfillment of a promise I made to myself as a teenager to publish something that I wrote.

How we came to this land of writing matters for one very important reason. Your writer’s origin story is what you should fall back on when the going gets tough. If you’re serious about succeeding in this often frustrating and soul-crushing world of publishing, you’re going to have to remind yourself why you started in the first place.

For me, when I get scared of sharing my writing because I’m anticipating the painful process of internalizing feedback (growth HURTS, people, it’s why they call them “growing pains”) and getting better as a writer, I think of that teenage me, shiny-eyed, expressive, and innocent. She wanted these stories to be told because she wanted a story to relate to. When I suffer through the painful parts of this process, I do it for her.

Who do you do it for?

*Just FYI, the fab Gabriela Pereira of DIY MFA is releasing a BOOK in June. Learn more about it here.

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Writing Tips: Don’t Neglect Your Villain’s Motivations

Voldemort; villain
Lord Voldemort, from Harry Potter

Ever find yourself watching a movie or reading a story and wondering what the “bad” guy’s problem was? And when there’s no real motivation, do you find yourself disappointed? Unable–or unwilling–to suspend your disbelief and stay with the story?

Believable villain motivation separates the memorable stories from the forgotten ones. When you can help your reader connect with, even empathize with the villain in your manuscript, they will forgive all kinds of crazy schemes and tactics that the villain uses to get in the hero’s way.

This doesn’t mean giving away everything right at the beginning of the story, either. It’s ok not to understand exactly why a character does something. But you have to give the readers a sense, a hint, an inkling, of what’s going on inside your villain’s mind. Otherwise we don’t care.

As your character’s motivations become more clear throughout the story, your reader develops more empathy with the villain. This can sometimes even raise the stakes. The more powerful the cause your villain has for his evilness, the more important it is for the hero to defeat him.

My favorite example of villain motivation is in the Harry Potter series (of course). Let’s take a brief look at Voldemort throughout the series.

Books 1-4

In books 1-4, Voldemort’s basic motivation was returning to his corporeal state. Completely understandable, of course. Who wouldn’t want to return from a weird, amorphous half-life to flesh-and-blood? (If you wouldn’t, let me know in the comments).

Books 5-7

In books 5-7, Voldemort has two goals. One, to be the most powerful wizard (and therefore the one in control of all the other wizards) and two, to kill Harry Potter. Being powerful is more than just about being in control for Voldemort. It’s about staying alive. If he doesn’t control everyone, then he will surely be killed. He’s done enough horrible things in his previous quest for power that he’s made plenty of enemies. He has to kill Harry to prove he is the most powerful wizard. Rowling sets us up to understand that fairly early in the series, and confirms it by the end of book 5.

As the series progressed, Voldemort’s motivations became more complex, but at the same time remained the same. He wanted to live just as much as Harry did. The reader can understand that, can even get behind some of the steps he takes to achieve that goal. The difference is that the readers wanted Harry to live more than they wanted Voldemort to live.

It’s important to recognize the role that back story plays in strengthening the villain’s motivations. When the time is right and you share that back story with your readers, the conflict becomes more powerful and your readers become more invested in the final outcome.

So don’t neglect your villains! Don’t let them be evil just for the sake of being evil. The better the villain’s motivations, the better the story.

Writing Tips: 3 Reasons NOT to Begin Your Novel With a Dream or a Flashback

Figuring out where to start your novel can be difficult. Where your readers enter the story, what they see, who they meet, will color the way they view the rest of the novel. The first few pages are where the reader gets their footing and learns just what the story is all about, where it’s going to take them, whether or not they should trust the voice that is taking them through this foreign story land.

Sometimes, when you’re not sure just how you should start your novel, it can seem like a good idea to start with a dream or a flashback, your character remembering something that happened before the reader came along, or something that never happened at all. There are 3 reasons not to do this.

  1. The Confusion Factor
    In the first five pages of the novel, you should be setting up your reader’s expectations of the character and world that they’re going to be sharing with you for the next 200 pages. If you then suddenly shout “just kidding!” and change everything that they know or thought the novel was going to be about, you risk at worst losing their interest, and at least confusing them.
  2. It’s been done (and done and done and done)
    You want your story to stand out in your reader’s mind. You want to grab people’s attention and hold it. If you resort to this trick that everyone else has tried, how well are people going to remember your book in the midst of all the others? Be worth remembering. It may take a little more work, but it’s worth it!
  3. If it’s a flashback, why didn’t you just start there in the first place?
    If you absolutely have to start us in the “past” and then jump forward, ask yourself why? Why didn’t you just start us there in the first place? For a flashback to work at the very beginning of a novel, the event you’re taking us back to must be pretty earth-shattering for your character, but then not matter at all until the current time. The fall of Voldemort and Harry’s arrival at the Dursleys’ home were both HUGE to the plot of Harry Potter. So J.K. Rowling, instead of having a character remember those moments later, plunked the reader down right there in the moment. She started with a deeply significant event and showed it to her readers, and by doing so, those events had more impact.
Finally, you can choose to do a flashback or a dream at the beginning. If it’s right for your book, it’s right for your book. But you’ve gotta wow us with it. Make it a flashback or dream to remember!

Writing Tips: 4 Questions to Ask When Writing Back Story in Your Novel

If you’re reading this blog post, you’re probably creative. You’re probably a writer with an overactive imagination. That’s great! You’re my favorite type of person. That deep and beautiful imagination is what drives you to do what you do, to write and create worlds for you and your readers to get lost in.

So what do you do when it comes time to share that world with others, when it’s time to tell the tale that’s been growing inside your fertile mind? People who have the widest imaginations have the hardest time getting to the heart of their story. What details do you include? How much history to you reveal? After all, you’ve worked so hard to cultivate your characters, who they are, how they and their world came to be. Surely your readers are interested in the details and the back story as much as you are.

And you’re right–up to a point. I love discovering the depth of detail and planning that an author has gone through to create the character that I am following and the world that character lives in. The problem arises when I get socked with that back story before I’m ready to appreciate it, before it matters to the story at hand.

If you throw too much detail at your reader too soon, they’re not going to know what to do with it. At the beginning of a story, your reader is busy figuring out how things work, who the characters are, what they want most, and what’s standing in the way. They’re not gonna want to know WHY things work that way… not yet… or the deep personal histories of the characters yet… they don’t know to who they’re supposed to care about yet!

You’ll have the same problem if you throw in too much detail at the end, too. Your reader will likely skim right over back story revealed too close to the ending, in order to get to the “important part” of the story.

So how do you  know what back story to include and where? Here are four questions you can ask when you feel the urge to type out your character’s family tree:

  1. Is this bit of back story relevant to what’s going on RIGHT NOW in the story? (follow-up question: Will your reader understand that it is relevant right now?)
  2. Does the back story you’re including move the story forward? 
  3. Does it reveal something important about character motivation?
  4. Will your reader be confused about what’s going on without this back story?
If the answers all of these questions are yes, include your back story! If any of these answers are no, you might want to reconsider revealing that back story now.
The last thing you want is for your reader to skim over any part of your tale. It’s better to reveal back story on a need-to-know basis rather than dumping it all on your reader when they’re not ready for it. The right bit of information presented at the right moment will hook your readers and then they won’t be able to get enough!