When to Stop Editing

I can admit it – I’m addicted to editing. I’ve rewritten the first chapter of one of my novels so many times that all of the versions start to blur together. Sometimes the changes are relatively minor, but I can’t help thinking of better and better ways to begin, and end up with a completely different opening scene. I’ve added and deleted prologues, and added an epilogue only to question whether it disrupts the flow of the primary narrative.

So my question is, how do you know when your story is good enough? I think I’ll always come up with new ideas that I want to incorporate, but unless I want to end up with one unfinished manuscript at the end of my life, at some point I have to stop and move on.

When I reach this point, I know I have to share my story with people who I trust. They will inevitably  have suggestions of their own, but I can tell by the type of feedback whether or not I’m close. When you hear that an entire character isn’t working, or a section / aspect of the book is slow or doesn’t make sense, I keep rewriting. Or if several readers are taking forever to finish the story, that’s a red light – obviously it isn’t holding their interest enough to finish quickly. But when the suggestions start to get minor, details that need to be sharpened, I make the edits and move on.

So I know it’s time to finally let go of that first chapter. Time to close the file, admit it’s done and start dreaming up new worlds.

How to Write a Great Battle Scene

shutterstock_101136988One of the scenes in my novels that I find most intimidating to write is battles. How much action is too much? Or am I making it too simple? The Conjurors is a young adult fantasy series, and I enjoyed a succint, informative article on StormTheCastle.com about writing fantasy battles that got my brain working. These techniques gave me a starting point, and when I sat down and wrote the big battle in my story, I found a few other helpful techniques that I wanted to share.

Keep track of your heroine.
With all of the blood and manoevers and treachery, it’s easy to get lost when writing a battle. I found that using my heroine as an anchor helped to focus me. This is still her story, so I reminded myself to include her emotional responses to what she was witnessing, as well as the action itself.

Write a battle your audience will care about.
The battle scene in a book for adult men should look different than a battle in a YA fantasy aimed at a female readership. Talk to your fans and friends to see how much detail they want you to go into on the battlefield. Personally, I tend to skim the battle scenes in books that describe tactics and detailed combat. On the other hand, when I read Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, the battles kept me riveted, because it was as much about what was happening inside Katniss’ head as it was about the fighting itself.

Check out historical battle tactics.
This can get overwhelming and confusing, so I’d like to add the caveat that it’s only worth real effort if you’re writing a massive battle scene. If you’ll be battling for a few chapters, you might want to check out some information on battle strategy to make your story richer. It also helps provide a framework for your battle so that you don’t get lost in all the blood.

Choose a fighting style and read up on it.
You can even take a class. If your fighters are all using hand-to-hand combat, it helps to know a few moves that you didn’t see in an action movie. You can talk to a friend in martial arts or even read up on the basics. No matter what style you have in mind, from 21st century warfare to clashing swords, a little knowledge goes a long way toward making your story believable.

Do you have any other tips on how to write a battle scene well? I’m editing mine now and would love some tips!

Tackling the Art of Revision

“to write is human, to edit is divine” – Stephen King, On Writing

Picture1It’s time to revise the second book in The Conjurors Series, and I must admit that I’m thrilled. Other than creating the plot outline of a story or series, my next favorite step in the writing process is editing. I love connecting the dots, deleting the excess baggage, and even fixing the grammar. It is a restful period after the mental weightlifting that is writing the first draft. Some days I edit a page or a scene, and others I make it through chapters at a time.

Being a creature who loves to research the best ways of doing everything, I began to look into the best way to approach the editing process. I was surprised to find that there wasn’t a lot of insight out there from my favorite authors, like J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and Cassandra Clare. I think maybe that’s because editing is an intensely personal process that is different for every writer.

I read a cool article in the Boston Globe about how the modernists changed the way that we edit today. Back in Shakespeare’s day, when there were no computers (or typewriters, for that matter), authors would put pen to page, write carefully, and call it a day. The modernists, like Hemingway and Eliot, would write and rewrite, sometimes 10-12 drafts. The end product often looked nothing like the original draft. As tempting as it is to want to go back to the days of writing well the first time, I suspect that the way writers think has fundamentally changed. We can’t go back to a simpler time, and I for one am going to embrace it.

What’s worked for me is first and foremost getting others to read my first draft. I had a lot of success with the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror when I wrote the first book in The Conjurors Series. For book two I have a trusted group of readers whose opinions I trust. Their advice is invaluable in helping me take my work to the next level at both a micro and macro level. They always think of things that would never have crossed my mind, no matter how carefully I edited my work.

I also focus on sections of the story that I know are crucial moments to make sure every word is just right.Then I look at the bigger picture, referring back to my outline to make sure all of the plot connections are in place and that my themes and mood are carried throughout the story.

I’m always on the lookout for new techniques, so let me know – what works best for you when you’re in editing mode?

On Writing 100,000 Words in 100 Days – Sorta

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A little over a week ago I became the proud author of the complete first draft of the second book in my young adult fantasy series, The Conjurors. I’d made a pact with myself to write 100,000 words in 100 days, and I can’t say that I wrote 1,000 words every single day – but I came close. Life got in the way sometimes, like when my husband, toddler and myself all came down with a violent stomach virus. Or, to be fair, also when I became obsessed with Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices Trilogy and decided that my need to marathon the series overrode my need to finish my own story.

But at least having this goal encouraged me to complete the first draft of my novel in close to 100 days. It’s an exercise that I plan to repeat in the future. I know some writers ebb and flow in the amount of content they create as their muse inspires them. Sometimes I wish that I were that kind of writer, but in reality I think I’m the kind of person who does best when I force myself to be creative.

So given that this plan was a success, I think it’s time for a new goal as I begin the editing process – which I happen to love and am excited to begin. I owe my beta readers a draft of the story in September, so until then I plan to edit a chapter a day, minimum. This may be ambitious, but it’s a place to start.

Do any of you have advice on setting editing goals? If so I’d love to hear your thoughts and advice!

Best First Sentences in YA Fantasy

shutterstock_123859036Now that I’m writing the ending of the second book in The Conjurors Series, I find myself looking back to the beginning – particularly the very first line of the story. I read a great article in The Atlantic about Stephen King’s approach to writing great first lines – make it an irresistable invitation to continue reading and introduce your style and protagonist. This master of the craft spends weeks and even years perfecting opening lines, and once he does, the rest of the story flows.

But for me, I find that writing a great first line means having a complete grasp of the story as a whole. No matter how detailed my outline is, the story is still nebulous until it’s written. I love to research the “greats” when I’m looking for inspiration, and I thought you might enjoy some of the best first lines from young adult fantasy novels that I encountered on my search.

10.
In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.
– Kristin Cashore, Graceling

This is a simple, graceful opening line that introduces the reader to the protagonist with an interesting tidbit about her personality. It also puts the reader in the middle of the action without being confusing or disorienting.

9.
I felt her fear before I heard her screams.
– Richelle Mead, Vampire Academy

An excellent example of an attention-grabber that propels the reader straight into the story.

8.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrgggggggggghhhhhhh!” His fall seemed to go on forever.
– Jamie Thomson, Dark Lord: The Early Years

We’re smack dab in the middle of action, and the tone is already set for the offbeat humor that is unique to this story.

7.
Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.
– Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief

This short sentence both establishes the conversational, first person voice of this series as well as immediately making the reader relate to the protagonist.

6.
Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.
– Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

A girl and her daemon sneaking around in the dark? Please tell me more!

5.
The demon exploded in a shower of ichor and guts.
– Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Angel

Starting in the middle of an action scene is a classic way that authors hook readers, to the point where it sometimes feels cliche. But Clare decides to go big or go home with this approach, and it got my heart pumping from the first line.

4.
The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do.
– Hugh Howey, Wool
Foreshadowing at its finest. The contast between the squealing children and the prospect of death is riveting, and it also introduces us to the first protagonist of the story.

3.
It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.
– Maggie Stiefvater, The Scorpio Races

This first line shares some of the characteristics of the first line from Wool, but I loved it even better because of its perfect mystery and simplicty.

2.
Dear Reader, I’m sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant.
– Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning

Lemony Snicket has a very unique tone in his stories, and from the first line of the A Series of Unfortunate Events series, readers can instantly get a sense of it. I also admire the use of reverse psychology. What is it about him warning me away from this horrible book that really makes me want to keep reading?

1.
I am dead, but it’s not so bad. I’ve learned to live with it.
– Isaac Marion, Warm Bodies

One of the best first lines I’ve come across. Readers get an instant sense of both the tone of the writing and the personality of the protagonist. It also introduces us to a unique concept right away. It doesn’t take pages to discover that we’re in a world unlike anything we’ve read about before.

Did I miss any of your favorite YA fantasy first lines?

How to Create a Likeably Flawed Protagonist

shutterstock_104313347As a writer, I’ve often heard about the trap of creating a character who’s too perfect. They don’t seem human and can often come off flat and boring. If there’s no room to grow, then where’s the story going? On the other hand, creating a flawed character is a tricky business. With a few notable exceptions, readers want to root for the protagonist, so they must be likable. Sometimes we may want to shake them, but they aren’t so irredeemable that we want to shut the book.

The best protagonists walk this line with flair and originality. Below are the lessons I learned from some of my favorite, classic authors on how to create characters whose flaws are an integral part of what makes them compelling.

Make a Flaw a Secret Strength
Jane Eyre – Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is one of my favorite novels of all time because of the wonderful heroine at the center of her story. Jane has a temper, railing against the unfairness she encounters with her family and at her horrible boarding school, rather than accepting her lot quietly, piously and passively like a good little girl. It’s this fighting spirit that makes Jane so lovable to the reader and her love interest, Mr. Rochester. She is also uncompromising in her values, leaving the man she loves when she finds out that he’s married, even though she wants to stay with him. This stubbornness almost costs her happiness and even her life, but when she manages to take a risk at the end of the story, her reunion with Mr. Rochester is all the sweeter for knowing how hard it was for Jane to turn around and come back to him.

Counterbalance Flaws with Self-Sacrifice
A Tale of Two Cities – Sydney Carton

Charles Dickens knew how to paint bright spots of humanity even in its darkest hour, and Sydney Carton is the best of his creations. A cynical, alcoholic and depressed character at the beginning of the novel, Sydney is completely transformed by his love of a woman to give his life to save the man she loves. His story wouldn’t be nearly as compelling if he was  better man. It is overcoming his flaws, or achieving true goodness in spite of them, which makes this story one of those that stays with you forever.

Choose a Flaw People Can Relate To
Hamlet – Hamlet

There are dozens of wonderful Shakesperian examples of flawed heroes to choose from, but Hamlet stands out as one of the characters who strikes a chord with many people. His fundamental goodness – loyalty, courage and committment to the truth – are undermined by his flaws – his indecision, pride, and depression. He’s a character that you simultaneously root for and want to shake. Every time I read the play I find myself somehow hoping that his final demise can be prevented. He’s a character that has taken root in my brain as a reminder that good intentions without action can be disasterous.

Let Your Character Revel in their Flaw
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Lisbeth Salander

Perhaps this isn’t quite a classic, but I couldn’t end this post without mentioning Lisbeth – a violent, anti-social vigilante with an obsession with revenge and justice. What’s not to love? Stieg Larsson did an incredible job created a complex, multi-layered heroine whose flaws make her more lovable, rather than less. She’s tough, able to take down men three times her size, but also vulnerable, a woman alone who only knows how to turn to herself when she needs help. Watching her kick butt is gratifying and riveting.

Who are some of your favorite examples of delightfully flawed heroes and heroines?

The Art of Foreshadowing

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” – Anton Chekov

shutterstock_90204550Being in the hands of a master of the craft of foreshadowing is one of the most rewarding parts of reading a great book. J.K. Rowling is such a master – there are incredible examples throughout the entire Harry Potter series. But by far my favorite is when we learn that Snape loved Harry’s mother in the final book of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Rowling knew in book one that this was coming and laid clues throughout her series, from the color of Harry’s eyes to the hatred Snape had for Harry’s father, that made the payoff in book seven incredibly rewarding. It was one of those moments as an author where I shake my head and consider giving up the craft in the face of such genius.

Another example of excellent foreshadowing that I recently read is in Kendra C. Highley’s Matt Archer series. (I’ll be interviewing her in July, for those who would like to hear more.) I don’t want to give away any spoilers for those who haven’t read her latest book, but she had a creative idea that I haven’t seen before. Her character has a vision of himself with a strange marking, like a magical tattoo. It’s foreshadowing when he has the vision, then again when he gets the mark, because we know that he’ll be having some crazy adventures soon.

We all can’t be Rowling, but I do try to incorporate good foreshadowing into my writing – which invariably involves intense planning for my entire series, rather than planning book by book. This is my favorite part of the writing process – creating the overarching plot and identifying where the payoffs of each storyline will occur. It makes me feel like the master of my own little universe. For some great basic information and tips on foreshadowing I also like the advice in this All Write – Fiction Advice blog post.

But in the actual implementation of little clues throughout my series, I am constantly second guessing myself – are the hints too obvious, or too obtuse? It’s hard to find a balance between ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ and a little failed eye contact by a character at a key moment. What seems blatant to me as the author may be totally missed by an unsuspecting reader. So it’s critical that I have honest beta readers who can give me feedback.

Do you have any tips on how to implement foreshadowing well?

Adapting The Hero’s Journey for a Heroine

Heroesjourney_svgThe hero’s journey (also called the monomyth), outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, identifies common elements in stories from around the world, particularly myths and quest tales. I’ve been fascinated with the concepts Campbell defined since I first encountered his book, and I immediately wondered how it could be adapted for a heroine.

It has been pointed out by others (Maureen Murdock’s book The Heroine’s Journey and an awesome blog post on the FANgirl blog, for example) that the outline of the hero’s journey is inherently sexist. While I don’t dispute the truth of that argument, as a writer I’m less concerned with analyzing the pattern outlined by Campbell and more interested in how it can make my own stories richer. Being too strict in following each step in a particular order can stifle any good book, and in particular with a heroine, it’s critical to be flexible and adapt this outline to maximize its effectiveness.

Campbell’s pattern is split into three pieces, each with sub steps – the departure, initiation and return. I have found with The Conjurors series that it is helpful to have these three elements as a basic outline for each book as well as the series as a whole. It helps me to keep my thoughts organized and to keep the adventure exciting. Below I walk through how each of these steps can work for a heroine, including examples of modern young adult fantasy heroines who have walked the walk.

The first section, Departure, has five subsections:

The Call to Adventure
The moment when the heroine discovers that something exciting is in store for her is one of my favorite moments to write. Suddenly her world expands and the possibilities seem endless. A great example of a heroine’s call to adventure is in The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, when Puck Connolly realizes that one way to earn the money she needs to support her family is join the incredibly dangerous Scorpio Races as the first girl to ever compete.

Refusal of the Call
As tempting as the new adventure may be, the heroine usually doubts her ability or desire to embark on the incredible journey. This can be an especially powerful step for heroines, who may have more insecurities or a greater sense of duty to parents or even their own children than male heroes. Veronica Roth does a great job with this in Divergent. In this novel, society splits everyone into different factions based on a different virtue. Tris was raised in Abnegation (where everyone is selfless) but has the opportunity to join the Dauntless community (where bravery is cultivated). Leaving her life and family behind is an incredibly difficult choice, and makes the stakes high for her when she takes the leap into a new life.

Supernatural Aid
Of course, there would be no story if the heroine didn’t ultimately accept the adventure thrust upon her. Once she does, there is usually a guide or mentor who gives her advice and help – sometimes even an object that can be used to help her on her quest. Coming up with creative talismans and mentors for a heroine can be incredibly fun. In Amanda Hocking’s Trylle Trilogy, the mentor, Finn Holmes, is also the heroine’s love interest. The dynamic changes between them from as the series progresses so that they are on more equal footing, but early  in the series he is her guide into a new world of magic where she will be a leader.

silhouette2The Crossing of the First Threshold
This is the moment when the heroine leaves the known for the unknown. She leaves behind who she was to embrace who she could be. In Divergent, Tris literally takes a leap of faith and jumps off of a moving train onto a roof, and then off the roof into a hole. She doesn’t know what’s down there, but she knows she’s leaving her old life behind for a new adventure.

Belly of The Whale
Now officially on her quest, the heroine gets her first taste of the danger that she will be facing. Often this can be a threat or a fight that really shows her what her limitations are. We know Katniss is really in the belly of the whale in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games when she enters the arena and all of the competitors begin killing each other as they fight for a pile of food and weapons on the first day of the games. She narrowly escapes being killed herself, and the survival of the fittest begins.

The second section, Initiation, has six subsections:

shutterstock_136940549The Road of Trials
All heroines must undergo trials to prove they are worthy of their quest, and also to get them ready for the journey ahead of them. These tests can be physical tasks, but often they have a deeper meaning for the character and help develop them into a stronger person emotionally as well. In Lauren Oliver’s trilogy, beginning with Delirium, she does a creative job of the road of trials for her heroine, Lena. Lena doesn’t have to face physical tests, but rather emotional trials to open her up to the possibility that love is not a disease, as she has been raised to believe. She opens herself up to friendship and ultimately love, making herself vulnerable and sharing her past and present feelings.

The Meeting With the Goddess
Several of the steps in the Initiation section are particularly geared toward male protagonists, beginning with the meeting with the goddess. This is traditionally about a hero finding the unconditional love of a woman who is worthy to be his companion. But for a heroine, this step can be abstracted, which in my opinion makes it more interesting. The importance of this step is about the heroine realizing the importance of finding a love that is the ultimate inspiration for her adventure. Whether it’s romantic or platonic, it can be the beating heart of story. P.C. and Kristin Cast also used this step in a very different capacity in their House of Night series. The heroine, Zoey, has a literal encounter with the goddess Nyx, who identifies her as special. It is her first clue that she will be different from other vampyres and has an important destiny to fulfill.

Woman as Temptress
This can be a very frustrating step if you take it too literally. For traditional heroes, there will typically be a woman who tempts him to abandon his quest for her, or distracts him from what’s really important. But for the heroine, it doesn’t need to be a man (or woman) or even a sexual distraction. To me, this element is about tempting your heroine to take the easy way out. For Rose in Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, she is tempted a number of times. First, she is tempted to have a relationship with Dimitri, even though it would be a major distraction from protecting her best friend. Later, when Dimitri is turned into an evil vampire called Strigoi, she is tempted to abandon her duty to kill him and love him instead.

Atonement with the Father
This is another step that needs some serious reconstruction for a heroine. I think of this step as the heroine’s confrontation with someone who has a lot of power over her. It is time to fight that person and cast of the shackles. Sometimes it can be the big battle with the major villain of the series, but it can also be the person who makes the heroine doubt herself. In Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, for example, Katsa, who is gifted with the ability to fight to survive, has been working as her uncle’s thug, killing off his enemies. He manipulates and uses her from a young age, and when she finally announces that she is done doing his bidding by detailing how she would kill every single one of his guards if they all tried to stop her at once, I felt like cheering.

shutterstock_136883615Apotheosis
The heroine always has a divine moment separate from her adventure that is a turning point for her. Sometimes it is a brush with death, and other times it is having a moment of peace and clarity where she can regroup and prepare for the final leg of her adventure. Madeleine L’Engle does a great job of doing both with her heroine, Meg, toward the end of A Wrinkle in Time. Meg is nearly killed and left paralyzed when she travels through the Black Thing that represents evil. But her paralysis is cured by a gentle creature she calls “Aunt Beast” who allows Meg to find both physical and mental peace. She needs this moment of emotional stability to face the ultimate evil and rescue her brother from it.

The Ultimate Boon
After facing her demons and conquering the villain, the heroine is rewarded for what she has achieved. For Campbell, this is usually an item or piece of knowledge that his hero is meant to bring back to the rest of humanity. But in modernizing this step for a heroine, the ultimate boon can be the achievement of their heart’s desire, such as love or a new confidence. At the end of Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, Aislinn becomes the Summer Queen after facing her greatest fear – becoming fey (fairies), which she has always believed are evil. Ultimately, she risks exile to save a group she has always hated because she knows it is the right thing to do.

The final section, Return, also has six subsections:

Refusal of the Return
After the journey is over, it is natural for the heroine to not be able to imagine returning to regular life. There is a resistance to abandoning the quest even after it is complete. Despite the reluctance with which she started , now she doesn’t want to accept its end. A wonderful example of a refusal to return is in the first of the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair. The heroine, Thursday, is pulled into the novel Jane Eyre, where she has to protect the characters from being hurt or killed. But understandably, she loves the story and admires the hero, Mr. Rochester, and even though she knows her return to the real world is necessary and inevitable, she can’t help feeling a pull to the characters she has grown to care about even more than she already did to begin with.

The Magic Flight
Even after the heroine realizes that she must return to reality, the adventure isn’t completely over. The return trip usually includes a few final surprises for the heroine. Marie Lu does an amazing job of the flight in the first of her trilogy, Legend. The heroine, June, has already realized that the boy she thought killed her brother is actually innocent (and she is falling in love with him). Her realization and change of heart is the true climax of the book, but helping him escape is an awesome final adventure as they outwit guards and barely escape after a thrilling chase. Her story isn’t fantasy, so it isn’t a magic flight, but it does an excellent job of adapting this step for a modern heroine.

Rescue from Without
An adventure of this magnitude has to have consequences. Despite her victory, an emotional or physical toll was taken on the heroine. She isn’t able to recuperate on her own. At the end of The Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss is almost insane from all of the horror she has witnessed and her grief over losing her sister. But with the help of Peeta, her true love, she is able to reclaim her mind and live her life. The tragedy of what she has experienced doesn’t vanish, but she is able to find some measure of happiness again.

The Crossing of the Return Threshold
Every great adventure must come to an end. But for the heroine, she has been changed, and her return to life as she knows it means bringing with her the knowledge she has gained on her journey. Philip Pullman has a powerful moment of crossing the return threshold for his heroine, Lyra, at the conclusion of the His Dark Materials trilogy. In the context of the story, there are many parallel worlds that are connected by windows. At the end of the story, these windows must all be closed between the different worlds. Lyra and the boy she loves, Will, come from different worlds and must each return to their own in order to live full lives. As a result, when Lyra returns to her world, she is leaving behind the love of her life. It is at once empowering and heartbreaking.

shutterstock_58598566Master of Two Worlds
At the end of the quest the heroine has found a new balance in her life. It may be abstract – a better grasp of how to balance conflicting elements in her life. Or it can be literal, where the heroine is part of both the world she started in at the beginning of her journey as well as the new world that she explored on her adventure. Aislinn in Wicked Lovely is also a great example of being a master of two worlds. She has one foot in the mortal world, and the other with the fey as queen of the summer court. This means balancing her mortal friends and boyfriend (never mind school) with her duties to protect her people. It is a complex opportunity and challenge rolled into one.

Freedom to Live
At the end of the adventure, the heroine is fundamentally changed. She has a confidence in herself and her abilities, and is at peace with the trials she has gone through. She now has the freedom to live and enjoy her life. Katsa in Graceling chooses to live in the woods with the love of her life and ignore the rest of the world. Rose in Vampire Academy is no longer bonded to her friend Lissa, so she can live her own life with her soul mate. Katniss in the Hunger Games has finally left behind the brutality of life before the revolution that she inspired and can have a life and love of her own.

Some of these sections are more difficult to adapt for a heroine than others. I allow myself to ignore certain elements as it suits the story, or radically change them in other cases. Ultimately this is a tool to help you think of new ideas and complications that can make your story more interesting.

Have you ever used the Hero’s Journey as a model for your story? If so, how did it work out for you?

Jumping into the Rabbit Hole

Alice_in_WonderlandSince I was a kid, I have always been drawn to the story of Lewis Carroll’s (whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The idea that you could be walking along in a completely ordinary world, and then fall down a hole into an extraordinary one, is mesmerizing.

At night when I can’t fall asleep, I imagine myself falling through Alice’s rabbit hole. As I drop, images flash through my mind of whatever my semi-conscious mind can dream up. Sometimes I find answers to problems in my life or in my writing, and sometimes I am just lulled to sleep by a cascade of pictures that eventually blurs together.

My favorite thing about Alice in Wonderland is Alice herself. One of her defining characteristics is her curiosity, a value that leads her down exciting paths. She isn’t afraid to say yes to something new, and as a result she meets bizarre people and explores strange lands. I have tried to imbue this quality into Valerie, the heroine of The Conjurors, and let her curiosity lead her where it will.

P3240097The real-life inspiration for Valerie is my sister, Cheryl. She has Alice’s curiosity but more brains. Some say that writers create idealized versions of themselves in their main characters, but I realized after finishing the first book in the series that I had unconsciously modeled Valerie’s personality on the most adventurous, fun, compassionate person I know. Her fans call her “Cheryl the Explorer” because she embraces traveling the world and learning about new cultures. She takes smart risks with her life and doesn’t accept the status quo. But best of all, she is kind. She’s someone who will give you the shirt off her back and has a moral compass that always points true north. I just hope Valerie can live up to the person who inspired her.

Read It and Weep (Literally)

shutterstock_102844172This week I killed off my first character, ever. It was difficult – even though I wasn’t super attached to him, I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty. After all, he was a good guy and under different circumstances maybe he could have lasted for another chapter or two. But after reminding myself that he was, in fact, a figment of my imagination, I was able to focus on the most important part. How to make his death compelling.

What is it that makes death truly gripping in great young adult fantasy writing? I remember crying when Sirius Black and Dumbledore died while reading J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter series. And little Prim got a sniffle or two when I read Suzanne CollinsHunger Games trilogy. But I wasn’t sad so much because the characters were gone, but rather because of the emotional toll it took on Harry and Katniss. It was their response that sparked the reaction in me.

Gandalf‘s death in J. R. R. Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings, however, didn’t move me in the same way. He was my favorite character in the series, but when he died I felt more like shrugging than crying. Maybe it was his age. Maybe it was because he died a victor and had led a full life. Of course, then he returns as Gandalf the White, and as happy as I was to see him, I was glad I hadn’t wasted any time grieving for him. So it’s safe to say that you won’t find any of my characters coming back from the grave.

As a reader, I like when an author isn’t afraid to kill off main characters. It makes me feel like no one is safe, which heightens the tension during the action scenes. Now I just have to work on writing the emotion of these moments well.

Do you have any suggestions about things to consider for writing about death in young adult fantasy?