Archive | March, 2011

De-glorifying History

31 Mar

By Biljana Likic



I don’t know how to start this, so I’ll just dive right in.

Basically, history has a way of conceptualizing its eras and stereotyping the people that lived in them until all somebody thinks about when a person says “Victorian” is corsets and top hats.

Today, I’m going to try to break that.

The most important thing I’ve learned from studying history is that people are people no matter what time period they lived in. Sensibilities were different, and rights fluctuated between just and unjust by today’s standards, but when it comes down to it, the fundamental aspects of human nature (an admittedly moot term) stayed the same. You can see this in any candid primary source that still exists from hundreds of years ago; private letters, diaries, and most importantly, the works of shit-disturbing writers, the kind that wanted to shock the niceties out of people by writing inflammatory pamphlets and books. What always strikes me is that many, including myself, are often delighted when they read sarcastic or silly commentaries written by supposedly rigid diplomats of times past. Not everything was stuffy; people had a sense of humour then, too. It’s easy to forget that, since so much of history is focussed on war and drama.

But that is neither here nor there. The argument that I’m having so much trouble trying to put into words is mainly for the benefit of those who are interested in writing period novels.

This is pretty much the gist of it:

Don’t let humanity play second fiddle to plot and history. Never let the preconceived notions of a time period restrain and shackle your personalities to the ground. Always break the mould. The most intriguing period novels are the ones where the characters sound like they could be alive today. When those kinds of books crop up, people are impressed by how realistic the characters are, “even though it doesn’t take place in the present day.”

But why should that be impressive? That should always be the case. You can go on and on about etiquette and details, but if you don’t show how these affected the layman of the time, who cares? It’ll just read like a book on etiquette and details. You can find those separate of fiction, written by historians who have dedicated their lives to accuracy. Your job is not to list the details, but apply them to your story. Get into the skin of your character and imagine what it would be like to live in a time when having a fashionable silhouette included not being able to breathe properly.

The next point is this: If a time period seems mysterious to you, it’s probably because you haven’t done your research. It’s like a magic trick; it seems amazing until you figure out how it’s done. And then the time period becomes fascinating because you’ve suddenly realized that all the people that lived in the 12th century are the same people living today. There’s nothing particularly special about them. They just lived in a different manner. So you start imagining what it would be like to live with no electricity, or no cheap books, or no fridges. It becomes an exercise of the imagination, limited by their appliances and technologies, but broad in the opportunities of exploration. You suddenly find yourself having to come up with solutions. Say you have no water. What do you do? You go to the well. Where is it? Who do you meet on the way? What if the water’s poisoned? What if you fall in? Get stabbed? Are murdered? How are they going to find the killer when there’s no such thing as dusting for fingerprints? Will you ever get your revenge? Because now that you don’t live in 2011 anymore, revenge for murder by murder is normal and perhaps expected. But can you live with that? Killing is never easy.

My last attempt at driving this home is to have you consider the range of human emotion. Everything, hate, love, doubt, fear, happiness, rage, and especially the need to fit in, existed then as much as now. Don’t bury it under random facts just to show off how much you know about the history. Be flexible with your portrayal of personalities and never forget that the only difference between people then and people now is time and access to knowledge.

And lastly, never let it be said that people back then didn’t have a sense of humour.

“Wishing to teach his donkey not to eat, a pedant did not offer him any food. When the donkey died of hunger, he said: ‘I’ve had a great loss. Just when he had learned not to eat, he died.’” (Philogelos 9)



Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She is in her first year of university, where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog here and follow her on Twitter here.


Ask Your Characters Some Tough Questions!

30 Mar

by Julie Eshbaugh


Where does a writer start when he or she sets out to create a character?  There are COUNTLESS character worksheets available, and most of them will serve as a fairly good starting point when it comes to building a character.  But no single “fill in the blank” worksheet will create a character for you.  You may be able to answer questions about what color eyes your character has or how many brothers she grew up with or what his favorite class in school is, but I can answer those questions about a lot of people, and yet I wouldn’t undertake the task of writing a book about them.

What I’m trying to say is that, to really put your reader in your character’s head, you need to go there yourself first.  You need to know what makes your character think and act the way he or she does.  And to do that, you need to ask your characters the TOUGH questions.

What are the tough questions?  They’re the questions you wouldn’t feel comfortable asking your best friend.  Questions you yourself wouldn’t want to have to answer.  You have to ask about things that are private, things that are personal, things that are embarrassing.

Here’s a suggestion.   Sit down at the keyboard and start with a blank Word document.  At the top of the page, type a difficult question and the name of the character you are asking this question.  Then type out the answer as a stream-of-consciousness response.  You may be surprised by what your character “dictates” in his or her answer.

Here are a few ideas for questions to get you started.  You don’t have to use any of these.  Then again, you may want to use several.  The right questions to ask will depend a great deal on your story and its setting.  But here are a few I’ve used:

  • When you were growing up, did you ever suspect that one of your parents cheated on the other?  Did you ever suspect that one of your parents hit the other?  Which would have been worse?  Why?
  • What single act are you most ashamed of?  How did you happen to commit this act?  Who knows about it?
  • If you knew you could do something forbidden and get away with it without anyone ever knowing, what would it be?
  • Everyone has secrets.  What secret thing about you would most shock your closest friend?
  • If you could change one thing about yourself, what would that thing be?  Why?  Would your friends be surprised by your answer?
  • If you could change one thing about your best friend, what would that thing be?  Why?  Would that person be surprised by your answer?
  • Have you ever purposefully caused suffering?  If so, why?  Would you do it again?
  • Everyone has disdain for something or someone.  Who or what do you consider yourself to be “above”?
  • What was your worst failure?  Do you ever think about it?  When do you think about it?  How do you feel about it now?
  • If you could achieve your greatest dream, but it would mean that your best friend would never achieve his or hers, would you take that deal?

Can you answer these questions about your characters?  Do you have others?  Please share your thoughts in the comments!



Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency.  You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.


Why We’re Not As Cool As You Originally Thought: Sammy Bina

29 Mar

Hey ladies and gents! I feel exceptionally lazy — I was going to do a vlog for this, but realized my room was far too messy to show you guys (and didn’t want/have time to clean it up). It literally looks like a tornado blew through it. And my camera is lost (and potentially destroyed), so you get this lovely post instead!

*Events are not exaggerated.

Wake Up Time:
When I should wake up: 9am
When I actually wake up: Between 10 and 11…  1 if I’m feeling special.

What I should be eating: Cereal and milk, a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, perfectly browned toast, and bacon. Because you always need bacon.
What I’m actually eating: Nothing. Or leftovers from the night before.

Optimum time spent in shower: 8 minutes and 32 seconds
Actual time spent in shower: 15 minutes and 97 seconds

Time between shower and class:
What I should be doing: Homework. Definitely homework.
What I’m actually doing: Checking twitter, tumblr, facebook, and all the fashion blogs I follow. Then I watch a few installments of A Very Potter Musical, maybe catch up on the show(s) I missed the night before. I probably bake, too.

Lunch also occurs during this time. And I actually know how to cook, so one of my roommates and I (I have eight) make an elaborate lunch based on recipes we found on tastespotting (aka the best website in the entire world. Next to LTWF.) Dessert is always included.

Attending either: History of Fashion (Clothes Class), The Nude in 19th Century French Art (Art Class), or Women and Our Bodies (Vagina Class).

What I should be doing: Making coffee.
What I’m actually doing: Plotting how to write my phone number on someone’s cup, just like in the movies.

Time between work and bedtime:
What I should be doing: Homework. Definitely homework.
What I’m actually doing: Watching Law & Order: SVU or Hoarders marathons, reading (for fun), window shopping online, watching youtube videos with my roommates.

When I should go to bed: Midnight
When I actually go to bed: 3am

So, as you can see, my life is pretty uneventful! Sometimes I manage to find time to write, and on Sundays I go out for brunch. Exciting, I know.


Sammy Bina is finishing up her last semester of college as a creative writing major. She’s currently revising her YA dystopian, SILENCE, and is an intern for the Elaine P. English Literary Agency. You can follow her blog, or find her on twitter.

Word Choice

28 Mar

When you think about it, all writing comes down to word choice. Yes, there’s all of that big picture stuff like characterisation, plot, and setting – but what the reader is able to deduct about these things is a product of the cumulative knowledge that comes from reading several sentences, which are made up of many, many words.

So. If words are our building blocks, we have to ask ourselves: How do we use them to the greatest effect?

The primary aim of a novel is to elicit an emotion in the reader. One of the ways we can keep readers turning the pages, then, is to make the emotion as clear as possible. And one of the best ways to do that? Through the details and words we choose.

So,  let’s say, that we have a protagonist who is Angry in Scene A. This character is walking down a city street, maybe, after a fight with the most important person in their world (whoever that may be).  How does the character take notice of their surroundings?

The character’s angry, so everything they notice right now is probably going to irritate them. If this character were me, I’d be taking special note of annoying people yelling ridiculously inappropriate things into their phones (What?! Carrie has an STD. OMFG!). I might notice that barely anyone is giving money to the homeless guy on the corner of the street (us people, so generous, hey). Someone might accidentally stub their cigarette out on my arm. It’s so wonderful to feel as if you’re an ashtray.

All of these details/things that are happening will paint the world as an ugly, uninviting place at this particular moment (if a character was happy, in the same setting you could focus on the way the city is bursting with life, colour, perhaps some groovy – yes, I did just use that word — music).

But, how do you go beyond just picking the right details? How do you manipulate your actual word choice to reflect and accentuate the emotional lens of your character? If you’re writing in third person, it’s especially important to be able to use word choice to tell your reader about characters’ emotional states. After all, your narrator can’t just come out and say, “I’m so angry, right now” (although this would probably be lazy writing in first person, anyway).

One of the best ways to do it is to focus in on the verbs and adjectives that you’re using. In the scene I mentioned earlier, think about the way the character would view the people around them on the street. Would they be “walking” or “strolling” or “shoving” ? I vote for shoving. Would the people on the mobile phones be “speaking” “talking” “yammering” or “yapping”. I think the latter two are better choices.

Focusing on your adjectives can be really helpful as well. Let’s examine the possible ways we could describe, say, the music floating out of a store. We could use “bad” or we could use “average” or “typical” or “stupid” or “terrible”. Most of those options are okay – “bad” “average” and “typical” don’t have much emotional resonance, though – it just depends on the voice of the character. Still, you don’t want to be describing this music as “soft” or “delicate” or “beautiful”, because that would be counterproductive to trying to convey the character’s angriness.

These are fairly simple things, yet you’d be amazed the number of times I notice point of view characters using words that seem to imply they’re super happy in extremely sad scenes (both in my writing and in others’) and vice a versa. It’s such an easy thing to slip-up on. Looking over word choice, and strengthening where possible, can really notch up the emotional intensity of a manuscript. It can be the difference between flat emotion, and emotion that leaps off the page.

So, how do you guys choose your words?


Vahini Naidoo is  a YA author and University student from Sydney Australia. Her currently untitled debut novel, en edgy psychological thriller, is scheduled for release from Marshall Cavendish in Fall, 2012. She’s represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can visit Vahini over on her blog.

Saturday Grab Bag: Mashup

26 Mar


Here are some great links on writing, the industry, and all things book related. Some are serious, and some are just downright hilarious. We highly recommend you read them!

  • The One On Lists
  • – Alexandra Bracken, YA author of BRIGHTLY WOVEN and the upcoming 2013 novel BLACK IS THE COLOR sheds some light on how publisher lists work – including how and why books are scheduled for different seasons. Very informative!





Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.


E. L. Doctorow


What We’re Reading:



Kat: HUNGER by Jackie Morse Kessler

Mandy: RULES by Cynthia Lord


Vee: BLOWOUT by Susan Vaught

Savannah: A MOUNTAIN OF CRUMBS: A Memoir by Elena Gorokhova

Sammy: JANE EYRE by Charlotte Bronte

Susan: STARCROSSED by Josephine Angelini


Reading any good books?  Share them (and any thoughts or cool links) in the comments! Happy weekend!


QOTW: Romantic Interest

25 Mar

This week’s question is from Miranda, who asks:

How do you guys create a worthy romantic interest for your hero/heroine?


Honestly? First and foremost, I try to envision a guy I could see myself being interested in. Otherwise I’d have a hard time relating to him. Then I consider what kind of guy would compliment my heroine. If she’s kind of frigid and has trust issues, more than likely he won’t. Admit it — it’d be boring as hell to have two MCs who are bitchy and cold. I’ve found that trying to piece together someone who will eventually help the main character is always a good tactic. If my MC is shy and mousy, I’d probably pair her with a guy who would instill in her a bit of self-confidence. They’ve got to be a good match in terms of personality because, as I said, two people who are continuously in a bad mood are no fun. Lately I’ve taken to stealing bits and pieces from friends’ personalities. My closest male friend gives the best hugs in the world, and that definitely wound up in my current WIP. Also the fact that he’s great at communicating his thoughts without a lot of words. They always say write what you know, so combining that with your image of what you feel your love interest needs to be seems to be pretty foolproof.

Sammy Bina


Firstly, any romantic interest has to be central to the plot. You can’t have romantic interest just for the sake of romantic interest. However, I do like seeing it in the stories because usually romance challenges the Protag to grow in personal ways. Therefore, the romantic interest needs to provide some sort of conflict, in order to promote growth.

There’s a lot of different types of romances… there’s the ‘We hated each other at first but then grew to like each other’, ‘we didn’t consider each other romantic possibilities at all until later’, ‘we liked each other immediately but it took us forever to get together’, etc. There’s even the ‘we’ve been together for a while but are now being tested to see if our relationship can survive.’ Each of these scenarios provides opportunities for conflict.

Secondly, there has to be CHEMISTRY!!! Chemistry arises from (you guessed it) conflict. We already did a QOTW about that here.

Now, as for that word ‘worthy’… I’m not sure what you mean in this particular situation, but I definitely believe that love interests should be on the same ‘level’ as the MC. They need to be strong enough to offer something to the other person. You’d never be with someone who couldn’t provide something for you, whether it’s comfort or understanding or even financial assistance. Relationships are about give and take. The romantic interest needs to have something to give.

Savannah Foley


Like Sammy, I first try to think of a guy I might be attracted to–and not just in a physical sense. Looks usually play a really minor role in the process of creating a love interest. While I do consider how the love interest might complement my heroine–what traits they might bring out in her, for better or worse–once I have a vague idea of the character, I run with it.

I let the love interest become their own person, with their own history and wants/goals outside of my heroine’s life. When I know what the love interest wants (um, not in the romantic sense, but more in the sense of what they want from LIFE, what they are trying to accomplish, what they fear most…), then I see how that impacts their relationship with the heroine. Sometimes that means butting heads all the time, sometimes that means an instant, close connection. So, long story short, I think you write a convincing love interest best when the love interest is an actual person–when they’re not only defined by their relationship with the heroine. There isn’t any formula to it.

Sarah J. Maas


I think about couples as, well, a couple. They’ve got to spark in some way, and while not every couple I write is going to explode with some kind of mad passion for one another, they need to stir up something in each other. They’ve got to complement one another, push one another, support one another.

I try not to just think about this one-sided; the love interest tends to turn out a little shallow sometimes that way. I keep in mind that I’m not “making him for her.” He’s not supposed to be some perfect guy who provides everything she needs. He’s going to need things from her, as well. I write him to be his own person, first.

And yes, sometimes I draw from characteristics I find attractive in real life :P. But actually not that much, because my protagonists ultimately aren’t me, and they’ve got different likes and dislikes. Plus, wouldn’t it be boring if all your books had basically the same love interest–the perfect version of the guy the writer wants to be with?

The Writer on SUBS! 😀


Got any pointers of your own to share on creating a hero/heroine’s romantic interest? Share them in the comments!

Style Sheets: An Editorial Tool

24 Mar

by Vanessa Di Gregorio

When I talk to other writers, I sometimes feel embarrassed; they seem to know EVERY little detail about their story, right down to what colour shoes a secondary character is wearing. And me? Well, I keep forgetting what’s-his-name from the first 3 Chapters, and what his relation is to everything and everyone.

But my MS is still a WIP – I haven’t finished writing it yet. I’ve even recently added a whole other layer to the story. So I shouldn’t be getting down that I don’t know every little detail inside and out yet. My MS is full of different cultures, political intricacies, and a bit of magic – which means I do a whole lot of world-building.

When you start writing a novel, your mind is spilling with ideas. And as you write, you’re giving everyone and everything characteristics, from people to places to things. And depending on what type of novel you’re writing, you’re probably world-building to some extent.  So how do you remember what that secondary character’s name is? Was it Tera? Or was it Tara? Do your characters have particular greetings or sayings? What do you do with all that information, especially when you’re still writing a first draft?

While taking my Fiction Editing class, I was introduced to a tool that many editors use: the style sheet. Editors and agents go through your manuscripts with a fine-tooth comb, looking for anything and everything that doesn’t quite work (or isn’t grammatically sound). They also check for continuity issues, which can be pretty major in a manuscript. So, in order to help further polish your writing (and to help you hone editorial skills, in case any of you are aspiring editors), here’s what you do!

Keep a list of character names, city names, hyphenated vs. non-hyphenated terms, dates and times, and any details you might have researched. Style sheets are also great for different spellings you might be using.

The most useful aspect of a style sheet is how everything is kept alphabetically. Style sheets are often used to document all kinds of decisions, such as:

  • How a person’s name should be spelled – do they use a full name or nickname? Do they go by an alias? Does a specific character use a pet name for that character?
  • Abbreviations and acronyms for terms, names, countries, etc – is it U.S., U.S.A., America, the United States? A.M. and P.M. or a.m. and p.m.? Be consistent.
  • The preferred spelling of words (eg. zeros or zeroes?)
  • Whether you spell out dates (ie. 1988) or write it out (nineteen eighty eight).
  • Whether thoughts are italicized or in single quotation marks
  • Punctuation – serial commas, or no serial commas?

As a writer, though, use a style sheet for things you would find most useful. Keep a list of things that you would want to know when writing/revising.

Things I like using a style sheet for:

  • Remembering character names and physical descriptions
  • Keeping track of names for different places, such as “The Outlands” and “The Great Rock”
  • Cultural jargon and slang, such as the Ane’an goodbye: “May the moon light your path”
  • Political alliances

You get the idea. It’s basically a handy alphabetical list with all the little details from your MS. Any characters, places, or cultural terms starting with the letter “a” would go under a header for “A”. The same thing goes for every other letter – that way, even if you print it out to keep beside your keyboard (or wherever you want), you can find things easily.

So what do you think? Do you already create lists with all the little details from your MS? Do you think this would be a useful tool as a writer? Or do you see it more as an editorial tool? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!


Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She also has a book publishing certificate under her belt. Currently, Vanessa is working on RIFT, a YA fantasy novel, and a Children’s non-fiction series. She also blogs about all things geeky at Something Geeky.

Getting published– even if you’re a “nobody.”

23 Mar

by Mandy Hubbard


There’s a big misconception in publishing that a writer has to “know somebody” or have substantial writing credits in order to get an agent, and thus, get published.

So here’s the truth– keep in mind I’m talking about fiction here– Non-Fiction has a lot to do with platform so things are different in that field.

MYTH: You need to spend months or years trying to amass writing credits.

TRUTH: Most agents gloss right over that stuff. Just because you wrote an article for a magazine doesn’t mean you can write a whole book. Sure, they can be nice. Go ahead and freelance if you like it or want to try and earn $$. But don’t think it’s the only path to publishing novels. It’s not.

MYTH: You need to get a referral or some kind of “in” in order to get noticed.

TRUTH: The stats can be scary– most agents request 5-10% of the queries they read and only offer rep to a scant few. But guess what? There are some pretty awesome stats out there proving that SLUSH WORKS.

I conducted a poll on twitter– I simply asked agented writers to respond and tell me if they snagged their agent via a cold-query (no connections) or if they had some kind of a referral, publishing credits, etc. And guess what? 58 people had NO credits or connections whatsoever. Only 6 people got their agent via a referral from a client or impressive credentials. Yes, you read that right– MORE than 90% of those writers snagged an agent with the tried-and-true query letter.

MYTH: Your work doesn’t fit the trends, so no one is going to want it.

TRUTH: To be honest? Books that are totally outside the trends often stand out the most, because when I’m reading slush it’s like FANTASY FANTASY FANTASY REALISTIC FANTASY FANTASY. (And by fantasy I am lumping in paranormal, UF, etc).

MYTH: You need to hire an editor before submitting your work.

TRUTH: I actually don’t know any one who paid a freelance editor before beginning submissions/being published. Find critique partners at the same place in their career and swap manuscripts. I learned as much from critiquing as I did from receiving critiques, and I made lifelong writer friends. (This is not to say freelance eds aren’t awesome in their own right. But don’t despair over the $$ needed if you don’t have it.)

MYTH: You need to spend a lot of $$ going to conferences because that’s where most agents find their clients.

TRUTH: Again, the slush works. If you can’t afford conferences, skip ’em! They can be fun for socializing and you can learn a lot, but it really and truly does not cost a dime to be published (with the exception being postage if an agent wants material snail-mailed.)

So, I hope this helps dispel the myths that you need to know someone, or pay a lot of money, in order to be noticed. I know dozens and dozens of debut authors– some who sold in major deals (over $500K) who had pretty unassuming day jobs and knew NO ONE in publishing before snagging an agent and a book deal.

The writing is the only thing that matters. Write a damn good book, and it’ll rise above.


Agent, D4EO Lit

Author, Prada & Prejudice (2009) You Wish (2010) But I Love him (May 2011) and RIPPLE (July 2011).

Writing With Immediacy

22 Mar

By Sammy Bina


For the longest time, I had no idea what passive voice was. You’d think, as a creative writing major, a professor would’ve explained that at one point or another. I learned a lot of things while taking workshops in college, but passive voice was somehow always passed over for lessons on condensing plot and the importance of realistic dialogue. And while those lectures were incredibly useful, I wish someone had taken the time to tell me why passive voice can be so destructive to your writing.

I found this nifty worksheet a while back, which defines passive voice as the following:

A passive construction occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence. That is, whoever or whatever is performing the action is not the grammatical subject of the sentence.

If that didn’t make any sense to you, it also included the following example which, I find, is much easier to understand.

Take a look at this passive rephrasing of a familiar joke:

Why was the road crossed by the chicken?

Who is doing the action in this sentence? The chicken is the one doing the action in this sentence, but the chicken is not in the spot where you would expect the grammatical subject to be. Instead, the road is the grammatical subject. The more familiar phrasing (why did the chicken cross the road?) puts the actor in the subject position, the position of doing something—the chicken (the actor/doer) crosses the road (the object). We use active verbs to represent that “doing,” whether it be crossing roads, proposing ideas, making arguments, or invading houses

I’ve come back to this sheet numerous times when trying to spot my own passive sentences. Susan’s fantastic post about using filter words has also become a go-to resource. Why? Because my first drafts are riddled with passive voice and filter words. Though I know not to use them, they somehow always creep into my manuscript, hiding until I come back for revisions. Maybe it’s because I’m so focused on getting the story down that I don’t pay much attention to what words I’m using. But now that I’m well into revising my current WIP, I’ve had to edit out a decent amount of filter words and passive sentence construction. I’d sent my manuscript to a friend to look over, and she pointed out that a specific event in chapter one wasn’t immediate enough. Want to take a gander as to why?

That’s right. Passive voice and filter words.

Weeks later, I’ve gone back and hopefully corrected all of my earlier slip-ups. In the hopes of teaching by example, I thought I’d share a small excerpt of my current project, SILENCE. The first will be from before revisions, and the second is the current, updated version. I think you’ll be able to see and feel the difference!


We were running, my lungs burning as I sucked in the frigid November air. My eyes were stinging, and I couldn’t stop the tears as the wind continued to pummel us. My parents were on either side of me, hands clenched into fists as we sprinted up Bridge Street, the rest of the rebels only steps behind. In the distance, we could hear the Guard calling out to us, demanding our immediate surrender.

None of us stopped.

The chase continued for what seemed like hours, though it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. My entire body ached, and I could feel the others losing momentum as we pushed against the gale. Snow stung my skin and turned it pink, and my feet slipped on ice as we rounded the corner, the bridge only a few hundred feet away. I could see the woods and felt my heart soar – we were going to make it! I’d grown up in the woods; I knew how to hide. If I could get there, I’d be safe.

But I didn’t make it. None of us did. The sound of high-powered rifles filled the night. Pop-pop-pop. I saw someone to the right of me go down in a spray of red.

“Go!” Papa yelled, shoving both my mother and I.


I turned around just in time to see my father fall face-first into the snow. I opened my mouth to scream, but my mother grabbed my arm and dragged me forward.

“Run, Neva.” I felt two hands on my back as she shoved me, propelling me toward the trees. “Whatever you do, don’t stop running.”


And I did exactly what she told me not to. I stopped. Right there, in the middle of the bridge, not thirty feet from the treeline, I stopped. My mother was lying in the snow, one arm outstretched. It was almost as if she were reaching for me. I couldn’t see her face, but I could imagine the desperation and fear that still lingered there. Something inside my chest shattered, and I took a step forward, desperate to get to her.

“Mom?” I whispered, hesitant. I knew she was dead, but part of me just couldn’t believe it. I needed to see for myself. I needed to know for sure.

After Revisions

I was running, my lungs burning as I sucked in the frigid November air. My eyes stung and I couldn’t stop the tears as the wind pummeled my body. My parents were on either side of me, hands clenched into fists as we sprinted up Bridge Street, the rest of the rebels only steps behind. In the distance, the Guard called out to us, demanding our immediate surrender.

No one stopped.

I pushed myself even harder, arms pumping at my sides. My entire body ached. Sleet pricked my skin and turned it pink, and my feet slipped on ice as we rounded another corner. The bridge was only a few hundred feet away, swaying dangerously back and forth. I saw the woods beyond it and my heart soared. If I could make it past the tree line, I’d be safe.

But I didn’t. None of us did. The sound of high-powered rifles filled the night. Pop-pop-pop. Someone to the right of me went down in a spray of red.

“Go!” Papa yelled, shoving both my mother and I.


The driving force behind me fell away. I turned around just in time to see my father fall face-first into the snow. I opened my mouth to scream but my mother grabbed my arm and dragged me onto the bridge. I stumbled, reaching out to steady myself. The rope left a splotchy, crimson burn on the palm of my hand.

Mom had stopped to signal the others to disperse but she was too late. Most of the rebels were lying in the snow, scattered across the clearing. My heart dropped into my stomach as I stood there, my breath forming tiny puffs in the night air.

The planks beneath my feet shivered as she came back to retrieve me. “Run, Neva,” she ordered, propelling me toward the woods. “Whatever you do, don’t stop running.”

We took off in the direction of the trees, their branches like open arms. The green patches untouched by snow were welcome mats, inviting me closer. Cold air burned my lungs but I pushed forward, desperately seeking the cover the woods would provide.


And then I did exactly what I’d been told not to. I stopped. Right there, in the middle of the bridge. I was less than twenty feet from the tree line, but I couldn’t take another step. My mother lay in the snow, one arm outstretched toward me. Red curls fanned out across the snow, long tendrils whipping back and forth in the breeze. Her coat was red, but it didn’t match the spray of muddy crimson around her. I forced myself to move toward her.

“Mom?” I whispered. She was dead – I knew it – but acceptance was slow in coming. I needed to see for myself.

Hopefully I’m not delusional in thinking the second one is more immediate. I cut some passive phrases and pulled as many filter words as I could catch. I think it’s really important to read your own writing back to yourself. Out loud, if you can. For some reason I have a much easier time catching awkward phrasing when I’m actually speaking.

There aren’t really any hard or fast rules for writing with immediacy. However, passive voice is definitely a no-no, and filter words can also take away the importance of a moment. Certain scenes call for very immediate action, especially when told in first person (*cough*HUNGERGAMES*cough*).The way a scene is written can really make a difference for the reader. We may not have cared about Katniss so much if everything had been very ho-hum, “Hi, I’m Katniss. I like bows and arrows and boys who bake bread. And also boys whose names remind me of storms. Now I’m in this big ol’ arena and think I’ll go shoot some things.” I mean, come on. That would make for a really boring story. What drew readers in was how immediate everything felt. You constantly were in the moment with her, and thus  able to relate to her and her situation.

What I’ve been working on is really envisioning the scene in my head. I try to put myself in my character’s shoes and observe everything as they would. Obviously I saw something, so I don’t need to reference that every time something happens (ie: “I saw such and such happen.”) Things like that can be difficult to catch, but the more aware of it you become, the easier it is to spot. As they say, practice makes perfect. So make yourself aware of the problems that could detract from the immediacy in your writing. Know what to look for and work to avoid it as best you can. I doubt I’ll ever have a first draft that’s free of passive voice and filter words, but with each book I write, I’ve been able to catch more and more. I know you’ll be able to do the same.


Sammy Bina is finishing up her last semester of college as a creative writing major. She’s currently revising her YA dystopian, SILENCE, and is an intern for the Elaine P. English Literary Agency. You can follow her blog, or find her on twitter.

Troubles with Voice

21 Mar

When I open something I’ve written I expect to know who I’m reading within a few sentences (‘who’ being the narrator or perspective character). If I can’t tell, if I’m struggling to remember, or piece things together, I feel something’s off and get distracted from the story by trying to figure out what’s wrong. Every narrative has a voice, some can be bland and detached, others quirky, but they should try to be unique. ‘Voice’ can be difficult to explain and sometimes hard to pinpoint, but it always makes a difference in what you’re reading.

Voice is one of those things agents always say they’re looking for when describing what they want in manuscripts. In first person narratives it is largely the personality of whoever is narrating the story. In books written in third person, it conveys the author’s attitude towards the work, or what they want the reader to think is their attitude, it could be sarcastic or understanding.

Here are two quotes which illustrate the distinctive voices of their respective works:

“This is a bad land for gods,” said Shadow. As an opening statement it wasn’t Friends, Romans, countrymen, but it would do. “You’ve probably all learned that.” -Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation….He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliott, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion. – Jane Austen, Persuasion

American Gods is often detached and unemotional, and I often found it distancing. The voice was the reason I’m still not sure whether or not I liked the book, even though I liked the story. Jane Austen’s voice is satirical, it invites the reader to laugh along and you can almost imagine her winking.

Recently, I’ve started poking a new project with a stick to see if it might be alive, and it’s given some encouraging twitches. I have the world set up, the plot outlined, and the characters waiting with backstories in hand. I just have one big problem, the voice.

If only my main character didn’t sound like Background Teenager #2 from some unmemorable romcom.

‘Come on, Lily,’ I say to the character in my head, like that’ll do any good. ‘How about some more personality?’ And all I get back is a string of curse words, which is not quite how I want to distinguish my new character’s voice. That just feels lazy and like cheating. I should be able to give her something besides a sailor’s mouth to distinguish her narration and make it her own. I should be able to give her distinctive speech patterns, commonly used words, and phrases which mark her apart from other characters and standard ‘teen speak.’ So far it hasn’t really worked.

Mostly I think this is just something I need to work at. I need to write while keeping in mind what should be characteristics of her perspective and speech. Then, when I edit I need to go through line by line to make sure those characteristics are present throughout (not just when I remembered to include them) and the entire narrative has a coherent voice. Sometimes voice comes easyily and naturally and that is always the best. It’s not something that should be forced or it will probably read as inauthentic. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take work, though! You still have to find the right patterns and make sure to use them correctly.

Have you had trouble getting the voice right for your WIPs? What did you do to get it right? Let me know in the comments!


Jennifer Fitzgerald is the author of a middle grade fantasy novel, PRISCILLA THE EVIL, which she is currently revising. She is also is a Ph.D student in archaeology, focusing on East Asia. You can visit her blog here or follow her on Twitter.