Monday, September 24, 2012

So You Want to Write a Novel: Part One -- The Idea

So you want to write a novel: Part 1 – the Idea

I’ve come across dozens of people who, after I tell them I’m a writer, say to me, “I’ve always wanted to write a book.”

Why don’t you?
If you’ve somehow stumbled onto my blog, then you’ve made the conscious decision to start reading up on this marathon that you want to undertake. Because writing a book is a marathon that lasts a few weeks for some, and a few years for others. But how do you get started? I’m about to start writing a new book myself, so I thought I’d catalogue the step-by-step process, from idea to agent, to give some of you a glimpse into how the process works.

Disclaimer: This is my process. It’s different for every person. Do NOT feel pressured to conform to one way of writing. We all have to find our groove, this is only one option.

What do you need when you get that brilliant idea? How do you go from inspiration to chapter one? Honestly, this is the craziest part of the process for me. For several weeks beforehand, I go through a “musings” phase. This is when I absorb as much inspiration as possible, stretch my creative muscles and let my ideas take form in my subconscious. Often I need some time to sit back and think about everything before I even get started.
Once I’ve got all the Thinking done, I move onto writing some of this down in note form. Before I start a novel, there are some things I NEED to know. I’ve learned it’s far easier to plan, plan, plan than to go back and try and fix major plot issues later down the road. Some writers don’t like to do as much notes as I do—often they take an idea and just run with it. I do this too in some ways, but in order for me, personally, to take writing from a hobby to a profession, I need to stop saying to myself, “Ah, I’ll figure it out later” and start with, “Let’s deal with this now.”

Many things change from beginning to end, but before anything happens, I need to know The Bare Bones:


 Main Character

è Who are they when they’re alone? Are they quiet? Easily bored? Extroverted? Introverted? Do they prefer a loud party or a quiet walk through the park?

è Who are they with people? How do they act around those they like? Those they hate?

è What motivates them? What do they want more than anything in the world?

è What makes them angry? What gets them depressed? What makes them want to give up?

è What is their biggest dream? Their biggest fear?

Once I’ve answered all these questions, I move on to secondary characters, a love interest, and antagonists. Planning out things like appearance, nationality, sexuality, ect., are just as important, but I find those very easy to plan out, so I try to focus on the things that aren’t always so obvious to me.

Note: Antagonists don’t necessarily have to be characters, but they must be well-thought out. Your antagonist is just as important as your protagonists, and must have wants and desires that are as believable as your MC’s.

 Main Plot:

è What is the major problem at hand?

è Who/what stands against the MC? Why?

è How does your MC plan to fight back to achieve his/her goals?


Subplots can be a great thing, so long as they don’t overcrowd your story. I always tend to overdo it, so I try and plan out which subplots will play an active role.

à Decide on what kind of subplot you want. Is it a romance subplot? One of self-discovery? One related to the MC’s family/home life?

è Why is it in your book? Is it really necessary, or is it simply a darling you don’t want to kill?

è What does it add to your story?


Your setting is, in a sense, its own character. It should receive just as much attention as the other components of your novel.


è Where are you setting your story? Why?

è Does this setting have a connection to your characters/plot?

è How does your atmosphere reflect your story?


è How does your world function? Even if you’re writing a contemporary novel, the town/city you set it in should have its own unique characteristics.

è Where do people get their food/water/medical supplies, ect?

è How does the landscape affect how the people live?

è What is unique to the world you’ve created?

è What beliefs/prejudice/myths are prominent in your culture?


è What POV will you use? Is it 3rd person, 1st, or 2nd? Do you have an omniscient narrator? How many narrators will you use? Is this in present or past tense? (Or perhaps future tense?) And of course—WHY?

è What tone will you use? How does your narrator affect your word choice, diction, style, ect?

è How will these decisions affect the story you’re trying to tell?


è What don’t I know that will better my story in some way or another?

è What things could I incorporate into my story? What is something I’ve been interested in that might work well with what I’ve already chosen to write about?

Anything else?

è Is there anything I want to plan out before I start writing? (Certain deaths, character traits, plot twists, ect?)
Once I've answered all these questions, and I feel I have a decent grasp on my idea, the characters and the world, I move onto the opening pages.
Oh joy. Those damn opening pages.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Meet Heather: Literacy and Child Services


I work in a social services facility. Our agency helps children and their families who have been affected by poverty, mental illnesses, behavioral problems, family conflict, abuse, assault, prostitution, drug abuse, ect, ect. We have many different programs for a variety of issues, some are residential, some are community-based. I work on campus, so most of the kids I see are residential.  I love my job, and hope soon to volunteer in some of the programs to get a better look at how the agency works.
The Library
On Monday, I had the opportunity to tour through the library on campus. It’s within our little school, where most of our residential children go. It was fascinating to sit down and talk to our librarian, Heather, who was kind enough to answer all my questions about literacy within our programs, as well as books and writing.
I wish I could’ve snapped a picture of the library for you guys. It’s beautiful, with art of creatures from Where the Wild Things Are (love that book!), as well as lots of comfy places for kids to sit down with a good book. My first impression was amazement. My high school library looked like crap compared to this one! And it made me really happy, too, because Heather is clearly a dedicated librarian, and is always searching for new ways to get the kids reading.

Literacy in the School
Many of the children who wind up in our school/programs come from homes where there are no books, where their parents do not read, and often times, they have not gone to enough school to properly learn to read. For many students, the library offers a one-to-one literacy program, in which the student sits down with one of the library staff to get some stress-free tutoring for reading. Many children in our programs (though not all!) have a below average reading level. Heather told me the main priority for these kids is to either a) get them up to their reading level, or, if this is not possible (many teenagers who have been out of school for so long simply can’t catch up) b) get them up to a passable reading level (grades 4-5.)
Every day, before lunch, the school has a 20 minute NATURE session. That stands for Need At least Twenty minutes of Uninterrupted Reading Every day. What I especially love about this, is ALL STAFF must be reading as well. It doesn’t matter if it’s a comic book, magazine, novel—so long as the adults are reading. It’s great for the kids, because it gives them a positive reading role model. As Heather put it, “If the kids see a staff they admire reading, they’re more likely to get excited about it.”
Every day after lunch, for 40 minutes, each class participates in a literacy block. This is where, like most classrooms, kids join together for different literacy exercises, depending on their ability level. Some classrooms read through smaller chapter books and answer questions in a booklet. More advanced classes (not necessarily older kids) do things such as novel studies.
For children who do well in NATURE and their literacy block, the school offers them a chance to purchase books for the library. Each year, one student from every class is chosen. They select five books, four of which will be placed in the library with a bookplate in the front cover, stating “so-and-so selected this book for the library.” As well, they are allowed to purchase one book for themselves. I absolutely adore this system. What better way to encourage kids than rewarding them with BOOKS?

Where does Heather find her books?
Most of the library’s funding comes from the Board of Education, but Heather also purchases books through Chapters/Indigo, Amazon, and United Library Services. Her library is filled with new books, which made me happy to see. I spotted the Mortal Instruments series, Divergent (which she mentioned she and the kids loved!) as well as things like Speak, Go Ask Alice, and the House of the Scorpion. Heather is a librarian that does her research. She knows exactly which books she’s ordering. She finds most of her books through reviews, suggestions from students and teachers, as well as what reflects the curriculum.
Hear that, reviewers? Your job is SO IMPORTANT for helping librarians like Heather find books for their students.
Big Hits
The books that struck big, according to Heather, are horror. (Hm, wonder why that is?) Darren Shan books are popular, as well as graphic novels, Amulet (Heather spoke highly of this one), Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Conspiracy 365, and the Simpsons comics. (She rolled her eyes when she told me this. Hee!)
For girls, issue books are a big hit. Anything by Ellen Thompson, books on cutting, books on runaways and the like. The girls (and boys) in our programs can really relate to these books, because at times, it feels like these issues are the only things in their lives that make sense. 

Issue Books and Triggering
Heather’s take on issue books really intrigued me. I’m a writer who loves to tackle the dirty and controversial subjects, and although Heather had a bit of hesitation about them, she is a full supporter of issue books. According to her, these books are very important for making the kids feel as though they’re not alone with the problems they face. (Abuse, poverty, cutting, suicide, ect.) For Heather, the issue books have never been a problem, because YA doesn’t glorify these subjects. Though sometimes they can get graphic, in the end, usually the characters have found a way to solve or deal with their problems, which shows these kids that there is an end to the darkness they face.
Issue books are a bit of a touchy subject with some of the clinicians and counselors, because they can trigger the kids. Books that deal with self-harm can act as triggers, and the last thing anyone wants to do is deal with an escalation. At first, Heather told me that the clinicians asked to have the books removed, but after persuading some of them to read a few, apparently they’ve seen the light. There are still some books that need to be approved through clinicians before the kids can sign them out, but most of the time, it’s not an issue. 

A Happy Ending
One of the last questions I asked Heather was if she’d ever had any issues with kids holding onto books longer than necessary. She laughed and said, “I have many stories like that.” She told me about one boy who was a voracious reader, and had been hoarding library books in his room at his program. They found a stack hidden under his bed. He’d ripped out all the sign-out cards, scratched out the agency’s name and wrote his own in the cover. After the books were returned, Heather sat down with him and talked about how they could arrange for him to get some books of his own. Needless to say, the kid was certainly excited about that idea.
So there you have it! My trip to the school library. I may snap some pictures of it sooner or later, because it is a beautiful library. Heather is the kind of librarian that makes me proud to be a children’s writer.

Would you like to donate a book?
If anyone would like to donate to the school’s library, or to Heather, PLEASE, don’t hesitate to shoot me an email at katiecarson at Hotmail dot com. When I mentioned I might be able to get some people to donate her books, Heather got really excited. Any old books kicking around that you don’t want? I know some kids would really love a chance to read them. 

Thanks for reading!