Wilbur mimicking the cover of The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Photo by Kate Ota 2022
I bought The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass because it’s one of those craft books you see recommended all over the place. That and the feedback I get is pretty consistent: I nail action and dialogue, but I need to add more emotions.
The book was $17.99 from Barnes and Noble. It covers the character’s emotional journey as well as the reader’s emotional journey, which is not necessarily the same. There were action points after each major topic (about 30 total) explaining where in your book to focus, what questions to ask, and therefore how to draw out that emotion.
I read this book in 5 days, which is about my normal pace. It’s 200 pages, and the pages are very thin (I saw the words on the other side of the paper), so it’s a thin book, but at what cost. I did a lot of highlighting, which says a lot about how useful I thought the information was, and I plan to go back when I have time and use those activity suggestions (called Emotional Mastery) to test the concepts in my current WIP. Generally, the suggestions really got my ideas flowing, so I think the inclusion of these in the book was very good.
One downside, despite the many examples for his points, a few went by at lightspeed without examples. The biggest I noted was the claim that words of Anglo-Saxon origin are considered stronger than those of Latin origin. Now, I’m big into etymology, I think the evolution of language is fascinating and I’m constantly googling word origins. However, without some examples, it’s hard to see if this claim holds any water. I found two examples myself: excite (Latin) and amaze (old English, which I guess is Anglo-Saxon) and you know what? They’re pretty similar word choices, arguably synonyms in many cases. Is amaze more specific? Yes. Excite could be interpreted in a few ways. Would I say amaze is stronger? Meh.
Is It Worth It?
For the specific, actionable activities that are listed after each major point is made, I’d say yes. Those will probably be very helpful in drawing out more emotion from me as a writer. Is every word of advice golden? Arguably not. I say, it’s worth buying it used (if you find a copy not highlighted by someone like me) and maybe new, if you receive consistent feedback that you need more emotion in your writing (like I do). If you’re buying it just for the sake of upping something you already feel confident about, I’d say used or ebook versions to save some cash. Overall though, I see why it’s so frequently recommended among writers, and am happy I have it in my stockpile of craft books.
Have you read The Emotional Craft of Fiction? What was your favorite piece of advice? Is there another book on improving emotions in your writing? Let’s discuss in the comments!
Is It Worth It? The Anatomy of Story
Wilbur loved The Anatomy of Story so much, he kept rubbing his face against the cover. Photo by Kate Ota 2021
I picked up a copy of The Anatomy of Story by John Truby months ago and let it languish on my shelf. I thought I’d read once I was done editing my current project or maybe when I started querying. However, as I started prepping for NaNoWriMo (during which beta readers will have my current project) I realized I should take a look to see if this book would influence my Preptober.
This approximately 400-page book is $18.99 for the paperback.
It’s like going from Save The Cat and The Story Equation and taking the next step in writing mastery. It includes character creation, setting, theme, and twenty-two story beats. There are numerous examples throughout as well as worksheets.
The story beats are a bit save-the-cat-ish, but those were hardly the best part of the book. I appreciated the analysis of character creation and scene setting that’s explained before plot gets brought up. The way different elements are discussed on a symbolic and thematic level was mind blowing. I even found I’d used some of the techniques on accident (probably from reading so much—hence why you need to read a lot!) and with some tweaking I could make it look very purposeful and deep.
I hadn’t seen many of the major examples (Tootsie, Casablanca, and The Godfather were most referred to, and I hadn’t seen The Verdict either) but they were clearly explained. I had seen some others (It’s a Wonderful Life) so it was helpful that most concepts were explained using multiple examples.
It’s a dense book. I tried to read it on my morning commute and fell asleep a couple times. You really need to be awake and committed to reading it. However, it’s dense with knowledge and supremely helpful.
Is It Worth It?
The price was great for the amount of information and length of the book, in my opinion. If you’re a person who likes to highlight and flag craft books, then the paperback is for you. If you aren’t a highlighting type of person, then go with the e-book version to save some money.
I recommend this book if you’re looking to up your plotting skills. If you aren’t a plotter, I recommend a little more clear-cut plotting book first (like Save The Cat). It’s also not about basic sentence mechanics (for that I recommend It Was The Best of Sentences, It Was The Worst of Sentences) and while it covers character, I think you need a baseline of character building first (such as understanding want vs need; I recommend The Story Equation).
My mom would know what this flower is, but I don't. Photo by Kate Ota Germany 2013
Happy Mother’s Day!
One trope of MG/YA books is a dead mother (if not also a dead father). You’ll also see this trend in movies for young people—specifically Disney. So where did the trope come from and why perpetuate it? I decided to do a little digging.
Where did this start?
My first instinct was that this trope is drawn from fairy tales. I took a class on Grimm’s Fairytales in college and almost every birth mother was dead, often replaced by an evil stepmother. (Though, shockingly, not Snow White. Per the brothers Grimm, her bio-mom was the murderous queen.)
Many academic papers have been written about the dead mother trope, both about modern and historical works. One paper summarized quite a bit for me and presented earlier theories as to why this trope exists: the high mortality rate in child birth prior to modern times (about 1% to 1.5% of mothers died during child birth in the 1600s and 1700s), socio-economic and family structure changes in the US since WWII, and Walt Disney’s bad relationship with his mother. The feminist take is that removing the mother character and forcing the father to step into her place makes the father look great and devalues the work the mother used to do to keep the household running, since Dad can do it all himself.
Short version: it’s sexism.
Why Kill Mother Characters?
Well, parents who do a good job parenting will often prevent the sort of dangerous adventures that make MG/YA exciting. There are some stories in which parents are alive but separated from the kids, like because of a boarding school (the Weasley parents in the Harry Potter series) or war (the Pevensie parents in the Narnia series). Either way, it’s easier if the parents can’t jump in to prevent disaster.
MG and YA also explore the themes of growing up and experiencing the world yourself (to a greater extent in YA, of course) which requires the removal of that parental safety net to emphasize that theme. And let’s face it, from a traditional-nuclear-family-type perspective, who is most likely to notice kid shenanigans and do something to stop it? Mom. (No offense, Dad.)
TV Tropes offers the theory that dead parents are the only purely good parents in entertainment, as the others need to be stand offish or absent for plot reasons and therefore come off as terrible people. The dead are held in higher regard. It’s an interesting theory, but there are plenty of flawed dead parents in entertainment, too. And the trope page didn’t discuss mothers specifically.
In The New York Times, S.S. Taylor theorized authors kill one or more parents to reassure themselves that if they died, their own real children would also find a way to be okay. A bit of therapy, in a way.
Of course, that’s all been mostly about orphans, or at least when both parents are missing. But plenty of stories off Mom and keep Dad (Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid to name a few). You’ll notice in these movies the father-child relationship tends to be fairly strong or develops as part of the emotional arc of the story. In fact, before Cinderella’s dad dies, they’re very close in most versions. Clearly, one way to justify or emphasize a father-MC relationship is to get rid of Mom.
Let’s circle back to the evil stepmother trope. This villain was typically jealous, cruel, and destructive toward stepdaughters. (We don’t see a ton of classic stories about stepmothers and their stepsons, but I’m sure they exist.) A biological mother was theoretically less likely to be this negative with their child. However, a stepmother had power/influence over the main character and would potentially be willing to treat them poorly. Since the intended audience was children, and getting deep into the psychology of why a parent may be cruel could be difficult for that audience, substituting in the stepmother may have been a shortcut to explain the bad behavior. This is a trope/cliché that’s certainly past its prime.
Should You Kill Off a Mother Character?
It depends. It’s a very old trope and teeters on cliché. You could use it to give your story a fairytale vibe, especially helpful if you want that feeling but aren’t doing a direct retelling. Fairytale retellings have been hot for years (I’d point to the start of the trend being Cinder by Marissa Meyer), but to stand out in this crowd, I’d recommend subverting as many tropes from the original tales as possible. That includes dead moms.
Contemporary stories probably don’t need to rely on dead moms, anyway. With the recent economic crises and the feminist movements of the late 1900s, many families have both parents working. Don’t kill off the mom, just make her busy. Historical settings may have more flexibility here, since, as I mentioned before, the maternal mortality rates were terrifying for most of human history. (And they’re still not great in the US, honestly, especially for women of color!)
I guess my advice is in general, no. Don’t kill off your mother characters unless there’s a very clear, specific reason she must be dead. Test your creativity and find another way to let your MG and YA characters explore their worlds. You may come up with an idea you like even more and bonus: one less dead mom character.
Here are some sources for more reading on this topic:
Is It Worth It? World Anvil
The front page of the WorldAnvil site
At Futurescapes 2021, several teachers recommended worldbuilding websites and software, so I've been checking them out. First up is WorldAnvil, which has also been heavily advertised to me on YouTube. I had high hopes going in that this might help me write my next project.
WorldAnvil a website that helps you worldbuild for writing or role-playing games (RPGs). It includes prompts to help you write about characters, buildings, conditions (like a plague), conflict, country (you can start as big as a solar system!), documents (like the Constitution), ethnicities, geography, items (like Excalibur), languages, materials, military units, myths/legends, natural laws (or laws that govern magic), organizations, professions, the plot, prose (in which you can include sections of your WIP), religion, titles (like King or Governor, not book titles), settlements, species, spells, technology, traditions, and vehicles.
Tiers of Use: (blue denotes a change from the previous tier)
Freeman: Cost: Free Includes: Basic features, all info is public; 100 MB, up to 2 worlds; 0 co-owners; 0 subscribers; 20 draft articles; 175 final articles; basic homepage; can export only one article at a time
Within the free version, I had constant ads for getting 30% off a subscription, so don’t pay full price for these without first getting a free account first and getting some promo codes!
Journeyman: Cost: $40/yr Includes: Basic features; privacy; 1GB; 5 worlds; 2 co-owners; 5 subscribers; unlimited draft/final articles; advanced homepage; notes; can embed secrets in own public articles; track word count and goals; 1 world data export/day; no ads; personalized theme; to-do list; quick image uploader; distraction free mode; organization trees; exclusive map markers; calendars
Master: Cost: $58/yr Includes: Basic features; privacy; 2GB; 10 worlds; 4 co-owners; 10 subscribers; unlimited draft/final articles; advanced homepage; notes; can embed secrets in own public articles; track word count and goals; unlimited world data export/day; no ads; personalized theme; to-do list; quick image uploader; distraction free mode; organization trees; exclusive map markers; calendars; self-pub and editing tool; interactive tables (for randomizing things for RPGs); diplomatic relations webs; family trees; full text search; map marker groups (including secret markers); map compass; map journey lines; map labels; discord integration; and advanced customization
Grand Master: Cost: $105/yr Includes: Basic features; privacy; 5GB; unlimited worlds; 9 co-owners; 100 subscribers; unlimited draft/final articles; super homepage; notes; can embed secrets in own public articles; track word count and goals; unlimited world data export/day; no ads; personalized theme; to-do list; quick image uploader; distraction free mode; organization trees; exclusive map markers; calendars; self-pub and editing tool; interactive tables (for randomizing things for RPGs); diplomatic relations webs; family trees; full text search; map marker groups (including secret markers); map compass; map journey lines; map labels; discord integration; advanced customization; content trees and charts; quick visibility toggle; advanced management; world communities early access beta; custom article templates; customizable categories; circular map markers; polygon map markers; create your own map markers; RPG character designer toolset; advanced formatting features; no ads visible to your visitors; and extended world statistics
Sage: Cost: $300/yr Includes: Basic features; privacy; 10GB; unlimited worlds; 20 co-owners; 1000 subscribers; unlimited draft/final articles; super homepage; notes; can embed secrets in own public articles; track word count and goals; unlimited world data export/day; no ads; personalized theme; to-do list; quick image uploader; distraction free mode; organization trees; exclusive map markers; calendars; self-pub and editing tool; interactive tables (for randomizing things for RPGs); diplomatic relations webs; family trees; full text search; map marker groups (including secret markers); map compass; map journey lines; map labels; discord integration; advanced customization; content trees and charts; quick visibility toggle; advanced management; world communities early access beta; custom article templates; customizable categories; circular map markers; polygon map markers; create your own map markers; RPG character designer toolset; advanced formatting features; no ads visible to your visitors; extended world statistics; no WorldAnvil branding on your pages; express support and guidance; custom world domain and URL; google analytics integration; custom article URLs, password protected articles; private access shareable links to articles; quick Patreon supporters import and management; and access to monetization videos and private workshops
I got a Freeman ($0) account to check out the website. There were pros and cons.
Is It Worth It?
Like I say in most of these posts, it depends!
If you’re writing epic fantasy and need to keep track of a very detailed world, sure. It seems like a great way to keep a high volume of info organized. I'd say it's better than a simple word doc, for example. But you better be willing to shell out some money and even more money elsewhere for a map. However, if you and a couple friends want to split an account, I could see that working pretty well. I suspect it's most beneficial for established authors with a following, that way you can monetize it and earn a little income from it as fans explore more of your world beyond what's in your books.
If you’re just using it to organize your writing and you’re not doing a gigantic sprawling world/universe, then I’d say there are better tools for you. For example, I could make a family tree on Milanote for free, but on WorldAnvil you don’t get that capacity until the Grand Master level ($105/yr). And One Stop for Writers had way more in-depth character building that honed in on the psychology and cohesiveness of characters—but WorldAnvil was just a typical fill in the blank type list that you could probably find online elsewhere.
It’s also advertised for RPGs, but since I don’t play those (I tried them in college, not my thing) I don’t want to comment on WorldAnvil’s effectiveness for that.
Do you use WorldAnvil for your worldbuilding/book bible? Do you think it’s worth others’ money? Let’s discuss in the comments!
The Occupation Thesaurus
Clue's occupation is, of course, protector of the domain. Photo by Kate Ota 2021
Part of the same series of helpful thesauruses as The Emotion Thesaurus, The Occupation Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is exactly what it sounds like. I’m sure you were expecting an Is It Worth It post about it, but I loved The Emotion Thesaurus so much, I knew this would be worth it.
And it is! There’s information up front about different ways to help select your character’s job to best serve the plot or theme. There’s a section about the many reasons why anyone chooses any given job (including Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, which made my nerdy little ex-high-school-debate self so happy). The back also has sections where you can create your own entry or work through the logic of choosing a job for your character. Incredibly helpful stuff!
I decided that instead of just reviewing The Occupation Thesaurus, that I’d add my own entry here! This seems to be encouraged, as there are more careers on the authors’ website (here) and in One Stop for Writers (which I reviewed before.)
Let’s get into the entry! I followed the same format as the book’s entries.
Overview: A zookeeper is a person who cares for various animals at a zoo. Depending on the size of the zoo, they may work in only one area (such as primates or African Mammals), or they may rotate through every section of the zoo. Duties include feeding, cleaning enclosures (both exhibits that guests see and behind-the-scenes housing), administering medication (as prescribed by the zoo vet), and providing enrichment (such as training or making new toys).
Necessary Training: Usually a bachelor’s degree in some kind of animal or biology related field is required, although zookeeper internships exist for college students. Training is otherwise hands-on.
Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: Being good with animals, public speaking, cleaning skills, kinetic memory, basic first aid, food prep
Helpful Character Traits: Adaptable, adventurous, alert, calm, cautious, positive disposition, hard worker, morning person, caring, nature loving, compassionate, environmentally conscious
Sources of Friction:
Guests who misbehave or abuse the animals
Being unable to help a sick or injured animal
Being unable to breed a rare species
Having to put down an animal
Public backlash to putting down an animal
Frustration when an exotic animal is kept as a pet
Getting exceedingly messy early in the day and having to stay that way
Animals making a giant mess
Needing to fundraise
Being bitten or injured by an animal
Being peed or pooped on by an animal
Needing to protect new trainees/interns/volunteers from dangerous animals
Having an animal dislike you and act out against you
The fact that despite dangerous weather, the animals need care every day
People They Might Interact With: Other zookeepers, vet techs, zoo vets, veterinary specialists, zoo guests, interns, wedding parties, other party guests, zoo director, famous animal advocates associated with their zoo, news media, animal rights groups, representatives from the Associate of Zoos and Aquariums (if US based), conservation program coordinators, breeding program coordinators, students
How This Occupation Might Impact the Character’s Needs:
Self-Actualization: A zookeeper may feel they are contributing to a meaningful goal of conservation. However, if a rare animal dies in their care, they may feel they are failing a meaningful goal.
Esteem and Recognition: The zookeeper may seek recognition for handling s a problem in a species that other zoos or keepers struggled with. However, they may also loose confidence if an accident occurs.
Love and Belonging: Zookeepers tend to bond together and have good camaraderie because of the hours and labor involved. However, long hours of lots of physical labor leaving the character exhausted may deteriorate personal relationships.
Safety and Security: The job pays a living wage and zoos can be found in cities of all sizes. However, working with certain animals poses a danger to the keepers whether from venom, teeth, horns, allergies, or size.
Characters Might Choose This Occupation Because They…
Are concerned about climate change and the impact on species around the world
Want to advocate for something/someone who cannot speak for itself
Are compensating for a past wrong against animals
Believe animals are better than people (due to a past emotional wound)
Want to fight against poaching from a distance
Want an adventurous sounding job, but to remain relatively stable
Idolize a famous conservationist (ex. Steve Irwin)
There are many occupations in the thesaurus, and many that aren’t! Check out their lists at writershelpingwriters.net and see for yourself. Got one they don’t have? Leave it in the comments!
Is It Worth It? The Story Equation
Clue was relieved to know there's no actual math involved in this book. Photo by Kate Ota 2020
The Story Equation by Susan May Warren is a short book (144 pages in paperback) about how to plan a story based on one starter question. The book offers a step-by-step type of equation for stories, and offers some other advice along the way. It breaks the story apart into the internal and external journeys of the character and describes where to place certain elements using a 4 Act structure (Act 1, 2A, 2B, and 3).
My copy had extremely thin paper for the pages, so when I highlighted useful bits, it showed through on the other side. The title and author name on the spine are also not centered and spill onto the front cover. Based on that, I was concerned this wasn’t going to be very high-quality advice. And for the first few chapters, I thought my first impression was right. The book kept hinting at The Question on which the whole book would be built, without telling me what the question was. It kept talking about The Equation, and various elements of it, without explaining. Finally, when the book got to these elements, and defined them all, things got rolling. It was less helpful with plot elements, but extremely detailed about character arc. It’s true that the character arc builds off of one question, and then many more subsequent questions. It basically boils down those giant character-building sheets to the bare essentials and tells you why they’re essential. I’ve already applied what I learned from this book to two of my characters and found things I can add or enhance to nail the character arcs.
The book offers access to an online mini-course about the same topic, which I haven't watched yet. I'm not sure how much more information it will offer, but if I watch it, I'll update this post.
Is It Worth It?
I received my copy as a gift, so for me it was automatically worth it. The book goes for under $10, which you can feel in the quality of the paper and printing. It's short and offers a quick read, which is a plus. The detailed instructions for building a character and achieving the growth arc were very helpful. If writing a satisfying character arc is what you struggle with, I highly recommend this book. If your goal is to strengthen the external journey plotting, I think there are better options out there. Since that’s not what I was looking for, I was very happy with this book.
Have you read The Story Equation? Have you tried the methods? What did you think? Let's discuss in the comments!
Is It Worth It? Milanote
Milanote is an online idea organizer, which can be used for things like worldbuilding, character building, story planning, or even things outside of writing like class notes or graphic design planning.
There are three tiers:
Free (the one I tried) allows up to 100 items (notes, links, or images), 10 file uploads, and unlimited shared boards (screens on which you organize info.)
Paid per person ($9.99/month billed annually or $12.50 billed monthly) offers unlimited notes/images/links, unlimited files, unlimited shared boards, and a search feature.
For a team ($49/month billed annually for up to 10 people) offers unlimited notes/images/links, unlimited files, unlimited shared boards, search feature, and priority support.
I mapped out my WIP in the free version. I have near future scifi with a sizable cast and easily used 75 of my 100 items before I included everything from my previous notes. However, I really liked the visual aspect when it came to the characters, as I could map their relationships (and even label the lines between them, which was a lovely surprise!) It allowed me to change the layout on my screen easily and quickly. It allows random notes on the screen, captions on photos, areas to organize similar notes, and it’s very intuitive. There was also a little bit of help at the beginning with dialogue boxes popping up and explaining buttons and likely next steps. I also like that there can be multiple editors, if I was collaborating. And especially, I love the fact there is no time limit! I can leave my Milanote page there and come back to it whenever, rather than powering through a timed free trial. It also has a built-in connection to the free photo site Unsplash, so you can easily search for inspiration images within Milanote.
It wasn’t all daisies, though. If you make a character profile in one place, but want it to also appear in another (like organizing by family tree on one board, but wanting that character to appear on another board based on setting, for example) you can’t do that, you’ll just have to make a copy of the profile. And that’s a waste of your free hundred items, which isn’t as many notes as you need for an entire novel worth of information. Exceptions may include books with small casts, contemporary settings with minimal outside worldbuilding, or shorter projects like a novella, picture book, or even MG. If you make something nested within a lot of other boards (ex. In the world building board you can have a location board, within that location board you can have a character board, which contains profiles boards for each character) things can get lost. This is why the paid version includes a search feature.
Is It Worth It?
The free version is 100% worth it. It’s fun to play around, and it’s great for anyone who is very visual or creates in a more abstract way. A lot of times, planning tools are word heavy and linear. Visual writers may prefer printing things and organizing on a cork board. This is the perfect digital way to do that. Paid versions may be useful for people with big series or epics who need to keep track of a lot of places, characters, and arcs. Paid versions also may benefit those who collaborate, whether as co-authors or an author/illustrator pairing.
Do you use Milanote? What do you think? Let's discuss in the comments!
Is It Worth It? One Stop for Writers
This the home page for One Stop for Writers. The image on the right changes.
One Stop for Writers is a website to help writers create characters and worlds and plot their novels. It’s powered by thesauruses, like the Emotion Thesaurus that I already decided is worth the price. Overall, the website offers fifteen thesauruses—all of the published ones and several others.
At One Stop, you can create many different things to help you plan your novel. The Character Builder develops a personality, emotional wound, inner and outer motivations, fear, quirks, life, and physical traits. Character’s Fear is a similar page focused only on one character’s fear and what personality traits stem from that. Character Arc Progression asks for information from the Character Builder, but also has you consider a resolution. Emotional Progression has you lists events that occur and the emotions of the character, and how you plan to show (not tell) the emotions. Setting-at-a-Glance has you describe your setting with the five senses, as well as lighting/time of day. Emotional Value of a Setting adds symbolism and forces you to consider deeper aspects of scene that will theoretically reinforce the emotions of the characters. Scene Map (informal and formal) asks you for information about what is happening in the scene. The formal version asks more questions. The Story Map is a very general plot outline with major elements listed, generates an interactive imaged with acts 1-3 or stages 1-6 indicated. The timeline is great because you can write events as they come to mind, and then drag them around in whatever order you need. Last is the Worldbuilding Survey, which can be used to create planets down to a single household and everything in between.
All of those have the thesauruses built in to offer suggestions that go together. For example, you select an emotional wound, and the website suggests fears that may stem from it. There are also worksheets and templates you can download to work offline, however these lack the connection to the thesauruses. The site also offers 47 checklists and tip sheets. Checklists can help you do things like add conflict or create a good flashback. Some of the lists include positive traits or when to show not tell. Many are also tutorials for how to use the various thesauruses, although that’s not very difficult.
The website has excellent how-tos, including videos and screenshots. Most of it is very user friendly.
There are cost tiers to consider. There’s a 2-week free trial, which you should absolutely use if you’re thinking of paying to play. Of note, with the free trial you cannot download pdfs of what you make and can only make one item in each category. It’s easy enough to get around those issues though, since you can copy/paste from the website into word and can delete info and remake subsequent items. I’m not being sketchy by telling you this, the website creators tell you that in the how-to-use section. Otherwise the pricing is: $9 for one month, $50 for 6 months, and $90 for one year.
I used my two-week free trial to work on the concept I had for a potential NaNoWriMo project. I’ve never done heavy outlining like this site offered, and thought the structure could be useful.
Of the 15 electronic thesauruses, my favorite is symbolism thesaurus, because that’s my weakest skill. A few of them, like the texture thesaurus, were not very full, and I probably could have listed all of those entries myself.
I enjoyed the character builder. It worked from the emotional wound outward, so that the character’s personality came together in an organic way. The suggests from the thesauruses were great and helped to easily build a round main character. However, if you have the print thesauruses, I think they’d cover the same information, though would be slower to navigate.
Some of what you can make feels redundant, for example the Character’s Fear page is already something you fill out in the Character Builder. Perhaps it’s a short version meant for side characters.
I decided to test if using this website helped me write a stronger first draft of a scene. I wrote the opening scene of my NaNoWriMo project after creating two characters, completing one Worldbuilding Survey, one Emotional Value of a Scene sheet, and a Story Map. Then I took this scene to my critique group. My critique group didn’t notice a drastic change in first draft quality from my previous WIP to this scene. They also didn’t pick up on any of the additions I made using the Emotional Value of a Setting sheet. I’ll admit that may be because I was not heavy handed with those suggestions. I did six hours of prep work on One Stop for Writers, but then I wrote 1000 words in a little over 30 minutes.
Is It Worth It?
If you are new to plotting, want to try plotting, or want to beef up your plotting, it’s a great resource. If you already have a plotting method that you love or if you are a panster for life, this won’t be terribly beneficial for you. I love that the site offers a free trial before getting pricey, because then you know what you’re paying for. If you’re willing to copy/paste and delete/redo then you can probably do all the planning you need during your free trial. It requires a lot of time to make what you need, but if you’ve got the time to use it, it’s fun.
Overall, the free trial is for sure worth it. I don’t think the one-year trial is worth the price, unless you are an insanely prolific writer and constantly planning your next novel. The one-month trial may be helpful, but six months I can’t imagine being that useful. At least you can try it for free before beginning your next project. With one week left before NaNoWriMo begins, anyone needing help plotting may want to check this out now!
Have you tried One Stop for Writers? Have you used a subscription? Did you think it was worth it? Let's discuss in the comments!
The purpose of voice is to stand out, like this flower against the fence. Photo by Kate Ota in Siegen, Germany 2013
One of the things agents always talk about on twitter or their websites is voice. They want it! Please send it! And you may be left thinking what is voice? How do you develop that in your writing? I have an explanation and tips for how to develop it yourself.
What is Voice?
Voice is, at its core, unique and specific word choice, punctuation, and sentence structure. These elements play together to create a narrative style that is unlike what’s been done before, or is at least interesting to read.
For example, pick up a random textbook. The goal of that book is not to entertain, it’s to clearly convey information. Therefore, the word choice is going to be generic, the sentence structures are likely going to be similar, and anyone in the entire world could have written it. Which is the point. A kid is reading that textbook and you don’t want them distracted by the writer’s interesting turn of phrase.
Now look at, for example, The Lightning Thief, the first Percy Jackson novel by Rick Riordan. It’s written from the point of view of a twelve-year-old boy. That book oozes Percy’s voice. Interesting word choices, variable sentence structures, unique similes. That writing style won’t be found just anywhere, and that’s the point.
Voice can be the voice of a character, the voice through the book as a whole (if there's more than one point of view), or the voice of an author across their works. I believe developing your voice as an author starts with the voices of your characters, which together will be the voice through the book. Below, I focus on tips for how to develop the voice of a character.
Develop Your Voice
Tip #1: Monologue as Your Character
The best way I’ve found to fall into my character’s voices is to talk aloud as if I was them. If you’re feeling shy about your at-home audience, you can do this in the shower or write it down as it flows out of you. Whatever you do, don’t over think it. This monologue is not going in your project. It’s an exercise to help you explore. Take what you know about the character’s personality and extrapolate. The words they use will match their mood and education level, the sentence length will match their energy level, the punctuation will match their breath. Imagine how they’d discuss what they love, what they hate, where they live, and the people around them.
Do this exercise as long as you’d like until you get a sense for how this character speaks. Then try writing narration and dialogue from them. Does that voice sound unique? It doesn’t need to be other-worldly or wild, it just needs to sound like it’s coming from an interesting person. Model it after an interesting person’s speech pattern, if that helps you. If you think any random character in your book would sound like the voice you just played with, try again.
Tip #2: Decide which rules to break
Voice often manifests best when the speaker breaks a few classic writing rules. The basic rules will get you to textbook or essay level writing, but to be more than a bone-dry info-dump, you need to play a little. One of my favorite rules to break is to use fragments. Sparingly in narration and frequently in dialogue. That was a fragment, by the way. Did you notice it had a little more humanity in it than a full sentence? Sounded more natural, more conversational. Hence why I use them more in dialogue than narration.
Some characters will use a little more purple-prose in their word choice than others. For example, a professional artist will probably have more flowery word choice than a lawyer, who might be more direct. Some characters may even use more adverbs, run on sentences, or make grammatical mistakes (that last one is for dialogue only and should really be used sparingly, unless you want your readers to think you are the one making the mistakes.) It’s important to know the rules before you play fast and loose with them, and be sure you’re doing so on purpose.
Tip #3: Once You Have It, Write It Down
After discovering how your character monologues and which rules they tend to break, write down their specific quirks. This will help you remain consistent through your project. I have character consistency sheets that can help point you in the general direction of helpful things to write down. This can be before you’ve written your project or after you’ve finished your first draft, whichever you find most useful.
Compare voices you’ve developed for each of your narrators, or for the speaking voices of various characters. If they were all in a scene together and all speaking, could you differentiate their dialogue through their voices alone? Ideally, yes!
Did any of these tips help you develop the voice of your narrator or other characters? Do you have a favorite method for finding the voice of a novel? Let’s discuss in the comments!
My cat, Clue, displaying his usual emotion: hungry. Photo by Kate Ota 2020
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is a resource book which lists entries for one hundred thirty emotions (in the second edition.) You choose an emotion, go to the entry, and read the definition and lists of physical signs and behaviors, internal sensations, mental responses, acute or long-term responses, signs the emotion is being suppressed, which emotions it can escalate or deescalate to, and associated power verbs. There is an introduction section explaining how to use it and some character development items to keep in mind. It’s part of a larger series of thesauruses by these authors, which includes the emotional wound thesaurus, the positive trait thesaurus, and more.
I heard about this book from several sources, and debated buying it, since an emotion thesaurus sounded like a thesaurus with fewer words. I bought a physical copy from my local indie for $17.99 (plus tax and shipping because of COVID.) I was pleasantly surprised that it’s more of an encyclopedia than a traditional thesaurus. I’ve been using it mainly for its intended purpose: to better show, rather than tell, characters' emotions. Especially for characters who do not have a point of view. The list of physical signs and behaviors is my favorite and I’ve used something from it every time I’ve opened the book. I also used it to deepen my point of view characters by thinking about which emotions they have chronically through the plot. That’s when I love the long-term response section. I’ll definitely keep using this as I edit and for the next books I write.
Is it Worth It?
Yes! I was skeptical at first, but I highly recommend this for anyone who struggles to have their characters emote. If you’re in the planning stages, it’s also great for character development. It’s $17.98 on Bookshop (the multi-indie-bookstore website, check it out.) There’s a digital version too, though perhaps it's harder to navigate since it's not a traditional cover-to-cover read. I’m probably going to check out the other books in their series because I’ve loved this so much.
Have you used The Emotion Thesaurus, or the other books in Ackerman and Puglisi’s series? Did you find it worth it? Have you found other similar books? Let’s discuss in the comments!