Monday, January 27, 2014

Part Two of Three: The Mechanics of Desire--Controlling Belief and Announced Strategy

This is part two of my three-part series on desire. This is one more priceless part of my experience with Martine Leavitt at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference this summer. It continues to direct everything I do as far as story creation. The next novel I'm writing has been fleshed out entirely using this way of thinking. I think it is going to be a lot easier to write than any of my former books.

You can read part one of this series here. It addresses the character's emotional and concrete desire lines. 

A controlling belief is what your character believes he or she needs to do in order to meet his or her emotional needs.

Especially when you're writing about/for children, and even teens, the thing he or she believes they need to do can be completely random, because young people have little to no power to meet their emotional needs. It does not have to be rational, and it does not have to be correct. It is often a key point of character growth when they realize something mistaken in this core belief, and grow or change  at the climax of the story.

What does your character begin to believe that he or she can do in order to solve his or her problems?

An example that Martine gave, from a book whose title she didn't remember:
A young girl protagonist whose father is away at war, believes that the odds would be more in her favor of her father coming home if her dog died, because the universe wouldn't be that cruel to take the father of a little girl whose dog was dead. In this book, this girl believed that she needed to kill her dog in order to get her father home safely. She spends time convincing herself that she doesn't even like the dog, plots to kill the dog.

In Lord of The Rings, Frodo's emotional need is for safety and security, and his concrete desire is to save the Shire. His controlling belief is that he must destroy the ring in order to overcome the powers of evil, and return to his safe, peaceful life in the Shire.

Your character's controlling belief should carry us through from the beginning of the story to the climax. We should know this belief within the first few chapters. It fits in with the announced strategy, which I'll talk about next.
If controlling belief is what a character believes he or she can do to fulfill his or her emotional needs, announced strategy is when your character tells us what he or she will specifically do to fix it. (What will your character be physically be doing to make their controlling belief a reality?)

What specific plans would the little girl with the dog make to kill the dog? Would she buy poison? Would she build toward a specific set of circumstances on a specific day when she will do him in?

Your announced strategy should be revealed fairly soon—within the first fifty pages if possible. Once your character says what they are going to do to follow their controlling belief and fulfill their emotional and concrete desires, the reader is committed to reading to find out if they will be able to succeed.

This gives your character a reason to move and act. It gives them motivation in every scene, in every conversation. We then know what this character wants more than anything, and what they are committed to do. 

The announced strategy may change as the character moves through the story. The character may have several "try-fail" cycles, and have to adjust their plans.

My main character in my current work in progress (WIP) is a pregnant teenage girl whose mother kicks her out when she refuses to have an abortion. 

Emotional need: love and family

Concrete desire: to keep her baby, to fulfill her need for love

Controlling belief: If she doesn't keep this baby, nothing else can ever fill her need for love. She will be entirely alone, and without family.

Announced Strategy: In chapter two, Tessa makes a list on a yellow legal pad of her options for finding somewhere to stay so that she can keep this baby. It includes the women's shelter, foster care, her lost aunt Nancy in Kansas, the baby's father. Throughout the novel, Tessa keeps this list with her as she tries out different options, and runs out of resources. 

In two weeks, the final installment of this blog series will discuss:
1. Obstacles
2. Stakes

Take a character, give them a strong enough desire, a strong enough controlling belief, and an announced strategy. Make them want it so badly we hurt for them, and then give them huge stakes, and insurmountable obstacles. This is where we get a beautiful story. This is where we have readers breathless over the tension and conflict in our stories. It's what keeps me coming back to the laptop day after day.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Mechanics of Desire Part One of Three: How Martine Leavitt Changed My Life

The first time I tried to write a novel, it took me six years.

Inconsistency in writing habits meant the first draft took for years to complete. Even so, finishing felt amazing. I celebrated with my writing girls at Barnes and Noble over Italian cream sodas.

Then I had to revise. I knew the story didn't entirely work, so I rewrote for a year. I had to fix the whole front end of the novel, which was all telling and very little showing. I wrote better lines, funnier scenes.

And in a year I had draft two.

And then my lovely, awful, wonderful, torturous friend, Nikki said these six words to me:

What does your main character want?


Tell me I'm not alone here.

What did my main character want? We went over some other paradigms. What was her arc? What was the central question of the novel?

But it all came down to the fundamental problem in my novel.

I didn't understand the mechanics of desire in story.

My main character didn't have a solid goal. Her motivations were wishy washy.

A third rewrite got me most of the way there.

I wrote two more novels.

And I tried to make sure my characters wanted something. But you know, easier said than done.

People would read my writing and say, "I'm not sure why you included that. It doesn't add to your story."

Of course it adds to my story. It happens in my story. So there. Pbthpppp.

When I attended my first session of Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers this June, some simple, clear principles that I am now calling The Mechanics of Desire changed my life. Martine Leavitt is one of my writing idols for many reasons, but most recently because she has altered my view of creating story forever. She showed a drawing of the classic story arc with climax and denouement and rising action, and then told us she didn't care about that at all. She didn't have any use for it.

Instead, she taught us the principles of storytelling as relate to the main character's emotional and concrete desire lines, their controlling beliefs, their announced strategies, their obstacles, and their stakes. She encouraged us to never, ever write a story without knowing these things first. I have created a worksheet from all of her lectures on this subject, which I will share in a couple of weeks.

But for today, I'm going to start with breaking down my notes from the topic.

Today I'll talk about emotional and concrete desire lines.

Some of this will be direct quotes from Martine, and some will be my interjections. I'm not sure which is which anymore. I just typed as fast as my fingers could move, anxious to soak up every bit of wisdom from this incredible lady.

In every story there are two threads. The emotional story and the concrete/physical story line. We need to know one or the other on page one. Chapter one for sure. The other can come along after that, but very quickly after that in Children's fiction.


Must carry us all the way through the climax. What does your MC want most in the entire world?

We need a desire line in each story line--exactly what that character is all about.

What does she want? What does she need? for each character in each story.

Every character that you put in your book needs to want something. Every character has a story. Even if all they want is a glass of water. Why are they there? - DESIRE LINE.

Your characters need to be real people with real motivations.

In Lord of the Rings: Frodo wants safety and security. That is his emotional desire line.


Sometimes the concrete desire is revealed way before we know the motivation / emotional desire line. But the writer needs to know both, and reveal them as he/she goes along.

Frodo's emotional desire line is safety and security. His concrete desire line, which must parallel the emotional desire line, is to save the shire. The shire represents that safety and security for Frodo.


Both the emotional and concrete desire lines take us right to the climax. When you're trying to figure out what this is, it's the desire that doesn't change for your character from the very beginning right to the climax. Both emotional and concrete desire lines will span almost the whole book.

In youth literature, the main character will typically have one or both desire lines fulfilled in the end.

If they get the emotional, and not the concrete, or the concrete, but not the emotional, we have a wistful, sad feeling ending, with just enough to satisfy us, and give us hope for our character.

If they get neither desire line, it is a tragedy.

Often they get both, and it is a happy ending.

In my current work in progress, the main character receives her emotional desire, but not her concrete desire. At the end of the story, she sacrifices her concrete desire line, because she can't have both. It means that the ending is really emotional, and somewhat painful.

But satisfying, I hope!

I hope this was helpful. These principles are simple, but have helped me so much.

Read Part 2: CONTROLLING BELIEFS, AND ANNOUNCED STRATEGIES—two other principles that changed how I look at story, and made plotting SO much easier!


Happy writing, all!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

More Than You Ever Needed To Know

Some fun questions so you can get to know me a little better:

1. What books and / or authors are most inspiring to you as a writer?
It's an eclectic assortment. There are a lot of books that when I read them, I wish desperately to have written them. These are books that carry me away in the characters or the setting so completely that I forget that what I'm reading isn't reality. They build real people who become my friends.

Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdoch. She can take me into the life of one athletic farm girl so completely that I never want to leave.

Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt. Just read it. Then you will know.

The Casson Family series by Hilary McKay. I love this writer. I want to go find her and sit next to her while beautiful, real, dry, funny, innocent words fall from her fingers onto the keys of her computer. I also want to go live in England with Rose Casson. These books are pure magic. Go read them, if you've ever wanted to fall in love with pretend people.

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall. Same. I love these children. I love how high stakes can be for children, even while they're just living their mundane lives. No witches, wizards, or vampires, here.

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Pure straight magic. Lots of witches and wizards. Delightful humor. Page-turning plot. A reading experience I'm not sure I'll ever be able to repeat. The first time in my life waiting with baited breath for every installment.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Not my genre, or so I would have thought. Too violent, or so I would have thought. How did she do what she did to me, and everyone else who has read this book? I need to read it like a textbook.

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner – A reminder that not every minute has to be action packed. A reminder that sometimes reading a slow-burning story pays off in amazing ways. Every word is perfect.

I could go on and on. And I have. Those are just a few of my favorite reads.

Add in Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, and On Writing by Stephen King, and I think you've got a pretty good reading list.

2. What is your writing background?

I have been filling notebooks with the starts of novels since elementary school. I have wanted to be a writer since I wrote a short story that won an award and some serious teacherly acclaim in the classroom of Max Foran at Midnapore Elementary School in Calgary, Canada.

In high school I wanted to write pioneer romances, and spent hours in Heritage Park, a pioneer village theme park, dreaming up characters and scenes and writing them down. I narrated my sister Kathryn off to sleep every night with my stories.

In college, I majored in French teaching and minored in English teaching and read and wrote entirely too much to think about fiction. Then I taught high school French for three years, and was too busy to think much about writing. But when my first baby was just over a year old, I did my first NaNoWriMo, and wrote 25,000 words of an epic fantasy.

The next year, frustrated by thinking up what to have my characters wear, and what to call their breakfast, I decided to write a Young Adult contemporary novel. With many breaks, and three sets of rewrites, that novel took me six years to complete. But by the time I was finished, I was a serious writer.

From 2009 to 2013 I have completed that novel, co-written a MG contemporary mystery with my husband, and written another YA contemporary. My next project is a MG contemporary. I am now represented by the lovely Louise Fury of the L. Perkins Agency in New York. I am so excited to continue writing. I can't imagine ever stopping.

3. Describe your writing process / writing schedule.

I write a minimum of fifteen minutes every day, five days a week. I have little children, a photography business, and a lot of housework, gardening, and cooking to keep up with. If I'm not careful, writing will never appear on my schedule. So I make time. My fifteen minutes every day of determined writing means that I always show up, and I'm ready to be inspired and continue my writing.

The only way I can write well is to do it in the morning, so I try to write every day as soon as my one-year-old goes down for his nap. Often that includes my three year old pressed up against my arm while she snuggles and watches a movie. So a zen place with all quiet and no interruptions is a fantasy for me, as I think it is for many authors. Instead of waiting for the perfect time, I write every single day. Most days I write for at least an hour. My personal best is 6200 words in one day. I like to check my word count every day, and report it to my writing group, for accountability.

I'm still learning about my writing process all the time. I generally find that while drafting I can produce about 1200 words in an hour, and that they need editing the next day before I go on.

My one recent breakthrough was a determination to finish a first draft regardless of what I discover on the way there. So if on chapter 6 I decide that my MC is really a dancer instead of a writer, I change from that moment on, and keep writing as though the changes are already made. I feel like you can't have all the discoveries and breakthroughs that you need until you write all the way through to the end, so I don't allow any criticism, feedback, or changes derail me from making it through once, changing as I go. Then I go back and rewrite, removing what doesn't work, and putting in new material now that I know my characters and their arcs.

One more thing I'll be posting about is the Mechanics of Desire worksheet that I put together during my week-long Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers course with Martine Leavitt. Before I start any novel, I work through my character's desire lines, and I understand what they really want. It's only by doing this that I can really understand what will naturally develop in my plot.

4. What is one tip you'd like to give to a writer just starting out?

Two tips?

Know what your character wants more than anything in this world (emotional desire) and know what they want most in the physical/concrete world that parallels this (concrete desire.) Know what your character thinks he/she needs to do to meet his/her emotional needs. (controlling belief.) Once you know this, give your character a big obstacle (man vs. self, man vs. nature, man vs. man) that stands between them and their desires. Amp up the obstacles. And make the stakes high. (What does your character stand to lose if they fail to meet their emotional and concrete desires?) These elements will will interact to create your story in an organic way without a lot of intense, external plot structures. When I finished my rewrite of my first novel, I still didn't know what my MC wanted. Near-disaster ensued.

Write for at least 15 minutes every day! DO IT!

5. Why do you write? Why do you write what you write (genre, age group, etc.)?

Here's my short answer. I write because I have to. It fills me up in ways that nothing else does. It's my personal take on the creative process and I think creativity is a fundamental human need.

Speed Round:

Music or silence while writing?
Silence, or as close as my three children let me get.

Do you act out your scenes for accuracy?
No. But I do read aloud.

Favorite dessert?
Cheesecake. Hands down. Preferably lime-flavored.

Drafting or revising?
I always prefer drafting.

Notebook or computer?
Alphasmart Neo for drafting.
Laptop for editing.

Word or Scrivener?
Scrivener, baby!

Favorite Genre you've written in?
YA contemporary.

Favorite Genre you'd like to try?
MG contemporary. (Familial, delicious!)