Character, Writing

When a Plotter Attempts to Pants

It’s been a while since I posted a writing update here on the blog. That’s partially due to it being summer and my schedule changing drastically with my kids being off school and driving them to various camps, partially due to more freelance work, and partially due to drafting a new project. That’s where today’s post comes in.

A couple of months ago, I was looking through my idea list to see what I might want to write next. I keep a whole file of ideas, and usually when I’m ready to write something new, there’s one that jumps out at me. That’s certainly what happened this time as well, and I expected that I’d proceed along my normal system, plotting out the story in Scrivener so that when it came time to draft, I could set myself a deadline and whip out a draft I could then revise into shape. This drafting system  has worked for me for the past several manuscripts, and it serves me well as I HATE drafting.

Unfortunately, this manuscript just hasn’t cooperated. I’m not usually a write-by-hand sort of person, but for some reason, I pulled out a notebook and started writing down miscellaneous notes about the manuscript. I ended up with six pages of random notes that did not make up an overall plot but were a lot of interesting ideas. And I had no idea who I wanted the character to be. I brainstormed with my husband and kids, and they gave me some fun ideas. Then I signed up for One Stop for Writers and went through the character building tool to further figure out my main character’s motivations, fears, and obstacles. But when I sat down to try and plot the actual manuscript the way I always had, I just couldn’t see it. I was coming up blank.

I talked with my agent about what I was considering writing, and I wasn’t able to articulate the story well with her either. She said that it sounded intriguing, and her recommendation was to just start writing it and see how it went. As a plotter, I found this idea intimidating. Quite honestly, I’ve more often gone into drafting knowing my complete plot and learning my characters along the way instead of the other way around, but I decided to give it a shot.

I started drafting three weeks ago, and it’s been interesting drafting without all my scenes laid out. Even though I hadn’t plotted everything, there were certain points I knew internally my character was working toward, and so my scenes have been leading in those directions. But I’ve also surprised myself with a few subplots I didn’t originally have in my six pages of notes, and I think they’ll add depth to the story.

However, yesterday I tipped over 27,000 words, which is about one-third of the way toward my goal for the first draft, and I reached a point where I felt like I could no longer keep drafting without knowing where I was heading more specifically. So, while this experiment with pantsing has been interesting, I’m now going to regroup and see if I can develop a true plan for the rest of the manuscript based on what I’ve written so far.

Overall, I think it was good to just write for a while, but now I need to return to my outlining ways :).

Have you ever thrown out your drafting system and tried something new when starting a new project? How did it work out for you?


Character, Reading, Writing

On Sequels Ruining the Original

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while, ever since an eagerly awaited sequel came in the mail this summer and from the first few pages had me going, “Whaaat?” I’m not going to call out this book specifically, which is part of the reason I waited so long to post about it (since I do list everything I read here on the blog).

In any case, I really loved the first book of this duology, enough that it has a review here, and I even pre-ordered the sequel so I wouldn’t forget about it. The first book left off on a total cliffhanger, but almost immediately the second book veered off in this completely disturbing direction. The further I read, the less engaged I was with the main characters. Based on everything they’d experienced in the first book and how the author had set them up, I found myself checking out more and more. By the end of the second book, the first book was completely ruined for me too, because with the cliffhanger ending of the first, you really can’t keep one without the other–a real bummer!

I’ve noticed this sequel issue with more than books. I had another experience recently that I wish I could erase, and I will totally call this one out. It was the musical “Love Never Dies,” which is a sequel to “Phantom of the Opera.” I love Phantom. I sang one of the songs as a solo in our senior showcase in high school, and the stage production is always amazing. I was skeptical about a sequel, but I should have avoided it entirely because it was extremely disturbing on so many levels. Christine, Raoul, and the Phantom all acted in ways that seemed at odds with their behavior in the first musical, and there were plot points that really warped events in the timeline of “Phantom” as well. If you have the opportunity to see “Love Never Dies,” DON’T. (This might be the first negative review I’ve ever written on my blog, but I’m still traumatized a month after watching it.)

Finally, while it isn’t exactly a sequel, I recently stopped watching the second season of a very popular TV show for the same reason the first book I mentioned bothered me so much. I binge-watched the first season. The characters were engaging, and the mystery kept me wanting to discover the solution. As I began watching the second season, I was increasingly disappointed. The mystery wasn’t so believable, and the characters started making decisions that didn’t line up with how they’d been established in the first season. It finally reached the point where I just didn’t want to follow their journeys anymore.

So why this rant about sucky sequels? As writers, I think we must be careful about the promises we make to readers in our books, and if we do write sequels or series, we must be consistent. As I mentioned above, what turned me off most was when the characters were inconsistent. I understand characters might change, but if they’re behavior goes completely off the rails, you have to make me believe it or I will check out as a reader/viewer.

I’ve never written a sequel myself, but that’s partially why I felt it was important to document these thoughts. Perhaps somewhere down the line an opportunity will arise where I’ll have a story that isn’t finished after one book. If it does, I want to remember the importance of character constancy and maintaining the essence of the first book. I think those are the keys to turning readers into true fans.

Have you had any experiences with sequels that have turned you off a book or other media series?

Character, Reviews, Writing, Young Adult Review

YA Review: NOT IF I SAVE YOU FIRST by Ally Carter + Bonus Writing Tips

When I first read the Publishers Marketplace description for NOT IF I SAVE YOU FIRST–a gender-swapped YA Romancing the Stone–and that it was by Ally Carter, I didn’t even need to know anything more about it to want this book as soon as it came out. Lucky for me, Ally Carter had St. Louis on her tour schedule. I actually met her five years ago when she came through for PERFECT SCOUNDRELS, but I was so unprepared then for the megastar that Ally is. This time I expected the large crowd of teen girls still asking questions about Gallagher Girls even years after the series has ended. I thoroughly enjoyed the event and didn’t mind waiting an hour to get the book signed even though I strategically sat where I thought I’d get in the front of the line and then they sent it in a completely different direction. (Okay, so maybe I was a bit annoyed, but you know what? Between getting there early for a seat and waiting in that line, I’d read nearly half the book by the time I got up there :).)

Anyway, I am going to give you a review, but first, for my writer friends, I jotted down a few notes from Ally that I thought I’d share.

  • She said there’s always a point where her characters can rush in and be heroes or call the proper authorities, which is also a point where her book can be interesting or her characters can be smart. She finds a way for both to work.
  • When asked about voice, she pointed out that she used different tenses for her different series–first past in Gallagher Girls, third past in Heist Society, and first present in Embassy Row. (I thought this was interesting as I hadn’t particularly noticed.)
  • Her first drafts are basically a screenplay–outlines with dialogue. (As much as I hate first drafts, this really appeals to me!)
  • When I told her I’m a querying writer, she said her best advice is that you want the right “yes,” not just any “yes.”

Now that I’ve gushed about Ally and the event, I’ll move on to the book itself.

Not If I Save You First by Ally CarterMaddie thought she and Logan would be friends forever. But when your dad is a Secret Service agent and your best friend is the president’s son, sometimes life has other plans.

Before she knows it, Maddie’s dad is dragging her to a cabin in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness and into a totally different life.

No phone.
No Internet.
And not a single word from Logan.
Maddie tells herself it’s okay. After all, she’s the most popular girl for twenty miles in any direction. (She’s also the only girl for twenty miles in any direction.) She has wood to cut and weapons to bedazzle. Her life is full.

Until Logan shows up six years later . . .
And Maddie wants to kill him.
But before that can happen, an assailant appears out of nowhere, knocking Maddie down a cliff and dragging Logan to some unknown fate. Maddie knows she could turn back and get help. But the weather is turning and the terrain will only get more treacherous, the animals more deadly.

Maddie still really wants to kill Logan. But she has to save him first.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The setting – And it’s only because I don’t have to be there. It’s funny, because Ally said she decided to set a book in Alaska because she went on a cruise with her family, and during a tour the guide told her even the ground water had poison in it. I didn’t even need that to convince me I never wanted to return after our own family cruise. The cold in the middle of June was enough (sorry, Alaskans!). Anyway, there’s a letter Maddie writes to Logan that perfectly sums up why this setting is so perfect for a YA thriller.

Well, [Dad] brought me to a place where he leaves me alone all the time and where pretty much even the AIR can kill you.


Things that can kill you in Alaska:





-falling trees

-more animals


-the common cold




-poorly treated burns, cuts, and scrapes


I may definitely die of boredom.

I’m not going to tell you how many of those she ends up using in the book.

2. The stakes – Going along with the setting, there were so many opportunities for the circumstances to get worse for Maddie and Logan, and the great thing about it was: they couldn’t call for help. So that point I mentioned before, about Ally Carter wanting her characters to be interesting and smart? When you’re in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, it’s pretty hard to call 9-1-1.

3. Maddie herself – Maddie is such an awesome character. She knows how to survive in the Alaskan wilderness, but she’s still a girlie girl (which is why she has a bedazzled hatchet). In addition, she knows how to use those stereotypes about teenage girls against the men who intend to hurt her and Logan. She’s smart, resourceful, and strong–exactly the sort of girl the bad guys will underestimate.

4. The twists – I love good twists, and this book is full of them. There were several that took me completely by surprise and others that I didn’t see coming until right before they did. Very well done!

5. The dual POV – I really liked hearing from both Maddie and Logan in this story, getting both sides of what they were feeling. It was complicated but also completely believable how they each approached both their relationship and the situation.

So, to sum up, NOT IF I SAVE YOU FIRST is another fantastic book from Ally Carter, and I highly recommend you pick it up. Just a note that this one is a stand-alone. Also, if Ally’s coming through your city on tour, take the time to go meet her! She’s funny and lovely in person.

Character, Writing

What I Learned Re-Reading the First Manuscript I Queried

I’m going to be completely honest here. I’m not really referring to the first manuscript I ever queried. Because that one was ten years ago, and it was this crazy adult time-travel Christian romance that I didn’t even let anyone read before I queried it (I know! Rookie move!). I had no idea what I was doing, and so I don’t consider that for real. What I’m talking about here is one you can see here on my blog–THE MODERN CAVEBOY’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING BATS, BULLIES AND BILLIONAIRES.

I wrote this book like seven (or eight?) years ago now, and I started querying it on July 11, 2011. So when you see those milestone posts on my blog about how many years I’ve been querying, it’s this manuscript that started it all. The reason I’m re-reading it is because I’ve decided to self-publish a copy as a Christmas gift for my nine-year-old. I mean, it’s officially shelved for any real publishing purposes, but my son will love it.

I thought it would be interesting to share what I learned about my growth as a writer while reading this old manuscript. Overall, I still thought the story was fun, and I got a lot of things right, but the issues I spotted are issues many new writers encounter, even with the help of critique partners and beta readers. For most writers, it just takes time to learn the craft and trust your gut enough do what’s right for your manuscript (you’ll understand what I mean by that second part when you get to point number four). And for the lucky few who get published on that first manuscript, I salute you!

1. I hardly used any interiority.

There are action beats and dialogue tags, but if I really wanted to whip this manuscript into shape, I’d add a lot more thought from my main character. There’s some interiority (and if you don’t understand what I mean by that, check out Mary Kole’s post here), but I wanted so much more emotion and explanation from him.

2. So many questions!

When my main character does have interiority, he’s constantly asking questions. It’s okay to use questions sometimes, but in general it’s better to rephrase them into statements. They’re stronger and more active.

3. The story is so plot-focused there’s not much depth to the characters.

This goes along with the first point but also applies to the supporting characters. I gave each of the characters one or two things. The main character has an anger management problem. His sister is brainy. His best friend is bubbly and supportive. But other than that? There’s not much. I could’ve done so much more with it.

4. The early chapters are rushed.

I did some minor edits to the manuscript as I read through it–nothing major, just cleaning it up as I went. When I got to chapter six, I felt like the story had skipped way ahead. And I know why. I was new to working with readers for this manuscript, and the critique I received was to ruthlessly cut five chapters.

So, here’s the thing about that critique. I was new to critiques, and it sounded like good advice. In all actuality, the sentiment behind it–that I was starting in the wrong place and my pacing in the early chapters was too slow–was valid. However, in retrospect, just all-out cutting those chapters was not the right thing to do. As a more experienced writer, I’ve learned how to accept a critique, examine what the actual problem is, and find the right solution for my manuscript. Sometimes it’s exactly what the other writer has suggested, but often it’s an entirely different solution that I come up with–because I know my manuscript better than anyone. But as a new writer I didn’t understand that, and this manuscript suffered as a result. It wasn’t that other writer’s fault. She spotted the problem. I just didn’t apply the critique correctly.

My point with this is not to ignore critiques, just to incorporate them in a way that’s right for your manuscript. Because when it comes to pacing and story structure, you need to ensure your story makes sense and the reader feels grounded. As for my son? I’m sure he’ll just go with it :).

5. There’s too much summarizing.

There are a lot of passages where I summarize what happens instead of actively showing it, and that takes away from the experience. It still gets the point across, but I know it can be so much better. I think this is another area where as a more experienced writer I can tell the difference between when I should tell vs. when I should show.

6. Who’s talking??

This manuscript features three kids on an adventure, and in an effort to avoid too many saids, I apparently just deleted a bunch of dialogue tags. But as I was reading through, there were several times I wondered which character was supposed to be talking. If there are more than two characters, you need something, whether it’s a dialogue tag, an action beat, or an internal thought to signify who’s speaking. Even when I did have beats or tags, they were often after the dialogue when they should have been before. I did a lot of shifting for those. There’s not a set formula for this, but it does need to be clear who’s talking. I just try to find a good balance of tags, beats, and thoughts in a conversation.

Could I go back and fix these issues if I really wanted to? Sure. But as fun as it was to go back and read this manuscript, I don’t have any passion for it anymore, and that’s a necessary ingredient to whip a project into shape. So for now, I will just anticipate the joy on my son’s face when he opens his present.

Have you ever gone back and read your first project? If so, what did you learn about how your writing has improved?

Character, Critiquing, Querying, Revising, Writing

New England SCBWI Conference: So Worth the Trip!

This past weekend I traveled to Springfield, Massachusetts, for the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Spring Conference. It wasn’t my first SCBWI Conference. I’ve attended the Missouri conference multiple years, and it’s been very valuable. However, the IMG_2576New England conference is significantly larger and offered the draw of my long-time critique partner, Kip Wilson, who I’d never met in person–until now!!!

Here we are, together at last. We had a fantastic time, staying up way too late discussing our various projects, the conference, and the angsty “what should I do about this” kind of conversations that take much longer over the back-and-forth of email :).

I met a ton of other amazing writers and published authors I’ve chatted with over Twitter as well, including several whose books I’ve highlighted here on the blog. I mentioned a few of those in my blogiversary post earlier this week. I made a point of picking up signed copies of MONSTROUS by MarcyKate Connolly and THE SECRETS WE KEEP by Trisha Leaver to give away. There’s still time to get in on that. Just click here. I also met many new writers and illustrators whose careers I will now be following.

So, on to what I learned at the conference. In a nutshell: fantastic presenters with exceptional content. But here are some of the highlights.

  • Editor Aubrey Poole, speaking on killer openings: Your first line should present a question in a way that is unique to your story. Maybe that’s a voice the reader has to hear more of, a spoiler missing critical details, two facts contradictory enough to intrigue, or a statement that sets the stage for the entire story. Most of all, don’t be boring!
  • Author Erin Dionne on critique
    • On receiving critique: You have to know the core of your story before asking for feedback—not what it’s about but the heart of the story and what you consider sacred.
    • On giving critique: Grammar and wordsmithing are important but not your number one job as a critiquer. Also, ask where the person is in the process and what level of critique they want.
  • Agent Ammi-Joan Paquette on taming the synopsis: One of your primary goals in a synopsis is to avoid questions. You want to bring in your internal story arc in addition to the plot; you may have to go out of your way to include it.
  • Author AC Gaughen on antagonists: The antagonist is not necessarily the villain. It is something that gets in your character’s way; it doesn’t have to be a person but anything, even themselves. Stories are most satisfying when we can see the character arc of the antagonist.
  • Author Jo Knowles on characters: Dig deeper for what your character really wants. Try to go five stages deep. Also, secondary and tertiary characters give complexity to your main character and help establish the world.
  • Author Padma Venkatraman on voice: Go with your heart and your unique pair of ears—or eyes, because most of the time we’re reading. As you begin to write, listen to your voice. We all have one voice. Give yourself that space so only you can write that novel.

I’ve already started applying many of these tips in the manuscript I’m revising (that one that won’t let me go). I shared a few others on the #NESCBWI16 hashtag. I gained so much insight from talking one-on-one with other writers, listening to the keynote speakers, and participating in the more intensive sessions. I highly recommend this conference if you’re in the New England area or have the resources to travel. If not, find an SCBWI conference near you. It’s worth the investment of your time and money!


Character, Writing

On Balancing the Urge to Slap a Character or Root for Them

I read a number of frustrating books over my vacation, but before you think that means I didn’t like them, I’ll point out that I wrote a review about one of them earlier this week :). Why was that particular book frustrating? Because the girl kept missing out on opportunities where she could have fixed a particular problem, and yet I completely understood why she did.

I just finished reading another book where I was even more frustrated with the main character. In fact, I wanted to reach into the book and slap her. Ok, I’m not actually that violent (unless you ask my brother circa the 1980s), so maybe I’d just shake her and say, “Come on, girl! Get over yourself!” But at the same time, I was still rooting for her to figure things out and finally achieve her happy ending. I wanted the guy to forgive her for all the times she’d messed up, and the author did an excellent job of making me buy into both characters enough to believe that could happen.

In both of these examples, the key was making me care about the character and continue to root for them even when I disagreed with their actions. It’s funny how sometimes what you’re reading validates what you’re writing. I’m in the midst of revising from a second round of comments on my WIP, and I was trying to decide how to address a couple of readers’ reactions to a particular character. Reading these books solidified for me that the character’s actions aren’t necessarily the issue; it’s whether readers will still root for him. They can be ready to deliver a good slap as long as they’ll forgive him in the end.

So now the trick is to ensure I pull that off. I’m still working on it :). But at least I have some good examples as a reference!

Who are some of your favorite frustrating characters?

Character, Revising, Writing

3 Tips for Revising One Character At A Time

You’re probably thinking: Michelle, you already wrote this post. Well, halfway through the process I talked about how helpful it had been for me to focus on the boy POV in order to figure out his character arc. Now that I’ve finished both characters, I’ve pulled my thoughts together and have some specific tips on how to get the most out of revising one character at a time.

1. Completely separate the POVs.

This is easier if you’re using Scrivener or a similar program (is there a similar program?) rather than Word, which would require a lot of cutting and pasting, but it could be done either way. The problem with not separating them out completely before you start is that it makes it hard to do step No. 2, which is:

2. Keep your eyes only on the POV you’re revising.

While it was confusing at times and I know will result in some issues I need to fix now that I’m putting the two POVs back together, I refused to peek at one POV while I was revising the other. Why? Because I didn’t want what one character was thinking to influence the other’s thoughts. I had to draft this sucker linearly. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had any idea what was going on. But as a result, the characters’ thoughts intruded on each other’s scenes.

For example, I had a scene where the boy came up with a strategy where he’d tell the girl a story to get her to trust him. When I switched to her point of view, she started thinking about why this story made her trust him. However, when I revised with only her scenes, I realized that his story would have the opposite effect. After what she’d been through, it wouldn’t make her trust him at all–but she would let him think that she did. That’s why I needed to stay completely in one POV for the revision, so I wouldn’t get caught up in what the other character was thinking and confuse the two.

3. Do this as early in the revision process as you can. I suggest the second draft.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I find that the more drafts in I get, the more tied I am to the story. I’m much more likely to make sweeping changes with an early draft. (I’m referring to self-directed changes here, not those from outside feedback.) When I used this process for my other dual-POV novel, it was around draft four or five. That was way too late. The characters were too set by then. It was still beneficial, but I made only minor changes. With this WIP, I know my characters are going to stand out as individuals because of the care I’ve taken to tackle them first.

Now that I’m merging the two POVs back together, I have a more solid understanding of where my characters are coming from, and I’m not tempted to let them bleed into each other. I’m so glad I made them a priority. What strategies have you used when writing multiple POVs?

Character, Revising, Writing

When You Have Two POVs, Who Is the MC?

For my non-writer friends who follow the blog or maybe even some newer writers:

POV = point of view       MC = main character

Now that we have that out of the way …. I read a post on Jami Gold’s blog earlier this week titled “Should Our Protagonist Be in the First Scene?” It was a great discussion of cases when you might make an exception and begin your story with a secondary character. But it made me think of a tangential topic related to last week’s post on revising one character at a time:

When your story has two POVs, who is the MC (or protagonist)? And as a result, whose POV should take priority for the first scene?

I suppose the answer to both of these questions is: it depends.

But I’ll tackle the MC question first. If the story has two alternating, equal POVs, then they should be equal protagonists. I found this concept very well illustrated in THE GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME by Jennifer E. Smith, which was a perfect book for me to read as I was about to tackle revisions. Each character has his/her own clearly defined issues and desires at the beginning of the book. Even while their journeys are connected, they are distinct. This is definitely the case in my WIP and what I had to work on as I was revising the male POV. However, there might be other books where the POVs aren’t equal. If the book is weighted toward one character more than the other, then obviously that POV is the MC.

If there is a clear MC, then really you’re back to answering the question in Jami’s post, and she’s already handled it excellently. What I was trying to wrap my head around was whether it was ok to start my WIP with the boy POV, and I think that’s because I was still stuck in that mindset that the girl was really the MC. But if I follow my own argument above–that the two characters have equal POVs and so are equal protagonists–then I can start with either character and I’m introducing the reader to one of the MCs.

So if that’s the case, then I’m back to the age-old question of where is the best place to start the story. Who does the reader need to hear from first? What information needs to be conveyed in that first scene to draw the reader in? Which character will have the most impact? I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this question. We’ll see if my critique partners agree once I finish these revisions :).

Have you ever struggled with multiple POVs and figuring out who’s the main protagonist? Or if they’re equal?

Character, Revising, Writing

Revising One Character At A Time–Plus A Giveaway!

Revision time!!!

Yes, that does deserve multiple exclamation points because I love to revise. I let this manuscript sit the self-imposed month before even doing a read-through. What surprised me as I was reading was that the part of the manuscript I struggled with the most as I was drafting actually isn’t half-bad. However, there was a very messy plot point I needed to clear up, and I wasn’t sure how to approach it.

Normally my process is to make notes during the read-through (still did that) and then start plowing through revisions from the beginning. But this plot issue was too convoluted for my usual method. At first I started jumping around, making little fixes in various scenes. But then I realized the plot problem was rooted in a character issue–because in the first draft, the boy was really just a foil for the girl. You see, the whole reason I included his point of view initially was to reveal some important information in the opening chapters the girl didn’t know. He didn’t deserve to be an afterthought, a boy without his own story to tell. I knew it was a problem, but I couldn’t deal with it in the draft. At that stage, my goal was just to power through to the end.

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 11.20.27 AMSo here I was, ready to revise but not sure how to bring him into the spotlight, until–ta da–light bulb moment. In the past when I had two POVs, I did a round of revisions where I focused on one character at a time to check voice, character arc, etc., but it was later in the process. For this manuscript, I realized it needed to happen in the very first round of revision. Essentially, now that I had a draft, I needed to revise each character’s scenes as separate novellas, if you will. Thanks to Scrivener, it’s super-easy to move scenes around. I grouped all of the boy’s scenes together, and after I’m finished revising both, I’ll put them back in the correct order. (Yes, this is a screenshot from my Scrivener file, but I don’t think it really gives much away …)

I just finished revising the boy’s last scene. It was a bit confusing at times since I was changing plot points in the boy’s scenes that I will later have to fix in the girl’s scenes, but I have a much better understanding of who he is, what he wants, what he’s willing to do to get it, and ultimately what he’s willing to sacrifice. Only about half of that was present in the draft. It’s likely I’ll do another round like this later, when I’m more concerned about voice than plot and character arc. In any case, I think it’s going to make this draft so much stronger than if I’d worked through the story linearly, alternating between the two characters.

Because I’m in such a good mood–and also because I haven’t made time to write any reviews the last few weeks–I thought I’d give away a couple of books from my Scholastic Warehouse Sale haul. In honor of the boy POV I’ve been revising, I’ll do a middle grade book told from a boy’s POV and a young adult book told in alternating boy/girl POVs. I really enjoyed both of these books but just didn’t get around to reviews. They are: THE HEARTBREAK MESSENGER by Alexander Vance and THE GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME by Jennifer E. Smith. Oh, do you need to know what these are about before you enter? Here you go:

The Heartbreak Messenger by Alexander Vance

Quentin never asked to be the Heartbreak Messenger, it just kind of happened. The valuable communication service he offers is simple: he delivers break-up messages. For a small fee, he will deliver that message to your soon-to-be ex-girlfriend. If you order the deluxe package, he’ll even throw in some flowers and a box of chocolates. You know, to soften the blow…

At first, Quentin’s entrepreneurial brainchild is surprisingly successful. But as he interacts with clients, message recipients, and his long-time best friend, Abigail, it doesn’t take long for him to wonder if his own heart will remain intact. Quentin discovers that the game of love and the emotions that go with it are as complicated as they come–even for an almost innocent bystander.

The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. SmithLucy and Owen meet somewhere between the tenth and eleventh floors of a New York City apartment building, on an elevator rendered useless by a citywide blackout. After they’re rescued, they spend a single night together, wandering the darkened streets and marveling at the rare appearance of stars above Manhattan. But once the power is restored, so is reality. Lucy soon moves to Edinburgh with her parents, while Owen heads out west with his father.

Lucy and Owen’s relationship plays out across the globe as they stay in touch through postcards, occasional e-mails, and — finally — a reunion in the city where they first met.

Hmm … both of these make a nice Valentine’s Day tie-in as well :). To make it fun, you can choose to enter for one or both of these books. Just click on the Rafflecopter here, and it will ask you. When I go in to pick winners, if the first person it randomly chooses wants both, he/she will be the only winner. If the first person only wants one of the books, there will be a second winner for the other book. Sound good? Happy writing, everyone!

Note: This giveaway has ended.

Character, Writing

How Do You Pull Off A Successful Unreliable Narrator?

I just finished reading a certain best-selling book that included an unreliable narrator, and it got me to thinking about how you pull one of these off. It’s no easy task. I tried it. Unsuccessfully. I ended up rewriting the manuscript a different way, and as much as I liked the idea of the unreliable narrator, the MS was better without it.

Here’s a funny side note. Agents and editors are always saying they want unreliable narrators, but it’s not like you can tell them in your query that you have an unreliable narrator. That would defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it? They’d already go into it not trusting the character. Hmm … I wonder how you’d go about conveying that you’re giving them what they want without giving away the twist.

Anyway, back to my point. I’ve read several books where the author successfully pulled off an unreliable narrator, and I’ve pinpointed a few ways I think they make it work. But I’d love to hear if you know of more!

Written Accounts

Having the character put something in writing seems like the easiest way for them to lie to the reader, and it’s also the tactic I’ve seen used most often with an unreliable narrator. It’s still tricky, though, for that very reason: it’s been done. Maybe not too often yet, but I can think of at least two recent examples–one young adult and one adult–that used written accounts to mislead the reader. There’s something about a personal account that feels true to a reader, even though subconsciously you probably realize that the character doesn’t have to be writing the truth, you don’t have a reason to think they aren’t–until the author drops the bomb on you at some point in the book.

Traumatic Past

Here’s another person you can’t entirely believe: someone who doesn’t even know himself/herself. And yet this type of story still takes some masterful planning to pull off. You can’t just plug in a blank spot in the character’s memory. And for it to work, you can’t be outside the character, showing the reader what is different in the world the character sees versus the world everyone else sees. For the reader to trust the character, we have to be lost with them. While the first unreliable narrator is much more of an external authorial device, like “Ta-da! You didn’t see that coming!”, this one drags you in deep so that you feel more like we–the character and the reader–didn’t see that coming. It’s like the “Sixth Sense” effect. If you haven’t seen that movie, I’m sorry, but I think it’s been out there long enough I shouldn’t be spoiling it.

Deep Backstory

I wasn’t sure what to call this one, but sometimes the information the character withholds is so far in his/her past that it is understandable he/she wouldn’t think about it in the present. Or maybe the character has been trained to bury any thought of it (say, a secret identity). Is it frustrating to the reader when you get to the twist? Maybe, but I don’t mind a good twist if the author is able to explain why the character concealed it from the reader. This one is especially tough to pull off without leaving the reader feeling tricked, though. I’ve read a few that do it well. I’d tell you what they are, but then I’d spoil the twist :).

Other Ideas?

What other tactics have you seen work? I’m not looking for specific titles because then I’d know they’re unreliable! I’m looking more for generalizations like the above. Because maybe I’ll try an unreliable narrator again someday, in a story where he/she would be a fit …