Issue #153 View in browser
September 11, 2020

What's in this newsletter?

  • Recent Goings On
  • For the DenNerds: Witchlands Character Art
  • For the Daydreamers: How I Write a Novel, Part 3
  • The Mighty Pens Return!
  • Upcoming Events

Recent Goings On

Today, 9/11, will forever be a hard day in the US. Like many people from my generation, I remember exactly where I was when it happened (third period Chemistry), and that moment is burned into my brain more clearly than any other memory from 19 years ago.

But 9/11 has a new meaning for me now because one year ago today, little Cricket was an 8-cell embryo transferred into my uterus. I had been doing IVF for a year, and the Frenchman and I had been trying to start a family for 6.

I named all the embryos we transferred because I wanted something to focus on when I "thought sticky thoughts." Just because they put the embryo in the right place doesn't mean it will grow, and I had already decided that if this one didn't stick, I was done trying. I couldn't handle the heartbreak again, and there are other ways to start a family.

While doped up on the Valium they give me pre-operation, I heard a cricket singing...

And thus her name was imagined. Now here we are, a year later with a 3-month old who thinks naps are for losers and has recently discovered that screaming is FUN. My poor dogs live in a constant state of anxiety.

I would love to say that having Cricket has erased all the pain and grief that came before, but that would be a lie. And I wish I could say, I wouldn't change anything it took to get here, but that would be a lie too.

Becoming a mom is hard. You don't really know who you are after giving birth, and I definitely don't know who this new Susan is yet.

What I can say with absolute certainty is that Cricket is the greatest thing that ever happened to me. That while the sleepless nights and no childcare and crying meltdowns definitely suck -- just like everyone warned me they would! -- they are tempered by what I went through to get here.

It was not easy to write Witchshadow through all of this, but ultimately the timing of that book could not have been more perfect. At its heart, it's a book about families. About the way we view and interpret the parental figures in our lives -- something I never could have fully understood until I became a mom.

And ah, there she is now, waking up from her nap (WHY WON'T SHE SLEEP FOR MORE THAN 30 MINUTES AT A TIME, MY GOD). I shall wrap this up and say, Thank you for sharing this journey with me. Most of you have been here for years now, following me every step of the way, through books and infertility, through super highs and super lows.

I can't tell you how much that means. Cricket is so lucky to have such a a huge, huge, loving family from all around the world! Thank you.

What I'm Playing

(omg, I'm obsessed and love that the quests are so short. It's like it was made for new moms!)

What I'm Reading

(I haven't the bandwidth for Real Books, but I've been on a game design kick lately. This is my fave art book yet.)

What I'm Listening To

(This album has been sung a LOT in my house lately because I know ALL THE WORDS and baby needs songs to sleep.)

For the DenNerds:
Witchlands Character Art!

If you haven't seen on my Instagram yet, I'm sharing Witchlands character art! So far, 2 of 7 have been revealed...


Backstory: I am an uber Dragon Age fan. As y'all likely know by now. And my favorite fan artist is a gal named Nipuni whose art I have been stalking for years. I'd wanted to commission art from her for years, but I was so intimidated (she's so famous in the DAI fandom!).

Then it finally occurred to me last fall that, like, I was kinda famous too? And I could always just ask; the worst she could say was no.

Obviously she did NOT say no, and I have ended up with the most amazing Witchlands art. More amazing than I could have ever imagined.

Below I'm sharing 3 of the illustrations -- Aeduan, Ryber, and Merik -- but stay tuned for 4 more!! Every POV character in the series is coming to life through her incredible illustrations.

And, for those of you savvy fans, you'll likely catch lots of little hidden symbols in each image.

(P.S. Don't share Merik, please! He's not getting revealed to the general public until next week. ๐Ÿ˜‰)

For the Daydreamers:
How I Write a Novel, Part 3: Creating Characters

This week, I'll be covering another meaty subject -- meaty enough that writers better than I have written entire books on it.

And BECAUSE it is so meaty, I'm splitting it into two newsletters. This week will tackle the basics of who your main character is, and the next issue will dive into character growth.

I also want to reiterate my two ongoing disclaimers:

  1. There are as many ways to write a novel as there are people in the world, and there is no wrong way. The purpose of this newsletter series is to simply show you what I do.
  2. If you aren't feeling creative right now, that is 100% okay. The world is kind of a mess (or majorly a mess), and that weighs on everyone directly and indirectly. You can always start your novel a year from now. Or ten years from now. There's no right or wrong time.

Now, let's get started with this month's topic: character creation!

Read the rest of this series: 

Part 1: Ideas + Research

Part 2: Building New Worlds

Bonus Lesson: Geography & Magic Systems

Bonus Lesson: Creating Picture Books

Bonus Lesson: How to Tell a Story

Whose Story Is It?

When I start sitting down to really dig into a new novel idea, I always spend the most time on character.

Yes, character often goes hand-in-hand with the world-building (we are products of our world, aren't we?), but ultimately character is the most important piece of the novel-writing puzzle. Why? Because without a character, you have no story.

You can have a great world, but if there's no one to fill it...then big whoopteedoo.

You can have an epic plot, but if there's no one to make the choices that drive the action...then again, big whoopteedoo.

It should therefore come as no surprise that I will spend months, even years developing characters. They make or break the story for me. If I don't connect and hear a character's voice, then I know now is not the time to start writing!

The BIGGEST mistake I've made in the past was writing books before I could "hear" a character's voice.

Or rather, I should say attempting to write because what always followed was a lot of wasted words and heartache. Two examples that come to mind are A Dawn Most Wicked and Sightwitch. Both were novellas for characters in my Something Strange & Deadly and Witchlands series, respectively, and in THEORY, they seemed easy. Sure, I could write stories about two secondary characters, right? I knew those characters, didn't I?

HA. It's one thing to write about how someone perceives a character; it's quite another to have to get into their head. Sure, I could understand Daniel and Ryber on a surface level, but I'd never actually heard their voices.

No surprise, those two novellas had more false starts and wasted words than any project I've ever written (except for maybe Windwitch, but we'll get to that beast below).

What they both needed was simmer time. A LOT more simmer time. With A Dawn Most Wicked,  I wasn't able to take that time. And though I'm supremely proud of the story that came out in the end, I could have saved myself so much misery if I'd been able to wait a few years before drafting it.

With Sightwitch, I was able to wait. And guess what! Three years after I first started working on it, Ryber's voice came to me. It was so, so vastly different than what I'd first imagined it would be, and WHOA. That version of Sightwitch became one of the most joyful writing experiences of my life.

But Sooz, you say, how do I know when I haven't got the voice? Well, here are a few telltale signs:

  • You hate drafting. You can't connect to the story.
  • Right away, you don't know what the character would do because what works in an outline or on a worksheet is feeling forced once you begin drafting.
  • Readers tell you the story is flat or distant.

Any time I encounter those issues early in a draft, I know I've got a voice problem. And for me, the only solution is more simmer time.

Unfortunately, a story isn't JUST about finding the voice. You also have to consider who is driving the action and who has something to lose.

One piece of the puzzle might come before the other: you might hear a voice first and then need to sort out who the person really is. Or you might have a great, active character all mapped out...but need to wait until you hear the voice.

Right now, I'm working on The Luminaries (which the Twitter-venture is based on!) and though I can very clearly hear Jay's voice...and I even dabbled for a few pages in his voice, it's not ultimately HIS book.

Why? Because he doesn't drive the action like Winnie does. It's her choices, good or bad (let's be real: mostly bad) that drive the story. And so although I hear Jay's voice more clearly than hers right now, it's still got to be Winnie who is the main character.

This leaves me with two choices for how to proceed:

  1. Adjust my envisioned story so that it's Jay's tale instead and he is the main plot driver.
  2. Wait until I hear Winnie's voice as clearly as his.

I'm going with option #2 because that best serves what I want The Luminaries to be -- and what the preexisting fans of the Twitter-venture are expecting!

One thing to consider: the point of view (POV) character or narrator might NOT be the main character.

Look at Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. Both detective series are told by trusty sidekicks, but the stars of the show -- the people propelling the actual story -- are the detectives themselves.

One of my favorite books of all time, The King of Attolia, uses this technique to incredible effect. Sure, the narrator is an important character with a fabulous arc, but ultimately the MAIN character is someone else entirely.

How Will Your Story Feel?

This is important: what do you want your story to be? What is the feel you're trying to create? What is the book-shaped thing at the end meant to look like?

I truly believe that knowing this is more important than anything else you might prepare pre-drafting. Because no matter how deep into the writers-blockage weeds you get, how lost on your character or world or plot, if you know what the story's heart is, you will always find the right course again.

And waiting until you know the answer to this is critical. Plot points are easy to come up with. We are creative people! We can all conjure a thousand twists and turns. Character work sheets are easy to fill out. Again, we're creatives! I can make up backstory all day.

But hearing a character...knowing the choices they'd make...that's hard! It requires time and patience. And yet character is what ultimately gives a book its overall feel. How much they grow, how connected readers are to them -- that is what people will remember after they put something down.

For example: I love the show Psych, but Psych wouldn't be Psych without Shawn and Gus as the leads. Any other two detectives would have led to something completely different. It might have also been a good show, but it wouldn't have had the same feel.

Like, I'm currently rewatching the entire series and I remember almost none of the mysteries. Yet I have never forgotten how Gus and Shawn made me feel, or how much that show made me laugh.

Here's a fun exercise for you: imagine your story's cover.

Like, pretend it's on the shelf. What would the cover look like? Don't worry about market, don't worry about what other covers look like.

What is the cover YOU would pick up off the shelf? Or even better: what is the cover thirteen-year-old you would have picked up off the shelf? What is the image that would have drawn you in (because let's be real: those images will still call to you!)? How does that image evoke the story that is waiting inside?

A picture is worth a thousand words, so imagining (or even making!) that cover allows you to distill exactly what you want your book to be. In turn, you can make sure that all the various pieces of your story -- ESPECIALLY CHARACTER -- are contributing to that feel.

I made this cover for The Luminaries, and while you might hate it, that's fine. It reminds ME of the feelings I want the story to leave readers with. It reminds me of the books I loved in junior high, and guess what: that particular story requires Winnie to be the lead! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Many writers I know will also rely on playlists to create the moods for their books. I certainly do (and you can find them on my spotify!), and it's a GREAT way to tap into and remind myself of that feeling I want to evoke.

The same goes for Pinterest boards. Gathering images that convey a mood will help you get through the stickiest spots in your story.

Here's a story on that: when I was editing Truthwitch and it was time for copyedits (i.e. almost done!), a critique partner read the first 50 pages...and they were like, "You've lost the heart of this story."

See, this person had read the book as a first draft. They knew the feeling that I was going for -- basically "El Dorado" by TSFH in book form. But through allllllllllllll the years of revising and rewriting and editing that book, I lost the heart along the way. My characters no longer had the spark in that opening page that they'd once had.

So I put on my playlist and went back to my first draft. Ultimately, what got printed was only a loosely edited version of that draft and not the overworked, infodump-y version that came years later.

What Do They Want?

And why can't your characters have it?

These two questions are how you create your plot. What does your main character want? Why can't they have it?

Safi wants freedom in Truthwitch. Unfortunately, a Bloodwitch is now hunting her in hopes of selling her off to the highest bidder.

Merik wants revenge on his sister Vivia in Windwitch. Unfortunately, everyone thinks he's dead and he has to hide the fact that he's still alive.

Eleanor in Something Strange & Deadly wants her brother to come home. Unfortunately, he has been taken by an army of undead and their necromancer.

Pretty straightforward, right?

Now keep in mind that goals will change.

What a character wants at the start of a story isn't necessarily what they want at the end. In fact, a shifting goal is a great way to signal character growth.

Safi inTruthwitch is a selfish character. Initially, she just wants to escape the Bloodwitch. Then she wants to heal her best friend who was hit by a cursed arrow while fleeing said Bloodwitch. THEN she wants to help save all of Nubrevna by completing a trade deal. Each new goal is a reflection of her own growth.

I'll talk more about growth and arcs in the next newsletter I write!

What Is At Stake?

In other words, what will your character lose if they do NOT achieve their goal?

This is critical because without it, your character has no motivation -- i.e. no reason to take action.

An example:

  • If Belle doesn't stay with the Beast in his castle, then her father will die.
  • And on the flip side, if the Beast doesn't make Belle fall in love with him, then he will die.

The stakes are, for both characters, a human life.

Oftentimes, when a story fails to come together or appeal to readers, it's because the stakes aren't coming through. And this doesn't mean you need to make BIGGER stales. Most stories don't need to be about the end of the world!

It just means you need to make your stakes clearer and more believable. If I don't believe your character will care about the stakes, then nothing in your story is going to ring true.

And if the stakes are too vague or too low, then I won't care about whether or not the protagonist succeeds.

A really helpful rule to follow is this: if you have to spend more than a few sentences explaining WHY a character cares about the stakes, then you've either got the wrong stakes or the wrong character.

Motivation should be obvious and intuitive. The reader shouldn't have to read paragraphs of text explaining why something matters.

Belle's dad will die if she doesn't give herself to the Beast. You don't have to think about those stakes. You understand immediately how love for her father motivates and propels her.

Meanwhile, the Beast will die if he doesn't make Belle fall in love with him. You understand why (EVEN IF IT IS REALLY WRONG) he keeps Belle a prisoner.

The primary way to make stakes clear and believable is to make them personal. If your character has skin in the game, then we understand right away why they're diving into the fray.

Sure, the end of the world sucks. As do Big Bad Villains. But if you somehow make those things personally meaningful to your main character(s), then your story will be so much stronger.

For example, James Bond. There's a reason the most popular Bond films are the more recent ones with Daniel Craig. The creators (rightfully) added a personal motivation into Bond's connection with the bad guys. No more "I am just serving Her Majesty!" 007 now has a lover on the line or, in Skyfall, a family history that needs reckoning with.

Or another great example: the animated Mulan from the 90s. Originally, the creators were going to have Mulan be like every other Disney heroine: she wants more in her life! So she flees her village and joins the army! Fortunately, they realized the cultural mistake in that (not that the movie is culturally accurate or sensitive) as well as the major story mistake: we care and relate so, so, SO much more when Mulan leaves in order to keep her father safe and make her family proud. That is personal. That is ๐ŸŽถ a goal worth fighting for! ๐ŸŽถ (See what I did there?)

This was one of the reasons I struggled SO MUCH with the drafting of Wndwitch. Due to business reasons outside of my or my publisher's control, I learned after finishing Truthwitch that I would have to rearrange the order of my series. This in turn meant I had to completely remap the order of reveals and character arcs.

What followed was 2 years of agony as I tried to reframe everything that I'd already planted and everything I'd planned.

And what followed was a big ????? for Merik's motivation. Suddenly he couldn't do things he was supposed to do in the order I'd thought he would do them.

Writing Characters Different from You

One finaly thing. Something I keep mentioning because I cannot over emphasize the important: If you are writing someone who is not like you โ€” not just as a main character, but in any role in the story โ€” you need to do your research.

And I don't just mean a wikipedia read. I mean talking to people like your character(s), interviewing people, asking (and paying) them to help you assess your overall premise, and reading everything you can about people in that group or different identity.

If that doesn't sound like something you want to do, then quite honestly, maybe writing isn't for you. If you're only writing for pleasure and for yourself, then it's fine! But if you plan to share your work and get published...Well, then at the bare minimum, you need to make sure you respectfully represent people who aren't like you. Be that a different gender identity, race, or religion...Be that someone with a disability or mental health issue...Be that someone who simply works in a different field from you! Do your homework. Thorougly.

And there you have it! Those are the first things I consider when crafting a character:

  • The feel of the story
  • Who the story is ultimately about
  • What that person wants
  • What stands in their way
  • What's at stake if they fail
  • What they sound like, what their voice is

As mentioned, I spend a looooooong time on this phase. Years, if necessary, because sometimes it takes that long for the skeleton to grow organs and skin and a brain and a VOICE. And until I've got those things, I don't have a fully realized story. I've just got an outline that looks nice on the page or a world that needs populating. I.e. I've only got two dimensions of three.

You, of course, may approach things completely differently! And that's okay. Whatever works for you! There is no wrong way to do this, but maybe my approach will help you discover your own. ๐Ÿ˜

The Mighty Pens Return!

HI, EVERYONE! Kat Brauer here! Cofounder of the Mighty Pens, alongside Sooz.

Guess what! The Mighty Pens 2020 is...HAPPENING! What is it, you ask? It's a combination of charity and NaNoWriMo! People sponsor you based on the words you write, and the more money you raise, the more writer-ly and book-shaped items you can win!

And yes, though it is only September (or, in other words, about thirty years of a life-altering 2020), Sooz and I believe the world is beautiful even in 2020, and we're ready to prove it by encouraging this awesome community to write and raise money for maternal health this November. We've chosen Every Mother Counts as our charity (though we have not yet updated our website to reflect this!).

Like in 2018, we have limits in terms of time, sanity, and technical skill. So! If you would like to be involved with the Mighty Pens 2020 as a volunteer, please send the following information to :

  • Preferred name and pronouns
  • Geographic area (for time difference purposes)
  • Specific admin/technical/graphic/social media etc. skills, if applicable
  • If you would like to host writing sprints or other community building activities for participants
  • Approximate number of hours you could contribute per week (especially for October 15-November 30)

If you want to help but aren't sure if your skills are useful, send an email anyway! Our 2018 volunteers were lifesavers, keeping us organized and unified and full of encouragement for a productive November. They helped us answer emails, keep the participant spreadsheet tidy, monitor prize giveaways...and everywhere in between. 

And if you can't volunteer, we hope to see you as a participant in November! (I'll be actually writing this year so... wish me luck. Oh boy.)

๐Ÿงก - Kat

    Upcoming Events:

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    Thank you for reading! Have a fabulous weekend, friends!

    Susan Dennard
    110 West 40th St.
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    New York, NY 10018

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