Emotion Thesuarus Entry: Amusement

· Holding a hand up as you laugh as if to ward off more jokes or to ask for someone to stop being so funny
· A disheveled appearance as a result of giving yourself over to laughter
· Light-headedness
· Throwing your head back in a bray of laughter
· Grabbing at the ribs like you have a stitch in your side
· Weakness in the knees, muscles twitching
· Trying to keep a straight face but failing
· Covering the mouth with a hand to hide a smile or hold in a laugh
· Turning away in an attempt to regain control of one's features
· Cupping the cheeks with the hands and shaking with laughter
· Avoiding eye contact to maintain control over laughter
· Clearing one's throat, struggling to speak in full sentences
· Attempting to change the topic/discussion to avoid falling apart with laughter
· Making gestures in lieu of speaking because you’re unable to form words correctly
· Biting down on the lip, pressing lips together to keep laughter in
· Punching someone in the arm
· Bumping shoulders with someone, giving them a good natured shake or slap on the back

Good news! This sample has been expanded and streamlined into book form! The full list of physical, internal, and mental cues for this and 74 other emotions can be found in The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, available for purchase at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Smashwords. The PDF is also downloadable via the Paypal button in the sidebar. 

Favorite Writing Books

Over the last few years, Becca and I have read many writing books together, sharing our impressions and insights on each via email. It's been a wonderful way to learn more about writing and often if one of us became unclear on a particular concept, the other would be able to offer the missing key that clarified it into an Ah-ha! moment.

Looking at my bookshelf, I mulled over which books on writing I just couldn't live without. Here are my favs:

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Renni Browne & Dave King) This one is literally my bible when I revise. My copy is pretty banged up from use, and I can't say enough good about it.

Description (Monica Wood). Again, this book has helped me immensely. Vivid and relevant description and how to get it across to the reader through setting, central metaphors and language choices makes it a fantastic book. This book really delves into Showing and telling and how (and when) to do each effectively. I reread this book often.

On Writing (Stephen King) I am a great admirer of Stephen King. I see him as a master at his craft and so much more than 'that horror writer.' I like the autobiographical nature of this book and seeing how he's drawn from his own life experiences to create incredible circumstances from ordinary life events and characters. I find his tell-it-as-it-is style refreshing and his story inspirational.

Writing the Breakout Novel (Donald Maass) This book is a must-have for anyone struggling with adding tension and high stakes to your story. He's a firm believer on having conflict on every page, and he shows you how to do it. Incidentally, if you ever get a chance to hear Donald Maass speak at a conference, GO. He's amazing in person as well.

So what are your I-can't-live-without-this-writing-aid books? Tell us your favorites and why!

Emotion Thesaurus Entry: Curiosity

· Repeating a statement as a question
· Leaning in, sliding a chair closer
· A small, delighted smile
· A shift from mediocre conversation to pointed questions
· A softened voice or tone
· Prying or snooping
· Straining to hear, shushing others to be quiet
· Wide eyes
· Pushing one's glasses up and tilting the body toward the object of curiosity
· A gasp of wonder
· Moving toward something to witness it, forgetting one's original destination
· Lips parting slightly
· Slowed breaths

Good news! This sample has been expanded and streamlined into book form! The full list of physical, internal, and mental cues for this and 74 other emotions can be found in The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, available for purchase at AmazonBarnes & NobleiTunes, and Smashwords. The PDF is also downloadable via the Paypal button in the sidebar. 

Clichés, Part 4

I thought we should add to our body count of Character Clichés before moving on. Again, because I write Children’s, I’m focusing on the younger spectrum of the tired, recycled and overused Paris Hiltons—er, character clichés. You can find other common character clichés here.

Speaking of Paris, let’s start with…

The Dumb Blonde

Blonde, gorgeous…and as useless as a sack of broken hammers. You know, the lights are on, but no one’s home to buy Girl Scout cookies? Heck, some of the Barbie Dolls out there might be dumb enough to think those cookies are made out of Girl Scouts. After all, poor Jessica Simpson sure struggled with the concept of buffalo wings, right?

Please people, if you must have a bimbo in your story, have the decency to make her a brunette. Or, seeing as I’m of the brown-haired variety, go with a tousled black haired hottie or even a radiant redhead. And remember, stupid isn’t a contest. It’s not like you’re trying to create the slowest, wide-eyed (yet heart-stoppingly beautiful) character in the history of characters. Sure, we all know a few people out there who should have never been let out of the womb, but none of them are slow in every aspect of their being. Allow your character a deep insight or two, or an admirable quality. Maybe they have a giving personality, do charity work, or while their people-smarts aren’t the tops, they know more about Saturn or poetry than anyone else in the school. Even people who can’t name their own president probably have a layer or two, and so should our characters. Layers = realistic.

The Nerd/Nerdette

Boy or girl, you know you have a nerd on your hands when they study all night, grouse about being dinged a half-point on an essay because they forgot to put their name on it and care nothing about their looks. Usually they have glasses, hair pulled back to showcase this week’s zit crop and their clothes look like they came straight from the Salvation Army’s reject closet.

Let me ask you a question.

If these Mensa-in-training types are as smart as we writers often make them out to be, then why in the name of zombies don’t they know how to act and behave around other people? Seriously. If popularity was on a test, they’d ace it. So why do they struggle so much in real life?

Some writers just grab the nerdly cliché in their teeth and shake it for all it’s worth. So your nerd’s a social misfit, caught between wanting to strive for excellence and wanting to fit in? Great. But to make me believe it, you need to show me why. Show me the motivation behind their avoidance of the social norms that hold them separate from the rest of the pack. They have the brains to notice styles and keep up with trends. Why not observe the ‘it’ crowd and learn to fit in if that’s what they want so badly?

A little logic goes a long way. Because your smart kid is, well, smart, you have to show us what keeps them from achieving the acceptance they want so much. Do they have controlling parents who suck up all free time to cram more knowledge into their little darling’s grey matter? Does your nerd have a secret or fear that keeps them removed from other people? Maybe he or she has a problem with rage and it’s safer to stick with a trig book that doesn’t hurl insults. Whatever keeps them on the outs, make it compelling and logical. If you take the time to show us why, then we’ll believe it.

Try twisting the appearance cliché by having your nerd be a stylish dresser, knowledgeable in music, sports or have a great sense of humor. A fresh spin will add depth to your character and create distance from the cliché.

The Annoying Sibling/Cousin/Neighbor Kid that Never Leaves

Thant’s right, little Jimmy or Susie who just won’t leave you alone when you’re on the phone with your BFF, playing body twister with your boyfriend during a movie and who always demands you play pirates (cause you promised) when you’re 5 chapters behind in Humanities.

This one is a toughie, I’ll admit. Why? Because siblings can often seem annoying to an impatient and self-absorbed older bro or sis.

The best way to keep this cliché out of your story is to really examine the need for this character. Do you absolutely-must-have-this annoying-kid-in-your-story-or-it-will-ruin-everything? What does this character do for your plot or reveal about your character? Is their another way to show it?

Sometimes this character is necessary. I think most times, though, using this character is simply easier than figuring out a better way to reveal something about your MC or foul up their plans to complicate the plot. If this is the case, you may want to rethink things and look for a fresh circumstance that will allow you to show characterization or plot development without resorting to something that often comes across as (yawn) done, done, done.

The Bully

This one’s another biggie--literally. Big, beefy and will eat you for breakfast if you don’t hand over that (sigh) lunch money.

Why the sigh? Because with two kiddoes of my own with plenty of bullying to go around, I have yet to see a school shake-down for milk/lunch money. I dunno—maybe this is a Canadian VS. United States thing (I’m Canadian), but the lunch money thing doesn’t seem to happen in my world. And milk money? Do kids actually drink milk at school? Mine don’t—it’s all juices and bottled water and Gatorade. I could be wrong, but these feel a bit like leftovers from the olden days. Sure, I suppose it does happen, but as much as is portrayed in books these days? Me thinks not. Other opinions may vary.

So let’s look at the big beefy thing. Oh, and the sack of hammers angle, because a lot of writers seem to think bullies are stupid.

Not so. Not at all. This cliché really bugs me.

The interesting thing about bullies is that they are so complicated, yet often painted so black and white. They’re big, bad and mean, end of story, right? My youngest had a run in with a kid who was half his size and sneaky-smart. Smart enough to wait for the teacher to turn away before slapping my kid across the face. Smart enough to play innocent cherub when my kid spoke up about it.

Bullies do what they do for a reason. They want power over others because they themselves are powerless in a meaningful way—at home, in their studies, globally. They are mistreated or perceive that they are, and so they pass it on to others.

Bullies are a huge part of growing up and come in all shapes and sizes. They can be guys or girls, teachers or parents. Show some insight as to why they do what they do, and they become credible. Stay away from the big, bad and dumb. They don’t have to be as ugly as Igor either. Try your hand at creating an unlikely bully (a grandmother, a pastor, a disabled kid) and you’ll have an interesting character who commands our attention.

Emotion Thesaurus Entry: Smugness

· Lifting one’s chin
· Direct, probing eye contact
· A sigh that conveys annoyance (huff)
· Waving a hand in dismissal
· Perfect posture--shoulders back, exposed neck
· A determined walk, strut or swagger
· Talking over people, controlling conversations
· Lavishing praise on "golden ones" (children, friends in favor, people in power)
· An arrogant laugh
· Tossing one’s hair back, a shake of the head
· Settling back in a chair with exaggerated casualness
· Creating movements that direct attention to oneself (waving a cigar, flashing an expensive watch)
· Fidgeting with jewelry in order to draw attention to it
· Clapping someone on the back, overplaying closeness or friendship

Good news! This sample has been expanded and streamlined into book form! The full list of physical, internal, and mental cues for this and 74 other emotions can be found in The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, available for purchase at AmazonBarnes & NobleiTunes, and Smashwords. The PDF is also downloadable via the Paypal button in the sidebar. 

Life is like a Hot Dog...

There's nothing better than a hot dog on a nice summer evening. It's something we grew up with, right along with the mysterious urban legend that hotdogs were made from the grody parts of our friend Cow. My brother and I refused to believe it. They taste so good, after all. And by the time we grew old enough to see the truth, we didn't care.

These hot dogs hold a special place in my heart, simply because they aren't real hot dogs, but cookies! Every year my kids ask me to make them at least once (usually as a classroom treat on their birthday). This batch is for a special 'Class Market' day for my youngest, who gets to hawk his wares in the classroom tomorrow as a way to better understand currency.

It's funny that something that has always made me smile now makes me a little sad as well. It's because my kids are growing up, and there won't be too many more years of hot dog cookies, or seeing my kids' faces light up as they decorate them.

I have to reflect at times like this how quickly parenthood flies by. At first they're so little and depend on us for everything. Then they grow, test life out a little, take small risks and make mistakes. It's okay though, because we're always close by to take things in hand if need be. And then one day, we're making some hot dog cookies and realize the kiddos are growing up. Where did the time go?

So I'm sharing these cookies with all of you, to help you remember not to get so caught up in the trials of everyday you forget to celebrate the joys in your life. Living now is what it's about, not striving to make tomorrow perfect. So if you need a break from revisions, have a cookie. And take a minute or two to spend some time with the people that make all those trials worthwhile.

Your Audience: Boys vs.Girls

Sparked by a thread over at Absolute Write, I thought it might be interesting to look at what hooks a boy reader vs. a girl reader in the Chapter Book/Middle Grade category. As a writer of what may be classified as ‘boy books,’ I strive hard to cross the gender line and create stories that will appeal to girls as well. This is a challenge I know many writers face, because marketability is first and foremost in a publisher’s mind when accepting a manuscript. Having a wide market for your book might make the difference between a ‘No’ and a ‘Yes.’

Here’s how I see it (based on what I’ve observed in the classrooms I’ve visited):

- Girls seem to be bigger readers than boys on average
- Girls may favor girl protagonists, but they will read books with boy protagonists
- Boys are harder to hook into reading, but once they are, they become voracious readers
- Boys want to read about boy characters for the most part

What Girls Want in a Book:

- A strong character who is smart, compelling & relatable
- A character who has to face hard challenges and can think for themselves
- A character who thinks of creative solutions to problems
- A story that has some emotional depth (tough choices, dealing with fear/emotions, the ups and downs of friendship)
- Some humor, adventure
- A satisfying, upbeat ending

What Boys Want in a Book:

- Action/Danger/Adventure
- A character with a funny/sarcastic outlook who cracks jokes
- A villain who they dislike and will want to see the MC destroy/defeat
- A main character who they can identify with, relate to and admire
- A main character to root for and who will win
- Plots with a competitive element and/or risks
- Plots with strong humor (and yes, potty humor gets a thumbs up)

I think two common elements that both genders gravitate to are characters they can relate to (feel similar things, face similar challenges related to age) and a unique storyline that transports them away from the everyday. For some this might mean fantasy or sci-fi elements, or a story that provides a look inside a world the reader doesn’t belong to but longs to experience (the adrenaline rush of pro hockey, the thrill of being a rock star or famous person).

Girl readers are willing to read about boy protagonists as long as the character draws them in and the story is compelling. The harder fit is encouraging boys to read about girl protagonists. I think for this to happen, a girl character has to have several things:

- To be interested in the same things a boy would be
- To not ‘act’ like a girly-girl (no giggling, no girl chat, no love of horses, etc)
- To be a strong character with a realistic goal that a boy might have
- To be competitive and driven
- To be adventurous, takes risks, and does cool stuff that a boy would want to do if he could
- To have a best friends who is a boy or to have a boy sidekick

What are your thoughts on how to cross the gender gap and write books that reach a wide audience? Do you write books that have a firm gender audience in mind, or are you trying to reach both?

Emotion Thesaurus Entry: Contentment

· Relaxed posture
· Slow easy breathing
· Smiling
· A warm voice, a caring tone
· Crossing the arms over the chest
· Eyes half-closed, a lidded look of satisfaction
· A feeling of connection to life
· Lacing the fingers behind the head
· A wide stance, open demeanor
· Slack muscles, loose limbs, no big or fast movements
· Rolling the neck back and forth and smiling
· (Guys) legs akimbo when sitting, taking up more space than usual
· Looping one's thumbs into the front pockets while standing
· An easy walk, unhurried
· A wandering gaze, taking in random things
· A satisfied sigh

Good news! This sample has been expanded and streamlined into book form! The full list of physical, internal, and mental cues for this and 74 other emotions can be found in The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, available for purchase at AmazonBarnes & NobleiTunes, and Smashwords. The PDF is also downloadable via the Paypal button in the sidebar. 

Clichés, Part 3

Seeing as I blasted clichéd villains in my last post, I thought I'd look at a few more offenders in the character category. First up...

The Rich and Handsome Jock (AKA Mr. Popularity)

That's right. The Quarterback, the Basketball Star, the Track and Field God. He's the guy rarely seen without an entourage of cheerleaders and other equally cool jocks. Our pal Jock is envy of every guy and the unattainable lust of every girl. In adult fiction, he's the power broker/power attorney/power fill-in-the-blank with rakish good looks, expensive tastes and the 'it' sports car.

I think we writers gravitate to this particular cliché because of some twisted need to unpack our emotional baggage left over from teenage years. We all remember Mr. Popular in school, hanging with the in group and attending all the cool parties (you know, the ones we weren't invited to). He could look down his nose at 80% of the school and people loved him for it. As teens, most of us could never reach that level of celebrity, never bathe in the glory of the popularity fountain. But now, as writers, we can make make Mr. Popular dance to our tune...and pay for ignoring us.

There's nothing wrong with feeling this way, either; writing should be therapeutic. Don't we all live a little through out fiction? So by all means, drag up your past demons and shove a cattle prod them. Just fight the urge to turn the popular jerk who snubbed you in the past into this 'perfect male icon' stereotype.

Mr. Popular doesn't have to be self-centered, rich and powerful. He doesn't have to play the star position on the football team, be favoured by all the teachers, have doting rich parents or be Orlando Bloom gorgeous. Piling all these things onto a single character is a bit like grabbing the reader by his shirt collar and saying, "SEE? See how popular he is? He's got it all!" If you're doing your job, you don't need all these props to prove he's the guy everyone gravitates to. This advice can be also applied to Miss Popularity types as well. Make the character's popularity real, but don't overdo it.

The Weird Girl

This one's usually a goth type, only her dress is so eclectic it can hardly be attributed to any sort of 'style'. She retreats into her own space, moody and angry, or stares creepily at other people while doodling headless cats all over her calculus textbook.

Weird Girl is another clichéd character who needs a good slap of originality. Why not make her blue-eyed and blond-haired? Make her beautiful, or put her in a situation that other girls would envy her for. Maybe she's a cheerleader too, or admired for her prowess on the volleyball court. Weird girl does not have to equal a social deviant or outcast. Maybe she's a stylish dresser, tells the right jokes, laughs in the right places...but there's just something weird about her, like a sniffing fetish that makes her smell everything she touches. Maybe she's got a thing for cheese and it's all she'll eat. Maybe she refuses to wear anything but green and insists she's seen leprechauns.

Whatever her 'thing' is, make her own it. Only then will she seem like a realistic character rather than a casting call for 'the weird kid' on a low budget TV show. Embrace your inner weird and have fun with this type of character. If you hobble yourself to the tried-and-true forms of weirdness, you might miss out on creating a spectacular character.

The Mean Girl(s)

Again, the need to rifle through our shattered experiences as teenagers hurts our good writing judgement. Mean Girls: popular, beautiful, have-it-all and want you to know it. If you don't cower beneath their superior icy glares, they'll make you pay. And Mean Girls don't stop until there's blood on the walls and innocent dreams of acceptance lying dead on the floor.

With this stereotype, we need to step back and remember how important it is to create a unique three-dimensional character. Like those villains we talked about in the last post, no girl, however snarkily depicted, can be mean to everyone and not have it come back to haunt them. Either show the consequences of such actions (a loss in popularity, being cast out, rejected, etc) or show them as people first, mean girls second. Everyone has redeeming qualities, problems, needs. Show us theirs.

What can make your 'Mean Girl' character more rounded and credible? Why not try putting her in a wheelchair, or give her a teacher who has it in for her? Show how she's working toward a goal, or what her problems are. Maybe she questions her actions, feeling feel torn between what's right and what's accepted by others.

Everyone makes choices and must be responsible for them. Always show the consequences of your character's actions. There are certainly some people in real life who seems to have little conscience, but in writing, characters depicted as 'blanket evil' can feel under characterized or cliché. If your Mean Girl is your antagonist, put the effort she deserves into developing her. If her personality is vindictive or masochistic, show us what makes her that way. Knowing why she feels power at hurting others gives her layers and makes her a more credible character.