book coach

Zombies, Beer, and the Key to Creativity

Cross-posted from Michelle Hazen's Blog

There’s an annoying thing that happens to writers, artists, and other creative types. Namely, that ideas rarely come at convenient times. They don’t like to show up for their appointment at 7:15 am when your freshly-scrubbed hands are poised on your keyboard, your coffee is still warm at your elbow, and your schedule for the day has not yet been hopelessly derailed. No, ideas like to show up just when you’ve laid down to go to sleep, or when you’re in the shower with no way to jot them down, or twenty minutes into a yoga class (far past the time when you could slink off to make a note without girls with OM tattoos giving you the stink eye).

The reason for the terrible timing of epiphanies seems pretty clear, and I’m reminded of it every time I go into my favorite brewery. It’s my favorite because they make a delectable brown ale, a swoonworthy stout, and they print targets on their cans so you can shoot them when you’re done with your beverage (a must for an Idaho microbrewery). But they also have a terribly apt quote at the top of the mirror in their ladies room:

life and beer are very similar - chill for best results.

In other words, relax and the muse shows up.

Which sounds perfectly intuitive, until you remember roughly 600,000 other motivational posters you’ve seen in your life about how hard work is the only path to success.

After all, few people quote the mirrors of pubs in their lifetime achievement award speeches. So which should you be? Working hard to get your book done, or taking a more winding, zen path to finding your muse? Working hard or hardly working?

The answer to the conundrum, I have decided, lies in watching how people kill zombies.

No spoilers for the greatest show on television (because you should all get to enjoy the modern wonder of storytelling prowess that is The Walking Dead) but I happened to notice that the stars of TWD got a lot better at killing zombies in Season 7 than in Season 1. Part of that was because they obtained a lot more machetes (another key to happiness in life, but that’s a topic for another blog post). In Season 1, a single zombie fight would leave them breathless and staggering, trembling and blood-spattered.

But in later seasons, they’d take on an entire herd with a casual swagger and possibly a joke or two.

Why? Because they were using a lot less energy fussing about it.

Instead of being scared of the outcome or tensed against failure, they relaxed and only spent energy on the actual motions required for the task. Which freed them up to be far more effective against the rotting hordes of enemies.

Writing is the same way. The more time you spend checking your email or tweeting about your writer’s block, the less time you have to spend honing your craft. The more emotional energy you spend worrying that you’re a hack and a fraud, the less emotional energy you will have to fill out the highs and lows of your own characters.

So give yourself permission to relax about it. Yes, still sit down to your computer at 7:15 am, but release that iron hold on your own brain and let it meander, the way it does when you’re trying to sleep and instead you’re madly scribbling notes and annoying your significant other by having the light on.

By letting go of what’s not important, you can conserve your energy for what is. And maybe, just maybe, finally get that pesky muse to show up at a more convenient time of day.

Reading as a writer: how to be inspired, while staying true to your vision

Cross posted from John Robin's Blog

I'll admit that I don't read nearly as much as I wish I could. Since I write all weekend and during the week I’m immersed in editing projects, I often find that my brain wants anything but words by the end of the day. It is for this reason that I always turn down requests to beta read or to read anything that isn't the one thing I am compelled to commit to.

However, I do make a point of reading. In fact, time to read is as fundamental to my day routine as taking a shower or brushing my teeth. While I've experimented with best times to make this happen, at the very least I read for half an hour before I go to sleep, even if it means going to bed half an hour later.

I don’t read fast, though this is by choice. I know of many who can read fast but they admit they don't take everything in. One friend who I know is a fast reader once told me he reads fast and notes where exciting things are so he can come back to them later. I can definitely relate to reading this way -- I do it all the time for non-fiction articles or research (especially online), but not for fiction or books I've chosen to read in their entirety.

When it comes to reading a book for my dedicated reading time, I don't feel I'm adequately experiencing the book unless I'm truly reading it, and that means reading at a speed that allows me to be immersed in every single thing that's happening, live-time.

I don't press 3x-play when I watch a 1-hour TV show so that I can get through it in 20 minutes, and likewise, I don't rush through reading.

Should every writer read?

For writers, reading is an act of professional development. By reading, we are studying what our contemporaries are doing or what the greats who have gone before us have done. Even if we pick up a particularly bad book, we receive an education in what not to do.

It's also wise to read beyond the genre you write in. While there's great value in studying authors in your genre, being limited to specific genres is a sure way to risk putting blinkers on. For example, though I write epic fantasy and, as you'll see if you study my Goodreads shelf, I've read more fantasy books than any other genre, I read a lot of non-fiction, science fiction, and general fiction. I keep lists of books to help me remember titles I hear of, but when it comes to deciding what to read next, I believe in the power of intuition: in fact, many times I have experienced the phenomenon of how the exact book I need just ends up in my hands at the right time.

There is something meditative to reading. It's not just about professional development, but broadening your mind as a human being. In fact, this is the more important part for storytellers, in my opinion, because while it's great to analyze fiction and fiction techniques for inspiration in your own storytelling, this is just the surface layer of what can be gleaned from being open to the far deeper layers of meaning and inner transformation that reading can bring about for us.

Beware the urge to jump ship (otherwise known as managing your influences)

There is also a real danger to reading if you are a writer, and it's this danger that often is the background excuse for those writers who claim they must not read lest they get influenced. I am no stranger to this one.

In fact, I have a fresh anecdote to share. This last weekend I nearly gave up on A Thousand Roads. This was due in part to reading Stephen King's On Writing and realizing, as I immersed myself in his early life stories, how, after discovering Tolkien at the age of 13 I all but forgot about my previous love for horror stories -- one which goes back to the age of 6 when I'd sneak to my friend's place after school and watch horror movies.

In fact, I had my first story published when I was 11. It was called The Shack, a horror story about a boy whose brother turns into a monster and hunts down his family after a possessed egg from some other dimension takes him captive. I'd submitted it for a school contest and came in second place, which meant I didn't win the 1st place prize of getting published by one of the local presses. However, the principal liked the story so much that, unbeknownst to me at the time, she went home and typed it all up, then had it printed and bound. A few mornings later, we were called into the library and she took out this little book and read it to everyone in place of regular story time, much to my shock (and embarrassment).

I still have this story and, as I read about Stephen King's childhood and found many parallels with my own imaginative early years, I fished out this little book and read it again.

Maybe you can see where I'm going with this. Reconnecting to this abandoned path made me doubt what I'm doing now. When the weekend came and it was time to work on A Thousand Roads I wanted to write something else, saw my plan to stay the course and learn how to finish a book as misguided. Heck, I could use a break, work on something fresh and different.

Without realizing it at the time, my free creative space was being influenced by what I was reading.

You might relate to this as a writer if you've ever gone through this vacillating story idea effect. I don't know about you, but I find this usually happens after I see something I absolutely love where I can just tell the author is brilliant and has found true gold to share. Usually, not long after this experience, a new story idea appears, and it doesn't take long to trace the derivative lines.

How to read and be open without be swayed

There's nothing wrong with being inspired and influenced. The key, in my opinion, is discerning the difference between knee-jerk inspiration and inner inspiration that is as strong -- and slow and inevitable -- as the shifting of tectonic plates.

In the case of A Thousand Roads, the knee-jerk response passed when I relied on the much deeper muscle of my years'-long discipline to come back to the same story and discover it in its pure form. Interestingly, after persevering and having an amazing writing weekend wherein I got more fully invested in the potential of the story, I arrived at the part of King's On Writing where he talked about Carrie and how he'd nearly abandoned that book but his wife's persistence pushed him on to write a story that he was convinced wasn't worth it. He pushed on and learned about the importance of going the extra mile, of going on even when he felt like he was "shoveling shit from a sitting position" (love that line).

Much like what we choose to read, we must choose what to write. If we read 20 books at once and bounce back and forth, our experience of any one book is going to be hampered, and no doubt a book we might have gotten a lot out of we might not even finish. Likewise, if we are fickle in which books we choose to write, we lose the opportunity to bring into realization a story that is our pure, unique vision.

Reading and writing are a symbiosis, provided out mind is rooted in our own vision

I'm learning every time I resist the knee-jerk influencing urge to trust the larger-scale call of the work I'm invested in, the work of my own unique vision.

As I mentioned last week, I saw the Fifty Shades Darker movie this week. What a fantastic movie! I'm not speaking as a critic, but as a storyteller going in and appreciating the unique vision of someone else whose heart and passion shines through in the story. Going into that movie and experiencing some of the brilliantly captured scenes and emotional moments presented me with a dichotomy, but I chose the right path.

The wrong path is to get inspired by what the movie does and then go and immediately try and recreate that in my own fiction. Jumping into such left-brain analysis closes me to truly receiving the lesson of those deeper levels of the story. It's kind of like having a conversation with someone and, instead of listening to them and empathizing, wandering off into thoughts about the plans for the rest of the day.

The right path is much like empathic listening in a conversation, and it made my experience of the movie wondering, and spared me conflict in my storytelling life afterward, because I found myself truly appreciating how one of my contemporaries brought out the gold in her story and how she made her unique vision shine. It inspired me not to copy her, but to listen and learn and appreciate, and try to cultivate that same passion in what is my unique yarn which only I can tell.

The Tyranny of “Just”

Cross posted from Michelle Hazen's Blog

Writers have a real problem with “just,” and I don’t mean in the filler word sense. I mean more in the way we treat our dearest accomplishments as filler words.

I’m not a real writer, this is just my first book.

I write, but just children’s books.

I’m published, but just small press.

I’m a bestseller, kind of, but just USA Today, not NYT.

Of course, writers aren’t the only artists guilty of this.

I’m not an artist, I just like to take pictures.

I scupt, but just in plain old clay, not marble or anything.

Most of us have done it, and I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I weren’t one of the worst offenders. It’s a defense mechanism, this self-protective way we downplay our attachment to the things we actually care about the most. And okay, humility has its place because nobody likes a swaggering assclown. But this constant downplaying contributes to a society-wide attitude toward art that is incredibly destructive.

For instance, politicians are always trying to cut fine arts in schools in favor of science. Science builds cities, they say. Science saves lives. Not entirely true.

Emotion saves lives.

Without emotion, nobody would have cared about anything enough to invent science. And art, even more directly than science, is made of emotion.

It would be difficult to find a part of the literary world less respected than romance novels. But I keep writing about love because it’s the most powerful thing there is. People will kill other people for hate, but they’ll kill everything including themselves for love.

That’s why I don’t believe in “just” a zombie show. “Just” a kid’s book. I don’t think a 10-foot painting of geometric, razor-edged penises is more or less valid than a Play Doh elephant.

Literally thousands of lives were changed by Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. It doesn’t matter what you think of that book, or that genre, or her writing. What matters is that book mattered. Measurably. To the people who worked on the movies and the YA publishing industry that flourished as a result. To every person it spurred into fanfiction who then moved on to a writing career. To every person who met a lifelong friend through a fan site. Stephenie Meyer can afford a private freaking plane because the way she wrote sparkly bloodsuckers mattered to a whole damn lot of people.

Evoking emotion isn’t petty, or frivolous, or just for entertainment. Emotion is the energy that drives the entire earth. It, not fossil fuel, is what powers the creation of literally everything. And art keeps that that moving, like the water in the turbines of a giant power plant.

Which is why I want to pause here to tell a story about a concert.

Concerts are my church. In the synergy of movement and sound and the upswelling of pure emotion generated by a crowd, I can experience transcendence brought by connection to other beings. And, rather unfortunately, smell their beer breath.

This particular concert was from a band that’s one of my go-to writing playlists. They’re just a mid-level band, popular enough in the Northwest to headline their own venues but not stadiums. I’ve written thousands of words while immersed in their music. Watching them perform those same songs, I saw that they were playing with such absolute passion and heart… The lead singer had to set his microphone higher because every line of lyrics kept drawing him weightlessly up onto his toes like he was straining a little closer to something above us all.

I could see on all the band member’s faces that they were getting caught up in the flow of it, the same flow I had found while listening to their music and creating art made of words instead of sounds.

And snagged by that crazy connection between strangers, I thought, “You know, for everything that’s wrong right now, we’re still doing a few things really right with each other, with our time here on earth.”

Their band name, Blind Pilot, is a two-word metaphor for faith.

Some days, I see a little more clearly than others how all the pieces of art in the world can intersect, ricocheting off each other in arcs of inspiration that create new things of ever-increasing beauty and truth.

Fan art always reminds me the most loudly of that, whether it is paintings, stories, songs…even a really epic cosplay costume. The most beautiful line I’ve written in my entire life is in a piece of fanfiction: inspired by someone else’s art.

Art is seeing the butterfly effect in action. Creation begets creation. Creation begets emotion. Emotion begets everything.

There was no “just” in that sentence.

Deliberate Practice and Writing

A few months ago while driving home I caught part of a Freakonomics radio episode and I’m still thinking about it – specifically, how to apply it to my own writing and to my work with other writers. It’s called “How to Become Great at Just About Anything.” Link here: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/peak/.

The description of the episode reads:

What if the thing we call “talent” is grotesquely overrated? And what if  deliberate practice is the secret to excellence? Those are the claims of the research psychologist Anders Ericsson, who has been studying the science of expertise for decades.

Go have a listen or check out the transcript if you have time. The episode is excellent. Host Stephen Dubner interviews researcher Anders Ericsson and author Malcolm Gladwell, as well as a few people who have had success using deliberate practice to achieve inspiring goals, including Susanne Bargmann, a Danish psychologist who, in her 40’s, returned to her childhood dream of becoming a famous singer.

When I first tuned in, all the talk about practice reminded me of the theory that Malcom Gladwell made popular in his book, Outliers – basically, that it takes 10,000 hours to become great at something. It turns out that theory actually comes from this same research of Ericsson and his colleagues, but – and here’s the key – Ericsson says that it isn’t just the volume of practice that’s important – that is, that “there’s really nothing magical about 10,000 hours.” Instead, it’s “the quality and the nature of the practice” that matters.

First, there’s purposeful practice. “Purposeful practice is when you actually pick a target — something that you want to improve — and you find a training activity that would allow you to actually improve that particular aspect.” To me that sounds like writing with specific goals in mind, maybe taking a class, reading craft books, or doing revisions or exercises aimed at improving a specific aspect of the work. It’s the difference between just sitting down and writing, versus writing with the goal of improving in a specific way.

And then there’s deliberate practice. Ideally:

  • it includes working with an experienced teacher
  • you receive feedback so you know what kind of adjustments to make
  • it “involves well-defined, specific goals”
  • “it is not aimed at vague, overall improvement”
  • “it takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities”

Sound familiar? This is exactly the kind of work that writers can do with a book coach, developmental editor or mentor. Perhaps even with a critique partner, if you have a good one. But whether you work well with a coach or want to go it alone, every writer can take away important lessons from this research. Write with purpose, with specific goals. Get feedback from someone who knows what they’re talking about, if you can. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone and strive to improve. And always remember in the darkest moments of doubt to keep working. Practice and hard work do make a difference. A breakthrough is just around the corner, but it will only come if you’re doing the work.

On Writing Emotion

By Julie Artz - Book Coach

Recently, one of my clients asked me for pointers on writing character emotion without falling into telling or cliché. As I wrote my answer, I realized it would make a great blog post because, let’s face it, writing emotion is hard. Here’s a technique I’ve come up with over the years that I hope you’ll find helpful.

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A good place to start is with the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The book catalogues the physical responses, mental responses, and sensations associated with each of a broad list of emotions. A lot of authors (including me when I first started learning this technique) stop there. That's why you get a lot of anxiety describes as sweaty palms & thumping hearts in books. But instead of just telling us the character's palms are sweaty, try showing the character wiping her hands on her skirt or shying away from shaking hands with someone, hiding those sweaty palms behind her back. Show her wiggling an eyebrow because she's in a cold sweat that's tickling her as it drips down her face. It's OK to do some physical cues--face getting hot, skin prickling, electricity running up the back of her legs--but don't only do that.

Once you have reviewed the entry/entries for the emotion you’re trying to convey, put yourself into the character's body and conduct a character interview. Why are you doing what you’re doing in this scene? What does it mean to you? How does it make you feel? Then dive deeper, leveraging your own experience with these emotions: How do your legs feel when you’re scared/nervous/angry? How does your stomach feel? What gestures might you make (tugging your hair when nervous, biting your lip or the inside of your cheek, shoving your hands in your pockets, tugging at the bottom of your shirt)? Different characters may tend to feel emotions in different parts of their bodies, and this can be a great way to differentiate voices in a multiple-point-of-view story.

Description also plays a role in getting emotion on the page. What your character notices about the world is influenced by how she’s feeling. For example, if I'm sad, and I look outside and see it's raining, I might feel the rain is heavy and depressing and awful. But if I'm happy, I look out the window and see how the water glistens on the leaves or how the intense green reminds me of my honeymoon in Belize. So you write the emotion not by putting feelings on the page, but by showing how the character's feelings (and their backstory) influence how they perceive everything in the world around them. The details you as the writer choose will help convey the character’s emotions without ever naming that emotion on the page.

Same goes for dialogue. An easy crutch to fall back on is using dialogue to convey emotion such as, “Mom, you make me so angry when you talk to me like that!” I’m not saying you can never do that. In fact, it can be very effective, especially when it’s more voicey than my example, but make sure it’s not the only way you’re conveying emotion.

If you can identify the emotions you want to convey, and then convey them with a mix of gestures, physical sensations, description, and dialogue, you’ll be well on your way to writing emotion that will keep your reader turning pages.

Next time you’re reading one of your favorite authors, pay attention to how they do this.Two of my current favorites,Leigh Bardugo and Maggie Stiefvater, are masters of showing emotion without naming it on the page. Their styles are very different (Bardugo is more lush and Stiefvatermore sparse in style), but they both end up delivering gripping stories in part because of how they write emotion.

What tips have you learned about conveying emotion in your writing? Which authors do you think do it particularly well? This topic could fill multiple books, so feel free to continue this discussion in the comments.

Writing Away the Winter Blues

 

Cross Posted from John Robin's Blog

I don’t know what weather is like in your part of the world, but here in Winnipeg, we’re in the midst of extremely cold temperatures, and have just had four blizzards in the course of five weeks. Thus, I’ve been spending a lot of time indoors and am grateful to finally have a desk for a proper ergonomic chair in my office now. Days spent editing are often accompanied by a recording of a yule log, with a space heater keeping me warm.

The holidays have come and gone and, like a lot of people, I’ve made a few resolutions for 2017. I try to keep my resolutions achievable, but still lofty. If a resolution is easy to achieve, then it’s not a challenge. However, if a resolution is impossible to reach, then it just becomes frustrating.

One of my resolution is to keep my weekends devoted to writing time, while focusing the week days on honing my professional editing skills. I will finish writing the second draft of a novel by March with this discipline, and plan to keep the weekends free for meaningful writing projects after this. This way, while I continue to hone my professional skills as an editor, I continue to improve my skills as a writer. There is personal value in this for me, but from a professional standpoint, becoming a better writer makes me a better editor as well, because I believe that one necessary quality of a good editor is the ability to empathize with the writers I work with.

Many writers make finishing their book their resolution for a new year. While this is good, it can sometimes be a trap because it’s a goal, and not necessarily the definition of a solid process by which that goal will be attainable. So instead of saying, “I want to finish my book this year,” try exploring answers to the question, “If I want to finish my book this year, then what regular discipline will I try in order to do this?”

Be experimental! Some writers must write every day. Some writers set weekly milestones (myself included with my weekend routine). I didn’t arrive at my routine until after I tried writing every day, writing in bursts, then finally separating work weekdays from writing weekends and realizing that was just right for me.

In answering the question on HOW you are going to create a regular writing practice through which you will get your novel written, you might notice a shift away from finishing your novel. You might realize that, when you begin a regular writing discipline, you’re on your way to getting your novel done, but guess what? That’s just a milestone, a midpoint on a bigger journey.

For 2017, see if you can find the writing discipline that will not only help you finish your novel, but kickstart a writing habit that will be the cornerstone of your writing career.

Teen Takeover: Why is YA overtaking Adult fiction?

From Michelle Hazen's blog:

Right now, YA is the blonde cheerleader of the publishing world. We all hate her a little bit for being so popular, even though we don’t want to admit we love her just as much as everyone else.

The evidence is clear: The Young Adult shelves in our local bookstore growing from one stand, to two, to an entire aisle. The movie theaters are full of lovely 20-something actors pretending to be in the first acne-flush of puberty.

There are some incredible, standout stories in the category, but wait? Who decided that teens, who frequently communicate in language like: OMW, gr8, tfnt, u, and <3 would drive the literature market? We don’t think they’re mature enough to choose to drink, join the military, get married, get a tattoo, or pay their own bills, but we ABSOLUTELY think they have the right idea about what to read. How did that happen?

First, let’s look at the numbers. YA wasn’t always a thing.

In 1997, The Atlantic reported that only 3,000 YA books were published. By 2009, that had added an important zero to jump to 30,000. By 2014, that trend had only gained strength and started to eat into every other major category. In 2014, Publisher’s Weekly reported that Adult fiction had lost 8% of its market share in the last year while Juvenile fiction had gained 12%. Adult is still selling more units overall, but YA is closing that gap fast, as is evidenced by what is being turned out by not-yet-published authors. The popular Twitter pitch contest #PitchWars was 47% YA entries in 2015, compared to only 23% adult entries.

What did I just say? Fiction for a single demographic of ages 13-17 might soon sell more than for all people aged 18 to 100? How on earth is that even numerically possible?

Turns out, what we thought looked like this:

 

Looks a whole lot more like this:

 

That’s right. 55% of YA books are bought by people older than 18, and the vast majority report they aren’t exactly buying for Junior.

Which brings me to my main question: what draws us about YA?

Are the kiddos just doing a lot more interesting things than those of us who have to fit laundry, diapers, or a 9 to 5 into our daily to-do list? Do we like the idea of stepping out of our responsibilities and into a simpler life, when we just had to worry about doing well on our history final and if Jimmy thought our training bra was attractively padded enough?

I would argue no, since the fastest growing segment of YA is sci-fi and fantasy.  Hard-hitting, fast paced stories like Hunger Games, Divergent, and the brand new Illuminae, where responsibility for saving hundreds of lives or the entire world rests on some very young shoulders. Most argue that the YA trend started with some big names that attracted more attention to the genre, especially now that they’re all getting movie deals.

But now that YA is well-established, we’re stuck trying to decide between these two things:

Do we love YA on its own merit, or do we love YA because that’s where great authors are writing if they want to get publishing deals?

YA differs from adult in some major thematic ways: it tends toward fast-paced, immediate narratives, often told in first person present tense. It takes place in a time in life where EVERYTHING is new. The characters are just discovering romance, drugs, their own identities. That kind of novelty is fun to experience all over again through books, and everything is brighter the first time vs. the thirteenth.

However, I’ve also noticed that some of the incredible writing in YA isn’t YA at all. The lyrically written, epic-in-scope Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy by Laini Taylor is about an angel who fell in love with a devil, and how the fate of the entire world ended up hanging in the balance. Of course, the MC is 17 and going to a special art school that she never really has to attend. There’s not a parent in sight, she has her own chic apartment in Prague where she can have boys stay the night and throw other boys through the window with impunity.

Maggie Stiefvater’s superlative Raven Cycle has similar issues. The plot is so gripping I’d read it until I went blind, and the writing is so good I wish my Kindle had the ability to double-highlight. But it’s about a bunch of teenagers who live together in this gorgeous, hipster old Warehouse. One character has parents, it’s true, but they’re a bunch of psychics who don’t exactly give her a curfew. High school is mentioned, so I suppose there’s that. But they’re off looking for ley lines and a lost Welsh king’s grave, a plotline more suited to a paranormal researcher or an archaeologist than a motivation for a teenager.

Which begs the question: are we all reading YA now because publishers are aiming their best authors toward a category they already know will sell? I read a YA ms the other day where the chapter opened on the character drinking cynically in a dive bar. That’s not YA. I don’t care how many times you type the number 17. And this kind of fudging isn’t all the publisher’s fault: they’re just guessing at what might sell a year from now when they make their contracts. Nobody wants to see great writing lost in a category no one is going to look at.

So what are those of us supposed to do when we love the gorgeous, immediate, honest style of YA, but we want to get out of high school and deal with some of the bigger issues that we adults ACTUALLY face? Turns out, there might just be an answer. Stick around for my next post to find out more.

Character as our Way into Story: A Gilmore Girls Case Study

From book coach Lana Storey:

Gilmore Girls got a lot of attention at the end of 2016 with its Netflix revival in November. But I want to take a minute to talk about the original series and how watching it at two different times in my life helped me understand how character really does function as our way into a story.

In her book, Story Genius, Lisa Cron writes that the protagonist is the reader’s “avatar,” or “the portal through which we enter the novel. Remember, when we’re lost in a story, we’re not passively reading about something that’s happening to someone else. We’re actively experiencing it on a neural level as if it were happening to us. We are – literally – making the protagonist’s experience our own” (p. 55).

Gilmore Girls first aired in 2000. I was 15, lived in a small town, and went to high school. Rory Gilmore was 16, lived in a small town, and went to high school. As far as I was concerned, the show was about Rory: her friend problems and boy problems and school problems and big ambitions. Her mother, Lorelai, was there only as a peripheral character. She talked faster and was quirkier and knew more about pop culture than any mom I knew in real life, but she was still just Rory’s mom. She had no real storyline or emotions or interests of her own, at least none that I could see.

Fast-forward 16 years to 2016. I’m 31, a busy mom of a daughter, and I start rewatching episodes from the first season. It dawns on me very quickly: Lorelai is 32. Lorelai is a busy mom of a daughter. Lorelai still talks really fast and is quirky and knows about pop culture but now I see she has work problems and guy problems and a complicated relationship with her parents. Lorelai has an entire storyline, personality, and life I never noticed before. I see that I’m not Rory anymore; I’m Lorelai.

After getting over the minor identity crisis that came when I realized sixteen years had passed in the blink of an eye and I was no longer the teenage character but the mom, finally I understood that the show really is about the Gilmore Girlsgirls, plural. It seems so obvious now, but back then I had become Rory so completely that I couldn’t step back enough to think about the concerns of the other characters. Now, with the benefit of perspective and a little help from Story Genius, I see exactly how important character is as our way into a story. Not only do we identify with the protagonist; we become that protagonist. I’ll never write my characters the same way again.

Have you ever had the experience of returning to a story years later and finding that you identify with a completely different character? Finding that your old way into the story is closed to you, but a new portal has opened, one you didn’t even notice the first time?

Book Coach Spotlight: Rachel Solomon Interview

Jennie Nash interviews one of our book coaches, Rachel Solomon about her publishing journey. Rachel is a talented writer as well as a talented book coach and we're excited to support her through her journey as her YA books are published.