Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Wednesday Writing Workout: Keeping it Real plus a Two-Book Giveaway!

I’m happy to bring you this Guest Teaching Author post by Sandy Brehl, author of Bjorn’s Gift, a historical novel of Norway’s occupation years. Sandy visited us in 2014 when her first novel, Odin’s Promise, was published. Read that post for more about Sandy's background, her research process, and using historical fiction in classrooms. Below, you can enter to win autographed copies of both novels.


It’s a privilege to return to the Teaching Authors blog with a guest post, especially for a Wednesday Writing Workout about creating characters. My recently released middle grade historical novel, Bjorn’s Gift, is the second book in a trilogy that emerged from my debut novel, Odin’s Promise, in 2014.

The initial book was written as a stand-alone historical novel based on the first year of the German occupation of Norway. I had spent years researching, writing, and revising, never quite finding a main character who was as eager to tell the story as I was. I worked on it through years of sporadic efforts tucked in between teaching and writing other things. Then, in a scholarly resource, I found and read journal entries written by young Norwegians. Mari emerged from those excerpts, stepping into my long years of false starts and reshaping them to reveal her point of view and life struggles. She added elements and eliminated others, confidently guiding my words on the page. Within months of finding Mari’s spirit within those journal samples, I completed a full draft. Less than a year later, it had been revised, submitted, and was contracted for release.

Once it was published, readers consistently asked, “When is the sequel coming out?” I worried that the ending hadn’t been satisfying. The gratifying response was that the ending made perfect sense, but the occupation wasn’t over and readers felt they HAD to know what would happen to Mari and her family during the remaining war years. They cared about Mari as much as I did, as if she were “real.” And they wanted to learn more about Norway’s fate and hers. Their questions were both specific and global.

Can you imagine how wonderful that felt? A character that was born of my research, imagination, and storytelling had “come to life” on the page for my readers.

But it was also terrifying!

I had never considered a sequel, and I didn’t know how to write one. It had taken me decades to write about just one year of the occupation, and there were four more years before Hitler was defeated. At that rate I wouldn’t live long enough to answer their questions.

I knew how to do research, though, and to tell a story. And I had Mari to guide me along the way. In the process she and I both had some growing up to do. It was a struggle, and a steep learning curve, but Bjorn’s Gift is on the racks, and the final book, Mari’s Hope, will release in spring, 2017.

When I finally put pen to paper, feedback on my first draft from critique partners and my editor had this in common:  “Less history, more story-telling, please.” Apparently I had written Mari’s story with too much of my “teacher voice,” eagerly “reporting” what I had learned about the remaining occupation years. Once again I needed to turn the story over to Mari. I began by “asking” her, “Does this matter to you?”  “Does this make your story stronger?” That applied in several categories:

Do these research discoveries matter?
I reviewed the stacks of facts and personal stories I had collected. Each was examined though Mari’s eyes and sorted into MUST HAVE, MAYBE, or DUMP. I retained no veto power over her decisions, although I rescued some personal favorites from the DUMP. Those tidbits may find their way into website resources, other writings, or program presentations.

Is each scene and situation necessary?
Scenes and subplots were held up for Mari’s scrutiny. She insisted that anyone who reads only this book of the three should feel as engaged and positive about it as they did about the first. Once again, her categories were MUST HAVE, MAYBE, or DUMP. Any MAYBE scenes that weren’t improved by moving or refocusing on Mari’s story made their way to the DUMP. Some of Mari’s rejects had been favorites of mine, but I let her have the last word, although I snuck behind Mari’s back, collecting her discards for repurposing in the future.

Is every character pulling his/her load?
The toughest part of this analysis was that Mari and I cared differently for various secondary characters, and for different reasons. Salvaging in this category involved giving the survivors more complex personalities and roles, incorporating elements from the rejected players. Here, too, voice was a crucial consideration. In at least one case I won a reprieve by going back to rewrite a character’s point of view and voice, removing the adult-ish tone of a young character and proving that the part still mattered to the story. Mari was convinced, and the character stayed.

The workout I’m suggesting isn’t about writing a sequel. Despite reading many series with a writer’s eye and now writing a trilogy, I’m a novice at it. There are better teachers of sequel-writing than I can be.

What I did write successfully was characters who are REAL. I hope you can see from the process I used that Mari was both real and reliable in guiding my writing and revision. The process itself made her even more real to me, allowing me to debate various decisions and dig more deeply into what mattered most to her.

Having Mari as a fully developed character going into this process was a huge advantage. Nevertheless, there are things writers can do to achieve that same level of confidence in your characters, to lift them from being two-dimensional “character-actors” to a level worthy of decision-makers and writing partners.

Here’s a workout to try:

Identify several questions related to the time and circumstances of your character’s story, whether the text is for a picture book, a short story, or a novel. It may be a question or proposition that’s not even a part of your story, just a topic that your main character would know and care about.

Challenge your character to support or criticize the proposition relative to his/her/its life experience, using one or more of these approaches:

  • Role play a debate: Take the part of your character and invite writing partners or others to argue the opposite position. Maintain your character’s voice and point of view throughout the debate, making notes about what arguments, logic (or lack of it) comes through, what values are espoused, what temperament your character displays, what mannerisms or language patterns are used.
  • Assign your character to make a pro-con list regarding the proposition or decision: Again, keeping yourself in the mindset and voice of the character, list and support both sides of the case as fully as possible, then arrive at a conclusion. Write a summary of the conclusion in the character's voice.
  • Offer your character a red pencil: Allow your character to read through your draft and redline any/all parts that distract, diminish, or otherwise impede the progress of the story the character needs to tell. Require explanations for the choices and be ready to “listen” openly to what is said.
It’s likely to take several tries to remove yourself from the process and become a spectator/conduit to the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and reactions. You’ll catch yourself (repeatedly) inserting your own arguments, your own values, and drawing on your own experiences. That will force you to realize that you’re still writing “your” story, not the one your character is trying to tell. Back off, sit quietly. Allow time and space for the characters to breathe themselves into being. Then, and only then, will you trust them to help you find the heart of your REAL story.

I applied this process to historic characters and stories. For additional exercises on creating REAL contemporary characters, I strongly recommend Kate Messner’s Real Revision: Authors' Strategies to Share with Student Writers (Stenhouse Publishers, 2011), in particular, her Chapter 9, "Are the People Real?" It’s a treasury of practical and effective craft suggestions, but the entire book is a must-have for writers, especially those of us who teach.

One last tip: if you find yourself struggling to hear your own character’s voice and views in this workout, try it with something you’ve read and loved. It will be particularly helpful if it is something you consider comparable to your own work. If the author has done his/her work well, you should be able to crawl into the skin of that character and, in the process, recognize how complex and real even picture book characters can be to readers.


Thank you, Sandy, for your helpful suggestions! Readers, you can enter to win autographed copies of both of Sandy's novels, Bjorn’s Gift and Odin’s Promise, with the Rafflecopter widget below. If you choose option 2, you must leave a comment on today's blog post or on our Teaching Authors Facebook page. If you haven't already "liked" our Facebook page, please do so today! (If you prefer, you may submit your comment via email to teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com.)

Email subscribers: if you received this post via email, you can click on the Rafflecopter link at the end of this message to access the entry form.

The giveaway ends November 30 and is open to U.S. residents only.

If you've never entered a Rafflecopter giveaway, here's info on how to enter a Rafflecopter giveaway and the difference between signing in with Facebook vs. with an email address.

Good luck!

JoAnn Early Macken

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. Thanks for sharing your process, Sandy, and for this great Writing Workout. I'm currently revising a YA historical that I hadn't read in awhile. That distance is really helping me see that some of the material I originally thought was indispensable doesn't really serve the story.

  2. My current read is Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. She talks so much about listening to your character, letting them do their own talking, and getting out of their way. A very timely article for me to read, indeed! I am primarily a poet and short memoir writer. This idea of getting into a character's head, someone that's not me, is still rather new to me. Thanks for sharing your process!

  3. Sandy, this post is so timely for me right now as I draft my first attempt of a historical fiction MG. I, too, have struggled for two years to get this story "right" and to find it's voice. I am finally channeling my MC, but these exercises wi come in very handy when I feel I am done. Bravo for your two books out in the world. I would love to read them.

  4. This is a great post, so helpful at understanding just how much goes into character development AND how to actually achieve it. I am going to put Kate Messner's book on my list of must-have books right away. Maybe Santa will be kind. :) Thanks!

  5. Thanks for the recommendations and tips. I appreciate them very much.

  6. Carmela and Kathy, it's great to read that these tips might support your historical novel writing.
    Sarah, isn't it amazing the way each return to BIRD BY BIRD reveals something new, even though we know the words on the page are exactly the same as the last time we read them?
    I saw an interview with Jack Prelutsky who said he interviews the subjects of his poems- even skinless chicken- trying to become fully aware of every aspect of the "character"s needs, wants, personality.
    Marilyn, you can't go wrong with Kate Messner's book Once you get your hands on it I suspect you might buy a second copy tso you can loan it out to other teachers but never be without one at your fingertips. Danielle, I hope something here will be helpful in your own writing and teaching journeys.
    And JoAnn, it's such a privilege to be welcomed here to the Teaching Authors again. I learn so much from all of you and from the comments of your readers.

  7. A very interesting and useful post - thank you.

  8. Bjorn’s Gift sounds like my kind of book! I love historical fiction. A wonderful interview. Thank you for your thoughts on research and getting into your character's head.

  9. This was a most helpful posting about writing process. Allowing the character to lead is a leap of faith, but one that I need to keep working on. Thanks for the encouragement.

  10. I'm tickled to see how many readers enjoyed Sandy's helpful process. I must add Kate Messner's book to my list, too. Thanks again, Sandy!

  11. The MUST HAVE, MAYBE, DUMP idea really settled into my head. I like it and will use it. Thanks Sandy. So helpful!

  12. Good to know that mantra will guide you, Nina. I have countless sections, passages, even whole chapters that were genuinely fun to write, felt like they were "meant to be" in this book and the final. Then, when I stepped back to see if they were the best choice for Mari, I had to let them go. Among my critique group we've been able to see what amounts to self-indulgent choices. That's not to say those sections might not turn out to be useful in some other context or purpose, they just don't make the cut.
    It can be helpful for students, too, to physically print out or cut out those "cuts" and add them to a WIP folder, or "Scrapbook of good writing", as a reminder that revision isn't about something being "good" or "bad", it's more a question of what it working and what isn't.They build a bank of scenes and passages that might inspire an entirely different piece of writing.

  13. Thank you for this post Sandy. I'd like to try asking my character Debbie her opinions but she's likely to disagree with me. Now that you've put this in my head I'm certain I'll decide Debbie knows best.

  14. Mary, it's wonderful to think this will be helpful for you, but keep in mind, your opinion matters, too, I've found the more I push android and negotiate with a character, the more fully developed s/he becomes. That was true for secondary characters, too, and most often the final text was a balance of my intentions and their needs. Just don't leave Debbie out of the decisions!

  15. Congratulations, Danielle H. I'll be happy to get your books to you as soon as I receive your information from JoAnn and the other authors. I hope you'll enjoy both books enough to want to read the third/final next year.

  16. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


We love comments! However, because we have turned off Word Verification, Blogger will not let us accept anonymous comments. If you don't have a Google account, please email us your comment with the word "Comment" in the subject. Also, we reserve the right to delete comments that are used for promotional purposes or that are otherwise inappropriate.