Are You Like Your Protagonist?

I recently read a piece by Donald Maass in one of my favorite blogs—Writer Unboxed, and he asked compelling questions about why we choose a particular protagonist. I wrote about this in a guest blog a few weeks ago, but in case you missed it, here are my thoughts.

Why do writers choose a certain type of protagonist and subject matter?

My story ideas are based on a social issue that haunts me, and then I have a rough idea of what’s going to happen. But I never know which new characters will pop up, or what twists and turns are coming, and that discovery is the most fun.

I expected that to happen, but what I didn’t expect was how creating Britt Johansson as my protagonist would change me. When I first imagined Britt, I thought I was creating someone almost the opposite of me. She’s tall and athletic, a tough photojournalist willing to make people uncomfortable to get her photos, blurts out whatever she’s feeling or thinking, and doesn’t like to delve too deeply into her own psyche.

I’d have made a terrible journalist because I would hate to ask hard questions that put people on the spot. I’m deliberate where’s she’s spontaneous, and I’m a ruminator. And yet, I wonder if there isn’t a shadow side of me that harbors some of those characteristics.

In addition to following the murder of a local coed, and getting involved in a dangerous high-stakes crime that requires every ounce of her strength and skill to make it out alive, at the core of my story is Britt’s decision whether to stay in Spirit Lake or go.

I’ve moved quite a bit in my life—my grandmother used to say I had wandering feet. I don’t wander that much anymore, but the desire is still there, and I continue to feel the loss that happens when you give up one thing to get something else.

So I created a character who longs to go and longs to stay and through following her adventures, I get to explore some of my own feelings about what that conflict has meant to my own life.

And, since writing about Britt, I’ve become much more physically active, and I take more risks. Not Britt’s kind of risks, but the kind that build confidence in small ways every day. Is there a connection? Has my inspiration inspired me? I hope so. I look forward to how else Britt might inspire me in her next adventure.

Have your protagonists changed you? In what ways?

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Julie Williams—Drama Queens in the House

Julie Williams and I are lifelong friends and I’m thrilled to have her as a guest blogger this week to talk about her new YA novel, Drama Queens in the House. Recently published by Roaring Brook Press, it’s available on Amazon, B & N, and other bookstores.

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“Sixteen-year-old Jessie Jasper Lewis doesn’t remember a time in her life when she wasn’t surrounded by method actors, bright spotlights, and feather boas. Her parents started the Jumble Players Theater together, and theater is the glue that holds her crazy family together. But when she discovers that her father’s cheating on her mother with a man, Jessie feels like her world is toppling over. And on top of everything else, she has to deal with a delusional aunt who is predicting the end of the world. Jessie certainly doesn’t feel ready to be center stage in the production that is her family. But where does she belong in all of this chaos?”

What’s the most fun/interesting part of the writing process?

I love the beginnings of books. As odd as this might sound, mine don’t usually start with an idea. As the first coherent thought about a story I’m going to write, I don’t think I’ve ever said to myself (or to someone else) I think I’ll write something about _______ (fill in the blank: the loss of a parent, moving to a new state, conflicts between the whites and Ojibwe in Northern Minnesota, a big theatrical family, what it’s like to grow up in a fanatical religion focused on the end of the world, finding your voice, and so on and so on.)
What happens instead is that a character starts talking in my head. And when I realize she’s not going away and is really trying to get my attention (sometimes after a day or two — sometimes it takes a lot longer), I start trying to get what she’s saying down in my morning journal writing practice. This can be fragments of a conversation. Sometimes it’s an internal monologue. Or it might be a full-blown scene between this new character and someone else in the story I haven’t met yet. Usually the character reveals quite a bit about herself really fast and that’s what starts the plot going. If, for example, my as yet unnamed character is wading out of a cold autumn lake where she’s just intentionally destroyed her mother’s prize speed boat, and she’s calling her mother the Crazy Woman, I’ve got a pretty good idea of setting and main conflict. I don’t know at that point whether the character will run away or step up to confront the situation. That knowledge will come the next time I open up my notebook, take out my pen, and try to get the words down.
The down side of enjoying this part of the process as much as I do is that I have a lot of story beginnings that have never been developed into books. The up side is that I have a lot of imaginary friends.

What’s your approach to developing the plot?

I’m a big re-reader. If I love a book, I’ll read it over and over and over until I’ve practically memorized it. These reading habits began when I was very small and have grown and developed over a bunch of years of being a voracious reader. I like reading plots that feel organic, character-driven. I’m not a big fan of books that are plot-driven. When I’m reading them, I get anxious and irritated, and I usually skip to the end and read that and then go back and read in a kind of scatter-gun fashion through to the end to get the gist of the story. And I never go back and re-read a plot-driven novel. My love of re-reading informs the way I write. If the character comes to me in a particular setting and with a clear dilemma, then often the final scene of the book will pop up sooner rather than later. And that’s something to write toward. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say, it’s what the character is moving toward but she doesn’t know it, does she? Life rarely moves in a straight line. Even clearly delineated problems have a way of turning inside out and upside down and sometimes ending up the best thing that ever happened to us. I like, when I read, being reminded of this spiral dance we go through over and over and over, with problems that become solutions and goals that disintegrate and become new goals. So that’s what I like to write. The trick when you write that way is to keep track of all the plot points that emerge and work some magic in the rewriting stage of the process trying to get the action and movement of the story just right. That said, if you are a reader who adores plot-driven novels, you probably won’t like my books.

What’s your take on rewriting?

Rewriting is at once a gift from the gods and a pain in the tush. If I’m still in the story development creative flow stage, rewriting anything is difficult and painful and often not very effective. If, however, I’ve done most of that writing, have taken a break from the manuscript, and come back to it with fresh eyes and hopefully some wonderful notes from a trusted reader or editor, then the rewriting process becomes an art in and of itself. I like to view the rewriting process as a form of collage or assemblage (like the visual artwork that I do). When I’m able to get into that mind-frame and enjoy the jigsaw puzzle nature of tightening and reorganizing and fleshing out and paring back the story, then rewriting is downright fun.

Julie Williams

Julie Williams

Julie Williams is also the author of the young adult novel ESCAPING TORNADO SEASON: A Novel in Poems. She has published in many small press journals and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. For twenty years she was an adjunct professor at California State University, Northridge teaching for the communication studies and theater departments and retiring in 2003 as the Assistant Director of CSUN’s Educational Opportunity Program. She and her husband live in Minnesota. Say hello to her on Twitter @JulieKWms2013 and check out her blog:

New Focused on Murder Q & A

My dear friend Julie Williams did a Q&A with me about Focused on Murder over at her site.

I hope you’ll check out Julie’s lively and colorful blog site, and info about her new novel. I answer questions about why I write what I write and whether my protagonist is like me.

Do you and your protagonist have similar qualities, quirks?

It’s Still a Writer’s Journey

My first blog post was January 31, 2012. The blog was titled, A Writer’s Journey. It was about why I started a blog, and this is part of what I said:

“Over the years I’ve attended writer’s conferences, workshops and countless author readings. I’ve read a library of books and many blogs on the art and craft of writing. Some of the most insightful and helpful ideas about writing have come to me through the generosity of others who shared what they picked up along the way.

I started this blog to continue that tradition and to cast my net in hopes that writers attracted to this site would find something useful that might help with their own journeys.”

I’ve recently published my first book—a good time to take stock of what I now want the blog to be about. It’s still about my journey, and I’m writing book two in the series, but my focus has grown to include the business of self-publishing and promotion. Except the word “business” stopped me in my tracks and made my journey more like an obstacle course of frustration and anxiety.

Yes, it’s a business, I’ve always understood that, but to me, it has to be about the joy of connecting with readers the same way writing is about the joy of writing. And one thing that brings me joy is writing about subjects that help others, either in writing, publishing or promoting.


In an earlier post, I promised tips on publishing and promoting as I navigated through the process:

My best tip is to attend writers’ conferences whenever possible. I just returned from Left Coast Crime in Monterey, and basked in the spirit of generosity that permeated every interaction with organizers, authors and readers. That trumped everything.

Jane Friedman’s blog, The E-book Market + Big Five Survival, about what’s happening in the publishing world is a must read. The blog doesn’t have answers; it’s all about the questions.

I hope you’ll stop by again. As before, this blog will also include my short poetic pieces from my writing group and other works in progress.

Going Live!

mystery, novel, fiction, self-published, self-publishing, Linda TownsdinI’m pleased to announce that Focused on Murder—A Spirit Lake Mystery is now available on Amazon. For more info about the book, check out my Books page.

“Britt Johansson, a kickass photojournalist with a big heart and bad social skills follows a coed’s murder to the wilds of the US/Canadian border and lands in the crosshairs of an international crime ring…
Only this time she’s in way over her head.”

It Takes a Community

As in most new ventures in life, each step in the self-publishing process that seemed so daunting in the beginning has turned out to be not nearly as difficult as I imagined. That’s probably thanks to my supportive friends, who have offered advice and even sat next to me at my laptop encouraging me to push that button and go live. I am grateful for their help.

Now that my debut novel is out there, I hope you will read it and if you like it, post your review on Amazon.

In my next posts, I intend to share some of what I’ve learned about how the self-publishing process is working for me, such as:
• Tricks I’ve used to tame the fear and keep everything in perspective
• Tips on how to use the CreateSpace site
• Reminders to tackle everything at your own pace
• How to know the difference between resistance and the importance of doing what feels comfortable to you

Thank you!