Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Do as I say, not as I do...unless I'm doing it well.

by Linda Robertson

As the howling winds and brought the storm to rage around the little cabin, the children roused from their sleep. They huddled together, wide-eyed and whispering in the dark. Across the room, the wrinkle-faced old woman who'd allowed them inside her rickety shack of a home, was sitting on the hearth ledge. She raised her head as high as her bowed back would allow. Her gaze slid unhurriedly from child to child. 

"She's looking at us," Cindy whispered.

Grace, the eldest of the girl scouts who'd become separated from their troop, shushed Cindy. When the rain began to drip on their heads, however, she began to doubt their safety. Her arms tightened protectively around the girls as if to reassure them, but holding on to them consoled her as well.

The old woman's hand reached out. It was gnarled. Her knuckles were huge, her nails broken. Her skin was covered in dark spots. Just when it seemed the crooked, pointing finger would the emphasize her  scolding, she gestured them closer. "Come, young ones, and let me tell you a story."

I first saw my agent speak at an RWA meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio. I did not belong to the group, but I'd traveled three and a half hours to get there just to take his seminar. It was time, money, and effort well spent. I learned sooo much from him. Like:

How does your setting make people feel? 

The italicized passage above should make you worry. Do you know why?

I didn't tell you anything about where they were except that it was a little cabin with a leaky roof, Not necessarily a scary place. I didn't say it had stuffed animal carcasses and spider webs all over; I didn't say it had flowery wallpaper and smelled like cinnamon and honey, either.

So why worry?

Because the characters are worrying. They are reacting to what is around them before I ever get to describe the environment.

The story should revolve around a problem/conflict that directly affects your (hopefully) sympathetic character.

Are you starting to sympathize with Grace already? She's lost and scared, but in spite of that she's acting protective of the younger girls.

"It's warmer by the fire," the woman said. "Come along."

Grace held the girls in place and none of them moved.

The old woman glanced up at the roof. It wasn't leaking where she was sitting. She fumbled around in her apron and pulled something out. 

Grace didn't know what it was until the woman pulled the sheath off of the short blade. She gasped. Her mind raced. How would she get the girls out fast if the woman came at them? Where would they go in stormy dark that she couldn't find them?

The old woman leaned forward. Grace thought for sure the woman was going to rise to her feet and come after them, but she reached a gnarled hand into a basket at her feet and pulled out an apple, which she began to cut slices off of and eat. 

The smell of the fruit filled the air.  Each crisp bite the woman took made Grace hungrier and hungrier.

"You don't want a story?"

Grace shook her head side-to-side. She wasn't going anywhere near that old woman. She had a knife.

"What kind of story?" Cindy asked.

The woman lifted a plate from a nearby table and began slicing the apple into pieces. "The kind you tell on stormy nights."

"I don't like scary ghost stories."

She put the knife away and offered the plate to the girls. "Then I will tell you a happy ghost story."

Cindy pushed away from Grace first. She tried to hold her little sister down, but Cindy twisted as she stood and slipped away from Grace as easily as she did during tickle-fights at home. 


They're little lost children, it's night time, there's a big storm, and now, the main character's baby sister is falling for the weird old lady's tricks.

Probably the single-most important bit of advice I gleaned from my wonderful agent is:


Once you have begun to give your readers the story of a character they can root for, outlined the problem, start making it worse. If the scout troop's resident booger-eating brat wanted to buddy up to the knife-wielding granny, Grace probably wouldn't try as hard to keep her back. But her own baby sister? Mom and dad might ground her for life if anything happened to Cindy.

I knew after I heard Don speak that I wanted him to represent me. He had, hands down, the BEST writing advice I'd ever heard, all in one compact hardback, in common sense language. I bought that book: "WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL" and the accompanying workbook. I fangirled at a convention months later and had him sign it for me. I can't recommend these books enough. But don't think I'm saying that I'm anywhere near having mastered story telling. I refer back to the lessons and sections of his book often as I write. Some places it shows. Some places, it doesn't. Some places I probably should have referred to the book and didn't. But I try. I try very hard to tell the story in my heart, the story that is true to my characters, and tell that story with as much impact as I can, throwing situations at my characters to test them, to watch them soar, and watch them fail...and pick themselves up again because they just won't give up on the goal. Why? Because that is life. That's what people do. That's what I do.

And, in case you're curious, Don didn't become my agent until eight or nine years after that seminar.

Because I didn't give up on my goal.


  1. Great post, and so true about this book! It's one of my all-time favorites. You're reminding me that I should read it again.

  2. I keep meaning to pick up this book - think I'll snag it this weekend. :)