Tag Archives: Shannon A. Thompson

An Interview with Shannon A. Thompson

23 Oct
Shannon A. Thompson's novel Take Me Tomorrow features a drug that makes its users temporarily clairvoyant. You can read the opening chapters here.

Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Take Me Tomorrow features a drug that makes its users temporarily clairvoyant. You can read the opening chapters here.

Shannon A. Thompson is the author of the Timely Death Trilogy, a YA paranormal romance series. The first novel in the series, Minutes Before Sunset, was a Goodreads Book of the Month selection. Her most recent novel is Take Me Tomorrow, a YA dystopian thriller.

In this interview, Thompson discusses her growth as a writer since publishing her first novel at the age of 16, stretching the conventions of the YA dystopian genre, and the role of The Odyssey in her new novel.

(To read the opening chapters of Take Me Tomorrow and an exercise on how to begin and end chapters, click here.)

Michael Noll

The chapters have real dramatic punch. Each begins in a moment of tension and ends with that moment ends. As a result, the chapters are often short and focused on a single scene. Do you structure them that way consciously?

Shannon A. Thompson

I never structure chapters to be a certain way. The breaks might change during editing, but I mainly focus on simply telling the story honestly and in the best way possible. In fact, I didn’t even realize that about the chapters until you said it. Perhaps that is just the way Sophia’s mind works.

Michael Noll

This is your fourth novel. The first one, November Snow, was written (I believe) while you were still a teenager. I’m sure it’s easy to see how you’ve developed as a writer since then. I’m curious what you think is the most significant way your writing has grown.

Shannon A. Thompson

I believe my writing has grown dramatically. It’s funny you bring November Snow up because it is currently being re-written for re-release in November of 2015, and even I can confess to the embarrassing moments (the endless moments) I’ve had evaluating the changes I want to make. My voice has become more concise, and my characters have grown in maturity and depth. I am very excited to see how far my stories have come over the past seven years, and I hope to continue growing for the rest of my writing life.

Michael Noll

The novel begins in the woods, with a female narrator running and throwing knives into trees. In other words, we’re in a world that owes some of its existence to The Hunger Games. Its dystopian world (with a tyrannical state apparatus) also sits firmly within the genre of dystopian YA literature. I’m curious how you view yourself as a writer in these genres. Some writers, like Tolkien and J.K. Rowling, take inherited creatures and stories and re-imagine them. Other writers—Suzanne Collins, to some extent—write within the genre without feeling the need to stretch it. What sort of writer do you consider yourself? Are you pushing at the conventions or working comfortably within them?

Shannon A. Thompson

Shannon S. Thompson's YA dystopian novel, Take Me Tomorrow, features a clairvoyant drug and an uprising against the oppressive State.

Shannon A. Thompson’s YA dystopian novel, Take Me Tomorrow, is set in a region around Topeka, Kansas.

Well, to be honest, I based the beginning off of my real life. I used to live on a couple hundred acres with my husky, Shadow (the inspiration for Argos) and I collect knives in my spare time. That being said, I strived for a more realistic viewpoint in my dystopian novel. The genre is saturated with almost unrelatable worlds, and although those are fantastically entertaining, I wanted Take Me Tomorrow to have a very close relationship with our current world because the themes very much coincide with societal issues of today, and I didn’t want the topics to be buried under a fantasy. Perhaps that is working comfortably within today’s lines, but maybe – in all honesty – it is pushing the conventions since the approach isn’t in dystopian literature as often. I leave that for the reader to decide. That being said, the sequel – Take Me Yesterday — reveals more about the world than the first book, and I am hoping it receives a contract in the near future. Too bad I don’t have tomo to know.

Michael Noll

The Iliad and The Odyssey are mentioned often in this book. To what extent do you look to those books and their monsters and plots, all of which remain freshly contemporary?

Shannon A. Thompson

Both of those stories are mentioned because Sophia really enjoys them. She has a daring soul and an adventurous heart, but the extent of their mention is explained more so in the sequel. That being said, I will point out one particular scene, which is a bit of spoiler, but in Noah’s bedroom, she comes across a statue, but she doesn’t recognize it. This has to do with Greek culture, and it also shows that – although Sophia reads – the government has censored a lot, especially in terms of photographs (hence why Sophia is fascinated by the paintings in Phelps’ mansion) so she doesn’t recognize what she is looking at despite the fact that she would be aware of it if she were alive in our world. Those are very small details that I inserted specifically for the readers who experience novels more than once and for the rest of the series because Sophia ends up on her own odyssey, and the adventure exposes – like you said – many monsters.

October 2014

 

Michael NollMichael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

Advertisements

How to Begin and End Chapters

21 Oct
Shannon S. Thompson's YA dystopian novel, Take Me Tomorrow, features a clairvoyant drug and an uprising against the oppressive State.

Shannon A. Thompson’s YA dystopian novel, Take Me Tomorrow, features a clairvoyant drug and an uprising against the oppressive State.

Most writers have a sense for how a novel is structured. But what about chapters? We tend to make a few common mistakes, like beginning a chapter with a character waking up and ending it with the character going to bed (or getting knocked unconscious). In other words, the chapter doesn’t know where to begin and when to end, and so as long as the character is awake, the chapter keeps going.

Different kinds of novels handle chapters differently, but it’s usually the case that genre novels contain short chapters. A great example of this kind of chapter—and a great example for how these short chapters are structured—can be found in Shannon A. Thompson’s new Young Adult Dystopian novel, Take Me Tomorrow. You can read the opening chapters here at Smashwords.

How the Novel Works

Let’s look at the first two chapters of the novel, which are quite different in terms of setting and content but which use a similar structure. In the first chapter, the narrator, a teenager named Sophia, meets an unexpected person. The chapter begins with Sophia running through the woods with her dog. She’s checking on her father’s land while he’s away and clearly feeling at home:

Spring was the best season − when everything smelled of moss, alive and wet. But it was August. The muggy air sucked all the life out of the plants, leaving them dry, disheveled, and dead. Today, the forest smelled of burnt grass and dried mud. Among the pivots, the creek bed, and the broken logs, I followed the trail, and my dependable dog ran in front of me.

Then, she runs into a stranger:

a boy whose “tone was sarcastically carefree, his stare was intense, shadowed by the setting sun. I recognized the stillness in his expression. It was a predatory look, the expression of an animal preparing an attack.”

But by the end of the scene, the boy’s tone has shifted:

“‘Am I near the park?’ His quiet tone was rushed. ‘That’s where I meant to go.’ His shoulders slumped in defeat. ‘Really.'”

That tone isn’t the only major shift. The boy hurries away because someone else has arrived, and that arrival causes a change in the narrator:

“My usually goofy friend was a mess. His mop of brown curls sprung into his widened eyes, and he wheezed from the run. His alarmed expression ruined any lasting comfort I maintained. Something was wrong. Seriously wrong.”

One of the smartest things I ever heard about crafting scenes was from writer and screenwriter Owen Egerton. He shared with me the screenwriting tip that scenes should almost always contain a reversal (a “flip” of a situation) or a change in tone. So, if a scene starts out happy, it should end with sadness. Of course, the best scenes will end in ways that don’t change the tone 180 degrees but instead change it in a way that is less predictable. This is precisely what Thompson does in her first chapter. The chapter begins with the character’s confidence in her own knowledge of her surroundings and ends with that confidence disrupted.

The next chapter does something similar. It begins with a risky encounter with the police, who are enforcing a State-mandated curfew. The encounter goes smoothly, according to the expectations of one character:

“Everything is a scare tactic with these people. They don’t check everything.”

The chapter ends with the knowledge that another encounter with the State is coming, and this one will be more serious and more dangerous: “I need you to bring me a bag of food, water, and one of your dad’s knives to school.”

Though the scene ends on a similar note as it began, the stakes have been dramatically increased.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s structure chapters using the novel Take Me Tomorrow by Shannon A. Thompson as a model:

  1. Choose the scene(s) at the heart of the chapter. I’m using the word scene because it’s sometimes a more helpful organizational unit than chapter. Most of us know what a scene is even if we have no idea what a chapter should look like. Scenes also appear in stories, whereas chapters do not. So, start by outlining a scene that you know will appear in the story/novel. There may be passages that come before or after it, but you should focus on the drama that you know will occur.
  2. Identify and clarify the tone or situation at the beginning of the scene(s). You can think about this in two ways. One, what is the situation at the beginning of the scene? Think broadly. What problem is the character facing? What approach is the character using? What is the character’s attitude? What is the balance of power? Two, what is the tone at the beginning of the scene? Is it serious? Comic? Goofy? Casual? Think about the scene as a whole, not necessarily the character’s emotions. For instance, a birthday party is casual, but a waiting room at a hospital is likely serious.
  3. Reverse or shift the tone or situation at the end of the scene(s). When you reverse or change any of these situations, you can go for a full reversal (happy to sad, birthday party to cancer), or you can go for a change in degree. So, if someone has more power, that person’s power could be amplified or reinforced rather than diminished or taken away. When you change the tone, you can keep the setting the same but introduce an element that changes the way we view it. For instance, if an ambulance shows up to a birthday party, the tone has changed from fun and casual to serious and formal. (As a general rule, if a scene contains people in uniform, then it’s probably formal.) You can also produce a change in degree: mildly happy to incredibly happy. For instance, birthday parties are mildly happy, but if you’re given a gift of a lottery ticket, and you scratch it and win a million dollars, the party just got a lot happier.

The key to all of these steps is to identify what you establish at the beginning of a scene. By the end of that scene, at least one of the basic building blocks of the scene should have changed. If you’re trying to decide where to end a chapter or scene, consider picking a moment immediately after something essential has changed.

Good luck!

An Interview with Shannon A. Thompson

3 Apr
Shannon A. Thompson's novel Minutes Before Sunset was a Goodreads Book of the Month for July. You can read the first chapter here.

Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Seconds Before Sunrise is the latest in the Timely Death series. You can read the opening chapters here.

Shannon A. Thompson is a recent graduate of the University of Kansas and the author of Timely Death Trilogy, a YA paranormal romance series. The latest novel in the series is Seconds Before Sunrise. The first novel, Minutes Before Sunset, was a Goodreads Book of the Month selection.

In this interview, Thompson discusses choosing Kansas over New York for her novel’s setting, when to write multiple points of view, and how to create a community of readers and writers.

(To read the opening chapters of Seconds Before Sunrise and an exercise based on how Thompson sets up the novel’s love story, click here.)

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the importance of place in the trilogy. It’s set in Hayworth, Kansas, which you’ve said is an amalgam of Hays and Ellsworth. This seems, on the surface, like an unusually specific choice for a paranormal romance. The genre states its interests in its name (paranormal and romance), and so the focus of your novels is obviously on the experience of being a shade and the love story between Eric and Jessica. The genre doesn’t really allow for long, lyric passages about place. But does that mean the trilogy could have been set anywhere, or does place matter? To take other examples, place definitely matters in True Blood and Harry Potter, but the American South and England also have much stronger literary histories than central Kansas. In other words, if you set any novel in the South, the reader will have certain expectations. Kansas is more of a blank page, so to speak. How does it impact or color the novel?

Shannon A. Thompson

Understandable question! In the first draft, The Timely Death Trilogy purposely did not have a set place where everything happened. This was because I wanted it to feel like it could happen anywhere, especially right outside your window. Then, in rewrites, I realized I wanted a place, but I didn’t want the stereotypical cities that many novels take place in right now (New York City, Chicago, etc.) I desire more of a “home” feel, something more people can relate to, so I knew I wanted a smaller town, and then I realized I hadn’t read many YA novels in the Midwest, especially fantasy or paranormal based, so I picked Kansas—more or less—as a tribute to the state I lived in during the time of writing the novel.

Michael Noll

The novel is told from two perspectives: Eric and Jessica. How do you know when to switch between them? Sometimes the chapters switch back and forth between points of view, one after the other, but there are also times when Eric gets a couple of chapters in a row. I’m especially curious about the chapters where they are together. How did you decide who got to narrate those chapters?

Shannon A. Thompson

Shannon Thompson's novel "Minutes Before Sunset" was a Goodreads Book of the Month in July.

Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Minutes Before Sunset was a Goodreads Book of the Month. Thompson discusses her approach to POV in the novel at her website.

I actually wrote about how I choose who was speaking on my blog here: Dual Perspectives: Should Characters Have Equal Time to Speak?

To summarize it, I let the characters dictate when they will speak. Since the first novel revolves around the Dark (shades), Eric spoke more, but the second book is focused on what it is like to be a human. Jessica speaks more because of her human background, but it’s a lot more even than the first novel. The third novel, Death Before Daylight, will expose the Light, but I won’t spoil it by saying who speaks more yet. 😀 

Michael Noll

On your website, you give writing tips, and one of them is to avoid inserting technology into fiction—no cell phones, Facebook, Twitter—because it will quickly become obsolete, as flip phones and MySpace have proven. But you also write that excluding technology is a moral choice. You write, “I want young adults to spend more time outside (or reading) and putting an emphasis on social media didn’t sit well with me any longer.” I’m curious how you balance this choice with the fact that social media and technology are becoming integral parts of our lives. Many people (especially teens) cannot use maps, for instance, but instead rely on the GPS apps in their phones. We check our phones constantly (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat) and even sleep with them. We almost certainly do not plan social gatherings or meetings as far ahead as we did when it was possible to go a day or more without talking to someone. Is it possible that at some point in the future, it will be impossible to write about human life without incorporating phones and social media? Will they become like cars–essential parts of a story?

Shannon A. Thompson

You have a very great point! Yes, technology is part of our everyday lives. However, I still think people will eventually turn away from certain aspects—like how the popularity of MySpace eventually went to Facebook—so I see technology as an unknown expiration date when included in novels. That being said, I see nothing wrong with including social media websites—I loved TTYL when I was younger—but it’s not something I will use in this particular trilogy. I might incorporate it into my future works, but I avoid it for now.

Michael Noll

Many writers (new and old, self-published and those working with publishers) tend to focus on their work but not on the business of publishing. What advice would you give about networking? You’ve been quite successful at building a following. Your author website has more than 14,000 followers. How do you find or attract your readers?

Shannon A. Thompson

I think it’s really important to have a website they can go to. Participate on social media, connect all of your sites, and be willing to understand how the social media changes overtime. Blogging has been my most successful platform. If you’re going to blog, I would suggest keeping a regular schedule with a focused topic range, but it’s more important to connect with fellow bloggers by reading and commenting on writers’ blogs like yourself. Networking is the key to finding fun and entertaining relationships with your readers. Overall, be engaging, entertaining, fun, and informative.

For my website, I began it in September of 2012 under the advice of Robin Hoffman, the Get Published Coach. I started reviewing books and movies, but then I slowly began sharing my story—how I got published and what I was planning on doing in the future. This was before I had my contract for my trilogy. I made sure to begin using a lot of SEO terms in my tags, and through the tags, I found blogs that spoke about similar topics. That’s how I found more writers and readers. Once I did that, I followed trends. For instance, I noticed my book reviews weren’t nearly as popular as my writing tips, so I dropped book reviews and did a long series of writing tips. I also started incorporating my contacts into my blog, which I still do today. On my author Facebook, I will ask questions that followers can answer. If I use their answer, I link to their blog. It’s a way to give back while encouraging a communicating and fun environment. It’s win-win. I honestly believe my every other day schedule is a huge factor, because trends slip majorly on the days I do not blog. Keeping everyone up-to-date is really vital to guarantee return. Having my blog connected with all social facets, so it automatically shares across numerous streams helps. My blog automatically posts on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Wattpad, and more.

April 2014

 

Michael NollMichael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Write a Love Story

1 Apr
Seconds Before Sunrise is second book in the Timely Death series, a Young Adult paranormal series by recent University of Kansas graduate Shannon A. Thompson.

Seconds Before Sunrise is the second book in the Timely Death Young Adult paranormal series by Shannon A. Thompson.

I once heard a critic claim that love stories are more difficult to write today than they were for Shakespeare. The obstacles that Shakespeare depended upon—class, feuding families, the fate of stars—have mostly been removed as possibilities, at least in America.

So, if class isn’t an option, how do we put obstacles between lovers in a story other than “he’s just not that into you?” This is a problem that genre literature, especially genres that deal in fantasy elements, handles well. The new YA paranormal novel from Shannon A. Thompson, Seconds Before Sunrise, perfectly illustrates two great ways to complicate a relationship. You can read the opening chapters here.

How the Story Works

I don’t necessarily believe the critic is right, but the idea that class is no longer relevant is still an interesting one. It’s certainly true that when class conflicts appear in fiction, the battle is often quick and decisive. For example, in the film The Devil Wears Prada, Anne Hathaway’s character questions the importance of choosing between two identical belts (in other words, questioning the industry itself). In response, her boss not only says she’s wrong but also insults her clothes as lumpy and unfashionable, saying that they must come from “some tragic Casual Corner.” After that, the movie never questions the class divide again.

So what are other ways to complicate a relationship? This passage (the beginning of Eric’s chapter on page 10) from Thompson’s novel illustrates her approach to complicating a love story (and the approach of many novels that incorporate fantasy elements):

I shoved my head into my locker and breathed hoarsely. It was the first day of school and sitting next to Jessica was already killing me. I wanted to talk to her, hold her, be with her—anything really—but I couldn’t. If the Light realized who or what we were, she’d be killed, and there was nothing I could do except stay away.

“You okay?” Jonathon asked, his voice squeaking through the slits of my locker.

I leaned back to stare at the blind artist. I wouldn’t believe he was Pierce, a powerful shade, if I hadn’t known his identities myself.

“I’m dealing,” I grumbled, unable to keep eye contact as Jessica passed us.

She flipped her brunette curls as she playfully hit Robb McLain’s arm. Robb McLain, with his sparkling teeth, gelled hair, and playboy personality was the perfect jerk.

The narrator and Jessica are in love, but the powers that be are keeping them apart—in this case, the “powers that be” are actual forces with actual special powers. Jessica’s memory has been wiped (though not completely) and other characters are in disguise. In other words, Thompson has invented an obstacle that does not exist in the real world. But she has also added a more realistic obstacle. Though the plot depends on paranormal activities, it’s grounded with a staple of love stories: the beautiful and charismatic, yet so-wrong-for-her, rival.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce complications to love story, using the passage from Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Seconds Before Sunrise as a model. In order to introduce those complications, we first must do the following:

Choose the relationship. It can be a relationship between lovers, of course, but that isn’t the only option. Every story has pairs of characters who develop a relationship with each other: brothers, siblings, parent/child, friends, co-workers, or teammates. All of these relationships work the same. The story is often driven forward by the forces that push these characters together and then pull them apart.

Choose the force of attraction. The most obvious is love. But characters can also be brought together in other ways: their shared history together, duty to a cause or each other, an event like a funeral, or some external force (boss/teacher forcing them to work together). In stories, this force is often clearly identified: “I could never leave her because _____.” Or, “Now, we had no choice but to work together.” Now, we can introduce the force that will disrupt the relationship. There are many ways to do this. Here are some of them:

Forces that can disrupt a relationship:

  • Forces of Class: These are forces whose power comes from differences in social standing: wealth, race and ethnicity, and position within a power structure. Wealth complications, though less common than in the past, still exist in fiction, especially historical fiction. So, The Notebook initially disrupts its characters’ relationship (just before World War II) by having Allie’s parents call Noah “trash.” Romance novels do this all the time: the tycoon’s son seducing the maid. Complications due to race/ethnicity might seem less common (or, again, confined to historical fiction), but they are still used (as in this beautiful story by Tiphanie Yanique). And, relationships in science fiction and fantasy stories (between different kinds of aliens) often mirror realistic stories of racial/ethnic differences. Complications due to power imbalance might be easier to use: bosses and employees, teacher and student, mentor and mentee, player and fan, soldier and civilian, or legal immigrant versus undocumented immigrant. In short, any policy or tradition that grants one person greater power than another is ripe for use in a story.
  • Forces of evil: It’s often useful to say, in a story, that if two characters get together, the bad guys will kill one of them. This is what Thompson does in Seconds Before Sunrise. It’s also the complication used in most adventure stories, like these two favorites from my childhood: Romancing the Stone and The Princess Bride.
  • Characters in disguise: Shakespeare used this a lot in his comedies. Characters—particularly female characters—would disguise themselves, often as men, and go unrecognized by their beloved. The question you must ask yourself is this: why must the character go into hiding? Are they in danger? Are they balancing multiple roles? Are there parts of their lives that cannot be revealed or discussed? The disguise can come in different forms. They don’t always make a beautiful person less beautiful. The story of Cyrano de Bergerac does the opposite by disguising looks with wit.
  • Irreconcilable differences and incompatible goals: This is used by romantic comedies a lot (she’s too serious, and he jokes all the time; she has a career, and he’s a Playboy). It’s also the basis of many domestic dramas. Answer the question: what would make it difficult for these characters to live together, to stand being around each other?
  • External Events: Many stories use external events that separate the characters (soldier shipped off to war, kid left at home over Christmas). The event can also be more intimate, such as the onset of a disease. The film Away from Her (based on Alice Munro’s story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”) disrupts a relationship with Alzheimer’s, to devastating effect.

Now, you can choose a rival.

Three ways to choose a rival:

  • Pick someone poorly suited as a love interest: This kind of rival is often the complete opposite of the other love interest—beautiful and popular instead of ordinary-looking and nerdy or uncool in some way. Even though the rival’s qualities at first seem appealing, the character who falls in love with him/her eventually realizes the rival’s “true” qualities. This is what Thompson has done: “Robb McLain, with his sparkling teeth, gelled hair, and playboy personality was the perfect jerk.” This kind of rival often creates a plot whose focus is on revealing the rival’s true personality.
  • Pick someone similar to the other love interest: What if the rival isn’t easy to hate? What happens if I love So-and-so, but she falls in love with someone who is just like me, but not me? This kind of rival creates a plot whose focus is on the other person (me) finding ways to distinguish him/herself.
  • Pick a random person. The scary thing about finding your beloved in love with someone else is that it may mean your beloved is far different than you thought. A random rival (someone whose qualities are neither good nor bad, just unexpected) often creates a plot whose focus is revealing the beloved’s true personality. In other words, it shows that the other person (me) has been pursuing someone with whom he/she is poorly matched.

This may seem like a lot of information. In a nutshell, all you need for a love story is an attraction, a disrupting force, and a rival.

Good luck!

An Interview with Shannon A. Thompson

15 Aug
Shannon A. Thompson's novel Minutes Before Sunset was a Goodreads Book of the Month for July. You can read the first chapter here.

Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Minutes Before Sunset was a Goodreads Book of the Month for July. You can read the first chapter here.

Shannon A. Thompson is a 21-year-old with two novels under her belt. Her first, a YA sci-fi thriller November Snow, was published when she was 16. Her latest work, the YA paranormal novel Minutes Before Sunset, was voted a Goodreads Book of the Month for July. Currently, she is finishing her senior year at the University of Kansas with a bachelor’s degree in English (with a creative writing focus).

In this interview, Thompson discusses the idea of prophecy, what it takes for a college student to publish a book, and her strategy for using social media as a promotional tool.

(To read the first chapter of Minutes Before Sunset and an exercise based on how she sets the rules of the novel’s world, click here.)

Michael Noll

You very deliberately set up the rules of the novel’s world in the first chapter: The town is in denial of very plain truths, and yet the narrator would like to join the townspeople’s simple lives–but something prevents him. How did you approach this chapter? Did you set out to establish the mentality of the town and the main character, or did you write the novel and work those things into the first chapter through revision?

Shannon A. Thompson

The first chapter is actually one of the parts that remained remarkably the same during the editing process. I purposely set up the rules so quickly, because they end up being very different from what they seem. As many readers have found out, the “prophecy” idea is not a preordained fate but rather a twisted illusion of choice, identity, and questionable fate. Because of this ultimate change, the beginning was initially set up. In regards to the protagonist, Eric, he is probably more rigid in the ultimate version–a little harsher on the world than he originally was–but I enjoyed it, because his changing from the beginning to the end meant more with his extremities being stretched even further.

Michael Noll

We also learn the basic mechanics of the world’s supernatural elements: the characters can appear and vanish and move quickly across distances. Young members of this community are given guards, either to protect them or protect the world from them (it’s not yet clear in the first chapter). These are crucial details for readers to understand, and it’s important to establish them early, but it’s also important not to stop the story in order to explain these things. You avoid this problem by working the details into the narrative. How did you balance the need to get the story moving with the need to show the reader what the characters can do (which is likely a big part of the book’s appeal)?

Shannon A. Thompson

I balanced them more in the editing process than in the originally writing process. This happened because I had a better understanding after I’d spent so much time with the world and the characters living within it. A good example of this is reflecting on the word count: the first version was 136,000 words, but the published version is less than 80,000 words. This is important, because I was still discovering some of those rules while I wrote the first version. In the editing process, I was able to incorporate those elements sooner.

Michael Noll

Many high school and college students dream of being writers, but you’ve actually published two novels. How were you able to make the jump ambition to actually completing and publishing your work? How do you make time among all the things that typically distract young writers: social life, social media, school, family?

Shannon A. Thompson

Shannon Thompson's novel "Minutes Before Sunset" was a Goodreads Book of the Month in July.

Shannon Thompson’s novel Minutes Before Sunset

Honestly, I believe anyone can make the jump, as you put it, but it requires a lot of sacrifice. I don’t go out on the weekends or watch a lot of T.V. I write–but I also love writing, so this is a beautiful opportunity for me. In terms of making the decision to do this, I’d have to talk about my past. I started writing, because my mother was a writer, and she encouraged me to in order to cope with nightmares and night terrors. She suddenly died when I was 11, and I faced mortality at a young age. I realized that I had to spend my life chasing my dream, so I began immediately, and I had my first novel published in three years. November Snow is dedicated to her, but Minutes Before Sunset is dedicated to my late roommate, Kristine Andersen, who died in October of last year and our other roommate, Megan Paustian. In a way you could say that my passion pushes me forward, but deaths in my life have caused the first shove that turned into the momentum that began it all. However, if I had to give advice, I’d share my mantra: write with passion; succeed with self-discipline.

Michael Noll

I teach at a university, and I often hear faculty lamenting and/or praising our students’ use of social media. The lamenters believe that students are wasting their lives on tiny screens. The praisers believe that students may one day translate their online connections into beneficial ends. I’m curious about your use of social media. It seems like you’ve been successful in creating an online presence for yourself not just as a person but as a writer. Your blog has more than 8000 followers, and Minutes Before Sunset was a Goodreads Book of the Month in July. What’s your social media strategy?

Shannon A. Thompson

I like to believe my social media strategy is simple: be available and help others. My website provides a lot of writing, editing, and publishing tips, because I want to help other writers, but I also want to help other artists in general. My ultimate dream isn’t to be a famous author. My dream is to be able to open an affordable art school that connects students with innovative artists within their media. I believe I have connected with so many others over the Internet, because I try to help them, and I’m always reminding people they can email me at any time if they have any questions about the industry.

August 2013

Profile pic

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Set the Rules Your Characters Must Live By

13 Aug
Shannon Thompson's novel "Minutes Before Sunset" was a Goodreads Book of the Month in July.

Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Minutes Before Sunset was a Goodreads Book of the Month in July and tells the story of two young adults trying to balance their supernatural gifts with a desire to live in the human world.

Every story has rules. In comic books, the superheroes have certain powers and not others. In horror stories, monsters can be killed only with silver bullets or certain chants. In romances, the heroine falls for certain kinds of men and not others. Pam Houston wrote a novel titled Cowboys are My Weakness. The rules of the novel are announced before you even open the book. Every story ever written or told must announce the rules it will play by.

The trick, as a writer, is to show those rules without disrupting the narrative. Shannon A. Thompson sets the rules clearly and quickly in her Young Adult/Paranormal novel Minutes Before Sunset. You can read the first chapter here. 

How the Story Works

Once you’re aware of how stories set the rules that their characters must live by, you can’t avoid seeing it’s done. Whether the fiction is genre or literary, the need to impose boundaries and limitations on characters is the same.

Here’s an example from the title story of Ethan Rutherford’s excellent new collection The Peripatetic Coffin. The story’s about the crew of a Confederate submarine trying to break the Union blockade of the port of Charleston:

“On deck, we had an unobstructed view of what Augustus had dubbed our Tableau of Lessening Odds. The Federal blockade was stupefyingly effective. Union canonships patrolled the mouth of the harbor, just out of range, and sank anything we tried to send through with the insouciance of a bull swatting blackflies. At night, they resumed the bombardment of the city. High, arching incendiaries, numbering in the thousands, painted the sky. You felt the concussion in your chest.”

The world is imposing clear boundaries on the characters: literally, a blockade with cannon balls and bombs. At no point in the story will the characters be able to act as if these impediments do not exist.

But the boundaries and rules can be mental as well as physical. To see how, read these two excerpts from Shannon A. Thompson’s novel, Minutes Before Sunset:

“It was Independence Day, and I stood with my family on Willow Tree Mountain. They called it Willow Tree Mountain, but, in reality, it was Willow Tree Hill, and the town denied that reality.”

Here’s the second excerpt:

“I moved my foot closer to the edge of the hill. I wanted to ride the wind down to the crowd. I wanted to dance and smile. I wanted to throw my arms in the air and listen to the exploding fireworks. I wanted to run around in endless circles until I fell down from exhaustion. I wanted to enjoy everything.

But that couldn’t happen. It was impossible.”

In these two passages, we learn the fundamentals of the story: the town has an Ignorance-is-bliss attitude. The narrator would like to join the smiling townspeople, but, for a reason that will be revealed later, he’s prevented from doing so. This mental and physical limitation defines his character and determines how the story will move forward.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s practice setting the rules, using Minutes Before Sunset as a model:

  1. Choose a character and a world for that character to inhabit.
  2. Define the world with a single adjective: happy, sad, fearful, proud, bored, etc.
  3. Free write about that adjective. Your goal is to find an image of the world or the people in it that demonstrates the adjective, if possible without actually stating it. The image will set the rules for the world. Future descriptions of the world should adhere to this early image in some way. So, in Minutes Before Sunset, the town’s denial of the supernatural elements in its midst is suggested by the fact that it calls a hill a mountain. In Gone in 60 Seconds, the stovetop burns out of control to suggest Kip’s lack of control.
  4. Now, free write about the character. How does he/she feel about the image you just created? Try to find an action that suggests the character’s attitude toward the world. For instance, in The Hunger Games, the fact that Katniss sneaks through the fence in order to hunt suggests that she’s willing to break the rules to protect her family. Thus, the big event at the end of the first chapter—volunteering for the Games in place of her sister—feels like a natural extension of her character, of the attitude that we’ve already witnessed.

Good luck and have fun.

%d bloggers like this: