Notes from Rachel Vail

One of the best speakers at SCBWI-LA, for me at least, was Rachel Vail. I’d never read any of her books before, but I made sure to order some from the Book Loft when I got home.

Rachel was extremely comfortable being in front of an audience (I’m sure her theater background helps a lot). She infused her talks with humor, practical tips and a list of questions to ask every character in your story.

Here’s the condensed version…

  • Don’t “Write what you know.” Start with what you know. You are like the hero and you are like the bad guy too. Keep making stuff up until it’s true.
  • Know absolutely everything about your characters. You don’t have the right to write about the character until you know them inside out.
  • The first draft is boring, it’s cliche. The fact that it’s not good, doesn’t mean you’re not good. You have to do the work. Redraft and redraft. Know the history, the background details that don’t show up in the story but that inform everything about how the character feels physically and emotionally.
  • Distinguish characters by the things they notice, what they talk about and what they hold back.
  • The story begins when the character’s life is thrown off balance. The character spends the rest of the book trying to regain that balance.
  • Use the forces of opposition. For example, make one character explosive, the other implosive. Or if you have a character who is scared of everything, let them do something brave, or place them in a situations where they are forced to deal with that fear.
  • We can’t be brave if we’re not scared at all. Being brave is not the same as being fearless.
  • Human beings grow up in full sight. We don’t get to hide in a cocoon. We have to do it in broad daylight, bombarded by adult feelings without the benefit of adult perspective. The first time you experience those emotions they knock you over like a wave on the sand. You need to respect that as a writer for young people. You need to be true.
  • Often when you’re blocked it’s because you don’t know the character well enough, or you’re avoiding a scene. The scene you’re avoiding is the scene your book needs. You have to rub it like a bruise. It hurts like hell. It’s the exhausting scene. 
  • We write to live in the mind of another.
  • If your character says to another character or herself, “I don’t even know what I want anymore,” that’s actually your character talking to you. That’s the character knocking on the page saying, “Excuse me. Need a motivation here. Tired of hanging out here chatting.” 
  • As hard as it might be to get into character, sometimes it’s hard to get out of character at the end of the day, and stop being that stomping 12-year-old girl who feels so vulnerable. But it’s important. We have to be grown ups as well. If you’re going to be a writer, you can be your creative self, but you’re also an independent business person and you have to take responsibility for that part as well. You can’t always be a teenager. Thank God. It’s bad for your skin. And your marriage.

Most Important Questions for your Characters

  • Who am I?
  • What do I want?
  • Who is stopping me from getting it? (Hint: It might not be the antagonist.)
  • Why are they stopping me?
  • Why do I want it?
  • What do I really want? (Hint: Often the opposite of what the character says they want.)
  • What will happen if I don’t get it?
  • What is at risk?

Imagining is tied up with remembering. Get inside and remember the emotions brewing inside.

One of the great comforts of books is that they can be company in this sometimes lonely life. A good book, a book with heart, can introduce us to characters who are more daring, or maybe more shy, older or younger, different genders or talents, living in familiar or exotic places, and we take a journey that is not our own, could never have been our own, but becomes our own as we gaze through a window made of paper and ink.

Life and death moments are a dime a dozen in 7th grade.

31 thoughts on “Notes from Rachel Vail

  1. Thanks for taking us to the conference with you and this write up of a very good speaker.

    I went to the Maui writer's conference one year and it was a great experience.

  2. hi miss sherrie! this made me know that i gotta do a lot better with some of my characters. so far in all my writing im the hero. 🙂 so it easy writing about me. i just forget sometimes to do more on the other ones. this was real cool and full up of good stuff.
    …smiles and hugs from lenny

  3. Excellent post! I write to live in another world where fantastical and exciting things happen every day. Character development is hard for me since I'm so plot driven, but this is a great writing workout for me. Thanks!

  4. Tabitha: I was so impressed with everything she had to say.

    Pseudo: I've lusted after that Maui conference!

    Kristan: That's exactly how I feel!!

    Becky: She had such great insight. I just want to internalize all of it now.

    Anne: Doesn't she have great advice?!

    Tricia: I was so inspired by her. If you ever have a chance to hear her in person, go!!

    Shelley: I couldn't scribble fast enough. Everything she said was just awesome.

    Lenny: Hope it helps as you work on the other characters in your stories. Although I'm pretty sure you would make an awesome hero of any story!

    Anna: You are very welcome. Her advice really hit home for me, too.

    Kelly: I'm glad it's useful for you too!

    Candy: It's not as good as seeing her in person, but yeah, she had such great insight to share.

    Jem: Glad it helps!

  5. So bookmarking this, Sherri! Thank you! It's exactly what I needed to hear today.

    I'm glad you had a great time at SCBWI. I thought it would be my year to go, but it didn't work out. Thanks for letting me live it vicariously in your last couple of posts!

  6. Robin: I'm so glad we got to meet, too. SO excited for you!!!

    Katie: You were sorely missed 😦 xoxo

    Jennifer: I'm glad you liked the notes and thanks for the tweet!

    Shannon: She did have great advice. I'm so glad I got to hear her.

    Lori: You are so very welcome!

    Lydia: I'll have to go hunt down some of the others. It's great to see what people post from the sessions I missed.

    T.Anne: Drama is good when you're a writer 🙂

    Laura: You're welcome!

    Jackee: I like your new avatar and I'm so glad I could give you what you needed today. Next year, you're there!!

    Elle: Typing my notes back out helps me too. I want to know this stuff inside out so I don't even have to think about it 🙂

    Carolina: I'm so glad we met, too!

  7. Thanks for this post. Lots of helpful stuff here. I especially loved the line, “Life or death moments are a dime a dozen in 7th grade.”

  8. Wow, these are such great notes! I'm a massive note scribbler, too, and you must have been racing!

    This was such a great talk. I love Rachel Vail's books, so I knew it would be. Thanks for sharing, Sherrie!

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