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1. Yay or nay

By now you either have given up on NaNoWriMo or know you stand a good chance of “winning” ten days from now.

If you’re in he first camp, I understand, I’ve been there before. For a number of reasons - lack of time, other commitments, stalling of story, loss of confidence, seemingly insurmountable odds of completing it - the wind has been taken out of your sails. You started November enthused and with a killer story idea, but the thing beat you down. That is the nature of this beast. 

However, one not need feel like a failure. Take solace in knowing you’ve got the start of something great. Maybe not the complete first draft, ready to be fine-tuned, you had hoped for, but a beginning. That spark of an idea that once held such promise, though now stalled, still has potential. It had potential then, it holds it now. Give yourself a little time away from it, allow it to stew in the subconscious, then come back to it in January and try again. 

If you’re in the second group, I’m pleased to finally be among you. At least I will have 50K words by then. It doesn’t feel like the story will have been completed. As this is different territory for me, I’m not sure what is required to receive that treasured prize of being allowed to print my own “I Did It” certificate, or a new car, or free trip to Disneyland, or whatever it is they do to reward winners. Again, I’m new here and am not sure the procedure for officially completing the marathon. Something from the NaNoWriMo site tells how to validate and “win.” I personally have promised myself a massage once “the end” is reached. 

There still is a week and a weekend to go, so keep writing. And if NaNo got the best of you, go get your massage anyway. You’ve earned it, too.

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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2. Gifts I Want

It's that time of year when everyone everywhere has a list of gifts for your favorite mom, or golfer, or skier. So here's my list of gifts for writers and readers. Mostly these are things I personally want or like to have, so it's pretty self indulgent. I'm sure you can add items to the list.

I'd like to preface my list with this statement: I am all about gifts of experiences or things that can be used up, consumed. I don't need more stuff in my life, but I do want more life in my life.

1. SCBWI membership for your favorite aspiring/published/nationally known children's author or illustrator. Many of us on this blog are SCBWI members, and I'd just like to throw out a couple of wonderful benefits of this membership. First, it's the world's largest and most respected professional organization for children's publishing. It's important to your career to belong to the professional organization for your industry. We have great programs, great publications, resources of all kinds, networking, critiquing, and conferences. You'll make contacts with editors and agents, fellow authors, and learn from the best.

2. Audio books. Personally, I have never outgrown my love of being read aloud to. My mom hooked me early on, and my fourth grade teacher read to us every day after lunch. My husband reads to me every night before bed. When I was in the hospital once, he read me Beatrix Potter stories. Audio books are perfect for car trips, subway rides, plane travel, or just doing the dishes. I have an app on my phone, so I can take my audio books anywhere I go. And when the hubby is out of town, I let my audio book read to me before bed.

3. This one is sort of obvious. Gift cards to bookstores. One of the highlights of our Christmas celebrations is going to the bookstore after Christmas and using our gift cards. I prefer indie bookstores.

4. Send your favorite author/illustrator to a conference. There are dozens of workshops and events close by, or if you want to splurge, send them somewhere like Highlights workshops or Big Sur. Of course, SCBWI conferences are awesome, and there are many. The big ones in LA and NYC every year, as well as regional conferences all across the U.S. and around the world. Go to http://www.scbwi.org/events-home/ to check out all the possibilities. Conferences are invaluable investments in perfecting one's craft and meeting people in the industry.

5. Pens and paper. Yes, I know it's the age of the computer and other electronics, but I have yet to find an author or illustrator who doesn't use the old-fashioned method once in a while. I keep a notebook with me wherever I go to jot down ideas, images, resources, etc. I used to write out all my first drafts in longhand, and even now that I've trained myself to write at the computer, I still occasionally like to write a chapter on paper. It uses a different portion of the brain. If you don't know what your author friend likes, a gift card to an office supply store is also a good bet.

6. Chocolate. I don't think this needs any explanation, except that I prefer the highest quality dark chocolate available.

7. Coffee. See #6.

8. Time. Writers need time. Life is busy and there are a million other things demanding our attention. Give your writer the gift of time. A weekend at a cabin. A babysitter once  a week. An offer to do the dishes every night (or insert appropriate chore here) while he/she writes. A nudge to attend a critique group.

9. Buy your writer/illustrator a critique with an editor/agent through one of the conferences in our area. Learning what professionals see in your writing is so important and valuable.

10. A puppy. So this is personal, but I have to include it. My dogs are always by my side when I'm writing. I have two of them. But I've been asking for a golden retriever for almost a year, and if anyone who loves me wants to buy me one, that would be the best gift. Pets comfort you when the writing isn't going well. They encourage you to get out for a walk when your butt has gone numb from the butt-in-chair work ethic. They are also characters in many children's books. There's a reason for that.

There you have it. A complete guide for gift-giving for the writer. Print it out and give it to your family, or use it to thoughtfully gift your writerly friends. Or hound my hubby about giving me a puppy.

by Neysa CM Jensen
up in Boise, Idaho

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3. My Version of NaNoWriMo

So, I’m not really doing NaNoWriMo. I didn’t start a brand new novel, and I don’t have a goal of writing 50,000 words in a month.
Going along with the spirit of the month, however, I made a goal to actually, finally finish my novel that I’ve been working on for a few years now, and to write at least five days a week (which I don’t usually do).
Guess what? I’ve done it! I “finished” my novel last week and I’ve written five days for each of the two weeks this month. I say I only “finished” it because I kind of hate the way I wrote the ending. Endings are so hard, that I probably would have put off actually ending it for a long time if I hadn’t been pushing myself this month, so that was a huge success in and of itself for me.
Which is another thing—though I have finished novels before, I have always been too intimidated to go back and overhaul the whole mess of what I wrote to try and turn it into something decent. Another part of my goal this month was that if I finished my novel before the month ended, I had to spend the rest of the month editing as much as I could. I’ve already started doing that, and after my years of intimidation, I’ve discovered I really like editing. It’s addicting. One night I got so involved in it I didn’t realize how late it was getting until I looked at the clock and realized my husband had already been in bed for two hours. And even then I had a hard time stopping. I’ve discovered that editing a rough draft can even be easier than writing the rough draft, I think because I already have something to work with. I’ve been rewriting entire scenes and writing way more words per day than I was before. Who knew?
Moral of the story: I think this will help me get through a first draft a lot quicker next time because I’ll put less pressure on it to be perfect. I’ll know that rewriting it is actually much easier and more enjoyable than I had always thought. Maybe by next year I’ll even be ready to do NaNoWriMo for real.  

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4. The wall

It’s funny how things change in a week. NaNoWriMo started exceedingly well. Week two came along and it has became a chore.

The wall, the murky middle, the notorious hardest week of NaNo has arrived. Allow me to re-post tidbits and tips to help us all through. 

The first is from Monday’s NaNoWriMo site. I can’t locate the article to credit the author but I believe it came from the local Salt Lake chapter who advised: back up your work. Right now. If you’re on track with 25,000 words or only a tenth of that, it is too much to loose. Back it up now, back it up every other day hereafter.

Gwen Hicks, also from a NaNoWriMo email offered these points:
--Not every thing you write this month will be good, some  of it even bad. The key is to accept that you may disappoint yourself and not live up to your own standards, but the time to nitpick is after its finished. 
-A sign above Ray Bradbury’s writing office advises: “You must never think at the typewriter. You must feel.”
-Stuck? Start talking to yourself - ad-lib dialog, even record it on a sound recorder
-Trapped in a scene? Do a choose your own adventure with several possible outcome based on a charter’s actions.

My operating procedure has been to set a timer and write for an hour, repeating as many times as I can manage. I record the number of minutes for each hour. If I first devote five minutes to figuring out what needs to happen in a scene, my word count goes way up. Know what you’re to write before you write.

Know when to write (and when not to). My word count goes way down at night when I am tired. Some people fight through it and struggle on. I merely waste time when I should have given up and gone to bed. Know when you are most productive and when you are not, then plan accordingly. 

In different font color, I drop remarks in the middle of my text. Notes to self such as “fix that” or “thesaurus” is my signal where something wasn’t right, or a more precise word is called for. This keeps the internal editor at bay, yet gives him something to go on when I let him out of his cage. It’s quick, easy, and doesn’t in erupt the flow of thought. 

Lastly, Julie Daines on Monday posted tips on this blog that are so good, they bear repeating. They are:
-Let go of perfection.
-Chip away at the story using spare moments of time rather that waiting for a huge chunk of time.
-Keep fingers moving - you need to read what she says about that.
-Be all in - again, Julie says it better than I can summarize here, so follow the link for the complete idea.

It’s half-time. Don’t give up. We’ve still got sixteen days to get our stories to finished. Good luck.

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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5. NaNo Pep Talk

by Julie Daines

Now it gets hard. You got your NaNo novel off to a great start, and you know how it's going to end, but what to do with all this middle part?

Here are some tips that help me get through the tricky middle weeks of NaNo:

1. Let go of perfection.

Realize that what you're writing is only a draft--an idea of what your book is about. Don't go back and edit, just keep moving forward. If you write something you don't like, don't delete it, just use the strikethrough function and then move on. That way it still counts toward your goal, you have a reminder for later that this is a part you hate, and you never know--you may end up keeping it later.

2. Chip away. 

We don't all have hours of time, so use every spare minute. Don't wait for huge chunks of writing time, chip away. The words will accumulate.

3. Keep your fingers moving. 

When you don't know what to write next, don't stare at the computer screen with glazed eyes, keep your fingers typing. Drag out the scene you just finished, write a boring transitional scene of your character driving home from work, write anything that will up your word count and keep your mind going.

You'll be surprised at the ideas that will pop into your head while writing a bunch of boring nonsense--just as long as you keep those finger going. Sure it will all get cut later, but in the mean time, the words count and your brain is working.

4. Be all in.

It's easy at this stage to say, "Well, I got off to a good start, I guess that's good enough." Don't give in to that little voice of doubt telling you you can't finish. If you really want to be a successful writer, you have to be all in--not just in November, but all the time. Discipline is how a goal is reached, always.

Being an author means writing. It means hard work. And it means meeting your goals and deadlines. NaNo is good practice for discipline.

Good luck to all you NaNoers this month!

Share some of your tips on how you are succeeding.

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6. One week down, three to go

How goes NaNoWriMo? Hope it is going well. 

At the risk of being bombarded with rotten tomatoes or having my house egged, mine is going well, remarkably well. I’m above 15,000 words and we’re only a week into it. My story has legs and the middle doesn’t appear too murky.

The key, I believe, was the planning I banged out in October. I had a few ideas floating around, but wasn’t sure how to bring them together. I looked back over writerly advice that abounds on the internet. Somebody, I think it was John Grisham, says the first thing he writes is the ending. Super simple and super smart. When I determined how the story was to end, those other ideas just fell into place. 

The next savvy bit of advice appeared right before the write-a-thon began and I snatched it up. The NaNoWriMo site is helpful and sends out tips and encouraging pep talks. Our ML, Safaia, stressed, a week ago Friday, importance of keeping up on the word count. Says Safaia, “Your life will be so much easier if you make that 1,667 words every day. I usually advise that if you can get a buffer, write 2,000 instead of just 1,667, then you'll have something to fall back on for when real life inevitably comes in and kicks your butt.” I adopted that philosophy and pushed for the 2,000. Only one day I didn’t make it, the evening I was bleary-eyed and dog-tired and only could manage 1,500 before sleep took over. I made up the next day with 2,500. 

So, congrats. We’ve made it to the quarter mark. The nice thing about NaNo this year is it started on a weekend and ends there, too, a long weekend for some of us.

Best of luck with it.

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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7. Characters and Emotions

One of the most challenging aspects of learning the writing craft, to me anyway, has been how to describe and depict the emotions a character feels. It's simple to just tell the reader: Elliot felt mad. Not good writing. How to make the reader feel the mad, the anger, the heat of it. Some of my best writing teachers have suggested using physical sensations to describe the emotion, since most of us feel emotions in our bodies. I find that advice useful, but it takes time to develop. When I'm writing an emotion, I stop and try to feel it in my own body and then try to get that feeling down on the page.

Recently, I came across this telling graphic depiction of the areas in the body where emotions are felt:

Wow. I think every writer should print this out and post it above your computer. Look at anger, for example. It's all in the upper body, especially in the jaw and hands. And in the heart area. That's why phrases like "harden the heart" are part of our lexicon. But of course, as writers, we don't want to rely on cliched expressions to do the work we should be doing.

I find this graphic so interesting. Disgust is mostly in the throat. Depression is a deep dark whole in the center of your body. Shame seems mostly expressed in the eyes. I wish there were many more of these images to fit more emotions.

However, we all have bodies and emotions, so start mapping out for yourself. Observe those around you. This is one of my favorite games: watch people interacting and try to predict what their emotional states are even without hearing what they're saying. You can do this with the TV muted as well, although I prefer watching real people in their real lives. Notice how other writers do this well. You may not want to steal their fabulous phrasing, but you can learn from their unique take on a time-worn description.

I am inclined to use every moment as writerly research, so use any situation you are in to track emotional responses. How are people at a funeral expressing their grief in their bodies? How about during a family quarrel? What about driving on a dangerous stretch of road in the winter--white knuckles, right? But that's cliche, so dig deeper.

I would really love to have some interaction in the comments section here. Submit your ideas for describing emotions through bodily sensations. We can all help and learn from each other.

by Neysa CM Jensen
Boise, Idaho

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8. Everybody Has an Agenda

Everybody has an agenda. We all have desires, hopes, and dreams. We all have principles. We all have goals, whether we formalize them or not. We all have a background and a historical perspective that shapes our actions and our outlook. In our interaction with others, we are at least somewhat aware that the person we are interacting has views and goals that may or may not be the same as ours.

Even the people we love, the people we support, and the people we usually agree with are individuals with their own way of thinking. Every interaction we have is colored by the perspectives and viewpoints of all people involved.

How often have you argued with somebody or watched two people argue when both sides are saying basically the same thing? That happens because we are all individuals and we each have our own agenda, and to some extent, we recognize that our agendas don't always agree, even when the points we are trying to make are the same.

So why should the characters in our stories be any different?

If you want your characters to ring true, they must each have their own world view, their own wants and needs, and their own goals. Their own agendas.

Characters on the same side take that position for their own reasons. Characters on opposite do the same thing. Your protagonist and antagonist might seem like enemies, and since your story is told from the POV of the protagonist (probably), the antagonist may seem evil. But from his point of view, he's probably taking his position as a matter of conscience, because he thinks it's the right thing to do. From the antagonist's point of view, and that of his followers, the protagonist is the bad guy.

But agendas are not limited to main characters. Every time a character appears in our story, even in the most minor of roles, we need to consider what that character wants. Maybe we don't need to create a detailed character analysis of our most minor characters, but we do need to know what each character hopes to achieve. Each character has a life outside the story, even if we don't know anything about it.

Too often, we write a character out of convenience, to fill a story need, without thinking about that character as a real person with hopes and dreams of her own. Usually, when we read and come across a character like that, we're unsatisfied. But still we write them.

Each person in your story world is there for a reason. Not just your reason, to fulfill a story need, but a reason of his or her own. Each character wants something out of his interaction with your other characters or your setting, or whatever he is there for. Even if the character is there solely to offer support to another character, he is offering support for his own, usually selfish, reasons. Even two characters who agree can have agendas that create conflict, and conflict creates story.

So remember that as you write. Every time a character is in a scene, consider why that character is there and what he or she hopes to get out of it. This is one of the most effective ways to turn characters into people.

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9. Ready. Set. Go.

If you are reading this and participating in NaNoWriMo, shame on you. Quit procrastinating and get your 1667 words in. Come back when you’re finished.

With the stroke of midnight, NaNoWriMo has arrived. The local Salt Lake region had a virtual kick-off last night. At 11:30 they gathered in a chat room and hung out until the official start, at which point those late nighters got started. Not me. I was in bed energizing for a decent start this morning. 

The NaNo site offers support and encouragement along with some planned events, including write-ins. This is when reclusive writers join other solitary writers in a central location, laptops in hand, and ignore each other and write. There are different locations throughout the valley, but they will occur every Saturday at either the City Library or City Creek Harmon’s store from 2-5pm. Checking the NaNoWriMo site would be the best way to know when and where write-ins near you will occur. I’ve never attended the write-in sessions. Think I’ll give it a try this year.

The Salt Lake region also plans a Half-Way Write-In and Party on Nov. 14. The write-in will occur at the South Jordan Library and the party happens at The Pie near by. They also have scheduled a Last Chance Write-In for  Nov. 30.  

This blog’s Scott Rhoades offered NaNoWriMo tips on Carol Lynch Williams’ blog, Throwing Up Words. (He also had some advice on Wednesday here for people who can’t participate but still want to get the most out of writing this month.) Scott suggests following a daily routine in which you write at the same time. Whatever works best for you - early morning, late a night, an hour lunch break. You should minimize distractions during the time. Ignoring email notifications and texts are hard. Ignoring the kids is impossible. Family obligations can’t be put off for 30 days, but if you can get your family to leave you alone during your set writing time, then you can resume your normal role with them afterward. Scott also advises to take breaks. That could mean write for an hour, rest for five minutes repeat. Again, find something that works for you.

The only other thing I can add would be to know what you’re going to accomplish before you sit down at the computer. Spend the first five minutes of your day jotting a quick description of the scene you hope to write. Those five minutes will be returned in greater productivity. 

Other than that, the rest is up to you. Good luck to all.

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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10. Repost: No NaNoWriMo? Eight ways to participate, sort of

This is a repost from around this time last year (with a few edits), for those of who who are not doing NaNo but want to share in the writing mojo that fills the air this time of year.

Not everyone has the time to participate in NaNoWriMo. Many of us who can't participate wish we could. But just because we can't dedicate that much time and effort to our manuscripts for four solid weeks doesn't mean we can take part in the spirit of the event.

Here, for the NoNaNoWriMos, is a list of eight things we can do to make November an especially fruitful writing month:

1. Dedicate time every day to writing.
Two hours. One hour. 30 Minutes. Whatever you can do. It's not easy for many of us to write every day. But for a month, we could probably do it.

2. Take one day as a solid writing day.
Maybe you can't do it every day, but take a day off from work, or take a single Saturday, and set a big writing goal. 5,000 words. 3,000 words. Whatever is a big stretch for you. Tell your family that you'll be happy to do whatever they need that day, but first you have to meet your goal. Then write until you've completed the goal. That might be a good use for that day off on the Friday after Thanksgiving, if you can't set a different day.

3. Revise.
Maybe you don't have the time to write a novel in a month. But you can probably do a revision pass, even if it's not deep revisions. Revising takes a different kind of concentration. I find I can do it in smaller bursts, when I need to devote longer stretches of time to writing my first draft. Revise a page a night. Four or five pages a night will likely get you through most of your manuscript in a month.

4. Brainstorm.
Write down a story idea every day. The ideas don't have to be any good. Ask yourself what if and then add odd situations. If you can come up with 30 ideas this month, chances are good one or two of them will capture your imagination. One of those will spawn your next writing project.

5. Read more.
Don't have time to dedicate to writing? Then read more. Shut off or shut out the TV for a half hour every evening and read. Read something in your genre. Read a classic you've been meaning to get to. Read research material for the story you are working on or planning. Read a book about writing. Read a biography of a favorite writer. Whatever, just read. Reading doesn't require the same intense energy as writing, but it's an important part of the process.

6. Plan your next project.
Even if you are usually a pantser, the process of outlining a story can spark your creativity. Don't worry about the rules of outlining you learned in school. Make a list of plot points. They can be in order or not. You'll probably change the order anyway. Write a rough synopsis.Then start to build it out, adding more detail. When you're ready to write, you'll have the material you need to get started, and you'll probably find you have less writer's block because you know what's happening next in the story. You could even skip around to the scenes that interest you if you have problems with one scene.

7. Market yourself.
Research a new market every day, then send those queries. Even if you spend two weeks researching and two weeks querying, that's probably better than you do most months.

8. Journal.
For one month, keep a writing journal. Keep track of whatever you do each day to work toward your goals, even if it's not actually writing. Let your journal be your slave driver. It feels cruddy to write "I didn't do anything today." It feels really cruddy to write that frequently. Journals don't work for everybody, but give it a try and see if it helps to keep you going.

Maybe you don't have the time or energy or willpower to write a novel in a single month. Or maybe that's just not the way you work best. You can still feed off the writing energy that fills the air in November. Try one of the above, or combine some of them. Whatever you need to do to make November a great month for your writing.

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11. Word count

Even though this is a writing blog, let’s do some math.

Fifty K words for the NaNo November works out to 1667 words a day, about 12,500 a week. The daily count means almost 7 pages of double-spaced text.

I’m in trouble. 

The method I’ve been regular with is a daily timed writing session, with no regard to word count. If I had to guess, I couldn’t. I’ll write on the story, then type notes to myself or scribble them in a notebook. I’m sure it wouldn’t be near a thousand, probably less than 500.

With NaNoWriMo looming, there have been some articles floating around on how to ramp up word count. Then I Googled for other ideas.

Jessica Strawser, in a recent Writer’s Digest article, initiated this query. Juggling work and toddlers, she says it is about finding ways to write in between the times she actually sits uninterrupted at her laptop. One thing she does is use a voice recording app on her smart phone to record ideas that randomly floats into her head.  Scene snippets, dialog, plot ideas, etc., can even be recorded with a hands free device on the drive home from work. Sometime during the day, she emails herself notes about the next scene so she doesn’t go into it cold when she sits to write.

Other articles list things like establishing a writing routine and never vary from that schedule. Some swear by writing in the morning, others must wait until the kiddies fall asleep at night. 

There is the Pomodoro Technique (Google it) in which you set a timer for 25 minutes and work interruption free, then take a 5 minute break, the repeat.

Most writing on the subject confirm Stawser’s idea of having a notion of what you will write about before you sit to type. Rachel Aaron devotes the first 5 minutes to jotting down a quick description of the scene she’s going to write. Aaron claims she has gone from two to ten thousand words a day with her three-tier approach. The first and most important is the knowledge phase. She always spends 5 minutes, never less, sometimes more, writing a stripped down version of the scene; no details, she simply notes what she will write when the time comes to actually write it. This step alone increased her daily 5K. 

Aaron took two other steps to increase her writing. She noted the time and places she was most efficient and built her writing time around those periods. Lastly, she says enthusiasm ups word count. The fun scenes fly by faster than the boring scenes that work up to it. Which leads to, if it’s dull for you to write, what expectations do you have of your reader? 

I am not doing the Rachel Aaron justice with this quick recap. The whole article can be reached following the link below and is pretentiously titled “How I Went From 2,000 Words a Day To 10,000 Words A Day.” 

I’m not sure I’m ready to jump in at that pace. I’d settle for 1667 words. 

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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12. Adding in the History

I’m writing a historical fiction novel, which was such a big, daunting thing to me when I started (and still kind of is sometimes), that I was tempted to make the storyline take place in an alternate universe just so I wouldn’t have to do the research to make it somewhat historically accurate.
Yes, that’s called laziness. I’d always written fantasy before, and the joy of fantasy is you can make up your own reality and no one can tell you it’s wrong. But, at some point I decided it had to be done. My novel wanted to take place in the real world. Still, I decided to write out a first draft before doing any historical research. I didn’t want my story to be defined by my research; I just wanted the research to make the story believable in the time period I was writing it.
What helped me about writing my draft before I researched is now I know exactly what I’m looking for. I made a lot of notes as I went along of things I was unsure about, questions I had about what technology existed at that time, what clothes were in style, what they did for fun, what people did for work, etc. I had vague ideas from things like A Room with a View and Downton Abbey, but sometimes you get really specific in a novel and you don’t want to get it horribly wrong. It’s kind of terrifying sometimes, that that one history expert one day will read what I’m writing and just be horrified at me. So I try.
Now that I’m closing in on finishing my first draft (I think my personal NaNoWriMo is going to be making myself just get that done!), I’ve started gathering some books. Wikipedia only got me so far. My time period is late 1890s-early 1900s England, so the very end of the Victorian era and the very beginning of the Edwardian. Turns out, not the most popular era to write educational books on. It’s been harder than I thought to find the material I want. I don’t know what people did before the days of Amazon and Goodreads, because the library and the bookstore did not come through like I thought they would. Thanks to the internet, I've found some good books and some of them got sent straight to my Kindle.
The Boer War also factors largely into the story line of my novel. It was actually amazing how well the Boer War fit into the story line I had already made up with knowing at all what I was doing beforehand. It’s like it was meant to be. The Boer War took place in Africa, most of the soldiers died of diseases, and it was just a badly planned disaster—perfect for my narrative purposes. Hurrah. But, I found a total of two books at the library on it. A little bit depressing, except that one of them was written by Winston Churchill. Did you know he was a journalist in the Boer War before he was prime minister of England? I sure didn’t.
Some of my history-related questions are getting so specific I may have to go find myself a history professor someday and bombard him with my author craziness. I wonder if he’ll even know everything I want to know. Probably by that point I should figure that no one will know and be satisfied. Then I will have to begin the task of deciding what needs to be included in my story and what will just be exhausting info-dump. I hope that having already written my first draft will help with that too. I’ll just be inserting the info I’ve found where I already know I need it. Wish me luck.

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13. Outline quickie

NaNoWriMo is coming.

Pantsers will jump into a brand new story with merely an inkling of an idea. They can stop reading this post right now. Plotters should have started a few months ago. As a born-again plotter, I need to go into the month with more than just a notion. And, as a person whose been busy the last few weeks (haven’t we all), I need something quick.

Remembering a recent Writer’s Digest article, I pulled it up. It is called “7 Steps to Create a Flexile Outline for Any Story” and written by K.M. Weiland, a plotting guru.  

The seven steps are:
1. Craft your premise
2. Roughly sketch scene ideas
3. Interview your characters
4. Explore your settings
5. Write your complete outline
6. Condense your outline
7. Put your outline into action

KM uses this approach in a more drawn out fashion. She may spend as much as six months filling three notebooks to complete step 2. We’ve only got two weeks. My goal now is to slap something down, taking the rough ideas thats been bouncing around in the head for a while. The following is my interpretation of Weiland’s suggestions, watered down for quick application to your NaNo story. Go to the article for complete details.

1. Craft your premise
Weiland and John Truby advocate developing a strong premise, the basic idea of the story. It should answer these questions:
-Who is the protagonist?
-What is the situation, the hero’s personal condition at the beginning? How will that condition be changed by the hero himself or the antagonistic force?
-What is the protagonist’s objective? What moral choices will they have to make to gain the objective?
-Who or what is the opponent that stands in the way of the hero achieving their goal?
-What misfortune or disaster must the hero overcome?
-What conflict will arise from the MC’s reaction to the misfortune? What is the logical flow of cause and effect action throughout the story?

2. Roughly sketch scene ideas
Write a list of the ideas you have thus far for the story. It is not important to have all the details worked out or know the order of the scenes, just record them. I would suggest brainstorming session of possible scenes and events if the story is undeveloped. Weiland says to look back over the list and highlight any ideas that raise questions. Last is to go back and address each of the highlighted questions.

3. Interview your characters
In order for your characters to carry the plot, you will need to know all about them, not necessarily for their hole lives, but as they are when they come into the story. Work backward from the moment they become involved in the plot, at the disaster listed in the premise. What events have led them to this moment and caused them to react to it as they do? There are online resources that have a list of questions, or you may go freestyle, asking each character questions and then allow them to answer.

4. Explore your settings
You will need to intimately know your setting before you begin to write. Scenes can can shift from place to place, but the time and world where your story occurs should be fundamental to your plot.

5. Write your complete outline
Armed with this basic understanding of your story you’re ready to seriously plot your story. Using the ideas listed in step 2, develop a linear timeline, scene by scene, molding the existing ideas into a solid structure. You can be as extensive as you like, writing out a single sentence or something detailed, identifying the key components of each scene’s structure. These include, who the narrating character is, their goal and obstacles to the goal, the outcome and character’s reaction, and the lead-in to the next scene. Watch for possible lapses of logic or blank areas.

6. Condense your outline
As the outline may have a lot of rambling and thinking out loud, condense it down to the main points so that you have something easier to deal with as you write. You may want to write out the scenes on index cards, or do so using a program such a Scirvener or yWriter. 

7. Put your outline into action
Armed with a highly organized plan, you are now ready to write. Begin each writing session by looking over the outline and reading the notes for that scene. Work out any remaining issues before writing.  This is just a guideline to direct the session’s writing. Should an unexpected idea pop up, feel free to pursue it, knowing you can always fall back to the outline if that new venue does not work out.

Okay, that was easy. Now all yew have to do is plug in a story. We’ve got 14 days. Go.

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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14. Critique Groups

If I could give only one piece of advice to those who want to write for children and teens, it would be to find a good critique group and make a commitment to it. I value my critique group more than you can imagine. Some of us have been in it for more than 10 years, while others are fairly new. They are all amazing writers, and as we have evolved, we have learned what works for us. Most importantly, we have learned how to offer really useful and necessary critiques, which is definitely a skill that can be learned and perfected and which doesn't necessarily just happen.

How to find or form a critique group:

One easy way is to check out the SCBWI walk-in critique groups via the web site. These are walk-in groups, so you can simply arrive and check it out. You might find others with whom you'd like to start a regular group.

While on the web site, you can also contact one of our region's critique group coordinators to get their help in finding others near you.

Attend local writing events, including SCBWI meetings and conferences, where you might meet others to form a group or others who are looking for a new group member.

Post on the SCBWI Utah/southern Idaho Facebook page and see if others want to form a group with you.

How do critique groups work?

There are several logistical choices available to a group.

PLACE and FREQUENCY: Some groups meet weekly, others monthly. Some are online groups. The group might have to try different meeting options to find what works best for that unique group of people. My critique group meets in one another's homes. I've been in other groups that meet in a public place or the home of just one group member or a mentor.

MANUSCRIPT SUBMISSION: I've seen this issue handled dozens of ways. In one group we brought several copies of our submissions to the meeting, where each person would receive a copy to read along as the author read out loud. This was fun for me, as I love being read to, but it had some limitations as far as critiques. Reading aloud took up much of our meeting time, and the critiques usually weren't very in-depth, as the readers never had time to ponder or reread the piece. My current critique group sends in 1-2 chapters (we are all working on novels, so this works for us) about a week before the group meets. It is up to each group member to read all the submissions before coming to the meeting. Then we use our meeting time more efficiently, as we jump right into critiques. Some groups do only a few pages of each manuscript each time, while others will do large chunks. How you handle this depends on a lot of factors, such as how many people are in the group, how much each person is writing between meetings, and how much time you have during a meeting. My group meets on Saturday evenings, so we can take more or less time if we feel like it. A group I used to be in met on Wednesday evenings and had only two hours to get through about eight manuscripts, so we were very focused and limited.

NUMBER OF PEOPLE: I think the ideal size of a critique group is somewhere between 3-8 people. More than that is just unwieldy in terms of having enough time to give each person a useful critique. You want at least three people so you have a diversity of opinions. I value the varied opinions of my critique group members, because if they ALL agree, I am pretty certain what needs to be revised. And if they don't all agree, I can pick and choose which approach I might take.

HOW TO CRITIQUE: This is the crucial piece. Some people like to focus on commas and spelling. That's not critique. I suggest focusing on questions. If something brings up a question for a reader, that is useful information for the author. If you're writing a mystery, those questions may be exactly what you're going for. On the other hand, maybe you thought you were being really clear, but the critiquers' questions indicate you need to do some revising to get at the clarity you want. Another way to look at the big picture is to think about the main elements like character, setting, plot, world building, etc. Sometimes it's fun to bring some useful exercises or information from any conference or workshop you've attended and focus on that element in all the manuscripts. The "sandwich" critique is always a nice way to approach a work: say the things you like in the manuscript, then concentrate on problem areas, then end with more nice things.

CHOOSING/ADDING MEMBERS: Our critique group is straightforward and sometimes ruthless. We are all veteran critiquers who are used to the give and take of brutal critique (not mean or harsh, but just absolutely honest), and not everyone is up for that. Some people have less thick skins and require a softer approach. We screen any potential new members to make sure they are up for our kind of blunt critique. If everyone can be honest about what they are ready for, it helps. I find it's also helpful if all the members of the group are writing in the same genre--such as picture books or YA. One magazine writer in a group I used to be in felt like her two pages each month versus everyone else's full chapter was just not a fair give and take. She was not the best fit for the group.

My best advice is to find a group of fellow children's writers and jump in. Be patient with each other and with the process as you find your way as a unit. If you feel like you don't know what you're doing, maybe occasionally bring in a more experienced author for some mentoring, or do some research. There are plenty of books on starting critique groups. Attending conferences and workshops will also teach you skills that will help you improve your critiquing skills.

by Neysa CM Jensen
in Boise, Idaho

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15. Writing Without Pants

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am on a four-week sabbatical from my writing job, and of course, I'm spending it writing. I'm now in my fourth week, and it has gone very well. So well, in fact, that I have been able to start a new project.

Usually, I think about a new story for months, even years. Not this time. I'm working on a story I've been thinking about for about a month.

What that means is, I don't have a plan. I have a concept and setting and a character type, and that's about it. In the past, when I've started writing, I've had a character and some major plot points. I've known more or less where I want the story, what I want it to be. I don't really outline, but I write a brief summary of the story as a way of thinking through it.

This time, I'm totally pantsing it. Some prefer the term "discovery writing." That's not a bad term, but it doesn't seem to fit. I feel more like I'm building a house by putting up random walls in random places without even considering a foundation and hoping that eventually they'll become a dream house. I'm not even sure all those walls are on the same lot.

They call it "pantsing," but there's a constant fear that it will end up more like that dream where you're walking around school or work or wherever and discover you're not wearing pants.

To be sure, I am discovering things. Around 30,000 words in and I have a better idea who my main character is and what some of his relationships are. I still don't really know what he wants. I'm starting to feel little twinges about what he might want and what his character arc might be. Weird things are happening to him, and I know how that ended up happening, but I don't know why or what he's going to do about it.

In a way, I guess I'm doing my own mini Nano. Just getting the words down, building scenes that may or may not survive, and will definitely not survive in their present order. As I write, I learn more about some aspects of what's going on, but rather than going back to fix what I've already done, I just keep plugging away.

I don't know how this will turn out. It's frustrating. I've never written without at least a vague idea of a direction, and I don't think I like it. But this week, while I still have pretty much as writing time as I want thanks to a very supportive wife and family, I'm just putting down words, about 2,000 a day.

The words are flowing, they're just flowing in all directions over a flood plain rather than in a controlled channel. It's a strange way to write.

But as long as the words keep coming, I'll keep letting them. I just hope that eventually, I'll be able to create a livable house that I'm proud of and want to show off.

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16. NaNoWriMo Tips to Success

By Julie Daines

With NaNoWriMo looming in the very near future, I thought I'd share a few tips that have helped me. If you know me at all, you know I'm a huge NaNo fan. All of my published books are NaNo projects. When I NaNo, I'm in it to win it.

So this Monday and on my next post--on the 27th, I'll put some quick NaNo tips on the blog.

1) Make it work for you. Advice on how to succeed at NaNoWriMo is flooding the internet this time of year. Sift through it all and find what works for you. If you try to force yourself into a method that doesn't work for you, you will have a hard time succeeding.

2) Plan ahead - even if it's just getting to know your characters. If you're an outliner, great, outline as much as you can, even if most of it doesn't end up in the book. (During Nano you have to keep your mind open and not get stuck trying to stick to an outline that's not working.)

If you're not an outliner, at the very least, do some serious preparation in getting to know your characters. The better you know your characters, the faster you can write because you will know what they would do in every situation. You will know their desires and objectives. You will know how to raise conflict and create story by denying them those desire and objectives. It will help with character arc.

Get your research done ahead of time. Research is a great way to generate ideas for your story, so do as much ahead of time as possible.

3) Be accountable.  Tell everyone you are doing NaNoWriMo in November. That way they'll ask how it's going and you'll have to answer. Give them an opportunity to cheer you on. Join online or local groups of NaNoers that have places to post your word count. Do word sprints with friends online. Go to NaNo write-ins. Let your competitive nature give you a motivational edge.

4) Adopt a new mindset.  It's easy to spend years writing a novel, so for many, the thought of writing one in 30 days is an insuperable barrier. But not if you change your mindset. It's been said that writing a first draft is like shoveling sand into a sandbox that you will use later to build a sandcastle.

So it is with NaNoWriMo. Don't expect anything but a very rough, very detailed outline by the time it's over. But once you get your butt in the chair and write without any inhibition, you will be amazed at what you can do. It's easier to keep track of plot, easier to delve deep into your characters because you spend so much time with them. No editing. No fear.

5) Just do it. Excitement and passion will get you started, but you'll quickly find that it is discipline and determination that carry you to the end. Don't get behind. Try to get ahead in word count as quickly as possible. Have a cushion. Kick spelling, grammar, finding the perfect word or the perfect metaphor out the door. Dedicate yourself to getting the backbone plot out in those 50K words. Then look forward to January to start making it perfect.

Do you have any tips you'd like to share or questions about NaNoWriMo?

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17. Pre NaNoWriMo

Ah, nothing like autumn. Summer heat gives way to a refreshing crispness in the air. Turning leaves offer glorious color for the eyes and an earthiness for the olfactory senses. Pumpkin pie, football, jack-o-lanterns, and candy corn. NaNoWriMo is just around the corner.

Are you getting your NaNo on?

I’m not sure if I am or not. Making good progress on the current WIP, I’m not sure I want to stop and change gears. And there’s last year’s NaNo project waiting to be dealt with. But other ideas swirl around the brain. Articles on NaNoWriMo keep popping up and I start to see merits in going for it. I do love the idea of the thing - write, write, write and don’t worry about editing. You can fix it later. The month is pure word count with a rough draft to show by December 1.

Everyone has their own way to go about this writing marathon. The most common way to take a zero editing approach. That actually can be refreshing. If word count is the driving force, editing is the roadblock. It hinders momentum. For eleven months of the year, my daily word count is hampered by my self-editor. During November, I freely and wantonly let the words flow. Rather than nitpick and constantly correct, when trouble arises, I start the sentence over and proceed. It’s such a rapid way to produce that I try to write that way the rest of the year. But that little self-editor really is a pain in the tush. By the middle of January he returns, digging in deep like winter, slowing me down.

There is also the panting vs plotting argument. Taking time out to plan out the novel slows the actual writing. I am becoming more of a believer in the plotting approach. Rambling for page after page may add to word count in the first draft, but leads to hard choices in the revision stage. Now is the time to figure out those major plot twists and character traits.

To NaNo or not, that is the question. Am I ready to ignore family and responsibilities and plunk out 1700 words a day? I’ve never achieved the NaNoWriMo  50,000 goal, but each year I’ve ended with a solid start to a new story. I could live with that.

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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18. The False Prince

Remember way last winter? I went to an author event at a bookstore and got to meet Utah writer Jennifer A.  Nielsen. Of course, I had to buy her book.

I’ve got more books than time to read and just added that one to the pile. Then I attended the 2014 Professional Writers Series, sponsored by this Utah Children’s Writers blog, at the Pleasant Grove Library, where she was among a panel of MG writers. I didn’t buy another book, but decided to read the one I had. The False Prince is now among my favorites. 

Jennifer knows how to spin a tale. At the heart of her book is an interesting premise - install a false prince. In the fantasy world of Carthya, the king, queen, and heir prince to the throne have been killed, though the general public is not aware of this. Years before, the younger Prince Jaron went away and is assumed dead, though no body was found to confirm the death. A power hungry regent, Conner, devises to plan to search orphanages, find a boy who resembles the younger prince, and pass him off as the legitimate heir. Conner selects four boys and hopes one can be trained to pull off the deceit. Dang. Wish I had thought of that plot idea.

Nielsen does several things to makes this a great piece of writing. One is the way she delivers the backstory. Rather that just dump it out, she uses Conner to offer food to the hungry boys if they can list some specific facts about Carthyan history and government. Another thing she does well, is allow the reader to fill in gaps. One of the orphans asks what will happen to the boys that aren’t selected and is told that he knows the answer to that. Sometimes writers feel a need tell all. We need to trust our readers to come to their own correct conclusions. Nielsen employs an engaging main character. Sage, one of the orphans, is bold, defiant, mischievous, and cunning. He has swagger. He’s developed the street smarts to get by and doesn’t want to be a part of this ploy. Lastly, the author holds back a big surprise she reveals near the end. 

Nielsen said she had a kissing scene in the book and the publisher wanted it out in order to market it as an MG. At the time, she was anxious for anybody to pick it up so MG or YA, it didn’t matter to her. The story is now in production as a movie and at the Pleasant Grove event, she made an important point about audience levels. In books, we differentiate the two and most YA readers will not read down and rarely will MG audiences read up. In the film industry, they have audience quadrants which are kids, teenagers, 20-30 year olds, and everyone else. There is more crossover of the age groups than in written stories and thus wider audience appeal. She was pleased when one of the story consultants for the movie wanted a kissing scene exactly where she had previously put one.

Right here, in little old Utah, we continue to produce some great writers. Next event I’m at with Jennifer, I’ll have to purchase the rest of the Ascension trilogy. If I can wait that long.

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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19. From the copyeditor's desk

For the last 29 years, I have worked in the word business. I've been a staff editor at a diabetes center, a proofreader at a direct mail company, and I have done freelance work in every conceivable genre--magazines, newsletters, business communications, non-profit press releases, creative writing, poetry, web content, sports books, and more. Sometimes my work involves being mostly a writing coach, a cheerleader. Sometimes I have to tap into my inner mystic. Other times, it involves being a very nit-picky critic. Copyediting falls into the latter category. This is no time to be nice, just precise and thorough.

My current client is a copyediting project. And I thought I'd share with you some reasons we even care about seemingly stupid stuff like punctuation.

Let's look at exclamation points for now. Why do copyeditors always want to suck the life out of our writing by deleting exclamation points? Well, dear writer, because they are lazy writing and they make the reader feel like they're getting a sales pitch. How so? Time for an example. This one is a made-up piece of non-fiction:

In the 1950s, many women were frustrated by being expected to return to their more traditional roles as housewives, after having spent the war years immersed in the world of working to support our troops in the war effort! Some felt resentment and oppression! However, some were glad for the new, more technological home, complete with machines that washed dishes for them, vacuums that rid the home of nasty dirt in such a sanitary way, and machines that made light work of the stacks of laundry! 

(None of this is factually true to my knowledge. I did no research. Let's just pretend I did, though, and look only at the paragraph for the purposes of examining punctuation.)

There are merely three exclamation points in this piece. Which in my opinion is three too many. But let's look at how they create lazy writing. The author is expecting the reader to look at the exclamation point and bring a level of emotion to the writing that isn't present in the words. That's lazy writing, when you expect the reader to fill in emotion or something else that you, the author, are too lazy to put into words.

In addition, exclamation points are all the same, but the emotion or feeling the reader is expected to bring to each sentence is not. What does the exclamation point at the end of the first sentence want us to infer? Perhaps that women found working during the war exciting. Or perhaps that women were mad about this freedom to earn money of their own being taken away. Those are very different expressions, and the writer should use words to convey exactly what he/she means to say, not leave it up to the reader to figure it out. What about the sentence after that--is the reader supposed to feel horrified that women felt oppressed? Or excited? Or perhaps the author wants the reader to really feel the oppression along with the women in the piece. Who knows? The reader certainly doesn't. This is lazy writing, expecting the punctuation to do something it cannot do.

Now, I realize I might be preaching to the choir, but this is why copyeditors pay such close attention to these seemingly little things.

There's another component that is a little harder to nail down, and that is a reader feels manipulated by so many exclamation points. Especially in fiction, you as the author want to make the reader work for it a little bit. We want to throw in clues that help the reader anticipate where we're going with a thread. We want to let the reader ponder what a character will do to get herself out of this seemingly impossible situation. But we don't want to manipulate the reader--at least I don't like being manipulated as a reader. When I see an exclamation point, it feels to me like I'm reading a sales letter. Maybe that's from my days in direct marketing in which every other sentence has an exclamation point. And it's used on purpose to manipulate the reader in buying whatever you're selling.

Let's look at an example in fiction:

"That's great!" exclaimed Peter.

A short example, but it shows everything I need it to demonstrate. This is lazy writing in so many ways. First, it's pretty redundant to have an exclamation point and the word "exclaimed." Even more than that, it doesn't give the reader any satisfaction, any sensory experience to connect to, any way to relate to the character. How would this particular character express his emotions with his body? Maybe jump into the air and do a flip. Maybe pump his fist. Maybe it would be more subtle, like get teary eyed. Or maybe he is being saracastic, and he lets out a raspberry.

Another thing exclamation points can affect in a piece of writing is the tone and voice. Do you want your narrator to sound like a salesperson? (Or like a football highlights sportscast or a car commercial.) That's the effect of exclamation points. Of course, at times, maybe you do want a narrator or a character to come across this way, and that might be an appropriate time to use this particular punctuation. But use it purposefully for effect, not lazily because you aren't willing to work at your craft. If your exclamation point usage is aimed toward making the tone light and friendly, then look for ways to do that with your words rather than your punctuation. Use conversational language and structure. Don't use jargon and highly specialized vocabulary. Don't use formal punctuation like semi-colons and colons. Maybe use second person. These tactics will make your writing lighter without being lazy.

Copyeditors are not here to make your life miserable. We are here to make your writing  precise and to help you do what you are attempting to do in the most effective way possible.

by Neysa CM Jensen
Boise, Idaho

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20. Querying

A year ago I had my MS done and all ready to push to the publishing world. Carol Lynch Williams offered to give it a final look-over.

As if that wonderfully crafted piece could be found to be deficient.

It was.

My writer’s group has been poring over it ever since and I now find myself ready to share it with the world. As I’ve learned a bit on this next aspect on the writing adventure, perhaps others would like a primer on querying.

The information below applies to agents more so than editors. I’ve come to understand that most editors would prefer to work with agented writers and thus, I choose to concentrate my efforts there. I assume the same suggestions would likewise apply to publishers. 

Rule number one is to write a killer book. That’s a tough one. There is some very good kid lit out there. Is mine Newbery award caliber? Okay, at least it’s a darn good story and I’m proud of it. I think I’ve got voice, good characters, and a nice story arc. I am biased, but think it is worthy.

Rule number two is to write a killer query. That, too, is a tricky one. It doesn’t take nearly as long to write as the book, yet many writers cringe at the thought of it. There are differing opinions on the format it should take. AgentQuery.com has a three paragraph formula and they say “don’t stray from this format.” Interviews with agents suggest straying. Some like cutesy and clever (you do want your query to stand out from the multitude), others want it to look professional. 

As Nathan Bransford says, “A query letter is part business letter, part creative writing exercise, part introduction, part death defying leap through a flaming hoop… In essence: it is a letter describing your project.” What most agents want to see in a query is the genre, word count, a short summary, and information on your writing credentials. A hook, or teasing information similar to a book’s jacket cover is not uncommon. A synopsis would cover major plot points and how they are resolved. The goal of the query is to pique the agent’s curiosity and get them to ask to see more.

Research, a vital step in the query process, should not be skipped. It is important to know if you and your work will mesh with the agent and agency. Before wasting an agent’s time with something they are not interested in, learn what it is they and their agency represents. Determine what their submission policy is. There is variety within them. Along with the query, they may request a synopsis, the first five pages, first three chapters, first twenty pages, a writer’s bio, a book proposal etc., either attached or pasted into the body of the email. You don’t let the great American novel never see light of day because the query, unread, hit the trash folder on a technicality. Representation is a business decision. You want get a feel for how you and the agent will work together will move the project along toward publication. 

This a scant look at the query process. Below are sites one can go for in-depth understanding. Don’t fail to follow the links found on these pages. Sites, in addition to those mentioned above, include: Query Tracker, Preditors and Editors

Once you’ve written the perfect novel, Nathan Bransford says to “write the best letter you can, be yourself, don't overthink it too much.” I believe I’ve done that.

Except for the overthinking it part.

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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21. Guess the Book Emoji--And Win!

By Julie Daines

Ladies and Gents, I think it's high time for some fun and games. How about a nice round of Guess the Emoji?

Each emoji below is a clue to a book title. They are all works of literature ranging from middle grade to adult, classic to modern. Remember to think outside the box.

Here they are:











Leave your answers in the comments. You have until Friday midnight to enter, I'll post the answers and the winner on Saturday, September 27.

Good luck!

And since I happen to have a stack of extra books lying around, anyone who makes a guess will be entered into a random drawing to win a book of their choice. If you guess them all right, you will be entered twice. Yippee!

The choices are (And just for clarification, these have nothing to do with the emojis.):

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22. When Only THAT Childhood Story Will Do

I have been AWOL lately, so I apologize, my friends.

But my eight-year-old has been in the hospital. Oxygen, I.V., the whole nine yards.

Primary Children's Hospital is amazing. My daughter kept her spirits up by noting that she got to have room service, video games, and all the movies she wanted to watch!

But as night came on and energy to stay positive waned, as she was continually wakened for treatment after treatment, there was one thing she wanted. One thing that comforted her.

Her favorite old book. "Winnie the Pooh" by A.A. Milne.

And as the early morning hours set in and we both needed rest between treatments, I turned on Peter Dennis' amazing reading of the original book and the classic lulled us both.

It is there in those stressful moments that our favorite childhood stories, the really dear ones, still give us comfort. Perhaps it is because the stories evoke a visceral memory of that safe place, in our mother's arms, when all was well and we could rest knowing that we were watched over.

Because as my daughter and I listened to Pooh and Piglet try to devise a way to outwit the Heffalump when he came to collect them from The Pit, the beeping of monitors and buzzing lights seemed to melt away. We were whisked away to that wonderful Wood.

And with the comforting sound of Pooh's soft voice we both felt we were in that place: safe, able to sleep, knowing we were being watched over.

(A huge thank you to the amazing doctors, nurses, and staff in the Gorilla Wing at Primary Children's for taking such wonderful care of my daughter.)

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23. Let it go

As if my writing needs any more diversions, Writer’s Digest lights up my inbox. Daily. Three or four times, daily. Being the distractible type, I click on it, especially when the writing is fighting me. Though a lot of it is stuff they’re trying to sell, they regularly put out informative articles on craft. One such, by Jack Heffron, is titled, “How to Destroy Your Initial Idea (& Make Your Story Better)”

Heffron starts with a Pablo Picasso quote: “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” He readily admits he has no clue what Picasso means, but applies the quote to writing. “The generative idea for a piece,” Heffron says, “is more an avenue to richer ideas than an end in itself. At those times, we must be willing to let go of our initial premise.” We sometimes need to destroy our initial writing idea for the good of the story. 

He cites an example from his own writing to illustrate. He had written a piece and put a lot of time and effort into it. For the first 24 pages, two women converse in a doughnut shop until two men enter, have a brief encounter with them, and all four leave on page 25. Readers looked at it and told him the story starts on page 24. Heffron was frustrated. He had labored for hours perfecting the dialogue, developing each woman character and produced a ton of good lines. Was such an effort to be a mere prelude to the real story?

Sometimes the answer is yes.

He shelved the story for a while and when he came back to it, he realized they were right. (That little writer’s group - there’s a reason we keep them around.) He revised and brought the two men in by page 2 and had the four of them leave by page 7 and his story was better. Yet the weeks he invested initially was not a waste. Heffron spent the time intimately getting to know his characters. His rounded understanding of them allowed the story to surprising turns, twists he wouldn’t have imagined if he didn’t know the characters so well. He says he wouldn’t have achieved the real start of the story if he hadn’t written what came before. His initial premise led him to literary gold, even though it was eventually discarded.

How liberating, yet how unnerving. We’ve all been there before. We’ve put in time and effort honing and crafting paragraphs or pages. Then our finger hovers over the delete key as that inner writer’s voice tells us to let it go.

Im getting better at it. I have a need to save those little nuggets of writing gold in an idea file, but once they are removed, the story is cleaner. 

There are times, in mid-story, I’ll stop and write a note to myself that will get dumped. I do this often with characters, especially when they act in a way contrary to how they should. I’ve written a multi-page backstory on a character, expelling why they would do such and such. It is not germane to the story, but it is vital to me. I need to deeply understand these people. 

Back to Heffron’s premise. Sometimes an initial idea takes off in an unintended direction and it must be discarded. He ends by comparing breaking up with an idea to that in a relationship. You’ve tried different strategies. You’ve sought counseling. But, says Jack Heffron, “at some point, we need to tell the piece to sit down. We need to summon the courage to say, “Honey, we need to talk.”

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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24. Livin' La Vida Writer

I am a week and a half in to a four-week paid sabbatical from my day job. As a result, I'm on a 12-day streak,  spending at least three hours a day on my dream job.

Some of my friends think it's odd that I would spend the four weeks away from my writing job writing, but I'm loving it. Although I refer to it as "working" every day, i'm working on my own stuff, doing what I want to do.

I spent the first week writing original material. In the recent PitchWars, a Middle Grade manuscript I considered finished got an excellent response. The people who gave me feedback agreed on one thing, however: my book was too short. So I fixed that, writing just over 15,000 words in six days. Since then, I've been revising my WIP, writing new scenes (including one I've been dreading for months).

It's the most productive I've been since I took a two-week writing vacation a couple years ago. Part of the success is due to the lessons I learned during that vacation.

Follow a Routine

As tempting as it may be to sleep in while I have the chance, I know I'm most productive between about 10 and 1:00.  That means that, although I do stay in bed a little later than usual, I am in my home office (my Schreibwinkel) by about 9:30. I've started as early as 7:30 and as late as 10:00, but on all but a few days, I've started between 9:00 and 9:45. Except for one day when I worked on a scene that exhausted me so I had to stop around 12:30, I've worked until around 1:30, occasionally as late as 2 or 2:30.

That's a fairly aggressive schedule, but it works for me. I work through my most productive time and stop when I feel the mojo weakening.

Because I write at the beginning of my day, every day, I wake up ready to go. Sometimes, my morning dreams are even related to the work I need to do that day.

Minimize Distractions

My family is used to me needing to be left alone in my Schreibwinkel. I frequently work from home, so they've been trained for years to let me work. They're used to me being unavailable, even if I'm in the house. 

Because I'm working shorter hours than usual, they know that if they leave me alone for a few hours, I'm theirs when I'm done. Most things they need from me can wait.

I've also made it a rule that, for the most part, I check email and Facebook before and after I work. Once in a while, I'll check during a break, but I've mostly been good about this.

I'm used to working through the typical household noises, but I am easily distracted by talking and laughing. It helps me minimize distracting noises to listen to music. Music can also distract me, though. I've learned that putting my music on shuffle instead of listening to favorites works for me. I recently read an article that suggested putting on music you don't especially like. I don't take it that far. In fact, sometimes a scene calls for a certain kind of background music, even though nobody else would necessarily connect the two.

Take Breaks

Because my writing period is fairly long, I take breaks. Some are informally scheduled. For example, there have been several days when I've written from 9 until about 10, then stopped for breakfast.

There have also been scheduled breaks. There have been some days when my writing group has scheduled writing sprints where we work for a specified period, then check in with each other on our Facebook page.

Each writer has unique break needs. Some of us can only write for so many minutes without a pause. Some of us need to look away from the screen now and then during an intense scene so we can keep enough distance to write well. And some of cannot stop without breaking the spell.

I know when I need a break. My only real rule for breaks is that I don't allow myself to become distracted by another task. My breaks are no longer than necessary, and my family members understand that I may be showing my face, but my time is not theirs yet.


This is what works for me. My family situation allows me to work this way. My kids are older. Two grandkids live with me, but I'm not the only caregiver in the house, like a lot of moms (especially) are. And I already have work routines when I'm home.

The result of putting structure around my writing time is that I remain productive, and that I enjoy my writing time because other stresses are reduced as much as possible during those hours.

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25. Why I Love Teens (and the books we write for them)

So, teens. They get a bad rap. They're viewed as irresponsible, impulsive, messes of hormones, naive, and irreverent. But come on, don't you ever wish you could be any of those things sometimes? I do. (Except for maybe the mess of hormones.)

When I interact with teens, I see none of those things as deterrents. I see them as invitations. And I see a whole mix of other attributes that I find supremely engaging. Teens think big thoughts. I mean big. Change the world big. During adulthood, we tend to lose sight of those big dreams and ideas as we juggle the everyday survival of our families and livelihoods. I love hanging around with teens as they explore what possibilities their lives hold. As they deal with all the fear and anguish they've experienced in life and try to make sense of it. As they stand on the threshold of adulthood, not sure they really want to go there. 

Teens have big troubles. Okay, so we know maybe some of those troubles aren't as big as they seem to teens, but in their minds, everything is huge and life changing. Every subtle rejection hurts like a stab to the heart. Every joy is declared epic. Their entire future hangs in the balance with every decision they make. 

This is the stuff that makes for great conflict in fiction. That's one reason I write for teens. But more than that, I write for them because I want them to know their joys, pain, fears, anguish are shared by others and that they have the ability to handle these life experiences. I want to reassure them that they are okay, or they will be okay. That life hurts, but relationships with good people are healing and make life worth the living. That there is a way through this maze. I want them to see that whatever is huge at the moment is worth living through, and that whatever hurts the most will forge them into someone wonderful. I want them not to give up. On themselves. On love. On the future.

Perhaps I write for teens because I spend a lot of time with teens and I find them astonishing. My son, a senior in high school, was doing a research project last spring for his AP chemistry class, and he chose nuclear energy. This is a passion of his and he hopes to be one of people who brings clean cold fusion to the world as a reliable energy source. He got so excited as he worked on the project, you could see him almost chomping at the bit to grow up and get on with it. 

Another time, when his group of friends were gathering at our house (yes, we are THAT house), I overheard them commenting about one of their friends who wasn't there, and who was having some personal troubles. They were very sympathetic in their thoughts about this friend, brainstorming ideas on what they could do to support him and help him. It would have been so easy to write him off as a jerk, but they showed genuine concern and caring. 

At a summer camp where I was a camp counselor for several years, I heard stories from teens that brought me to tears. One girl's father had been brutally murdered. Another girl's father was about to get out of prison and she was afraid for her safety, as he had a history of abuse. One boy told the story of his mother's drug dealer boyfriend and the abuse he and his brother had suffered by his hand. One kid had a medical condition in which he had never gone through puberty and was in his early 20s just experiencing a medically-induced puberty. One girl in my cabin talked about being one of the "invisibles" in her town and school, a kid nobody really took any notice of. 

As my own kids have gone through their teen years, I have been touched by the journeys their friends and they have taken. One boy, who is gay, was considered by his father to be useless, and his mother could barely tolerate him. He had a really  hard time in high school. But he found a college that was the perfect place for him, and he has come into his own, embracing himself and his talents. Another boy was kicked out of his house on Christmas Eve because his mother just couldn't stand another minute of his normal teenager troubles. 

While all of these people have or will probably make it into one of my books, it's not just the fodder for stories that keeps me involved with teens. It's the emotional impact they have on my life. It hurts my very soul to hear them talk about these horrors. It warms me up to hear the concern they share for a friend. And it delights me to know they want to do things in the world (besides play computer games). Their hearts are huge and exposed. 

I've heard it said before that children's writers tend to write for the age group that they identify with most, or where their inner child is stuck. Maybe that's it. My whole childhood was a wonderful pastoral life, but as a teenager, I was a mess on the inside, while wearing a mask of perfection on the outside. I certainly remember the pain and the longing, and the fear that I would be found out as a horrible hypocrite one day. 

I know this for sure: adults who love and work with teens can help those kids reach adulthood with their spirits intact and their hopes for the future still strong. It is never a waste of time to invest in a teenager. Maybe when I read teen fiction, my inner teen hears those messages and is able to heal, too. 

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