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1. 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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2. 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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3. 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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4. 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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5. 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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6. 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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7. 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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8. 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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9. 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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10. 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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11. 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:

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

9.

10.

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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12. 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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13. 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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14. Banned Books Week: September 21-27, 2014

Next week is the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, so it's time again to celebrate the freedom to read and the free flow of ideas.

Let's start with a list. In 2013, based on 307 challenges reported by the Office for Intellectual Freedom, the following are the ten most frequently banned or challenged books of 2013:


  1. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey
    Offensive language, unsuited for age group, violence
  2. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
    Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence
  3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
    Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  4. Fifty Shade of Grey, by E.L. James
    Nudity, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
    Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
  6. A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, by Tanya Lee Stone
    Drugs/alcohol/smoking, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit
  7. Looking for Alaska, by John Green
    Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
    Drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  9. Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
    Occult/Satanism, offensive language. religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
  10. Bone (series) by Jeff Smith
    Political viewpoint, racism, violence

I always find the reasons interesting, mostly because they are so subjective.

Let's look at The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which I read for the first time this past weekend so it's fresh in my mind. I absolutely loved the book, and intend to buy it for my 16-year-old son, a reluctant reader who I think will enjoy the book and benefit from it. This book is an interesting one to look at because it made the news in April of this year when it was banned by an Idaho school district. When a student in that district who loved the book passed out copies to others, an indignant mother called the police on her. Just this week, they decided to allow the book in those schools, but with conditions.

Drugs/alcohol/smoking
Yes, there is a lot of drinking in this book. However, that drinking leads invariably to the strongest possible negative consequences, including death. As a result of the bad things that happen to people who drink too much, the main character promises his mother he will not drink, ever. The way I see it, this is an important positive lesson, and using it as a reason to keep the book away from kids is counter-intuitive.

Offensive language
Based on descriptions I had read of this book, I expected it to be laced with frequent, strong profanity. What I found was a few swears, mostly mild, and none of them gratuitous. There was nothing you won't hear more frequently on a sixth-grade playground anywhere in Utah than in this book. In fact, there were probably more instances of words like shoot and friggin' than there were of actual curse words. Of course, there are people who object to any swearing in a book. If you are sensitive to swearing, you might object to this book. I personally didn't find it excessive, but what is excessive and what is offensive is really a matter of personal sensitivities.

Racism
Yes, there is racism in this book. Of course there is racism in this book. It's a book about racism. A boy from an Indian reservation transfers to a white school outside the reservation because he believes he'll improve his future by doing so. He deals with racism from white kids for being different and, even more, from tribal members who object to his "turning" white. He is also forced to confronts his own racial assumptions and prejudices toward both groups, and the discovery that it is often strongest from his own cultural group. Without racism, this book doesn't exist, and doesn't carry much of its powerful punch. The book does not promote racism. It confronts it. It examines it. It exposes it. It tears it apart. It is honest about it. The lessons about racism are positive. But, like many other books that deal with racism, exposing racism so it can be torn down results in charges that it is a racist book. This is one of many ironies in the world of challenged books.

Sexually Explicit
The book is about a 14-year-old boy who thinks and acts like a 14-year-old boy. Like all 14-year-old boys, whether we want to admit or not, Junior is dealing with the changes his body and mind are going through, and these struggles are told from a point-of-view that is deeply internal and honest. As a result, there is a certain amount of sexual content. Explicit is in the eye of the beholder, of course, No sex acts are actually depicted. Masturbation is mentioned a couple times but never shown, even off-screen. One erection, described by a term kids often use, at an inappropriate time--a fear of all teenage boys, because it happens, sometimes for no reason at all--causes the main character great embarrassment, regret, and horror. If you prefer characters in books to be completely sexless, there are a half dozen or so places in this book that might bother you a lot, and a few other places where he notices physical attributes of girls that you might find inappropriate, although they are also very real and normal. This is another area where boys can be made aware of how they think and how inappropriate those thoughts can be by watching a character in a book think them.

Unsuited to Age Group
This is a catch-all that is almost always used when a parent challenges a book. It is nearly meaningless because of its overuse. Sometimes, there's a good case for this. Fifty Shades of Grey contains material and themes that are most likely inappropriate for middle school classes. Sixth graders might not fully understand the significance of Animal Farm or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. More often than not, though, this category is unfair to kids and underestimates their knowledge and ability to think for themselves. This criteria for challenging a book should almost never be applied to a high school class, especially an AP lit class. In general, I think educators do a good job of choosing books that will interest and challenge readers of a particular age. In the case of this book, I don't think it's inappropriate for strong readers 8th grade and up. In fact, I believe it would be very appropriate for my 16-year-old, who I think would learn valuable lessons about people, including himself, from these pages.

Which brings me to my next point, maybe the biggest point I have to make when discussing this issue. I firmly believe that a parent has the right to use his or her own judgement in deciding whether a book is appropriate for a particular child. Nobody knows the child's sensitivities better than a parent. And, some parents may choose to shield their kids from certain challenging realities. It doesn't matter whether I disagree. A parent's rights when it comes to his or her own child are nearly absolute, given up only in cases of abuse and other criminal activity that hurts or otherwise affects the child. And while I think parents should trust the school's judgement a little more, I also believe that if a parent believes a child should not read a certain book in class, that's the parent's call.

Where I have a problem is when a parent extends the decision to take that book from their own child's hand to all children in a class, school, or district, or to all patrons of a library. Parents have a responsibility toward their own children, and should allow other parents to exercise that same responsibility for their own kids. By attempting to take books out of the hands of other people's kids, they are denying other parents the right to choose what their own children read, the same right the book challengers demand for themselves.

Sherman Alexie, the author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, reflected my feelings almost perfectly when he said, "I certainly respect any parent's right to determine what their child is reading. They don't get to determine it for a whole school or community, but that said, I was the only Democrat in my high school. I went to high school with a bunch of extremely conservative Republican Christians (in other words, the kind of people who generally seek to ban my book) and let me tell you--those conservative Christian kids and I were exactly alike. I was publicly inappropriate, they were privately inappropriate. All this stuff that is controversial is stuff that kids are dealing with on a daily basis."

These are things our kids know about. They are part of their lives. Protecting them from their own reality only reinforces the feeling adolescents have that there's something wrong with them, that their issues are theirs alone and should be kept hidden as shameful secrets. It also teaches adolescents, young people who are increasingly aware of real-world issues, that books are dishonest and irrelevant.

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    15. Reading reading reading





    I cannot deny that I’ve been doing a lot more reading than writing these past few weeks. I feel kind of guilty when that happens, and I have to remind myself how much my excessive reading is necessary to my writing. It’s how I got into writing in the first place, which I think is true for almost everyone. These days I can count it as research—bonus points if it actually is a nonfiction, informational book about the time period my historical fiction novel is taking place in (I did read one of those last week! Ten points for Gryffindor!). I struggle with research. I feel guilty unless I’m writing. I take comfort in the fact that the author of The Book Thief, Markus Zusak,felt similarly and his historical fiction novel is light-years beyond I could dream of mine being. I try to give myself permission to just read. I would be nowhere without the countless examples of other authors. They constantly inspire me to keep going.
    On that note, you’ve possibly seen going around Facebook a chain-letter type post where you list the top books that have influenced your life and then tag other people to do the same. My aunt tagged me in one of them recently, and I eventually decided to play along. When I think along the lines of what books have “influenced my life,” I automatically think of what books have most influenced my writing. It’s really hard to pick, so I changed it to favorite authors as well as books (I’m a cheater). It brought back great childhood memories of when I first start scribbling down my own stories, shamelessly plagiarizing every tactic I saw my favorite authors using (You’ll have to forgive my taste back then. I was about 8 or 9 probably). So, I thought I would share that list with you and invite you to make your own if you haven’t.
    Disclaimer: This is potentially one of the most gut-wrenching, awful decisions ever. It’s like picking favorite children. To quote Ever After (best movie): “I could no sooner pick a favorite star in the heavens.” So, here they are, in no particular order whatsoever, and I’ve definitely left some great ones out:

    • 1.       Jane Austen- all 7 of em
    • 2.       J.K. Rowling- Harry Potter
    • 3.       Virginia Woolf- “A Room of Her Own,” Mrs. Dalloway
    • 4.       Marilynne Robinson- The Gilead, Home
    • 5.       Barbara Kingsolver- Poisonwood Bible
    • 6.       L.M. Montgomery- actually more for the Emily of New Moon books than Anne of Green Gables. Sorry everyone.
    • 7.       Tamora Pierce- the Lioness Quartet, the two Trickster books, etc.
    • 8.       Ann M Martin- Babysitter’s Club. I have to put it. She got me writing when I was a little kid.
    • 9.       Deb Caletti- Honey, Baby, Sweetheart got me through my teenage years!
    • 10.   Louisa May Alcott- Little Women, and also the biography about her and her dad that’s not at all written by her, but it’s awesome!

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    16. Socializing

    Writing is a lonely endeavor. Even with family and friends encouraging and inquiring about it, the writer sits and works in isolation. There is social media. One can tweet, pin, or post on Facebook. I’ve killed hours or precious writing time doing just that. But the act of writing remains solitary.

    This week there was a social event for writers. Carol Lynch Williams and Ann Dee Ellis organized it. They may have had help from Queen Bee, Kyra Leigh. All of them host the blog, Throwing Up Words (http://throwingupwords.wordpress.com). Carol and company have down this before and a few weeks ago they posted to their blog they were doing it again.

    We met at Olive Garden in Provo, about twenty of us or so. We ate, socialized, laughed, ate some more, read from our writing, and shared successes. Some of us read from our novels in progress, a few shared screenplays. Some brought spouses, some spouses were writers, too. It was a pleasant evening.

    The best thing though, was the camaraderie. There were actual writers, sitting in that room, across from you and to your sides. Other people who struggle, have doubts, and continue to write away. There’s a bunch of us out there. We work in isolation, but it’s so good to know we’re not alone.

    Thanks Carol, Ann Dee, and Kyra. Let’s do that again, sometime.


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

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    17. Indie vs. Self: What's the Difference

    By Julie Daines

    There's a lot of confusion out there about indie publishers and self-publishers. Let just get straight to the point. Here is this:

    From Judith Brileson AuthorU.org (June 2014)

    Don’t Confuse Independent Publishing with Self-Publishing

    Indie, Independent and Small Press Publishing Are So, Soooooo Different from Self-Publishing, Vanity Presses and Pay-to-Publish “Publishing”  
    I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a zillion times: yes, dear author-to-be (and those already published), there is a difference between self-publishing, vanity presses, pay-to-publish, a small press, and independent publishing. Don’t mix them up. Don’t get confused.
    She quotes Wikipedia: 
    The majority of small presses are independent or indie publishers, thismeans that they are separate from the handful of major publishing house conglomerates, such as Random House or Hachette. The term ‘indie publisher’ should not be confused with ‘self-publisher’, which is where the author publishes only their own books.
      Defined this way, these presses make up approximately half of the market share of the book publishing industry.
    This is a great article if you're confused about any of these terms. Go and check it out.
    Unfortunately, I feel the term independent publishing (Indie) is going the same way so many words have already gone--Verbicide. It is used so frequently in the wrong sense that it's original meaning is becoming lost.

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    18. Moral weakness

    Too much writing advice is too much. Yet, knowing that doesn’t slow me down from seeking it.

    Lately, I’ve been re-examining John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps To Becoming A Master Storyteller. The guy looks at stories from every possible angle. Among other things, he discusses seven steps of structure that every story needs as it develops over time, in its growth from beginning to end. They are:
    -Weakness and need
    -Desire
    -Opponent
    -Plan
    -Battle
    -Self-revelation
    -New equilibrium

    These are not something external, such as the three-act structure imposed from the outside. They exist within the story. Truby calls them the nucleus, the DNA of the story. They are based on human action because they are the same steps people must work through to solve problems. 

    The step I’m currently paused at is an aspect of weakness and need. At the start of a story, the MC must have one or more weaknesses that holds him back from reaching his goal. It should be something so profound, it is ruining his life. This flaw forces a need for the character to overcome the weakness and change or grow in some way. This is a psychological flaw that is hurting no one but the hero. I get that.

    Truby says most stories incorporate that. What elevates a so-so story to an excellent one, is a moral flaw. A moral weakness hurts not only the protagonist, but others around him, as well. As an example, he cites the story The Verdict in which the MC, Frank, has a psychological need to overcome his drinking problem and regain his self-respect. His moral flaw is that he uses people for money. In one instance,Frank lies his way into a funeral of strangers, upsetting the family, trying to round up more business. 

    Okay, I get that, too. And because Truby acknowledges its importance in stories, I give it credence, as well. But how about for an MG character? Do they need to be morally flawed for the story to pop? The stakes are lighter for MG and that’s the nature of it. Experts say there are certain lines not to cross and having the hero be morally corrupt seems like one of them.

    But this is John Truby. He really, really knows his stuff. Shouldn’t I listen to him? If Tiger Woods offered tips on your golf swing, seems to me it would be wise not to argue about it. Still, a moral flaw doesn’t feel right for that age level of story. 

    Looking back over other stories, I can’t think of any MG characters with moral flaws. There must be a few. They have psychological weaknesses to overcome. The strong-willed behavior of Kyra in Carol Lynch Williams’ The Chosen One brings the anger of the prophet down upon her family. That seems like a character strength rather than a flaw and it does raise the stakes for her. Same with Sal in Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons. Her denial creates angst with her father, but again, rather than immorality, it seems it’s more a matter of innocence. Both of these works are YA. It could be a YA vs. MG thing. What works for older audiences doesn’t necessarily work for all readers. 


    Julie Daines posted here a few weeks ago about listening to your gut, your writer’s intuition. That inner voice is telling me to question Truby’s on this. Truby or not Truby, that is the question.

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

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    19. Mg or YA?

    My “next” project that I’ve been working on forever has been giving me fits. One of the dilemmas is what age to make the characters, and therefore, who the target audience will.

    I’m an MG kind of a guy. I’ve spent a career teaching fifth and sixth graders. I know how they operate, what shenanigans they think they can get away with, and the cocky attitudes they employ to pull it off. And I’m smart enough to realize they probably got away with a few things I wasn’t aware of. They’re as capable as teenagers of scheming wild ideas, just not as aware of when the silly notion won’t work.

    Earlier this week, Julie Daines said to listen to your gut, our writer’s intuition that is our friend should we choose to listen. I think my friend is telling me to take it MG. But the first time I did that, I overshot my audience. What to do, what to do?

    Then a timely article arrived this month from Writer’s Digest.  In “The Key Differences Between Middle Grade Vs. Young Adult,” agent Marie Lamba of The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency helps clarify the two. She sees a lot of queries of manuscripts with “an MG/YA identity crisis.” She rejects many of these simply because the writer did not know the basics of the age group they thought they were writing for.

    In a nutshell, the differences boil down to a few areas:
    Age of readers
    Middle-grade does not mean middle school. MG is for readers ages 8-12 and 13-18 for YA. While there is no “tween” category, middle school libraries tend to have shelves for both. There are upper and lower MG as there is in YA.
    Age of protagonists
    Kids “read up” so your characters should be on the higher end of the age of the readers. Thus a 10-year old hero would be ideal for a lower MG, 12 or even 13 for upper MG, and 17 or 18 for YA. Your YA character can’t yet be in college.
    Manuscript length
    30,000-50,000 words is the norm for MG while YA starts at 50,000 and goes up to 75,000. These are not set in stone, but a good length to shoot for. Fantasy novels can exceed that due to the world-building necessary.
    Voice
    YA is usually written in first person while third person is common for MG.
    Content
    There is a difference in what is allowable in each. While there is no profanity, graphic violence, or sexuality in works for younger readers, they are acceptable for YA,  the exception being erotica. In a recent Writer’s Digest webinar, Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary Agency says a few “Hells” and “damns” are okay for MG, but the harsher curses should be avoided. MG heroes can have romance, but it should be limited to a crush or first kiss. Generally, MG novels end on a hopeful note while that isn’t necessary of YA works. Marie Lamba says there are gatekeepers between you and your middle-grade audience - parents, teachers, librarians - who may discourage the book. That ultimately could affect a publishers’s choice to print it. This isn’t as much an issue for YA, though gratuitous sex, numerous F-bombs, and extensive violence could mean the book may sit in fewer schools.
    Mind-set
    This is a biggie, the one I missed when I originally wrote the book. MG focuses on friends, family, and the character’s immediate world and their relationship to it; character react to what happens to them, with minimal self-reflection. YA characters discover how they fit in the world beyond their friends and family; they reflect more on what happens and analyze the meaning of things. Jennifer Laughran says that MG kids test boundaries and have adventures “finding their place within a system” whereas YA teens do the same, while “busting out of the system” and find themselves.

    There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Once you have the writing chops of J.K. Rowling, you, too, can write a 200,000 word tale. But even Harry didn’t kiss Ginny until they were teenagers.

    So I’m listening, gut, my quiet friend. I do wish you would speak louder sometimes.


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

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    20. You Have to Write Crap



    I’ve discovered over the years how much being a teacher’s pet was detrimental to my writing habits. The majority of my teachers from third grade on all fawned over and praised my writing even when I put little to no effort into what I turned in. This quickly taught me that I didn’t have to put effort into my writing. I could write whatever I wanted at the very last minute, not even bother to do a quick edit, and pass with flying colors.
    College changed that a little bit. Surrounded by other people who were capable of stringing two good sentences together, I started to have to actually pay attention to what I wrote and do a least some cursory editing. Even then, I found I could get away with a lot.
    But, when it comes to my novel writing I know that if I have any hope of even trying to get published, I need to write something that will hold up against some of the best writers in the world—at least enough to be placed in the same bookstore. I have to admit it—more often than not that idea totally paralyzes me. I was trained from too young of an age that I didn’t need to put any effort into my writing to be successful (in the classroom), so the idea that I could put all my effort into my writing and still not be good enough makes the idea of trying almost too much.
    In school, you write to please your teacher. You write each essay with your professor in your head, taking what you’ve learned from their lectures about their opinions and preferences and you write accordingly. That’s what I’m used to doing.
    When it comes to writing my novel, I’ve learned that I can’t do that. I have to forget the possible editor, agent, or bookstore shopper who may one day read these words. Thinking about them—at least in my first draft—cripples my writing. Whatever I do get on the page is stifled and self-conscious. So, I have to forget them. I have to write as though I’m the only person who is ever going to care about what is written. I have to just let the words come out of me and not analyze them, not worry about how good or bad they are, but just enjoy the process of getting them on the page. That’s the only way I can ever get my first drafts written.
    As a student, I wrote without caring because I knew I could get away with it. I knew my least effort would be good enough in my high school where people struggled to understand the function of a paragraph. As an amateur novelist, I have to write the same way because that’s the only way I can write. That’s the way I’ve learned how.
    Afterwards, I can deal with cutting out all the crap.

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    21. Writing Is Like Chili

    I love chili.

    I love eating chili. I love smelling chili. I love cooking chili. I know a thing or two about chili, I like to think. In fact, I know enough about chili to know better than to call myself an expert, because there's always going to be somebody else who is a bigger expert, even if only in his or her own mind. That's because we chili-heads are passionate about our chili and can argue for hours about which of the many styles of chili is the only kind of chili that counts. It's kind of like pizza or barbecue that way.

    Or like writing. A lot like writing, actually.

    When I make chili, it's a long-term, complicate procedure. Why? Because I throw in a ton of ingredients to try to achieve a complex, interesting flavor. Chili doesn't have to be complicated. There are very easy recipes that satisfy a chili craving just fine.

    But when I cook it, it's an event. If not for the consumers, then for the chef. Because I never make it the same way twice. People have asked me for my recipe, but I don't have one. I just do stuff.

    I've been known to combine as many as 12 different kinds of chile, as well as other spices and ingredients, in a single pot of chili, because each ingredient adds a unique element to the complex formula.

    One of the most important elements for a good pot of chili, I believe, is time. When I want to go all-out on a pot of chili, I think about it for a while. I let it cook in my mind for a while while I figure out what this particular batch is going to be made of.

    There's a lot to consider. I consider the chili I want to make, first of all, the experience I want to create for my own benefit as a chili artist. I'd love to cook exactly the chili I imagine. See, I like my chili hot. Hot is not the right word. Scorching. Explosive. Intense. Even violent. I want the chili to be an experience as much as a meal. But searing heat alone is boring. It is only effective when combines with those complex flavors I mentioned. Problem is, if I make it exactly like I would for myself, I'll be the only one who eats it and I'll be stuck with a big pot of chili, because a small one is not possible. I have to think about my audience. I have to tone down the heat and be somewhat moderate in any experimentation because, ultimately, I want to see my audience enjoy and appreciate the end result of all the work I put into it.

    So, once I figure out what I'm going to put in my chili, I start making it. Making a good pot of chili is an exercise in constant tweaking. I want to get the flavors just right, which means constant tasting and adjusting, realizing that with every adjustment, the end result will be different than it seems the moment I make the change, because the flavors change and deepen during cooking.

    Which brings me back to time. To meld all those flavors requires time. I believe in cooking my best chili all day. Again, there are plenty of recipes that can be prepared quickly and many of those are tasty. But if I cook mine quickly, all those spices will still be separate because they need time to come together for the rich, deep, flavor I crave. It's as much about patience as it about the right mix of ingredients.

    Of course, not every chili is as successful as every other. That's the risk of making it differently every time as I try to learn to be a better chili cook. I can accept that. I don't think I've ever made a bad chili, and my audience has always seemed appreciative, but as the person who made it, I can be tough on myself, dissatisfied by the smallest things.

    Finally, I want my chili to stay with my audience after they've eaten it. Sometimes, people remember it as something that, if not life-changing, at least improved their lives for a little while. Other times, the chili stays with them in other ways, which probably don't need to be discussed here. My chili has sometimes kept me awake all night, contemplating each and every ingredient. If you know what I mean.

    And that, you see, is how writing and chili are very much the same.

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    22. Antagonists

    The next project is a rescue. This flat story that has sat in writer purgatory for a few years, waiting for motivation to do something about it, longing for the inspiration to remedy it.

    I’m there ready to take it on, its finding the cure that is the problem. Thus, it is back to basics. Characters, stories are about characters. Check. Plot, protagonist wants something, antagonist keeps him from it. Wait, that could be it. I don’t have an antagonist, at least not in the traditional sense. 

    John Truby (The Anatomy of Story: 22 to Becoming a Master Storyteller) is my go-to guy at a time like this. He says the hero, of course, is important. So, too, is the opponent along with the rest of the cast. Truby focuses not on the main character in isolation, but looks at all the characters as part of an interconnected web. Writer’s Digest this week had a quote by mystery writer Elmore Leonard who says “the main thing I set out to do is tell the point of view of the antagonist as much as the good guy.”

    This is all well and fine, but what if your my story doesn’t have a

    Hmm. Good points, but I still don’t have a traditional antagonist. There is no detective and no criminal to pursue, my Harry Potter has no Voldemort. My protagonist has only his own shortcomings to trip over. Truby doesn’t directly address such a thing. He does illustrate his points with story examples from movies. The likes of A Streetcar Named Desire, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, andTootsie, don’t have traditional antagonists. 

    Another valuable resource, KM Weiland, discusses an “antagonistic force” and says, “nowhere is it written that your story has to have a bad guy (or girl, as the case may be).” She says there are several non-human antagonists. They include:
    -Animal - King Kong and Jaws comes to mind
    -Self - the age old existential quandary of man as his own worst enemy in which the MC must overcome his own problems before he can deal with the external one
    -Setting - survival stories in which the hero goes up against nature. Cast Away is a good example. Weather related tales are an offshoot of this.
    -Society - dystopia is the extreme example here, but simpler themes in which the protagonist faces poverty or inequalities of some sort
    -Supernatural forces - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button would be of this sort.
    -Technology - a lot of sci-fi uses overarching technological forces as antagonists.

    Non-human antagonists can be anything that throws obstacles in the way or the hero getting what he or she wants. They could be a thing, an idea, or any inanimate object that the protagonist must overcome to reach the end goal of the story. As long as you have conflict (to have a story is a must) you have an antagonist.

    Weiland says one mustn’t limit themselves to just one antagonist and most stories will use a combination of several.

    Think Sharnado.


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

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    23. Huzzah, huzzah

    "How about a story? Spin us a yarn,” says Grams. And so Sharon Creech does in Walk Two Moons. And it’s a thumpingly good one, as the main character Sal would say.

    Writers should read, we’ve been told that. They should be literary carnivores. According to author Roz Morris, “reading—the good and the bad—inspires you. It develops your palate for all the tricks that writers have invented over the years. …there’s no substitute for discovering for yourself how a writer pulls off a trick. Then that becomes part of your experience.”

    Elmore Leonard says writers should decide which books they like and study that author’s style. Then, you should take that author’s book or story and “break it down to see how he put it together.” The thought was echoed by Jennifer Nielsen at a recent 2014 Professional Writer’s Series event at the Pleasant Grove Library. 

    Fine, I’ll do that. Since I want to write like Carol Lynch Williams, Matthew J. Kirby, and Sharon Creech, placing Walk Two Moons under the microscope is a good place to start.

    What works so well in this story? Quite simply, everything. 

    Creech has plot, two of them in fact. Sal is traveling with her grandparents to Lewiston, Idaho to learn why her mother abandoned the family and went there. Along the way, she shares a story of her friend, Phoebe, whose mother also has disappeared. Sal admits that uncovering Phoebe’s story was a lot like discovering her own. The road trip to find her mother becomes a journey of acceptance and understanding for Sal.

    Plot involves characters. Creech delivers not just Phoebe and Sal, but a multitude of others, each richly drawn, each deserving of a book of their own. Sal’s mother had her reasons for leaving. Phoebe’s mother is multi-layered with a lot of stuff going on. Other memorable people include Sal’s father, Mrs. Cadaver, Mrs. Partridge, Ben, and Grams and Gramps. Creech seamlessly weaves all of them into the story without any sense of it being clunky. It’s most definitely a character-driven plot. But there is so much else going on in this book.

    The title is from the Indian saying about not judging another man until you walk two moons in their moccasins and the metaphor is used effectively. Creech layers numerous subplots. Inspirational, secret messages, including the one about the moccasins are left on Phoebe’s doorstep and come into play throughout the story. Phoebe’s wild imagination conjures up lunatics and ax murderers. There is a kiss just waiting to happen. Creech twists and turns the story arc over upon itself revealing the multiple layers. She wraps up every loose thread and ties it with a bow. And she keeps you guessing, keeps you hoping, even though she drops hints along the way. It is masterfully told. 

    To better understand the craft, I revisited this story over the summer. I read it as a writer but still managed to get choked up about it, even after sharing it multiple times with students when I was teaching.

    Huzzah! Huzzah! The story works on so many levels.


    What works have inspired you?

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

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    24. Looking Back or Moving Forward?

    Anybody who has written for a while has likely faced this predicament: Do you go back and fix up an older project, or do you move forward?

    Here's my situation. I'm revising my current WIP and, although struggling a bit with the middle (what else is new, right?) I am getting close to finishing. I am also in the early stages of planning my next story, and am getting excited about it. But now I've also received feedback suggesting that my previous story might be more marketable if I increase its length by about 30 to 40 percent.

    I've been focused on my current WIP for quite a while and really want to finish it. I probably need to let it sit for a little while, but not until I finish the current round of revisions. Normally, I start my next project during this resting period, and my brain has been working on it while I go about my daily business, and I'm looking forward to finding out what it has come up with.

    So, do I want to go back and work on an older project again when my brain is trying to move ahead with something new? I really like the story, but do I like it enough? It's not doing anybody any good just sitting there, but now, thanks to this feedback, I no longer think of it as finished. I don't know how I could add that much, but I do know my brain is working on it back in some dusty corner where I don't know what's going on, and that eventually something will present itself to me.

    I also have an even older manuscript collecting dust. Every once in a while, I read about some agent who might be interested in something like it, so I shoot off a query. But, I've moved on. I don't even think about that one anymore unless something brings it to my attention.

    And, I have several more ideas for new stories percolating. I've even played around with some of them.

    It comes down to that old question writers often face. When do you let go and move on?

    I realize that it's kind of a good problem to have. Better to have too many ideas than to have only one that you work to death. It's a luxury to have multiple stories at tugging at me. But at the same time, it affects my focus on any one story. I can work on two things at once if I'm writing one and revising the other, but add one more and the balance is shattered.

    And with a month-long vacation looming on a very near horizon, with no definite plans beyond writing, decisions must be made or I risk paralysis that could keep me from getting anything done.

    I guess it beats writer's block.



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    25. Diversity Defined

    Diversity is a really hot topic in the Kid Lit world these days. At the recent SCBWI International Conference in LA, hundreds of people attended a panel about diversity and a chat afterward. You hear the word being tossed around all over the place, and sometimes I wonder if everyone is talking about the same thing.

    Blame it on my days in high school debate, but I always like to define our terms when talking about something that could mean many things. When I think about children's books/literature, I think of diversity coming in three ways.

    First, there is a diversity in authors and illustrators. From what I've seen, the Kid Litverse is full of a diverse cross section of authors and illustrators. Dozens of various ethnic and racial origins are represented. Just off the top of my head I can think of Asian, Hispanic, African-American, Native American artists in every age level of our industry. I know many LBGTQ authors and illustrators, men and women. I know some of almost any religious affiliation. Sure it could always be a higher number, which is I think where the discussion starts. It's not that publishers don't want diverse authors and illustrators, nor do they discriminate. Talent is talent. It seems to me the challenge is encouraging, mentoring, and training more people, letting them know their voices are necessary and welcomed. There are many ways we could do this--scholarships for under-represented groups to attend conferences/schools/events, mentoring programs, and contests. SCBWI is on the forefront of this, offering a wide variety of opportunities for everyone, and some special programs for under-represented groups.

    Second, there's diversity in the publishing industry. As we all know, the publishing industry does not always embrace change very fast. But there are publishers out there--Lee and Low comes immediately to mind--that particularly focus on diversity in their publishing program. Plus, with the rise of self-publishing, access is there for anyone of any age, gender, ethnic or religious background. The discussion continues into the blogosphere, where there are numerous blogs and other resources where diversity in literature is the frequent topic.

    Third, we're talking about diversity in the characters portrayed in children's books, and this is where the discussion can get heated, but I also find it the most interesting. White, middle-class characters have dominated children's literature for decades. But, as we all know, kids come from all sorts of diverse backgrounds, skin colors, religions, genders, sexual identities, and economic status. In the last few decades, we've seen a few more characters of color, particularly in picture books, which is terrific. And in the last decade, we seem to be getting more ethnic backgrounds represented in novels, too. I think we need more LBGTQ characters.  I'd love to see more characters with metal illness, handicaps, autism spectrum syndrome, ADHD. More characters from around the world. Not just Americans with different colors of skin, but different cultures from all over.

    Here's where I think things get challenging when we talk about diversity. Who's writing or illustrating these characters? Some people feel strongly that the author/illustrator come from an authentic place in presenting these characters, by which they mean, I think, that only a Native American can authentically write or illustrate a Native American character, for example. I would love to see more people writing characters from their authentic experience, but I also don't think we need to limit ourselves.

    Writers and illustrators have always portrayed characters outside of our own experience. We write about historical figures, when we never lived in that time period. We write fantasy, when we've never fought a dragon. It is possible to write characters that are outside your own personal realm of experience. That's why research is so useful and important. I am currently writing a book set during WWII in which one of the main characters is a Japanese American girl. I am Caucasian, so how can my character be authentic? Lots and lots of research. I have another WIP that includes a Native American character. I may not be Native American, but I grew up in a town just outside one of the nation's poorest reservations, and I had daily interactions with Indians both on and off the reservation, so I think I have a fairly authentic grasp of their struggles and issues, even though they are not my personal struggles and issues. I am a female, but one of my latest books is in first person from the point of view of a teenage boy. Again, I live with my teenage son, so I have a pretty good picture of his male voice and viewpoint. I have written gay characters, lesbian characters, and more. Because, basically, I think there are some universalities about our human experience that allow us to imagine and put ourselves into the shoes of people who might be different from ourselves by focusing on what unites us.

    To me, this stance isn't a cop out. It's an acknowledgement that an African-American author, for example, is in the best position to authentically portray an African-American character. However, if that author wants to write about a white, middle-class character, I have no problem with that. If he is a good writer, he should be able to manage it. And I think if I do my homework, I can manage to portray an African-American character if I want to. And I want to portray diverse characters. I hope we all do.

    I'd love to hear what others think about this.

    For more information about diversity in children's literature, check out the We Need Diverse Books campaign, which just recently announced its inception as a 501-c3 non-profit organization.

    And look for our Boise SCBWI conference next April, where we plan to focus on diversity in children's literature.


    by Neysa CM Jensen
    Boise, Idaho

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