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I’m working on a revision of my book, How to Write a Picture Book (Look for the new version in September). One section goes through various genres with tips on writing an ABC book, a narrative nonfiction, a picture book mystery, etc. One genre that I neglected in the first draft was metafiction picture books.
A Revealing Conversation between DH and Me
Me: I need to write a blog post about metafiction picture books.
Darling Husband (DH): What’s that?
Me: You know. Postmodern stuff.
Me: They are books that refer to themselves in some way. They break the concept of “book” in the story itself.
DH: Oh. Faux books.
Metafiction picture books are those that break the mold by making the reader aware that they are reading a book. Often fiction writers talk about the immersive book, and value stories that transport a reader to a story world and immerse them totally in the story. The reader’s surroundings disappear and they are deeply involved with the story.
Metafiction breaks that immersive experience. Why? In the theater, this is referred to as breaking the fourth wall. The stage has a back wall and two wings; the fourth wall is invisible wall that separates the audience from the stage. When an actor turns to the audience and makes comments, it’s breaking the fourth wall. The technique can be used to add information, set up irony, create humor or other purposes.
While metafiction isn’t new, it’s been more prevalent in the last few decades. Some say that it’s related to the postmodern philosophy. Read more about postmodernism here.
So, what is a metafiction picture book? Let’s look at some characteristics typical of this genre. Of course, you won’t use all of these in any given book. You can mix and match techniques to tell your story (or un-story). The best way to understand these is to read through a variety of the books suggested below.
Characteristics of a Metafiction Picture Book
Me: One reason I need to write this is because I’ve been trying to critique some manuscripts and having a hard time.
DH: You expect them to be a certain way and they aren’t.
Me: Well. Yes. There are rules about writing picture books.
DH: Are there?
Parody or irony.
Some metafiction picture books refer to folk or fairy tales, often with irony or parody. Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book? By Lauren Child
Pastiche. Copying a certain style of art to create something very different, these are usually author-illustrator stories. Willy the Dreamer by Anthony Browne.
Story gaps. Sometimes the text has gaps that require readers to make decisions about the story and its meaning. Academics call this interdeterminancy. The Three Little Pigs by David Wiesner.
Multiple narrators or characters. The story includes multiple point-of-view characters, often with multiple story arcs. In Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Adam Rex, the author, illustrator and main character each tell separate stories and talk to each other. The complex interaction has three separate endings.See also:
Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith
Black and White by David Macauley
Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne
Direct address to reader. When you use second person point-of-view and talk to the reader, the story can fall into the metafiction category.In a quick review of different points-of-view, you can usually figure out the story’s POV by looking at the pronouns.
1st person: I, me, my
2nd person: You, yours
3rd person: he, she, it, his, hersIn Warning! Do Not Open This Book, by Adam Lehrhaupt, the reader is warned against opening the book. When—of course—the child does open the book, the text provides other warnings.
See also: Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving, by Laurie Halse Anderson,
Non-linear, non-sequential. Most narratives follow a certain time sequence. This happens first, and then that happens. There’s a beginning, middle and end. However, metafiction picturebooks create stories without a clear reference to time order. In Black and White by David Macaulay, each page is divided into four sections which tell different stories and it’s up to the reader to connect them. Or not.
Narrator becomes a character. The author or narrator of the story steps into the story and participates. In Chester, by Melanie Watts, a simple story devolves into an argument between a cat and the author about what story to tell.
Unusual book design or layout. Some metaficiton picture books have unusual typography, while others use a layout that breaks the story out of the page or book. Three Little Pigs by David Wiesner, has illustrations showing the pigs folding up a page and climbing out of the story onto a blank page. Or, they fold up a page into a paper airplane and take a ride.
Stories within Stories. No Bears by Meg McKinlay, Ella writes a book within the book.
Characters and narrators speak directly to the reader.
Sandra Boynton’s board book, Moo, Baa, La, La, La.
The text says,
“The pigs say, ‘la, la, la.’
‘No, no,’ you say, that isn’t right.
The pigs say, ‘Oink,’ all day and night.”
Characters who comment about their own or other stories. In Chester by Melanie Watt, the author and cat character go back and forth about the story. Among other shenanigans, the cat crosses out the author’s name on the cover and puts his own name.
Disruption of time and space relationships. Redwoods by Jason Chin. A boy picks up a nonfiction book about redwood forests and enters the forest.
Something makes the readers aware of what makes up a story. In Help! We Need a Title! By Herve Tullet, characters realize someone is watching them (that’s YOU, the reader) and decide to make up a story. In the end, they invite the author to help finish the story.
Mixing of Genres.
In A Book by Mordecai Gerstein, a girl runs into characters from different genres in a search for her own story. This allows the reader to learn about elements of different genres.
Metafiction + Creative nonfiction. Can you write a metafiction nonfiction picture book? Yes. These stories often mix informational text with fiction. No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart and Allen Young features a couple of worms who make funny comments while the narrator explains where chocolate comes from.
Writing a Metafiction Picture Book
DH: Actually, I do metaficiton.
Me: What? When?
Flashback to memory of DH telling bedtime stories to our kids:
“Once upon a time, there were three bears. Flopsy, Mospy and Peter Bear.”
Me: (Slapping forehead) Oh, my goodness. You’re a metafiction storyteller!
At least, there’s one in the family.
Know the Rules – Break the Rules
If you’ve read my book, How to Write a Children’s Picture Book, you’ll know most of the “rules” of writing a picture book. Break any rule that’s reasonable for the story, but have a reason to break it. You may want to inject humor, parody, information, or yourself into the story for a good reason. Do it. And do it boldly.
While you can write about anything, often the topic of a metafiction picture book is to explain a book or some element of fiction or writing. That’s reflected in titles such as It’s a Book, There are No Cats in This Book, and Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book. Of course, if you try this, remember that you’ll have lots of competition.
Good Read Alouds
Make sure these are good read alouds because youngest readers may read these with adults to make sure it’s understood. Read more about how to make your story a good read aloud here.
One of the main reasons to write a metafiction picture book is to have fun, to play with the genre. Do something unexpected, disrespectful, funny.
Critiquing Metafiction Picture Books
DH: Actually, I like a lot of the books you’re calling metafiction.
DH: They’re unexpected. A surprise. They make me laugh. Kids love them.
An aside: In my household, it’s understood that I don’t have a sense of humor.
Slap stick? No, it’s not funny.
Potty jokes? Absolutely not.
Metafiction? I’m not laughing.
DH: Of course, it’s hard for you to critique metafiction manuscripts.
Me: (Groan. Why is he always right?)
DH: (Wisely, DH refrains from saying anything else.)
Authors, give your group (or editor) a heads up.
When I approach a critique of a picture book, I am always expecting a traditional story. So, it’s helpful if the author is aware of the type picture book they are writing and can tell the critique group, “This is a metafiction picture book.”
Readers, read the story in front of you.
I often read movie or book reviews and get aggravated because the review is more about the reader than the text. The reviewer talks about what they wanted or predicted and how those preconceptions were disappointed. That’s the danger in critiquing this special type of picture book. Especially for metafiction picture books, you must read the text in front of you. Be open to a new way of telling a story for kids.
Ahlberg, Allen. The Pencil
Barnett, Mac. Chloe and the Lion
Bingham, Kelly. Z is for Moose
Boynton, Sandra. Moo, Baa, La, La, La
Browne, Anthony. Willy the Dreamer
Child, Lauren. Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book?
Chin, Jason. Redwoods
Freedman, Deborah. Scribble
Gerstein, Mordecai. A Book
Gravett, Emily. Wolves
Hopkinson, Deborah. Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek
Lehman, Barbara. The Red Book
Macauley, David. Black and White
Schwarz, Viviane. There are No Cats in this Book
Scieszka, Jon and Lane Smith. Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales
Smith, Lane. It’s a Book
Spiegelman, Art. Open Me. . .I’m a Dog!
Stewart, Melissa. No Monkeys, No Chocolate
Tullet, Herve. Help! We Need a Title!
Watt, Mélanie. Chester
Willems, Mo. We Are in a Book
One of the most puzzling, yet exciting formats for writers is the graphic novel. That’s the new name for comic books, or telling stories in a set of illustrated panels. In some writing a graphic novel is like writing a movie script, except the images are still instead of moving.
Writing a graphic novel comes with lots of questions.
What’s the standard format for a graphic novel manuscript?
Do you have to provide the illustrations?
How do you decide how many panels per page?
How do you pace a story across a couple pages?
Many of these questions relate also to writing children’s picture books, which are a combination of text and illustrations.
NOTE: I didn’t receive a review copy on this book. I just found it at my local library and was captivated.
Kneece has taught comic book writing at the Savannah College of Design for over two decades and his expertise and experience shows. He has created eight graphic novel adaptations of The Twilight Zone, and has published numerous graphic novels and comics, including work for Hellraiser, Verdilak, Alien Encounters, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, and The Spirit.
Comics Tell Great Stories
Kneece begins with an emphasis on the story that you want to tell with hints on how to develop a story past a gag. You’ll see actual examples of a formatted script. Next comes a detailed look at a single page and how a story flows across the page. Templates for a 5-panel, 6-panel, 9-panel and 12-panel bring the page to life. Rough sketches illustrate Kneece’s points about how a story flows across these different panels.
With the basics out of the way, the book gets really interesting digging into dialogue, text, characters, pacing and more. This is a fantastic book for those writing picture books because everything he says here applies to both comics and children’s picture books.
I LOVE the pacing chapters.
In Part 1, pp125-127, there’s a great example of revising for pacing, emphasis and impact. The question is where to expand the story with more details and where to compress the story for impact. This is one of the best illustrations of pacing an illustrated story that I’ve seen.
And then, in Part 2, there’s a great example of a story with a boy hears an ice cream truck. The top row is 4 panels.
Panel 1: A boy is playing with a toy rocket. A few musical notes intrude into the frame.
Panel 2: grass and musical notes
Panel 3: grass and musical notes that are trending upward
Panel 4: musical notes dance past the trunk of a large tree.
In other words the 4 panels operate more like one large panel that spans four panels. But the choice to create four panels – a quad-tych, if you will – adds energy to the story. It’s brilliant.
If you’re an illustrator of children’s books, you need to study this book. If you write children’s picture books, you need to study this book. Comic books writers and illustrators, it’s definitely the best text I’ve seen on the topic. Highly recommended.
I’m working on a trilogy of science fiction stories and they began with a short story.
A couple years ago, in preparation for attending a conference, I wrote a sff short story. It was accepted for publication in a Fiction River anthology and became my first ever fiction publication for adults. But I knew even as I wrote it that it was backstory for the YA trilogy that I had planned.
That story has had repercussions throughout my novels and here’s how a short story could benefit YOUR novel.
Backstory. The backstory is everything that happens before the opening scene of your novel. It involved family, parents, culture, historical events and so on. Why are you starting your novel at this particular place and time? Because it’s the beginning of the “day of change.” Your novel needs an exciting start. It doesn’t need a long historical tome that explains why this or that is important. See more about great openings. However, it is crucial that YOU, the author, know all that stuff.
Instead of dryly writing up a world history, why not write a short story about it? My short story introduces the first time that humans meet the aliens from the planet Rison. Of course, the main characters in that story are important in the novel: they are the parents of the novel’s main character. It’s their love story and the reason for the main character’s existence as a half-human/half-alien boy. And of course, that identity reverberates throughout the novel.
Excitement. Writing the short story, the worlds poured out. Hey, it didn’t matter if I “got it right” because I was writing this just for me. Yes, there was a conference, but really, I thought I’d be the only one to read it. That gave me great freedom to write and explore the possibilities of the world I’d imagined. What fun! I went places that surprised me in the short story. I think that freedom, the fun, and the very loose attitude toward the writing was helpful in developing the foundation for my novel.
Voice. Besides writing something fun, the story story was an opportunity to test out a certain voice. I reached for a scientific feel that would firmly pull my story into the science fiction camp instead of fantasy. Short stories are an easy way to test voice without a big commitment.
Publication. The fact that the short story was published was a bonus! If you write for adults, there are many such markets. At times, YA writers can also cross over to these markets. If you write for middle grade, good luck; there are few markets for short stories for that audience.
Marketing. Finally, I see these short stories as fiction that I can give away to garner interest in the novels. With giveaways such a prevalent strategy these days, it makes sense to plan what to give away. This will be better than giving away a full book, but it should do as good a job in getting readers interested in the story and my writing.
I find myself needing to write another short story to accompany Book 2, and for much the same reason. The backstory needs more depth and concrete details. I’ve been trying this week to hammer out this and that, without much success. And then, I remembered the story story as a tool in my writer’s tool box. I’ll be writing at least one and maybe two or three short stories this coming week.
Amazon is now providing a new twist on book marketing with an embeddable widget that allows a preview. Word is that it looks great on mobile or desktop. And Wow, is it easy to implement!
Here’s an example of how it looks for a picture book.
And an example of how it looks for a novel. It allows you to read a couple chapters before you decide if you want to buy or not.
Want your own widget? Here’s Amazon’s simple 1-2-3 step process to put such a widget on your website. The screenshots make it easy. Are you an Amazon affiliate? If you embed the code on your website, the widget allows you to add your affiliate id number. This is a slick, dead-simple promotional tool!
I did try it for my forthcoming book, BURN: MICHAEL FARADAY’S CANDLE, which is now available for preorder. Unfortunately, the widget wasn’t available for it. I also tried adding the link to Facebook, but that didn’t work either.
Today, I’m trying to beat the holiday STOPS by starting again. And I feel the resistance. I love my current WIP. I’m excited by the possibilities. I see the problems and have possible solutions to try. And yet —
Putting words on the page/screen is hard. I don’t know where to start. The story is a bit convoluted right now and I’m not sure I can solve the problems, even though I have strategies to try. I’m unsettled, unfocused, uncommitted. Pulled in too many directions.
And yet, a writer is a person who writes.
It’s comforting to go back to ART AND FEAR and reread that the core problem is to begin again. I must start. And it almost doesn’t matter where.
When I taught Freshman Composition, I often had students who balked at writing. After all, I had only the average students. The A/B students tested out of taking Freshman Comp. The D/F students didn’t come to college. That meant I had a class full of B/C/D average students. Often, they planned their entire schedule around my class. They had nothing before my class so they could write something at the last minute. They had nothing after my class, so they could hide in their room and weep. They did not WANT to write.
My advice was to write. Move the pen across the page. Do not stop moving the pen across the page until I tell you to stop. If you don’t know WHAT to write, copy this sentence over and over until you want to write something else: “I don’t know what to write, but I have to write something, so I’m writing this.”
Never did a student write that more than twice, because it’s so boring, so obvious. Instead, they’d launch into a tirade about how they really, honestly, completely didn’t want to write. But guess what? They were writing. And soon, they realized griping about writing was boring and started to let their more intelligent thoughts find their way to the page.
It’s the same advice I give myself. Write.
It doesn’t matter.
Write a blog post.
Write a description.
Write a scrap of dialogue.
Write. Let the first word lead to a second word, and that leads to a third and fourth. And so on.
I’m going to write now. I hope you Start Again, too.
In honor of Jacob Grimm's birthday,
this retelling of Hansel and Gretel is on sale: 10% LEARN MORE.
How do you introduce your character to your reader? Do you give the character a grand entrance or sneak them in while the reader is focused on something else? A grand entrance signals to the reader that this is a character they should pay attention to. Let’s talk about some ways to make this happen.
First, a couple reminders. Great storytelling is built on the foundation of sensory details. When you provide visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory (taste) or actions, the reader becomes immersed in the story as if they were actually present. You can use sensory details to create a zoom, a pan or a scan. A zoom focuses on tiny details; for example, a face fills the entire imagery, with minute details about each feature. The zoom can travel: you may start by describing in detail the character’s shoes and then travel upward to the face. Or start with any significant detail and then pull back to see the whole. For a surgeon, perhaps describe her clever hands and then travel to her scrubs and finally to her face.
At the other extreme, a panorama pulls back to a bird’s eye view of an entire village. A scan is a method of handling a crowd scene by using specific details to represent a general sense of the mass. For example, a scan might do a mini-zoom in on an old man stumbling along with a cane, then quickly move to an infant taking tottering steps, and then contrast those with a strong young man pushing everyone aside. The series of mini-zooms gives a flavor of the crowd, making it more specific and thus more interesting.
Also, remember that story openings work best when they are focused on a scene. Long-winded descriptions might have worked a hundred years ago, but are less successful for today’s impatient audience. Instead, stories succeed when they start with a character who wants something and faces obstacles to their desires. In short, a scene.
With those givens, a grand entrance–the introduction of a main character to the reader–should take place within an active scene. And you’ll have a choice of a zoom, a pan or a scan. Within those parameters, there are other options.
In Context of a relationship.
The first time we see Katniss in Hunger Games is telling. There’s an opening sequence that sets up what the Hunger Games are, and then there’s a scene cut to Prim screaming. Katniss hugs her, calms her, sings to her. The images are close up, zoomed into Katniss’s and Prim’s faces, as they face the knowledge that the Reaping happens that day.
Sometimes the sensory details focus on silhouettes and shadows, often with a blinding light behind the character. Think Psycho (1960) and the silhouette on shower curtain (often parodied). This works well when the character likes to hide in the shadows until it is time to reveal themselves. This works well then timed for effect with a dramatic piece of dialogue.
Often, beginning with the character in action makes for a grand entrance. Think of the Bridal March: the audience rises and turns to watch the bride make the long walk down the aisle. Everyone’s full focus is on The Walk. Or think of the Red Carpet arrival of celebrities at a premier or awards ceremony. It doesn’t have to be a Walk, though. For a basketball player, but him on the court and let him score with his signature hook shot. Or show a doctor doing chest compressions as a snow sled skims down a ski slope.
Donald Maass, in his Breakout Novel Workbook, asks, “When does the reader first notice the heroic qualities of your character?” As a writer it’s helpful to think about what makes a character heroic in your own eyes. Then ask how you can present that quality the first time the character appears in your story.
In context of a setting.
Sometimes, the setting is crucial to the story. It may be a space station or a hospital surgery or a swimming hole, but something about the setting is crucial. Here, you could give a short panorama of the scene, and then slowly zoom in to the character and what s/he is doing within your setting. Another option is to scan across a scene (mini-zooms of several people), then abruptly come back for a double take of your character.
Group – Team is in Place.
Perhaps, the group of characters is just as important as the main characters. In this case, the Team needs a grand entrance, just as much as the main character needs one. Here, you might zoom in on the main character standing alone, and then slowly pull back as one-by-one others join him/her. The focus begins with one character but ends with the group as a cohesive character of its own.
Alternatives to the Grand Entrance
Anti-Grand Entrance. For my WIP, I was thinking about all of these options for a major character and eventually rejected all of them. Instead, I slipped my character in on the sly. Jake, the main character, is waiting in the Emergency Room waiting area for his turn to be seen by the doctor. He’s distracted by a huge salt water tank and talks to an older woman who is cleaning the tank. Later, when he goes back to see the doctor, he discovers that the woman cleaning the aquarium is the doctor. This works in my story because one of the themes is hiding in plain sight. Jake dismisses a woman as someone who just cleans aquariums–and reveals things that he wouldn’t normally tell the doctor. It’s a bit of misdirection because Jake makes wrong assumptions.
Second Grand Entrance. Another idea to consider for grand entrances is that sometimes, a character needs a second grand entrance, after some life-altering change. In Dicken’s “Christmas Carol,” Scrooge awakens the next morning as a changed man. He walks to the window and throws it open. Ah, what nice imagery. He’s looking out on a new world! He calls to a boy to fetch the large goose and have it delivered to the Cratchit family. This second grand entrance stands in contrast to the first grand entrance of Scrooge and tells the reader that a huge character change has been accomplished.
Whatever approach you choose, think hard about the reader’s first impressions of each major character. It is true that first impressions matter.
Thanks, L.A. for the question for today. She received a rejection that called her picture book manuscript, “slight.” What does an editor mean by that term? And what can you do about it? (BTW, I love questions! Send me your questions and I’ll try to do a post on it.)
When by nonfiction book, Praire Storms was accepted by Arbordale, the editor said they had several prairie books to consider that year and choose mine because it had many layers. It’s the story of how prairie animals survive during a storm. But that’s not all it is.
The layers include prairie animals, how they fit into that landscape, storms, and the months of the year/seasons. It wasn’t enough just to write a story with animals and their habitat. The addition of storms made sense, because on the prairies, the skies are such a big part of what you see. But I also knew that the Next-Gen Science Standards for K-3 emphasized the relationship between animals/habitats, and also how weather shapes the Earth. The book could be used to emphasize a variety of standards across K-3, or even into 4th or 5th for classrooms that used picture books.
Even that wasn’t enough. I also decided to include 12 animals and to feature one per month. Elementary students are learning about the months of the year and the seasons, so that added yet another layer that made it appealing in the classroom. Finally, I think the writing was a factor. I wrote the story first in poetry, but then reworked it as prose, because Arbordale usually translates their books into Spanish and prose is easier to translate. However the poetic feel came through in the revision. The poetry draft gave me language and rhythm patterns that made the book a stronger read aloud.
Adding Layers to Your Story
Study curriculum standards. To add layers to your own story, consider the various curriculum standards to see if there’s something you can layer over the story. It’s not the most important factor in selling a book, especially a trade book; however, any consideration of market is always appreciated. Make sure the layer is integral to the story and not forced, or it won’t work. When you write your cover letter, be sure to mention that you’ve added these layers; or consider adding a note at the end with info on how the mss can be used for certain standards.
Language. I used a poetry draft to enhance my writing of Prairie Storms. It’s just one way to get to the idea that you need a story that’s a great read aloud. The language of the story should pull the reader along and be pleasant to read over and over. Read more on creating a satisfying read-aloud picture book.
What’s the Takeaway? Finally, consider the theme of the story. This is similar to the morals of the Aesop Fables. However, you shouldn’t bash the reader over the head with the story. Instead, the takeaway is the overall point of the story, whether stated or not. Often, it’s NOT stated explicitly, but is something the reader/listener will understand as a result of the story. It’s the answer to the question, “So what?”
In Prairie Storms, this is the weakest element with only a hint of a takeaway in the last line: “The bison stand, prairie-strong and defiant.” I meant that in a more general way for all the animals featured, that they were strong, and the prairie was a stronghold for wildlife in America. Defiant, for me, meant that even in the face of environmental problem, they would survive. After all, the bison have escaped extinction. It’s a stretch, yes, and I could’ve done more to make the takeaway explicit. Sometimes, I err on the side of understatement!
For your story, add layers: historical, literary, technical, or emotional layers. And you’ll never get that dreaded rejection note that says, “Too slight.”
This is a combination of two things: a list of popular posts in 2015 and a request for help. For the past two years you’ve been kind enough to nominate Fiction Notes as a Top 10 Blog for Writers. I’m asking if you’d be kind enough to do it for 2016.
WritetoDone.com, who sponsors the contest has new rules for 2015 – please read carefully.
To Nominate your favorite writing blog, you need to do 3 things in the comments section of this post:
Nominate only one blog post from your favorite writing blog. If you nominate more than one blog post, even in different comments, only your first vote will be counted.
Specify the correct web address of the blog post you’ve nominated.
Give reasons why you believe the blog post you’ve nominated should win this year’s award.
If your comment does not fulfill these criteria, your nomination will be invalid.
Only posts from writing blogs will be considered.
The blog post you nominate should have been first published in 2015.
You nominate a specific blog post, and that blog becomes a candidate for the Top 10 Blogs for Writers 2015/2016.
Nominations must be received by 24th December, 2015.
So, it’s a bit different because you must nominate with a specific blog post, not just the overall blog itself! And the blog posts must have been written in 2015. I hope this list of top 10 blog posts from 2015 will help – the URL is provided for your convenience, too.
You’ve finished your novel! Hurrah! Wahoo! Take time to celebrate!
And then, you wonder, can you sell this manuscript to a publisher? Welcome to the world of marketing your novel. It’s a relatively straight-forward process and two simple tools make it easy.
The Query Letter and the Synopsis
You can’t live long as a writer without developing a dread of The Query Letter. But it shouldn’t be a fearful thing.
First and foremost, a query is a business letter. You are asking a business (either agent or editor) a simple question. “Are you interested in reading my story?”
Please – don’t make it more difficult than that.
I know. Sometimes we’re tempted to endlessly critique a simple, one page query letter. Resist the urge. Write a business letter and let it do its job.
Here’s a simple plan:
Paragraph 1: Simple statement of what you’re selling. State what you have to sell. You should mention the title, length, genre and anything else pertinent. If you have a particular reason to sell to this particular agent/editor, state it here, too.
Paragraph 2: Hook the reader. Why should a reader care about your story? You’re a writer. In fact, you’re a great fiction writer. Just write a simple one-paragraph hook for the novel. Answer the “So what?” question and make the reader want more. That’s the key: you want the agent/editor to want to read much, much more!
Paragraph 3: Who are you? Here’s where you insert the simple 100-word bio that you’ve already got set up somewhere. Tweak it to make it fit this novel, of course.
Streamline Marketing with a Grab File of Previously Written Bios and Summaries
I like to take time to write up bios and summaries of stories in various lengths and then just customize the bio/summary for any given situation. Here’s a few of the bios I have available::
Tag line: Darcy Pattison, children’s book author and writing teacher, . . .
25 word bio: Include the most prestigious awards/publications/etc. If you have none, do NOT apologize or say, “I’m not published yet, but. . .” Just don’t say anything.
50 word bio: Here, I build on the previous and add any other books/awards that are appropriate.
100 word bio: Building on the previous, I loosen up some and try to add some fun and more details.
Full Blown bio for when I’m speaking: Usually, I only need a full blown bio for when I’m speaking and they want to introduce me. Or teachers/librarians/reviewers/etc. sometimes want a full bibliography. For those times, I keep a pdf version available for download.
I’ve just written a synopsis and it was frustrating. I took 60,000 words to tell a story and a synopsis attempts to tell the story in only 1500-2000 words. Obviously, you’re going to leave out tons of story! How do you manage it?
The best advice I’ve heard is to tell the main through-story as if it were a short story. The through-line is the main plot or the story that carries throughout the story. It’s like a line is anchored in chapter one and then threads through every part of the story.
My first thought was to summarize every chapter with a sentence or two, but that’s not quite right. Instead, think short story. It needs to read as an interesting story, but you have few of the tools usually used in short stories. There’s little room for dialogue or in-depth scenes. You may hint at a scene here or there, but you won’t really develop it. Instead, the synopsis is narrative writing. Still use your strong verbs and sensory details whenever possible, but focus on moving through the story and keeping the reader wondering what comes next.
The query and synopsis aren’t hard. They are, however, a tighter form of writing than you’re used to while writing that long, long novel. Don’t agonize after them; just get them done and get the query out the door! Because we want to see your novel in print!
NaNoWriMo is almost over, which means many of you will now 50,000+ words on a new draft.
Of course, you realize it’s a rough draft. So, what’s next?
Since 1999, I’ve taught Novel Revision Retreats that answer this very question. How do you take the rough draft to a finished draft?
Step 1. Look at what you’ve written. At this point, there are really two versions of your novel. There’s the novel in your head and the novel on the page. And they aren’t the same. Your intentions were only partly realized in this version. That means its time to actually look at what you wrote, and not what you think you wrote.
I ask writers to go through the mss chapter by chapter (or scene by scene, if they’d rather) and write one sentence to summarize the actions (plot) and another sentence to summarize the emotional content of the scene/chapter. Also, note whether the scene contains conflict.
If you read through these summaries, it should be a fairly smooth synopsis of the entire story. And you’ll see the holes in the story much easier. “> Step 2. Re-Envision. Once you SEE the story you’ve written, it’s time to re-envision that story. This is the death of one story–the one in your head–and the birth of a better story–the one on the page. How can you tell the story in a stronger, more emotional way? The function of the first draft is to tell you the story you have to tell; the function of the next draft(s) is to find the best way to tell that story. In other words, you’re focusing on the reader now.
You experience this all the time. For example, when you tell people later about getting Christmas presents, you’ll likely order the telling in a way that emphasizes emotion. Let’s say, you wanted to get a new cocker spaniel. You tell about opening sweatshirts, tickets to see the latest movie, and then–that small package that held little hope of being what you really wanted until you opened it and it said to go look in the laundry room. And there, in a carrying case, was–yes! the sweetest puppy ever.
You don’t tell about the puppy first. You hold back and build up the tension; your listeners are wondering what you really got for Christmas and if you were happy with it. Were you angry at your family or delirious with joy? Emotions. You withhold certain information until it makes the most emotional impact.
That’s what you need to do with your story now: pay attention to your audience and build the story so that it’ll give the most emotional impact.
Step 3. Rewrite. Then Repeat Steps 1 and 2 until you’re happy with the story.
The workbook for my Novel Revision Retreat goes into the process in far more detail!
For more detail on taking your story from rough to finished, Work through the simple exercises in the book. Order the paperback now.
My life is full. And I don’t want it any other way. I’m blessed to have such a rich, varied and full life.
But, oh! Life is full! And I need to get writing done.
I recently read a great book on productivity. Now, don’t let it scare you away, because it’s called, 2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron. It’s a $0.99 Kindle book, and it’s worth way more.
Here’s why. Rachel Aaron chronicles her story of going from very low productivity to extremely high productivity. She has a three-pronged approach.
Knowledge. Before Aaron sits down to write, she knows what she’ll write. In other words, she does extensive pre-writing before she starts to write. This involves developing the world, the characters, and outlining the plot. Beyond that, on the day she writes a scene, she’ll spend 5-10 minutes sketching out the scene. To put it in my terms, she decides on the major beats of the scene. What are the major bits of action, dialogue, and thoughts that must happen in this scene and in what order should they come?
I always emphasize the importance of prewriting. When I teach writing to kids, I spend the biggest chunk of time on the prewriting phase, making sure they know WHAT to write about. If you want to improve your writing, learn the discipline of prewriting. Aaron says that this alone will double your word count on any given day.
Time. Next Aaron started to pay attention to her best working times. She realized that she needed four hours of uninterrupted time and it was best to write in the afternoons. In order to figure this out, she kept statistics. I know – words and numbers. But numbers are often important in our work. Over a period of time, Aaron recorded the start/stop times for writing and the number of words per session. After accumulating data, she analyzed it to find her most productive times. Once you know that, it’s simple. Protect that writing time and make sure your friends/family help you protect it.
Enthusiasm. Finally, Aaron realized that some days she was more enthusiastic about her work than others. In studying the problem, she realized that she wasn’t excited about some scenes. Well – if the AUTHOR isn’t excited by a scene, why should a reader be excited, she reasoned. Turning back to the prewriting phase, Aaron decided that she wouldn’t write a scene ever again unless she was excited by something in the scene. Some turn of phrase, turn of events, twist of emotions or something. If she couldn’t find that enthusiasm, she’d cut the scene and work to find another version of the events that did excite her.
By the end, Aaron was writing 10,000 words/day – regularly. Prewrite. Write at your most productive times (and you only know that with data). And get and stay excited about your story. It’s easy!
I started my new novel today and wrote 1750 words! Far from Aaron’s 10,000 words/day, but I’m just getting started! She says that she also speeds up as the novel enters the last phase. it was a blast to write today because I was so excited to get started – with a new set of strategies that might actually push me to write faster – and better!
Optimism about ebook adoption in schools has run high for the last few years, but this study provides some interesting news. Depending on where you fall on the issue – pro-eBook or pro-printBook – the details are shifting.
Reading on eBooks May Hamper Learning. In the past year, several research studies report that reading on ebooks may hamper understanding and/or retention of information, especially putting events into a time order. However, the studies come with a big question mark: “what about ‘ebook’ or mobile-device natives?” Kids growing up today who have known only computers and smart phones may develop differently – the research is still out.
USABILITY PROBLEMS: Too Many Standards, Too Many Passwords. Students and school libraries have too many conflicting choices for reading an ebook. On Kindle alone, there are eight different devices and apps for another 27 devices. If a school library tries to commit to one device, say Kindle or Nook, the rapidly changing landscape means their ebook collection could rapidly become out-dated and unusable. Education distributors work around this by providing browser-based ebook readers (again, they are proprietary) that can be accessed by any device with a browser. Even getting around the problem of devices, students then have to contend with accounts and passwords. Digital security demands that schools maintain strict control of access to the ebooks. In my opinion, this is the biggest factor limiting the wide-spread adoption of ebooks in schools. The answer, of course, is for companies to stop haggling over their proprietary devices and strictly adhere to the international ePub3.0 standards. That’s unlikely.
In the short term, the companies may feel it’s imperative to slug it out over the best platform for delivering and reading ebooks. In the long run, I think they are hurting themselves by alienating students and school staff. If it continues for long, educators may decide it’s not worth it and turn back to only print resources.
eBooks are Available in Schools. Across the US, about 56% of schools report that ebooks are available. But students don’t often choose them (see standards/passwords above for at least a partial explanation). Nonfiction related to school projects edges out fiction titles in popularity. Only 6% of schools report a high interest in ebooks, 37% report moderate interest, and 57% report low or no interest. Availability doesn’t equal use. Kids aren’t feeling the love for ebooks!
Parents Demand Technology. Interestingly, it’s often parents who demand technology in the classroom. Over 20% of schools have a one-to-one device policy, which means that each child has a device for at least part of a day; another 24% plan to add one-to-one soon. But the problems are massive, from funding to implementation (see the standards/passwords above). While this study doesn’t cover parental or students attitudes toward ebooks, the Scholastic 2015 Kids and Parents Reading Report says that 65% of kids say they’ll always want to read print, up from 60% in 2012. Teenagers tend to read more when introduced to ebooks; on it’s top 12 list of things parents can do to encourage more reading, providing more ebooks holds the number 12 position. Read the Scholastic report for more details on the parent’s views on ebook reading.
Are your books available as ebooks? Do you read more print or ebooks? Do your kids/grandkids read more print or ebooks?
I talk a lot about revising fiction here and when I visit with people. I teach novel revision, especially in my novel revision retreat. Recently, I’ve been trying to reconcile the different ways talk about revision and understand the differences. It seems to me that there are several distinct differences, each with its own strengths.
Don’t Revise. One school of thought is that the raw energy of a first draft represents your storytelling at its best. For these writers, they will work on learning craft issues, but once a tory is written, they don’t want to revise extensively, or they feel it will kill the energy. Don’t’ mistake this for laziness; they are diligently learning plotting, characterization, and so forth. Rather, like other artists, they believe the raw energy – a sort of primitiveness in visual art might be an analogy – is more important.
Re-envision. This type of revision takes a first draft and re-envisions it drastically to meet a mental model of a perfect story. The ideal story varies from writer to writer and genre to genre. Some will tout the hero’s journey as the perfect story, and scenes must slot into the stages of the journey. Whatever the story model, the goal is to match up the current story with the model. Often, it requires extensive rewriting because the writer’s first draft didn’t follow the model.
While this holds out the promise of a great story, it can also be a trap for the under-confident writer. If an editor has a different mental model of story, it could mean extensive rewrites of a story that under a different editor would be acceptable.
Reader Oriented. For me, the first draft of a story is to find out what story you want to tell. All subsequent drafts have the goal of finding the most dramatic way to tell the story. That means, you’re thinking of the reader. How can you tell a story to impact the reader the way you want? Do you want them to be scared, touched emotionally by tenderness, or so tense that the pages turn themselves? Revision here blends the mental model of a story with the reader’s imagined responses.
Of course, literary theorists can talk about reader-response theory, the narrative arc, and lots of other literary analysis techniques. I’m not saying you need to be proficient in all of those. Rather, I’m asking – what’s the most important consideration for you as you revise?
Your unique vision – you, as a creative artist.
Shaping a story to match your mental model of Story (with a capital S). Story theory.
Reader’s reaction. Audience.
No rights and wrongs. Only a recognition of your goals as a writer.
What’s your mindset as you approach the revision of a story? And does it change from story to story?
I’m revising my WIP novel one scene at a time and finding places where I need to do lots of work. Specifically, I want scenes that pivot.
A scene is self-contained section of the story. Characters come into a scene with a goal and they either reach their goal or not. The scene should have a beginning, middle and end. And, according to THE SCENE BOOK by Sandra Scofield, your scene also needs a pivot point.
Scofield says that characters go into a scene with a goal, with something they are fighting for. But at some point the story twists, deepens, or changes in a fundamental way.
If you don’t have one, the scene is boring. Think about where the scene’s essence lies: the point at which everything changes. There if Before X and After X. X is the focal point. – Sandra Scofield, p. 54, The Scene Book
It’s a hard concept in some ways to talk about, but you know it when you see it. In this short scene from the movie,”Good Will Hunting,” the focal point, pivot point, hot spot, turning point, or apex is when Will steps in to help his friend. This is a great example because it shows the character in action, doing something that matters.
By contrast, some scenes in my WIP just sit on the page. For example, I have one scene where the main character meets the romantic interest character. There’s a lot of characterization going on; they are at a coffee shop where she’s a barista and he’s ordering a special coffee drink; there’s some humor. But the scene still felt flat. Until I realized that there’s no real pivot point, no fulcrum for the scene. To change it, he asks a simple question, “Who are you?” That launches her into a humorous, but character-revealing pseudo-tirade, which results in him really paying attention to her and finding that he’s VERY attracted. Before the tirade, he’s not interested; after the tirade; he’s hooked.
To revise your scenes, fill in the blanks:
Before _____________(Pivot Point), my character _______________; AFTER _______________(Pivot Point), my character ____________________.
Find a way to pivot somewhere in each scene–and you’ll hook me as a reader!
I had the privilege of meeting with a young writer this week who wanted to chat about her future. She’s articulate, smart and engaged. She’s already a member of a fan-fiction forum where she chats with other teens about writing. She’s planning to take the NaNoWriMo challenge and write 50,000 words in November. Even at fourteen, with parental controls carefully in place, she’s linked in and excited about the future of book publishing. Here are some of the things we discussed.
Go Indie, Young Writer, Go Indie, and Grow Up with the Industry.
Write 10,000 hours. If you want to be a writer, you must write.
I asked Young Writer, “How many hours do you need to write to become a great storyteller?”
She said, “My preacher said 10,000 hours to be good at anything.”
Obviously, someone has read Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers, where he claims experts need that level of commitment. Whether you believe that number or not, it’s true that writers write. They don’t talk about writing, they don’t study text books about writing, they don’t wish they had written. They write.
Likewise, most writers who are successful are readers. It’s certainly possible to avoid a deep literary background of reading–but I believe it’s much harder. Pour language in to get language out. The wider the variety of reading, the better. Prepare to be a social media maven. A second skill for writers growing up today is social media. Aspiring young writers should become comfortable on different social media platforms and participate a variety of communities devoted to literature. One thing that definitely means is the young writer needs skills in photo editing. Taking your own photos is even better, but for sure, they should be able to edit photos. For example, Facebook needs horizontal photos, while Instagram prefers square, and Pinterest highlights vertical. Can you take one photo and format it to fit each platform. Even as platforms morph (Instagram now allows horizontal or vertical, while preferring square), the ability to reformat photos will remain a valuable skill. One step farther, video skills will become increasingly important online. These are things that even a fourteen-year old can do, before they are even allowed by cautious parents (Hurrah for cautious parents!) allow social media accounts. For example, Lynda.com offers reasonably priced video tutorials on a wide variety of skills, including photo editing.
Prepare to be a small business person. Already, Young Writer was asking, “Should I go Indie?”
When I said, “Yes,” she was excited. She was already tending to think indie was a strong option for her.
And fourteen years old is the time to think Indie, because it requires an entrepreneurial mindset. Indie authors are small business persons. They need a variety of skills: accounting, marketing, graphic design for book covers and book layout, social promotion and more. This was perhaps the biggest surprise for the Young Writer’s Mom. She had thought only of writing and producing the books, not of marketing them.
Now is the time to think about the classes to take in high school and college that can feed into a successful venture in indie publishing. Learn accounting and financial management. One of the biggest challenges for me has been the financial side of indie publishing; in fact, I’d never even taken a basic accounting class before I started my venture. I suggested that Young Writer invest time in accounting, accounting software, and thinking like a financial planner.
Likewise, books are an exercise in graphic design. Whether you do ebooks or print books, the book cover is a crucial sales tool, and the interior must be laid out in a professional and pleasing way. I’m not saying that Young Writer must do all her own graphic design; rather, she must be comfortable acting as an art director for her books. That means some experience in a graphic design class will help her see possible difficulties and solutions and hopefully, give her an eye for great design. Maybe an arts appreciation class is just as important as the graphics design class.
What should I major in in college? asked Young Writer.
The answer depends on Young Writer’s goals. Indie authors create multiple income streams to survive, especially in the early years. Typically, a writer earns income from book sales, speaking engagements, and teaching. Throw in some extra sales from repackaging the book for different formats: paperback, hardcover, ebooks, audiobooks, online video courses, and so on.
If Young Writer wants to be a creative writing professor at a university level, then an MFA in Creative Writing makes sense. Or even a Ph.D. University programs are generally great at turning out professors, and not necessarily (with exceptions, of course) turning out practicing and successful writers.
However, if Young Writer wants to really go entrepreneurial and try to make a living from her writing, I’d advise a minor in Creative Writing (while working on her 10,000 hours experience), and a degree in something else. Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park and other classics, graduated from medical school, although he never practiced as a doctor. The expertise in medicine–and his comfort in dealing with technical issues from chemistry to anatomy–brought something unique to his fiction. He was comfortable discussing the genetics of bringing back extinct species of dinosaurs – and making the science fiction plausible. Likewise, Young Writer might benefit from a degree in history, archeology, sociology, anthropology, medicine and so on.
It depends on Young Writer’s goals, their personality, and their commitment to writing. But now is the time to think about options. And I think the future for smart young writers is in their own hands. Go Indie, young writer, go Indie, and grow up with the industry.
You’d think I’d know what I’m doing by now.
But each revision brings challenges. I’ve been struggling through the line edits on my manuscript and I’ve found them to be of three general types:
Clarity. My original wording is unclear. The line edit added clarity. These, I keep or modify even further to make sure I’m clear. Writing is the act of putting something on paper that reproduces a thought EXACTLY in the reader’s mind. That’s makes clarity the first goal of all writing. Otherwise, the communication fails.
Technical issues. This might include subject-verb agreement, verb tense, etc. I’ll almost always do this.
Matters of choice. Some edits however, just seem to be a matter of personal preference. Which way would you say this?
It was like a dolphin’s tail.
It was akin to a dolphin’s tail.
Both versions are clear; there are no technical issues. On line edits like this, I do what I want. Or more specifically, I look at the surrounding text and ask myself, “Would I write that? Is that my voice?”
I won’t accept any line edits that change my voice or try to force it into other paths. I’m not foolish: I consider the edit because maybe I was lazy when I wrote this paragraph and I wasn’t thinking of the best choices. Often, however, it’s how the editor would have phrased it and it’s not my voice. No go. I won’t change that.
Line edits, then, take time. You must consider each one in turn and decide to keep it, modify it even more, or reject it.
And that’s the problem right now. I’m bogged down in line edits. Talking with a friend, she said it a different way: you need to re-read the editorial letter at different points in the revision.
Editorial letter. Oh, yeah. That. There is a long editorial letter that addresses overall issues of plot, characterization, pacing, and backstory. THAT is what I really wanted to focus on for this revision. Instead, I’m just tediously going through line edits.
Revision is a combination of micro and macro. You must go deep into the words and sentences used to tell the story–the line editing. But at the same time, you must pull back and take a wider view. I’ve been lost in the details for the past week. My plan for this week is to reread the editorial letter and choose a couple major issues to focus my writing efforts.
But even on the major issues raised in an editorial letter, I’m not likely to agree with the editor on everything. One thing a writer brings to a novel is a unique sense of what makes a story. There are no rights and wrongs in this business, only opinions. My sense of Story (with a capital S) is different from the editor’s sense of Story.
Seldom do I do EXACTLY what a revision letter details. Instead, I read the editor’s thoughts with an eye toward understanding the heart of the issues raised. Then, make revisions based on that. It’s the difference between mechanically following a set of directions and understanding why those directions were given. Don’t blindly follow your editor’s advice: Go to the heart of the issues raised and find your own answers.
Do you struggle with going from micro to macro levels of revision?
Swedish psychologist Carl-Johan Forssén Ehrlin surprised the book publishing world this summer as his book for children and their parents shot to number one on Amazon. The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep is a self-help book that gives parents a script to follow as they try to get a child to go to sleep. Because of its performance on Amazon, Penguin has picked up the book for a reported seven-figure deal.
Of course, I had to read it. Buzz does sell books.
Rabbit (if I can casually call it by the name of the insomniac main character) reminds me of the Academy Awards ceremony. Screenwriters, directors, actors and actresses, cinematographers and the full complement of support staff for a major move were awarded the highest honor that filmmaking can bestow, Academy Awards. And for every movie about a cause—from elderly rights to gay rights and beyond—the person being honored felt compelled to stand up and explain why their cause was so important and timely. . . thereby negating the art for which they’d just been honored.
Why did they not trust their art to plead their cause in deeper and stronger ways than a week diatribe made during a gala ceremony? It baffles me.
In the same way Ehrlin explains why a good bedtime story works. He has built into the script certain keywords – sleep now, yawn, now—which should help put the child in the right frame of mind. Further, he uses some words because they sound calm and slow, thus reinforcing the desired frame of mind. Repetition finds its place as a tool to calm and convince a child to fall asleep.
But why does Ehrlin feel the need to explain it all so blatantly? Perhaps, it’s because parents don’t go behind the scenes for a children’s bedtime story; they don’t understand, and therefore don’t trust, that the writer really knows what s/he is doing when writing this kind of story.
In fall 2016, I’ll join the ranks of authors with a bedtime story, ROWDY: The Pirate Who Could Not Sleep. Let me show you what’s behind the curtain of my writing process.
The Sounds of Words
As a young writer, I once heard Newbery medalist Lois Lowry speak about a story that ended in a quiet moment that she hoped would calm a child and help them sleep. She avoided harsh-sounding words and used soft words. That’s right. The way the words sounded was just as important, if not more so, than the meaning of the words.
Poets John Ciardi and Miller Williams said a similar thing in their classic book, How Does a Poem Mean. They emphasize the “connotations speaking to connotations,” an effect they say will create imagery and symbolism. In other words, it matters whether you use the word “fire” or “inferno” because of how it sounds, its connotations and its definitions. Just as important, though, is how it affects the rhythm pattern of your piece of writing. Fire has only one syllable, while Inferno has three syllables; using one over the other affects the rhythm patterns of the writing.
I have a B.A. in Speech Pathology and an M.A. in Audiology; one of the most useful classes from my college years was phonics, or the study of how sounds are made in the human mouth and how to record those sounds with the International Phonetic Alphabet.
For a bedtime story, you want to avoid harsh sounding consonants, what phonetics calls fricatives or affricatives: f, v, th, t, d, sh, zh, ch, j, s and z. Other sounds to avoid are the plosives: b, p, t, d, k, g. You can’t avoid these two major groups of consonants entirely! But you can minimize them, especially when you want the words to be the softest.
Another distinction phonetics makes is among voiced or unvoiced consonants. Put your hand on your throat and say T –T –T ; repeat with D – D – D. Do you feel that your vocal cords vibrate for the D, but not for the T? T is unvoiced; D is voiced. Unvoiced consonants are softer, and more suited to bedtime stories.
The softest sounds are the glides: w, l, r and y. These are the real winners for a calming bedtime story.
For vowels, you should understand that some vowels involve lots of tension in the mouth, while some are created with a relaxed mouth. Say a long A; now say AW. Do you feel the difference in the mouth’s tension?
Ehrlin merely takes a clue from phonetics/linguistics and uses relaxed vowels, along with soft consonants.
Why is a rabbit the right animal for Ehrlin to choose for a bedtime story? Rabbit is a relatively calm word: Glide R; short A is relatively relaxed; B is a plosive, but it’s buried in the word’s middle; UH is a relaxed vowel; T is a plosive but because it’s unvoiced, or your vocal cord doesn’t vibrate for it, it’s relatively calm.
My Fall 2016 bedtime story, ROWDY: THE PIRATE WHO COULD NOT SLEEP, is about Captain Whitney Black McKee. She’s a rowdy pirate captain who fights sea monsters and returns to home port, but finds that she can’t sleep. Her crew goes a’thievin’, in search of a lullaby to help her sleep. In the end, the cabin boy brings back her Pappy who sings her a lullaby.
Here’s that last stanza, which you cannot read it harshly because the words, the phrasing and the story that I wrote demand that you say it softly.
Then Pappy sang of slumber sweet,
while stars leaned low and listened.
And as the soft night gathered round.
The pirates’ eyes all glistened.
GREAT bedtime stories include. . .
Child-in-lap relationship. Mem Fox, the beloved Australian writer, talks about the importance of keeping in mind the child-in-the-lap relationship. She means that when you read a story to a child, you are also developing a relationship with that child. She likes to end stories with something that will make the child turn to the adult and give them a hug or say, “I love you.”
Her beloved book, Kaola Lou, has the refrain, “Kaola Lou, I do love you.” And of course, it’s hard to read without also saying to the child in your lap, “I love you.”
Language development. The great bedtime stories take into account the whole child, not just his or her ability to go to sleep quickly. Instead, they develop a child’s language. Because these are books provided at developmentally appropriate times in a child’s life, it’s an opportunity to entice them with language: the sounds of their native language, the vocabulary, the rhythm patterns and so on. Kindergarten teachers spend time teaching nursery rhymes (Jack be nimble; Jack be quick; Jack jump over the candlestick.) because it develops skills in language.
In a like manner, the classic Goodnight Moon! by Margaret Wise Brown uses rhythm, refrains and much more. Consider the humor of this line: “Goodnight, nobody.” It makes for a story that you don’t mind reading for the 1000th time.
Story. As children develop language, an important skill is the ability to understand stories. This involves sequencing of events (beginning, middle, end), understanding cause-effect relationships, character motivations and much more.
Llama, Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney has an appropriately simple story. Baby Llama is tucked into bed, but when Mama leaves the room, he calls that he needs a drink of water. The plot complication is just that Mama is delayed in bringing up the water, so Baby Llama panics. When Mama shows up, she reassures him that she is “always near, / even if she’s / not right here.” It’s a gentle, reassuring story. And while it tells the story, it also gives kids experience in understanding Story.
Vocabulary building. Kids love big words—in the right context.
Jane Yolen’s story, How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? provides great fun with the names of various dinosaur species. What kid can resist words such as Allosaurus, Pteradon, Apatosaurus, and Tyrannosaurus Rex? But Yolen also includes words appropriate for the bedtime hour. “Does a dinosaur slam his tail and pout?”
You can’t read this without screwing up your face in a pout, thus teaching the meaning of a vocabulary word in a natural context.
My own bedtime story is titled ROWDY: The Pirate Who Could Not Sleep (to be released Fall, 2016). Will kids know the meaning of “rowdy”? Doubtful. But within the story’s context, they’ll learn it. Bedtime stories, then, are a comfortable and natural context for teaching new words.
Great children’s book authors create works that don’t need the artificial crutches of bold and italic fonts to tell the adult reader how to present the story. Instead, it’s right there in black and white on the page. It tells a great story that reinforces language and vocabulary development. And when it’s done right, a great bedtime story gives an adult an opportunity to give the kid a hug and a kiss and say, “I love you.”
In a recent survey, 75% of Fiction Notes readers said they write part time.
You’re trying to find time to write.
You’re juggling writing time with family and other commitments.
You’re balancing a job, kids, husband and a passion for writing.
I feel your pain.
While I now work full time, I spent many years as a stay-at-home mom with lots of other commitments. Here are some things I learned.
Adopt the Right Attitude
I work! Over and over, I said this to people, “I work!”
Writing is work. I happen to love it, but unless and until you approach it as a job – even if it’s only a part-time job – you won’t be taken seriously. You need the support of the local in-house Warm Bodies (your family and significant others). They need to know that when you sit down to write, it’s not just a hobby. IT IS WORK!
That level of respect for your writing is necessary. If it isn’t there, sit down and have some frank conversations. Carve out a time to write and stick with it. Search, juggle, balance–do what’s necessary to create a time for your writing.
Pay attention to your creative process. Now, my work time isn’t YOUR time. When and where to you have the most success? Do you need to get up early, stay up late, or take a long lunch? Do you need a private closet, or can you write in a coffee shop? Think back to a time when your output was at its optimum. When and where were you writing? If your output is down, what changed? Can you go back to old habits. In this search for creative output, habits are your friends.
Your job at this point is to figure out how to do your work, your way.
It may indeed be a job to figure this out. It may take you some time to work through different issues:
Maybe you need to buy a computer for your writing instead of sharing a family computer.
Maybe you need to set the alarm for 4 am and write for two hours before anyone else in the house rises.
Maybe you need that frank conversation with your children, your husband, your mother-in-law, or your _______(fill in the blank)
This is your first task: figure out how to do your work, your way.
Use the Right Tools
Next, I’m going to make suggestions for some tools that can help.
Scrivener. First, you need to outline. If you write by-the-seat-of-your-pants, it’ll be harder to make it writing part time. You’ll save time and energy by learning how to outline and how to follow an outline. Your creativity will increase and you’ll be happier with your first drafts – which will save time when you revise.
To outline, you probably need Scrivener, the software that is created especially for writers. The screenshots above show my work-in-progress. Besides these views, you can also get rid of all the outline stuff and have an empty screen on which to write, only coming back to the outline when needed. Lots of flexibility with this program!
I hesitate to recommend Scrivener because, well, it’s complicated. In the short run, you’re going to spend a couple months writing slower and learning the program. In the long run, though, part-time writers need to write smarter, and that’s what Scrivener facilitates. It’s not that you’ll write better just by using this software or that. But Scrivener encourages and makes it easy to create and use outlines. You need that in order to stay organized and write smarter. Especially as a part-time writer, you need this program.
WRITE SMARTER: Scrivener and Scrivener Resources
Here are some resources for getting started in Scrivener. You’ll need to invest in your writing career and take a tutorial, buy a book or something to get up to speed as quickly as possible in Scrivener.
Note: Some of these links are affiliate links. When you click, at no extra cost to you, I’ll receive a small commission. I appreciate your support.
Buy Scrivener. You definitely want to start with a trial version!
That may be enough for most of you, but around the Scrivener program, there has grown up a cottage industry of folks who provide extensive tutorials. You may want to find one that’s tailored to the type of writing you do. Anything you can do to get up to speed on the program will help down the line.
Scrivener courses. (Not an exhaustive list, but a place to start.)
Because there are so many options, look for reviews and look for features that specifically relate to the genre in which you write.
I know. As soon as you fire up your computer, you’re tempted: Facebook, email, Twitter, Pinterest, browsing, cruising the internet. . .
Your writing time MUST be your writing time. Nothing else.
For some people, they find that they need help to turn off the internet.
Freedom.Freedom is one of the many programs that isolates your computer from the internet for a specified time interval. It works for me. If you don’t like this one, or it’s not for your kind of computer, search for something similar. And use it. As with other software, do a trial version before buying.
TRACK PROGRESS: Numbers
Finally, you – the wordsmith – need numbers. You need some accountability and numbers give you that. You should be tracking your writing somehow so that over time you can understand your writing self better.
Scrivener tracks words per session. Scrivener easily tracks number of words per writing session. When you set up project tracking, you can set a goal of finishing on a certain date. Scrivener then says, “OK, if you want to finish by XXX date, then you must write ZZZ number of words per day.” It will tell you if you meet that daily goal and show you a progress bar for your project.
Toggl. If however, you want to track time, find a simple app like Toggl that tracks the amount of time you spend on a project; you can also track WHERE you were working. It’s simple and syncs between desktop and mobile. Reports are easy to set up for each project.
Tracking in and of itself will do little to help you. Instead, set up a schedule – weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly – to look over your numbers and evaluate. You may discover that when you write at a coffee shop, you can only concentrate for 15 minutes at a time; however, during that 15 minutes, you produce twice as many words as any other time frame. Whatever you discover, use the info to fine-tune your writing process.
Your Main Job
Remember, your main job is to figure out how to work on your work.
Then, your job is to DO your work.
These three suggested tools are just that, a suggestion. I know that outlining has the potential to increase your efficiency, while creating stronger stories. But if you absolutely hate it – do your work, your way. Don’t just discount this advice out of hand, though. Try it. Give it an honest shot. But if it doesn’t help, it doesn’t.
The same for the other suggestions. I like Freedom and Toggl; but find tools that work for you.
Basically, you need tools that help you write smarter (get more done in a shorter amount of time), help you stay focused (turn off distractions), and help you track your progress in ways that will make a real difference.
Writing part time is hard. But it’s doable. If you set yourself up for success–by using the right tools–you can do this.
Here’s a question about punctuation, with an answer about style.
Which of these is correctly punctuated?
I like oranges, apples, and bananas.
I like oranges, apples and bananas.
The answer is it depends on the style manual that you use.
In school, you were probably taught certain rules about punctuation, and your teachers told you that the rules were the “right” way to punctuate. There were no options, no other ways of working.
The reality is that punctuation conventions are just conventions that people agree upon. Two major style guides ar the Associated Press style guide, which is often used by newspapers, and the Chicago Manual of Style, often used by publishers. To make matters more complicated, often a publishing house will follow a “house style,” that is, they will decide that all of their books will follow certain punctuation rules.
In the example above, the AP style would add that last comma, but the Chicago style wouldn’t.
I like oranges, apples, and bananas. (AP Style)
I like oranges, apples and bananas. (Chicago Manual of Style)
When my first book was published by Grennwillow/Harpercollins, of course, it went through extensive editing. I was shocked and embarrassed by the red ink that came back to me on the edited manuscript. In truth, I didn’t do so badly. They were simply applying the house style to my story. Copyeditors use a style manual as they edit.
Copyedit According to Style
What does this mean for your story? Well, you have options.
First, you could just write the best story you know how, copyedit the best you know how–and then trust your publisher’s copyeditor to finish the process. It works.
Or, you could study one of the style manuals and stick with it strictly. For fiction, the best option is probably the Chicago Manual of Style. Learning a style guide down cold is technical stuff, and takes focus and an eye for detail; but it can be done.
If you’re self-publishing, you can still choose one way or the other; the difference is that you’ll be hiring the copyeditor and will tell them what style to use.
Personally, I’ll admit it: I don’t have an eye for detail necessary to be a good copyeditor. It would be painful for me to strictly follow a style manual. With each story, I learn more and more about things I should or shouldn’t do; however, I’ll never be perfect. Well, no one will be perfect–see this post on continuity goofs and other errors. But a good copyeditor can get your story pretty close to perfect. I let them do what they do best while I do what I do best, which is to tell a story.
Be very sure: that’s not a copout. I’m not ignoring the issue of punctuation. Writers should take it seriously and know the basics and know when and how they can stretch the punctuation. One of my favorite books for learning basic punctuation is The Art of Styling Sentences: 20 Patterns for Success. Grab a friend and learn a new sentence pattern every week for twenty weeks. Practice the pattern that week by using it in emails back and forth, or in postings on FB or your fav social media channel.
I will always value a good copyeditor! If you’re a grammar witch–I love you! (Just don’t email me about any mistakes in this post.)
Indie publishing, especially of children’s books, is hard. I listen to everything that those who write for adults talk about and try to adjust strategies to the world of children’s literature. And mostly, things don’t translate.
So, I’ve decided to try to bring together those who write for children and are involved with independent publishing or self-publishing.
Indie Kids Books Listserv
The purpose of the group will be to discuss independent or self-publishing as it relates specifically to children’s books: nonfiction or fiction, for readers from birth to 18. We’ll discuss writing, illustrating, publishing and marketing your books. Join the listserv discussion group by sending an email to
The group is just forming–get in on the ground floor!
Pass this along to anyone interested, whether they have books published or are just thinking about it.
I’ve been reading lots of manuscripts lately and a common problem keeps arising. As a reader, I keep wondering, “Where am I?”
The plot and characters are often interesting, but I’m lost. I need a map to figure out where I am. In other words, setting is crucial to keeping your readers grounded in your story.
Often, the problem is that I don’t know WHEN the story is taking place. This could be anything from what century to what season of the year. The simple detail of a Christmas tree might be enough to reorient me to the setting. Or I might need details of clothing worn in 1492 to understand the setting. Either way, the relevant details must be woven into the story. However, you can often just add a simple phrase to indicate time: early that morning, an hour later, or meanwhile.
The WHERE question can be much more complicated because it should be woven into the story seamlessly. One writer recently said that she was afraid to bog down her story with lots of description. That fear kept her from adding details that would keep the reader grounded. Novels aren’t screenplays or movie scripts; for those, you expect the production to fill in the blanks. For novels, though, you must play the movie in the reader’s head for them.
Beats in dialogue. This is especially important in dialogue or conversations between characters. Another writer had nice dialogue, but it was all in isolation–talking heads. You must remember that the characters are people who fidget, move around, blunder around or just nod their heads. Of course, sometimes you DO want a section that focuses on words. But even there, the right detail at the right time can emphasize a point, add comic relief, or make the story more believable.
Setting comes alive when you have the right details, usually sensory details. If you were a character in the story, in this particular scene, what would you see, hear, smell, touch, or taste? Description comes down to the careful use of our senses to put the reader into the scene.
Often, I’ll create a sensory details worksheet. Down a side of a page, I’ll write the senses: See, Hear, Smell, Touch, Taste. Then, for each sense, I try to find three details unique to the setting. I’m also trying to do it in language that would be used by the POV character.
Be specific as you do this.
Instead: Pit Bull
Notice that I didn’t say, “Big Dog.” The use of modifiers–adjectives and adverbs–weakens a story. Instead, I search for a more specific word, such as the name of a dog breed. Only after the verb or noun is as specific as possible do I allow myself to add modifiers.
Instead: Pit bull
Even Better: pit bull with a white-tipped tail
Be reasonable. Sometimes, “dog” is enough, depending on the story, where you want the reader to pay attention, and the intended audience. For a toddler’s story, Dog would be reasonable. Mostly, though, writers need to be more specific and avoid those adjectives that work as a crutch, but really add nothing to the description: good, nice, big, small, etc.
A special note on Touch/Feel: Often writers want to translate this into emotions. Instead, I mean this as a physical sensation of touch, usually temperature or texture.
Not: I loved my lunch.
Instead: The chili burned my tongue.
Once I have a list of sensory details, I like to start a scene with a unique detail. I search the imagined setting for something that will make a reader stop and pay attention. Here are some descriptions from the first pages of my Aliens, Inc. Series. The series is for 1st-4th grade readers, and each story begins in art class. Use the links to download sample first chapters to read more.
“I bent over the giant state of Texas.” from Kell and the Giants(Listen to the audiobook sample), Book 3, The Aliens Inc. Series
“My hand dripped with blue paint.” from Kell and the Detectives (audiobook sample), Book 3, The Aliens Inc. Series
Balancing Description and Narrative
It’s impossible to tell you how to balance the narrative descriptions, dialogue and action. As an author, you need to learn which area you are strongest in and which is your weakest area. If you consistently get the response from readers, “I’m lost,” then you need to provide more description. Don’t fear the descriptions. They won’t slow down the reader unless you really go overboard. But they can sure LOSE you a reader, if you get them lost. They won’t trust you to tell the story and will stop reading.
In other words, listen to your early readers. If they are confused about what is happening, your descriptions are weak. If they are drowning in detail, the story will feel slow-paced. Work to find the right balance for your story and your readers. Just be sure they never get lost.
I have a problem in my WIP novel, which is just in the outline stage. There’s a specific illness going around and to SHOW, DON’T TELL that the illness is really bad, an important character must become sick.
But then, I have this sick character, Em. And she’s, well, sick.
She’s become a Damsel-in-Distress, who has no active part in the story. She’s a weak love interest, whose only role is to be sick and provide motivation for the main character.
It’s a good motivator. Jake, my main character, really cares for Em, and he’ll do almost anything to find a cure. From that side of things, it’s working. But Em is still just a sick—and-convenient—character.
I’ve given Em some other character problems. She’s adopted and is looking for information on her birth parents. They’ll come into the story and the intersection of these characters will give Em some rosy cheeks of health. Her subplot will be one of discovering who she really is.
But the excitement doesn’t last long enough for her. She has a crisis in her health, which is necessary to get Jake moving. Again, Em becomes a sick, convenient, unappealing and placid character. How do I provide some sort of action around a sickly character?
There are precedents for sick or sickly characters.
Angelic character and how the illness and/or death affect the main characters. In Little Women, Beth dies from scarlet fever. While her health wastes away, she is active, though, knitting and sewing clothes for neighborhood children. Her death is a major impact on Jo’s life, the main character. By giving her selfless acts to perform, it elevates Beth. She’s angelic in everything, never complaining and dying without a lot of fuss. By elevating Beth’s moral character, we understand why her life was important.
Imaginary life. In Paul Fleischman’s Mind’s Eye, a paralyzed girl leaves the real world behind in an imaginary trip across 1910 Italy. Here, Courtney comes alive in her imagination. She and her nursing home roommate, 88 year old Elva, use a 1910 Baedeker guide to catch trains, to travel and to live. It reminds me of a Star Trek episode about Captain Pike, the original captain of the Enterprise, who is injured and in a wheelchair. There’s a forbidden planet, and we find out that it’s forbidden because the inhabitants live a virtual life. On that planet, however, Pike can live a happy and full virtual life, walking and climbing wherever he wants. Like Courtney, Captain Pike chooses the illusion of life over the reality of his paralysis.
Give the sick character an amazing POV voice. John Green’s character in The Fault in Our Stars is suffering from cancer, and indeed, the whole story is about living with a death sentence in your lungs. The narration is from her POV and it’s a distinctive voice.
Entwine the emotions. In My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult poses an interesting dilemma. A younger sister is conceived for the specific purpose of donating an organ to her sickly older sister. The sisters, though, are both active to an extent and the real success here is how the emotional lives are entwined, just as their fates are interwoven.
Writing Sickly Characters
Here are some take-aways for my own writing.
Sick, but not incoherent. A character can be physically challenged or sick, but there must be lucid moments where the character’s life and personality emerge. Em can be very sick, but the illness must ebb and flow. And develop her personality, hopes, dreams, fears, anxieties, dreams, etc. as possible.
No griping. Okay. Em feels lousy. But no one wants to read about a character who complains her way through the actual horrors of the human form when it’s sick. No explicity descriptions of throwing up, other bodily fluids, etc., at least in MY stories. Instead, the sickly person rises above those things and we see her character, not her illness.
Emotional impact. Sick or not, people are invested deeply in Em’s life. They want to be with her and they care about her thoughts, emotions, reactions, etc. Perhaps, she must be even more entwined than usual in the main character’s life.
Action when possible. When she’s feeling good, I’ll give Em as much action as possible. I’ll look for both major and minor actions. Maybe stealing a cell phone and making a forbidden phone call is enough of a physical challenge, while also moving the plot along in some way. Look for ways to add action, arguments, and conflict. Just because she’s sick, she doesn’t get away with an easy life emotionally. Otherwise, where’s the story? Story requires conflict and even sick people in your story must endure the conflict—or there’s no story.
Rescue. Well, it’s OK. Em might need to be rescued. I know, gender roles these days decree that she not be a Damsel-in-Distress; instead, she must be the conquering princess who fights the dragon herself and saves the poor, incompetent prince. But that’s a modern trope that is just as bad as the damsel-in-distress trope. The challenge will be to create a unique, living character without falling prey to either cliché.
In short, sick or not, Em must be a real character. She’s no damsel-in-distress; neither is she the modern woman who rescues the weak men in her life. Instead, she pursues her goals with the same fervor (and whatever physical strength she can muster) as the main character, Jake. It’s a plan.
I talked with an editor earlier this week about my new novel, The Blue Marbles, a sff YA and found that editorial input comes in two forms–and these are so important to finding the right editor for your story.
Positioning in the Market Place
The first thing we talked about was our visions for the story, to see if we meshed. This is very much a marketing discussion. Where does the story fit into the marketplace? Who would read this book? Is this a middle grade or a YA?
Vastly important, you must know your audience because it determines so much of the next question about the quality of the story. If my story is a YA, it means that I need to follow certain conventions of the genre. The protagonist should be of a certain age; he’s got a certain outlook about dating and girls; he’s reacting to family in certain ways. It brings up questions such as should he be able to drive or not? If the story is middle grade, the tone of the story would be very different. The answers to the questions would be vastly different.
What happens when you disagree with the editor’s opinion of where to best sell this story? I’ve seen writers struggle with this because they want to write a YA. They read YAs; they talk YAs; they live YAs. But when they write, what comes out is a middle grade. Sigh. It’s frustrating. What you love isn’t necessarily what you can write. (At least not yet.)
YOU want to push the story to a YA; the editor wants to push it to middle grade BECAUSE she thinks s/he can sell the story there.
In some ways, this is a career question and not just an editing-this-novel question. Where do you have the best chance of creating a career for yourself? HINT: It might be different than what you thought.
Writers are notorious for not SEEING clearly what we write. Sometimes, you have an inkling that, well, this might be middle grade instead of YA. But you don’t WANT it to be MG; you love YA. Sorry.
An editor’s strength is that s/he has a pulse on two things: great story writing and marketing great stories. For an editor, those two things must match up. And you, as the writer, must either trust that editor or find a different one. You must also decide if you want a career based on the editor’s positioning of the book in the marketplace. If it’s positioned as a middle grade, can you–do you want to–follow up with a second middle grade? Because careers are built on building a readership who consistently comes to you for a certain type of story.
When a manuscript sells, your first thought is celebration! Yahoo! Your second thought is, “What next?” To build a readership, what story is the logical follow-up. When someone reads THIS story, which of your possible stories would they naturally pick up next and love just as much or more?
This question of the editorial marketing vision for your story is crucial. You must share your editor’s vision for the story. Otherwise–it may not be the best fit for you, your story, and ultimately, your career.
Tell the Best Story Possible
The second thing a great editor can do it help you create the best story possible, given the shared vision.
For me, the discussion had some themes I’m familiar with:
Raise the stakes. The editor suggested a change that would raise the stakes of my story. The reader should always be invested in finding out what happens next, and if you can put more at risk, the stakes pull them through the story.
Emotional resonance. On a similar note, the emotional story should resonate with the reader and impact them in some way.
Everything we discussed seemed reasonable and necessary because we were heading toward a mutually agreed upon goal. Without the shared vision, the specifics of a revision are agonizing; with a shared vision, revision is like dancing with a friend, where you mirror each other’s moves in perfect harmony.
Voice is the quality of writing that lets a reader see the author behind the work. It’s what makes a piece of writing unique so that you and only you could have written this piece. I don’t look at it as a mystical thing; instead, I look to the tools that writers have to work with: words, sentences, and longer passages. Here are three ways you can use sentences to help you find the best voice for your story.
Write ten openings. It’s said that the first word and first sentence of a story setup everything that follows. If THIS is the first sentence, what sentence MUST follow? What does the story and your storytelling voice DEMAND for the second sentence?
For example, let’s take a couple sentences and see what they demand next.
It was a dark and stormy night.
I would expect something about the night, the storm, more on the setting, the character’s reaction to the storm, and so on. That first sentence demands that the second comment on the night or the dark or the storm or the character in the situation. It would be a non-sequitur to follow that sentence with something like this: The bunny hopped through the sunlight.
The first sentence narrows the possible choices to a dozen or so topics. And the second sentence will narrow the choices even further. By the third, the story is locked in for at least the space of a couple paragraphs; of course, those paragraphs will lock in the next several paragraphs and so on.
This is why it’s so valuable to write multiple openings to a story. Each opening will set up topics, characters, settings, tone and voice that will send the story in a different direction. That’s what you want at first: options.
Mimic a text. On the other hand, I’ve also found it helpful to choose a text that I like and mimic the sentence pattern.
Here’s the opening sentence from The Green Glass Sea, by Ellen Klages, a story about a girl whose father is working on the atomic bomb during World War II.
Dewey Kerrigan sits on the concrete front steps of Mrs. Kovack’s house in St. Louis, waiting for her father.
My sentence: Darcy Pattison runs through the historic neighborhood on top of the hill across from Little Rock, hoping for a miracle.
You’ll find out a lot about your own writing style and your unconscious habits of writing. One friend always writes in complex sentence with lots of phrases and clauses; it’s appropriate for her complex non-fiction styles. But when she’s tried to switch to writing simpler picture books, it doesn’t work.
Imitating or mimicking another person’s sentence structure is an interesting exercise for learning more about your writing and for exploring different voices.
Vary sentence patterns. Here’s an exercise I love. Take one page of your writing. Count the number of words in each sentence and write that number at the end of each sentence. Now, rewrite following this rule: each sentence must be at least plus or minus 4 from the previous sentence.
For example, if sentence #1 is 10 words, sentence #2 must be 10-4=6 or less OR 10+4=14 or more.
Let’s say, you went for a longer sentence, so sentence #2 is 16 words long. Sentence #3 must be 16-4=12 or less OR 16+4=20 or more.
This forces you to vary the sentence lengths: 10, 16, 3, 8, 20, 2.
Those varying sentence lengths give your writing rhythm and add to the meaning of the words.
It’s a funny mechanical exercise that yields amazing results in your writing. Once, I tried to figure out why this one small thing should matter so much. I looked at some essays by students in eighth grade. Amazingly, their sentence lengths were uniform, almost all about 12 words long with the shortest about 8 and the longest about 15. Not surprisingly, the voices were bland.
If you read The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, you’ll find some of the most variety in a text that I’ve seen. She writes one word sentence fragments, followed by 30-word sentences. Why is it a great story? Because she’s a great storyteller? Yes. But also because she has command of her words and language, especially the sentence variety.
As writers, we only have words, sentences and longer passages. Those are our tools. Milk sentences for all they can add to your story’s voice.
One of the first tasks in revising my current WIP has been to nail down a firm time line for my story. When does all this stuff happen? I had it vaguely placed in the 21st century, but I didn’t want to nail it down specifically.
It’s the EveryMan problem. Some writers try to create an EveryMan, a character who can stand in for everyone and anyone. In doing so, though, they create a generic character who fails to engage the reader and becomes NoMan. To write something universal, you must do something that intuitively feels like a paradox: you must write one specific character. Only by doing this do you have a chance of letting the character live in the reader’s imagination in such a way that the character stands in for EveryMan (or EveryWoman).
I was making the same mistake with the timeline of my sff story. By refusing to set it in a specific time, I was going too generic.
Creating a TimeLine for Your SFF Story
However, I also see the wisdom of waiting till I finished the first draft to nail down the time line. It will mean, perhaps, that I have more revisions to do; however, I feel that it’s a strength to have this first draft done to see how the timeline extends into so many places.
How Old are Your Characters? One of the first things I’ve done is write out everyone’s birthday. The main villain was born in 1980, and his son–the minor villain–was born in 2013. That means the father was 33 years old when his son was born. It was his first child, so why so old? It make sense within this story because the father is a scientist who buries himself in his work and generally neglects his family. He didn’t marry till after he’d done a post-doc in volcanology, and after his son is born, he travels extensively for his work. This affects the father-son relationship! The timeline forced me to think about these aspects of character.
I also knew that the main character is 14. Okay. How old are his parents? A minimum of 30, but they could be as old as 50 or so. What made sense for their relationship?
World Events. Slotting characters into a personal time line also means they exist in the world at a particular time. If someone was born in 2001, for example, was it before or after the World Trade Center bombing? The world tilted on that day and it’s important to place your character in the context of world events.
But even in a wider context, I needed to place this science fiction story in the context of astronomer’s exploration of the universe. The Kepler Space Observatory was launched in 2009 to search for planets similar enough to Earth that humans could live on them. I had to consider the timeline of their findings, and make sure my characters and the plot were aligned with that.
Imagined Events. Only once these elements were in place did I try to place my imagined story elements. Science fiction is only believable when it fits into the established world. I had to make sure that the events were believable in the context of the real history of our world. That doesn’t mean that I can’t do crazy and wild things–science fiction can and does stretch the imagination. It does mean that the events need to be based on some bits of truth that will lend it credibility.
World building for fantasy or science fiction is crucial. Rules are set up that control the story world, and once set up, the story is stronger if you stick to those rules. The timeline–in this revision of the first draft–was a crucial thing for me to nail down, and it’s adding surprising depth to the story.