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ROWDY: The Pirate Who Could Not Sleep comes out on June 1. One week away!
To celebrate, we’ve set up a Goodreads Giveaway that will end – appropriately – on Father’s Day. The giveaway ends on Father’s Day.
Rowdy: Father-Daughter Bedtime Story
A rowdy heart doesn’t know what it wants or needs! When a rowdy pirate captain returns to port, she can’t settle down and sleep. She sends her crew in search of a lullaby. This is a great gift for fathers to read to their daughters. Here’s a video showing a father reading to his daughter.
One of the hardest things to find is a great critique of the overall structure of a novel. You’ll get great feedback on a scene or line edits of paragraphs. But the overall structure of a novel is hard. Enter, the Shrunken Manuscript.
I’ve taught the Novel Revison Retreat since 1999 and a mainstay has been the Shrunken Manuscript, a technique that makes a novel structure visible by shrinking the manuscript to a size that fits into your field of vision.
Because I’m teaching a master novel class at Highlights Foundation this summer, they asked me to do a webinar and they recorded it. Watch this webinar for a full explanation of how to shrink a manuscript, how an ideal manuscript would look when shrunk, common mistakes, and an example of lessons from my work-in-progress using the Shrunken Manuscript.
I’m in a fallow period. I have finished a draft of a novel, Book 2 of the sff trilogy I’m writing. While life has taken me off in crazy directions, it’s okay. Sometimes, stories need to rest a while. You need time to forget what you wrote so you can come back with fresh eyes.
One problem with just-finished novel manuscripts is that it has become a coherent story; unfortunately, it’s not the story you meant to write. It’s likely close to what you envisioned, but it’s never a perfect version of the story. There are two manuscripts: the one in your head and the one on paper. If you try to polish and revise immediately, it’s too easy to say to yourself that you DID include such and so. It’s in your head, surely it must be on paper. Alas. It’s not so.
Allowing a manuscript to rest means that when you come back, your memory has less of an opportunity to trip you up. You must see the story you put on paper! You must take it as the starting point for any revisions. Here are some things you may discover.
Not on the page. You may discover that there are things in your head that still haven’t been written. You meant to write it later. Sometimes, you unconsciously put in a “place holder,” or a scene that is just bare-boned and full of cliches. The story may be complete, but the actual writing has been done quickly, and without enough thought.
Jumbled. When I write action scenes, I have to be very careful about the time line. What action came first and what came second? In the melee of writing, I’m throwing punches right and left. I have to be very methodical about sequencing a string of actions.
Repetition. I also tend to repeat things. Perhaps it’s a bit of philosophy or advice to the main character. Or, I repeat one word endlessly. This is line-editing stuff, and I’ve found that I can’t SEE the words unless I’m taken a break from the story.
There are times, though, when you must read and revise immediately. Then you need to turn to tricks to help you see what you wrote.
Reading from the last page. One proofreading strategy is to start from the last page and go forward from there. It’s like artists who turn a picture upside down to draw it. Right-side up, the drawing says, “I’m a dog.” But upside down, the drawing says, “I’m a straight line that extends this far, followed by a squiggly line that crosses that other line and . . .” In other words, removing the context allows artists to see the drawing as a series of marks on the page.
Likewise, editing from the last page forward removes the context of the story and allows an author to see the words and sentences.
You may also want to revise using handy tools provided by the computer. On your word processor, you can change the font, the size of text, the spacing and so on. As in the shrunken manuscript, I’ve found that these manipulations change the context and allow me to see what’s on the page.
I’ve tried an online word counter, TextFixer, with some luck. It tells me how many times I’ve repeated a certain word. I tried this blog post up to this point, about 500 words and found these words were repeated lot.
Primary Keywords Frequency
What do you think? Should I try to find alternatives for story, page, strong and see? Even if I’m including keywords a lot for Search Engine Optimization standards, those four are repeated a lot. (I didn’t change them, so you can see where they are and decide if you’d change some or not.)
To try out the TextFixer, I’ve embedded a form here (You must be on the website, this won’t work from an email.)
In agriculture, fields are left fallow so they can rest and rebuild the necessary minerals and such needed by plants to grow well. In our case, a manuscript goes fallow so that whey we come back to it, we can do a better job of revision.
In 1999, I started teaching the Novel Revision Retreat. In order to come to the retreat, you must have a completed draft of a novel. We spend the weekend talking about how to revise your novel. Many break-through or debut novels have resulted. The workbook that accompanies the retreat is Novel Metamorphosis: UnCommon Ways to Revise. Since it was published in 2008, it’s only been a paperback book – till now.
This is an excerpt from Novel Metamorphosis: UnCommon Ways to Revise, the “Appendix A: I Don’t Want an Honest Critique.” It’s one of the most popular essays I’ve written because it’s an deeply personal and emotional response to the whole process of letting others read your novel. Writing is personal because it reveals who you are. And when that is critiqued – it is disheartening!
No, don’t tell me what’s wrong with this novel. I don’t want to hear it. Minor problems? OK, I’ll fix those. But major structural, plot or character problems? Don’t tell me.
Cynthia Ozick says, “Writing is essentially an act of courage.” When I get an honest critique, my courage fails me.
I fear the revision needed: I won’t ever be able to “get it right.” Obviously, I thought that I had communicated my intentions well in the first draft, or I would have changed it before you read it. But you say that you don’t understand, or that I’m inconsistent, or that I’m unfocused. How could that be? I see it so clearly. And if my vision of my story is so skewed, then how will I ever get it right?
I fear that you’re right and I’m wrong. But how can I be sure? This is my story and it comes from my psychological leanings, my background, my research. How can you tell me what is right for my story? If the story doesn’t communicate what I want, then, yes, I need to revise. I repeat: Obviously, I thought it did communicate what I wanted, or I would have revised it before you saw it. Do you just have a different vision of the story because of your psychological leanings, your background? Are you trying to envision what I intended, or are you envisioning what you would have written? Where does your ego slam up against my ego? And where does your objective appraisal need to push my ego back into line with what it really wants to do anyway? Perspective is hard to achieve.
I fear that all my hard work, all the months spent thinking and rewriting, will be wasted.
As a novelist, time haunts me. To write a novel isn’t the work of a week or a month. It takes many months, a year, a year and a half. More. It’s a long, long process. Your revision notes mean that the time is extended, and that without any guarantee of being finished even then. Meanwhile, that means that I’m a year older, that it’s a year in which I couldn’t write anything new (even if I could find the courage to begin again).
I fear your honesty; I need your approval (or someone’s approval; if not yours, then whose?). Will it crush me emotionally if you don’t “like” my story? I gloss over the approval part of critiques and agonize over the “needs work” assessment. Is there a way for you to only show approval, yet open my eyes, so that I recognize what needs work? I’d rather recognize it for myself than have it pointed out.
I fear that my standards are too lax. I want to be finished, I want to have this story out there. I want to have written, but in the throes of writing, I want the end of the process long before the story is really finished. Submission comes too early and then I get rejections. Then, it’s harder than ever to revise. But waiting is excruciating. Typical advice: Put the manuscript in a drawer for three months and then pull it out and read it with a fresh eye. What? Waste three more months? Never. It’s done and ready to send out. (Ok, maybe it isn’t, but I can’t stand looking at it one more time and in three months, my editor could read it and buy it. OK, maybe they won’t buy it until I revise, but three months? Isn’t there any other way?)
Critiques, especially honest and on-target critiques, are fearful things. I know that I need them; but they are painful, emotionally draining, and confidence shaking.
But I need them. OK, can you give me a minute? Let me find my mask of courage. There. I have it on. Now bring on your best critique!
Other thoughts on critique of an artist and humility. Art and Fear: One of my favorite books on the psychology of making art. It deals with fears about our unworthiness, fears of critiques, fears of displaying our art and much more.
Top 10 Ways to Stop the Sting of Critiques
Here are my slightly tongue-in-cheek Top 10 Ways to take the Sting out of Critiques
Avoidance: Have someone else read the critique for you and only highlight the good comments. Read only the highlighted comments.
Revenge: Give the creep back an ever harsher critique than you just got.
Denial: Write out the reasons why the critiquer is totally off base. Ignore all suggestions.
Excitement: Fake excitement about the critique and tell everyone you know exactly what’s wrong with the story and how you plan to fix it.
Suspicion: Read each comment with the suspicion that the critiquer is trying to get your manuscript out of the running, so their own manuscript will do well. Therefore, you can safely ignore any comments you want to.
Surprise: Allow each comment to be a revelation at how far off base this critiquer is.
Pride: Take pride in your ability to “take it” from the tough ones.
Loneliness: Understand that you and you alone are in the situation of receiving harsh critiques; such things have never been written about any manuscript and will never be written again.
Forgiveness: Realize that the critiquer has sinned by so harshly criticizing your story and at some point they will have to come and ask for forgiveness; be ready to give it gracefully.
Hope: Find hope in the good things the critiquer noticed, and Hope in the process of revision.
“I found many books useful, but I found your Novel Metamorphosis absolutely the best for a workshop. For the first time in 18 years of doing The Manuscript Workshop in Vermont, I offered one this year for novels – for those who had a first draft or more that needed revision. The most interesting session was the one where we dealt with the Shrunken Manuscript, and we were all really impressed about how much we learned from this hands on activity.”
—Barbara Seuling, Director
The Manuscript Workshop in Vermont
“Darcy Pattison’s shrunken manuscript technique for analyzing the overall flow and pacing of my novel was the single most helpful tip I have ever picked up at a workshop. Highly recommended!”
—Carole Estby Dagg
The Year We Were Famous, Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
2011. Would you walk over four thousand miles to save your family’s home?
“My initial reaction after finishing a first draft is to ask myself “Now What?” That question is answered and then some in Darcy’s novel revision retreats (I’ve done two so far). The large group sessions where Darcy discusses things like character, plot, setting and word choice help you wrap your brain around where your novel needs work. The break-out sessions with your critique group help you apply Darcy’s revision principles to your specific story. In the end, you walk away with a clear picture of how to take your novel apart and put it back together in a way that will make it a much stronger story. Hanging out with Darcy and other writers (at a retreat) who are in your shoes is a big bonus too!”
The Sweetest Thing, Egmont USA, 2011
“Darcy gets you to see through your own words to find the heart and bones of your story, then gives you strategies that help you cut the fat away from that heart and keep it singing while you rearrange the bones and sinew to make the structure strong.”
You Will Call Me Drog, Carolrhoda, 2011.
A debut middle-grade novel and a cleverly framed story of self-determination and family relationships. Fresh, funny, unexpected and, at times, just a little dark. “I revised a manuscript for an editor at Scholastic before it was accepted. His offer letter said, “The ability to have such insight about one’s own work is as rare as the talent to generate a fun and meaningful story.” Darcy Pattison taught me how to look at my own work with a powerful set of tools for considering voice, structure, action, sensory detail, and more. “It always feels magical to make a story better, but it’s not magic. It’s a matter of understanding and using the tools we writers have. Darcy built the toolbox for us with her blog, her workshops, and her book, Novel Metamorphosis. We still have to do the heavy lifting, but we’re not doing it alone.”
Devine Inspiration, Arthur Levine/Scholastic, 2012
Darcy Pattison’s shrunken manuscript technique pushed me to see my book in its entirety — what was working and what needed to change. On the micro level, I appreciated Darcy’s emphasis on imagery and the senses — particularly taste, touch, and smell — which bring to a story texture and depth.
—Caroline Starr Rose
May B., Schwartz and Wade/Random House Children’s Books, 2012
“I’ve used the techniques that Darcy lays forth in Novel Metamorphosis, and my guess is you will copy, dogear, highlight, flag, and write all over this book. And while you’re marking up this text, your own novel will emerge cleaner, sharper, and more publishable.”
—Kristin O’Donnell Tubb, author of middle-grade historical novel,
Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different (Delacorte 2008), which was accepted by the first editor who read it after Tubb revised it at Darcy Pattison’s workshop. Class of 2k8. www.kristintubb.com
“Writers know we must revise, but few know how. Pattison’s Novel Metamorphosis
offers focused questions and inviting worksheets to help you reimagine
your novel and develop the heart that will take it out of the slush pile and into
—Elaine Marie Alphin,
Edgar-winning Counterfeit Son
“There are a lot of books out there on revision, but this is the only one I’ve
found that takes you by the hand and leads you step-by-step through the process.
With Darcy, it’s actually FUN!”
If you’ve been writing or illustrating chidlren’s books (picture books or novels) for long, you’ll hear this comment and question: I’ve got a great idea for a children’s book. How can I get it published? Here’s some answers to get you started.
Write a Great Book
The first thing to do is write a great book. OK, you say. That’s easy.
When you fail at the rest of the stuff below and decide to circle back around to this one, here are some resources.
Another big hint: Spend a couple hours in a bookstore studying current children’s books. Read 100 children’s books this month, making sure the copyright is within the last year or so. After that immersion in the current children’s publishing market, do you still think your story stacks up? Great. Move on.
Get the Great Book Published
Now that you have your Great Book, let’s talk about how to get it published.
Ah, this is where most people want me to wave a magic wand. Unfortunately, I can’t. Children’s publishing is an industry like any other, with its own best practices, fads that come and go, and a network of professionals who look askance at outsiders.
To break into the publishing world, you need to send your Great Book to someone for evaluation. This could be a publishing house or an agent.
Then comes the big question: WHERE do you send Great Book?
The annual Children’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market (CWIM) is like a big telephone directory of children’s publishers. It lists contact information, what types of books this company publishes and specific information on how to contact them. The CWIM also lists agents who represent children’s books, so you’ll want to study those listings, too. For members, the SCBWI also has listings of publishers and agents that are helpful.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you where to send YOUR mss. You’ll have to study the market and find the best fit for you and your story. There are five mega-publishing houses, but each has multiple imprints that often operate as a separate company in many ways. For editorial purposes, you can usually submit to each imprint. So, would you be happier with one of the mega-publishers or a small, local or independent publisher? Does your book have widespread appeal for the bookstore (or trade) market? Or do you anticipate a niche market audience, such as 2nd grade teachers? Are you only writing for a religious market or an education market? Who is your audience and where would you expect them to buy this book?
In other words, there’s no free ride on this question. You must research your options and the best I can do is to say get started. Use the market guies as a starting point, but then move online. For example, today, it’s easy to find an editor or agent on Twitter and follow them for a while to see if they’ll be a good fit. Are they encouraging or contemptuous of authors? Do you like their approach to problems? And so on. Follow a local publisher’s Facebook page or sign up for their newsletter. Research on the market is key to getting published.
Whether you decide to submit to an agent or a publisher, there are some common tips:
The waiting game. Major publishers can receive up to 10,000 manuscripts a year. Of those, they might publish 200. Of those 200, maybe three or four are from new authors. Why should they pick up your story and read it? As for agents, they are also bombarded with manuscripts and are taking on few new clients. To wade through the tsunami of manuscripts, each company (publisher or agent) has developed certain strategies. Be sure to follow their instructions. But even then, it can easily be 3-6 months before they respond. Often, they won’t respond unless they are interested.
The personal touch. If that sounded depressing and like you’re fighting an uphill battle, you’re right. In business they say that people do business with people they know. It’s a cliche that holds true in children’s publishing! In other words, you can shortcut some of the waiting by meeting an editor or agent at a conference. The SCBWI national summer conference is now open for registration. But also check out the SCBWI chapters for local or regional conferences.
People do break into children’s publishing every day. The industry needs newcomers with fresh ideas and amazing stories told in amazing ways. They need illustrations that capture a child’s imagination. But this is an industry with a rich history, career professionals and dedicated creative writers and artists. If your interest is casual and by-the-way, you won’t have much of a chance. If you’re ready to dig in and devote a career to children’s literature, welcome! Take that next step and submit your story!
Guest Post by Cynthia Reeg
Revisions can hurt; but revisions are good. In this guest post, Cynthia discusses the revision of her forthcoming debut novel. From the Grave is due out on October 18, 2016 from Jolly Fish Press.
Cover Reveal for From the Grave
Okay, I know I’m totally dating myself with this musical reference, but for me the revision process can be summed up in this lyrical one-liner from John Mellencamp, “It’s hurts so good!”
After I’ve created my first draft (or subsequent 2nd, 3rd, 4th,… drafts), I allow some down time. After the first draft, this is necessary because I’m too love in with what I’ve written to notice many of its faults. And after the following revisions, I’m probably too weary of what I’ve written to notice what’s truly good. By this time, it most likely seems rather tired. FROM THE GRAVE has been a work in progress over a number of years.
In an effort to be somewhat analytic about my revision process (which is the painful part for me), I draw up a spreadsheet and break down each chapter. I note the characters and emotions, setting, plot elements, theme, time, action. This helps me see if I’m maintaining my theme, keeping things moving, involving characters across the board, and being consistent with the time frame. This is similar to what Darcy discusses in her NOVEL METAMORPHOSIS, which I learned at a workshop she conducted.
Darcy’s workshop also highlighted the importance of pacing. Noting the amount of white space on each page can help give an indication of this. Although there are times when exposition is necessary, I try to be vigilant (especially in writing for middle grade readers) about keeping the story moving with dialogue and action. In my revision process, I study the pacing. I use a middle grade plot points guide to see if I’ve stayed on track for a Three Act structure.
With my monsters story, I also made a notebook on Rules, Food, Language, Setting, and Character, writing down specifics from each chapter. This was to help me analyze the monster world I’d created. I love writing fantasy because I can make most anything happen, but I have to stay within the boundaries I’ve created for the story to work. When I’m writing on the fly, my muse may throw out an astounding new creature, event, or setting that I didn’t plan for. I need to document all these for future reference and see if there is a conflict.
After the general shape-up of the manuscript is done, the line edits come next. This part of the revision I truly enjoy. Although when it comes to deleting 10,000 words from a story, this can be extremely painful. Writing a manuscript that is as tight as possible is absolutely essential for middle grade. It’s a challenge to keep the story engaging and the voice strong, while pairing down the word count. At this stage, I’m choosing words carefully, making phrases sing, trying to plug in more dialogue and delete lengthy exposition. I pay particular attention to sensory details. But I also focus on story emotions. I can’t afford to lose the impact of my tale in the edits. Most likely, you’ve heard this before: read your story out loud. Especially at this stage of revisions, the lines beg to be read. You’ll quickly hear jumble that slows the pace. You’ll notice words that don’t quite work. You’ll cringe at flat dialogue.
I just finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s BIG MAGIC: Creative Living Beyond Fear. In it she asks the question, “Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures within?” She stresses that fear is always part of the creative process, but you can’t let it take control. Courage is certainly an important part of the revision process. You have to believe you can make your story stronger. You have to believe you can address all your editor’s challenges. And you have to believe that the finished product is going to make a difference in some young reader’s life.
So fight through the fear—and the pain! Be courageous and steadfast! Take up your pen and REVISE!
Anna Olswanger’s middle grade novel, GREENHORN (See Review), was made into an indie film. It’s a dream that many of us have, to see our story on the big screen. I asked her to tell us about the process.
Anna’s introduction to the story
In 2014 I co-produced a short indie film adaptation of the novel. The film premiered at the Landmark NuArt Theatre in L.A. and at The Museum of Tolerance in New York. It was named the 2015 Audience Award Winner for Best Short Film Drama at the Morris and Mollye Fogelman International Jewish Film Festival in Memphis, and subsequently aired on public television in Memphis and Kentucky. In February, 2016, it was part of the Festival Internacional De Cine Judio en Mexico and will screen on March 27, 2016 at the International Children’s Film Festival at L.A.’s WonderCon.
TMW Media has just started distributing the film so that libraries and schools can purchase the DVD with public performance rights and show the film in classrooms. TMW is also distributing the film on Amazon to individual viewers. The film could be a tie-in to Holocaust Remembrance Day in May and International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January. The discussion guide for the film is online at the distributor’s site:
When did you decide that this book would make a good film?
I think every author hopes that her book will be optioned for film, and as a literary agent, I am used to getting my clients’ books into the hands of film producers. In the case of Greenhorn, I thought that the story had conflict, a strong climax, and a poignant resolution, the right elements for a good film. I just didn’t know how I would interest a producer in such a short book.
How did you find the contact to adapt it to film?
A potential client, who is a screenwriter, submitted a children’s book manuscript to me. It wasn’t a manuscript I could successfully represent, but we began a conversation about her work and she suggested that I show Greenhorn to a director she had worked with. I did contact him, and he liked the book. He asked me if I would like to co-produce the film with him.
As the author, what involvement did you have in the script? Did you have rights of approval/disapproval?
Because I was the co-producer, I was able to read the script and comment on it. My main concern was authenticity. I wanted to make sure that anyone familiar with that era of history during the 1940s would be convinced by the film.
Once the book goes to film, who is in charge? Where does the buck stop? When the book is adapted for film what is the author’s role? Nothing? Or do you have veto rights on decisions? For example, Ella Enchanted became a farce almost in movie format, a far cry from the book itself. Authors worry. What if their “baby” is misunderstood?
As a literary agent, I can confirm that the interpretation of the producer and screenwriter is of concern to authors. But unless you’re a big name author, you have to let go of your book when you option it. You’ve been paid money by someone who is excited by your story and has a vision of it as a film, and you have to trust that this person’s vision will enhance your book. If you don’t trust the producer, then don’t option the book. I think the situation is similar to being the author of a picture book text and having to let go when the illustrator comes on board. The picture book author has to let the illustrator have her own vision of the story. You can’t control what the illustrator sees. However, I was in the unique position of being both the author of the book and the co-producer of the film, so I was able to read the script and make suggestions for changes.
As the author, what surprised you about the film adaptation?
I remember from my days as a college theatre major how quickly and deeply friendships are formed among cast members, but it surprised me to see similar friendships develop among the boys who were in the cast of this film. It was fun to watch them play around during the times when we weren’t filming. See the wonderful photo of them after we filmed a scene.
The director/screenwriter, who happens not to be Jewish, recently told me he wants to develop a feature-length version of the story to flesh out the backstory of the children and their lives outside the yeshiva. It constantly surprises me how this story resonates with people, especially people who have no connection to the Holocaust or even Jewish history.
Will the process change how you write your next book?
I don’t think so, but the process has made me see how satisfying it is to see work in one medium take on a life in another medium.
Is there any money in all of this for you, the author?
Greenhorn is a small indie film, and as the co-producer I had to raise the funds to pay the actors, the production staff, the travel and hotel expenses for the crew during filming, props, hair dresser, catering, music, post sound design, and insurance. We didn’t budget in fees for the director or producers, or for me as the author, so there isn’t money in this for me. Even so, I would do it again.
Darcy’s note about developing your own PR package:
For publicity purposes, Anna presented me with a complete package. She quickly answered some key questions about the process of creating a film from a novel. When she sent me the answers, she included interesting photos, details about where the film had aired, how to buy the movie on Amazon, links to a free discussion guide, suggestions on when it might be appropriate to view the film in an education setting, and a great movie trailer easily available on YouTube. If you’re doing publicity for a book or movie, this is a case study in how to do it right!
My working method in the before Scrivener days was a mixture of outlining and pantster. I outlined the story, wrote about half of it, stopped to re-outline and then wrote some more. Sometimes, I had to re-outline several times before I made it through a full draft.
For a while, the same process carried on. But my current WIP has been different.
Scrivener is a complicated, multi-faceted program. It’s such a different program from writing in a word processor like MSWord, and so complex, that when I bought the program, I immediately took an online class with Gwen Hernandez (NOT an affiliate link, just a satisfied customer!). She takes you through the many elements that are possible when you use Scrivener.
One of the best things that Gwen said to me was to keep an open mind about how to use the program. She said don’t decide how to use some element of Scrivener. Instead, just work. As you’re working, when you need something – THEN decide how to accomplish what you want, using one of the available options.
The program has so many possibilities, for example, on how to mark up a file so you can find it later: file name, synopsis or summary of the contents, color-coding, notes and so on. You can look at it as if the chapter were file cards, or look at each discrete file, or look at them as a continuous text. What makes sense to one person would confuse another.
It reminds me of my daughter in Algebra class in high school. Her teacher required the dreaded notebook check. My daughter was required to keep every piece of paper given as notes or homework and organize them interleaved in a daily fashion. However, to her, it made more sense to keep the notes in one section by date, and the homework in another section by date. When she turned in her notebook–even though she had every single piece of paper required and organized in a logical way–she was given a zero. She refused the opportunity to reorganize it because, to her, it didn’t make sense.
That’s the beauty of Scrivener. You can organize it YOUR WAY!
How Scrivener is Changing My Writing Process
The biggest change is working in the Scrivener Binder. This time, it feels like I’m sculpting a story. Using the binder, I created 4 acts and set up files with names of what I expected to happen. Using either the Hero’s Journey or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat outline method–sometimes a combination of both–I knew that at a certain point in the story, the main character had to face the villain. In another place, he could relax a bit and enjoy the new world into which he’d traveled. And so on.
That means the binder was a sort of loose outline for what should happen in a well-plotted story.
For a couple chapters (or maybe they’ll be scenes and be combined into a chapter–everything is loose right now), I wrote. But then, I started working all over the binder. I’d write a scrap of dialogue in one place, then jump down to another section and write a reaction to that dialogue. Exciting descriptions were added in appropriate places, then revised to fit the action that was added later.
Without Scrivener’s Binder, I’d be totally lost! With it, I’m able to walk around the story and look at its shape. It feels rather like a sculptor who takes a wire frame and adds clay to rough out a figure. Then, the sculptor refines a bit on the hands, skips to shape of the head, and approximates the way the clothing drapes the body. All the while, I”m walking all around the story, looking at it from different angles and seeing where things connect. Taking off bits here and adding bits there.
For example, an important plot point at one spot was that a supporting character was sick because of anemia. There was an Ah-Ha! moment when I realized that the anemia would get worse. In fact, it could get so bad that she’d need a blood transfusion. Who would be available for that? Since the main character is an alien, he couldn’t donate blood! Her estranged mother, of course, would be the poignant choice. But it had to all happen in the midst of a hand-to-hand combat. Can you see the scene? The doctor–under less than ideal conditions–is trying to put a needle in the mother’s arm to collect blood and as soon as there’s a full bag, well–you know that in fiction, everything has to get WORSE for the main character, right–so the fight gets too close and the bag of blood is split open and they have to start over again. Because the girl is so sick that she needs the blood NOW, or else.
That connection was amazing. The choice of anemia as the illness was a spur of the moment choice, in the midst of trying out some ideas about illnesses. Then, when the anemia needed to worsen (or she needed a different symptom of the illness), it made sense to take it to the extreme and to plop it down in the midst of an action scene to make it more urgent. The estranged mother made it more poignant.
Ah, but where did the estranged mother come from. In other words, I had to track her throughline in the story and account for her movements in every scene. Or else her presence in this crucial scene would feel wrong. How could she contribute to the ongoing scenes I had planned. Obviously, she’s a supporting character and not the main character. When and how would her presence make the story stronger? The question sent me skipping around the scenes in the Scrivener binder again.
The point is that this process is leading me to see things afresh and find unexpected options, which make perfect sense in the context of the story. Had I been writing chronologically, the connection may or may not have happened. I think not.
This method of working is fascinating.
It’s been hard to give myself permission to skip around like this. I’m really enjoying writing this story and hopefully, one day, you’ll enjoy reading it.
Lately, I’ve taken to roughing out a scene before I start writing.
Rough Out a Scene: Goals
I want to be excited to write the scene. I’m looking for the sparks, the exciting bits of this particular scene. Finding this early is helpful because I don’t waste time slogging through extraneous stuff. Instead, I can decide on smart scene cuts so I stay interested, which means the audience will stay interested!
I want the scene setting and action beats to be roughed out. Beats are the small units of action of a story: he stopped, rubbed his nose, sneezed, grabbed a tissue, and then wheezed out an answer. They are intimately tied to the setting because the action moves in, out and through the scenery. In the theater, this would be blocking out a scene and deciding where the actor stands on the stage and how they move across the stage. I may also work on deciding when to zoom, pan or scan.
I want to know the characters’ emotional responses. When an action beat occurs, I want to know the responses of the characters. Why was it important to write this action beat? If it doesn’t evoke an emotional response, maybe it’s not important enough to include in the final draft.
Rough out a scene: Don’ts
I don’t worry about perfection. I give myself permission to produce what kids call “sloppy copy.” It’s OK. I just want something on the page so that it’s easier to get the scene right later.
Don’t worry about verb tense, present or past. Sometimes, I bounce around like crazy. It’s OK. I’ll fix it when I actually write the scene.
Don’t worry about POV. It’s OK. I’ll often change POV during this rough-in stage. One advantage of this is that I’ll know the character’s emotion response. If it’s the POV character, I may be able to use the info as their thoughts. If it’s not the POV character, I’ll have to change the response into a physical action or perhaps signal it with body language. In the roughing out stage, I just need to know the emotions. I’ll follow conventions later.
Don’t worry about punctuation. It’s OK. I don’t worry about quotation marks around speech, or any other punctuation marks at this stage.
Don’t worry about details (unless you can’t stand not to!). In my current WIP novel, for example, my characters are at the bottom of the North Sea and should be seeing several species of fish. What fish would they see? Sometimes, I can just put in a placeholider, such as XXX. Then, research it before I do the final draft and include details then. But sometimes, I am compelled to stop and figure that out during the rough-in stage. When I do, it’s likely to be a long list and for the final draft, I’ll have to choose the best of the list.
Rough out a scene: DOs
Do worry about finding the heart of the scene. Where is the pivot point, the emotional fulcrum upon which the scene rests. I must find that emotional heart during this stage, or I won’t have the excitement needed to write it well.
Do worry about details. OK, I just said above do NOT worry about details. So, it just depends. Sometimes a scene doesn’t come alive for me with the details and sometimes it does. Scenes with lots of dialogue and not much action need dialogue details, but not scene details. Action-heavy scenes need the action bits in detail, but maybe it’s fine to skimp on the dialogue. You must decide what you need for each scene.
Rough out a scene: When to stop and write.
How much time do I spend on this stage? It varies.
When do I stop roughing it out and write the thing? It varies. Sometimes, I only need a sketchy, minimal rough to write from. But in my current WIP novel, I’m doing a lot of world-building as I go. That means I have to figure out the scenery, name anything important like buildings or landscape features, think of a history of the area, and then put my characters in that setting. For science fiction and fantasy then, it takes longer to rough out a scene. For romance or contemporary novels, this stage of writing may go quicker.
I know that I need to write the actual scene when I’ve roughed it out enough that I’m excited to write it. Instead of holding back any longer, the words just flow. Sometimes, I’ll print out the rough and just glance at it while I write. Sometimes, I’ll work directly in the file and just revise the rough into the finished draft.
In other words, this is one more tool to put in your writer’s toolkit. Rough out your scene until you can approach the actual writing with great enthusiasm and passion!
When we develop characters, we know the drill. You must know what your character wants. But as I’ve worked on my current novel, I wasn’t getting to the heart of the character the way I wanted. So, I switched up the wording and asked, “What does this character yearn for?”
The idea of yearning goes deeper for me than just asking, “What does your character want?”
Yearning is a deep-seated emotional vacuum that needs to be filled. It’s more compelling because it permeates the character’s life. Also, it implies change and that’s crucial. If a character years to be more respected, then we can see that he progresses along the continuum somehow from NO RESPECT to WIDELY RESPECTED. The idea of “wanting” didn’t give me the character arc in the same way that “yearning” did.
We could say that a mystery is about a yearning for answers. But that’s not personal enough for a yearning. Answers fill a character’s want or need, but it’s hard to see it as fulfilling a yearning. A wish/need for excitement — as in a thriller or action/adventure — doesn’t feel quite personal enough to be called a yearning either. Yearnings are for character stories or subplots, places where raw emotions surface and are thwarted in the service of the story, so that the yearning becomes even deeper. Yearnings are personal.
Yearnings to Write By
Yearn for Each Other – Romance. The hero and heroine yearn for each other. When characters fall in love, it’s not enough just that they want each other. On some level, their relationship must be tested, thwarted, or put on a side burner. But underneath the yearning smolders. The continuum goes from NO RELATIONSHIP to INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP.
Yearn for Growth – Coming of Age. Maturation comes with deep yearnings to be more than you are at this point in time. Yearnings to become worthy, proud, skilled, competent, or loved. The continuum goes from NAIVE to EXPERIENCED.
Yearn for Change – Quest or Journey. Quests and journeys take characters on a journey from point A to point B. The most successful quest/journey stories, though, let the inner journey shape the path and the complications. In other words, the character’s yearning for change is a major plot driver. The continuum goes from STATUS QUO to MAJOR CHANGE.
Yearn for Connection – Relationships. . This can cover many types of stories: revenge, rivalry, underdog, love, forbidden love, sacrifice, discovery and ambition. When the story centers on positive relationships, the yearning is for connection. When it’s a negative relationship, the yearning is to dissolve the connections. The continuum goes from ISOLATED to CONNECTED.
By exploring my character’s deepest yearnings, I’ve easily created a character arc, which puts me a long way toward a plot, as well.
It’s usually read in the spring and one activity that students often do is to send a laminated paper version of Oliver on a trip to visit folks. Download the 2016 Lesson Plan pack, which includes Sample Chapters from five novels.(24 MB, zip file from Dropbox).
The Lesson Plan pack includes a simple paper pattern for Oliver. This is an example or case study of an easy ongoing promotion. First, I’ll explain what happened, and then we’ll look at how you can do the same for your book.
Interact with Readers
This year, Cynthia Wells, a teacher from Quitman, AR, contacted me and said that Kailin, her student, would like to send me her Oliver for a week’s visit. Of course, I can’t always do this, but this was a good year to say, “Yes!”
When a student sends an Oliver around, they ask people to take photos of Oliver in different places. See the Oliver Pinterest board.
Oliver Sees the Sights
Here are some things Oliver did with me.
Oliver Meets Rowdy
Of course, Oliver couldn’t leave without reading Rowdy, which is my Summer, 2016 book. The pirate captain, Miss Whitney Black McKee, and Oliver had a nice chat and compared adventures and travels.
Preorder ROWDY now and it will be delivered on May 25
I once asked an editor if she regretted passing on the opportunity to become the publisher of the Harry Potter series.
The editor said, “In the publishing world, you live or die by your opinion. In spite of Harry Potter’s success, it still wouldn’t have been the right book for me to publish.”
In Your Opinion, What is Good Writing?
The first place you need to draw a line in the sand is one the question of quality. The quality of the story, the plotting, the characterization, the storytelling and so on is crucial to the success of a writing and publishing project. You need to listen tot he “still, small voice” that tells you this story needs another revision or that story measures up to the highest standard.
A sense of great stories is important to develop and most agree that a wide knowledge of the genre in which you write. If you want to write a picture book, you should read 100 picture books published within the last five years. If you want to write a YA novel, you should be familiar with the popular writers of the day. Of course, you can’t read 4000 novels in a year, so you’ll have to pick and choose. But notice what you like, enjoy, discard after a few chapters and so on. Develop a sense of what you like or don’t like. In short develop an appreciation of great writing. Give yourself something solid on which to base your opinion. Because you’ll live or die by it.
When I see really bad self-published children’s books, it’s most often from a person who doesn’t read children’s books. They just had a “great idea” and with no research or background in children’s literature, push through an awful book. I’ve actually had people tell me, “I’m not a writer. I just wanted to do this book.” That person’s project will die an early death because they didn’t educate their opinion.
In Your Opinion, Is this the BEST Writing You Can Do?
After writing a great story or novel, have you taken the time to let it cool off, to get feedback from trusted readers, and to take time to revise it to the best of your ability? Have you held anything back, or did you spend it all?
Author Annie Dillard, in her great essays, Write Till You Drop, wrote: One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: ”Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.”
In your opinion, have to done your best? Then, send it out.
If not, fix it. But write, authors, write.
BUT, you say. . .
My boy/girl friend didn’t like it.
My Significant Other didn’t like it.
My kid didn’t like it.
My agent didn’t like it.
My editor didn’t like it.
This genre isn’t selling right now.
No one buys books by authors from XXX.
I don’t have a HUGE social media following.
Blah, blah, blah.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Do YOU like what you wrote?
You live or die by your opinion.
If it’s not the best you can write, then fix it. Revise. Do whatever it takes to make it live up to your opinion.
If YOU like it, then send it out, and keep sending it out, until you find an editor who agrees with you.
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.
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?
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?
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.”