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1. Full Life? Take a Class


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My life is full and overflowing! My son is moving to Denver to go to school. I’m traveling and speaking a lot this month: see the Highlights picture book retreat and the Eastern PA SCBWI conference. In the midst of lots of busyness, how do you keep your focus on writing?

I’m taking a class.

Athletes stay in shape with zumba classes. Authors stay in shape with writing classes.

Athletes stay in shape with zumba classes. Authors stay in shape with writing classes.




Classes Give Accountability. Especially when I’m busy, I like to take an online class because it gives me structure and makes me stay focused on the writing. Accountability is always a good thing; it’s crucial when days are swamped with non-writing activities.

Classes Give Thinking Points. Often when life is busy it’s because I’m traveling, which involves lots of down time. Sitting on a plane or in a car, there’s time to think. Some of you may actually be able to work in that situation, but I can’t. I’ll read a book about writing, publishing or general business, but I can’t really produce anything. Thinking, though, is often overlooked when I’m in a really creative mood and pouring out words. I find that thinking is a good use of travel time. Often, a book is enough. But when I can find a challenging class–delivered by email or an online video class–it keeps me learning.

Classes Give Challenges. Classes also give me a challenge. I look for topics, genres, strategies that challenge me to think in a different way, to try a different process, or even turn everything in my writing world upside down. I want to learn how someone else thinks about story, or how they create characters.

Sure, I teach classes. At heart, I’m a teacher; whenever I hear new information, my first instinct is to try to make it easier for the next person to comprehend, and most important for me, to apply it in a practical manner.

However, I am also a student. If I’m not stretching myself and learning more about my craft and my profession, then I stagnate. This month, when I’m off to teach at the Highlights Foundation, I’m also taking a class. It’s a perfect balance for me.

Find out more about Darcy’s Online Video Courses.

I am considering adding new online courses this fall.

Please answer this one-question survey: Which of these online video course would interest you the most?

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2. Fight, Chase, Shoot, Battle! Action Scene Checklist


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Darcy’s Note: In my question to understand action scenes better, I came across Ian’s book and was blown away by how practical it is. To make it even more practical I created an Action Scenes Checklist. To understand it and fully exploit it, you should buy his book and read it cover to cover. Yes, I’m that enthusiastic about it. If you plan ANY action in your story, you need this book. Stay tuned below for a chance to win a copy of this book and Healy’s latest novel.

Guest post by Ian Thomas Healy

Like many people, I love movies, and I have a special love for tight action sequences. I have always taken pride in my ability to translate that type of action into my books, and as a writer specializing in superhero fiction, action is an important component of my work. After years of being asked by my writer friends to help them with their own action sequences, it occurred to me that there might be a need for this sort of information across the industry, and so I sat down and analyzed what was it exactly that I did instinctively when I wrote action scenes, and how I might teach that to others. Thus, ACTION! WRITING BETTER ACTION USING CINEMATIC TECHNIQUES (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0055LH0MU ) was born (naturally, during a running firefight with explosions and hair-breadth escapes).

ActionNewLHP
A lot of writers dance around action, because writing it is daunting and uncomfortable. By its very nature, action is high-energy, full of motion and intense pacing, and for many writers, it’s a weird change from what they’re used to. At its very root, though, action is a means to resolve conflict, and conflict is the basis of all good storytelling, so it’s not something to run from (crashing through a window, sliding down a rooftop slope, and then dropping into a waiting convertible), but to embrace as an important part of your toolbox.

castles-healyIn ACTION, I break down what makes an action scene tick, from individual acts, called Stunts, up through Engagements (related series of stunts), to the all-encompassing Sequence, which contains more than one Engagement. Here’s an example of an action scene from my new book CASTLES, which released on April 1:

Sally rushed into the building. All she knew was in the space of a single breath, her entire squad had been taken out. Who were these guys, and how had they stayed under the radar so long? Parahuman criminals didn’t just appear out of the woodwork at random, especially when they were working as a team. There had to be records on these guys somewhere.

And then Sally ran across someone who could move nearly as fast as she could, and she was fortunate not to have been gutted like a fish by the barbed quills sprouting from the new combatant’s arms. He slashed at her and she twisted and dodged through the lobby of the building on full defense. Unlike the criminals two floors above, the guy attacking Sally wore less of a jumpsuit and more of a wrestling-style singlet. The quills seemed to grow all over his body and she thought of him as Porcupine Man.

Super-speed abilities were rare in the world, even more so than psionic powers, and yet this was the second speedster Sally had fought in as many weeks. “Is there a factory churning you guys out or something?”

Porcupine Man’s perceptions were apparently accelerated like hers, for he understood her despite her rapid speech. “The times, they are a-changin’.” He spread his arms wide and flexed his chest in a peculiar way.

Sally dropped to the floor as several quills whisked over her head to embed themselves in the reception desk, quivering like arrows. A sharp, burning pain shot down her back and she knew one of them had grazed her. She hoped like hell they weren’t tipped with poison. “That’s a Bob Dylan lyric. My husband loves that song.” She pulled her horseshoes from her belt.

“Maybe he can play it at your funeral.” Porcupine Man shot more quills at Sally and she threw herself backwards over the reception desk to put something solid between her and her opponent. With his speed, she only had a moment to decide on her next action, and she froze when she saw a terrified woman huddled beneath the desk, eyes wide, a quill poking out of her bloodstained blouse.

Sally had no time to check to see if the woman was severely hurt. She couldn’t stay hiding where she was and put the civilian in danger. Nor could she risk slowing herself down enough to offer any comfort. She heard the patter of Porcupine Man’s approaching footsteps and forced herself to move. She ran, leaning forward to make herself a smaller target. The slice on her back burned like a paper cut with lemon juice in it. He skidded to a stop and Sally knew she had an advantage over him, being able to stop and start instantly.

She glanced back and saw him fire another quill at her from his chest. It had gone from a veritable barbed forest to a sparse stand in just a few moments. His quills didn’t replace themselves very quickly. Maybe she could get him to use them up. She dove for the floor again, twisting herself around to land on her shoulder. The quill passed right over her face, close enough that she could see the wicked barbs on its tip. As she slid, she hurled one of her horseshoes at him. Normally, throwing away one’s melee weapons was a poor choice, but Sally had spent thousands of hours at the targeting range, learning how to throw things effectively. When accelerated by her super-speed arms, the most innocent objects could become deadly projectiles.

Her horseshoes were hardly innocent.

The iron ring caught Porcupine Man on his sternum, hitting him hard enough to send him flying back into a wall, which cracked with his impact. He fell amid a pile of broken drywall and didn’t move.

This scene represents a single Engagement in a larger Sequence, which is Mustang Sally’s team of superheroes versus a group of super-powered bad guys. There are several Stunts in this Engagement:

  1. Sally dodges as Porcupine Man attacks her in melee combat.
  2. Sally dodges again as Porcupine Man shoots spines at her in ranged combat.
  3. Sally dodges yet again as he keeps shooting at her (she’s having a rough go of it).
  4. Sally goes on the offensive and throws a horseshoe at Porcupine Man, taking him down.

In ACTION, I coach you on methods for writing these types of scenes on a step-by-step basis. When Darcy contacted me to say how helpful she’d found my book, it made my day, because any time I hear that I’ve helped someone to become a better writer, it makes the whole process worthwhile. If you find it a valuable tool for yourself, please don’t hesitate to post a review online and to let me know how it helped you!

Download my Action Scenes Checklist based on Healy’s book.

Leave a comment and your name will be in a giveaway for a copy of one of Healy’s ebooks (Kindle, epub or pdf). There’s one copy each of ACTION! and CASTLE.

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3. My 4000 Word Day: Prewriting


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Last Friday, I wrote 4000 new words on my WIP novel. That’s a great day for me. But it was only possible because Thursday was a planning day.

When I work with students and teachers, I encourage lots of prewriting. My book, Writing for the Common Core, is essentially a book of prewriting activities. Here’s the thing: as professional writers, we know that our best writing comes with revision. That’s what students need to do, also: revise. However, that often devolves into merely copying a piece and cleaning up handwriting, especially in the lower grades. True revision, a re-envisioning of how to word something or the content to include/exclude, is hard to achieve in a 50-minute class.

Instead, I ask teachers to provide multiple prewriting activities. By giving students a rich and varied prewriting experience, they come to the first draft more likely to produce something worthwhile.

That’s what I did last Thursday, lots of prewriting.
BestNovelist


Setting. One important thing for me was to locate my story on the slopes of Mt. Rainier. I used Google Earth to track the roads where my characters would be traveling. Using the program’s tools, I measured distances as the crow flies and distances along roads, so I knew how long each drive (and potentially chase scene) would take. I switched to the aerial view to look at the landscape–mostly wooded with some open areas.

Sensory Details. Once I knew where this section of the story would happen, I concentrated on the sensory details. What would they see, hear, touch, taste and feel? What would the day’s weather be like? Rainy, snowy, sunny, windy? Along with that, I thought about the mood of the events. Would the characters be frantic, excited, hopeful, angry, or bored?

Scenes. I also took time to sketch out the structure of a couple scenes. Scenes need a beginning, middle, end; add in conflict and a pivot or turning point; stir with some great emotional development. By planning ahead, I knew the general outline of what would happen.

Flexibility. With all the planning, though, I approached the writing with flexibility and let the moment carry the story forward. I “mostly” knew what I would write, but it always surprises me how much it changes and develops as I write. It’s never exactly what I planned; it’s usually better.

I’m not really an outliner; but I don’t write by the seat of my pants either. Instead, I need this half-way place, where I do rich prewriting activities and halfway plan, and then see where it all takes me. HOW you say something is everything. It’s not just what the story is or how well you plot. For me, the important thing is how you say it. What word choices do you make and why? What sentence structures and why? What pacing and why? The true writing happens when I write. But I love the prewriting because it enables me to get 4000 words done in a single day. Well, really, that was two days work: one to prewrite and one to write. Either way you count it, that was a couple great chapters to put behind me.

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4. My UnEasy Relationship with Metaphors


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There’s an apocryphal story about a writer who worked hard all day. In the morning, he inserted a semi-colon; in the afternoon, he removed a semi-colon.

This morning, I inserted a metaphor; this afternoon, I removed the metaphor.

Metaphors continue to be a thorn in my side. I appreciate when I’m reading a story or novel and there’s an apt metaphor. It adds to my enjoyment because it expands the story and creates new connections. Such glimpses into the thought process of another human are one of the joys of reading.

Yet, when I sit down to write, I’m practically metaphor free. Partly, it’s because I find it tedious to sit down and add metaphors just because someone says my prose would improve with the use of metaphors. But as I’ve thought about it more, I’ve decided my problem is the difference in dominant vs. scattered imagery.
rhinometaphor

Dominant vs. Scattered Imagery

In their work of genius, How Does a Poem Mean, Miller Williams and John Ciardi discuss “The Image and the Poem” in Chapter 6. I refer you to their book for a full discussion of imagery, metaphors, similes and so on. For my purpose, though, let me concentrate on the question of dominant and scattered imagery. Here’s what Williams and Ciardi say:

“When the images of a given poem, or of a given passage, are related by their denotations, that poem or that passage is said to be constructed on a dominant image. When the images are related by their connotations but range widely in their denotations, that poem or passage is said to make use of scattered imagery.” (p. 247)

1000Days-HaleHere are some imagery (metaphor/similie) from Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days

  • P. 1 I feel like a jewel in a treasure box. . .
  • p. 2 Stay until your heart softens like long-boiled potatoes. . .
  • p. 2 . . .skinny as a skinned hare.
  • p. 8 It (the candle flame) tosses and bobs like a spring foal. . .
  • p. 11 My heartache felt like a river, and I was sinking into it, carried away fast in its coldness.
  • p. 12 . . if all they find is a delicate lady and her humble maid shriveled like ginger roots
  • p. 13 I feel like a mucker from the ends of my hair to the mud of my bones.
  • p. 13 It (lord’s house) was near as beautiful as a mountain in autumn. . .
  • p 15 she sat on her bed, alone, straight as a tent pole
  • p. 16. . . they resembled my own deel (clothing)as much as a worm resembles a snake.
  • p. 18 . . . my lips thinner than the edge of a leaf.
  • p. 18 He slapped his daughter’s face. . . like a snake striking.
  • p. 20 She (Lady Saren) reminded me of a lamb just tumbled out, wet all over, unsure of her feet and suspicious of the sun.

Taken together, they don’t create a dominant image; Hale is using scattered imagery in a masterful way. Each image is directly related to the immediate situation. They don’t add up to a bigger image at the end—the collection of images don’t combine to create any symbolism.

Most of the time, when people mention the need for more metaphors in a piece, they mean this sort of scattered imagery.

However, when I write, I tend to write for a dominant image, using symbolism more than metaphors. The principle of selection of details for me is a wider scale. I’m looking for imagery that spreads across a whole chapter or even a whole novel.

Miller and Williams call this an overtone theme. (p. 110) They analyze the themes in a selection from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, concluding that Milton chose words and images based on two themes to describe the Biblical serpent who visited Eve: watery motion and regal splendor. A third category is when the two themes mesh.

Here’s a catalogue of the language:

  • Watery Motion: indented wave, circular base, rising folds, fold upon fold, surging maze, floated redundant
  • Regal splendor: carbuncled, burnished, gold, circling spires
  • Combination of water and regal: towered, crested aloft

They say, “Whatever the value of such a tabulation, it cannot fail to make clear, first, that a unified principle of selection is at work in this diction, and second, that the words are being selected from inside their connotations and in answer to one another’s connotations, rather than from inside their denotation.”

Milton chose words/phrases because when they banged up against another word/phrase, they changed each other slightly. Circling spires weren’t just an architectural delight; instead, they hinted at regal splendor.

When I write, this is what I’m trying for: connotations speaking to connotations. I hope that I create a cumulative dominant image. I choose words based on certain themes and then work to make them collide.

Tips on Scattered Imagery

One reason I’m not fond of scattered imagery is that in the hands of a novice, it jerks me out of the current story. Here’s an example.

Setting: The principal tells you that you’ve won a scholarship, but to get it, you must accept an exchange student into your home for a year.

“. . . awesome news tossed into her lap like a grenade.”

Setting: A girl is thinking about a weird boy.
“ Thinking about him made her stomach hurt like she’d eaten a dozen McDonalds burgers at one sitting.”

These similes are easy to understand, contemporary, and not my favorite. In the first situation, a grenade carries the connotation of war, shock, and a shattered body. It’s too much for my taste because it pulls me out of a teen novel and instead, puts me in the Vietnam or Iraqi War.

In the second situation, I certainly understand that a dozen burgers (from anywhere) eaten in one sitting would give you a tummy ache. But how does this relate to the situation? It didn’t relate for me.

Hale sticks to imagery related to the immediate scene.

Setting: The princess and her maid are forced to become scullery maids in order to eat.

“Stay until your heart softens like long-boiled potatoes. . .”

In a kitchen setting, this makes sense. It also relates to the character who comes from the country and is familiar with the humble potato.

When you use scattered imagery, then, especially metaphors and similes, give them deep roots in the setting, not just a reference to a general cultural region.

And when you critique writing for others, remember the range of possibilities. Certainly, I always need to be challenged to use deeper imagery; but maybe, I don’t need to worry so much about just the one option for imagery called the metaphor.

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5. 8 Things Writers Do When Life is Crazy: The Crazy Writing Life


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Life has been crazy the last two weeks and I’ve struggled to keep up. There’s been a major family crisis, a funeral, major snow storms, and illnesses. In spite of all of that, people get up and go to work. Writers must do the same thing: when life throws us crazy, we spin it into something useful.

  1. Accounting. With April 15 almost upon us, I found the extra time at home useful for doing accounting. Not sexy. Not writing. But necessary stuff. (The fact that I’ve been in accounting hell has more to do with my background and abilities than with the rest of the craziness.) I wish I could give you advice on how to do accounting better, but alas, I can’t. You might want to read, though, Laurie Purdie Salas post on her writing income last year. She’s posted this every year since 2007, so you can see her career over a long period.
  2. Reading other blogs using Alltop.com. Several years ago, I followed blogs by subscribing to RSS feeds. The programs that made that easy are discontinued, and I’ve found myself reading fewer and fewer blogs–which isolates me from the community. Alltop.com is filling that space for me. It’s a service that lists the top blogs in many categories, pulls in headlines/teaser from their five latest posts and displays it in an at-a-glance format. I set it as my browser’s homepage, so I’m reminded to check out the latest conversations. Here’s my personal Alltop page. You can create one for yourself that lists your top blogs by creating an account and following their directions.
  3. Clean up your book’s listings at AuthorCentral.com. This continues to be a catch-all site for anything related to my books on Amazon/Kindle. From here, you can change/correct listings, upload cover images, monitor sales and reviews, and more. The links to Amazon Help here are the most useful. Usually, they’ll call you right away. If you only have 15 minutes to do something in the middle of a hectic situation, clean up your book’s description.
  4. Take pictures. I recently got a hand-me-down Digital SLR camera and I’ve been trying to learn how to use it. By keeping it out and available, I can snap off a shot here or there. These are so useful for blog posts, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and most social media sites. Great photography is a useful skill for communicating in any online venue these days. Basically, online you can provide text, images or audio. That’s it. You might as well practice the image thing, because it’s crucial.
  5. My husband, Dwight, doing a "faceprint" in the snow, while the grandkids watch.

    My husband, Dwight, doing a “faceprint” in the snow, while the grandkids watch.




    Olga, Olaf's special friend. This would be a great image to add text for accompany a blog post.

    Olga, Olaf’s special friend. Putting text on top of this image would make it a good advertisement for a blog post.

  6. Choose a writing prompt. It almost doesn’t matter what prompt. Just choose something that will allow you to write. Even in the midst of Life (with a capital L), you need words flowing out.
  7. Start a blog. Oh, my gosh! Start a blog in the midst of Life? Shrug. Why not. You need one. And there’s no good time to do it. So, just get it done. OK. Then, just work on your author website for five minutes.
  8. Cheer for other writers. A friend recently got an offer for her first contract. While I’m in the doldrums, it’s inspiring to see her joy. She’s worked hard for this and deserves success. Who can you cheer for? Who can you cheer up? Do you know that when I get the occasional email about my blog, it totally makes my day? You could do that for someone else. It’s writing; it’s getting your mind off your own swirl of problems; it’s amazingly uplifting to the person getting the email–and to the person writing it.
  9. Observe. Hey! All this craziness is grist for the mill. The best writers see the world at a slant and can communicate that unique perspective in compelling ways. If you’re in a place where the communication can’t happen, then observe all the more. It’s our basic task: pay attention. Don’t check out. Look, listen, taste, smell, feel–live to tell about the crazy times

Send me your good news! I’d love to hear it!

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6. Advice to Academy Award Winners: Trust Your Art


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As I watched the Academy Awards last week, I was struck by how little the winners trusted their works of art. The ceremony was peppered with political statements for one cause or another. (Don’t misread: I have sympathies for these causes, but not for taking over the ceremony to smash us over the head with the cause.) There were pleas for women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, and disability rights. Really? Their work of art, the film that was being recognized, had already said what needed to be said in poignant, touching, and life-changing ways. Why didn’t they trust their art?

In the 1970s, children’s book publishers put out a lot of “problem novels,” which addressed social issues. The backlash against them was huge and still has echoes today in how easily some manuscripts are rejected. Since then, though, we’ve learned how to include our passions in our stories in ways that shine as art. We don’t stick it in our reader’s faces.

Bringing a Cause to Life

Morality. If you’re passionate about a cause, though, what should you do? First set up a moral dilemma around the cause because that will allow you to explore multiple perspectives. Moral dilemmas force characters to make a choice, which allows your readers to feel the weight of the issues and either agree or disagree with the character’s choices. You almost have to include someone making wrong choices–usually as the villain.

S&B COVER3-CS.inddEmotions. For example, in my book, Saucy and Bubba: A Hansel and Gretel Tale, Saucy runs away from an alcoholic step-mother. She must decide whether to live with an aunt or go home to live with her father and the step-mother. It’s a moral choice, but also an emotional choice, complicated by the question of where will her little brother go.


Sometimes you have to help yourself before you can help someone else, but if you mark your trail, you can always find your way home. That’s what the spunky main character of Darcy Pattison’s Saucy and Bubba learns in this modern day Hansel and Gretel tale. Saucy is a real character dealing with real stuff—hard stuff that doesn’t have easy answers, not in real life and not in fairy tales, either. This is a really compelling and ultimately hopeful story. Highly recommended.
— Debby Dahl Edwardson, National Book Award finalist
and author of My Name is Not Easy


Plurality. We live in a pluralistic culture; that is, many different cultures co-exist peacefully, and our work should respect that variety of cultures. Your ideas must compete in the marketplace of ideas and as time passes, certain ideas will gain popularity and others will fade. Yes, there are some things that are right and some things that are wrong; I believe in some absolutes (Thou shalt not kill!). But some things DO depend. As you write, recognize the variety of ideas possible and work to include characters who bring those ideas to enrich the story you are telling.

Trust your art. In the end, I choose to trust my art. Growing up, I had an alcoholic step-father; today, about 11 million children live with a caregiver who is an alcoholic. I could rant; instead, let me tell you a story. Read a sample chapter or listen to the audio of Chapter 1 of Saucy and Bubba.

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7. A Big Storytelling DON’T: Messing with Timelines


PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. Full info here.
COMMENTS FROM THE 2014 WORKSHOP:
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY


Writers should respect timelines.

TimeWords


Ten years ago, I taught writing at a university and the world-wide-web was just coming online and theories of hypertext fiction were bouncing around. One popular theme of these stories was that the timeline didn’t matter. Imagine a central event and going out from that, like spokes in a wheel were the other story events. The theories said that non-linear stories were possible; translated, that means a story’s timeline didn’t matter.

Since then, we’ve seen stories that mess with the timeline with varying degrees of success. For example, Paul Fleischman’s book, Whirligig, explores the results of an action. In doing that, some sections jump 25 years into the future, while others explore the results of actions closer in time to it happening. The story has a reason to mess with the timeline and does so effectively.

But most of the time, writers should respect timelines. We live linear lives; we can’t skip ahead a year and then skip back. The act of reading is a linear act: we start at one point and read forward. Sure, some of you read the ending last. But even then, you go to five pages before the end and read forward. Humans are hard-wired to understand time lines, and when you mess with the timeline of a story you risk reader confusion.

On a micro-level, I think this is especially important. Let’s say that you have three events that happen in this order: A, B, and C. Event A happens first, Event B is second, and Event C is third.

It’s crucial that the author clearly know the event order; however, the storyteller often writes the events out of order. Here’s some strategies that I see.

Event C is the most interesting. In an attempt to keep the reader’s interest, authors sometimes cut straight to C but then circle back to pick up A and B. The question here is why come back to A and B? Why not just make this a big scene cut and leap ahead to C?

Events A, B, and C are episodic and there’s no cause-effect relationship. Here the events have no relationship except perhaps the time of day or season of the year. In this case, I wonder why these events belong in the same story. Episodic stories do work, but they are hard to hang together without the cause-effect relationship. Perhaps, you really need A caused D, which caused F. Maybe that story would be a more satisfying read.

A, B, and C are presented in order, but the relationship is vague. In this case, the writer needs better transitions that make the relationships clear. Sometimes, the transitions will short and sometimes prolonged. However, you can’t leave these out or the reader is lost.

In a current WIP, I found myself getting things out of order even within a paragraph. Jake falls into the water and in an attempt to keep hypothermia at bay, others offer an odd collection of clothing for him to wear. He changes inside a school bus.

My first draft had him putting on clothes from a variety of people, and then getting on the bus to—well to change clothes. That didn’t work! Instead, he had to climb up the bus steps, someone hands him clothes, one piece doesn’t fit and he trades it for another, and so on.

Did it make sense out of order? Sorta. But it’s much easier to understand when I took the time to straighten out the time order. Time words are your friends: use them to help keep things straight. Whether it’s on a micro or macro level, respect the timeline of your story—unless you have a really good reason to tell things out of order, don’t do it!

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8. 5 Amazingly Simple Ways to Transform Quiet Scenes into Exciting Scenes


PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. Full info here.
COMMENTS FROM THE 2014 WORKSHOP:
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY


Today, I worked on a difficult scene. It wasn’t a big action-packed scene; those are easy. Instead, it was a transition scene that moved the story along a week and had the potential to lose the reader with it’s lack of tension.

Donald Maass, in his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, repeats this signature mantra, “Tension on every page.”
He points out three types of scenes that can be a trap for the lazy writer: Tea time or any time people eat together; transporting characters from one spot to another; and dialogue. Maass recommends that you cut these scenes:

The most controversial part of my Writing the Blockbuster Novel workshop pis this exercise, in which I direct authors to cut scenes set in kitchens or living rooms or cars driving from one place to another, or that involve drinking tea or coffee or taking showers or baths, particularly in a novel’s first fifty pages. Participants look dismayed when they hear this directive, and in writer’s chat rooms on the Web it is debated in tones of alarm. No one wants to cut such material.

Unless you give these scenes careful attention, they can wind up as BORING!

Strategies for Dealing with Low Tension Scenes

5 Amazingly Simple Ways to Transform Quiet Scenes into Exciting Scenes

In working through my scene, I focused on a couple strategies for approaching such Bore-Traps.

The moment before. What happened right before this scene? Characters don’t go into a scene neutral. Sometimes, just thinking about the moment before will help you get a handle on what tensions or conflicts could be built into the scene. For example, if Jillian and Dad step out of the car at a used-car dealership and talk to a salesman about the 2012 Toyota Camry, it could be boring: How much is it? Do you finance? Want to take a test drive?

If, however, you take a moment to explore the moment before, you might find some interesting points of tension:
Our salesman, William, has just learned that his brother was in a motorcycle wreck and while he lived, William is now obsessing about car safety. Jillian has been trying to convince her Dad to get her a new car and is angry that he’s stopping at the used car shop, while Dad is worried because Mom just told him she’s filing for divorce and Dad doesn’t know how he can afford to buy Jillian any kind of car, what with the upcoming lawyer bills. Try writing that scene again, after all of THAT!

Character’s attitudes going into a scene. Similar, but slightly different is an emphasis on character attitudes going into a discussion. For William, we could choose from several attitudes: obsessing over safety, anxious to get done and get to the hospital so he speeds through everything, angry with brother because William just convince his wife to get a motorcycle and his blockhead brother just messed up that deal. Jillian could be pleading, sarcastic, grateful, or even indifferent. Dad could be generous, angry, stingy, resentful and more. Decide on the character’s attitudes, making sure that they are coming into the discussion at tangents.

Small moments of tension. This may seem obvious, but what I mean by this is to look for things or situations within the scene that could go wrong. For example, in my current story, the kids are in a cafeteria, and when the boy opens his coke, the carbonation explodes all over. It’s a small thing, a common thing. But it’s conflict. What is present in your situation/scene that could spill over with some small conflict?

Foreshadow something that is coming – look forward. Another reason the coke explosion worked for me is that the story involves volcanoes! It’s a minor foreshadowing of what’s coming. Look ahead in your story to see if you can provide even a minor foreshadowing.

Refer back to something – look backward. Don’t just look forward. Also look back to previous chapters and try to echo something. Can you echo it with some kind of progression? Make it faster, higher, bigger, etc? And plan another time to use that element and make it the fastest, biggest, highest, etc.?

My scene, which started as a bore, is much tighter and has more tension. It’s a collection of small moments of tension that adds up to an important transition scene that keeps the reader turning the pages.

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9. Author v. Them: When to Revise for Critiquers


PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. Full info here.
COMMENTS FROM THE 2014 WORKSHOP:
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY


I am scared to work on my WIP story right now.
Why?
Because someone I respect read the story and said that it’s working well, but I think I need to make one change–a pretty big one–to make it even stronger. But Critiquer said it was great, as is. If I mess with it, will it – well, mess it up? Or will messing with it make it stronger like I suspect?

The Role of Critiques: Clearing up Confusion

This leaves me with a major question about the role of critiques. Basically, I get critiques to check how well I’m communicating. I don’t get critiques to see if my writing is any good (see this post on the good/bad question)

Good feedback includes a reader pointing out where they are confuse or where they lost interest.

Confusion, in early drafts, is often because my vision for the story isn’t solidified, which results in inconsistent portrayal of a character, or contradictory information.

“On page 11, you said Martha was mad, but when she meets Horace in page 15, she runs up and hugs him. Which is it? Mad or glad to see him?

Often, I want to say, “Both.”
But that doesn’t work, does it? If she is livid on page 11, she’d better show that fury on page 15. Else, why have her so mad on page 11?

Another inconsistency that escapes me in early drafts is points of fact or logic. In my WIP, the villain will use a drone to deliver something remotely. My idea about drones was that they are sort of airplane shaped, but the reviewer quickly sent me to YouTube to discover that they are more helicopter-like, but instead of one big blade on top, they have multiple rotating blades on top. Or at least, one current popular model looks like that. I could, of course, invent my own drone design for this story, but why? That would take valuable time away from the creation of characters and plot. My story isn’t ABOUT drones, so it’s not worth the effort. Instead, I’ll look at videos of several different models and synthesize something more factual than the current description.
Revise

The Role of Critiques: Reader Reaction

Again, I don’t care if you call my story good or bad. But I do want to know where a typical reader loses interest. WHERE is the key question. Not WHY? As the author, I should be able to pinpoint the why. I just need to know WHERE. When you tell me where you lose interest, I’ll look and go through a mental list of things that could be happening: the prose is awful, nothing is happening, the characters are boring, etc.

I can revise to keep your attention by using better prose, pumping up the action, writing more active character descriptions, putting more at risk in the main character’s life and so on.

The Trap of Critiques

The biggest problem for me today, though, is the trap of critiques; or perhaps to sat it differently, the problem is that someone said my story is Good. Good is the enemy of Best, goes the old proverb. But it’s good. Someone–a reader I respect–said it’s good. Do I trust that, or do I listen to the itch in my storyteller’s sense that I need to tweak this one spot, which will improve pacing later, and create BETTER?

I’m scared of messing it up badly. Of course, I can keep a copy of BEFORE; but the revision will take a lot of small changes and it will be hard to get back to the original. Will I take a chance or not? And if I make these changes, but then realize that it didn’t turn out for the best, will I be willing to do the work to undo everything? Commit or not? Today, I’m scared to work.

It’s a typical day for an author.

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10. Pacing: Space out the Tense Moments


PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. Full info here.
COMMENTS FROM THE 2014 WORKSHOP:
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY


Tension on every page is the mantra for fiction writers. But what if your tension is spread unevenly throughout the story? That may be fine, because stories need a natural rhythm, an ebb and flow of action, thoughts, dialogue and reflection (inner dialogue). Some scenes may be crammed with small actions, while others pace steadily through the setting. Sometimes, though, I find that I’ve packed a scene with too many MAJOR revelations or actions, creating a top-heavy scene; that scene is usually matched by another scene that lacks enough tension.

My current WIP was in that position this week. One scene had two major confrontations. So, I decided to see if I could lift one Major Complication and put it elsewhere. The actual text, a revelation that someone was searching for the main character, took about 20 lines of text. Not so bad to move elsewhere, I thought.

But every part of a story is intertwined with every other part.
Puzzle
Timeline. First, there’s timeline issues. EventA happens before EventB. The RevelationEvent was originally the EventA, but I moved it to an EventC position, which meant that I had to go back and clean up the time line. There could be no mention of the RevelationEvent before Event B, of course. This is tedious work. You have to reread chapters thinking about what a reader should know at this point in the story, and make sure there’s no hint of the RevelationEvent that will spoil the surprise. Of course, I can hint at it; that’s called foreshadowing. Foreshadowing’s role, though, is to make the reader slap his/her forehead and say, “Duh! That’s exactly what should happen. Why didn’t I see it coming?” The reader should still be surprised, but the surprise is believable. Cleaning up the timeline is hard work, and if you slip up with even one half-sentence, you’ll be nailed on it by some alert reader.

Fitting it in. Unfortunately, you can’t just pick up the 20 lines and insert them where Event C occurs. Much of it may be salvaged verbatim, but much of it needs to be worded differently at the new place of the story. Keep the core of it, the meaning, but be willing to rewrite to make it seamless. The goal is to make it seem that the story was originally written this way.

As a revision exercise, I required my freshman composition students to write eight different openings for their essay. Often, the third or fifth or eighth opening was dynamite, and the writer chose to start his/her essay with it. Too often, though, it was stuck on the front and had no relationship to the rest of the story. I modified the assignment: students still wrote the eight openings. But then, in class to make sure they did it, they had to start writing the essay again from that starting point and keep writing for a timed period. I made sure the writing time was long enough to carry them into the body of the essay. That resulted in strong openings that were integrated into the whole essay. That’s what you want here, too.

One caution: keep a copy of the original version, because you may not like moving the event to a new place. In Scrivener, take a snapshot. In word processors, make a backup copy or a versioned copy; or use track changes to make the preliminary changes and then decide if you want to make them permanent.

The strategy of moving events is easy on the imagination. I don’t have to think up new events or complications; instead, I just need to use what I’ve already written in a stronger way.

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11. I Want a Dog by Darcy Pattison


PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. Full info here.
COMMENTS FROM THE 2014 WORKSHOP:
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY


Today launches two new books for me.

9781629440118-ColorPF-alt.indd 9781629440323-Case.indd

How the Stories Started. For years, I’ve taught writing. I teach everything from kindergarteners to advanced novelist, gifted-and-talented kids to reluctant writers. I’ve developed techniques for helping people write stronger and they usually involve either revising or prewriting. In schools, it’s hard to get kids to revise; they see it as torture to copy out a perfectly good essay again. Too often, it’s an exercise in handwriting instead of real revision. So, I started flipping the process and putting more emphasis on prewriting. A rich prewriting environment gives a student a better chance at a good first draft (which is often the only draft). A single prewriting activity isn’t enough; instead, you want a rich environment with multiple ways of thinking, discussing and drafting about a topic.

Everything I’ve learned about teaching writing an opinion essay to kids is instilled in these two books in just 500 words (Dog) and 750 words (Cat). Cousins discuss the type of dog/cat they want for their family. They use about ten criteria (and another 5-6 criteria are suggested in the back matter) to decide what breed of dog/cat is best. Then, they write an opinion essay. And because all writing should have a real world effect and be successful, they get the dog/cat of their dreams.

Characters. I knew that I wanted to write something helpful to teachers about writing essay; however, first and foremost (as always) I wanted to write a fun STORY. The relationship between cousins Dennis and Mellie was important to develop. Each has a different family life, so their priorities on a pet differed drastically. Creating interesting characters helped ground the information in a story.

Research. Do you research topics for a fictional story? It was crucial for these two stories that I had the facts right about the dogs and cats. The American Kennel Club (AKC) regularly publishes information on the most popular breeds of dogs for a particular year. I used the latest data from 2013 and decided to feature the top 20 breeds of dogs: in order of popularity – Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherd Dogs, Golden Retrievers, Beagles, Bulldogs, Yorkshire Terriers, Boxers, Poodles, Rottweilers, Dachshunds, French Bulldogs, Doberman Pinschers, German Shorthaired Pointers, Siberian Huskies, Shih Tzu, Great Danes, Miniature Schnauzers, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Pomeranians, Australian Shepherds.

Then, it was a juggling act to slot each breed into a criteria for deciding for/against a breed. I used the Animal Planet’s Dog Breed Selector Tool as a beginning point, and filled in with research on each breed. Many dogs are friendly; some dogs are better at being a guard dog than others. Each criteria needed a matched pair, one dog included by the criteria and one breed excluded by the criteria. It was impossible to satisfy every breed enthusiast, but the AKC went through the manuscript and approved the way the breeds were described.


10BreedPoster500x500x150


For the Cat Lovers. I was pleased with the story and sent it around to a couple editors. One was very interested, but eventually rejected the story, saying, “A dog story just isn’t for me. I’m just a cat lover.” That weekend, I wrote the companion book, I WANT A CAT: My Opinion Essay. It went through a similar process using the Animal Planet Cat Breed Selector Tool, and generous input from Joan Miller, Chair of the Cat Fancier’s Association Outreach & Education efforts.

The CFA statistics say these are the top 20 cat breeds, in order of popularity: Persian, Exotic, Maine Coon Cat. Ragdoll, British Shorthair, Abyssinian, American Shorthair, Sphynx, Siamese, Devon Rex, Norwegian Forest Cat, Oriental, Scottish Fold, Cornish Rex, Birman, Burmese, Tonkinese, Siberian, Russian Blue, Egyptian Mau

I was unfamiliar with some of the breeds, so Miller’s input was invaluable–thanks, Joan!

Illustrator: Ewa O’Neill

These are debut picture books by European illustrator, Ewa O’Neill. She’s got an eye for color and design! A dog-lover, she studied the twenty dog breeds and twenty cat breeds to create active, interesting collection of pets.

Free on Kindle for 5 Days

Amazon allows certain promotional events and I’m happy to say that I WANT A DOG: My Opinion Essay will be a free Kindle book from February 8-12. Get it during these five days and spread the word to your friends.

Free on KOBO and Apple: I WANT A DOG and I WANT A CAT will be free for your iPad or Kobo reader on February 13-17. Check the iBookstore and KoboStore then. Sorry, a Nook version is not available. You can also find ebook copies at MimsHouse.com – Dog and MimsHouse.com – Cat.
Both books are available in paperback and hardcover.

Coming Fall, 2015: My Crazy Dog: My Narrative Essay

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12. Is My Story Good or Bad? Wrong Question


PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. Full info here.
COMMENTS FROM THE 2014 WORKSHOP:
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY


Last year, I did a simple survey on the list and asked writers, “What is your biggest challenge for 2015?”

The answer blew me away. You want to know, “Is my picture book/novel/short story/piece of writing any good?”
GoodORBad
This was expressed in many different ways, of course, but at the core, you want to know what makes one piece of writing good and one piece of writing bad. Is it just a matter of opinion?

When I taught freshman composition, this was a constant problem, as well. An essay turned into one teacher might receive an A, while the second teacher gave it a C; giving grades is one way to answer the good/bad question. Research showed that the solution was simple: teachers needed to meet and discuss criteria for grading. Once they’d gone through a couple essays together, they were more likely to grade consistently.

Why the problems? What does make good writing? The answer isn’t about grammar, and only incidentally about the content of the piece. Instead, you must look at the fuzzy concerns of audience, purpose, genre conventions,

AUDIENCE

Who are you writing for? Do you take the time to search images till you find a person who is your ideal audience? Writing for a middle grade student is very different than writing for a middle-aged history professor.

Again, let me demonstrate this with an example I gave to my freshman comp students. Let’s say that an 18-year-old boy has a car wreck. Now, he must tell three people about that wreck: the policeman, his mom, and his best friend. You can easily imagine each conversation. The tone—apologetic to bravado—changes with the audience. Details creep into some accounts (To Best Friend: Mary was tickling me) and are deleted from others (To Mom and Cop: I was under control of the vehicle at all times).

Which account of the car wreck would be considered “good” and which is “bad”? Is one more truthful than the other; i.e. can you apply the criteria of truthfulness to determine good/bad? You’ll agree that tone, voice, content, style and more depend on the audience.

PURPOSE

When you write a novel, do you want your reader to weep or to guffaw? The purpose of any piece of writing should—in a sane world—determine its effectiveness. Did it accomplish what you set out to accomplish?

In other words, can we use effectiveness of communication as one measure of good/bad?

GENRE CONVENTIONS

Think with me of what you expect from a mystery novel. There’s a murderer, a detective and a dead body (victim). Beyond that, though, one common convention in a mystery is to TELL the answer to the mystery. The detective arranges for all the suspects to be present at the same time, and then explains how s/he cleverly solved the problem. When confronted, the murderer tries to run away. That sort of scene would rarely happen in other genres.

Each genre has its own conventions of characters, events, plot points, settings, and so on. If you break or bend those conventions, you risk angering your readers, who will exclaim loudly, “This is a horrible mystery.”

Is it good writing or bad writing? Wrong question.
Is it a good mystery (according to the genre conventions of today)?


Is My Picture Book Manuscript Any Good?

Do you need to know if your picture book manuscript fits genre conventions? Darcy Pattison and Leslie Helakoski will be teaching PB&J: Picture Books and All that Jazz, April 23-26, 2015 at the Highlight’s Foundation, Honesdale, PA. Learn more about the workshop.

If you can’t see this video, click here.


DOES THE STORY PLEASE YOU?

Aside from issues of audience, purpose, and genre, there’s one that looms large in my mind. Does the story please you, the author? Are you happy with what you’ve done? It’s very hard to step back from your work and evaluate it. Your worries about what others think consumes you, and you can’t separate THEIR opinion from YOUR opinion.

I recently re-read my latest novel, LONGING FOR NORMAL, and at a certain point, it made me cry. A friend read it recently, too, and I asked her, “Did you cry at XXX scene?” No, she didn’t. But when I re-read that scene, I always cry. Is it a good scene? It touches me emotionally in a deep way; but it doesn’t affect my friend the same way. Is it good? Or bad?

Do you start to see that the question is the wrong one? Or that there are really two questions here:

1. Did I write the story I wanted to write?
2. How will others respond to that story?

And the terminology that you use should NOT be good/bad.
Instead, try these criteria: useful, effective, matches genre expectations, pleases me.

Then, you need to ask a final question: Do I want this to be published?
If so, you forget the good/bad question and find a publisher whose purposes, audiences and genre fits what you’ve written. And send it in. Period.

Stop those pestering questions about good/bad. Send it in. You’ll soon find out if it will fly in the marketplace you’ve chosen. If it doesn’t, go back and ask the right questions again: useful, effective, matches genre expectations, pleases me? If you’re sure you’re on target, send it out again. And again and again. Repeat until you find the right market for your work!

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13. Outrage: A Negative Emotion that Works In Your Novel


PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. Full info here.
COMMENTS FROM THE 2014 WORKSHOP:
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY


As 2014 events unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri and in New York City over race relations, I watched with a storyteller’s eye. That’s not to make light of the events–which have sparked massive debates and outrage. Rather, I put on my writer’s glasses and tried to evaluate the news reports AS A WRITER.

Conflict on Every Page: What Kind of Conflict?

Many writing teachers drum it into their students heads: conflict on every page.

What they mean is that something has to happen on every page that makes the situation worse for the characters. Storytelling is about the problems of life, not the happy moments. Happiness is only possible when thrown into relief by contrast with the bad stuff.

This can easily go wrong: after a writing class where conflict was encouraged, one writer added “conflict” by having a wild creature attack a main character; but in the next scene, the character easily escapes and nothing was different. That’s adding in conflict just for the sake of conflict and that’s off-target. Instead, conflict should be integral to the story and make the characters’ lives different in some way.

contagiousRecently, I found insight into this from a surprising source. In his book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger says that things go viral easier when people are met with moments of high arousal. That sounded suspiciously like “conflict on every page.” Berger backs up his claims with various psychological studies (you should read his book for details). The high arousal moments included positive emotions: excitement, awe, inspirations, humor. But they also included negative emotions: anger, disgust, anxiety, and especially outrage.

In his book, Berger gives examples of Outrage, including one about mothers who carry babies in a special sling. In 2008, the practice was celebrated with the inaugural International Babywearing Week. McNeil Consumer Healthcare, the company who makes Motrin pain medication wanted to support the event. According to Berger, they figured that carrying babies in a sling was great for the mother-child relationship; however, they also thought that it would cause strain on mother’s backs and they would need pain-relief. The advertisement they created, however, caused outrage!

The advertisement implied that mothers wore babies as “a fashion statement,” and it implied that babywearing looked “crazy.”

Outrage swept through the mommy-bloggers. And of course, OUTRAGE brings us back to Ferguson and the problems of racial relations in the U.S. Outrage–as a storytelling element–has been evident in almost every report I saw on the incident.

It’s not redundant to say this: the events in Ferguson were outrageous; the outrage at the events made the news stories successful. So successful that I later heard a radio interview with protestors in Hong Kong who were asked about relations with the police there in Hong Kong. The protestor answered that the relations were just as strained as those between police and citizens in Ferguson. In other words, the outrage–the negative emotional response to events–has been so strong that it has been reported worldwide and has become a symbol of difficult police reactions. That’s the power of outrage in storytelling.

In your story, can you find a place to add outrage? If you can, your story will be stronger.

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14. Scenes: The Skeleton of a Novel


PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. Full info here.
COMMENTS FROM THE 2014 WORKSHOP:
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY


You’re a human being: you can stand up, sit down, or do a somersault. That’s because you have a skeleton that gives your soft tissue a structure.
skeleton copy

Likewise, it’s important to give your novel a structure that will hold all the soft murmurings about characters, places and events. It begins with understanding the structure of a scene. First, let’s answer the question: do you have to write in scenes? No. There’s a continuum from those who write strictly in scenes to those who don’t. However, for beginning to intermediate writers, you’ll see more improvement in your writing if you move closer to the strictly writing in scenes end of that continuum. Early in a career, writers need discipline to add structure that may come more easily with experience.

External Action. A scene is a unit or section of a story that hangs together because of the action or event. Scenes are not internal, but external. Something must physically happen.

Something Changes. Something important must happen in a scene; after the scene is over, the situation must be different for the character’s lives. The definition of “important” and “different,” of course, will change with the genre, but still, we recognize that something important has created a difference.

Goal Oriented. The strongest scenes begin with a character wanting something and encountering difficulties in achieving his/her goal. The goal can change or develop over the course of a story, but it must be there.

Conflict. If your character wants something (Goal), and they have instant gratification (Result), that’s not a scene. Every Goal must meet with obstacles that prevent the character from achieving the goal. This is the basic promise of all fiction, that life will encounter problems that won’t be solved till the last page.

Beyond these requirement, strong scenes add a deeper structure. It’s not required, for those who only write loosely in scenes, but it helps.

Scenes can be divided into three or four sections: beginning, middle, turning point or pivot, ending.

Beginning: This sets up the situation, setting, characters and the goal.
Middle: Conflict piles on conflict as the goal gets farther and farther away.
Turning point/Pivot: Something happens to spin the story in a different direction. Scenes without a pivot are possible, but scenes WITH a pivot are more interesting.
Ending: What has changed?

Good Will Hunting: Bar Scene Analyzed

A good way to see the structure of a scene is to watch the “Bar Scene” from the movie, Good Will Hunting. If you can’t see this video, click here.

Beginning: Will and his friends enter the bar, choose a table, order a beer.
Goal: These “Southies” want to experience a Harvard Bar and maybe pick up a girl.

Middle: Chuckie goes over to check out a girl. But a Harvard man steps in to put him down.

Pivot point: Will takes over the conversation with his superior intellect.

Ending: Will meets the love interest. The conversation with the Harvard man is a win/lose: Will wins because he manages to make his point that a college education isn’t everything; however, listen carefully to the deeper conversation about class distinctions and you’ll see that Will still faces challenges.

For more on scenes, I always recommend Sandra Scofield’s excellent book, The Scene Primer. Or see my series, 30 Days to a Stronger Series.

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15. Openings: 5 Ways They Go Wrong


PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. Full info here.
COMMENTS FROM THE 2014 WORKSHOP:
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY


Openings are incredibly important. This was brought back to me recently as I was judging a contest. Those manuscripts that kept my interest for three pages were rare. Usually, they lost me by the middle of page two!

Am I harsh? I don’t think so.

Grab the Reader with Your Opening Lines

STOP

Noah Lukeman has it right in his book, The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. This is a book I ask those attending my Novel Revision retreats to read before they attend. Lukeman’s premise is that an editor will decide if they want your book or not based on the first five pages of your manuscript. After judging this contest, I agree. Sometimes, you can even make a judgment based on the first paragraph.

That first paragraph? You want to grab the reader by the throat and never let go!

Here are five things that made me stop reading

  • Nothing happened. The whole first chapter could be cut, because no major action occurred. Ask yourself: what happened in this chapter? Is there any conflict here?
  • The voice was flat. Monotone and uninteresting. Read it aloud: Does the text demand that you use an interesting variation of pitches, tones, stops, starts, etc?
  • Inconsistencies. If I found myself thinking, “No, that couldn’t happen. Not that way,” then the story was in trouble. Consider: does the story logic work?
  • Backstory. Please don’t put backstory in the first chapter. Give us an active scene with the character in motion and wanting something. It doesn’t have to be the major goal of the book, but the character needs to want something and it should be something that leads into the main conflict. Ask yourself: Do I really need to explain the backstory here, or can I wait until page 100? Yes! Page 100! Move that stuff out of the first act entirely!
  • The point-of-view jumps out at me. Too many of the mss had first-person point-of-views that just jumped out at me and made me cringe. In other words, the voice wasn’t distinctive enough for first person. This is a personal opinion–FWIW–but I think too many people are trying to write a first-person narrative. The default should be third-person unless there is a compelling reason for first. It’s not just a bias against first-person, but rather, that the story would be better served from third in many cases.

    There were some first-person stories where I didn’t even realize it because the story caught me. When it works, it work well. When it fails, the story might could be salvaged by a switch to third. Consider: Is there a compelling reason for the first-person point-of-view? Could this ONLY be told from first? Try–OK, just try–writing the first chapter from third and give it to an independent, unbiased reader (like you can find that!) and ask which version they like better (don’t tell them what the difference is). I bet that third will win in the majority of cases.

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16. How Many Pages in a Children’s Picture Book? Printing Methods Determine the Answer


PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. Full info here.
COMMENTS FROM THE 2014 WORKSHOP:
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY


I recently watch Miss Potter, the movie based on the life of children’s book author and illustrator Beatrix Potter. It’s a fascinating look at the life of one of the all-time best selling authors of children’s books. When my children were small, I read The Tale of Peter Rabbit to them so many times that I’ve memorized it.

One line in the movie caught my interest, though. When the publishing company was first discussing her book, Beatrix had definite opinions on how it should be published: black and white illustrations so that the price could be kept low. However, the publisher had another idea on how to keep the price low. If the book’s interior pages could all be printed on a single sheet of paper, it would be economical and the price could be kept at an attractive low price.

That decision–to design the book for an economical printing model–was genius and partly responsible for its huge popularity. That model is so popular that today, children’s picture books that are offset printed are still designed for printing the whole book on one sheet of paper. That means 32-pages.

Standard offset printing places a children’s 32-page picture book on a single sheet. 32 page books are the standard in the industry, not because it’s the best length for a story, but because the printing was economical.

However, because that length became a standard, there’s now, more or less, a standard type story told in children’s picture books.

RedCover250x400-72If you have a title page, half-title page, copyright page and dedication page, that takes up 3-5 pages of “front matter,” leaving 27-29 pages for the story itself. Stories usually start on page 5 (though it could be page 3 or 4). Then illustrations are laid out in double-page spreads. That gives you about 14 double-page spreads (give or take). When I write a children’s picture book, I divide my story into 14 sections. Each section must 1) advance the story, 2) make the reader want to turn the page, and 3) give visual possibilities to the illustrator. For more on writing a children’s book, see How to Write a Children’s Picture Book.

Many conventions have grown up around the 32-page picture book: the page 32 twist, the character opening, the use of double-page spreads, and so on. All that is good. Writers and illustrators took the restricted format and made it into a thing of beauty.

Print on Demand and eBooks: How Many Pages in a Children’s Book?

But the question for today is this: what is the most economical way to produce a children’s illustrated story today? That answer varies because of print-on-demand and eBook technologies.

Print-on-demand (POD) means that your book is stored on a printing company’s computers. When a book is ordered, the book is printed, bound and delivered. This eliminates the need for warehousing, and has the advantage of bundling the fulfillment (mailing the book) with the printing. Instead of buying 1000 copies of a book, publishers/authors/self-publishers can set up a book with a POD company with very little up-front investment. It’s perfect for the self-publisher or small publisher who don’t want to invest a lot in stock.

However, POD’s biggest disadvantage is price. Because you print one book at a time, the until cost is often two or three times that of offset printing. This is usually fine, because selling online eliminates the extra cost of wholesaling to a bookstore.

POD also means that the 32-page picture book is no longer mandatory! For example, Createspace.com requires a minimum of 24-pages, but after that you can add as many or as few pages as you like. 26 pages? That’s fine for a POD printer.

Likewise, digital books can be any length you want. 2 pages? Well, most of us wouldn’t all that a BOOK! But if can make the case for it, it is possible.

The 32-page illustrated picture book made sense for years because the offset printing presses could accommodate huge sheets of paper that would hold 32 pages EXACTLY. The process made sense economically.

The options are open.
Offset printing: Much lower unit cost are possible if you stick to the 32-page standard book.

POD printing: You accept higher per-unit costs because you don’t have to warehouse. The length is up to you.

eBook: You accept that this is only delivered and read digitally. Page length is variable.

I still design my books for 32-pages because I do both print and eBooks and because I’ve learned to write to that length. But also, it leave me open to short-run offset printing for special orders where it makes sense to go for a smaller per unit cost. By sticking with the industry standards, I have even more options.

Picture Books by Darcy Pattison

Here are some of my picture books.

2015 NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book.

2015 NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book.

The story of the oldest known wild bird in the world.

The story of the oldest known wild bird in the world.

Coming February 17

9781629440323-Case.indd

9781629440118-ColorPF-alt.indd

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17. Top 10 Blogs for Writers 2015


MERRY CHRISTMAS!

PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. It's a great Christmas present to yourself or a writer friend! Full info here.
COMMENTS FROM THE 2014 WORKSHOP:
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY


Thank you!
Your support for the last year has meant so much. And because of your nominations, Fiction Notes has been named one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers 2015!

WritetoDone.com has named the 2015 Top 10 Blogs for Writers.

WritetoDone.com has named the 2015 Top 10 Blogs for Writers.

The other blogs named to this honor are amazing! Click on the image to check out the full list.

This blog succeeds only because of readers like you! If you’d like to see a special topic covered this year, please leave a comment and we’ll try to research answers and write a post for you.

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18. Lessons from a Master: Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton


MERRY CHRISTMAS!

PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. It's a great Christmas present to yourself or a writer friend! Full info here.
COMMENTS FROM THE 2014 WORKSHOP:
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY


Opening a novel in an interesting way is crucial. I often see stories-in-progress with weak openings. This week, I happened to pick up a copy of the classic Jurassic Park, and I was stopped on the first page with the economy of language. In two brief paragraphs, Crichton sets a scene, introduces a character, puts us into the character’s life, and places us in a Costa Rica fishing village. He accomplishes so much in a brief passage. Let’s look at it to see if it gives us tips on starting our own stories.

Opening of Jurassic Park

The tropical rain fell in drenching sheets, hammering the corrugated roof of the clinic building, roaring down the metal gutters, splashing on the ground in a torrent. Roberta Carter sighed, and stared out the window. From the clinic, she could hardly see the beach or the ocean beyond, cloaked in low fog. This wasn’t what she had expected when she had come to the fishing village of Bahia Anasco, on the west side of Costa Rica, to spend two months as a visiting physician. Bobbie Carter had expected sun and relaxation, after two grueling years of residency in emergency medicine at Micheal Reese in Chicago.
She had been at Bahia Anasco for three weeks. And it had rained every day.
(First two paragraphs of Jurassic Park, Prologue, by Michael Crichton.)

Jurassicpark
Weak openings leave me confused, wondering where I am and what is going on. Crichton starts with a specific setting. The second word is “tropical,” which narrows down the location on the globe, while also explaining the type of rain. A “corrugated” roof probably indicates a lower income area where cheaper materials are used for construction.

Notice the great verbs which animate that first sentence: fell, hammering, roaring, splashing. And it ends with a strong descriptive word: torrent. This is masterful selection of language. After one sentence, I know approximately where I am and what is happening.

Next, Crichton focuses on the point-of-view character for this section. Because it’s a prologue, this character won’t be important in the story proper, but he takes the time to give us some of her background, which implies much about her state-of-mind.

She is an ER doctor, just finishing her residency in Chicago, and she thought this trip to Costa Rica would be a vacation. Notice that she’s an ER doc. The old sayings is that you should never put a gun in Chapter 1, if you don’t intend for it to go off sometime. Crichton put an ER doctor in the first paragraph because someone soon would require emergency medical attention. We know Roberta/Bobbie (Notice how he named her fully, then gave us a more casual nickname) is skilled in medicine, but she’s also tired and disappointed with this location.

As far as setting a mood, the torrential storm sets up the possibility of something happening. We’d expect that a “torrent” would bring other problems with it.

Finally, Crichton actually names the locale: Bahia Anasco on the western coast of Coast Rica.

Setting, mood, characterization, anticipation–Crichton sets up so much in just two short paragraphs!

Applying Crichton’s Lessons to Your Story

Setting. Readers need to be oriented immediately to the location of your story. While you describe the setting, use language to create a distinctive mood and set up anticipation. Don’t be afraid to name a location directly.

Mood. Choose language that sets up a distinctive mood. The torrential rain is described with evocative verbs and language. Strong, forceful, a force of nature–you expect something to happen, and soon.

Characterization. It’s important to know something about the character. Crichton gives us a name, place of origin (Chicago hospital), and something of her inner life. Bobbie is a strong-willed woman or she wouldn’t be an ER doctor; but she’s tired because of the “grueling” residency. Bone-weary, maybe. The impending emergency that will require her skills will challenge her, not because she’s not capable, but because she’s so tired. That’s great characterization for one paragraph!

Anticipation. How can you not turn the page? Crichton has set up an interesting enough scenario, and populated it with an interesting character that I’m hooked. I would read on! Wouldn’t you?

Avoid weak openings! Study Jurassic Park for hints on how to take your story’s opening to a new level.

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19. Merry Christmas from Gillett


MERRY CHRISTMAS!

PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. It's a great Christmas present to yourself or a writer friend! Full info here.
COMMENTS FROM THE 2014 WORKSHOP:
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY


GiletteCard001


I visited Gilett Elementary School last month and look at the great Christmas card the kids just sent me! What a thrill to get a card like this! Merry Christmas!

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20. Christmas Eavesdropping


MERRY CHRISTMAS!

PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. It's a great Christmas present to yourself or a writer friend! Full info here.
COMMENTS FROM THE 2014 WORKSHOP:
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY


Notes from the Field

During the holidays, it’s hard to concentrate on a story. But it’s not hard to BE a writer. As you go to gatherings of friends and families, one thing you can do is EAVESDROP!

In your story, you want dialogue to sound natural. One way to study dialogue is to just listen and record. At holiday gatherings, you may hear undercurrents of sibling rivalry, jealousy, reconciliation, or love. Usually, these things aren’t said on the surface, so much as in the subtext, or what is understood beneath the surface.

Try this: Take a pad of paper and a pencil/pen with you. Sit off to a side or in a corner, and furiously write everything you hear said in a specific conversation for ten minutes. Later when there’s time, look it over and see what you’ve learned about dialogue. OR, if your family is generous and agrees, find an app to record an hour of conversation! Thanks, fam!

So, here are my notes from the field for a couple hours, recording exactly what I said–just my side of a conversation. Notice how MUCH you can tell about the events and what others are saying just by the snippets of dialogue. (Names and phone numbers XXX-out to protect the innocent.)

Getting daughter out of bed

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dani_vazquez/10479425133

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dani_vazquez/10479425133



I don’t have time to be gentle.
That helps.
No, you can’t consistently count on it. It’s not your car.

Before and During Breakfast

He’s not up yet.

I’ve been in there once or twice.

I need to eat.
I’ve messed around too long.
Could you clean up the kitchen, do the things you haven/t done in two days.
Where? What?
It would be easier with a comb.
Too late now.
We gotta remember to take the trash out.
Nothing.
Oh, man!
Mine.
Both of you stop.
It’s not just her. It’s you, too.
Stop! XXX, don’t take that in your room, please!
Ok.
No. No. It’s a mess.
Whose spoon is this?
Just ‘sec.
Tell MMM she has e-mail.
Five?
What is it, oh, a Pokemon?
ZZZ, work on that kitchen now.
It used to be a road.
What?
Wow. How much?
$15 isn?t bad at all. Who’s sponsoring it?
Cool. It’s not bad.
I’m gonna shower.
I’m gonna shower.
Fix–transmission?
Huh? I’m totally lost.
Oh, OK.
OH, well.
Gimme kiss.
Yes. To school?
No. Gimme kiss.
Lots more than that. I’ll be in the library today. At noon. XXX has to stay ?’til 4. So we?ll just stay.
You might as well read.
Good.
Yep.
Have a good day.

Taking truck to shop

Last night, we lost 3rd and 4th gears. You can put it in gear but you have to hold the stick. 1st, 2nd & 5th are OK.
OK.
Oh, and he said to change the oil and a nut on the valve cover is missing.
Pattison. I-s-o-n. Not e-r.
We also have a Sienna van so we should be in the computer.
Let me give you his number. XXX-XXXX.
OK.
A second number XXX-XXXX. But I’ll be gone a lot, so try him first.
And give us an estimate. Just give us an idea of how long would help.
He’s coming to get me, so I?ll just go in the waiting room.
Don’t change the oil first. Let us know how much on the transmission first.
Is that all you need?

Driving to work with DH

She said she’d call you with an estimate. It’ll probably take over night.
Where’s my glasses?
My headache is coming back.
No, on the other side.
Yep.
Yeah.
Uh huh.
Uh huh.
So, which do you like?
What is all that?
Huh?
Yep. That’s the one you said I could have? I could put it on my business cards?
That’s weird.
Strange. I gotta call XXXXXX. About YYY.
Where’s the check book? I need one for this doctor’s visit.
Bad time for a vacation with all the other guys messed up.
Wow. Must be nice.
Yeah. He’s the best marketer.
Which one?
That’s good.
By who?
I should be able to make it to the doctor by nine. I was hoping I could go be the house and eat, though. I need to go by and see XXX and then–I need to buy crickets. (Note: to feed the lizards.) And I?ll bring you the car just before 12.
Okay. I know.
Helicopter.
Where?
Yeah.
Kinda misty on the river today.

Yeah, I know.
It was weird yesterday.
Yeah. Like what?
I haven’t heard of him.
What are they building over there?
Boy, that looks terrible. It’s big. Well–it’s just big. Wow. That’s amazing.
I have my keys. I need a check.
Was it on the table?
That’s right. Love you.

Saying Hi to Neighbor

Good morning.
Pretty good.
Already in a rush.

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21. When are 420 One-Star Book Reviews NOT a Bad Thing?


MERRY CHRISTMAS!

PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. It's a great Christmas present to yourself or a writer friend! Full info here.
COMMENTS FROM THE 2014 WORKSHOP:
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY


As I’ve watched the growth of children’s independent publishing this year, it’s clear that there’s a major problem: an inflated number of reviews.

In the independent world, a review on Amazon, GoodReads, LibraryThing, etc. is gold. Many of the publicity possibilities open to self-published folks depend on gaining a certain number of reviews on your book.

The biggest and most influential promotion service, Bookbub.com, is a subscription service that sends email to millions of readers about eBook specials. After its launch in 2012, it grew rapidly, found big investors last year and now commands a huge audience. Originally supported by independent authors and publishers, it currently reserves 25-50% of its ads for traditional publishers. In the independent world, it’s considered crucial to your book’s success to “get a Bookbub.” During the days your book is listed at FREE or reduced rates of $0.99 or $1.99, the book may download thousands of copies.

One local friend said his first Bookbub, he had 12,000 downloads of his free title. He’s typical of many indie authors because he has a series of books. Of the 12,000 who downloaded Book 1 for free, a couple thousand bought Book 2, 3 and 4. The sales of the other books in the series paid for the BookBub ad, and left him capital to do another book in the series.

A year ago, you wouldn’t be considered for a Bookbub with fewer than 25 reviews on your title. These day, I’ve heard more like 75-100 reviews are needed. When you apply for a BookBub ad, you’re told that they accept less than 20% of the applications.

What’s an author to do? Reviews on Amazon are GOLD! Reviews on Amazon might get you a BookBub Ad–which might get you thousands and thousands of downloads. Which might mean you have a chance of selling other books.

Yes, reviews on Amazon are GOLD! When an author asks you to review a book on Amazon, it’s crucial.

Social Proof. Reviews on online stores is considered proof that others like a certain product, or social proof. Even negative reviews are good because they are proof that the product hasn’t received reviews from only friends and family.

Comparison of Reviews of Two Books

I am going to compare the reviews of two books in a neutral manner. That is, I’ll set aside my personal evaluations of the quality of the titles. One is a hugely popular, free, independent title, while the other is the winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Young People Literature. From that alone, you might suspect that one is better than the other, and on that, I’ll make no statement because it’s not the point here. You may also suspect that the NBA Award winner would have far and away more reviews. Wrong.

LilyLemonblossombrowngirldreaming


This may not be the fairest comparison: picture books and novels may not receive the same amount of reviews. It’s just that these two books came to my attention at about the same time and I was struck by the difference in the number and quality of the reviews for each book.

Comparison of books: picture book v. novel; self-published v. traditionally published; ebook only v. available in many formats.

Comparison of the Amazon Reviews

As of today, Lily Lemon Blossom’s Welcome, by Barbara Miller has 3569 reviews with an average rating of 4.0 out of 5.0 stars.
5 Stars: 1932
4 Stars: 627
3 Stars: 389
2 Stars: 201
1 Stars: 420

As of today, Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson has 50 reviews with an average rating of 4. 8 out of 5.0.
5 Stars: 42
4 Stars: 7
3 Stars: 0
2 Stars: 0
1 Stars: 1

How is it that an eBook-only picture-book has 3569 reviews? It’s easy, if she’s done multiple Bookbub ads. With 12,000 people downloading a typical FREE eBook advertised in Bookbub, a clever author puts prominent links asking for reviews at the back of the ebook. The ASK is important because it tells people of the need for reviews. Again, it’s one of the popular techniques of today’s independent author, a method that successfully gets multiple reviews on books.

Or is it that easy? In the face of such overwhelming numbers, it’s easy to be suspicious that the reviews are inflated somehow. No one can provide evidence to prove or disprove it–yet the suspicions remain. It’s certainly possible for all those reviews to be bonafide, given the surprising power of a Bookbub. Are book reviews artificially inflated somehow just for the possibilities of promotions like BookBub? Or does BookBub allow for for the inflated number of reviews?

Does it mean that one or the other sells better or makes more money? There’s no way to know unless the authors were to speak out on their incomes. It’s easy to say that both are selling well and making money.

Is this just the difference in a “popular” book and a “literary” book? Possibly. Do popular books may get more discussion surrounding them than literary books? Or do authors of popular books just emphasize reviews more than authors of literary books?

When is 420 One-Star Reviews NOT a Bad Thing?

When it is countered by 1932 5-star reviews?

The thing about reviews is that people tend to artificially inflate their opinion of a book. Many people will say, “I don’t like to trash a book. I only want to give good reviews.” It may actually be a good thing that 420 people felt honest enough to give Lily Lemon Blossom a very bad review.

In the end, the 420 matter less than the total of 3569 overall reviews. The fact that so many chose to leave ANY kind of review helps sell the book and the rest of the books in its series. It’s a book that many people are talking about, so there must be something to it, right? People download the free introductory book to find out what the discussion is about.

Get Thee a Goodly Number of Reviews!

In the midst of all of this, I am an a hybrid author who would love to see 3569 reviews on my traditionally and independently published books. Don’t you want overwhelming reviews on YOUR book?

But it’s daunting. To get that many reviews, I need a Bookbub; to get a BookBub, I need 75-100 reviews minimum and then a lot so luck; the Bookbub might then be a springboard to even more views and possibly a best-seller! But it’s a Catch-22. How do you get the 100 reviews in the first place, so that you can get the Bookbub to get lots of reviews and sales?

Online reviews as social proof may have been a good idea five years ago, but today, I wonder about their usefulness. But the other conclusion you must draw is that Bookbub.com has become a player in the book world in a huge way: if a BookBub ad has the power to make or break the career of an Indie author, it’s an interesting world indeed. Will it soon make or break the career of ANY writer? Already, indie authors who built up BookBub are muscled out by slots reserved for the better-paying traditional publishers; will it ever become limited to ONLY traditional published books?

The case of the inflated number of book reviews says much about the current state of the industry.

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22. Please Nominate Fiction Notes!


MERRY CHRISTMAS!

PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. It's a great Christmas present to yourself or a writer friend! Full info here.
COMMENTS FROM THE 2014 WORKSHOP:
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY


The Write to Done blog has opened nominations for its 9th annual writing blog recognition. Readers, you were kind enough to nominate Fiction Notes and it was named a 2013 Top 10 Blog for Writers.

Fiction Notes is named a Top Writing Blog of 2013

Fiction Notes is named a Top Writing Blog of 2013

Please nominate Fiction Notes for the 2014 award!

Blogging has its own rewards, of course, but last year’s recognition for this blog, has kept me motivated to provide you with another year of posts. Thanks for the nomination last year. And thanks for all your friendships!

Deadline for nomination is December 24, 2014.

Here’s the guidelines:
To Nominate your favorite writing blog, you need to do 3 things in the comments section of this post:

1. Nominate only one writing blog. If you nominate many blogs, even in different comments, only your first vote will be counted.

2. Specify the correct web address of the blog you’ve nominated. (Fiction Notes at darcypattison.com)

3. Give reasons why you believe the blog you’ve nominated should win this year’s award.

Thanks so much! My motto is always, “I believe in YOUR story.”
I hope you also believe in Fiction Notes.


Darcy

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23. Wisdom: Oldest Bird in World to Hatch New Chick


MERRY CHRISTMAS!

PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. It's a great Christmas present to yourself or a writer friend! Full info here.
COMMENTS FROM THE 2014 WORKSHOP:
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY


Photo by Greg Joder, USFWS. https://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwspacific/15853842138/in/photostream/.

Photo by Greg Joder, USFWS. https://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwspacific/15853842138/in/photostream/.

On December 10, 1956, ornithologist Chandler Robbins banded about 20 Laysan albatrosses on Midway Atoll. Today, one of those is considered the oldest known wild birds in the world. Presumed to be at least five years old, the minimum breeding age, Wisdom is now over 63 years old. She has incredibly survived yet another year in the wild and has returned to Midway Atoll to raise a new chick.

It’s known that sometimes Laysan albatrosses will take a year off of brooding, so the best guess is that Wisdom has a minimum of 35 chicks. But she’s continuously nested since 2008 without a year off, so it may be many more.

You can follow this unfolding story at the USFWS service Tumbler site.

Read about her exciting brush with death in this award winning children’s book.

Publisher's Weekly Starred Review.

PW Starred Review.



Buy Mims House Publisher site
Buy Hardcover Buy Kobo Buy Kindle
Buy Paperback Buy iBook Buy Nook
Available on Follett, MackinVIA, and other education distributors

Praise for the Book

“It’s marvelous! I LOVE it! And I got a lump in my throat, tears! And I’m a biologist! Your book is beautiful, meaningful, simple, elegant………thank you for caring, thank you for sharing this story!”
Kim Rivera, National Seabird Coordinator, NOAA Fisheries, Deputy ARA, Protected Resources Division, Alaska Region

“Wisdom’s story makes my heart soar.”
Kirby Larson, author of Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival and Winner of the Newbery Honor for Hattie Big Sky.

“On December 10, 1956, early in my first visit to Midway, I banded 99 incubating Laysan Albatrosses in the ‘downtown’ area of Sand Island, Midway. Wisdom (band number 587-51945) is still alive, healthy, and incubating again in December 2011. While I have grown old and gray and get around only with the use of a cane, Wisdom still looks and acts just the same as on the day I banded her. . . remarkable true story. . . beautifully illustrated in color.”
Chandler S. Robbins, Sc.D, Senior Scientist (Retired), USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD.

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24. FOLLOW Darcy Pattison on Amazon


MERRY CHRISTMAS!

PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. It's a great Christmas present to yourself or a writer friend! Full info here.
COMMENTS FROM THE 2014 WORKSHOP:
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY


Did you know that Amazon.com now has FOLLOW buttons for authors?

Amazon now allows customers to FOLLOW authors.

Amazon now allows customers to FOLLOW authors.

Indie authors have been lobbying for a SUBSCRIBE button on Amazon, which would allow a customer to essentially authorize a purchase of any new book from a particular author. That’s probably going too far for Amazon!

It works well for services like Patreon.com, which allow people to authorize a certain payment, say $1.00, every time a musician uploads a new video. This type of patronage is an interesting new business model that is as old as the arts, but is new in being codified online. Authors are using it to fund podcasts, short stories and other writing. It’s only limited by the author’s imagination and the fan’s ability/desire to help the author achieve certain goals which remaining financially stable.

Amazon’s FOLLOW button won’t go as far as a SUBSCRIBE, but it certainly gives authors incentive to develop their fans and audience on Amazon. Right now, I might boast about 1355 Pinterest followers, 469 Facebook Fan Page followers, 1205 Twitter followers, and a readership on this blog of over 350,000+. But none of those are directly tied to selling your book. 1000 Amazon Author followers, though, would mean that 1000 people are emailed whenever you have a new book come out. Amazon has done a great job of giving authors access to their book listings through AuthorCentral. Allowing fans to Follow an author on Amazon is a new and very interesting twist. So far, I haven’t seen any counts, so I don’t know if the number of your Followers will be shown publicly. Have you see that yet?

Will Amazon’s FOLLOW button replace an author’s mailing list?

It shouldn’t replace your efforts to build your mailing list. The main difference is the question of who owns the list. Using the Amazon FOLLOW button, Amazon will own the list of names and will use it according to their policies–and whims. If you build a mailing list–people who give you permission to contact them–then YOU own the list and can use it according to your policies–and whims.

So, I have to ask! Please FOLLOW Darcy Pattison on Amazon.

And I have to ask: Please sign up for my newsletter, which emails new posts as they are posted. You’ll also receive occasional other messages about new books, events, etc.

Get FICTION NOTES updates by email and receive a free eBook: AFTER THE FIRST DRAFT

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25. 18 Months of Indie Publishing


MERRY CHRISTMAS!

PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. It's a great Christmas present to yourself or a writer friend! Full info here.
COMMENTS FROM THE 2014 WORKSHOP:
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY


About eighteen months ago, my writing career pivoted: I decided to commit to self-publishing my work. I’ve not talked about it much because I’ve been so busy being an author and publisher, but I’m going to take time to reflect on the experience and look toward the future.

WHY INDIE PUBLISH?

There are many reasons why I decided to go this direction but in the end, it’s a question of creativity. For many years, I’ve felt hobbled by the traditional publishing world because I can and do write a lot. Independent publishing offered me a chance to write and publish many titles in a short time period. It’s also offered me the possibility of creating a steady monthly income.

Setting Up an Indie Publishing Company

When I committed to funneling all of my work though my own publishing company, I had to make business choices.

What type of company? Self-proprietorship, C or S Corporation. Name of company?
Buy a domain, set up a website, open a business bank account, get a local business license, get a sales tax ID, etc. Don’t discount the business side of indie publishing; but don’t fear it, either. There’s lots of help for these business decisions. In the end, I set up MimsHouse.com — go take a look; I’m excited about this opportunity.

Then, to work! The first eighteen months have been about three things: production, distribution and accounting. I’m assuming that writing is always happening in the background, for it is, in fact, the foundation of everything else.

Accounting. I’m using QuickBooks and this is the hardest thing I do. I just keep plugging away at learning good business accounting and long for the day when I can afford an accountant.

Production. The first question to answer is formats. I decided to try every format possible: paperback, hardcover, eBooks. That sounds easy enough. Ha! It’s complicated. After 18 months, here’s my current configuration.

  1. Createspace.com paperback in two versions. One version is with my own ISBN and is for general distribution; a second version is with a Createspace ISBN and I only enable it for distribution to Baker and Taylor.
  2. LightningSource.com (NOT Lightning Spark which is the only section of the company currently open to newcomvers). I currently do paperback and hardcover books here.
  3. eBooks. OK, this is where it gets tricky because each platform wants a version for their proprietary platforms. Currently, you’ll find my ebooks on Kindle, iBook, Nook, Kobo and various educational publisher’s platforms.

File production for the print and ebooks varies depending on the type of book. Also, technology changes every six months or so, which means that each time I come back to produce files, I have to reevaluate previous production methods to see if they are still the best, are compatible with the current ebook and print standards, and are the most cost-effective.

  1. Novels that are mostly text-based or short chapter books with b/w drawings. I create the book in MSWord, making sure to be very strict on the style sheets. Word exports to print quality Adobe pdfs for printing on paper. I use Jutoh to convert these to ebooks.
  2. Color picture books are laid out in Adobe InDesign, which a access via a $20/month subscription; the October, 2014 update to InDesign has made export to ebooks simple. I mean VERY simple. I tried the mid-year release of Kindle Kid’s Book Creator program and found it easy to use; however, there are two main problems with it. First, it only creates the .mobi files for Kindle, and I still had to create epub files for other distributors; second, it creates a bloated file which means you have huge download costs from Kindle. At 70% royalty, they charge the publisher $0.15/MB download fee, which amounts to a “printing cost.” A file created with the Kindle Kid’s Book Creator program is easily 6-8 MB, or $0.90-$1.20 per download. You have two choices: charge a lot for the book or drop to the 35% royalty which doesn’t charge a download delivery fee.

    Examples:
    $2.99 at 70% payment, 8MB file
    $2.99 x 70% = $2.093 – $1.20 delivery fee = $0.893/book
    $2.99 at 35% payment
    $2.99 x 35% = $1.0465/book (NO delivery fees at this rate)

    InDesign, on the other hand, takes the same book and creates files of 3-4MB.
    $2.99 at 70%, 4MB file
    $2.99 x 70% = $2.093 – $0.60 delivery fee = $1.493/book

    My choices, then are to profit $0.89, $1.05, or $1.49 for each eBook priced at $2.99.

    InDesign’s smaller file sizes mean money in my pocket, AND flexibility in what I charge. I could drop prices to $1.99 for a sale and still make a profit of $0.79/book; it’s my choice.

Math. It runs the business and it affects production methods!

Illustrations. Another problem of production has been obtaining illustrations for my color picture books. Fortunately, the first couple books were done in a joint business arrangement with Kitty Harvill. Since then, I’ve had to find funds to pay illustrators. Behance.net has been a great place to find new illustrators. That is Adobe’s social media site for artists, where they post their portfolios. Ewa O’Neill’s debut books will be out in February; and Rich Davis, a local longtime friend and amazing illustrator, struck a deal for b/w line drawings for my short chapter series. So, I drew from friendships and from an artist’s social media site to find quality, exciting art. This has been one of the most creative and fun parts of the process, to work with some great talents to produce amazing books. I’ve learned a lot about being an art director and working with artists—it’s just fun.

GGG-ACXCover250x250


AudioBooks. Amazon’s ACX program is in its infancy, but it offers authors an entre into the audiobook world. By hooking you up with a group of narrators who will audition for your book, you have control of the process and can end up with some exiting audio books. It’s hard to say which is my favorites: I love the actress Paula Bodin’s reading of my novel, The Girl, the Gypsy, and the Gargoyle; she truly brings the story to life. Monica Clark-Robinson brings her acting skills to the production of Saucy and Bubba, which is especially exciting because she’s a local actress and author. Josiah Bildner knows how to crack a joke! His narration of the Aliens Inc, Series, Book 1: Kell, the Alien shows his genius in timing of comedy.

Distribution. The third piece of the puzzle for the last eighteen months has been distribution. This means I’ve had to think hard about where my books might sell. Who is my customer? Where does that customer already buy books? What price points do they want/need/like?

Because I mostly write children’s novels and picture books, eBooks haven’t been as big a factor (though, I think that is changing in interesting ways). My customers are parents, teachers, and school librarians. Teachers and school librarians buy from education distributors, rather than from the trade markets. They can and they do buy from Amazon, B&N and other online places, of course. But the bulk of their budget is spent at places that cater to their needs.

I’ve picked up distribution from Follett School Solutions, Mackin, Permabound, and Child’s Plus. The first three also have emerging eBook platforms which I think will become increasingly important. It means more production work because they want yet another format! It’s just a different type of pdf to export, but it means another step.

Pricing. Also, this sales channel brings some challenges in pricing. 1-to-1 pricing means a school building buys one ebook and has the rights to put it on one device only. 1-to-many pricing means a school building buy one book and has the right to put it on an unlimited number of devices.

Naturally, educators prefer the 1-to-many pricing structure; but this is so new that there’s no best-practices standards on how much extra to charge. You don’t want to leave money on the table; however, you want the pricing to be attractive.

I’m told that some publishers are asking 2x, 5x or even 15x the 1-to-1 price. But no one really knows what price structure will work. For a Newbery Award winning book, you could likely charge 20x—which in effect gives a full class set to a school building—and educators will gladly pay it. In other words, the popularity of a title, the likelihood of its use as a class set, and factors such as this should determine the 1-to-many pricing.

Also interesting is that the school pricing tends to stay at or near the suggested retail pricing, with few discounts. Translation: you’ll make more per book.

The first eighteen months have been busy. I’ve learned to pace the writing with production and marketing efforts. I’ve set up production protocols that allow me to be efficient in putting the books into multiple markets. And I’ve picked up distribution from education publishers, while also making sure I cover the digital and print distribution channels.

2015 NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book.

2015 NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book.



Marketing. Because I come from the traditionally published world, I also decided early on that I would submit books for awards. That meant Mims House joined the Children’s Book Council, which gave me access to a variety of programs. In November, 2014, I learned that my nonfiction picture book, Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma: The True Story of an Orphaned Cub was named a 2015 NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book.

I was ready. I already had the book in distribution to all major channels, including education distributors. Immediately, I sent press releases to those channels—and sales have picked up. I expect that early next year will bring even more sales for this award-winning book.

Someone once said that marketing means you produce demand for your books. You do that first and foremost by writing and publishing a great book. After that, you have to break through the noise and get noticed; and then you need to keep the book in the foremost of your customer’s mind for as long as possible.

Marketing is what I’ll focus on for the next year. I’m trying everything from online ads to awards programs to social media blasts. Ask me at the end of 2015 what I’ve learned about marketing.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED IN THE LAST 18 MONTHS

  1. Indie publishing is refreshingly creative. It’s not about control for me, though, I hear that sentiment often. Instead, it’s about creativity. It’s opened creative channels for me in the production of the books; and it will continue to challenge my creativity in marketing. Both of those have challenged the foundation of selecting stories to write: I now start out with a stronger consideration of audience. I like how the creativity builds as I engage in more aspects of the book production, distribution and marketing. Working with creative artists and audio narrators is inspirational, too.
  2. Patience is crucial. I went into this with a long-term perspective. As an indie publisher, I am a small business owner. In the U.S., most small businesses fail in the first year; most don’t make a profit until their fifth year. From day one, I had books in distribution so I’ve made money. I sold a website domain for a nice profit and that added to my reserves. Financially, the cost to enter this business is extremely low, and it’s been easy to build up the income levels.

    Still, patience is crucial because as an indie publisher I can’t afford the book launch splash; instead, I must rely on a slow growth of a title as word-of-mouth grows. You hear stories of fantastic sales of ebooks—but that’s rarer for children’s books. It’s just a different market, and I constantly remind myself that I am building for a future so I don’t need to be impatient.

  3. Try everything. Test everything. This year, I’ve said YES to everything I could. I’m testing to see where and how I can reach an audience that likes and will buy my work. I’ve done Facebook ads, GoogleAdwords, displayed at various local and regional events, set up a sales channel on my own website, and much more. I don’t have lots of capital, so I’m careful in choosing where to put effort; but my attitude is to try something new if at all possible. Take risks.
  4. Write. Through all of this, the writing remains. It’s the foundation for everything else.

CHALLENGES AND PREDICTIONS FOR 2015: Indie Books for Children

  1. Pay attention to the education market. The education market for ebooks is poised to explode; I hear of more and more schools going 1-1, or one ipad/tablet for each child. I think the education distributors such as Follett, MackinVIA, and Permabound are going to be players, but also look for the sleeping giant, Apple, to come on strong. Since the iOS8 update this fall included iBooks as a native app, I’m moving many more books on Apple than on Kindle. It’s going to be a wild ride as companies jockey for position and as the pricing structures shake out. I’m working hard to put more books on the iBook platform; see my author page on iBooks.
  2. Hard work. Indie publishing will continue to expand, but I think the boom of 2008-2014 has played out. Now, you’ll have to dig in and work harder to get noticed. It’s only limited by your imagination, your work ethic and a bit of luck. And beware of rip-offs who promise to make your book a best seller!
  3. Change is inevitable; be ready to adapt or pivot. 2014 saw a rise in the subscription model of selling books and a host of startups that touted one way or another of promoting, marketing and selling books. Inevitably, most of these will fail; but no one knows which will fail and which will succeed. You’ll have to pay attention to the unfolding events and take advantage of sales opportunities as they arise.
  4. Global media company. One interesting idea is to consider myself a global media company. This year, I did an online video course of 30 Days to a Stronger Novel to accompany a book’s launch. And illustrator Kitty Harvill, who lives in Brazil half the year, is working on a Portuguese translation of Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma. (If it goes through that will be my 9th language! English, Spanish, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Arabic, German and Taiwanese Chinese.) Will the digital world allow for an expansion into other media and a global market? Of course. It’s a question of how to approach it. It’s one area I’ll be paying attention to in 2015, whether or not I actually make direct moves on either front. I’ll be reading anything possible about the expanding German market, and perhaps experiment (Try anything!) with more video or audio.
  5. One key to success: own your own audience. You’ll see less emphasis on social media activity such as growing a Facebook Fan page. As the major social media companies work to expand income, they continually change the rules. In essence, they own your audience, not you. Instead, smart authors will build their own mailing lists of loyal fans who want to hear about new releases. Get the Fiction Notes newsletter and the MimsHouse newsletter here.

In the end, all of us in publishing are asking one question: How can I put more of my books into the hands of the right audience in the most profitable manner? We’re answering that in a myriad of ways. How do you answer that question?

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