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I have a problem in my WIP novel, which is just in the outline stage. There’s a specific illness going around and to SHOW, DON’T TELL that the illness is really bad, an important character must become sick.
But then, I have this sick character, Em. And she’s, well, sick.
She’s become a Damsel-in-Distress, who has no active part in the story. She’s a weak love interest, whose only role is to be sick and provide motivation for the main character.
It’s a good motivator. Jake, my main character, really cares for Em, and he’ll do almost anything to find a cure. From that side of things, it’s working. But Em is still just a sick—and-convenient—character.
I’ve given Em some other character problems. She’s adopted and is looking for information on her birth parents. They’ll come into the story and the intersection of these characters will give Em some rosy cheeks of health. Her subplot will be one of discovering who she really is.
But the excitement doesn’t last long enough for her. She has a crisis in her health, which is necessary to get Jake moving. Again, Em becomes a sick, convenient, unappealing and placid character. How do I provide some sort of action around a sickly character?
There are precedents for sick or sickly characters.
Angelic character and how the illness and/or death affect the main characters. In Little Women, Beth dies from scarlet fever. While her health wastes away, she is active, though, knitting and sewing clothes for neighborhood children. Her death is a major impact on Jo’s life, the main character. By giving her selfless acts to perform, it elevates Beth. She’s angelic in everything, never complaining and dying without a lot of fuss. By elevating Beth’s moral character, we understand why her life was important.
Imaginary life. In Paul Fleischman’s Mind’s Eye, a paralyzed girl leaves the real world behind in an imaginary trip across 1910 Italy. Here, Courtney comes alive in her imagination. She and her nursing home roommate, 88 year old Elva, use a 1910 Baedeker guide to catch trains, to travel and to live. It reminds me of a Star Trek episode about Captain Pike, the original captain of the Enterprise, who is injured and in a wheelchair. There’s a forbidden planet, and we find out that it’s forbidden because the inhabitants live a virtual life. On that planet, however, Pike can live a happy and full virtual life, walking and climbing wherever he wants. Like Courtney, Captain Pike chooses the illusion of life over the reality of his paralysis.
Give the sick character an amazing POV voice. John Green’s character in The Fault in Our Stars is suffering from cancer, and indeed, the whole story is about living with a death sentence in your lungs. The narration is from her POV and it’s a distinctive voice.
Entwine the emotions. In My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult poses an interesting dilemma. A younger sister is conceived for the specific purpose of donating an organ to her sickly older sister. The sisters, though, are both active to an extent and the real success here is how the emotional lives are entwined, just as their fates are interwoven.
Writing Sickly Characters
Here are some take-aways for my own writing.
Sick, but not incoherent. A character can be physically challenged or sick, but there must be lucid moments where the character’s life and personality emerge. Em can be very sick, but the illness must ebb and flow. And develop her personality, hopes, dreams, fears, anxieties, dreams, etc. as possible.
No griping. Okay. Em feels lousy. But no one wants to read about a character who complains her way through the actual horrors of the human form when it’s sick. No explicity descriptions of throwing up, other bodily fluids, etc., at least in MY stories. Instead, the sickly person rises above those things and we see her character, not her illness.
Emotional impact. Sick or not, people are invested deeply in Em’s life. They want to be with her and they care about her thoughts, emotions, reactions, etc. Perhaps, she must be even more entwined than usual in the main character’s life.
Action when possible. When she’s feeling good, I’ll give Em as much action as possible. I’ll look for both major and minor actions. Maybe stealing a cell phone and making a forbidden phone call is enough of a physical challenge, while also moving the plot along in some way. Look for ways to add action, arguments, and conflict. Just because she’s sick, she doesn’t get away with an easy life emotionally. Otherwise, where’s the story? Story requires conflict and even sick people in your story must endure the conflict—or there’s no story.
Rescue. Well, it’s OK. Em might need to be rescued. I know, gender roles these days decree that she not be a Damsel-in-Distress; instead, she must be the conquering princess who fights the dragon herself and saves the poor, incompetent prince. But that’s a modern trope that is just as bad as the damsel-in-distress trope. The challenge will be to create a unique, living character without falling prey to either cliché.
In short, sick or not, Em must be a real character. She’s no damsel-in-distress; neither is she the modern woman who rescues the weak men in her life. Instead, she pursues her goals with the same fervor (and whatever physical strength she can muster) as the main character, Jake. It’s a plan.
I’ve been reading lots of manuscripts lately and a common problem keeps arising. As a reader, I keep wondering, “Where am I?”
The plot and characters are often interesting, but I’m lost. I need a map to figure out where I am. In other words, setting is crucial to keeping your readers grounded in your story.
Often, the problem is that I don’t know WHEN the story is taking place. This could be anything from what century to what season of the year. The simple detail of a Christmas tree might be enough to reorient me to the setting. Or I might need details of clothing worn in 1492 to understand the setting. Either way, the relevant details must be woven into the story. However, you can often just add a simple phrase to indicate time: early that morning, an hour later, or meanwhile.
The WHERE question can be much more complicated because it should be woven into the story seamlessly. One writer recently said that she was afraid to bog down her story with lots of description. That fear kept her from adding details that would keep the reader grounded. Novels aren’t screenplays or movie scripts; for those, you expect the production to fill in the blanks. For novels, though, you must play the movie in the reader’s head for them.
Beats in dialogue. This is especially important in dialogue or conversations between characters. Another writer had nice dialogue, but it was all in isolation–talking heads. You must remember that the characters are people who fidget, move around, blunder around or just nod their heads. Of course, sometimes you DO want a section that focuses on words. But even there, the right detail at the right time can emphasize a point, add comic relief, or make the story more believable.
Setting comes alive when you have the right details, usually sensory details. If you were a character in the story, in this particular scene, what would you see, hear, smell, touch, or taste? Description comes down to the careful use of our senses to put the reader into the scene.
Often, I’ll create a sensory details worksheet. Down a side of a page, I’ll write the senses: See, Hear, Smell, Touch, Taste. Then, for each sense, I try to find three details unique to the setting. I’m also trying to do it in language that would be used by the POV character.
Be specific as you do this.
Instead: Pit Bull
Notice that I didn’t say, “Big Dog.” The use of modifiers–adjectives and adverbs–weakens a story. Instead, I search for a more specific word, such as the name of a dog breed. Only after the verb or noun is as specific as possible do I allow myself to add modifiers.
Instead: Pit bull
Even Better: pit bull with a white-tipped tail
Be reasonable. Sometimes, “dog” is enough, depending on the story, where you want the reader to pay attention, and the intended audience. For a toddler’s story, Dog would be reasonable. Mostly, though, writers need to be more specific and avoid those adjectives that work as a crutch, but really add nothing to the description: good, nice, big, small, etc.
A special note on Touch/Feel: Often writers want to translate this into emotions. Instead, I mean this as a physical sensation of touch, usually temperature or texture.
Not: I loved my lunch.
Instead: The chili burned my tongue.
Once I have a list of sensory details, I like to start a scene with a unique detail. I search the imagined setting for something that will make a reader stop and pay attention. Here are some descriptions from the first pages of my Aliens, Inc. Series. The series is for 1st-4th grade readers, and each story begins in art class. Use the links to download sample first chapters to read more.
“I bent over the giant state of Texas.” from Kell and the Giants(Listen to the audiobook sample), Book 3, The Aliens Inc. Series
“My hand dripped with blue paint.” from Kell and the Detectives (audiobook sample), Book 3, The Aliens Inc. Series
Balancing Description and Narrative
It’s impossible to tell you how to balance the narrative descriptions, dialogue and action. As an author, you need to learn which area you are strongest in and which is your weakest area. If you consistently get the response from readers, “I’m lost,” then you need to provide more description. Don’t fear the descriptions. They won’t slow down the reader unless you really go overboard. But they can sure LOSE you a reader, if you get them lost. They won’t trust you to tell the story and will stop reading.
In other words, listen to your early readers. If they are confused about what is happening, your descriptions are weak. If they are drowning in detail, the story will feel slow-paced. Work to find the right balance for your story and your readers. Just be sure they never get lost.
Indie publishing, especially of children’s books, is hard. I listen to everything that those who write for adults talk about and try to adjust strategies to the world of children’s literature. And mostly, things don’t translate.
So, I’ve decided to try to bring together those who write for children and are involved with independent publishing or self-publishing.
Indie Kids Books Listserv
The purpose of the group will be to discuss independent or self-publishing as it relates specifically to children’s books: nonfiction or fiction, for readers from birth to 18. We’ll discuss writing, illustrating, publishing and marketing your books. Join the listserv discussion group by sending an email to
The group is just forming–get in on the ground floor!
Pass this along to anyone interested, whether they have books published or are just thinking about it.
Here’s a question about punctuation, with an answer about style.
Which of these is correctly punctuated?
I like oranges, apples, and bananas.
I like oranges, apples and bananas.
The answer is it depends on the style manual that you use.
In school, you were probably taught certain rules about punctuation, and your teachers told you that the rules were the “right” way to punctuate. There were no options, no other ways of working.
The reality is that punctuation conventions are just conventions that people agree upon. Two major style guides ar the Associated Press style guide, which is often used by newspapers, and the Chicago Manual of Style, often used by publishers. To make matters more complicated, often a publishing house will follow a “house style,” that is, they will decide that all of their books will follow certain punctuation rules.
In the example above, the AP style would add that last comma, but the Chicago style wouldn’t.
I like oranges, apples, and bananas. (AP Style)
I like oranges, apples and bananas. (Chicago Manual of Style)
When my first book was published by Grennwillow/Harpercollins, of course, it went through extensive editing. I was shocked and embarrassed by the red ink that came back to me on the edited manuscript. In truth, I didn’t do so badly. They were simply applying the house style to my story. Copyeditors use a style manual as they edit.
Copyedit According to Style
What does this mean for your story? Well, you have options.
First, you could just write the best story you know how, copyedit the best you know how–and then trust your publisher’s copyeditor to finish the process. It works.
Or, you could study one of the style manuals and stick with it strictly. For fiction, the best option is probably the Chicago Manual of Style. Learning a style guide down cold is technical stuff, and takes focus and an eye for detail; but it can be done.
If you’re self-publishing, you can still choose one way or the other; the difference is that you’ll be hiring the copyeditor and will tell them what style to use.
Personally, I’ll admit it: I don’t have an eye for detail necessary to be a good copyeditor. It would be painful for me to strictly follow a style manual. With each story, I learn more and more about things I should or shouldn’t do; however, I’ll never be perfect. Well, no one will be perfect–see this post on continuity goofs and other errors. But a good copyeditor can get your story pretty close to perfect. I let them do what they do best while I do what I do best, which is to tell a story.
Be very sure: that’s not a copout. I’m not ignoring the issue of punctuation. Writers should take it seriously and know the basics and know when and how they can stretch the punctuation. One of my favorite books for learning basic punctuation is The Art of Styling Sentences: 20 Patterns for Success. Grab a friend and learn a new sentence pattern every week for twenty weeks. Practice the pattern that week by using it in emails back and forth, or in postings on FB or your fav social media channel.
I will always value a good copyeditor! If you’re a grammar witch–I love you! (Just don’t email me about any mistakes in this post.)
A fellow writer recently posed this question to me: Is my mss ready to submit?
THE AGONY OF DECIDING
The short answer is, you don’t know. You can only send it out and see what response you get. That’s agony. You want to be accepted and published, but no one can guarantee that. The simple fact is that manuscripts that sit on a hard drive somewhere will not sell. Even if I said your book is “perfect,” it may not sell. You must test the market and learn from every submission.
Here are things to consider as you decide on submission:
Have you done the best job that you know how to do right now? The best you can do at any give time is the best you can do. Don’t send out your weakest effort. But if you’ve worked hard on the story and it’s the best you know to do, then send it. Hope for a sale, but rejoice if you get any feedback at all. That’s what you want: useful feedback. Sometimes a casual comment will trigger a huge change in a story.
Trust your instincts. Too often writers spend years in revision. One attitude the indie revolution has built is that you should trust your instincts, write fast (because time IS money), and get books out. It’s something that traditionally published writers can learn from. You’re a storyteller: trust your instincts.
Do a couple trial submissions. Nothing says that you must send the story first to a hundred agents or editors. Even agents do trial submissions. They’ll often send to a limited number of editors and see what feedback they get. Granted, they GET feedback and you may not. Based on editorial response, the agent may ask a client to revise, or they may do a wider or a different submission strategy.
Consider individual preferences. In other words, your audience in submitting is an individual editor, one by one. One editor said it’s like this. If he likes pullover sweaters–a personal preference–and you sent him the most luxurious button-up sweater ever made, he still wouldn’t buy it because he only likes pullovers. The key, then, is to find the right agent/editor. The only way to do that is to follow likely candidates on Twitter, FB, etc. and see how the conversations go. Then–heck, just submit! You can always revise and resubmit a year later to the same editor, if needed. Go to conferences and get feedback from critiques there.
In the end, I write for an audience. I want to put my book in the hands of the RIGHT readers, whether that’s a kid from Wisconsin, or an editor or agent in New York City. In the end, at some point, you must submit. Or face the fact that you’ll never be published. It’s a painful truth, a painful process. But it’s part of the game. Submit! Today!
As writers, we put our books out into the world, and they take on a life of their own, apart from us. But sometimes, we get an echo back about what the book is doing, who is reading it and how they are affected. This week, I had one of those incredible, amazing and powerful moments.
Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma
When I worked on the story of an orphaned puma cub from Brazil, the scientists involved were incredibly generous with their time and information. Dr. Marcia Goncalves Rodrigues and Sergio A.P. Ferreira made this book possible. With the publication of the Brazilian translation, they are able to go into the schools with Project Abayomi and do education of teachers and students. Recently, over 500 teachers listened the story of the plight of pumas and other wildlife in urban areas of Brazil.
That’s exciting news, for sure. To see a book travel to a different country and start to make a difference is amazing.
And then, I received this special version of the Portuguese version of the book. What’s so special about it? Why am I grinning so crazily?
Because Abayomi himself signed this book. When the puma was receiving a regular medical checkup, Sergio inked his paw and added his paw print to my book. This is one of those teary moments when you realize that a book isn’t JUST a book. It’s an idea. Pumas face very real dangers from loss of habitat and urban encroachment on their habitat. It’a a small thing to write a book; but a small book can have a huge impact. Thanks, Marcia and Sergio for allowing me the privilege of having a small part in Abayomi’s story. It’s been incredible.
One of the more popular series I’ve written is 30 Days to a Stronger Author Website. It breaks the process of creating an author website and blog into a series of daily tasks. Theory covers the WHY, WHEN, and HOW. Technical aspects are covered in depth. More important, it gives solid reasons for WHAT, or the content of your site. Learn what readers want on each of these pages: Home, About, Books, News, Contact, Privacy. Get ideas on how to write your first 15 blog posts.
Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you choose to make a purchase. Thank you for your support in this way.
First, you’ll need to decide where to host your website/blog, or where your computer files will actually live on a server. While some opt for free services, I’ve had a self-hosted WordPress site/blog for over seven years and love the freedom of doing whatever I want on my own site. I don’t have to worry about the terms of service, because I create my own policies.
While there are multiple options for hosting, one of the most popular is Blue Host, which I recommend because of its simplicity and reliability.
Click here to go to BlueHost. This opens a new window so you can go back and forth on the instructions here. Click the green GET STARTED NOW button.
Next, you’ll need to choose a plan. All of BlueHost’s plans come with one free domain, so there’s not an extra step for registering that–it’s a one-stop service.
2) Choose a Domain
Authors, you should use your name or pen name for your domain. And get a .com if at all possible. This website is DarcyPattison.com. Sometimes, you may want to create a website for a book, so you can use a book title, if desired. But the gold standard is your name.
If you already have a domain, BlueHost makes it simple to switch over; just use the Transfer Domain box.
You’re almost there. Fill in the form with contact info. Make sure the email is working because that’s where you’ll receive information about how to login.
3) Hosting Package
You have a choice now of hosting packages. I’m always amazed at the affordability of a self-hosted package.
I rarely add on any of the extras. Some people like the privacy option, but I’ve never found it necessary.
Of course, it’s time to fill in your billing information. Read the Terms of Service and policies and confirm. Then click NEXT.
You’ll be asked if you want upgrade; I usually skip all these. You can always add things later, if you need something. Instead, skip over to your email and find the welcome email from BlueHost. It’s time to look at your dashboard or the backend of your site. Most hosting companies use a CPanel. You’ll want to read more later on CPanel basics, but for now, we’ll cover how to install your WordPress site.
4) Install WordPress
Go back to BlueHost and Click LOGIN at the top.
Use the info you received in your welcome email to login.
At first the CPanel can look overwhelming (read more on CPanels here), but we just need to install the WordPress that’s listed under Website Builders.
Click on the green START button.
Click on the website where you want to install the WordPress blog. Usually, you leave the directory blank.
Your WordPress user information is important. Do NOT use ADMIN. This will be your login information for the site, so create this with care. Click on the Advanced Options and fill in your site information. Don’t worry: you can always change this later. The admin email is also important because this is where you’ll get emails about the site. When you’re sure everything is correct, click Install Now.
You should see a “SUCCESS” status. Wahoo!
5) Log in to Your Author Website!
You should receive an email with login instructions. Basically, you’ll go to www.YourWebsite.com/wp-admin/login (Replace YourWebsite with the name of your site).
Now, the fun really begins. It’s time to create some content and get your site/blog going.
Social media–what a controversial topic among writers!
You have the social media mavens, who are everywhere on every platform.
And you have those who espouse the WIBBOW test: “Would I be better off writing?”
You’ve decided that you want to raise your social media profile as an author. There are a couple compelling reasons to turn to Pinterest. Yes, Pinterest. I like the way my daughter, Sara, describes the difference in Pinterest and Facebook. She says to look at Facebook to see what she’s DOING; look to Pinterest to see what she’s THINKING about. Other say that Pinterest is aspirational, which means these are things the pinner would like to do. She’d like to decorate her house like this, would like to get this haircut–or would like to read this book.
Your audience is there. Known to be an audience of 80% women, Pinterest is a playground for women on a number of topics: Food & Drink, DIY & Crafts, Home Decor, and Holiday & Events. Photos of interest can be repinned thousands of times–which puts the image in front of many viewers. For example, the image for this Fiction Notes post about villains has been repinned over 19,000 times. Check the widget in the sidebar to see other popular posts on Fiction Notes. (And hey, we always love more repins!)
You have book covers–which fits the visual medium of Pinterest. Images rule on Pinterest, just like they do for book covers. It’s a natural fit.
Pinterest can become one of the best sources of traffic for your website. I recently looked at my website statistics. I’d been beating the Facebook drum, trying to find an audience; instead, Pinterest referrals had quietly racked up 10% of my overall traffic. For some pages, the percentage is much higher, like the villains post mentioned above. That woke me up; if I was just casually playing with Pinterest and could manage 10% referrals, what could happen if I concentrated on the platform?
Pins keep on giving: repins give your content new life, over and over and over again. You Pin an image to a board on Pinterest. Then, someone sees the image and re-pins it to one of their boards. From that board, it gets repinned; and the process can continue. Pinterest likes to say that, “Pins are forever.” You may pin something this week that gets ignored; but something might revive it in three months or six months–perhaps an appropriate event or current news event. A pin can take off at any time and go viral.
Get a Business Account. As an author building a platform, you need access to the goodies available on a business account. You’ll be able to promote pins, create rich pins and much more. Follow Pinterest’s instructions here.
Fill in Every Blank.
YOUR PROFILE. When you set up a social media account, you’ll need to fill in a profile. Please do yourself a favor: fill in every blank possible. The platform didn’t put that data slot there for nothing. They USE the data to help people find you. You want to reach the right audience with the right message, and it’s impossible for the platform to send you those folks if you don’t help them out. They aren’t mind-readers.
YOUR IMAGES ON PINTEREST. Likewise, you’ll need to start paying attention to the metadata (data about the data) for your images. When you load an image onto your website, fill in every blank. The Caption is the only thing optional. And make sure the data you use is useful. For photos, there are three blanks: Title, Alt Text, Description.
IF you have all three filled in, Pinterest will pull in the Alt Text as the description of the image. If there’s no description or alt text, it will use the title of the image as the description.
When uploading an image, the title defaults to the name of your file. So, if your photo is named 123XX.jpg, then the Title will default to 123XXX. Bad news for you on Pinterest. Every time someone repins your image, the description will read 123XXX.
Instead, create a description (500 characters or less) and Copy/Paste that into all three fields. I find that’s the easiest, to just repeat the info over an over. If at some point, Pinterest (or another social media platform) decides to use a different field, I’ll have the description in place.
Finally, you can always manually edit the metadata when you pin/repin. It’s just easier to take care of it upfront.
Comparing the different social media platforms:
Instagram: square images (1:1 ratio), hashtags are the metadata.
YouTube: horizontal images (16:9 ratio). If you’re shooting still images to add to a video slideshow, always shoot horizontal.
Pinterest: vertical images (4:6 ratio), metadata comes from the image’s original upload, or it’s manually edited.
Creating Great Images
This means that you should know where you plan to use images when you create them. My favorite place for editing images for Pinterest is Canva.com. Use their Pinterest template to get the size right; upload your own images or buy one of theirs for only $1; edit as needed. For more, see below.
Links to Tutorials for Pinterest
You’ll find tons of tutorials and classes to help you get up to speed on this platform. Like all social media channels, best practices change often as a platform adds new tools, policies, etc. Be sure to look for recent material.
From time to time, we recommend writing books, and we find that some are popular with our readers. Following are the most popular how-to-write books purchased by our readers in the last six months on Amazon, the first half of 2015*.
Certainly one of my favorite new writing books is Ian Healy’s excellent book on writing action scenes. Before I read it, my action scenes were awful. Now, my latest novel has effective action scenes sprinkled throughout. Thanks, Ian! Be sure to also download the Action Scene Checklist that I created, with Ian’s permission. This was the most popular book, by far.
This book is a gem. I use it when I start a novel to help me nail down the genre. It also helps me plot because I am reminded of typical scenes in this type of story; I can choose to go against the grain or with the grain in plotting, but it gives me a sort of plumb line.
For the past two years, I’ve taught a class on writing picture books at the Highlights Foundation for Children, the home of the classic Highlights for Kids magazine. It’s a thrill to see this book on your list of favorites. Read more about this book.
This is a classic and wonderful text that puts storied in the context of Joseph Campbell’s mythic structure. If you write any kind of quest story, fantasy, sff, then you need this. But it also works for romance, contemporary, mysteries–almost any genre.
Sometimes, it’s hard to be fresh and original and you need a tool to help. The inner character traits (positive or negative) are one of those places that I consult a book like this. It just gives me a reminder of my options; of course, you then have to make the suggestion your own. But options are great. While the Negative Traits was the most popular with our readers, there’s also the Positive Traits and the Emotional Thesaurus from the same author.
* Note: these lists were compiled from reports supplied to us from Amazon.com where we are affiliates. One of the ways Fiction Notes is able to cover its costs and be a sustainable business is that we earn a small commission when readers make a purchase from Amazon after clicking on our links (including those above). While no personal details are passed on we do get an overall report from Amazon about what was bought and are able to create this list.
I’m in the middle of a big revision of the first book of a sff trilogy and I thought I knew what to do. I’ve written several novels now and when I get to this stage, there’s one big problem. I am sick of reading the thing.
How many times do you read a novel before you send it out into the world? 5 times? 20 times? 100 times? I don’t know; I just know that it’s a lot of times and it reaches a point where I’m not re-reading what’s in front of me. My mind wanders off to anything and everything else.
One strategy I’ve used to deal with that is to retype the entire manuscript. Even if it’s 60,000 words, I just dig in and retype. This strategy forces me to see every word anew. It’s a strategy that I know works.
Except, it didn’t this time. I kept putting off the typing. When it was time to start, I’d find something some marketing to do; or I’d read on my Kindle; or I’d do research for a different project. I forced myself to type out about 25,000/60,000 words, but I was making very few changes. I wasn’t confident that this strategy was working.
Finally–with the urging of a friend–I stopped the foolishness. I started copying one chapter at a time into the fresh document and working on just that chapter till all issues were resolved.
Wow! I’ve totally revamped a scene: it was static with no tension and needed lots of work. I found a conflict sitting there amidst the rubble, picked it up and ran with it. I cut a scene totally–worthless dialogue that went nowhere. Another scene got an overhaul for emotional impact.
In other words, my process is different for this book than for all previous books. Duh. Of course.
Each book that I write, I find a different way to work.
What doesn’t change are techniques that I have in my writer’s bag of tricks. I just need to remember that I won’t be using them in the same order for each book. Also, I may not use every technique or tip for every novel. And that there are always shiny new ways of working to explore, and that’s OK. Retyping a manuscript is a great technique that I’ll likely use again, even though it was deadly for this one. Focusing on short chapters this time helped me to see the story in a context that allowed for good decision making. That’s what you want: good decision making in your storytelling.
Stuck? Rummage around in your writer’s bag of tricks and try something different!
For the next month, my writing goals for my work-in-progress novel trilogy are clear: conflict, emotion, surprise, enrich.
The trilogy is tentatively called, The Blue Planets, and is an early-teen or YA science fiction. Book 1, The Blue Marble, has a complete draft; for Books 2 and 3, I have complete outlines. I’m happy with all of it, but I know it needs to go much farther before anyone sees it. For the next month, I’ll work simultaneously on revising Book 1 and the outlines, trying to weave them into a more coherent whole.
4 Revision Goals
Conflict. The first goal in revising The Blue Planets is to up the conflict.
No conflict = no story, no readers.
Small conflict = small readership.
Big conflict = bigger readership.
Huge, gut-wrenching, moral-decison-making conflict = huge, engaged readership.
I’ll be looking at conflict globally and in each scene. Man v. nature is built into the story in powerful ways already. But I need to look at man v. man, both overall and in each scene. How can I put people at odds in more ways and in more interesting ways?
Emotion. Always my weakest point, I’ll go scene by scene and ask questions:
What emotional things happened just before this scene? What’s the attitude of each character coming in?
What is the worst thing–emotionally–that could happen to the main character? That’s what I must confront him with.
What is the emotional arc of the scene?
What else can I do to deepen the emotional impact?
Surprise. Readers read for entertainment. If they can predict exactly what happens in a story, they’re bored. I’ll go through–especially the outlines–and ask, “What does the reader expect here?” I’ll look for ways to twist that expectation to fulfill it, but with a twist.
Enrich. I’m excited about enriching the stories, because this part gets past the basic plotting and into fun stuff. Where can I add humor? Here are previous posts on 3 humor techniques and then 5 more. I’m hoping for a running gag, at least. I’ll be working to tie the three books together through scene, character, bits of dialogue, running gags, perhaps a bit of clothing, or a mug of triple-shot venti mocha–something. Enrichment might be adding bits of scientific information artfully, without doing an information dump. Making the characters quirkier and more fun to be around. Loosening up on dialogue.
By the middle to end of July, I expect the BLUES to be in shape to send out. I’m excited.
What are your goals for summer writing?
I’ve been fiddling with the opening of the second book of a trilogy, Blue Planets, for several weeks, trying to plot, trying to think of new and exciting ways to tell the story. I KNOW the story. It’s bringing it down to specifics that’s hard.
Part of my problem is that Book 1 in this trilogy opens with a scene that echoes the movie “Jaws.” That book and movie has a powerful, action packed opening image and scene that sets up the stakes clearly. My Book 1 opening echoes the action, and twists the meaning into a new, surprising direction. I like the opening I create there.
But it also set up a problem: How can I echo the “Jaws” opening for Book 2?
I’ve struggled for a couple weeks with this question and finally found the answer.
Don’t. Find another image that works.
Using a Mentor Text or Story
Perhaps, though, the process I used in the opening for Book 1 can be repeated for Book 2. I used “Jaws” as a mentor text, echoing its action and setting the stakes very high. What if I found a different mentor text/movie for the next book?
At Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat site, they’ve done a series of analyses of movie plots that are called Beat Sheets under his system. I decided to go through them and write a short summary of how I could or couldn’t echo the different movies for this opening. I knew that I had to approach it as a writing exercise and just go overboard and let the ideas flow.
In an hour, I wrote the summaries for the following twenty possible opening scenes. After, I went back and wrote a sentence of how the closing scene might echo back to the opening scene. That closing scene ideas — only written after all the opening scene summaries were completed — helped me evaluate how well this opening fit my story. Note also that I drew a blank on about three of the movie openings and couldn’t figure out how it would fit my story.
The Grunt Work: Writing 20 Possible Summaries of Opening Scene
Note: You won’t understand what some of this means, since I’m not explaining all the background, setting, characters, etc. That’s OK. The point is to see how I echoed the mentor text/story in some way. The link for each movie title goes to the Save the Cat plot analysis for that movie, where you can read the opening image synopsis and compare it to mine. You may think some of my opening as strangely at odds with the mentor text. That’s fine. I consider the mentor text/story as merely a starting point and go where the story takes me.
A la Ultron.
The opening image is of a huge conch shell that is blown and echoes throughout the ocean. Jake is swimming and hears it—has to stop up his ears it’s so loud. But no human hears it—at a weird frequency. It’s an emergency call to the Mer, but Jake doesn’t know that yet. The umjaadi plague is spreading and they still don’t know what it is. Final Echo: A hospital ward full of sick patients and the doctor telling someone that unless someone finds a cure, they’ll all die. The Mer will be gone.
A la The Conversation .
The opening image is Edinburgh, Scotland the castle with a full moon overhead. Home of Harry Potter, the setting is almost mythical. But the reality of walking the seven hills, and climbing up the highest pulls Jake back to Earth (so to speak). From the top, he sees the Frith of Forth and the bridge—with the aquarium under it, where they’ll go tomorrow. Final echo: back on the hill, Jake now understands what is beneath the waters he sees.
A la Whiplash.
Jake is swimming laps in a pool—with no one around—when Cy Blevins walks in. You’re not related to the Commander, you’re the Ambassador’s son—we know all about you. OK. So, what? You can’t live here.
Jake swims, but wants to jump out and beat up Cy. Final echo: No. Doesn’t work.
A la Birdman.
Jake is swimming and keeps asking himself, “How did we wind up here? Am I Earthling or Risonian?” He turns sharks into tour guides, he is thrilled with electric shock from eels, he talks to octopuses.
Final echo: I am Earthling.
A la Tommy Boy.
Jake is a toddler swimming on Rison and when a camouflaged creature (octopus-like) unfurls, he is startled and starts to cry. Turns to Swann for comfort, but Swann turns him around and says, SEE. Watch. Learn to see. Final echo: Swimming and points out a camouflaged creature to Swann.
A la Ratatouille.
B/w documentary about octopuses, compared with what we know today. They were once feared as monsters, but we now know they are very intelligent (playing with toys to get crabs). We see what we expect to see, and that changes slowly. (Or: what’s alien comes from what’s in OUR heads, not what we see in front of us.) Final echo: B/W Risonain documentary on first contact Earth—from the Risonian POV. We now know Earthlings are much more complicated and intelligent than we thought at first.
A la Babadook.
Go for a memory and emotion. Jake relives a moment with Em where they kiss—or almost kiss. But then shakes himself. No. She didn’t want to be friends. Final echo: A final kiss.
A la Star Trek (2009).
The camera moves along an underwater ship and reveals it to be a U-Boat. Follow with the scene of the DCS dive. Final echo: Maybe Mom is sick from something on Earth?
A la American Sniper.
(Scene with dramatic first kill – will he shoot a kid?)
Scene with dramatic first ______?
Clearly, this one didn’t work.
A a Lego Movie.
From a boat, Dr. Max Bari lowers a figure on a stretcher into the ocean, then dives in after her—without scuba gear. He tugs the stretcher deeper and deeper until there are lights in the distance. . . Final echo: Jake lifts off in a rocket ship and watches Earth get smaller and smaller in the distance, and turns his face toward Rison and hopes. . .
A la Big Hero 6.
My Setting: Aberforth Hills
Final echo: Earth leaders touring Aberforth Hills
A la Liar Liar.
In a classroom, they are going around telling what their fathers do. A young Jake says his father is a test tube. No, it’s the Leader of our People. No, it’s really a test tube. Final echo: Jake with Dad.
A la Fury.
(Ambush of triumphant soldier by vanquished.) No ideas. Didn’t work for me.
A la Gone Girl.
(Sharp contrast of emotions: head on shoulder of husband contrasted with his thoughts of killing her. Result: Worry for her safety)
Contrasting emotions? Invade Earth and just take it! Take the long, slow route to a long-term healthy relationship.
Mom is giving a speech to the world leaders about Rison’s needs. Jake is drawing pictures of skulls and wishing he could blast all of Earth so Risonians could take over. How can they ever live together on the same planet and not kill each other? Final echo: Fight that ends in a truce.
A la Guardians of the Galaxy.
Sitting alone, Jake is listening to a cd mix that Em gave him and wishing they hadn’t quarreled. He gets a call from Marisa, who says she wants to meet with him. I hear you’re going to Edinburgh. Mom and Dad aren’t saying much—but I think Em has been kidnapped and they know who did it, but they won’t go after her. I think she’s somewhere near Edinburgh. Final echo: Jake gives Em a cd of Risonian operas and says, I’ll be back with the cure.
A la How to Train Your Dragon 2.
Jake is spinning a globe of the world and narrating for his class (OR Swann) back home-videoconference call. He tells of how Earthlings/US once put it’s citizens in jail because they “might” have been traitors. How they questioned the loyalty of citizen merely because of their heritage. How unfair it is and how he’s worried that the Risonians will be even more feared and how suspicion will abound. Final echo: Suspicious news reports: There are fears that Jake Quad-di is returning home with intelligence that will allow the Risonians to attack. His mother, Ambassador Dayexi Quad-di assures us that he only returns to bring back a cure for the Phoke. But why would he risk his life for them?
A la Twilight Zone.
The camera pans across oceans, racing across the seas, until it zooms in on a conference room where Mom is talking to world leaders, a clear image of politics/diplomacy. Final echo: Not emotional enough to pursue.
A la Muppets Most Wanted.
Start with pan down from The End—the last movie—and sing about how the studio ordered a sequel. Final echo: No. Don’t like this metadata stuff.
A la Her.
Jake is writing a letter to the editor, or editorial or something—and we pull back to see that he’s writing it for Mom. He’s her assistant now, and she trusts his knowledge of English and culture. (Not emotional enough. HER is a love story, so the emotions there are about truly falling in love. It’s not going to work in this story.)
A la Inside Llewyn Davis.
The scene opens on a rowdy swimming pool with kids taking bets. Jake lines up with another guy and when the whistle blows, the other boy dives in and races away. When that guy touches the opposite wall, Jake dives in, velcroes his legs and swims. He almost beats the other guy back, but is won out by a touch.
I win! Says the other swimmer.
Jake shakes his head. He swam almost twice as fast—and the Earthling says he won? That’s crazy.
We’re never letting you compete in the Olympics! Says one kid.
Final echo: Argument: You think I can do miracles. Sure, I can outswim any human boy, but on Rison, I’m nothing. I’m just a normal kid. How can I find the cure to the umjaadi in time? I can’t. But I have to try.
Notice that I didn’t hold myself to an impossible standard. If the movie’s opening didn’t spark something almost immediately, I moved on. Further, I didn’t stop at just one try. I persevered, knowing that I needed to fully explore my options.
Evaluate the Possible Openings
After writing all of these, I had to evaluate which one fit my story best. First, I went back and added the Final Echo to each, so I’d know if it fit the theme/plot/characters well enough to carry through the whole story. In other words, I double checked my ideas about the story, my intentions.
Then I asked these questions of each opening:
Which sets the tone I want?
Which sets the emotional problems?
Which sets the themes?
Which one sets up the stakes as very high?
Results of Opening Images Writing Exercise
I found several good images that took me in new and different directions than I’d previously been trying—and that’s exciting.
Warning conch shell – warning comes true, all Mer sick.
Jake as toddler scared by octopus-like creature un-camouflaging – Watches old Risonian documentary and realizes that Earthlings are complicated.
Dr. Max lowers a patient into the water and goes into a foreign world – Jake lifts off in rocket for a foreign world.
Listens to Em’s cd – gives her a cd when he leaves.
Jake narrates the globe – a news show narrates Jake’s trip to Rison.
Jake outswims Earthlings – but realizes he’s just a normal kid on Rison.
Which one did I choose? Actually, several. Because I have a main plot and several subplots, I realized that several of these can work in sequence to open the different subplots.
Sometimes, I approach a story methodically, just doing a writing exercise. This time, I was stuck, and the exercise unstuck me. That was a valuable hour of writing!
One night In May, I noticed a very loud sound from right outside our window. My husband, Dwight, has a fish pond right outside our kitchen door.
The sound was loud! So, on May 26, I whipped out my iphone and taped the noise.
You’ll hear the noise at 7 seconds into the tape, and 12 seconds, 18 seconds and 23 seconds. The sounds came from a small frog or toad. After comparing my recording to recordings of frogs/toads of Arkansas, I concluded we had a Fowler Toad, which is common in this area.
After reading more, I realized that this toad had chosen our pond as a breeding pond. He chose us! He chose our pond!
As a child, I remember we raised tadpoles once. I was excited about the chance to watch the process again, especially because my grandkids could watch this time.
The toad sang and sang for several nights. All night long, it seemed.
Then, on June 11, I took a morning walk and came back to find two Fowler toads in the pond. The girl showed up!
Fowler Toads mate in what’s called amplexus, which means the eggs are externally fertilized. The smaller male is usually on the female’s back for the duration.
Tadpoles: Day 3
We watched the pond every day and on Day 3, we found tadpoles! Dozens and dozens. Scientists report that the Fowler Toads may lay 5000-25,000 eggs at a time. But the pond had several goldfish and I knew that many of the eggs would be eaten before they could hatch.
We hope that the next story will break out.
We hope that the next submission will sell.
We hope that the next revision will be amazing.
We hope that the next royalty check will be double.
We hope readers will love our stories.
Hope. It’s how we live. And I love it when Hope comes to live in tangible ways.
I went Friday to an awards banquet to honor my friend, Carla McClafferty. She was inducted into the Arkansas Writer’s Hall of Fame for her work in children’s non-fiction.
Brookins’s ‘Rise’ Goes to SMP
In a six-figure North American rights deal, Rose Hilliard at St. Martin’s Press acquired Cara Brookins’s memoir, Rise. The book, which Dystel and Goderich’s Jessica Papin sold at auction, is about Brookins’s experience as a single mother coming out of an abusive relationship, building her own house from the ground up. SMP said the author, a social media marketing expert in Little Rock, Ark., took on the massive DIY project “with only the help of her four children.” Rise is currently set for fall 2016.
Children’s: Picture book: Monica Clark-Robinson’s LET THE CHILDREN MARCH, an historical picture book told from a child’s point of view about the Children’s Crusade, a series of civil rights marches that took place in 1963 to protest the Jim Crow Laws, to Christine Krones at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s, for publication in Fall 2017.
That was hope come to life.
Each time a friend realizes a small portion of a dream—from the beginning of a career to a career at the top of its game—we need to stop and rejoice with them.
Why? For many reasons—friendship shares good news.
But for today’s purpose, rejoicing over someone’s good news builds my reserve of hope. I know the hope isn’t futile; someone else’s hopes came to fruition and that leaves me with a renewed hope that mine may also.
I often end a speech or a retreat with the words, “Send me your good news.” It’s not hollow words, and it’s not bragging on your part. It’s sharing a joyful event. And really, I’m being selfish: I want my hope recharged.
Assumption. I am assuming here that you’ve written a fantastic children’s picture book and the illustrations you’ve done or hired done are amazing. You’ve also assembled an amazing book using InDesign (recommended) or other software. This checklist takes up the process at the point where you have the files ready to upload. The checklist is useful whether you are producing a print book or an ebook, although some items may not apply in one or the other cases.
Double-Check the Book’s Production
Double-check spelling of everything.
Color reproduction of the art.
Double-check spelling of everything.
Blurbs, quote or promo copy – do you have all the marketing material on the back cover that is needed? Any recent review quotes to add?
(Assumption: you want to sell this book to school libraries. If you only want to sell it as an ebook, then you only need to check the copyright date, since you probably won’t use an ISBN.)
Copyright date correct?
ISBN correct (if used)?
CIP correct? Are you using Publisher’s Cataloging-in-Publication data, which helps librarians catalog your book?
Check spelling, grammar and punctuation on every page.
Check position and reproduction of art on every page.
(Why are there 32 pages listed?)
p. 1____Text _____Art
p. 2-3____Text _____Art
p. 4-5____Text _____Art
p. 6-7____Text _____Art
p. 8-9____Text _____Art
p. 10-11____Text _____Art
p. 12-13____Text _____Art
p. 14-15____Text _____Art
p. 16-17____Text _____Art
p. 18-19____Text _____Art
p. 20-21____Text _____Art
p. 22-23____Text _____Art
p. 24-25____Text _____Art
p. 26-27____Text _____Art
p. 28-29____Text _____Art
p. 30-31____Text _____Art
p. 32____Text _____Art
Marketing and Metadata Materials
Before you upload files, you’ll need your marketing material ready. I usually create a one-page Sell Sheet that includes the following information.
Series Name and Volume of this book:
ISBN, ASIN, and price for each format:
The description is the time to hook your reader. The first 50 characters should give enough information to interest a reader in your book. Limited html is allowed on many platforms, so I often prepare two versions, one plain text and one marked up for html. For Kindle, you have 4000 characters–which is a lot. Use a word processor that counts the number of characters and use all of this valuable real estate.
Depending on the platform used, you may be asked to provide two or three categories. You can refer to the BISAC categories as a guidelines, but each platform may have its own quirks for this.
To help the book buyer find your book, most platforms allow you to insert from 5-7 keywords. You should have these ready; see Amazon’s advice on keywords.
Often a platform will allow you to specify the age range for the book’s audience. Don’t try to cover every age (ages 1-15). Instead, choose a 3-4 year range. Typical ranges are ages 4-8, ages 5-8, ages 6-8, ages 8-12, ages 9-12, ages 12-15, and so on.
If you plan to publish the ebook on Kindle, you should know the file size. Full color children’s picture books are often 4-8 MGs of data. Because Kindle charges a delivery fee of $0.15 in the US, you’ll want to know this to decide on pricing.
Price for Different Formats
If you upload to multiple platforms, you’ll likely want to be sure to keep the data the same across them. It helps to write out your prices; be sure to update this data whenever you change it on one platform.
While I’m preparing marketing materials, I also like to create multiple versions of my cover files. I label them with the size and the resolution, so it’s easy to find later. Here are typical sizes I create for a square picture book cover, 8.5″ x 8.5″ It’s simple to create multiple files when the Photoshop program is already open, and saves me time later. Usually, I create jpeg files, but sometimes, I’ll repeat for .png files.
Cover-2500×2500-300.jpg (This means the cover is 2500 px by 2500 px at 300 dpi.)
Cover-2500×2500-150.jpg (This means the cover is 2500 px by 2500 px at 150 dpi. Some like to also prepare files at 96 dpi or 72 dpi for use on the web.)
With the Sell Sheet complete, and the books cover and interior files ready to go, it’s time to upload. Good luck with your book!
Thanks to the computer industry, we no longer have first readers, we have beta readers. Early versions of software that engineers expect to be riddled with problems were called beta versions. Beta is the second letter in the Greek alphabet, so presumably, the alpha versions were kept all in-house. Betas were the first public versions to be released.
The terminology has come over to writing and we now have beta readers. The analogy holds in some ways: the versions we send to outside readers probably isn’t the “alpha” version; instead, it’s a version that is ready for a public audience—but not ready to be published. We expect problems: typos, grammar slip-ups (Grammar Queens, I Love You!), plot holes, character inconsistencies, factual errors, and so on.
What do you want from your Beta Readers?
Factual details. My WIP is set on Bainbridge Island, which sits in the middle of Puget Sound near Seattle, WA. I’ve visited a couple times because my brother- and sister-in-law live there. However, I’ve not lived there, and I’m not grounded in everything BI. I’ve asked them to read through for factual details related to the setting.
To write this story, I drew on my trips to the area, as well as maps, views from Google Earth, historical accounts of the area, writings about the area, information about the local flora and fauna. I’ve done my homework. But there’s nothing to beat living in the locale for years. I would never have dared to set the story in the area except I knew I had these two gracious beta readers.
Bored. I also asked them to flag places they were bored. Wow! Do I need this one. The overall pacing from chapter-to-chapter, and the local pacing from paragraph-to-paragraph both concern me. I want the story to pull a reader along without a pause. If a beta reader is bored, I need to know. I can fix it, using a variety of tools. I just need to know where to work on it.
Confused. Likewise, if the flow of the story confuses the reader, I need to know. Of course, there may be places you WANT the reader to be confused. I’m not talking about that. I’m looking for places where the reader has no idea what is happening. Again, I can fix it: I don’t want beta readers to suggest HOW to fix it. I just want to know where to pay attention.
Consistency. In characterization, I find my biggest problem is consistency in portraying emotions, motivations, reactions and so on. Part of the process of writing is to find these deeper issues within your character, and for me, I often find them late in the story. That means I have to go back and make sure I’ve set up a motivation and expressed it consistently across the story. And sometimes, I miss something.
While Beta Readers Read
This time, I’m trying not to work on the story while the beta readers do their thing. That doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about the story. On the contrary, it’s in the background of my thoughts all the way.
We went to see The Avengers movie last week. If you saw it (SPOILER ALERT), there’s a huge action scene at the end with all the Avengers protecting the explosive device while robots come at them. It’s a great moment because the team has come together and they are working in concert. Besides that character moment, it’s also a huge action scene. And I mean huge. I almost turn away these days at the fast-paced fighting because there is moment after moment of continuous fighting. The last Transformer movie struck me this way, too: when there’s too much action, it deadens the moment for me.
But it also gave me a new perspective on the ending of my story. The hero doesn’t take a big enough part in the action. He is there (hurrah!). He is active (hurrah!). But his parents get in the way. I need to get rid of them and pit him directly against the villain.
In other words, I hit the target with the ending, but it’s not a bulls-eye, yet.
That’s the sort of thing I’m thinking about while the beta readers read. Where have I hit the target, but I’m not hitting the bull’s eye?
I may not be typing words into a program about the story during this time, but I’m working on it. When I get it back, I’ll have a flurry of revisions to do. Isn’t it great?
When my picturebook, The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman was first published, I lied to my mother-in-law. When she saw this image of Tameka writing a letter to her Uncle Ray, my MIL noticed that Tameka was left-handed. I told her that I asked the illustrator, Joe Cepeda especially to make her left handed like my MIL.
Fast forward to the second book featuring Tameka in search of a wooden woman. Again, Tameka writes a letter, but this time, Cepeda drew her right handed. Because of my lie, I realized immediately that we had a continuity error, and Joe redrew a small portion of the image to make her left-handed again.
When Katniss is turning around to show her fire dress, you can see her hair (bun) comes apart. But in the next scene her hair is nicely tucked in.
When Peeta throws the metal ball at the spears, the career tributes (Cato, Marvel and Clove) are laughing at Peeta before he throws the ball. After Peeta has thrown it, Clove has gone and Glimmer is in her place.
When the 12 chariots are parading to the final stopping spot, the fans are throwing flowers and all kinds of things on the road that they ride in on. When they show the overhead view and the last chariots pull up there is not one item on the roadway.
None of those is earth-shattering; none of those changes the plot; and most wouldn’t be caught by a casual movie-goer. Obsessive people find these things.
Tony’s watch said that it was 12.10 when he axed the logs outside. Then the watch changes into 11.20 when he talked with Fury inside the barn.
After all the Avengers have tried to lift Thor’s hammer, Thor picks it up up with a drink in his hand. In the next shot the drink is on the table.
You would think that after all the efforts from hundreds of people, that a movie would be a bit of perfection. How can these errors slip in? It’s the complexity, I think. When there are so many moving parts, it’s difficult to make sure that everything is in sync with every other part.
Prevent Continuity Errors in Your Novel
One revision I’m doing right now in my novel is for continuity.
Read Your Whole Novel in a Short Amount of Time. Writing a whole novel can take a long period of time, and in that extended time period, you may forget a detail here or there. Were Alice’s eyes blue or green? Is her middle name Elle or Ellen? Reading rapidly for continuity can help refresh your memory.
Create a Character Bible, a Plot Bible, and Story Bible. Some writers like to create a “bible” of sorts. To do this, take a page (or a file, or a Scrivener document) and write the character’s name at the top of the page. Under it, write down the details about that character. Name, age, description, background details, etc. Any time you start to write about the character (or when you go back to check continuity) refer to that page/file. If you write it down, it acts as the “word of God” about the character.
Repeat, as you like for the plot or other story aspects.
Beta Readers Finally, you can find beta readers or critique partners who are sticklers for details like this. Turn them loose and let them go to town.
Whatever you decide, it’s a good idea to do a last read-through for continuity before you send it out to editors. But if you DO miss some small items, you’re in good company with Hunger Games and Avengers: Age of Ultron.
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.
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.
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).
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.
In 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:
Sally dodges as Porcupine Man attacks her in melee combat.
Sally dodges again as Porcupine Man shoots spines at her in ranged combat.
Sally dodges yet again as he keeps shooting at her (she’s having a rough go of it).
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!
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.
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.
What agents are selling picture books? Publishersmarketplace.com does a great job of monitoring the business of selling manuscripts to publishers. If you’re looking for an agent, you’ll want to spend a lot of time there doing research on agents to find the perfect match for you and your stories. Here’s just one way to look at the agents for picture books. This list includes information on the agent, links to his/her agency and the number of picture book deals made in the last twelve months. Please note that the agent/agency may have made many other deals in addition to these; these are limited to those self-reported by the agent/agency in the category of picture books. For more information, go to Publishersmarketplace.com (you must pay to join to see full information).
This is the first of three articles on current agents for children’s books. See also Middle Grade Agents and YA Agents lists (Links will be live next week).
Interesting, when I did this in 2013, the top 20 picture book agents had reported 171 sales. This time, the top 20 agents are reporting 234 sales. This could be due to a couple reasons: first, Publisher’s Marketplace relies on agents to self-report. This means that the agents are, for the first time, in a sort of competition for rankings. Reporting more sales means they are ranked higher, which gives prestige and possibly brings in more prospective clients. Second, it could mean that sales are up for picture books. We hope the latter is the case, but suspect the first reason has much to do with the increased number of sales.
What agents are selling middle grade novels? Publishersmarketplace.com does a great job of monitoring the business of selling manuscripts to publishers. If you’re looking for an agent, you’ll want to spend a lot of time there doing research on agents to find the perfect match for you and your stories. Here’s just one way to look at the agents for middle grade novels. This list includes information on the agent, links to his/her agency and the number of middle grade deals made in the last twelve months. Please note that the agent/agency may have made many other deals in addition to these; these are limited to those self-reported by the agent/agency in the category of middle grade. For more information, go to Publishersmarketplace.com (you must pay to join to see full information).
This is the second of three articles on current agents for children’s books. See also Picture Book Agents and YA Agents lists (link is live on 4/29).
I did this roundup of middle grade agents in 2013 and you may want to compare the list from then. At that time, I only listed the top 10 agents, who represented 60 sales. This time, the top 10 middle grade agents report 80 sales. There may be two reasons for this. First, Publisher’s Marketplace relies on agents to self-report. This means that the agents are, for the first time, in a sort of competition for rankings. Reporting more sales means they are ranked higher, which gives prestige and possibly brings in more prospective clients. Second, it could mean that sales are up for middle grade novels. We hope the latter is the case, but suspect the first reason has much to do with the increased number of sales.
Sarah Davies (Greenhouse Literary Agency), 15 deals. Website
Jennifer Laughran (Andrea Brown Literary Agency), 14 deals. Website
What agents are selling young adult (YA) novels? Publishersmarketplace.com does a great job of monitoring the business of selling manuscripts to publishers. If you’re looking for an agent, you’ll want to spend a lot of time there doing research on agents to find the perfect match for you and your stories. Here’s just one way to look at the agents for young adult novels. This list includes information on the agent, links to his/her agency and the number of young adult deals made in the last twelve months. Please note that the agent/agency may have made many other deals in addition to these; these are limited to those self-reported by the agent/agency in the category of middle grade. For more information, go to Publishersmarketplace.com (you must pay to join to see full information).
I did a similar report on YA agents in 2013. At that time, I only listed the top 10 YA agents, who represented 72 deals. This time, the top 10 agents report 85 sales. This could be due to a couple reasons: first, Publisher’s Marketplace relies on agents to self-report. This means that the agents are, for the first time, in a sort of competition for rankings. Reporting more sales means they are ranked higher, which gives prestige and possibly brings in more prospective clients. Second, it could mean that sales are up for picture books. We hope the latter is the case, but suspect the first reason has much to do with the increased number of sales.
The number one rejection I hear is this: “The story doesn’t stand out in today’s crowded market.”
The SCBWI is creating an opportunity for illustrators to test their art and how it holds up in today’s market. Each month, the “Draw This” monthly art prompt will provide a word for members to illustrate.
For years I’ve followed a similar type experience at IllustrationFriday.com. They, too, provide an art prompt of a word. In looking through the weekly images, I started to understand the concept of “standing out.” For example, one week, the word was RED. Looking through, I saw the same images: firetrucks, little red wagons, red-headed girls, Little Red Riding Hood, gorgeous cardinals, and so on. Those who illustrated the prompt with such an obvious cliche probably thought they were showcasing their work. Instead, I thought they were showcasing their lack of creativity.
2009 World Beard and Mustache Competition. Does that beard spell out B-E-A-R-D?
Here are the images for an Illustration Friday prompt, Beard. Now look through Beard images on Flickr. Or look through the BeardBrand shop and see how their photographers captured the young urban male and his passion for beards. Which is more exciting and fresh? Are these cliched images? No!
Writers, you can play along, too! Take the illustration prompt as a writing prompt. List your first 10 ideas–and throw them out. Those are the cliched ideas. Now, write 10 more ideas. Choose the strongest and write a story that has a fighting chance of standing out in today’s crowded market.
I’ve never seen a Bee-Beard before. Have you?
The SCBWI “Draw This” June prompt: Bounce
Illustrations due by May 25. See full rules here. While the prompt is only open to SCBWI members, anyone can play along!