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The New Visions Award, given annually by our Tu Books imprint, honors a middle grade or young adult novel for young readers by an author of color who has not previously published a novel for that age group. It was established to encourage new talent and to offer authors of color a chance to break into a tough and predominantly white market.
In addition to our New Visions Award Winner and Honor, this year there were three New Visions Award finalists: Alex Brown (Hate Crime), Hilda Burgos (The Castle of Kings), and Elizabeth Stephens (The Rougarou). Below, they share their writing experience, what inspires them, and what they hope readers will take away from their stories. We are thrilled to introduce readers to these talented writers and can’t wait to see how their careers take shape!
Could you tell us about your story?
Elizabeth Stephens:The Rougarou has been a work in progress for several years now. I drafted the first version of this manuscript my freshman year of college, though it has taken on a life of its own since! In particular, my study abroad experience in Paris, France in 2012 helped shape the details of this novel as did later work experience in Geneva, Switzerland. Whenever I reread my own book, it provides me with a sense of nostalgia – a straight shot of Paris. The infusion of Cajun folklore into the story, I adopted only very recently. I am a native French speaker because I grew up in West Africa and knew that I wanted my main character’s roots to be francophone. At the same time, I have been deeply interested in Louisiana culture since I was thirteen years old and first read Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire.
Hilda Burgos: The eleven year-old protagonist of my story, Ana Maria Reyes (Anamay), has a few things in common with me: she has three sisters, her parents are from the Dominican Republic, and she is growing up in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights. I first created Anamay about twenty years ago when I drafted a picture book manuscript about a six year-old girl who was nervous about the impending birth of a new sibling. Then I learned about a chapter book contest, and decided that Anamay’s story could be expanded to include the culture shock I experienced when I was ten years old and first visited the Dominican Republic.
Alex Brown: My mother immigrated to the US from the Philippines in the 1980s. She left an entire country behind in order to come here and be a nurse. The US has a long history of recruiting nurses from the Philippines, and from what I can tell, it started after the Spanish-American War, with the Pensionado Act of 1903 (wherein certain Filipino citizens came to the US to study). I took a little bit of what she experienced when she first arrived here, and built upon some of the obstacles she faced (including how incredibly badass she is for raising two kids as a single parent in a new country). I also drew from my own experiences growing up – the discord that happens between my main character and her parents when she chooses not to believe the legitimate folktales they tell her – reflects a lot of my feelings as a kid.
Is there anything in particular you hope readers take away from this story?
ES: I certainly hope that readers enjoy the elements of the story that I had most fun crafting: the romance between Chandelle and Reno, the setting in modern day Paris, and the fantastical elements reminiscent of Southern lore never forgotten.
HB: When I was a child there weren’t many books about kids like me: kids who lived in apartment buildings in a city, who spoke one language at home and another one in school, who had frizzy hair and dark complexions. I always looked for something familiar in the books I read. I hope that readers learn something new and expand their worlds when they read about Anamay, and that this knowledge helps them as they meet new people in their lives. I also hope that readers who share some of Anamay’s experiences find comfort in the familiarity of some of the scenes. Most importantly, I hope that readers enjoy the story and are inspired to read more and more books.
AB: I hope that people will start to think about the impact they can have on others. We live in this society where certain things – stereotypes, prejudices, hatred – are way more insidious than they have any right to be. But, with all of the bad, there’s still the possibility that anyone, anywhere, can stand up for what’s right. I’d also feel quite accomplished if people took a moment to pause and think about all of the obstacles and daily struggles that await anyone who immigrates to America. There’s something to be said about the unquantifiable amount of bravery, hope, and grit that it takes to leave one’s whole world behind, all to start a new life in an unfamiliar (and, at times, unfriendly) place.
Is there anything about your writing experience that you’d like to share?
ES: I wrote my first book at the age of eleven. It was a science fiction saga about a young girl picked up by a ragtag group of bandits and transported to other worlds. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of publishing several short works of horror in a number of online magazines and last year, I published my first fiction novel.
HB: I fell in love with language and literature when I first learned how to read. A well-written book is a work of art. In college I majored in French and Spanish literatures, and I also took English literature and creative writing classes. I wrote stories for pleasure during college and law school, and I took my first class on writing for children after law school. I draw ideas from my life experiences and observations, from stories that I have heard, and from historical accounts and current events.
AB: When I first started to seriously consider writing, I was a co-winner of the Windy City Chapter of the Romance Writers of America’s Four Seasons YA award. A few months after that, I was one of the inaugural winners of SCBWI’s Emerging Voices award. The manuscript that received these cool distinctions was my second, and since then I’ve gone on to write several more, and have quite a few other ideas for new books!
Last year, books by authors of color comprisedless than eleven percentof the total number of books published for young readers, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The annual New Visions Award is a step toward the day when all young readers can see themselves in books.
The New Visions Award is open for submissions through October 31, 2016! Please see the full submissions guidelines here.
If you’d like more news regarding the New Visions Award, author interviews, and more, sign up for our newsletter here.
Tackle your Readers attention with a great Tagline!
You need to hit readers hard, blindside them with an awesome tagline in order to grab their attention. I cannot overestimate the importance of this. Your tagline, blurb and excerpt are the most important sales tools you have for your book. Choose them wisely.
Every author wants people to read their book, right? Well, they aren't going to find your book unless you put it out there and MAKE them want to read it. Throwing away your tagline and blurb is just like taking your book and throwing it off a bridge in the hopes that someone will fish it out of the ocean, find it, and think it's great. So let's go over developing a tagline that will make readers care enough to pick up your book and purchase it.
A tagline is—or should be—one of the simplest things to create. A tagline is—plain and simply—a one sentence summation of the theme of your book. Something quick and catchy. If you're moving on through publishing by attending conferences and conventions, a tagline is similar to what is called an elevator pitch. What you want to do is to catch a reader's—or an agent's or an editor's—attention with a one-sentence description.
Remember, a PITCH and a TAGLINE are two different things. A PITCH is to get someone to buy your book with the intent to publish it. A TAGLINE is to get someone anonymous, in a bookstore or online, to buy your book to READ it. So your tagline should be about your BOOK.
Here’s the tagline for the first book in my middle grade/young adult time travel series, The Last Timekeepers and the Arch of Atlantis:
“Children are the keys to our future. And now, children are the only hope for our past.”
Is it the best tagline ever? Nope, probably not. But it tells the reader exactly what the theme of the book is. Look at the points it covers—what it tells you about the book. What does that tagline cover?
Children. Keys. Future. Hope. Past.
That's the purpose of a tagline and how to make it work for you. Therefore—homework lesson number one. Sit down and READ your book. You may think you know what it's about, but if you're a writer like me—you don't. READ IT. As you read, jot down notes to yourself. One. Word. Notes. Hit the high points of your book. What themes, what high points do you think sell your book? No—even simpler: what tags or key words are IN your book? Because those are what will sell your book. Readers don't always know what they're looking for in something to read. Your tagline will give them clues.
A few examples of great taglines:
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman – It takes a graveyard to raise a child.
The Maze Runner by James Dashner – Remember. Survive. Run.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson – Two lives are bridged – and nothing will be the same.
Do you see what all of these taglines have in common? They titillated enough readers to become bestsellers.
So that's your first job after your book is written. To sit down and read your book, and to pull a tagline from it. And this is where the elevator pitch and the tagline come together. In an elevator pitch, you've got maybe thirty seconds to gain the interest of an editor or an agent—just as long as it takes the elevator to get to their floor. With a reader, you have your book cover and one sentence—just one sentence—to convince them to click through and read more. You cannot afford to throw that chance away. So a tagline that's trite or vague or boring cannot be an option.
BTW – Here’s a sneak peek at the tagline for the next book in my time travel series, The Last Timekeepers and the Dark Secretset to be released on October 17th 2016:
“Only a true hero can shine the light in humanity’s darkest time.”
Hope I've done my job and piqued your interest! What are some of your favorite taglines? Cheers and thank you for your time and attention today!
May 2016 signified the opening of Lee & Low Book’s seventeenth annual New Voices Award contest! To kick off the season, we interviewed New Voices Award winner Sylvia Liu about her writing process and how she prepared her winning story, A Morning with Grandpa, for the New Voices Award. Learn more about our New Voices Award here.
What inspired you to write A Morning with Grandpa? Did you write it specifically for New Voices, or was it something you were working on already?
I was inspired by my dad, who was doing qi gong (a mind-body practice involving moving “qi,” or energy, around one’s body through breathing techniques), while we were vacationing together. He taught my daughters his breathing techniques, and that inspired the story of a grandfather teaching his granddaughter both qi gong and tai chi.
I wrote the draft as part of a year-long challenge, 12×12, where the goal is to write 12 picture book drafts in 12 months. After I wrote this story, I realized it was a great fit for the New Voices contest.
What did you do to prepare your manuscript for submitting to the New Voices Award?
My critique group gave me excellent feedback that improved my story. I also got invaluable feedback from an agent as part of a critique that came with a Writer’s Digest course.
While writing your story did you encounter writer’s block? What did you do to overcome it?
This was one of the few stories I’ve written where I didn’t experience writer’s block. The initial story came to me very quickly, though it was different than the final form. The first draft was told mainly in dialogue, and one of my critique mates encouraged me to incorporate more lyrical language.
A Morning with Grandpa is a story about trying new things. When was a time you tried something new and how did it turn out?
About seven years ago, some friends and I took a women’s surf camp. It was so much fun that we kept going back for several years. At some point, I realized that surfing was not my sport, but my friends and I still occasionally get our boards and go out into the water. Last summer, our beach had several shark sightings so I stayed out of the water for the most part.
Who were some of your favorite writers growing up? Are there any books or writers that inspire you now?
Growing up, I loved reading science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, and thrillers. My favorite series as a child was Lloyd Alexander’s Book of Three series. In my teens, I inhaled the entire oeuvres of Agatha Christie, Robert Ludlum, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, and Stephen King.
Nowadays, I’m inspired by author-illustrators who tell stories in intriguing and beautiful ways, like Shaun Tan and Gene Luen Yang.
Finally, what advice would you give new writers interested in writing children’s books?
Read as much as you can, both in and outside the genre you are writing in, and read recently published books. As the head of my daughters’ school recently said, good readers make good writers; great readers make great writers. And knowing what is being published today will help you gauge where you are on your writing journey.
Take the time to learn the craft of writing, connect with other authors, and have fun.
Sylvia Liu was inspired to write this story by the playful and loving relationship between her children and their Gong Gong. Before devoting herself to writing and illustrating children’s books, she worked as an environmental lawyer at the US Department of Justice and the nonprofit group Oceana. She lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with her husband and their two daughters. This is Sylvia’s debut picture book.
I thought I’d try something completely different (cue the Monty Python music), and give my readers and followers a glimpse into my writing world by asking my ‘author’ self these five fun questions…
1. Given unlimited resources, what would be your ideal writing environment?
Hmmm…unlimited resources? I honestly don’t know how to answer that because I DO have the perfect writing environment. But if I had a choice, I’d like a condo in Florida for the winter months, so I could continue to enjoy the warm weather all year round! After all, didn’t Hemingway have a place down there? Grin.
2. Where do you actually write?
I set up a writing office in my home. Since we’re empty nesters, one of the bedrooms was a perfect fit to fill with my book shelves, books, a reading chair, L-shaped desk, computer, printer, and story board. I don’t have a great view, but I figure it helps keep me staring at my computer and pounding the keys. Wink.
3. How did you come to write The Last Timekeepers series?
Both the idea and inspiration came to me through a dream I had around 1998. In this dream, I saw seven arches, and there were seven people (five kids, two adults) with crystals in their hands, walking up to these arches. It definitely had an Indiana Jones feel to it. At that time, I was writing a paranormal romance (before there was a distinct genre) and had no intention of writing a middle-grade/young adult book like The Last Timekeepers. But this idea kept growing in my mind, and wouldn’t leave, like some mystical force pushing you from behind. So, I thought I’d challenge myself and write a novel—a series—that would appeal to my son, who at the time was the target age of my audience. I’ve always loved the time travel genre, so I imagined the arches I saw vividly in my dream as time portals. It was a no-brainer for me.
4. What was the hardest part of writing your book, and how did you overcome it?
Hardest part? I think starting from scratch and learning the process of actually writing a book. I’m strong at dialogue, so that part wasn’t a problem, but I lacked in novel structure and how to construct a novel. I had to learn from the ground up, so I went to night classes, joined writing workshops, read books on writing to hone my skills enough to get the first draft done. And then when the book was complete, I had to learn how to edit, revise, and redo. This part of writing a novel is an ongoing work in progress! LOL!
5. What is your favorite late night snack?
I’m gonna say a bag of party mix—the cheesier the better! I do love my salty snacks! And thankfully, I don’t indulge that often.
The writing business can be messy and hard at times, but it can also be fun and rewarding. Givingreaders a small glimpse into an author’s life can provide an avenue for engagement, life-long connections, and fans for life. Cheers and thank you for reading my post!
While the number of diverse books is increasing, the number of new diverse authors entering the field remains low. Significant barriers remain for authors of color, Native authors, disabled authors, and other marginalized voices. With that in mind, we are excited to share information on this special Twitter event, #DVpit, created to showcase pitches by marginalized voices and help connect them to agents and editors. The information below is cross-posted with permission from literary agent Beth Phelan’s website.
A Twitter Pitching Event, Hosted + Moderated by Beth Phelan
April 19, 2016
8:00AM EST – 8:00PM EST
What is #DVpit?
#DVpit is a Twitter event created to showcase pitches about and especially by marginalized voices. This includes (but is not limited to): Native peoples and people of color; people living and/or born/raised in underrepresented cultures and countries; disabled persons; people with illness; people on marginalized ends of the socioeconomic, cultural and/or religious spectrum; people identifying as LGBTQIA+; and more.
What kind of work can you submit?
The participating agents and editors are looking for a variety of work, including all categories of fiction for adults, teens, and children, as well as nonfiction—as long as they qualify per the paragraph above.
Please only pitch your completed, unpublished manuscripts.
How do you submit?
Your pitch must fit the 140-character max, and must also include the hashtag #DVpit.
Please try to include category and/or genre hashtags in your pitch.
We will trust that your pitch is for a diverse book, but if you want a quick way to make the diversity in your work more apparent in your short pitch (and you can fit a few more characters), I also encourage you to include an abbreviation as an easier way to get that information across. Examples: OWN (to suggest #ownvoices), POC, LGBT, DIS (disability), IMM (immigration), etc.
These codes are up to you—I’m in no place to judge or police how, or even if, you box your experience. If you’ve already perfected your pitch and/or simply don’t see the value in including these codes, please remember they are optional. You will *not* be at a disadvantage if you don’t include them! If you do want to add, please make the abbreviation as clear and straightforward as possible for our agents/editors.
Please pitch no more than once per hour, per manuscript. You may use the same pitch, or shake things up by using different pitches for the same project. You may pitch more than one project at a time, as long as they are completed and unpublished.
Please do not tweet the agents/editors directly!
The event will run from 8:00AM EST until 8:00PM EST, so please only tweet your pitches during that block of time.
What happens next?
Agents/editors will your “like” your pitch tweet if they’d like to see material from you, so please don’t “like” other authors’ pitches. Please also do not retweet. To show support, you can always reply with compliments.
Each agent/editor will have their own preferences for receiving submissions, so if you get a “like” from someone, please refer to their Twitter feed to see what they ask for, and how you can contact them.
All of these agents/editors are invested in finding more marginalized voices, so if you’re comfortable with it (and ONLY if you are comfortable with it), you are encouraged you to self-identify in your query, or just simply let us know that the story and/or character(s) reflect your own experience (or even in your pitch if you have the space and the inclination).
If you see that multiple agents/editors from the same group have “liked” your pitch, please contact them directly for their policy, or reach out to Beth Phelan who can help you find out.
Keep in mind that many agents/editors will get sidetracked with their usual work or unexpected crises and may have to revisit the feed after the event is over. So don’t be surprised if you receive “likes” after the period closes!
Who is participating?
Over 50 agents and editors will be participating, and since this is a public event, more are likely to join in on the day! Our own Stacy Whitman, publisher of our Tu Books imprint, will be participating. See the full list here.
Please be sure to research any agent or publisher that “likes” your pitch. There is no obligation to submit your work to anyone you don’t want to.
For more details and a list of resources to help with your pitch, visit Beth Phelan’s post. Best of luck and happy pitching!
Looking online for resources as a new writer can be confusing. If you google “how to get a book published,” many of the first results you see are ads for resources that are sketchy at best—pay-to-play publishing, self publishing, vanity publishing. (While self publishing is a valid route, it’s important to know all your options before deciding self publishing is the right way for you.)
Change the query to “how to get a children’s book published” and the results aren’t much better. Eventually you may stumble on the helpful Frequently Asked Questions page for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), an excellent resource for new writers looking to improve their craft and figure out the publication process. But navigating all the resources out there, good and bad, can be tricky.
Sometimes, you need to cut through the layers of information overload and just learn from publishing professionals directly. This is where writing conferences come in—which offer this and much more.
There are many good writing conferences across the United States (and the world). The SCBWI has local chapters that host monthly events, and the regional chapters tend to host at least one writing conference a year to which they bring editors and agents from New York City and elsewhere to teach, network with attendees, and critique their work. Many writers come away from conferences having met multiple like-minded writers with whom they can start a critique group. Other organizations also host more intensive workshops, such as Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers, a conference that has gained national acclaim.
While these conferences are excellent general resources—and many of them are working hard to become more welcoming spaces for writers of color—we also recognize that without meaning to, sometimes general spaces don’t give writers of color the support they need in an industry dominated by white editors, agents, and authors. There is something to be said for a conference that begins with a mission to connect writers of color with information about publishing—from publishing 101, to improving craft, to networking with publishing professionals.
One such conference is Kweli Journal’s children’s book writing conference, which is holding its second annual writing conference on April 9 at Scandinavia House in New York City. The conference is only $100 for a full day’s programming (this is a really good price for a conference like this) and more than 25 authors, editors, and agents will be on panels and teaching workshops throughout the day.
The keynote speaker will be Edwidge Danticat, author of the Oprah’s Book Club pick Breath, Eyes, Memory and the YA novel Untwine, among many other acclaimed titles. Our own Joseph Bruchac, author of Quick Picks Top Ten title Killer of Enemiesand more than 120 other books, will be there, as will Stacy Whitman, the publisher of our Tu Books imprint. Jessica Echeverria will be at the conference representing our picture book editorial team.
In the morning after the keynote, authors will learn from publishing professionals about how the publishing process works, and what their options are (self publishing, small presses, large publishers, whether you need an agent), and then the afternoon will break out into roundtables and critiques.
For a full list of publishing professionals who will be at the conference, check out the Kweli Journal website. We hope to meet you at the conference!
When: Saturday, April 9, 2016, 8 am — 8 pm
Where: Scandinavia House, 58 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10016
These are only a small sampling of the excellent writing conferences out there. If you’re going to Kweli, let us know so we can look for you! If you can’t make it, feel free to recommend your favorite writing conference to learn about writing for children and teens.
Nathan here! My good friend Christine Pride is a talented freelance editor who has worked for Random House and Hyperion and edited eight NY Times bestselling books. Oh, and I also hired her to edit my guide to writing a novel. Christine has a wealth of experience, and I'm excited to share her post on how best to work with a freelance editor.
Thank you Nathan! It’s so nice to be “here” in this vibrant community of writers.
When I decided to leave the “cushy” comforts of corporate publishing in the fall of 2012 to strike out on my own as an editorial consultant, it was with the idea of, among other things, ditching all of the less appealing aspects of the job (endless meetings, office politics, etc.) to focus more on what I love: the actual editing. And true to my wishes, the purity of the work has been a real treat, and incredibly fulfilling and meaningful—beyond what I could even have hoped.
(The freedom to wear loungewear in the office is icing on the cake.)
In the past three years, I’ve worked with more than a hundred writers, across many different genres, to help them refine their projects and improve their craft; to commit to their goals and deadlines, and to navigate through the publishing process, which let’s be honest can be both mystifying and intimidating. I’m so proud of the successes so many of them have experienced and are cheering them the loudest knowing just how hard they’ve worked and how much they’ve invested.
It’s no secret that getting an agent or a book deal is no easy feat. That’s true today more than ever given the changes in the industry, which have left agents and publishers with less of the time, resources and inclination to take a chance on a flyer or to invest in what we would sometimes call, “fixer uppers,” the books that show promise but need quite a bit of editorial work to be ready for primetime. So it’s more important than ever before that when you approach an agent with your work it is as polished, perfected and as salable as possible for you to have the best chance at success.
Meanwhile, the self-publishing marketplace is growing exponentially, and gives writers a wonderful (and often lucrative) pathway to bring their books to readers. But in that landscape too, the bar is high and readers have come to expect that the quality and caliber of the product will be on par with those coming from a corporate publisher.
A professional can offer you the unbiased feedback and narrative insight in terms of what readers, agents and editors are looking for that can take your book from good to great.
That said, though the benefits might be clear, it’s a big decision, and it’s a big investment, of hundreds or thousands of dollars, not to mention your precious time in addressing the feedback and suggestions from your editor. So you want to carefully consider whether it’s right for you and if you decide that it is, to go into the process armed with as much information possible to make the most of the process.
With that in mind, I offer you these tips:
Do your research
As you would if you were looking for a doctor, contractor or nanny, hiring any professional requires you to vet them in terms of their experience, expertise and fit with your particular needs.
It’s always nice to start with a referral, if you know any fellow writers who have successfully worked with an editor. You can also be in touch with literary agents you admire to ask them (or someone on their staff) for a recommendation. Agents often have a team of “go to” independent editors to whom they refer clients (because as I said they often don’t have time to do the editorial shaping themselves, even if they see promise in a project). You can also comb through other resources like writer focused websites (like this terrific one!) or publications like Poets and Writers or Narrative where editors may advertise.
Once you have a name, or a few, you’ll want to Google them and make sure they have solid credentials, a professional presence online and testimonials. Bear in mind that not all editors have the same level of experience. An editor or agent who has worked in the industry is going to have an insider perspective, along with keen editorial insights honed from working in the trenches. Which is not to say that you wouldn’t have a wonderful experience with an editor who hasn’t worked at one of the big publishing houses, but that experience does offer a premium.
It’s always nice to have a chat with the editor (or editors) you’re considering as well, to talk a little more about your project and to get a gut feel for him or her. Do you enjoy talking to this person (after all you will likely be doing a lot of that)? Is this someone you could trust with your work? Do they have experience and/or in interest in the type of book you’re writing?
Many editors will also agree to do a sample edit of ten or so pages. I, personally, don’t think sample edits are a very useful tool since edits are so holistic and it’s the bigger picture feedback on the plot, characters, etc. that’s going to make the most impact on your book. But if you just want to get a sense of what an edit from this person will look like, this could be helpful to you. Be clear about your needs, goals and expectations
There are many different points in your writing journey that you may want to consult with a professional editor. Don’t be afraid to tailor the services to exactly what’s going to be most helpful to you; most editors are happy to be flexible in terms of services and collaborative style.
Maybe you’d just like a topline read and some overall honest feedback. Perhaps you need a review of your query letter to make sure it hits the mark. Maybe you’d like to talk through a new book idea before you get too far down the road with it. Or, as is the most common, maybe you have a finished draft and would like the editor to provide detailed margin and line notes and an editorial letter (known as a development edit) to guide your next revision.
Make sure your editor knows your ultimate goals—to get an agent, to self-publish, to hone your craft, etc. Being clear about your goals and expectations will make sure you and your editor have the most productive collaboration.
Be mindful of your budget
A comprehensive development edit is likely going to run you in the range of $1500 and up, depending on a variety of factors. Some editors will charge by the hour and some will offer a flat fee; it’s typical that half will be due when you start the scope of work and half will be due when it’s complete. Don’t be afraid to say to your editor, “Look, I have $2000 to spend here, what’s the best way to maximize that?”
There are ways to cut corners and an editor will often give you different options that are within your budget. You can also shop around because prices can vary from editor to editor based on their level of experience and demand. Also remember that this expense could be tax deductible in most cases—check with your accountant or the IRS.
One way to keep costs down (and to work most effectively) is to polish and perfect your project as much as you can before you invite the help of an editor. This is where your writing group comes in handy or your friend who’s willing to read. This initial (free) feedback can help you address obvious trouble/blind spots, getting you that much farther down the road. Or you may approach an editor for top-line feedback first and then do a preliminary revision for returning to them for a deeper edit.
Be open-minded and willing to do the work
Any collaboration with an editor is only going to be as good as the work you put into it. Revising and responding to feedback is JUST as important to being a successful writer as raw talent itself. I would argue even more so.
When I was an in-house editor the average book I acquired would still go through two to four more rounds of edits and that was after the author got a book deal! So imagine the rounds of revisions to get it to that point.
Prepare yourself for that and know that a good editor is going to give you a lot of notes, thoughts and ideas and you should have an open mind in terms of any and all feedback and options presented. A teacher, a coach, a friend, a mentor and a writing adviser, the best freelance editors are all of that rolled into one (with a dash of therapist throw in for good measure!)
The right collaboration can be meaningful, productive and get you closer to your writing goals and I hope this information and advice gives you a better understanding of the process and how to make the most of it.
Actor/writer John Cleese once said to an audience that in order to be creative, two things must occur: you need to create boundaries, and make time. That’s it. Even if you write or paint or woodwork for one hour, you MUST shut yourself in a space, and let no one in for one hour. Writers would sure benefit from wearing a turtle’s shell so we could withdraw from the world any time we wanted! LOL!
Early mornings are a popular working time for many writers and artists, for a few obvious reasons. If you get up early enough, you can generally count on being free from visitors, phone calls, and other interruptions. And if you go straight to work on your creative project—if you literally put it first in your day—you can guarantee that your working time won’t be derailed by other commitments or temptations.
So how do you acquire that coveted time to write? This has been an ongoing obstacle for many writers, including yours truly. Especially when life gets messy. And trust me, it does! I guess the best advice that I can give is that you need to make sacrifices. Instead of watching three TV shows with your better half, cut back one or two (pick your favorite to watch), then scurry to your writing lair and put your fingers to the keyboard. Lock yourself in your room. Tell your family members that once the door is closed for the set amount of time you’ve chosen, you’re not available. Period. Even if someone screams bloody murder. If you need to, buy earphones, download a music app, and plug in. This will help to keep those distractions out and the words flowing.
Another option is GET OUT of the house and go to your local coffee shop or library. Many authors have chosen this avenue with great success. Libraries have more confining hours, but most coffee shops are open 24 hours. The idea is to create both time and space for yourself to write. Plus, you’ve got fresh coffee or tea on demand, so that’s a bonus!
A more expensive idea if you can swing it is to rent a motel or hotel room for a personal writing retreat. You might be able to get a good deal during off-season periods, or even use those air miles you’ve been saving to cash in on a room. What about using a friend’s home or apartment a few times a week? The possibilities are available, but we have to utilize them.
This upcoming year, I need to make some sacrifices and define my space (physical and emotional) in order to finish writing the next installment of my time travel series (so close!), and start brainstorming the next book. I’m lucky enough to have my own writing office, and there’s no little ones around to knock on the door. Unless my 100 pound yellow Labrador decides to nudge open the door to be fed or walked! I’ve used a timer in the past, but like anything, if it’s not made a habit, it’s not going to work. Self-discipline is the name of the game in this business, that’s for sure! So keep a stiff upper lip, define your writing space and time, and get that book written!
How do you define your boundaries as a writer? Where are some great places you like to write? Do you allow yourself a certain amount of time to write? Would love to read your comments! Cheers and thank you for reading my blog!
Of course, I recently wrote a book in which a young Wrimo gets published, Afterworlds, and I’ve been close to the NaNo organization for a while. (I’m on their Writers Board, and here’s a pep talk I did for them.) But I’ve never technically done NaNo itself—writing the first draft of a novel in November.
But now I have this secret project due in early December, and I see that it’s a few days before Halloween. It’s all coming together! So I’ll be posting my word count and chugging along with the rest of you.
If you want to know more about the concept and the organization, click here.
Need some inspiration in telling your own story? Here’s NaNo’s Sarah Mackey speaking at NerdCon about why stories matter:
The leaves are changing in the northeast and there's a chill in the air. It can only mean one thing: You are about to devote yourself to the greatest writing fest ever scheduled during a month when you are also supposed to spend time with loved ones and eat turkey.
Yes indeed, National Novel Writing Month is nearly upon us once again! Are you going for it? Are you? Are you doing it? Do you hear the pestering in my voice?
November is novel writing month! I’ve decided to expand the secret gift I was going to send a writer friend of mine, and send out daily writing inspiration and tips to anyone else who would like them! Here are the details. Sign up and let’s write!
The first tip I would like to give new writers about revision is to understand that there is a difference between revising, editing, and proofreading. Editing and proofreading cover word economy, word choices, and grammatical errors. But true revision runs deeper. Revision is Rethinking, Reseeing, and Reworking your ideas, your voice, and your plot into an engaging masterpiece.
After I’ve written my first draft, I already know that it’s going to be BAD. Too wordy, somewhat disconnected, and possibly even confusing. The idea of it all is to capture those fast and furious and jumbled thoughts on paper in some sort of order, and then mold and shape them into a sensible, readable, and hopefully publishable manuscript.
One of my first steps in revision is making sure I have a steady flow to my storyline. I’m looking for a beginning to hook my reader, a middle to engage them, and a satisfactory ending. I try to make sure I’ve provided explanation to possible questions my readers may have by using subtle descriptions, active verbs, and concise word choices that will paint the best pictures and explain my thoughts. Once my story has taken shape, I call in my “critical crew” (family and friends) to read my first draft. Reading out loud helps me hear my mistakes and/or thoughts and also highlights areas that may not be as clear to the reader as I thought. I can also tell from my critical crew’s feedback, whether or not my writing is making the impact I desire it to make. After pouring my heart out and letting it get “trampled” on by loving, supportive family and friends, it’s time to let the story (and my heart) rest for a while (a few days, a week, a month, or however long it takes). This “waiting period” is a good time to do further research on your topic (if applicable) just in case you run across a fresh idea or different aspect that can be added to enhance the story during the second revision stage.
During the next stage of revision, I’m able to read my manuscript with “fresh eyes.” I try to make sure that what I’ve written says what I want it to say in a way the reader will understand. Then I try to perfect my voice and dialogue to make sure they are as realistic and powerful as they can be. This is when I pull in those editorial and proofreading skills, to challenge myself with better word choices and sentence structures that will give the effect I’m looking for. I incorporate any new research ideas that may clarify or give a little more detail to vague thoughts or ideas. Then it’s time to call in the critical crew again. After another round of reading aloud and analyzing, I repeat the process over and over again, until I feel satisfied with my manuscript as a writer, and the critical crew leaves my heart feeling elated.
Are you sure you want to see my self-revision process? I’m going to warn you now. It’s really messy. I mean, SUPER MESSY.
There are two stages of revision for me. For REVISION STAGE 1.0, I spend the majority of time just brainstorming. NO actual writing is involved, other than jotting down casual notes. I ask myself tough questions about character motivation, emotional journeys, and voice. I brainstorm a storyline or plot based on what I discover about my character’s journey. This includes using index cards and outlines. For old school longhand, I use both yellow legal pads with a clipboard and my trusty Moleskine notebook. When I’m on my MacBook laptop or iPad, I use my favorite writing software apps – Scrivener, Scapple, Index Card, and Omm Writer.
So during the brainstorming time, I’m actually constantly revising as I free-associate and slowly build, tear down, and rebuild the structure for my story. This Revision Stage 1.0 of brainstorming is a writing process I was taught as a professional TV drama writer/producer. In TV, writers are not allowed to write the first draft of a script until they have brainstormed the story beats non-stop and have crafted a detailed, solid outline in which every single story point and character emotional arc has been mapped out completely.
Once I’m done with this brainstorming/revision session, I write. There’s no revision here. I just write straight from the heart. It’s raw and messy and inspired.
THEN I enter REVISION STAGE 2.0. This is where I print out what I wrote, find my favorite coffeehouse or library, and curl up on a comfy sofa chair or take over a library study carrel or coffeehouse corner table, and whip out the red pen. Yes, I use red ink. I wear glasses (bifocals too!), so red is just easier for me to read.
I simultaneously line edit (based on my former life as a newspaper and magazine journalist) and also jot down revision notes for the Bigger Picture. Some Bigger Picture revision questions include: Does the character’s inner personality and struggle organically inspire every single plot point and twist in the storyline? Do the story beats align in a logical and structured manner? Is there any “on the nose” dialogue I can tweak to be more natural sounding and even subtextual? Have I grounded the setting in each scene? And so on.
I also handwrite new lines or ideas or snippets of dialogue that float into my brain as I revise.
Once I’m done with this red pen marking mess, I then input everything into the computer in a new file (either a new folder in Scrivener or a new document in Word). Then I make a copy of that revised file and add a new date to it and start fleshing that version out more on the computer.
Then I move onto writing new material (either new scenes or chapters). When I’m stuck or need a break or want to pause and re-examine the new stuff I’ve just written, I print everything out and grab the red pen. Rinse and repeat.
In other words, I’m constantly revising. I’m never not revising. I told you, my self-revision process was messy! But it’s worth it in the end when a beautiful book rises out of that big crazy messy pile of red pen marks.
Once I have completed the first draft of a picture book, I put it away and start working on another manuscript.
I go back to the first manuscript and read it with fresh eyes. As I read it, I make changes. I read it again and again, over the course of days, each time making changes, big and small.
Once I can read the whole thing, without making a single change, I know that it is almost there! I put it away again.
When I come back to it and can read it again without revising, I give it to my sister, Jenny, the retired librarian, to read.
I tell her that I think it is perfect and that she is not going to find a single thing that needs to be changed. Jenny gives me a smug look and says, “Okay.”
Later, we get together and she offers her ideas and critiques. I get annoyed. Why? Because her suggestions are always spot on. I revise based on her opinions, and it always makes the manuscript better (I admit reluctantly). I keep revising until we both think it is perfect. At that point, I am ready to send it to my agent. She usually offers ideas from her unique perspective that I take into account and revise the manuscript again.
I actually enjoy revising. I appreciate the input of my agent, editor—and my sister (but don’t tell her. It will go to her head).
~ Trust your gut. I know, I know. Your mother kept saying this and you looked at her cross-eyed.
What in the heck does that MEAN?
Well--it means yes, take those classes, read children's literature, find a critique group, attend conferences, read how-to books...
...but give yourself the silence in which to discover that still, small voice within. She's there, I promise. But she whispers. The crazy clutter of our culture makes is hard to locate her (and Honey, it's only going to get worse, believe me. Buckle your seat belt.)
She knows when that marvelous critique group is sending your story in the wrong direction, when the business advice you just heard from the podium does not fit your work habits or your style or your something-else.
Trust her. Wander with her. She usually doesn't take the well-traveled path.
~ Be patient. Ha ha--that's a good one, right? When you're still in your twenties, your very smart husband will say."Y'know...I think we'll both reach our peak in our 50s and 60s." HA! He can't be right, can he?
~ Keep creating content. That is, keep writing books. Because one day you could look up after visiting 19 gazillion schools, and you'll not only be exhausted to the bone...but your books will begin going out of print. ACK!
So yes, accept invitations to do school visits and teach workshops, because you love teaching. But be careful not to let them take over your writing time like some big blobby thing.
It's so tempting, isn't it? Your ego is definitely well-fed by those second graders who think you're the Queen of England.
That's all, Kiddo. You'll do fine.
Oh--one more thing: slow down when you read your beautiful kid bedtime stories. I know, I know: you want to get to your work, but trust me...take a breath, take your time, and soak in the pleasure of reading to your kid.
P.S: I know you're not going to take any of this advice. And that's okay, too.
TO MY TEEN SELF by April Halprin Wayland
Michael is lying. Michael is lying. I know that you're flying on wings of romance. His teeth gleam, he loves you--well, at least at first glance. But Michael is caught in the web he is weaving Michael is out the door. Michael is leaving. Michael is lying. Michael is lying. Oh, dear. It's coming: the Niagara of crying.
poem and drawing (c) 2015 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.
The death of a villain can inspire a wide range of emotions, from happiness and gratitude, to sorrow and remorse. I love me a good villain, and some of my favourite story moments are the amazing death scenes some villains are granted. That is, of course, assuming the death is indeed amazing and not an affront to their character arc. I am so in love with the closure of a good villain death that a bad one can ruin the entire story for me.
So without further ado, here are some pet peeves of mine: cheap villain death tropes I’d love to see gone forever, and how they can maybe be flipped around.
Oftentimes a cheap villain death is the result of a deus ex machina: the hero doesn’t actually have the means to kill the villain because they’re too damn awesome, so the villain accidentally dies when they slip and fall off a cliff during the final fight. Unless the hero has actual control over how the villain dies, such as a clever plan to lure them to the edge, this is the cheapest of cheap deaths.
Accidental death can only work if the villain is immediately replaced by an even greater threat to the hero that has somehow been vaguely hinted at or foreshadowed beforehand so it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Perhaps they’re fighting on an active volcano that suddenly explodes and kills the villain. The foreshadowing is in the fact that it’s active, and the bigger threat is the indiscriminate firebombing and hot ash the hero now has to escape—bigger, because volcanoes don’t think, so the hero can’t guess what its next move might be. This will still feel a little cheap if it’s not well done, however, because as it’s your story, you can choose when the volcano blows, and choosing to kill an antagonist with a natural disaster over which the hero has no control is underwhelming. The other problem in this kind of scenario is that as soon as the hero is out of the volcano’s range, safety is within reach even if the volcano hasn’t been destroyed, compared to the hero still being in constant potential danger if the villain were still alive.
The only good kind of accidental death is when the new threat is worse than the old, it has an active agenda, and it’s not directly connected to the villain. In fact, in these situations, this big annoyance of mine can be totally turned around into something brilliant. If the new threat is something which even the old villain had no concept of, you’re not only effectively upping the ante by making the old villain look like a schoolyard bully, you’re also vastly expanding your universe. If you set up your story well, dropping hints here and there of all the possible people (or monsters) in such a way that a new threat is plausible, you can follow up the old villain with a new, terrifying and vast enemy that will make your hero feel incredibly small and will eventually make the victory that much sweeter. But in this case, the old villain isn’t the true villain of the story; they’re more of a stepping stone. And since stepping stones are not an ending but part of the journey, the old villain’s accidental death won’t feel cheap: it’ll lead to something bigger.
Death is also cheap when the villain’s intelligence is insulted. More than any, I hate this kind of death the most. If the villain is really smart, the hero’s going to have a hell of a time luring them to a cliff. Unless they have no choice, the odds that smart characters would willingly put themselves in dangerous positions are very low. There is nothing more frustrating than watching an otherwise remarkable and cerebral villain suddenly become a half-wit so that the hero can defeat them. Not to mention it makes the hero’s victory completely hollow. The most satisfying time to defeat an enemy is when their faculties are at full power, anyway. Why blunt their intellect if you’ve worked so hard to write them as smart, effectively making the reader anticipate an ending where they’re finally outsmarted?
The only time this convenient stupidity can be forgiven is in comedy. This kind of thing can make for a good punchline. However, it also relies on your story being a parody. Otherwise, it’s a glaring continuity error and an unfair way of treating both your villain and hero, because following the kill, the hero will develop a reputation of only being able to defeat enemies when they mysteriously become very weak.
My final pet peeve is a classic villain trait: arrogance. It’s a frustrating reason for a villain’s death, mostly because it isn’t very original, but also because I have a personal bias toward villains that don’t think of themselves as unbeatable, since people act in more interesting ways if they think they’re being threatened. If we revisit the accidental death scenario, and consider again why it’s better for the new, bigger threat to have little to no connection to the old villain, another reason would be that if the new threat were the villain’s fault, their character becomes an archetype for hubris: “His ego made him blind,” “He thought he could control the strain.” This isn’t a terrible thing, but if manmade threats are the worst possible ones in your world, you could argue that you’re restricting yourself.
They also make for really annoying characters. The ones that yell “I’m invincible!” as they’re dying are pathetic, and I always thought they cast a shadow over the hero’s victory. Not to mention, defeating a villain whose fatal flaw is hubris tends to involve a formulaic take-down by people who ultimately come across as preachy and say things like “You can’t play God,” or “He flew too close to the sun.”
However, hubris can be a genuinely interesting character trait. And there are times when I really enjoy it. But I’ve noticed that every single one of those times, the hubris was something I discovered afterwards upon reflection; something that wasn’t told to me, but that I began to understand as I considered the story from start to finish. In other words, if you’re going to give your villain a god complex, no need to shout it from the hills. Subtlety is a pretty nice touch.
So there they are. Three massive and common villain death pet peeves of my very own. Obviously, they are tailored to my personal tastes. I’d love to hear yours.
LEE & LOW BOOKS has two writing contests for unpublished authors of color: the New Voices Award, for picture book manuscripts, and the New Visions Award, for middle grade and young adult manuscripts.Both contests, which are now open for submissions aim to recognize the diverse voices and talent among new authors of color who might otherwise remain under the radar of mainstream publishing.
In this guest post, we wanted to highlight another groundbreaking writing contest that’s bringing attention to marginalized voices and fostering a love of writing in students: the Celebrate America Writing Contest run by the American Immigration Council. Coming into its 19th year, the Celebrate America Writing Contest for fifth graders has been bringing attention to the contributions of immigrants in America through the eyes and pens of our youngest writers.
In this guest post, Claire Tesh, Senior Manager of Education at the American Immigration Council, discusses the mission of the Celebrate America Writing Contest and how it has helped to shape the immigration narrative.
It is impossible to escape the negative vitriol and hateful rhetoric around the issue of immigration that dominates the headlines, talk radio, popular culture, and in some cases the dinner table. In an effort to educate children and communities about the value of immigration to our society The American Immigration Council teams up with schools and community groups to provide young people the resources and information necessary to think critically about immigration from both a historical and contemporary perspective, while working collaboratively and learning about themselves and their communities.
The American Immigration Council developed “Celebrate America,” an annual national creative writing contest for fifth graders, because they are at the age where they are discovering their place in the world both locally and globally. They are also finding their own voice, opinions and ideas through writing, creating and sharing. Students at this age start making sense of current events; they have a better working knowledge of basic history, and have a sense of global awareness.
Thousands of Entries
“Celebrate America” began 19 years ago with just a couple dozen entries. Today it has grown to over 5,000 entries annually! Since 1997 a total of close to 75,000 students have participated in two dozen cities, in nearly 750 schools and community centers across the nation.
As the lead on the contest since 2006, I have read thousands of entries and have attended numerous events featuring the writers. It is difficult to pick just one example, but in 2008 the winning entry America is a Refuge really showed how much a 10-12 year old can comprehend about the issue. That year, the winner, Cameron Busby, explained to a reporter from the Tucson Citizen that “I want to be a horror writer when I grow up,” and in order to tell the story of America being a place people come to be safe and thrive, he used bits and pieces of some of his classmate’s true horror stories of their own or their family member’s immigration journeys. This excerpt shows the young writer’s entry and how he made sense of injustice and how America has always been a nation symbolic as a beacon for hope:
A small child holds out a hoping
a crumb of bread,
or even a penny just to be fed
Hoping America is a refuge. A
child weeps over her mother’s
the tears streaming down her
Praying America is a refuge.
Part of the reason why it’s a popular contest is because it fits neatly with the fifth grade curriculum and it is easy for teachers to implement by offering timely lessons and expository learning opportunities from classroom visits by experts to interactive web-based games. The contest is unique in that it allows for any written work that captures the essence of why the writer is proud that America is a nation of immigrants and students can express themselves through narrative, descriptive, expository, or persuasive writings, poetry, and other forms of written expressions. The teaching and learning opportunities the contest brings to both the classroom and the community has made it very popular and most teachers who participate do so year after year.In the Classroom
Monica Chun, a teacher from Seattle who has participated in the contest for several years and whose student, Erin Stark, was a national winner in 2013, starts the assignment by asking students to ask their relatives at home a question: “Who was the first person in our family to come to America?” No matter what ethnicity or how recent or distant a family’s arrival be, every student is going to have a unique answer to this question.
Involving the Community
”Celebrate America” encourages youth, families and surrounding communities to evaluate and appreciate the effects of immigration in their own lives. The unique contest includes the following components:
Immigration attorneys or trained volunteers visit classrooms, whether in person or virtually. The visitors give short presentations about the history of American immigration and the contributions immigrants have made over the years;
Teachers complement the contest by implementing lessons about immigration, social justice and diversity into their curriculum;
The American Immigration Council provides classrooms with innovative, relevant, and interactive lessons and resources;
Communities organize events, naturalization ceremonies and other celebrations to showcase the local winners;
The winning entry from each locale is sent to the national office and judged by well-known journalists, immigration judges and award winning authors;
The winning entry is read into the Congressional record, a flag is flown over the Capitol in the winner’s honor and the winner reads their entry at a 700+ person event that celebrates immigration; and
In the submissions the youth voice brings hope that there will be solutions to the immigration debate.
The American Immigration Council believes that teachers, parents, and students are essential to building a collective movement toward a better future: in our classrooms, in our schools, and in the larger society. With the community’s engagement, educators, parents and students can help bridge this divide and approach the issue of immigration with intelligence and empathy.
The contest has an impact not only in the schools and communities that participate, but also in the halls of Congress. Each year when the winning entry is read into the Congressional Record, it is rewarding to know that our leaders are hearing words of wisdom from a young person who has big ideas and who has chosen to use their voice to invite others to learn about immigration and to celebrate America’s diversity.
When the winning entries are read to new citizens at naturalization ceremonies or at dinner galas in communities of all sizes, almost every attendee has tears in their eyes because the young readers are speaking from their hearts and they represent the future. Each and every year the young writers continue to surprise us with the depth and empathy in their writings whether it is their common sense solutions to an immigration system or the story of their own immigrant background. Any writer, no matter how old and how experienced, should look at these entries to get a sense for authentic voice and various styles of writing. The thousands of students who submit to the contest get recognized in their communities and the affect is exponential because students start in the classroom and their voice continues to be shared within their schools, within their communities and beyond.
The students participating in “Celebrate America” are America’s future citizens, voters, educators and activists and it is truly an honor to shape the contest so that it provides some of the tools to think critically about immigration and to learn to explore the economic and moral effects of immigration policy as they engage in the public debates. But, today as we try to navigate the complicated maze that is immigration law and policy, it is through their incredible choice of words, that they are our guides, our teachers, and our voices of reason.
For further information on eligibility and submission process:
Prompts are all around us. When I do school visits, I refer to the place where our imaginations live as the “Cosmic Goo,” and urge them to wander outside looking and listening to the wonders that spark our imaginations to awake. Nature is a never-ending source of writing inspirations. Because I am a voracious reader, I glean phrases from the books I devour. Since the end of 2011, I have written a poem a day as the means to jump-start my prose writing. I use many of the phrases I’ve underlined in the books I own for my daily poetry prompt.
My favorite writing prompt is to write from the point of view of an animal. It’s a writing exercise I teach in my writing classes as well. I love this writing exercise not only because I’m an animal lover and Crazy Cat Lady (ha) but because it forces you to think from the point of view of someone who is definitely NOT YOU. You have to know and embody the nature and physicality of the animal character, and it forces you to look at story and emotion with a new perspective. It’s a great exercise for point of view writing, and it helps me when I do write another children’s book because I am very conscious of writing from a child’s perspective, which is so different from mine as an adult.
I don’t really write from prompts, but what I try to use as a guideline for all my writing is the use of sensory details: Seeing, Hearing, Feeling, Smelling and Tasting. It’s not always relevant to include all of these details, but it’s good to include at least 3 within a scene. If I feel that I can’t move forward in a story, I’ll “step inside” my character and try to figure out what “I” am seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling or tasting at that point. If my character is neutral, then it’s time to rewrite the scene.
I enjoy finding and thinking about interesting writing prompts, but I don’t have a favorite. I have to confess, when it comes to writing prompts, I usually don’t get past the “thinking about it” stage. However, I used to work for a daily newspaper, and I learned from that experience how valuable it can be to cultivate a habit of writing – in a structured way – every day. And I turn to newspapers, sometimes, when I’m stuck or need a place to start. Headlines can make for some pretty great prompts. Direct quotes are even better – like an overheard piece of conversation. Here’s one that helped me pull FINDING THE MUSIC into focus: “He wanted to rest in peace, but with music.”
“What is one man’s colon is another man’s comma.” ~ Mark Twain
As a writing teacher, and a working writer, I found the greatest challenge is learning the fine art of punctuation. The secret, I discovered, is writing for the reader's eye. Understanding how the reader approaches text offers you key insight into how to write with clarity and grace.
Readers approach the text by moving left to right. Readers interpret information by this forward projection. Readers expect subject-verb-object structures in sentences. They tend to focus on the verb that resolves the sentence's syntax, and in so doing, tend to resist information until after the verb is identified. This is why concrete subjects and action-oriented verbs carry the weight of the sentence. If the subject is vague or nonexistent, or the verb is passive, the sentence often falls apart.
Because readers project forward, they intuitively search for the subject, skimming over qualifying clauses or phrases that precede the subject. This becomes important in longer sentences, when the subject does not debut until mid-way or beyond. This is why subjects placed as close to the opening of the sentence as possible make for stronger sentences.
Active voice maintains this forward process. It originates with the grammatical subject, flows through the verb, and results in an outcome. Some research suggests that readers understand and remember information more readily when structure corresponds to this cause-effect sequence. Passive structure forces this action in reverse: a subject is either implied or supplied in a subordinate phrase, and the outcome becomes the grammatical subject.
The rhythm of a narrative is found in its punctuation. As sentences crash and fall “like the waves of the sea,” punctuation becomes the music of the language, says Noah Lukeman, in one of my favorite reads, A Dash of Style (2006).
Periods are the stop signs, says Lukeman, and hold the most power in the punctuation universe.
All other marks – the comma, the dash, the colon and semi-colon, and so on – serve only to modify what lies between the periods. Sometimes a usurper, like the exclamation point or the question mark, intervenes, but its control is temporary. Imagine a book without periods, or a book that has periods after every word, and you begin to understand its supreme power.
A well-placed period, especially in battle with one of its usurpers, helps pacing and adds emphasis. It speeds the narrative up in an action-sequence, heightening the drama. For example, can you hear the drum beat in this passage from my book, Girls of Gettysburg (Holiday House, 2014)?
Bayonets glistening in the hot sun, the wall of men stepped off the rise in perfect order. The cannoneers cheered as the soldiers moved through the artillery line, into the open fields.
The line had advanced less than two hundred yards when the Federals sent shell after shall howling into their midst.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
The shells exploded, leaving holes where the earth had been. Shells pummeled the marching men. As one man fell in the front of the line, another stepped up to take his place. Smoke billowed into a curtain of white, thick and heavy as fog, stalking them across the field.
Still they marched on. They held their fire, waiting for the order.
Boom! A riderless horse, wide-eyed and bloodied, emerged from the cloud of smoke. It screamed in panic as another shell exploded.
Boom! All around lay the dead and dying. There seemed more dead than living now. Men fell legless, headless, armless, black with burns and red with blood.
Boom! They very earth shook with the terrible hellfire.
Still they marched on.
Long sentences can be very effective to heighten emotional drama even as it slows the action down. In another example from Girls of Gettysburg: “Dawn broke still as pond water, and the army was already on the march, moving east along the Pike. As the bloody sun broke free of the horizon, the mist rose, too. The air heated steadily, another hellfire day.”
But, as the cliché reminds us, there can be too much of a good thing (except chocolate, of course). A string of short sentences can become a choppy ride. Like riding in a Model T Ford. Stuck in the wrong gear. Chug! Chug! Chug! Going over a rutted road. It bounces. And bounces. And bounces. My head hurts. Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Stop. This. Car. And. Let. Me. Out.
And no one wants to read a sentence that never ends, one that goes on and on and on and on, in some stream-of-consciousness rambling of fanciful swooping and looping and drooping that serves no purpose other than to satisfy the writer’s ego.
If the period is the stop sign, then the comma is the speed bump, says Lukeman. It controls the ebb and flow of the sentence’s rhythm. A comma connects and divides. In fact, as Lukeman warns, it’s downright schizophrenic. It divides the sentences into parts, clarifying its meaning, or in some cases, changing its meaning. Consider this favorite Facebook meme: A woman, without her man, is nothing. But, with a wave of the magic punctuation wand, it changes to this: A woman: without her, man is nothing.
A comma connects smaller ideas to create a more powerful idea: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Everyone has heard the saying, placing a comma is like taking a breath in a sentence. But a sentence with too many commas sends the reader into hyperventilation. And one with not enough commas forces the reader to hold her breath unto she turns blue. So, where do you place your comma?
There are a thousand handbooks on punctuation, each offering a thousand rules on where and when to place a comma, and each rule has a thousand exceptions. Perhaps the better question is: what is your purpose in using the comma? As a stylistic devise, I offer that it’s one of the most emotive punctuation marks because it mimics the character’s state of mind. For example, from my Girls of Gettysburg, you know this poor character is frightened: “Weezy sang, quiet as a cricket’s whisper. But in the tiny room, in the dark, it seemed loud enough.”
Somewhere between the period and the comma is the semi-colon. This is the mediator, says Lukeman, and “a bridge between the two worlds.” With a style all its own, the semi-colon connects two thematically-related ideas while maintaining the independence of both.
It can be used to smooth out the choppy ride found in a string of short sentences, or give a breath of air in a long-winded sentence.
However, the semi-colon doesn’t always play well with others. It competes for attention with the comma. Because a semi-colon slows the action down, the effect of a comma and, most especially the period, is minimized.
And then there are colons. Colons are just plain bossy. They don't like to share. They especially don’t like semi-colons, despite the similar names. With a flair for the dramatic, colons are the master magicians: they reveal. (<See what I did there?) Colons hold the audience in suspense, says Lukeman. Then, at the right moment, the writer pulls the curtain back to reveal some fundamental truth of the narrative. Remember the Facebook meme example? A woman: without her, man is nothing.
But too often misunderstood and underappreciated, the colon tends to be reduced to mundane tasks, like signaling lists and offering summaries.
Then, of course, there are the dashes, ellipses, slashes and myriad of other punctuation marks. Alas, I’ve run out of space. In the end, as Noah Lukeman says, punctuation is organic, a complex universe subject to the writer’s purpose and personal tastes. What works in one narrative doesn’t work in every narrative. And for every rule, there is an exception. At its core, however, punctuation is a journey of self-awareness and reveals as much about the writer as it does about the writing.
For more information, you might find these useful:
Boyle, Toni and K.D. Sullivan. The Gremlins of Grammar. NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006.
Lukeman, Noah. A Dash of Style. NY: WW Norton, 2006.
“Punctuation in skilled hands is a remarkably subtle system of signals, signs, symbols and winks that keep readers on the smoothest road. Too subtle, perhaps: Has any critic or reviewer ever praised an author for being a master of punctuation, a virtuoso of commas? Has anyone every won a Pulitzer, much less a Nobel, for elegant distinctions between dash and colon, semi-colon and comma? ~ Rene J. Cappon, Associated Press Guide to Punctuation
Eighth-graders frequently seem confused about how grown up they are. And do you blame them? Not me. Twelve to fourteen-year-olds pay adult admission, and are about to make the giant leap into high school, yet they’re not allowed to drive or work. Bummer. Girls, already on the road in developing the forms and functions of grown women, deal with parents who one moment scold, “You’re practically grown up!” and then awhile later become hysterical when their princess ASKS about the ins and outs of dating. Boys, with their physical and sexual maturity just beginning to awaken, are suddenly surrounded by a horde of newly attractive and unnervingly gigantic girls. Yikes!
Most eighth-graders concerns are related to friends, family, and school. Honestly, it’s a social media nightmare at times. Are they going to be embarrassed? Will their BFF still be their friend tomorrow? Does he like me like me, or just like me? You get the drift.
So as a writer, how do you connect with such a tough audience, who’s not quite grown up, yet feel that all systems are go and are ready to wear bigger shoes? One way is to hook into their characteristics, and extract a much needed trait or a combination of traits to make your characters feel authentic to your readers. In order to do this, we need to take a look at what makes an eighth-grader tick.
Here are Eight 8th Grader Characteristics:
1. Can be touchy, and express anger easily.
2. Music is increasingly important to them, as is technology and the latest got-to-have gadget.
3. Sarcasm is a prevalent quality. (I use that one a lot!)
4. As their self-concept develops, they can be withdrawn or prone to challenging others. They struggle with a sense of identity.
5. Abstract reasoning skills are strengthening and expanding.
6. May test limits and rules, but also develop ideals and choose role models.
7. Skin problems may be emerging, boys’ voices are changing, and girls are menstruating. Personal hygiene and self-confidence become issues.
8. May begin to experiment with sex and substances.
Remember, readers this age are looking for escape, to experience things they can’t in their own lives. Being attuned to how they think, and what they’re feeling is a step in the right direction to creating a story that will keep this age group turning page after page of your latest tween read!
I've traveled a rough rough creative year. I found out pouring out my soul is not enough for success. That left me leaning against the walls, sobbing (I know, embarrassing but nevertheless true). I ache inside to write something that actually means something to a multitude of people. I still ache for this, but at to this point I don't really know what words will do that.
Publishing work is a tough thing. A writer scrapes down to the bone, and then goes even further, like stripping pieces of your soul and then handing it out. This is a difficult thing to face: a monumental creative effort of mine was like passing out flyers on the corner of some nameless city and, while a few people went into the show, most just tossed the flyers on the ground and moved on.
Very few care. Not an easy answer for an artist. My first reaction was childish. How dare the folks not love my work. How dare they! There are no gimmicks or tricks in my bag. I have no pile of money to lean on, no celebrity to tap into. I have to rise up on the merits of my words alone. Blue collar girl here, and few of us really get a chance to say anything.
There is more to my story. I have integrity. I didn't just slap some stupid and uncomfortable sex on a page. I didn't try to titillate, seduce or toss on some bondage. I went with the stuff that means a lot to me: honesty, humanity, and small town values -- the golden rule, love your neighbors, and be yourself. Surely this will rise. Surely!
I am really embarrassed right now. Have you ever boasted? I have. I thought for sure I was going to be a player in the writing world. Do you know how painful it is to rejected by an agent because you are just "a midlist author and never are going to be more than that." To be told by really successful editors that your writing is fantastic but it's not likely to connect. I blindly believed they were crazy. Then I put the work out there and find out that those voices were not messing with me. They were trying to be helpful. Why did humility have to be such a hard lesson?
I am pretty sure there must be more truth that no one wants to tell me. They probably think I can't take it, and they are probably right. I read Charlotte's Web, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Book of Three as a kid and thought surely I will find this magic too. People are going to read my books just like those. Now I am beyond 50 years old, and, guess what? Yet, I am still writing, but I have taken a paring knife and cut the strings to success--this kind of success: the attainment of popularity, profit or both.
And here I am living the Blue Bird of happiness story. I found the magic of the stories. What I need is the golden rule, to love my neighbor, and to be myself. I am some pig. I am terrific. I am radiant. I am humble. Love really does take the day and save those I love. And assistant pig farmers find out that that is really what they are and that isn't something to be ashamed of. Everything shines.
When I was very young, most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air, or picked up buildings with one arm. They were spectacular and got a lot of attention. But as I grew, my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me. Fred Rogers
Recently, I have been contemplating what it means to serialize a novel. We wouldn’t have Charles Dickens without serial publishing – nearly all of his novels were serialized back in the day, when magazines published a chapter from stories like A Tale of Two Cities or Bleak House every week or month. Though we moved away from that form of novel publishing, websites like Wattpad have created a resurgence, particularly with YA stories. Writers are able to publish one chapter or segment at a time and obtain reader input as the story progresses, quite possibly changing what the narrative may have otherwise been in a traditionally published format.
I was lucky enough to have Heather Demetrios, author of Something Real and I’ll Meet You There to name a few, answer some of my questions regarding her experiences with this form of publishing, based on her serialized novel, The Lexie Project. If you’ve read Something Real by Heather then you’ll recognize some of the characters in The Lexie Project. Anyone considering launching a serialized or multi-platform project should take Heather’s answers to heart – she has put a lot of work and thought into the story and the social platform, and is ready and willing to share her lessons and expertise. Check out her interview below!
Me: First, tell us about The Lexie Project!
Heather: The Lexie Project is a young/new adult multi-platform story that is being written in real time with crowd sourcing. It’s a satirical look at reality TV and fame: think The Lizzie Bennet Diaries meets Clueless and Keeping Up With The Kardashians. My readers send me comments about what they hope Lexie will do in the future and I take that into consideration as I write. I also incorporate real life current events into the narrative, which takes it to unexpected and interesting places! I’m posting a chapter a week on Wattpad and on The Lexie Project website in addition to blogging as Lexie, tweeting as Lexie, and engaging with readers on Lexie’s other social media sites. I’ve hired an actress to play Lexie in videos and on Instagram. Lexie’s roommate is a YouTube star and so I’ve also hired another actress to play her and post videos. There’s even a podcast interview series with Lexie and “famed” celeb podcaster T.J. Maxxx. As you can see, the story very much incorporates our real life connection to social media and other forms of online media. All the social media and blogging is extra—the story reads as a complete novel on Wattpad itself, so for readers who don’t want to be online too much, they can still have full access to Lexie’s narrative.
Me: Something Real was traditionally published. The Lexie Project is a serialized web novel. What was it about a serial web platform that allowed you to tell this story in a way you couldn’t with traditional publishing?
Heather: I wanted the narrative to have the feel of reality TV and reflect the real-time life of a young celebrity. A novel takes lots of time to write and at least eighteen months between the time it sells and appears on bookshelves. Lexie is nineteen, very much enmeshed in our world of instant gratification fame. I wanted readers to get a sense of what her life is like, how she responds as things happen, whether that be an angry tweet using a hastag that is trending right now (like #SingleBecause) or selfie posted on Instagram. Lexie isn’t going to wait two or more years to tell you how she feels about something—she isn’t even going to wait an hour. In a way, we’ve all become our own biographers, curating our life story as we live it via our social media. Lexie’s doing the same.
Me: What should writers consider before choosing to serialize their own novels on a forum like Wattpad, versus attempting traditional or even self-publishing?
Heather: The first thing is that you don’t get paid writing a story this way and there’s no guarantee it will get picked up by a publisher down the road. Macmillan (my publisher for Lexie’s companion novel, Something Real) has been super supportive, but this project is not under contract with them—and I don’t know if it ever will be. I’m taking a risk here. Of course, I want the book to be published traditionally after I complete the online aspect of it. I think it has potential to do really well in that arena, as well. Not all readers are going to want to access Lexie’s story online. Plus, there’s the benefit of fun extras and editing and the other important things that go into a traditionally published, vetted book that readers who’ve already accessed Lexie online would like to have, as well. But I also see multi-platform storytelling as a part of publishing’s future and I want to get in on the ground level, be a maven of sorts.
Another major consideration writers should think about is the time a multi-platform project takes. Spoiler alert: it’s taking over my life. I currently have five books under traditional publishing contracts for which I receive advances to live off of. If I didn’t have those, I wouldn’t be doing this right now. Having those and Lexie…well, you can imagine how much sleep and free time I get.
Finally, your story has to work for a multi-platform project. Some stories aren’t best told this way. I mean, would you want to read M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing this way? No. But you might want to read Feed like this. I have plans for a multi-platform sci-fi, but it’s going to look very different from Lexie. And I have plans for other novels—both adult and young adult—that are only going to be found in book form. You’ve got to do right by your story and characters first and foremost. The rest is gravy.
Me:Do you think the fact that you have been traditionally published provided the foundation for this project? Or is this something you could have done without first being traditionally published?
Heather: Frankly, I think starting this way would be a waste of time for any writer who hopes to be traditionally published and make a living off of their words. You do hear stories about publishers picking up books by Wattpad writers with a huge following, but the return on that investment—from what I’ve heard—isn’t always paying off for the publisher. That’s not to say you can’t break into publishing this way—I just wouldn’t bank on it. I think the fact that I’m traditionally published gives me an immediate fan base and readership. But even for me, it’s slow going. That’s part of why you can access the story both on Wattpad and Lexie’s website (which is a Tumblr platform). I knew my adult readers weren’t really on Wattpad and wouldn’t be super keen on learning how to navigate yet another social media site.
Me: What is the most important thing you have learned from this process? The biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome?
Heather: I’ve actually started a blog series called Lessons From Lexie, because I’m really interested in tracking this experience. It’s, as I often say, both the Wild West of storytelling and YA on crack. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that it’s going to take five times as long to do it as you think it would. You have to be on point like nobody’s business. There are so many things outside the story to keep track of, so if you’re not careful, it can be very easy to let the writing get lazy or to just go with the easiest or most sensational plot choices. My biggest challenge, then, has been not losing sight of crafting Lexie with the same care and attention on all story levels as I do with my other books. So far, so good—but it’s a lot of work.
Me: Finally, If you could give a writer planning to serialize his/her novel one piece of advice, what would it be?
Heather: Plan as much as you can and never put any writing out there that isn’t stellar. Usually, my readers don’t get to see my work until it’s been looked at by loads of readers, copy-edited, and vetted by gate keepers and my agent. My books go through a writing and editorial process that takes years. The chapters I post for Lexie—since I’m crowd sourcing and incorporating current events—get less than seven days. When you work this way, you’re putting your first draft out there, no matter how many betas you have or how much you revise your weekly installment. That takes a lot of hubris. You need strong, solid craft and experience. You also need to be deeply grounded in your story and characters. I had a whole novel—Something Real—to get me to where I needed to be with Lexie. So there’s a lot that has to happen behind the scenes before you get online. Multi-platform storytelling is not for the faint of heart or anyone who isn’t a perfectionist—so be warned.
All of Heather’s advice and wisdom is spot-on, so I want to thank Heather for taking the time to talk to our readers about serial publishing and The Lexie Project! You can find more information about Heather and her books on her website, listed below, or read The Lexie Project on Wattpad. Let me know your thoughts below!
About Heather: When she’s not traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, Heather Demetrios lives with her husband in New York City. Originally from Los Angeles, she now calls the East Coast home. Heather has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real. Her other novels include Exquisite Captive, the first in the Dark Caravan Cycle fantasy series, I’ll Meet You There and the multi-platform serial novel, The Lexie Project. She is the founder of Live Your What, a project dedicated to creating writing opportunities for underserved youth. Find out more about Heather and her books at www.heatherdemetrios.com, or come hang out with her on Twitter (@HDemetrios) and any number of social media sites.
This year marks our sixteenth annual New Voices Award, Lee & Low’s writing contest for unpublished writers of color.
In this blog series, past New Voices winners gather to give advice for aspiring writers. This month, we’re talking about what “voice” means to an author.
When discussing the various elements of writing craft, “voice” seems to be the most difficult to pin down. You can’t plot it on a chart or even clearly define what the word means, and yet it is one of the most important elements of a story. Editors (and readers) are always looking for strong, distinct voices. It is an invisible string that echoes throughout a story and pulls the reader in. And when an author or character’s voice is nonexistent or inconsistent, it is the first thing we notice.
Voice builds trust between the author, characters, and readers. To develop a strong voice that will ring true, an author needs to understand both the story and him/herself as a writer. What is the tone of the story? Who are your characters? If a key feature—gender, age, cultural background—of the main character changes, would the voice change? It should! There are many ways to approach “voice,” and below, Linda Boyden and Paula Yoo share their techniques.
The Blue Roses was my first published book. I had written many picture book manuscripts prior to it, most of which are still gathering dust and mold, but now I see how that process was vital for me to evolve as a writer. I developed the voice of this main character, Rosalie, by experimenting.
I wrote many versions of the book. I considered writing it inthird person, having one of the adult
characters do the narrating for about a nano-second; in my heart I knew this was Rosalie’s story and no one else’s, but that didn’t stop me from more experimenting. I tried having her voice be that of a child, but Papa’s death would have been too harsh an experience for a child to deal with objectively. Instead, Rosalie narrates as her adult self, after having had enough time to smooth the edges of her loss. So experiment until you understand the heart of your character; that’s where you’ll find their true voice.
For me, voice comes out of nowhere. I can’t predict when I will find the “voice” of my story. Voice is not only the way my main character narrates the story (his/her style of speaking, their point of view, their personality) but also in the tone of the entire story (humorous, tragic, touching). Sometimes I find my “voice” AFTER I do a ton of research and preparation, such as figuring out the story beats and plot twists and the character’s emotional journey/arc. Sometimes the voice finds ME first—I’ll just start writing a story from the point of view of a character that has taken over me because he/she has something important and unique to say. Ultimately, I think “voice” for me comes from my heart. What moves me emotionally when I write? What about a story or character makes me laugh or cry? For me, “Voice” is the heart of my story—what emotions do I want to bring out in not only in my readers but also in myself? You can write a book that has the most original and surprising plot, the most compelling and fascinating characters, and a unique setting. But if there is no EMOTION, then that book falls flat. That’s where “Voice” comes in—“Voice” determines the emotion behind the story. I wish I could give a more specific answer with facts and evidence, but when it comes to writing from the heart, there is no formula.
When I say that, I'm not saying that you won't experience a feeling of idea-lessness or that life circumstances will never get in the way of your writing. Lots of people go through stretches where it is legitimately impossible to write.
What I mean is that most commonly, that feeling of writer's block is just a feeling that you can actually power through.
When you head down that path, the absolute most helpful thing to do is to figure out the problem. Figure out why you can't think of an idea. What is it that you're trying to solve in the book?
Here's what I mean. I'm at a stage in writing my new novel where I legitimately don't know what's going to happen next. And I got stuck. I seriously couldn't think of what to write next. But rather than stare at the blinking cursor of doom, I started creating structure around the problem.
I know that the main character is currently at Point A, and eventually she'll need to get to Point B. So I started cataloguing some of the things that need to happen before Point B. Then I broke it up still further into a series of chapters. I started writing out some of the feelings I want her to experience before Point B, plotting out the ups and downs. I wrote down some of the bigger things I hadn't yet tackled in the narrative but wanted to, such as showing something happening in the broader world.
And I figured out the problem. I need to set a new plot line in motion, and I needed to do more work to get a sense of where she's going before I figure out the next step.
I still don't know precisely is going to happen, but this is the first step toward being unstuck.
Sometimes it doesn't work to confront a lack of ideas head on. It can be far more effective to create some structure around it, figure out what you need to figure out, and then power on through.