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Hello Pub Crawlers! I’ve put off writing this post as long as I could, because I’ve just had so much fun with you all over the years! From the wonderful conversations we’ve had in the comments, to the smart and thoughtful questions that prompted many of my posts, I’ve learned a lot in the time I’ve spent as a part of this wonderful group. I mean, there aren’t many places on the internet where you actually should read the comments! But all good things must come to an end, and it’s time for me to say my goodbyes. By way of saying farewell and thank you, I thought I’d follow in the footsteps of Alex Bracken, and share with you a few things I’ve learned so far in my publishing journey — some solid, concrete tips, and a few that are less so, but just as important!
1. Take care of your back. I’m serious! This is one of my most heartfelt, and least heeded pieces of advice! Put any group of authors in a room, and pretty soon you’ll find at least a couple discussing back stretches, standing desks and physical therapists. There’s a reason for this. Keep up your core strength, make sure you have a good chair and good posture while you’re writing, and pause regularly to stretch. If you can try a standing desk, go for it. This one really matters!
2. Take care of your tech. While we’re being practical, let’s add this one to the list! Put a password on your phone–your contacts may hold numbers that the owners might not want shared. Your email will hold manuscripts that the owners absolutely won’t want shared. Back up your computer regularly. Back up your computer. Back up your computer. (Click here for some suggestions on how, and check out the comments for lots more ideas.)
3. Think before you speak. To put this one really bluntly: don’t gossip. I don’t want to be a downer, and I’m not saying you should never talk about the industry, and I’m not saying you should never vent to friends, of course. You’re human. But don’t carry stories around, especially if they’re less than complimentary. For a start, you have no idea if they’re true (and there’s ALWAYS more to the story than you know), and if nothing else, you’ll get a rep! Now, writing is a solo sport, and needing to vent and debrief is totally normal. So here’s what you do: find a couple of friends you truly trust, and trust them with the stuff you need to discuss, wonder about, get off your chest or analyse. That’s healthy, normal and helpful, and you won’t be sorry you did it later. Gossiping with the whole world works about as well as it would in any workplace!
4. Cultivate a life. No matter what stage you’re at in your writing journey, you need things that will make you happy outside the writing world — tying your happiness to writing and publishing only is dangerous. Whether it’s time with your kids, your weekly game of basketball, making time to attend that BBQ on the weekend, make sure you do it. It will help with perspective more than anything can. Getting away to your day job doesn’t count, if every minute you’re not there, you’re writing. Leisure activities will help you relax, work more efficiently, and remind you that there’s life away from your computer. Sunshine and fresh air are good for you! Laughing and the company of friends–good for you. Remember the story of the tortoise and the hare? Writing is a long career, and you need to make sure you’re resting under a tree along the way, tortoise style.
5. Just do the work. Don’t talk about doing the work more than you do it. Don’t tweet about doing the work more than you do it. Don’t play endless games on your computer, then later feel you’ve had a long day because you were at your screen the whole time. If you have to unplug the router, do that. If you have to install a program to block the internet, do that. In the end, all that platform-building, networking and sky writing will mean nothing if you didn’t get the words on the page. And most of all, don’t just nod in agreement to this point — pause and think about what concrete steps you can take to make sure you really do the work!
6. Stop comparing. It will kill you. It will kill your creativity. It will make you jealous. It will make you sad. It will make you angry. And you’ll probably be wrong! To paraphrase a Louis CK quote I’ve always liked: “Never look into your neighbour’s bowl, unless you’re checking they’ve got enough.” Every minute you spend wishing you had someone else’s agent, book deal, marketing plan, tour, fancy embossed ARCs, foil cover, panel appearance, etc is a moment you could spend doing something that’s good for you. You also have no idea what’s going on for them. Perhaps they have the agent of your dreams, and it isn’t working out at all. Perhaps they have the book deal you always wanted, and it was the wrong decision for them. Perhaps they got the panel appearance you’d love, but didn’t get the support they needed to organise a bumper launch party in their home town, and they’d trade with you any day. Even if this isn’t the case, envy will eat you up. Someone else’s success is not your failure. Every reader who enjoys a book is just looking for the next book to read. A rising tide lifts all ships.
7. Have fun! For my last piece of advice, I’m going to echo the very wise Alex Bracken — publication is just one day of your journey, and the rest of the trip takes a long, long time. So make sure you enjoy yourself! Read great books, take joy in your writing, enjoy your friends and your community. Thanks for all our time together, and here’s to everything you’re yet to write!
Hello from Julie! I am so excited to share a guest post today from Kali Wallace, a fellow 2016 debut author, whose YA horror novel, SHALLOW GRAVES, will be published by Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins in January 2016. I was so fascinated by everything Kali had to say about writing YA horror, I asked her to share her insights with all of us here at PubCrawl. I’m so happy she said yes! So here’s Kali, with everything you want to know about writing horror!
The funny thing about writing a horror novel is that approximately 87% of the people you meet will tell you to your face they don’t want to read it.
Oh, there’s rarely anything malicious in this declaration. Sure, there are always a few “I only read serious books about serious topics” types with tiny minds who can’t fathom how a book about horror things can also be about other things, but nobody cares what they think. I ignore them.
For the most part the reaction from future non-readers is more along the lines of, “Oh, I don’t know if I could read that. It sounds–” And this added in an apologetic, almost conspiratorial tone, as though imparting a terrible secret from which I could have been protected, had circumstances differed: “–too upsetting.”
I fell into writing horror backwards, much the same way the unwary first-act hanger-on in a horror movie falls backwards into a vat of mysterious glugging liquid the remaining cast will assure themselves is simply oddly chunky water until the third act. I don’t really think of myself as a horror writer, because I write all kinds of other things too, some (a few) of which are not (very) horrifying at all (mostly). But I did write a horror novel.
It happened like this. One time I went to a garage sale and found ninety-nine Stephen King paperbacks on sale for a penny each, so I borrowed a crinkled dollar bill from my mom, took the books home, and retreated to a dark corner of my bedroom where I spent three weeks constructing a paper nest using only the shredded pages of Misery and my own spittle, and I lived there for five years, eating nothing but peanut butter sandwiches and anxiety. When I emerged I could never write anything again without ominous symbolic settings and existential dread and rotting corpses.
Or maybe it happened like this. When I wrote my first novel, I didn’t sit down at my computer and think, “I want to scare somebody’s pants off today!” I sat down and I thought:
wouldn’t it be funny if monsters were teenagers
i mean like really angsty teenagers the kind who feel bad a lot
and they’re gross monsters not sexy monsters nobody likes them
everybody has feelings
One of those anecdotes is the 100% true story of how I accidentally wrote a YA horror novel.
There are a thousand different kinds of horror stories, but the kind I wrote is a contemporary teen fantasy story covered with blood. It’s all monsters and dark magic and dark evil monster magic and teenagers encountering and/or using dark evil monster magic. It’s full of death and pain and terrible things happening. Claws, too. There are claws. Did I mention the blood? It is a bit scary in places–at least, I hope it is. It would be disappointing if I deployed that many carefully chosen adjectives and it didn’t give people at least a bit of a spine-tingle.
It isn’t tooupsetting as an accidental by-product, the unintended consequence of a writer meddling with forces she cannot control. Being upsetting is, in fact, the entire point. I wrote it that way on purpose. I have my reasons, and it’s not entirely because I am a ravenous creature of shadow and darkness who survives by consuming the nightmares of my young readers. Not entirely.
There’s an oft-misquoted-but-rarely-quoted-correctly passage about fairy tales from English writer G.K. Chesterton (from Tremendous Trifles, 1909):
“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
We know this to be true, no matter how many misguided parents and school boards try to deny it: Children and teenagers don’t need books to tell them that there is evil in the world. They know that before they crack open any book. Children and teenagers don’t need books to tell them the world is scary and unfair and that bad things happen all the time. They already know all of this. There are adults in their lives who wish them harm. Kids know this. There are monsters who wear friendly faces and are enabled by the people and institutions who ought to be protecting the helpless instead. They know.
Children and teenagers aren’t separate from the world. They are part of the world, right in the middle of it, right in the middle of all the violence and unfairness and cruelty it has to offer. For young readers, just like adult readers, stories can be both an escape from the world and a way of connecting to and understanding the world, both a shield and a lens, often at the same time.
That’s no small thing. It is the exact opposite of a small thing. It is the entire reason literature exists, and it isn’t less true or less important because the intended audience is under eighteen. I would even argue–if anybody ever wanted to argue with me about this, which nobody does–that it is even more true and more important for children’s and young adult literature. You never know who is going to pick up your stories and find something that resonates, and you never know what it will mean to them, and you never know if that reader on that particular day will need the escape or the understanding or both.
Okay, let’s be honest: It’s usually both.
I can’t write stories so steeped in the grit and struggle of realism they are indistinguishable from real life. I also can’t write stories that imagine life to be fantasies of summer kisses and bosom friendships. Those are all perfectly wonderful types of stories, and I love to read them and am thankful they exist in the world, but they are stories for other people to write.
Me, well, I can do ominous thunderstorms and branches scraping on dark windows. I can do the metallic taste of fear at the back of the throat. I can do people who aren’t really people and monsters who aren’t really monsters. I’m really good at describing spooky graveyards. In fact that’s my #1 life skill, ranked even higher than my formidable talent at making up silly nicknames for cats: describing spooky graveyards.
Blood and guts, monsters and magic, murderers under the floorboards and ghosts in the walls, shocking scares and sleepless nights–the trappings of horror are what makes it vivid, visceral, and oh so very fun, but it is, after all, spectacle. It’s stage-setting strung up around what really matters: a story about life and death. A story that offers a spark of life in a world where life is unwelcome and makes you think, “Oh. Oh. Everything is terrible. There is no hope. What now? What the hell do we even do now?”
Horror stories, when done well, aren’t powerful because life is cheap, but because life is precious. And because life is precious, we get carried right along when characters faced with monsters and mayhem have to fight for it, for themselves and their families and maybe people they’ve never met, against horrors and nightmares and impossible odds, as they feel fear and despair and hope and anger and grief and every human emotion in between. The fantasy is in the details, but the realism is in the emotion, and it’s the emotional realism that leaves a mark long after the story is over.
Stories are how we make sense of the world, and the world is terrible and wonderful, frightening and hopeful, beautiful and ugly, and it is, alas, full of monsters. Lucky for us, it’s also full of people who know, or want to believe, even if they aren’t quite convinced, that monsters can be faced and fought and sometimes, maybe, maybe, they can also be defeated.
Kali, thank you so much for being our guest here today on PubCrawl! Readers, now it’s your turn–do you like to read horror? Do you like to write scary stories? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
For most of her life Kali Wallace was going to be a scientist when she grew up. She studied geology in college, partly because she could get course credit for hiking and camping, and eventually earned a PhD in geophysics. Only after she had her shiny new doctorate in hand did she admit that she loved inventing imaginary worlds as much as she liked exploring the real one. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and Tor.com. She was born in Colorado and spent most of her life there, but now lives in southern California. Shallow Graves, her first novel, will be published by Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins in January 2016.
The other day I was at the gym, ready to fire up the podcasts I had lined up for an hour of listening when halfway through the first, I realized I just wasn’t paying attention to a single thing said on the podcast.
Now normally, I would have just pressed the “back 15 seconds” button until I’d found the point I had zoned out, but this time, I made a conscious decision to turn off my phone and run the next five miles in total silence.
Lately, I’ve felt rather crowded in my own head. I don’t necessarily mean my doubts or worries or anxieties (although yes, they’re there too), I mean just…things that are competing for my attention. Audiobooks. Podcasts. Music. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve realized that aside from sleep, there’s hardly a single point in the day when I am NOT engaged with some sort auditory media. I listen to audiobooks and podcasts at my day job, at the gym, during my commute, while I walk the dogs, when I was the dishes, do the laundry, clean the house, etc. The only time I am not listening to something is when I am writing, and even then, I usually have music.
I’d been feeling creatively stoppered and I couldn’t quite figure out why.
Once I’d turned off the podcast at the gym, I understood.
There is value in silence. In boredom. I’d forgotten that. As a child I had spent so much of the dead time between structured things simply imagining. Creating. Daydreaming. Back then, I didn’t have a phone with Twitter, my entire music library, games, etc. Back then, the only thing I had to amuse myself was myself. When I let my phone screen go dark and run in silence, I let my mind go blank. With all the other distractions tuned out, thoughts and ideas about my writing began to bubble up to the surface. I let them bubble and brew, not thinking, not working. When I got home and fired on my computer, I was rejuvenated and for the first time in a long time, the words began to flow.
I’d recently gotten back into my yoga practice, and we traditionally end each class in shavasana, or corpse pose. As my teacher says, it is the easiest pose to do physically, but the hardest pose to do mentally. Often during shavasana, we find ourselves actively thinking, about what errands we need to do next, how many words we’ve achieved, what needs to be done. Letting those active thoughts go, to exist in a state of passive meditation, to focus on the moment, the breath going in, the breath going out, that is much harder.
I find mindfulness on the mat, but had not found mindfulness in other areas of my life. My brain was “on” at all times that it didn’t have room to let my ideas and creativity develop.
The idea hovered and shimmered delicately, like a soap bubble, and [Lyra] dared not even look at it directly in case it burst. But she was familiar with the way of ideas, and she let it shimmer, looking away, thinking about something else.
-Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass
So now I don’t fear the silence. I let my commutes, my runs at the gym, my household chores be quiet. My mind is not so crowded, and my thoughts have room to breathe.
What about you? Have any of you discovered that “shutting off” helps your creativity? Are you afraid of boredom? Let us know in the comments!
Julie and I actually got the idea to write this post because we’ve been sharing a “Progress Report” spreadsheet between us for about 7 months now. It’s set up in a Google Spreadsheet, with a new sheet for each month, and every day, we update each other on what we have (and haven’t!) achieved writing-wise. It seems like a little thing, but knowing that you’re going to check in with someone at the end of each day is pretty motivating. I guess it’s similar to those tips about finding an exercise buddy, to keep you accountable.
Julie: The Progress Report has helped me a lot! I recognize that I’m the kind of person who produces better work when I know there’s a measure of accountability involved. (For instance, I was always good with handing in papers when I was in school.) Not to say that our shared Progress Report is like being in school, (I don’t feel like Kat is going to give me an F if I don’t get my work done!) but it does help keep me focused. By sharing my progress at the end of each day, I’m able to catch myself if I see a few days where I’m not getting anywhere. Sometimes I know I’ve just been “taking it easy,” or overwhelmed by other things, but other times I don’t realize that my productivity has declined until I’m typing the third, “didn’t get much done today,” in a row. When I see things moving in the wrong direction, I can step back and figure out what might be wrong, and correct it.
Kat: I give Julie As every day
Julie: Haha, thank you Kat! Actually, there is a bit of a grading component to the Progress Report, but we don’t grade each other. On the days we feel particularly good about our accomplishments, we give ourselves a check mark.
Kat: Which is really motivating, too. Positive reinforcement, and all I know I’m not the only one who can actually be too hard on myself. After two or three unproductive days, it’s all too easy for me to slip into “Oh, god, I’ve done NOTHING this whole week!” mode…which, of course, only kills my productivity even more. When I have a record of my progress, it’s easier for me to tell myself, “Ok, so you had a bad day or two or three, but hey, before that you were doing great! Let’s get back to that.” Plus, when Julie also sees my progress, she can be that reasonable voice that tells me, “You’re doing fine.”
Julie: And she’s doing fine all the time. But that’s a great point. By sharing our updates every day, we’re able to add in notes of encouragement to each other. It feels a lot less like I’m working all alone!
Kat: This spreadsheet method has worked really well for me, but there are other ways of using a community to keep you accountable. For example, in the past I’ve sometimes had critique partners send me chapters as they revise them. I think there’s something satisfying and “done!” feeling about doing something concrete to mark the completion of each chapter. At the end of the day, it’s the same idea of keeping yourself on track because someone is going to be watching over your progress.
Julie: Kat, I love that idea! I’ve never had that type of relationship with a critique partner, but I have turned over my chapters to a non-writer friend as I worked. It gave me the same sense of completion you were talking about, (even though I wasn’t expecting feedback on the writing.) Most writers probably have a few people in their lives who would be more than happy to assume this role–if not another writer who is already a critique partner, then a family member or close friend. I know a few members of the Sweet 16s debut group have mentioned that they belong to writers’ groups, which meet regularly to read each other’s work and lend support.
Kat: Again, we’d love to hear from you guys. Does this sound like something you could see yourself doing with a critique partner/friend? Or are you already using some other method that works well for you? Let us know!
Julie here! Today, Kat Zhang and I are co-posting on the topic of productivity. We both know (from personal experience!) that sometimes the hardest part of writing is staying consistent and getting the work done. After all, writing is usually a solo activity, with no one checking in on you to make sure you reached your word count goal or revised that chapter. So we decided we would team up to share tips for staying on track.
This is a two part post, so on Friday, we’re going to go more in depth about ways a community can help keep you on schedule. But today, here are some tricks you can use on your own!
Kat: One of my biggest hurdles while drafting is my perfectionism. I want my first draft to be as perfect as a final draft–which is, of course, impossible. I’m a very exploratory writer, and sometimes I just need to write 10,000 words for every 5,000 that end up in the final draft. However, sometimes when I’m sludging through that first draft, I get so bogged down by the “Oh my god, this is the worst scene I’ve ever written” feeling of drafting that I either end up in an endless cycle of editing and re-writing, or worse, I get so frustrated that the writing isn’t fun at all.
Both those things can be killer to any attempt at staying on schedule. So while I’m drafting, I hold myself to exactly zero “How good is this writing?” standards. Okay, that’s a lie. I keep certain standards in the back of my mind, but my number one goal for each drafting day is: Just Hit the Word Count.
Now, there are some things I wouldn’t do to Just Hit the Word Count–I do outline before writing, so I don’t throw random tangents in my story for the sake of words. (No “And then a man with a gun and a flamingo showed up!” just for the sake of something happening). No adding adverbs or writing in weird ways just to up word count. Personally, those things would really just be wasted words, for me–but maybe they wouldn’t be for you.
Making my main goal a word count lets me let go of my inner editor a little, while keeping my eyes on the finish line.
Julie: This is great advice, Kat! I also try to resist the urge to self-edit while I draft, but find it difficult to avoid the trap of judging every word before moving on. I could easily rewrite the same thousand words five times, when I really need to get five thousand words down on the page!
Like you, I make word count my main goal when drafting. To stay on track, I create a spreadsheet so I can watch my progress. I’m a fanatical list-maker! It’s helpful for me to be able to see myself moving toward a goal in some concrete way. So I choose a day to target for the completed draft, and then I work backwards. I set manageable goals for each week and each day, and I definitely build in some wiggle room. If I fall off the pace, I’m willing to cut myself a break, and will even re-calibrate the goals if my original pace turns out to be unrealistic.
This spreadsheet helps so much, because it allows me to see just how much I’m getting done on the days when it feels like the draft is a disaster. It also calms my fears that I’m not going to make my deadline, because as long as I’m making the small goals, I know I’ll get there. That validation helps a lot when the goal of a complete draft feels overwhelming.
Julie: I’ve never seen Victoria’s method before, but I definitely believe a calendar system can be an effective tool. I used to use a modified version of a technique popularized by Jerry Seinfeld. It’s so simple! All you need is a wall calendar and a red pen. (It also requires that you have a goal of writing every day. Not every writer wants to do that.)
In Seinfeld’s system, for every day that you write, you put a large red X on the calendar. The Xs should be from corner to corner, so that they begin to form a chain of Xs. Over time, you have a long chain, and you don’t want to let it break! This method helped me stay motivated, and it also helped me see myself as a writer. All those Xs on the calendar proved to me that I wasn’t just someone who wanted to write; I was someone who was really doing it! (It’s also a visual reminder to everyone else with access to the calendar–your family, your roommates–that you are a writer and you need to stay on track.)
Kat: Hopefully, one or more of these ideas will kickstart your own method for staying on track, and keeping yourself productive! Everyone is different, so what works for us might not work for you.
Julie: We’d love to hear from you! What do you think of these ideas? Do any of these seem like they would work for you? Do you use a productivity system of your own that you would like to share? Please join the discussion in the comments!
Your world is your own; traditional gender roles need not apply. This means that even if your fantasy is inspired by 1300s France, you can still have women being professors at universities or leading armies. A classic image that comes to mind of a woman in history is the passive homemaker waiting for her husband to come back from war. There were certainly quite a few of those, but that image doesn’t account for what these women actually did while waiting. The result is a picture where a lady stands at the threshold of her manor looking wistfully out the horizon to catch a shadow of her husband. In reality, she was probably too damn busy making sure her crop yield would cover both her taxes and the food needs of her household. Since stories tend to focus on the epic, and since fantasy in particular isn’t usually about actual, historical daily life, the public perception of gender roles in history is still a little stuck in this romanticized notion of passive and desperate reliance on men. The people that read these stories then go on to write their own, continuing the vicious, misinformed cycle that can even go so far as to influence society’s perception of present-day reality. Literature is an extremely powerful brainwashing tool.
Here’s the thing. Only you can break this oversaturation and constant recycling of “women had no power back then.” A good way to do that is by doing some research in unbiased gender history and exposing the public to the shocking notion that humans didn’t have the luxury to lock fifty percent of the population into an ivory tower.
Another way to do it is to write an awesome book where you totally reinvent gender roles within your world. And you can start as small as with your main character’s background story.
Alter the Intention
If you have a girl whose character arc depends on her being extremely sheltered at the start, don’t let the reason she’s sheltered rely on the fact that she’s female. Not only is it kind of lazy, it’s dependent on exactly the sort of cultural norm you’re trying to steer away from. Instead, it could be that a kidnapping attempt in her early childhood led to her parents overreacting. If she’s not allowed to learn swordplay, it could be because her family believes she’d never have use for it since they’d always be protecting her. If she’s being forced to marry against her will, it’s because they want to make sure she’s always provided for. The idea is that the driving forces behind her important life events will have little to do with the basic fact that she’s female. If you change the intention and complicate the reasoning from “because she’s a girl” to something less gender-related, it becomes actual logic that can be used in plot and character development: The story starts with her running away from the arranged marriage, arranged because her family’s misguided but genuine concern for her well-being is blinding them to her misery. Just as she’s trying to adjust to the novelty of freedom, the attempted kidnappers resurface, suddenly throwing her into crippling self-doubt. She can’t physically fight back against them because she’s weak; but she’s weak not because she’s a girl, but because she was never taught how to fight. The story that ends up being told is not one about a girl struggling against the patriarchy but one about a girl overcoming insecurity ingrained from childhood by an overprotective family she feels she cannot return to.
Weaknesses Are Allowed
Women are traditionally viewed as the weaker and more submissive sex. Breaking out of this view in your story might lead you to the conclusion that your main girl character has to be physically and emotionally strong. A common thing I come across (and sometimes catch myself writing) is a female character who overcompensates for all those damsels in distress by being ridiculously tough in every way possible. This “strong female protagonist”, often patronisingly described as feisty, turns into a caricature of a person instead of a representation of reality. For example, the girl above who was protected all her life and never learned to fight still probably won’t be able to fight very well just a few months after she’s left home. Maybe she’ll never be able to fight well. Some people are just uncoordinated. This means that she’ll inevitably have to rely on those around her for physical protection. And that’s totally fine. Because again, the reason she’s physically weak is because she just is. That doesn’t mean she’s not crafty and can’t help out in different ways. It just means that when one of those kidnappers shows up, she won’t be the one fighting them; that role will go to the person protecting her. She doesn’t have to have all the qualities of the “strong female protagonist”. She first and foremost has to be a believable person.
By the way, that girl’s protector can easily be a lady. The kidnappers can also be ladies. All of the characters can be ladies. Why not? A lot of times the opposite is true, with men occupying all active roles and women left to the job of “plot device”, up there in importance with Tree #2 in the elementary school play. In an attempt to remedy this, some people, while still having women as mostly weak and submissive, will nevertheless have a couple of ladies in incredibly powerful leadership roles. This is excellent; it shows that women in that writer’s world are able to achieve a position that relies on their intelligence and strength. However, these stories often miss the women in less powerful roles. These women have to climb that ladder somehow. They didn’t get to the top overnight, which means they have to have had a lower status in the past. Regardless, women will often be absent from starting or midrange roles. You don’t usually see a woman as a foot soldier, unless she’s a main character. And even if you do, she’s always something more; undiscovered prodigy bomb technician that diffuses the bomb at the last minute; master sniper that helps them hit their target; top-class martial artist that leads them through a push. She’s never just a bumbling soldier who didn’t clean her gun properly, like so many of the other male peons are.
It all goes back to the initial lack of women in these stories, and the attempt to rectify this lack. During this attempt, the women become special, having skills that are sometimes better than those of most men. At first glance this doesn’t seem bad, because it seems to show women who are powerful and successful in roles traditionally held by men. But there’s a sneaky kind of damage to it: it implies that women can only be in these roles if their skill sets are abnormally high. The best thing you can do for gender equality in your world is to take a bunch of women, put them on the front lines with the men, kill them all, and then have everybody react with equal grief. None of this “Even the women were killed!” None of this “Women and children first!” (…Well, children first, yes.)
Which leads me to my last point.
Don’t Make It a Big Deal
If, in your world, traditional gender roles don’t apply, then you don’t have to justify why one of the best warriors in the land is a woman. Similarly, you have to remember to make some of the most mediocre warriors women as well. The worst thing you can do is have people constantly commenting on how strong she is for a woman, or how she’s the only woman in her class, or how even though she’s a fighter she still knows how to cook. Nobody cares. The men also probably know how to cook. It’s an important part of being an independent person. Drawing attention to the woman’s gender will take power away from why she’s as successful as she is: because she’s strong, because she’s skilled, and because she learned how to fight. You never hear phrases like, “Yeah he’s a pretty good fighter for a man.” Though, you might hear, “Yeah he sews pretty well for a man.” And that is just as damaging for the other side.
Gender Still Exists
Gender is a thing, and it’s foolish to ignore it…which seems to contradict everything I’ve just said. Still, physically, men and women are different. This will always result in situations where one character might be better at completing a task than another simply because of their gender. The key is that one gender should never be excluded from the possibility of doing that task, excepting in obviously physically limiting situations (because I just know that somebody’s going to say that a man can’t birth a child). And even in a world of equality, there will always be some outlying group of misogynists or misandrists itching to push people down. They can be part of your story too. And if your story is good at putting on display the strengths and weaknesses of the characters, and if those strengths and weaknesses are well-developed and don’t rely on gender, then it can expose the individual and shared features that your characters possess, and most importantly, uncover how absolutely ridiculous those misogynists and misandrists are.
Because oh my god. If you could build a world like the one I’ve described, I would read that book. I would read that book so hard.
Recently, my editor and I went through the line editing process with IVORY AND BONE. If you’re unfamiliar with the steps a book goes through once it’s acquired, here’s an at-a-glance overview:
Structural/Developmental Edits: This is the part of the process often referred to broadly as Revision. Your editor sends you a letter outlining her ideas for the “big picture” changes that will make the manuscript stronger. (There are usually several rounds of this stage.)
Line Edits: In this stage, your editor goes through the manuscript line-by-line. The notes you receive look at the “small picture”—word choice, sentence structure, etc.
Copyedits: I haven’t gotten to this stage yet—expect a dedicated post when I do—but copyedits are concerned with correcting grammar, punctuation, style, and usage. For example, if you misuse dashes—I’m sure I never do—you will find out at the Copyedits stage.
After going through structural edits, I made a crazy assumption that line edits would be… easy. Well, maybe not easy, but easier. This assumption was incorrect.
I learned A LOT from the line editing process! Here are five things I learned, that apply to writing and life in general:
Some things that you expect to be easy are actually quite hard.
Many (maybe even most) of the comments in my line edit involved rewording and rephrasing. At first glance, I thought tackling these requests would be so easy. How hard could it be to find a fresh word or to change up sentence structure? It’s probably different for everyone, but I learned that rewording the simplest sentences could be quite difficult for me.
I found myself bogging down on four-word sentences. I have to admit that I felt stupid. How could this be hard? But getting the wording right can be equally challenging when the sentence has four words or fourteen. I learned to come back to things after letting my mind clear, and to be patient and forgiving with myself when things didn’t come easily.
Another person’s input can help immensely.
I’ll be honest—I’m not good at asking for help. I like to solve things on my own. But line editing taught me that some problems become much more manageable if you accept help.
Sometimes that help came from the thesaurus (which, for lots of reasons, I usually try to avoid.) Sometimes it came from my (immensely patient) husband. Sometimes it came in the form of a suggestion from my editor, tucked into a comment.
“Playing favorites” can hurt you.
I never knew I had “pet words” until I went through this line edit. If I told you how many times I used the word “stunned,” you’d be… surprised. I was quite stunned to see how frequently my characters were stunned. Or shocked. It was… startling (another one of my pet words!)
An echo isn’t as lovely on the page as it is on a hillside.
“Echoes” are words or phrases that repeat multiple times on a page, or even in a paragraph. (My editor often would simply highlight the word in both places, so it would jump off the page at me.) My theory on how this happens is that, when drafting, I use a word or phrase that feels so right, I subconsciously use it again, the sooner the better! It doesn’t matter how it happens, though. It still makes for flat, uninteresting writing. (Fixing these was slightly easier for me than some of the other line edits.)
A question mark can make a huge difference. (So can the word “please.”)
It never feels good to have your mistakes pointed out, no matter how small or common they may be. Knowing that all writers repeat words doesn’t make it easier to address the hundredth comment about a repeated word in your own manuscript. What does make that hundredth comment easier to accept is a simple question mark. “This repeats. Rephrase?” is very similar to “This repeats. Rephrase.” Yet that question mark makes such a huge difference! (As does, “This repeats. Please rephrase.”)
How about you? Do you enjoy working on the small details of your manuscript? Do you catch yourself using pet words or echoes? Does rewording come easily for you? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
If there’s one thing I’m asked over and over again, it’s How do you write a good query? Because there is an endless array of blogs and workshops (and even some posts here at PubCrawl) dedicated to just this very topic, I am sometimes baffled by how often I receive this question.
But at other times, I understand. Querying is the first step in the traditional publishing process, the first step in getting your work in front of professionals. It’s also one of the few steps in the entire process over which you have (a modicum of) control. So naturally writers stress about this, wanting to get it right, wanting to get it perfect, unsure of whose advice they should take, etc.
All right, if you want me to add my voice to the chorus of people dispensing query tips, I can certainly oblige. But be forewarned: my advice will be a combination of practical tips and a tiny bit of emotional counseling by way of tough love.
1. You don’t have to write a “perfect” query letter.
Repeat after me: There is no such thing as a perfect query letter. Repeat it until you believe it, or at least until you trick yourself into believing it’s true. Because it is. When I first started in publishing, I interned at Writers House, where one of my duties included going through the slush everyday. I learned very quickly during my time as slushmonkey that it didn’t matter if a query was too long, too short, too anything: what mattered was whether or not the writer got to the heart of their story as quickly and engagingly as possible. All else was moot.
2. No amount of “getting it right” will salvage an uninteresting premise or an oversaturated market.
One of the myths I had to unlearn once I graduated from school was that following the “rules” would earn me my just rewards. I was a straight-A student my entire life, not because I was smart, but because I knew how to follow rules. Querying is not like this. Business is not like this. You do not earn points for showing your work. If you got a wrong answer on an algebra problem, it didn’t matter if you showed every step of your calculation if the underlying formula was wrong.
This is probably the hardest truth to accept and come to terms with for most writers. That maybe the book they’ve worked on for so long is simply not a viable manuscript from a business standpoint. Writing is an art, publishing is a business, and sometimes your book just doesn’t encompass both.
3. Treat your query letter like a resume cover letter.
Continuing in the “publishing is a business” vein, if a completed manuscript is your resume, then your query is what gets the attention of HR department. Don’t be clever, don’t be smart, don’t be “quirky” or “wacky” or “out-of-the-box.” In my first post-college job, I was explicitly told personality might have mattered in school, but not here. (Ouch.) In the same way hiring managers don’t care about antics, only qualifications, an agent only cares about a good story, not querying trickery.
4. Keep it short and sweet.
Ideally, your query should be about 250 to 400 words, not including your bio and any introductory statements. Why? Because 250 to 400 words is just long enough to expand upon a pitch without going into details. 250 to 400 words is also the average length of the copy you find on the backs of books in stores. I’ve written more about copy here, including a handy “formula” you can follow when assembling your query. The point is to entice, not explain. If you have to explain why your book is interesting or different, then maybe have a long, hard think about why you feel compelled to do so. The query should stand alone.
5. Target your book to the correct audience.
I don’t necessarily mean that you should target the agents who would be interested in your work (although that’s certainly something you should do). What I mean by the “correct audience” is a bit complicated: it’s a combination of agent taste, market, and reader sensibility. Basically, you must know which section of the bookstore your book would be in, or in our digital day and age, what “tags” your book will have. Specificity is good. Comparative titles are good, and the more specific the better. Do not target your book to the audience of Harry Potter, Twilight, or The Hunger Games because that’s too general to be of any use.
And lastly, just to show you that query letters don’t have to be perfect, I present to you a query letter for my forthcoming novel (the title is still a work-in-progress). Including the salutation and bio, it is under 350 words.
Beware the goblin men and the wares they sell.
All her life, nineteen-year-old Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, mysterious Goblin King. He is the Lord of Mischief, the Ruler Underground, and the muse around which her music is composed. Yet, as Liesl helps shoulder the burden of running her family’s inn, her dreams of composition and childish fancies about the Goblin King must be set aside in favor of more practical concerns.
But if Liesl has forgotten the Underground, the Underground has not forgotten her. When her sister Käthe is taken by the goblins, Liesl journeys to their realm to rescue her and return her to the world above. The Goblin King agrees to let Käthe go—for a price. The life of a maiden must be given to the land, in accordance with the old laws. A life for a life, he says. Without sacrifice, nothing good can grow. Without death, there can be no rebirth. In exchange for her sister’s freedom, Liesl offers her hand in marriage to the Goblin King. He accepts.
Down in the Underground, Liesl discovers that the Goblin King still inspires her—musically, physically, emotionally. Yet even as her talent blossoms, Liesl’s life is slowly fading away, the price she paid for becoming the Goblin King’s bride. As the two of them grow closer, they must learn just what it is they are each willing to sacrifice: her life, her music, or the end of the world.
Inspired by the movies Labyrinth and Amadeus, The Goblin King is a gothic romance in the vein of Robin McKinley’s Beauty, Martine Leavitt’s Keturah and Lord Death, and Juliet Marillier’s Heart’s Blood.
Before moving down to North Carolina, I worked as an editor at St. Martin’s Press, where I worked with Dan Weiss on developing New Adult, as well as reading and acquiring YA. I am also a member of Pub(lishing) Crawl, where I blog about the writing and editing process.
There you have it. As you can see, it ain’t perfect, original, or even that great. But what it did is get the job done, and really, that’s all you can ask of a query letter.
What about you? Any tips or suggestions for writing good queries? What are your favourite resources for query-writing help?
Recently, I found myself doing something I never thought I’d ever do in a million years–outlining a book in Excel. You read that right–Excel. (Well, actually, I used Numbers and not Excel because I have iWork, but details, details… :P).
This isn’t something I’d recommend for every book, but I’m currently revising a pretty hefty, unwieldy plot with multi-POV. It’s not A Song of Ice and Fire level or anything, but it’s complicated enough for a normal outline to feel lacking. I wanted to see everything laid out by character, with convenient places to add notes about world-building, sub-plots, etc.
…I can be very Type A when I want to be, all right?
Both those ideas are awesome (man, do I love color-coding things), but they never worked perfectly for me. While I loved having things blocked out, I didn’t like having to write things out by hand because it made them harder to edit. Plus, both post-its and notecards are limited in size, which is great if you can summarize a scene in a few sentences, but not-so-great if you sometimes find yourself practically writing a scene out, the way I do.
Now, I know Scrivener (which is a godsend) has its own internal “digital notecard” function, but for whatever reason, it never really clicked with me either. Maybe I just haven’t gotten the hang of it yet. If you have a link to a good tutorial for this function, let me know in the comments!
I’d pretty much despaired of ever figuring out my perfect outlining method. Then I remembered that old picture of JK Rowling’s outline for Order of the Phoenix.
Grids, I thought. Grids are nice. Grids can be color-coded!
And what computer program conveniently makes grids that automatically shrink or expand in size, and color-codes them, and everything? Why, Excel. (Or Numbers, for us iWork people following along).
Now, there are various ways to set up an outlining spreadsheet. I used to study screenwriting, so sometimes I think of things very clearly in terms of Act I, Act II, and Act III, as well as Plot A, Plot B, and Plot C. In simplistic terms, Plot A would be the main plot; Plot B would be the main subplot; Plot C tends to be something emotional, often a romance–though sometimes the romance is a large enough part of the story to be Plot B–or some other relationship-based story. For example, a father reconciling with his estranged daughter, or something like that.
The Excel sheet would be set up thusly:
By separating out the plots (and color-coding them!), you can easily get a feel for how each of your plots are progressing. Obviously, Plot A should have the most action going on, and Plot C the least, but if you have a lot of subplots, it can be hard to make sure they’re spaced out correctly, and tying together well–especially if said subplots feedback onto the main plot (as they should!).
Another way to set up the sheet would be by POV character. This is only relevant, of course, if you have more than one POV character (and they’re off doing different things). Again, by color-coding and separating everything out, it can be easier to make sure things are balanced out, and you’re not going too long with one POV while ignoring the other.
I find that the little boxes Excel provides are handy, too. While outlining, I don’t try too hard to make sure 1 box = 1 chapter. Rather, I focus on 1 box = 1 Important Event. That Important Event might be a scene, might be a chapter. With this set-up, you can also find out quickly if one POV character is languishing while another one is getting all the plotty action.
I like to have a world-building notes column (sometimes called the world-building/backstory column because it also includes character backstory I need to get in there), because it makes sure I get down all the info I need to at the right times, without overloading. Over the course of revision, it can be easy to forget whether you explained that particular piece of the character’s backstory or not. Or if you’ve already done it three times, oops. This lays it out in an easy-to-digest form, so you can see if you’re info-dumping, or waiting too long to tell your readers something, or whatever in between.
Okay, this post is already getting too long! Obviously, I have a lot to say about this new-fangled outlining technique. (Or maybe it’s not new-fangled at all, and I’m just slow to the scene).
I hope some of it has been helpful, even if outlining in Excel sounds just a little too weird for you…
One night In May, I noticed a very loud sound from right outside our window. My husband, Dwight, has a fish pond right outside our kitchen door.
The sound was loud! So, on May 26, I whipped out my iphone and taped the noise.
You’ll hear the noise at 7 seconds into the tape, and 12 seconds, 18 seconds and 23 seconds. The sounds came from a small frog or toad. After comparing my recording to recordings of frogs/toads of Arkansas, I concluded we had a Fowler Toad, which is common in this area.
After reading more, I realized that this toad had chosen our pond as a breeding pond. He chose us! He chose our pond!
As a child, I remember we raised tadpoles once. I was excited about the chance to watch the process again, especially because my grandkids could watch this time.
The toad sang and sang for several nights. All night long, it seemed.
Then, on June 11, I took a morning walk and came back to find two Fowler toads in the pond. The girl showed up!
Fowler Toads mate in what’s called amplexus, which means the eggs are externally fertilized. The smaller male is usually on the female’s back for the duration.
Tadpoles: Day 3
We watched the pond every day and on Day 3, we found tadpoles! Dozens and dozens. Scientists report that the Fowler Toads may lay 5000-25,000 eggs at a time. But the pond had several goldfish and I knew that many of the eggs would be eaten before they could hatch.
We hope that the next story will break out.
We hope that the next submission will sell.
We hope that the next revision will be amazing.
We hope that the next royalty check will be double.
We hope readers will love our stories.
Hope. It’s how we live. And I love it when Hope comes to live in tangible ways.
I went Friday to an awards banquet to honor my friend, Carla McClafferty. She was inducted into the Arkansas Writer’s Hall of Fame for her work in children’s non-fiction.
Brookins’s ‘Rise’ Goes to SMP
In a six-figure North American rights deal, Rose Hilliard at St. Martin’s Press acquired Cara Brookins’s memoir, Rise. The book, which Dystel and Goderich’s Jessica Papin sold at auction, is about Brookins’s experience as a single mother coming out of an abusive relationship, building her own house from the ground up. SMP said the author, a social media marketing expert in Little Rock, Ark., took on the massive DIY project “with only the help of her four children.” Rise is currently set for fall 2016.
Children’s: Picture book: Monica Clark-Robinson’s LET THE CHILDREN MARCH, an historical picture book told from a child’s point of view about the Children’s Crusade, a series of civil rights marches that took place in 1963 to protest the Jim Crow Laws, to Christine Krones at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s, for publication in Fall 2017.
That was hope come to life.
Each time a friend realizes a small portion of a dream—from the beginning of a career to a career at the top of its game—we need to stop and rejoice with them.
Why? For many reasons—friendship shares good news.
But for today’s purpose, rejoicing over someone’s good news builds my reserve of hope. I know the hope isn’t futile; someone else’s hopes came to fruition and that leaves me with a renewed hope that mine may also.
I often end a speech or a retreat with the words, “Send me your good news.” It’s not hollow words, and it’s not bragging on your part. It’s sharing a joyful event. And really, I’m being selfish: I want my hope recharged.
We all have writing insecurities, but this is one is an easy fix: Make sure you’re protecting your work and your computer from theft, damage, and failure.
Recently a friend of mine was writing at a coffee shop, and she stepped away from her bag briefly — but this was just long enough for a sneaky thief to grab it and disappear. She lost her wallet, keys, and her laptop, but the worst thing she lost – the most irreplaceable thing – was her work in progress. Her latest changes hadn’t been backed up, and she was on deadline. A writer’s worst nightmare!
Happily, in both of these cases, the amazing online community raised money to replace the stolen computers in a weekend. As writers, we know how important computers are to our work, and in many cases to our livelihood. And as readers, we want our favorite writers to keep producing stories.
Even if you write by hand in a notebook or use a typewriter (really?), chances are that at some point you need a computer. Computers are tools for drafting, editing, revising, e-mailing agents and editors, playing Portal, posting on Twitter, and more. So why do so many people fail to secure them? Some just don’t think about it, or figure they’ll never have to worry about it, but laptop security also seems like it might be annoying to set up or expensive. It doesn’t have to be.
Here are some very basic things you can do to make your laptops a little more secure, and especially avoid losing your work.
Back up your work! Everyone knows this is important but too many still don’t bother. Make sure you have copies of your work, preferably in multiple places. If you write a lot away from home, bring a USB thumb drive or an SD card and make a backup every time you finish a writing session. You could also sync your work to a cloud storage account like Dropbox, if you can get online. Scrivener and Dropbox work pretty well together to share your projects with multiple computers and save backup files. Even if you lose your laptop, at least you won’t lose the latest draft of your novel.
Make it easy for people to contact you if they find your device. I left my tablet on a train once, but I had saved my contact info on the home screen, and the right person found it and called me. You can (and should) do this with your smart phone too. It’s trickier with a laptop; I usually just tape my business card to the bottom of it. I’ve also set up a guest account so if anyone logs in to it, they’ll see custom Windows wallpaper with my contact information (above).
While you’re at it, make sure it’s password-protected. Your devices should have passwords on them to prevent (or make it harder) for unauthorized people to access your files – and erase them and claim your computer as their own. In addition to the boot password, PCs and Macs allow you to add a BIOS password so other users can’t easily get around your regular password or wipe the system. If you want to go all out, you could also encrypt your hard drive…
Make your laptop harder to steal. For some laptops, you can still buy those security cables to attach them to a table or something (or you could just not leave your laptop lying around unattended.) There’s also a product called the STOP Security Plate – a nigh-impossible-to-remove, highly visible plate stuck onto your laptop that announces it as stolen. This makes it difficult to resell and serves as a way to register your laptop so it can be identified easily. In theory, a thief that sees this — or a bunch of stickers that make your computer look unique — won’t bother to take your laptop in the first place. (Full disclosure: I haven’t gotten mine yet, because I don’t want to stick it to my pretty new laptop.)
Install tracking software. You’ve heard the stories about people tracking down the thief who took their laptop using GPS coordinates and the webcam. It really happens! But the confrontation is probably best left to police. Still, you can help them find your laptop with tracking software hidden on your computer. Macs have Undercover, but you can also install LoJack or Prey (which includes a free version) to track and remotely lock or wipe PCs or Macs. If you do this, you may also want to set up an unlocked guest account to entice the thief to log in so the laptop can connect to a Wi-Fi network.
These are just some of the precautions you can take. Of course none of them are foolproof, but some security is better than none, and at least you have a better chance of recovering your laptop and not losing any work.
Does all this seem paranoid or do you think it’s a good idea? What other security measures do you take to protect your laptop and work? Comment below!
So what are the top three things that inspire my daily poems?
“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” ~ Douglas Adams
I was inspired to write this post today when I was putting an appointment in my calendar...and saw that I was supposed to have posted this morning. Oops!
"My sole inspiration is a telephone call from a director." ~ Cole Porter, composer and songwriter
Deadlines and assignments mean that I cannot take all day cleaning my proverbial closet. I write and rewrite...and bam!--even if it's not the world's most perfect piece, I post it or send it off--done!
2) Life. Especially the sad parts.
"I've had an unhappy life, thank God." ~ Russell Baker, author, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist
The difficult and/or unhappy times of my life are rich grounds for writing. I can create this richness, though, even when my life is humming along, if I listen to what's happening in my chest cavity. If I walk into the world looking for my poem, all senses open.
The last time my mom and I took a nature walk. She's the shorter one.
3) Someone who believes in me.Two or three someones is even better.
"Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer and philosopher
My husband came with me on a quick trip to meet with my agent and two of my editors this week. I wanted him to meet these significant people in my work life. New York can be exhilarating...and it can scare the pants off me, too. It always takes me a day to remember how to use the subways and navigate the city. His presence on the subway and in those meetings meant the world to me.
My sailing-around-the-world friend, Bruce, is a daily supporter of my work, even when he says the poem doesn't work (which of course I know he's just not reading correctly--he's clearly tired from working on the boat all day).
Every writer in my critique groups past and present and everyone in the Kidlitosphere community: we cheer each other on; that cheering echoes and echoes and echoes inside all of us.
And so? Here's today's (raw) poem written 1) for a deadline, 2) based on life, and with the support of--well, all of you.
LOOKING FOR INSPIRATION by April Halprin Wayland bald little god sits on the pond’s rim, his feet all in his head turning side to side toward fluttering leaves toward ebbing tide below impatient clouds that mumble, This is going too slow so they snap out a spiky lighting streak and Man—does little god go! He jumps right up and does he run! He’s going, going, getting things DONE!
poem and drawings (c) April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.
Get inspired by the bounty at Buffy's Blog today--thanks for hosting, Buffy!
posted by April Halprin Wayland, Monkey, and our always inspired dog, Eli
Tis Kat! Today, we have a guest post from Rowenna Miller, who is a writing tutor at a university. She’s here to talk about how the same skills she teaches can apply to both scholastic and creative writing
Photo credit to Heidi Hauck
Hi! As a longtime reader of this awesome blog, I’m really excited to be writing a guest post for Pub Crawl.
Most colleges and universities now have writing labs or writing components of tutoring centers. I’m one of the happy helpers waiting in those places to help you comb through your assignments, beef up your thesis statement, nitpick your grammar, and craft a better paper. Though I work with students grappling with lab reports and trudging through research papers for history and criminal justice courses, the majority of my work is with students taking Comp I (and its big sister, Comp II). As I encountered the same issues again and again in student papers, I began to realize…
…almost everything you need to know about writing, you learn in Comp I. Even writing novels.
Thesis Statement: Oh, the thesis. I’m guessing most of you have heard more about the thesis statement than you care to hear about anything, ever. But there’s a reason for that—the thesis is the main claim, the big idea, the “so what?” of the whole paper. Fail to include a thesis, or fail to make it clear and strong enough, and the paper falls apart. It lack clarity. It meanders. It doesn’t really *say* anything despite putting a lot of words on paper.
Your novel is the same. If it doesn’t have a main idea, a central conflict or character goal, it’s a series of scenes tripping along without a clear purpose. PubCrawl members have written a ton about this—what is your character’s motivation? What’s your story really *about*?—and I’m here to tell you, you already learned it in Comp I. You just called it a thesis instead.
Organization: There’s a lot of difference between a five-paragraph essay and a full-length novel. The basics of organization remain the same. You bring us into your paper or your story, you build the argument or the plot, piece by piece, and you draw a conclusion from your points or your plot arc. Still, organization is tricky. At least in a novel you have the basics of plotline to drive you, but the tricky bit isn’t just chronological organization—it’s building a story.
We commonly refer back to the “narrative arc” when we get into the nitty-gritty of organizing a plot, because it captures so well how a plot is more than a play-by-play. You don’t order scenes in a random order of “then other things happened” any more than you order a paper in a random order of “more things I read that prove my thesis.” In, for instance, a persuasive essay, you establish a thesis and then build an argument, layering one point on another, weaving in evidence right where it will pack the most punch. In a novel you establish central character motivations and goals early on, and then build a story that gradually increases tension and ups the stakes, using the same kind of layering and weaving techniques. The big reveal of Who the Villain Really Is falls flat too early; the whizbang statistic that proves your point gets lost if it’s not sandwiched into a paragraph effectively.
Finally, there’s the goal of organization—to end in a different place than you started. Following your plot, something about the world you create changes, and the way you organize your story shows this. In your Comp paper, you’ve shown the reader the results of research, effectively proven a point, or provided a keen analysis and the reader understands something at the end of the paper that they didn’t in the beginning. In fiction, your characters move through the story to reach new places—and even become new people.
Grammar Counts: Ugh, grammar! If there’s one self-identified weakness I hear from students more than any other, it’s “I’m really bad at grammar.” That’s ok. Grammar is not easy, and it’s not much fun for most people, either. The thing is, clear writing hinges on good grammar. Grammar is the structure we build the rest of writing on. It’s how we ensure clear communication and avoid confusion from errors (like the infamous “Let’s eat Grandma”). Moreover, good, enjoyable writing—the writing we demand out of the novels we read—is based on the making the most out of the fundamentals of proper grammar.
I hear the outcry already—“But you can break grammar rules in creative writing!” Absolutely, yes, you can. Fragments, run-ons, and all kinds of gross grammar insubordination that doesn’t fly in a term paper will work in creative fiction and non-fiction alike. Effectively breaking the rules, however, relies on following them most of the time, and in understanding *why* breaking them works. Ignore grammar, and unclear sentences and awkward wording are right on your tail.
Originality: In Comp I, we call a lack of academic originality—that is, lifting ideas from other sources—“plagiarism” if the sources are not credited. I’m not going to rail on the horrors of plagiarism, because I’m sure PubCrawlers already know it’s bad news. Instead, I’ll offer a reminder—there’s another, more subtle reason a lack of originality stinks in a term paper and why it’s vital to be original in your fiction writing.
Unoriginal writing is boring.
I can tell when a student is playing it safe, parroting ideas instead of presenting their own. I can even tell when students have their *own* ideas but are afraid to incorporate them into their papers. Their papers are boring. Fiction is much the same. If your ideas are derivative, if the stories have already been told, if the characters are stereotypes—it’s boring. It’s not adding anything new to the canon, and that’s the whole point of writing to begin with. So dare to be original.
So, if you took Comp I and thought those days were over—consider breaking out the basics again to apply to your writing now!
Writer, writing tutor, toddler’s mom, rebellious Sunday School teacher, Revolutionary War reenactor, seamstress, trespasser, and omnivorous reader. Say hi on Twitter @RowennaM or visit me at http://www.rowennamiller.com
JJ’s revision supplies: Twizzlers and iced coffee.
I recently finished a fairly major revision on my contracted novel that nearly killed me.
How did it almost kill me?
I wrote 32,000 words in 7 days in order to get it turned in on time. (I essentially rewrote the entire last act of the book from scratch.) Why did I throw out the last third of my book?
Because it made it better.
Here’s the thing about revision: I hate it. I am Team First Draft; I like the process of discovery and the blank page. For me, not knowing how a book will turn out is the most exciting thing of all. It may be because I’m a Panster (or a Gardener, as G.R.R.M. says), or it may be because I’m just like that in general. As an artist, I tended to prefer my sketch work to my more finished pieces; as a musician, I would learn a piece just well enough to play competently (but with great expression!).
My actual editorial letter was fairly light: about four pages, which essentially boiled down to 1. trim words from the first act and up the pacing, and 2. make the ending stronger and more emotionally resonant.
So why I did throw out all those words?
Because I was being weighed down by the baggage of the old draft.
As a member of Team First Draft, I find writing new words easier than fixing old ones. It’s really more of a mental trick than a writing one, but I know some of our readers have been asking for revision help, and I thought I would offer my revision process thoughts from the perspective of someone who is, ah, less systematic than everyone else, i.e. a disorganized mess. (The irony here is that I’m pretty systematic in nearly every other aspect of my life, including editing.)
Revising by hand, because I am Old School.
Let me backtrack for a moment here. When I was an editor, the first editorial letter I wrote generally addressed large, structural questions. What I called the Story Questions (which I’ve discussed many times in writing for PubCrawl). The first edit is generally the biggest and most encompassing because what you are doing is shoring up the foundations of the novel. Editorial letters for the structural edit are deceptively “light” because it’s not specifics that need addressing; it’s the larger picture.
The larger picture is both the easiest and hardest thing to fix, at least it is for me. It’s the easiest because it’s often one thing that “clicks” into place and makes everything better, and it’s the hardest because of the amount of WORK required. Because one small change might affect every single interaction a character has throughout the entire book. Just as a small tremor on one side of an ocean can cause a tsunami on the other, these little changes can sometimes add up to A GIANT KILLER WAVE THAT WASHES AWAY THE LAST ACT OF YOUR BOOK.
The thing about being a Pantser is that you don’t necessarily have the larger picture in mind when you’re drafting. Or rather, you do, but it’s buried deep in your subconscious, so you’re not necessarily thinking about it when you’re writing. A Pantser is what I call an Inside-Out writer; someone who “starts small” and builds into a whole. To continue with the Gardener metaphor started by G. R. R. M., a Pantser plants one seed, then another seed, then another seed, and before you know it, you have an entire of forest of words.
By necessity, an editor is an Outside-In thinker. Someone who looks at the picture as a whole, then drills down to the smaller levels. I think Plotters are also Outside-In thinkers: they begin with the foundations, and add layers. G. R. R. M. calls Plotters Architects, people with blueprints. The entire revision process is really an Outside-In process, and for Inside-Out writers, it can be awfully hard to wrap your mind around it.
Case in point: me. As an editor, I can certainly think Outside-In; I like building information systems and finding ways to break large concepts into easily digestible components. But as a writer, I simply can’t work that way. When I am writing, I can only look at the scene I’m working on; if I think about how that scene fits into my novel as a whole, my brain breaks.
So how to fix this problem? I “write my book again from scratch”, but this time, as an Outside-In thinker. In other words, I take my novel and break it down into an outline, i.e. reverse-outlining. I don’t outline fiction the way I used to outline my non-fiction: starting with I. Theme, and breaking it into A. Subtheme, B. Subtheme, etc. Instead, I write what I call the “long, shitty synopsis”: Once upon a time, there was a girl with music in her soul who lost her sister to the goblins. Essentially, I tell myself the story all over again with my editor’s comments in mind, and then I write it again with all new words. (It’s like first-drafting! I like first-drafting!)
Granted, I don’t ACTUALLY write an entirely new book during revisions; in fact, I’d say 85% of the time, I keep the words I’ve already written. I sometimes even re-type them to trick myself into thinking I’m writing new words. For me, so much of writing is about momentum, the feeling of forward motion, and the thought of slowing down and FIXING what I’ve written (out of order!) hinders more than helps.
What about you? Do any of our readers have as much difficulty with revision as I do? Do you have any tips? Share in the comments!
Further revision resources:
Our own Sooz wrote a fantastic guide to revising on her website, complete with character, plot, and world building worksheets, which you should all check out.
Our own Jodi Meadows also wrote posts on revision, here, here, and here.
I’m so excited by these books, I have to pass them along.
First of all, right now you can get for the incredibly low price of $20 this entire story bundle of writing books. I would have bought just one of the books on my own–the horse one by Judith Tarr, since I’m writing a lot of horse scenes these days for The Bradamante Saga and yes, I’d like to make sure I get them right–but then once I saw all the other awesome craft books in this bundle: SOLD. Because every writer can get better, and it’s such a pleasure to read a great craft book by authors who are experts in their field.
And speaking of authors who are experts in their field, the great young adult author Tom Leveen now has a new book out on writing dialogue. Before turning to novels, Tom spent many years in the theater as both an actor and director. I’ve taught writing workshops with him, and his tips for writing great dialogue are always FANTASTIC. Treat yourself to this book. You’ll learn a ton.
The email from my editor’s assistant popped into my inbox, the subject line glaring at me: Author Photo… (dun dun dun duuuuunnnn…)
If you’re like me, the thought of a professional author photo is both exciting and terrifying. I knew exactly what I wanted: a photo that would have almost magical qualities—a picture of me that would look good, and yet somehow also perfectly represent the real me to my readers.
I approached this task with dread. However, I am happy to say that, here on the other side of the process, I have pictures I LOVE.
Some of my positive experience is owed to planning; some of it is owed to luck. I did do some research. I looked at A LOT of author photos, and made decisions about preferences: color over of black and white, outside over inside, smiling over serious. So that much was planned. Luck entered in when it was time to find a photographer. Just before I started searching, my son and his girlfriend (who are both graduating from NYU’s New Studio on Broadway,) had actor headshots taken. My son raved about his experience with Amanda Pinto and Jake Nathanson of Sub/Urban Photography, told me about other authors they had photographed, and suggested I reach out to them. He also gave me the link to their website, (sub-urbanphotography.com,) which overflows with beautiful examples of their work. (Though I credit good luck with bringing me to Sub/Urban Photography, finding the right photographer does not require good luck–read on!)
When I emailed Amanda and Jake, I let them know what I was looking for, and they walked me through questions about clothing, locations, and whether I wanted to hire the freelance hair and make-up artist they work with. All these discussions were important, but after the choice of photographer, I would say the choice to hire a professional stylist had the greatest impact on my results. Alex Rivera, the freelance hair and make-up artist I worked with, not only listened to my thoughts about what I wanted, he had the training and experience to know how to achieve it. My son’s girlfriend, (who–like me–has long hair,) mentioned how great it was to know that there was someone standing by with a brush while she was being photographed outside in the wind. Sold.
In the end, this experience I’d been dreading turned out to be an incredibly pleasant and relaxing day. I rode the train to New York, met the team downtown, and after hair and make-up, we headed out to the streets of the East Village and Soho. (Yes, we shot outside on the street! Amanda and Jake knew where they could find lots of light and very little traffic.) Afterwards, I was sent a huge batch of proofs, out of which I chose three to be edited. (The results are attached at the bottom of this post.)
I was so happy with how everything turned out, I asked Amanda and Jake if they would contribute to this post. In response, they provided some excellent questions that authors should ask themselves, as a type of checklist before choosing a photographer. I’m thrilled to be able to share them with you:
First question to ask – Is this photographer a portrait photographer?
This seems like an obvious question, but it’s actually very important. Many photographers have different specialties, whether it’s event photography, weddings, live performance, art-specific work, etc. So for example, if you have a friend that takes photos and will take your author photo for cheap (or maybe even free), have you seen their portrait work and do they seem to have a knack for it? A portrait, especially one that goes on the back of a book, needs to reflect who you are as a writer. This doesn’t mean that if you wrote a serious book that you have to have a serious picture, but what about your personality plays a big part in your writing? Are you playful? Are you soulful? Are you witty? Photographers with portrait experience, especially with actor headshots, have to have that extra ability to make people comfortable enough to be themselves on camera. So if this photographer is a portrait photographer, you’ll be able to see that reflected in their work. Does it consist of beautifully composed pictures with people smiling awkwardly and stuck in tense poses? Or are you looking at an honest moment captured on camera?
Second question – Does the photographer typically work with non-actors?
Even though having headshot experience is almost crucial for taking an author photo, it’s just as important for the photographer to know how to work with people that aren’t used to being on camera. A great deal of photographers, especially those that work in major cities like NYC or LA, can be actor headshot centric. Look through the photographer’s work and see if they have anything like corporate portraits, family portraits, candids, etc., and see how they compare to the actor headshots. Do they seem just as natural as the headshots? If so, that shows you that they can use those interpersonal skills even on the otherwise camera shy. You know that they can help guide you through the shoot without expecting you to know exactly how to act or pose beforehand.
Third question to ask – Do you know anyone who has used the photographer?
So many of our new clients come to us through recommendations from prior clients. Honestly, these are the people you need to ask the most questions. They’ve been on your side of the shoot and were satisfied with how it all turned out, but why? Ask them what the shoot was like, how long it took, how much it cost, where did they take you (if it was an outdoor shoot,) etc. I would hesitate to use any photographer unless you know someone who has worked with them in the past and can answer your questions objectively. Just because they had a positive experience with them, or even a negative one, doesn’t mean you will have the same one. You may prefer someone that’s bubbly vs. neutral, fast vs. slow, and so on and so forth. The best possible situation, however, is you can get a consensus on this photographer from more than one person. If you know a handful of people who have used the photographer, each of them being from different professions and with different personalities, and they unanimously agree they had a positive experience, then chances are you’ve found the right person to work with.
Thank you so much, Sub/Urban Photography! I love my photos! (The one in the middle is the one I chose for the book jacket.)
What kind of experiences have you had with author photos? As a member of the The Sweet 16s, I know many authors who are in different stages of the process. Please share your thoughts in the comments!
Now I'm back in the game, but my email list is so old it has cobwebs.
Can you help me get a more up-to-date email list? I don't plan on being all spammy with it, and I'd never share it.
If you click on this recent example of my newsletter, there's a button on the upper left hand corner that says "Subscribe." All it means is that's I'll send you fun news and occasionally some exclusive content.
We’re continuing the highlight of Egmont books and writers here at Pub Crawl with Bree Despain and THE ETERNITY KEY!
I once saw a fellow YA author tweet something to the effect of: “Books are made out of caffeine, sugar, and tears.” This sentiment stuck with me (though not the author’s name, unfortunately) because it was not only simultaneously hilarious and sad—but also because it was very true to what my own writing process used to look like only a year ago.
About this time last year, I found myself in my doctor’s office because my health was total crap. I wasn’t sleeping, I had no energy, my anxiety was through the roof, I was testing as pre-diabetic, my hormones and thyroid were out of whack, my adrenals were burned out, and my BMI was far too high for both my and my doctor’s liking. I told my doctor that I was confused by my extremely unhealthy state because whenever I am “not on deadline” I try to eat as healthy as possible and be physically active. My doctor then asked me to describe what I’m like when I am on deadline.
My deadlines have always been tight (about 2 to 3 months to produce a first draft, and about 3 weeks or less per revision) and I found myself describing long days (sometimes 12 to 16+ hours) in front of a laptop, eating chocolate covered cinnamon bears, Swedish Fish, gluten free cookies, whatever take-out my husband brought home, and guzzling Coke Zero, to keep myself half-crazed and barreling toward that ever impending deadline. To this my doctor responded, “So basically you use sugar and caffeine to whip yourself into a manic frenzy in order to write a book?” After I nodded grimly at her assessment, she went on, “Well, we either need to figure out how to completely overhaul your writing process or you need to find a new career, because being an author is literally killing you.”
My doctor’s pronouncement was both devastating and a big “duh” moment for me. Rather than give up the career I love, I decided to dedicate myself to creating healthier (and happier) writing habits. I’ve spent the last year researching, consulting other professionals, and trying out new tricks and habits. During that same time, I thoroughly revised one book (THE ETERNITY KEY, which will be published on April 28th!) outlined two more books, and crushed a deadline for a first draft on another book—all while increasing my daily output by shortening my writing days, improved my emotional and physical wellbeing, and losing 40 pounds (instead of packing on my usual 15 pounds of “book baby weight” per deadline).
My new writing process is kind of involved (I could probably write a whole book on it) but I thought I would share a few of the highlights with you in case you’re inclined to make a few changes to your own process:
Take on a book (or any large task) in bite-sized pieces.
To me, the act of writing an entire book is daunting, and thinking about it as a whole is an immediate trigger for writer’s block. I’ve learned through trial and error over the course of seven books that I do best if I look at a book in bite-sized pieces—or scene by scene. I am both a very visual and a hands-on person, so when I plot a book, I do it by hand. I start by covering my walls with giant Post-it notes and list out ideas and questions. Once my ideas start to gel, I pull out a set of blank notecards. I ask myself, “what are the ten most important things I want to have happen in this book?” Or “What are the ten most important scenes?” I write out a card for each of those scenes (with about a two sentence description) and then start thinking of all the scenes I need to connect those ten scenes together. I keep making cards until I have a big stack, and then I use a magnet board to arrange them in a three-act structure—filling in or making changes as I go—and pretty soon, I have an entire book outlined scene by scene. When I sit down to write for the day, I will take two or three scene cards down from the board and those are the scenes (or bites) I will work on for the day.
Clear your mind before starting your work.
Many people have recommended meditation to me over the years, but I used to write it off as new-agey mumbo jumbo. However, after listening to several Ted Talks that recommended daily meditation, I decided to give it a try—and holy crap, it actually works! I’ve had many a meditation session end with an answer to a plot quandary or character issue popping into my head. I now start my writing day with a ten to fifteen minute meditation session. I use an app called Simply Being to guide me through each session.
Try to compartmentalize your writing time.
I used to spend long hours, day and night, chained to my computer during deadlines—much to my family’s detriment and displeasure. Now, I try my best to keep my “author hours” compartmentalized between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. while my kids are in school. This is my time for writing, taking care of author business, marketing, blogging, etc., so that when my kids get home, I can remove my author hat and put on mommy one. (Though once homework is done and the kids go off to play, I may sneak in a writing sprint later in the day if I find myself alone in the house.) Both my family and I are so much happier when I’m not trying to multi-task writing and mommy-ing at the same time. (And did you know that multi-tasking lowers your IQ more than if you were stoned?)
Compartmentalize your writing time even more with “productivity sprints.”
There are so many important non-writing tasks that go along with being author (and non-important ones like Twitter) than can end up filling all my time if I am not careful. I am also naturally a very slow writer—I used to average anywhere from 250 to 700 words a day after many agonizing hours. To combat these problems during deadlines, I’ve become a big fan of writing sprints. After my morning pre-writing routine (which would take another blog post to describe) and my meditation, I take a scene card, sit down at my laptop, and set a timer for an hour. I then challenge myself to write at least a thousand words during that hour. I’ve found that speedwriting helps me turn off my inner critic and get the words on the page. I tell myself that it is okay to write crap during these sprints because I can always revise them later, but I’ve actually found that most of my best writing happens while I’m in speed mode. It’s like I’m tapping into my subconscious brain, and scenes I’ve been dreading writing almost seem to magically work themselves out as I go with very little conscious thought on my part. I try to do 2 to 3 writing sprints during my “author hours” and often find my daily word count to be between 2000 to 5000 words. That sure beats agonizing for hours over 500 words!
I will also set a timer and do productivity sprints for other non-writing author tasks—like responding to emails or writing this blog post.
Between my writing sprints, I give myself permission to take breaks. I get up and go for a short walk (or even just walk up and down my stairs a few times to get my blood flowing), check Twitter (though I really have to be careful with this), text with friends, read, or watch a show while I eat lunch. (CHOPPED and PROJECT RUNWAY are my favorite lunch break shows—I find it very motivational to watch other people be creative.)
Trade out the sugar and caffeine for healthy snacks and water
This was the hardest (and best) change to my writing process. Because of my hormone and blood sugar issues, my doctor put me on a very specialized diet (think stricter than Paleo). I cried when she handed me my new “lifestyle” guidelines and thought, “How can I ever write without sugar and caffeine?” But on my doctor’s orders, I traded in my cinnamon bears and other goodies for nuts, berries, avocados, olives, veggies, and raw food protein bars. Instead of Coke, I guzzle bottles of water. At first, I thought this change was going to kill my writing, but now I find that I leave my writing sessions feeling healthy instead of gross and bloated. I feel even-keeled instead of hopped up and cranky. And because I’m not staying up late to write anymore and my stress levels are lower, I find I don’t need caffeine at all to get through the day. (My doctor does allow me a few pieces of 75% dark chocolate a day, and you better believe I savor the heck out of those!)
I once read in an interview that Joss Whedon calls part of his writing process “feeding the monkey” because he has to reward himself with treats for getting his work done. I adopted this practice, but instead of using edible treats, I found other ways to reward myself. Every time I add 7,000 new words to a story, I give myself a prize. Maybe it’s a new pair of fuzzy socks to wear while I’m writing, a new book, or a date-night out with my husband. I sometimes even get my husband to buy me little inexpensive presents and wrap them up so I don’t know what they are. The anticipation is often motivating enough to get me to squeeze in one more writing sprint before my “author hours” end.
Okay, I could go on and on (like I said, I could probably write a book on this topic) but I should probably let the Pub Crawl gang have their blog back! You may not be in need of a complete writing process overhaul like I was, but I hope you found at least a couple of helpful tips to try out. Let me know what you think, or share your ideas for creating a healthier writing process.
Bree Despain is the author of the Dark Divine trilogy and the Into The Dark trilogy. Bree rediscovered her childhood love for creating stories when she took a semester off college to write and direct plays for at-risk, inner-city teens from Philadelphia and New York. She currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah with her husband, two young sons, and her beloved TiVo.
I sat on a library panel this week with four other YA authors. I'd had a busy day, and was irritable already. I probably should have sat back, listened, and shut up, but of course I did no such thing.
"Do you purposefully put messages in your books?" someone in the audience asked.
"Do you feel you must censor yourself to any extent because you're writing for young people?" another attendee asked.
A few of the other panelists responded, and the consensus seemed to be a rousing no to both questions. They talked about the freedom we need to create good art, the disaster of didactic fiction, and the mandate to trust our young readers. They sounded so cool, and so right. But I've already told you I was feeling contrary. Without much thought, I leaped into the conversation.
I've been ruminating on why I erupted with such fervor and decided to air my responses out here on the Fire Escape. I'd love your comments and thoughts. Do you resonate with any of these statements/questions—all of which popped into my head, and some out of my mouth (more inarticulately than below)—and if so, which ones and why?
On putting "message" in our books:
"Aren't all stories containers for worldview, messages, and morals, even if it's the view that the world is morally uncertain? A belief that there are no definitive answers is a particular philosophy. An author's reluctance to convey any morals or ideologies doesn't mean a story isn't saturated with them. And if the head isn't in charge of weaving your worldview into a story, the gut will do it for you."
On writing more carefully for children than for adults:
"Children's stories are more powerful conveyers of worldview because a child is in the process of formation. Don't we have a responsibility as adults to discern the hidden as well as overt messages in children's stories, even our own? Shouldn't we steer them away from the 'danger of a single story,' for example, about certain kinds of people?"
"Is there a right 'age of consent' for young people to roam freely in the world of stories? Is a parent solely to decide or are we in the wider community of adult writers, publishers, and educators also called to defend young minds and hearts? If so, shouldn't we pay closer attention to our stories and perhaps limit our freedom more than artists who produce works for adults?"
Wow, was I cranky. But what do you think? I don't mind you showing me why and how I was off. Or on. Or both. Don't hold back.
Note from Julie: Today’s post is a compilation of advice on historical research from a few members of the Sweet Sixteens, a group of YA and MG authors who are debuting in 2016. You can learn more about the Sweet Sixteens and their upcoming books on their website. I’m very proud to be a part of this great group, and I’m excited to share some writing advice from my fellow debut authors!
The idea for this post came from a thread on the Sweet Sixteens’ discussion forum. Kali Wallace, who writes YA horror, posted a question for historical fiction writers. I thought it was great that a writer was reaching across genres to ask a question, and the replies were stellar! Thank you all for agreeing to let me share this great discussion with the readers of PubCrawl! (And stay tuned for more of Kali Wallace and YA horror in a future post!)
I have a question for writers of historical fiction:
How do you research for a historical novel? What sort of research do you do?
How do you balance getting the period details right with writing for a modern MG/YA audience?
~Kali Wallace, author of Shallow Graves, Katherine Tegen Books 2016. You can visit Kali’s website and follow her on twitter @kaliphyte.
Lois Sepahban: My stories always start with a character, and I think that even in a historical setting, the character’s experiences are what make his/her story accessible and interesting for modern readers. But getting the setting details right does require research. Over a period of several months, I devour everything I can find about the setting–books, newspaper articles, diaries, documentaries, and museums. During those months, the story starts to slowly come together in my mind. So as soon as I’m ready to start writing, then I’ve already done most of the research.
I use a notebook to keep track of what I learn, and I always need to go back and dig up new details while I’m drafting.
By immersing myself in the history and culture before I start writing, I have found that the details come naturally as I’m drafting.
(Lois Sepahban is the author of the upcoming MG Historical, Paper Wishes, coming from FSG/Margaret Ferguson Books in Winter 2016. Learn more about Lois on her website and say hello to her on twitter @LoisSepahban)
Janet B. Taylor: When I FIRST started writing for REALS, I’d planned to write adult historical fiction. I was working with a hisfic author as a “writing coach” who told me–in no uncertain terms–that though I was a good writer, with potential…blah blah…my “voice” was too modern and too “YA”.
Now, at the time, I didn’t really know what “YA” was. And I certainly didn’t know what voice meant in writing terms.
Soo…I cried. A lot. Then I got to thinking. Okay. Modern voice. YA. Loves historical…..TIME TRAVEL!
I’ve been fascinated by the medieval period for years, and had studied it for a long time. Particularly England and France, and even more specifically, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. (I’d LOVE to write about her one day. Her teenage years are absolutely astounding. However, there are a LOT of wonderful books already written about Eleanor. And I’m not sure I have the chops to go up against someone like Elizabeth Chadwick or Sharon Kay Penman, for instance.)
Anyhoo, with that background, I basically did what Lois said. Total immersion for months. Websites. Read a lot. Traveled to Europe a few times. Read a lot. Castles, museums. Oh, did I mention I spent WAY too much money on books so I could read a lot? I got everything about anything to do with time period. I even got to spend the night inside Fontevraud Abbey in France, where Eleanor spent her later years, and is buried. I got to be alone with her (and Henry II and Richard the Lionheart) at night, in the cathedral, all alone. It was magnificent!
Now the sequel to my current book will take place in NYC during “The Gilded Age” 1895. That is requiring a LOT of new, very detailed, very intense research, as I wasn’t really familiar with that era. But it’s such a cool time and I’m enjoying it very much!
(Janet B. Taylor’s debut YA Adventure/Time Travel, Into the Dim, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring 2016. Visit Janet on her website and follow her on twitter @Janet_B_Taylor)
Patrick Samphire: Almost everything I write is set in one historical period or another. I’ve written short stories in Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt, as well as in the first world war and prehistoric Britain. My novel, SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB, is set in 1816, and I’m also working on a novel set in the 1930s.
But the shameful truth is that I’m an absolutely terrible researcher. I hate doing it. I pick up some incredibly informative, vastly heavy reference book and I rarely get past the introduction before my brain melts into a puddle of supreme apathy. I just can’t bring myself to do it. Come on. I can’t be the only one, right?
So, I have developed a special method of Historical Research for the Historically Ignorant and Terminally Lazy:
1. Watch movies and read books set in the relevant period, to get a basic idea of what the period was like. You have to be careful that you’re not picking books and movies by people who are equally Historically Ignorant and Terminally Lazy. For my 1816 book, that meant reading Jane Austen, Bernard Cornwell and Georgette Heyer and watching lots of Jane Austen adaptations. Yeah, and some people claim this is work…
2. Write your book.
3. Figure out all the bits you should have researched and go and look them up. Wikipedia is, of course, not particularly accurate about many things, but admit it, we all use it… Alternatively, ask my wife (you’ll have to find someone else to ask; sorry). My wife loves doing historical research. She reads books like that for fun. She even has degrees in this kind of stuff.
4. Realise that what you have in the book can’t possibly have happened, because you didn’t bother to research it in advance.
5. Rewrite, making it less impossible.
6. Blame the wizards/fairies/aliens. My books tend to have pretty heavy fantasy or science fiction elements, so when I get something wrong, I just blame the influence of magic/technology for changes to real history.
7. Now no one will realize how little you actually know about your historical period. Unless you write a blog entry admitting it.
(Patrick Samphire is the author of the upcoming MG Adventure, Secrets of the Dragon Tomb, coming from Christy Ottaviano Books (Henry Holt / Macmillan) in January 2016. Learn more about Patrick on his website and say hello to him on twitter @patricksamphire)
Heidi Heilig: For starters, picking historical fantasy/time travel over straight up historical fiction made things easier when it came to research. In the world of the book, characters can travel to historical and mythological maps, so I am not tied strictly to widely-agreed-upon reality.
That said, accurate history can really make the fantasy aspect shine. When I did my research, reading was key for me, and I often went down the research rabbit hole for hours on something small that never made it into the final draft–or even the draft I was working on at the time. But that time wasn’t wasted–having all that information in a soup in my head made it easy to pick small things out and weave them into a detailed story.
Obviously, primary factual documents were very useful–boat time tables, newspaper articles–but I also found fiction of the time period very helpful for dialogue and speech cadence. Old pictures helped (the bulk of the story takes place in 1884 so there are some) and maps, of course, so I could see, for example, what areas of town smelled because they were near the tannery or how noisy things were due to proximity to the market. Paintings, art, or songs of the time helped me humanize the characters and understand what people filled their time with when they weren’t doing Important Book Things, because I have this tendency to see historical people as Very Serious.
In the future, I hope to be skilled enough to do straight up historical fiction. I love history. I think there are some issues that are universal. No matter when, teens are always growing up, or falling in love, or looking for their place in the world.
(Heidi Heilig’s debut YA Fantasy/Time Travel, The Girl from Everywhere, will be published by Greenwillow/HarperCollins in February, 2016. You can learn more about her on her website and follow her on Twitter @heidiheilig.)
What are your thoughts on historical fiction? Do you use any of these techniques when you research? Please share you thoughts in the comments!
When you mention world building to a bunch of writers, most are instantly going to think about fantasy worlds. Makes sense since that’s the genre that does the most world building from scratch, but every story needs a rich world, even if that world is set in the good old USA. Luckily, the same tricks genre writers use to flesh out their worlds can also be used by non-genre writers.
A Room With a View
One of the strongest tools writers have for world building is our point of view character. She can ground the reader by what she sees and provide context for those details. She can show what’s normal and what’s unusual for that world by how she reacts to things. Just as readers have never been to Middle Earth, they might not have ever been to the Midwest. Sure, they’ll have a general idea what it’s like (corn, flat, farms), but imagine how much richer we can make that world if we treat it like the reader has never seen it before. Especially if our world isn’t what the average person thinks of when they hear the location.
People know what mundane things look like, but they don’t always know what importance a mundane item has in a story. We get our pick of details to convey subtle information to our readers, so it’s useful to provide details that are more than just window dressing. Look for things that have meaning to the point of view character, and let that meaning add a new layer of understanding to the world they live in. Make it clear that this world couldn’t be anywhere else but where we’ve set it—whether that’s Atlanta or The Kingdom of Asaguili.
Setting is a vital part of any story, and one of the hardest to deal with because it’s all description. As a fantasy author, I have to establish an unfamiliar world and the rules that govern that world right at the start. To avoid bogging down the story, I background the world building details into the actions and thoughts of my narrator. I don’t need to tell readers about the economic climate if I show my protagonist stealing food so she can eat. Making her wary of soldiers posted along the street shows an occupied city without me ever having to say a word of explanation. It also mixes the world building with the action so the pace stays tight and keeps the story moving.
Backgrounding works just as well if a story is set in the real world, if not better, because readers already have an idea of what the world is like. (They do live there after all). If the protagonist lives in a crime-ridden area, we might show her locking multiple locks on the door, or have her hear gunshots or sirens. She might not carry a purse that can be easily grabbed on the street. Seize the opportunities to flesh out the world in ways that not only show setting, but add tension, deepen characterization, and even further plot advancement. Just because readers know the world is no reason to skimp on making it feel real. And those tiny “real” details can add so much to a story.
What’s That You Say?
Dialog is as distinctive as geography in defining a world. Slang terms, swear words, clichés, metaphors—every culture and region has their own set. If a story takes place in the south, let the dialog reflect the slower pace and country charm of the region. And I’m not talking about writing dialect (dropping the g off words, spelling things all funky) but using the rhythm and flow, the slang and phrasing of those who live in that area. A New Yorker is going to ask for a cup of coffee differently than a Southern Belle, or even a Midwesterner. Find the language characteristics common to a region or culture and use them to bring that region to life.
You Look Marvelous
Visit both Florida and Chicago in the winter and you’ll notice how different regions dress. We can use this to show climate and even morality with what people wear and how others react to the way people dress. What’s acceptable in Manhattan is very different from what flies in Salt Lake City, and neither might be appropriate in Louisiana. Instead of having the protagonist wear just a green blouse and jeans, see if there’s anything specific to a region that would show another side or trait of the character.
Well, See, There’s a Problem
Even the obstacles we throw at our characters offer chances at world building. A fight with the boss is something that could happen anywhere, so what might be distinctive to your world that would make that fight memorable? Are there jobs unique to the book’s setting? Are there concerns that only people who live in a particular place have? Perhaps the environment plays a role. Cultures or politics often shape a region, so how might these beliefs hinder the protagonist? When the character’s daily routine is a challenge, we have extra tools to use to keep our story exciting.
The World is in the Details
Just as fantasy authors choose details that flesh out and create a world readers have never seen before, non-genre authors can take advantage of the same opportunities. By looking at your world as someone seeing it for the first time, you can discover details that will help make that world a richer place. It’s really no different than choosing the right verb for the right time. Every line of your story will feel layered and deep, and even a world readers know will come alive.
Amie here first: As you know, Pub Crawl is highlighting the authors of Egmont’s Last List as their books release. Today, please help us give a very warm welcome to Dr. Kristi Helvig (oh yes, we’re fancy today!) as she talks about nuns, quarterbacks, psychology and YA!
One of the things authors are frequently asked is if they’ve always wanted to be a writer. I feel a little guilty when I see people affirm that yes, as soon as they were able to hold a crayon, they were scribbling the toddler equivalent of Dostoyevsky. What I really wanted to be was either a nun or an NFL quarterback. For a host of reasons, those professions were sadly never in the cards for me, so my parents thought a lawyer would be the perfect career fit for me—it might have had something to do with my ability to argue my way out of being grounded. Yet that profession never resonated with me, and then several things happened within a couple years time.
I read the book Go Ask Alice about a troubled teen’s spiral through drug use and eventual (spoiler alert) death. I remember thinking that maybe she would have chosen a different path if she’d had some better help. I’d always been fascinated by why people make the choices they make and why they act in certain ways. When I got to high school and took an advanced psychology course, I was hooked. I went to college and majored in Psychology, followed by graduate school and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. One of my first jobs was as a therapist then manager of a locked adolescent girls’ unit, many of whom were committed there by youth corrections. I loved that job and knew that psychology was a perfect fit for me.
However, all that isn’t to say that I didn’t dabble in writing thought my life. My mom says I wrote my first picture book in Kindergarten and once hauled it out of storage to prove it. I began my first “novel” around age 9 on a cursive typewriter, yet instead of Dostoyevsky, it was Nancy Drew fan fiction. I started a school newspaper in elementary school and was “chief editor,” which primarily involved discussing whether pizza or chicken nuggets was the better lunch option. Then, aside from some angsty teenage poetry, I didn’t write much until a creative writing class in college. When my teacher asked if she could keep my short story and make copies to hand out to future classes, I was flattered but still never thought of writing as more than “fun.”
So I grew up became a psychologist and wrote hundreds of evaluations, reports, and papers over the years, but nothing creative. It wasn’t until I had children that the urge to write fiction hit, and hit hard. I found a critique group, joined SCBWI and had my first few picture books written within weeks. My group said my “voice” sounded older and suggested I try YA. I thought “sure, why not?” and wrote my first YA novel within a few months. It was so hard yet so much fun. I’m sure people don’t believe me when I say that writing a publishable novel was harder than getting my Ph.D. but it’s true. When my agent in New York called to say that Egmont bought my novel, along with an unwritten sequel (which is obviously written now since it releases in April), I had to pinch myself. I know I’ll never stop writing, and my psychology background helps inform the characterization and motivations in my novels. It’s been a great marriage of careers and I’ve made sure to tell my own children that just because something is “fun,” doesn’t mean you can’t make it a profession.
Kristi Helvig is a Ph.D. clinical psychologist turned sci-fi/fantasy author. Her first novel, BURN OUT (Egmont USA), which Kirkus Reviews called “a scorching series opener not to be missed,” follows 17-year-old Tora Reynolds, one of Earth’s last survivors, when our sun burns out early. In the sequel, STRANGE SKIES, released 4/28/2015, Tora makes it to a new planet only to discover a whole new host of problems—and the same people who still want her dead. Order Kristi’s books through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your favorite local retailer. Kristi muses about Star Trek, space monkeys, and other assorted topics on her blog and Twitter . You can also find her on Facebook. Kristi resides in sunny Colorado with her hubby, two kiddos, and behaviorally-challenged dogs.
The number one rejection I hear is this: “The story doesn’t stand out in today’s crowded market.”
The SCBWI is creating an opportunity for illustrators to test their art and how it holds up in today’s market. Each month, the “Draw This” monthly art prompt will provide a word for members to illustrate.
For years I’ve followed a similar type experience at IllustrationFriday.com. They, too, provide an art prompt of a word. In looking through the weekly images, I started to understand the concept of “standing out.” For example, one week, the word was RED. Looking through, I saw the same images: firetrucks, little red wagons, red-headed girls, Little Red Riding Hood, gorgeous cardinals, and so on. Those who illustrated the prompt with such an obvious cliche probably thought they were showcasing their work. Instead, I thought they were showcasing their lack of creativity.
2009 World Beard and Mustache Competition. Does that beard spell out B-E-A-R-D?
Here are the images for an Illustration Friday prompt, Beard. Now look through Beard images on Flickr. Or look through the BeardBrand shop and see how their photographers captured the young urban male and his passion for beards. Which is more exciting and fresh? Are these cliched images? No!
Writers, you can play along, too! Take the illustration prompt as a writing prompt. List your first 10 ideas–and throw them out. Those are the cliched ideas. Now, write 10 more ideas. Choose the strongest and write a story that has a fighting chance of standing out in today’s crowded market.
I’ve never seen a Bee-Beard before. Have you?
The SCBWI “Draw This” June prompt: Bounce
Illustrations due by May 25. See full rules here. While the prompt is only open to SCBWI members, anyone can play along!
At Pub Crawl, we naturally focus on writing and publishing novels, but of course there are plenty of other careers out there for writers. Before I started writing young adult books, I was exclusively focused on science fiction and fantasy short stories — and I still manage to write at least a couple of those a year. Before short fiction, I was interested in writing screenplays and for television. Perhaps one day I will share my unproduced spec scripts for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and Nickelodeon’s CatDog: the first written works I completed, revised, and submitted. They were rejected, but they were important steps in building the discipline and persistence that serve writers so well.
Many working writers have a variety of projects; I’m currently freelancing, doing technical writing, marketing copy, blog posts, and articles while drafting my next book. My friends and colleagues write media tie-in novels for exciting properties like Star Trek and Star Wars, comic books for DC and Marvel, video games. I love writing YA, but it’s hard not to dream about those possibilities and hope for chances to branch out too. Fortunately, proven success in one written format often leads to opportunities in other areas.
I love films and TV so much (too much, my wife might say, as she scrutinizes my video collection), I would still love to work in that world one day, from a writers room or perhaps through the pages of a tie-in novel or a web series. It would be great to write video game scripts, or provide some of the in-world text to flesh out the setting and history. I want to write plays, too, even though I have no idea what that involves! I know those industries are probably not as glamorous as they seem from the outside, but neither is writing novels (shocking, right?), and I want to write so many more of those as well: middle grade, adult, horror, literary… you name it.
I think wanting to write in all these different media is about the appeal of storytelling. My motivation is to entertain people, and writing more broadly is just a way of reaching bigger audiences and engaging with them in new ways. My work was inspired by TV and movies and cartoons as much as books, so of course I want to try telling stories more visually. In fact, it’s all about trying something different, pushing out of the comfort zone, taking risks — and bringing together my diverse passions and interests into one amazing job that feels more like fun than work.
So aside from novels, what else do you write, or what would you like to write one day? Tell us in the comments below. Assume that anything is possible, because it is!