Category Archives: Writer’s Craft
During National Novel Writing Month I am hunting for my next story idea. A new idea every day. Not sure if any will stick, but maybe it’ll help you find your next idea too via Inspiration Falls
Five Fundamentals (or an excuse to write about my fabulous critique group and the Cubs)
When you watched arguably the best baseball game in recent history and held your breath during the ninth inning after the Cubs didn’t get any runner in, waiting to see what the Indians would do, then to go to a rain delay, and the incredible tenth inning, I bet you didn’t notice the fundamentals. Watching how the players gripped the ball before they threw it, or how the hitter aligned his knuckles, or the outfielders using 2 hands to catch the ball probably escaped you. The strike outs, the homerun, and that throw from Bryant to Rizzo! Holy cow! The big plays. That’s what gets us. But we don’t get the big plays without endlessly practicing those fundamentals.
Think about young Bryant and Rizzo playing little league, practicing catching the hit to third, throwing to first, catching, tagging the runner and the base. Day after day. Year after year. Messing up many times along the way.
Well, my dear writing friend, we have our own set of fundamentals that will hopefully lead to your own big play.
1. Write, everyday possible.
2. Read, read, read. Read what’s in your genre. Read what’s not in your genre. Read craft books to help you critique and edit your own work.
3. Join or form a critique group. Not sure what to do with one? Here’s a suggestion. The most important thing to bring to group is a willingness to hear your weaknesses. The best thing to offer at group is your reaction to the piece. You have an opinion, yes. But it’s one opinion. The author ultimately must decide what to do with the feedback.
This is my critique group, the Six Pens. (One is not pictured.) We are picture book, chapter book, middle grade novel, non-fiction, memoir, education, historical fiction, contemporary fiction, fantasy, humor, action/adventure, heart-rending writers. There’s lots of opinions to go around. Two are published, with one more story on the horizon.(Whoop! Whoop!) We are all hopeful. And we need each other to keep applying butt to chair and writing when the motivation is running low.
4. Go to conferences. And watch your local writer’s society for smaller craft nights. My critique group attended the recent Prairie Writers & Illustrators Day that the Illinois SCBWI chapter holds every November. It sharpened and inspired. And we can pool together the different things each of us learned from it to edify our group as a whole.
I bet you can’t tell, but this is my critique group again. We are now the Super Six Pens, tackling troublesome stories in a single bound (or many revisions.) Another bonus of attending conferences is open door access to editors at otherwise closed houses. If you don’t have an agent already, this is golden!
5. Never, ever, ever give up. I once heard it said, that many successful writers started with 10% talent and 90% dedication. I’m six years in, I’m receiving incredible feedback from agents and authors who critique my work. I’m not published yet. YET.
Never. Ever. Ever give up!
World Building Days Gone By
After a recent, especially helpful critique I was left with the impression I needed to mainly focus on two things. The first was moving a wrongly placed conflict. It didn’t surprise me. I had had a feeling about it myself, but justified it at the same time. The beauty of writing is the save as button. Nothing has to change forever. If I decide I like the original way better than the revised way, I can revert. But it’s always worth the try to do something that makes you a little uncomfortable, something you are not quite certain about. It may turn out to be magic.
The other big note is on world building. And admittedly, here is where I struggle. It’s historical fiction. And I’ve done A LOT of research on the time period and the events in my story. How do I build this world of long ago without dumping all of this info onto the page? Then there’s the question of what do I do about the areas that are fuzzy? The areas the research didn’t reveal? Do I fill in the gaps creatively or find a way around them?
My brain leads me to further research, but of a fun kind, for me. I got to reading. Here are the seven things I’ve gleaned from the first three chapters of seven historical fictional novels. Hopefully it will lead me to build one vivid world.
The seven books I studied:
- Paper Wishes (2016) by Lois Sepahban
- Down the Rabbit Hole (2013) by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
- Number the Stars (1989, oldish, but my favorite Newbery winner) by Lois Lowry
- The War that Saved my Life (2015) by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
- Worth (2004) by A. LaFaye
- Dash (2014) by Kirby Larson
- Fever 1793 (2000) by Laurie Halse Anderson
*Timeout for a plug. One of these lovely authors is the person who critiqued my first three chapters. Do yourself a favor and keep an eye on Kidlit College for opportunities to grow your craft. Ms. LaFaye empowered me to plunge back into a story that had become stale, helped me to see the good in it, and showed me where I needed to grow in a way that made me feel strengthened instead of diminished. Besides, hearing words like compelling piece and powerful story is a confidence boost that makes the baby seem a little less ugly. FYI the Novel Direct Contest is open until November 1, 2016. *
The good news is there’s no one way to do this. The bad news is there’s no one way to do this. So, more often than not, here is what I discovered.
- Five of the seven are written in first person. An advantage of this is keeping the movie camera super zoomed in and noticing only what the character would notice. Like in The War that Saved my Life, Ada had no idea there was a world war brewing outside of her flat because she was imprisoned in her home. A disadvantage of first person narratives is being unable to ever leak information to your reader that your protag wouldn’t know.
- Mine is written in third-person limited. I think this is working for me, for now. Third-person limited is similar to first person in that the protag must be in every scene and only his thoughts and feelings are divulged, the others’ may be inferred. But I may play with first person. It seems easier for the reader to sink into the skin of the protag.
- The story is in the specifics. After completing my last rough draft, I read Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. She has an entire chapter called the story is in the specifics. But the specifics, the details, must have a story reason to be there, not just a cool piece of research I picked up and want to fit in. For example, in Number the Stars, the second chapter is nearly all back story, told through a bedtime story that led to a flashback, that delivers a vital theme of the story. A boy tells a Nazi soldier that all of Denmark is a bodyguard to the king. In the third chapter, Annemarie realizes that all of Denmark must also now be a bodyguard to the Jews.
- In Down the Rabbit Hole, Pringle is very keen to notice people’s fashion. Valuable story retail space is taken with details about the fashion of 1871. I doubt Susan Campbell Bartoletti chose emphasizing fashion over decor, for example, because it is what interested her. I’m sure there is a story reason. But only having read the opening pages, I have yet to discover if I’m right.
- I have a lot of specific information I know from all of my research. But like Lisa Cron wrote, “The more details the writer gives us, the fewer we’ll remember, proving, once again, that as with most things in life, less is more.” If it doesn’t have a story reason, pitch it.
- Don’t just world build for the sake of painting the picture for your reader. There must be reason for it. For example, in The War that Saved my Life, Ada leaves her flat for the first time, ever. As a writer, I’d be tempted to tell of all the things she would be seeing for the first time as she’s walking with her brother to school and running away from her mother. But if Ada were a real person, and we treat our characters like they are, than in reality she wouldn’t notice these things around her. She was in such terrible pain from walking on her crippled foot that she had to crawl a block. At which point the reader learns about the trash and the mud that she must crawl through to escape.
- What this means to me, is that I have to know my character so well to know what would stand out to him. How much do I pay attention to the color on my wall or the the way I sink into my couch? If it’s everyday to my character, he probably wouldn’t notice it either. And if there’s an emotionally or physically strenuous scene going on, he sure wouldn’t notice the crackling sounds of the wood in the fireplace. I know you have incredible talent at painting a beautiful picture. But state of mind of your protag and moving the story forward trump pretty words.
- Historical information is weaved in organically. Very rarely does the story tell us off the bat the time period of the story. But we often quickly get the sense of time period. Consider the everyday items of today that were different then. In Worth we get clues through the necessary details of the story like using horses and a wagon to do the field work on the farm, or that Ma is a tinker. Her job has two layers of story reason, but it also puts us back in time. In Dash, while riding the bus Mitsi notices signs in stores saying, “We don’t serve Japs.” That’s more than a good piece of research. It’s a detail that is setting the stage for future scenes.
- If I’m reading my critique correctly, this is what Ms. Lafaye referred to as double duty detail. Meaning it has a story reason to be there, but it’s also giving us a sense of the time or setting.
- Sometimes we have to get back matter in. This could be through a flash back, which reads like a scene, or by carefully placing in back story. But again, there must be story reason. (Note the example above from Number the Stars)
- Example of back story from Paper Wishes: I pretend everything is normal and go to my room. Once, I shared my room with my sister, Keiko, and my brother, Ron. They are far away now, in India… Seeing something sparks a piece of backstory that is necessary for future scenes. But if it’s not necessary for upcoming story, then that piece of backstory can remain in your prewriting journal.
- A flashback reads more like a scene. Here’s an example from Down the Rabbit Hole: I remember his voice crackled like static air before a storm. “Pringle, I have terrible news.” Yet I plunged ahead, unafraid. I was Alice, chasing the White Rabbit. “It’s Gideon,” I said.
- Yes, my story has quite a bit of back matter that fuels future story pieces, but I have to be sure its revelation is triggered by something happening in the present and that its reason for being brought up is quickly revealed.
- We’ve got more than vision, so use the other senses when possible. In Worth, Nathaniel is trapped in his room with a broken leg, for weeks. He sees the same four walls 24/7. Imagine how bored he would be and we don’t want to bore the readers. Instead, his ears become his eyes. He can tell his dad is wearing his Sunday boots on Saturday by the way they sound and that has great story reason because that means dad is going somewhere important. Lisa Cron warns, “Unless they convey necessary information, sensory details clog a story’s arteries.”
- I’m starting to get the meaning of advice I’ve heard at many conferences, every word must earns its position on the page. Every sensory detail must be informing the reader or else they will tune it out or worse, get bored and close the book.
- Does age matter? Only in Number the Stars is the specific age of the character revealed. In the other six, the reader is able to estimate the age based on how the character behaves and interacts with others. In reality, how often does age come up in real life? It’s not often on our mind, so it most likely wouldn’t be on your characters’ minds either. Yet, isn’t that one of the things we often ask in critique groups, how old is your character?
What do you think? How important is it to tell the age of your protag? Or maybe it’s better to show it.
Okay, I have six books to finish reading and an opening of a story to reshape. Lots to do. Always lots to do!
This is the face of satisfaction:
But it’s really like this:
258 free verse poems roughed
it’s an ugly baby right now
but it’s complete!
And it doesn’t take long to feel like this:
Reading Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
while revising older stories
and researching people and places to submit to.
Marinating on the two ideas
I’m contemplating for my next projects
the research I need to complete
to round out the rough draft
before going through the
MANIA OF REVISION!
OOH! Now I can get that haircut I told myself had to wait until rough was done.
Rough is done!
Apply butt to chair and read
One of the great things about going to a conference is coming home with a big fat list of books to read. If they could help me find more time to read that would be just downright magical.
From the four keynote addresses, the eight break out sessions, and the one intensive, I give you books to first enjoy and then study. You are probably well read and already familiar with many of these, but I encourage you to take another look to grow your craft.
From the intensive on voice with Heather Alexander, literary agent from Pippin Properties comes most of the books. Though we discussed what each did well in voice, they all are great studies in the craft of writing:
- Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt (in my Goodreads review I said Gary Schmidt wrote Wednesday Wars just so he could meet the MC for Okay for Now. This book also made my list of top 25 books I’m glad were written. Don’t miss this one!)
- Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
- A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead
- Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (Heather called this one of the most vulnerable YA characters we’ve had in a long time.)
- I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson(Language is important! Imagine what a different story this would be if the homonym was used instead, I’ll Give You the Son!)
- Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy
- Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
- The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen
- Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater
- Roller Girl – Victoria Jamieson
- Pax – Sara Pennypacker
A book that has changed the world:
- A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
Picture Books that demonstrate tight lean writing
- All Alone by Kevin Henkes
- The New Girl by Jacqui Robbins
- Star Bright by Allison McGhee
- Zombie in Love by Kelly DiPucchio
The author has a clear sense of the backstory
- Wonder by RJ Palacio
- Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron
Best first sentence, according to Sarah Aronson:
- What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Coman
- The Rag Bone Shop by Robert Cormier
Books on the Craft of Writing
- Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
- Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovitch
- Writing Stories by Carolyn Coman
Happy reading and creating!
Go ahead update your to-read list on Goodreads.
Reflections from the Wild
The SCBWI Wild Wild Midwest Conference occurred last weekend.
First – a big plug for SCBWI: If you are a children’s writer, meaning you have a story you are playing with, even if it’s only in your mind or a scrappy notepad next to your bed stand, do yourself a favor and discover SCBWI. You will find a tribe of people who, though they are competing for a slot in someone’s inbox and dream of their cover facing out at the local bookstore, are incredibly supportive, warm, and know how to laugh at themselves. No hierarchy. Our name tags did not denote the number of publications, awards won, or the pre-published. So do yourself a favor and reach out to your local SCWBI group in your area.
To the point of the matter: As I marinate on my 30+ pages of notes I realize I need to process this soon before it just becomes a great memory.
Of course I cannot go into details about the massive variety of breakouts and four keynote addresses, but I certainly can share how what I learned influences my writing now.
As I think about the big picture of what I brought home the following topics comes to mind.
A great reading list and why I want to read them.
Knowing my character and her voice.
Writing matters, correction – story matters.
Loving an ugly baby.
So these are upcoming topics I want to think more about, hence they are upcoming posts. And I list them here to hold myself accountable to my craft and my blog.
If you have recently attended this conference or another one, please share a nugget you brought home with you.
Happy writing 🙂
To create a book trailer or not, that is the question.
I’m not talking about the book trailer that is used to market books that have already been published and I’m not going to debate the benefits and criticisms of them. I am going to talk about taking a day to create a book trailer for your WIP. It may look cheesy and unprofessional, but here are a few reasons why it is helpful and some resources on how to do it. Read to the end for a reveal 🙂
Creating a book trailer for your WIP is helpful for so many reasons.
- It requires you to deconstruct your novel down to its essence. A one page synopsis is a heck of a challenge for a 60,000 word story. Chiseling it down to the 30 words or so that is the heart of your story gives you so much clarity. This will help you to create your query and your elevator pitch in the future.
- You will most likely use still pictures. Maybe you want to create a live action trailer, but I’m not talented in that way, nor do I want to invest that kind of time. The still pictures can help you visualize what you have been trying to portray through words. This is especially helpful if you are writing a story that you did not personally experience. This was my case for my first story, it takes place in Chicago in 1871. Sometimes it’s hard to visualize the setting.
- Setting it to music gives you theme songs that set the tone of the story. I use music a lot when I write. I find a theme song for my characters. I use specific songs for scenes in the story. I also have a soundtrack for each story. I believe that when we are using as many mediums as we have at our disposal to help us create this world in our story, it will be richer, deeper, and can come to life for the reader. I REALLY WISH I COULD DRAW! That would raise my game to whole other level!
- It inspires me every time I watch it. As cheesy and basic as it is, if I watch it before I work on the story, it puts me directly in the frame of mind I want to be in. My mind is in my story and my heart is feeling the emotions I want my characters to feel and my reader to experience.
- It is a great tool when you are getting to that point that you either are tired of your story or you don’t know what else it needs. The trailer gives a fresh perspective to push you forward.
How to do it:
I’m thinking some of you reading this could better explain this than me. So I would love to get some advice on this matter in the comments.
I used Movie Maker for Windows as the editing tool. I used images labeled for reuse. Your own photography would be great too, but since my story takes place in 1871, I wasn’t up to that challenge of recreating the look. And for my sounds I used songs and Pond 5 for sound effects. This wasn’t free, however. It took me the better part of a day to create it between learning the tool and editing down my story, music, and pictures. Straining it all down to the bones and then pulling it all together was hard but so good! so very, very good!
A few more resources:
Where to get photo stock, check out these pages. Sixty-five sites. 17 amazing sites.
A couple sites with professional book trailers. Some inspiration. Brainpickings and Book Trailers for Readers.
A critical perspective on book trailers from The New Yorker.
And a completely vulnerable moment for me. My book trailer.
Before you revise . . . reflect
I hope you have enjoyed the holiday season and are finding yourself settling into writing once more.
You may have completed the NaNoWriMo challenge in November. Hopefully you rewarded yourself with a congratulations-to-me, I have written a rough draft of a future page turner. Perhaps you gave yourself a night out. Or bought something for yourself that you truly do deserve. Perhaps you even read a craft book. Next on my list to read is A Writer’s Story, From Life to Fiction by Marion Dane Bauer. (A recommendation from a member of my critique group.)
I also hope you took a month off after you wrote the rough. A month away from it lets the waters settle and gives you a fresh brain and perspective.
So before you read through it, here is an excellent exercise to do that I have gone back to time and again. This exercise will narrow your vision for your story and provide you with concise verbiage to be used in future query letters.
***Note, I am a believer in work smarter, not harder. So this blog was originally published in April of 2013. It’s a good process and I still use it and love it! Therefore, I have not edited my original reflections of my first book, which are contained below. Tempting, but I’ll leave it be. I think.****
My revision process is certainly NOT mine but a compilation of many who have been there, done that. There’s no point to reinvent the wheel, right?
This brought me to a blog by Holly Lisle titled: One-Pass Manuscript Revision: From First Draft to Last in One Cycle. Ya, I won’t even attempt to revise in one pass, but I will probably turn back to the steps she shares many times. I appreciate her suggestion to start the revision process by discovering what my story is all about.
Her first five tasks are:
- “Write down your theme in 15 words or less.”
This was easier than I thought. You know when you are given a word limit it adds pressure. But I did it, and I think it’s about right.
Obligation to family versus following your own dream. Yep – that’s what I came up with.
- “If you have sub-themes and know what they are, write them down too.”
It turns out I have about six sub-themes that I was able to identify off the top, there are probably more subtle ones that will come to the surface later.
We all have a story – societal positions – feminism (even though my MC is male) – overcoming fears – dealing with the death of a loved one – influence of religion This feels like I’m missing something, but that’s OK.
- “Write down what the book is about in twenty-five words or less.”
Twenty-five words isn’t a lot! About my story that has more than 60,000 of them! (Ya, it’s way too long for my target audience – but it will get there!) This went through a few versions.
Boy aspires for things beyond family tradition, battles fears, fire, and family in pursuit of his own dream. 18 words!
- “Write down a one-line story arc for the book’s main character.”
It turned into the longest run-on sentence in the history of run-on sentences. Well, maybe not. I used to teach fifth grade and I have seen the use of “and” seventeen times in one sentence. Is running-on a bad habit of mine? No, I am one of the most concise writers I know. (ha ha – remember the 60,000 + words I have to chisel!) And I certainly never drift off topic! (Hey, when you have two little children, you are used to having three or four conversations at one time. It just so happens that may brain continues to do this whether I am with my whirlwinds or not!)
Anyway, I procrastinate . . .
MC battles fears, foes, fire, prejudice (couldn’t think of an F words), and family during the Great Chicago Fire and saves a few lives along the way, but ultimately sacrifices his own dreams for the sake of his family.
Then the biggy:
- “Write down the main characters, and a paragraph of no more than about 250 words describing the story, sort of like the blurb on the back of a paperback.”
THIS WAS HARD! All of these previous steps certainly helped, but it was not pretty. Started off with black ink, went to orange, then red. With arrows and line-throughs everywhere! It turned into less than 200 words (oh-ya! 172 actually!) but I don’t think I would want it on the back of my book just yet. And therefore, I am not putting it out here either.
But what did all of this really do? It gave me the narrowed focus I need for my read through. It also brought to my attention plot and character adjustments I want to make. It was well worth the hour and a half it took to do this.
BTW, What do you reflect on to help you steer your manuscript?
And one more thing – credit where credit is due – the link to Holly Lisle in case you would like to see what else she says.
5 Ways to Unlock Writer’s Block
Ever find yourself . . .
Reading and rereading a scene and not knowing where to go next.
Staring at your computer and letting your focus go in and out, in and out.
Typing anything, just to get the momentum going.
Playing a mental tennis match where no idea seems right. Even your eyes bounce left to right as you discard bad idea after bad idea.
These are symptoms of . . . dum dum dum . .. WRITER’S BLOCK.
Yes, it’s NaNoWriMo and you have no time for waste on writer’s block. So here are five quick fixes to get the engine going again.
- Rewrite (but do not erase) the previous scene. Perhaps that is the culprit. Perhaps the story needs to go a different direction and your muse refuses to work until you realize you made a wrong turn. Try a completely different path in your last scene and see if that feels better and opens up where the story needs to go next.
- Turn off your computer. (after reading this brilliant article of course). and
- Go for a drive
- Walk the dog
- Fold the laundry
- Take a shower
- Talk it out with someone. Anyone. They might not even have to contribute. Thinking out loud may be all you need. I find my dogs to be quite attentive listeners sometimes. If you have a writing buddy, they may offer suggestions. They may offer one that you like. Or more likely, that argumentative side of your brain will negate their idea and come up with what you were looking for. Healthy debate gets brain juices flowing.
- Draw it out. I’m a terrible artist. But my oldest sister who is a talented artist recently told me, “When writers are stuck, visual creating can help unstick. And verbal helps to unstick the visual creative.” Doodle. Get out your kids’ crayons. Even more fun: Finger Paint! Don’t consciously think about your story.
- Play! Jigsaw puzzles. Legos! Scrabble. Have some fun. You have gotten yourself all worked up with the stress from writing, the pressure to be perfect, to get your word count in. Play!
Writing a story is world building and magical. If it has stopped being that, take a break for a while. It’s going to be okay.
Fast and Furious Bonus 5:
- Pour a drink
- Change your playlist
- Write a blog!
Got a tip? Leave it here!