Revision Process: scenes and sequels

First off, where have I been?  I noticed my last post was in October.  My apologies.  I spent October and November in revision and took December off to focus on my primary job: SAHM (stay at home mom.)  But a new year is here with brand new motivations.

Pre-published authors are keenly aware that we are not to submit our work to agents until we get it as good as we can.  To perfectionists, that is a cruel task.  So we have to learn to let go of ascertaining perfection on our own (if ever), establish a plan, and stick to it!

In brief – the steps that got me this far:

  1. Write the rough draft like a crazy person.  Finish the darn thing and celebrate.  Really celebrate.
  2. Take a month away from it and read a craft book.
  3. REVISE: see this blog on what you can do in the first revision.
  4. Rewrite – time to fix all those things you didn’t allow yourself to look back at during the frenzied rough draft.
  5. Get eyes on it.  Yep.  Be brave!  Do you have a critique group?  They are the perfect people to do this.  They have willingly sacrificed hours of their time to read your writing and critique it because they know you will do the same for them.
  6. While your critique group has it start the next revision.

That’s what this post will focus on.  My process, in general, is an inverted triangle: start broad and become more narrowed through the revision.  Every writer has a process.  This works for me, for now.

On the first revision I was focusing on story arc, plot, characterization, what chapters can go – big picture stuff.  Now, I am getting more narrowed.  I am breaking the chapters into scenes and sequels and I am looking for specific elements.  And what I’m doing is not original.  I have taken what I have read in craft books, learned at conferences, and researched online to synthesize my process.

This step of my process was largely taken from a blog that was summarizing a book.  The blog:  Writing the Perfect Scene (beckons all perfectionists!)  The book: Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain.  (Admittedly, I have not read it yet.  As a SAHM my writing time is very limited.  But perhaps that will be the craft book I read after my next rough draft.) Refer to either or both of these for expanded information.  I will hit the highlights.

Tools: 3 different colored highlighters, a fourth marker of a different color, a red pen, green pen, tablet with Index Card app (By the way, this is a revised method.  My first was even more involved and I quickly realized I was working harder not smarter.)

Each chapter is compiled of scenes and sequels.

In a scene there is:11170843-highlighter-pens-in-desk-organizer-for-home-business-back-to-school-projects

  • a goal: the MC (main character) goal for just this little moment in time, which ultimately is somehow tied to the big goal/story arc – when I identify the goal I highlight it in blue.
  • CONFLICT! – internal or external, obstacles stumbling blocks the MC is dealing with in the scene. (I uses yellow highlighter – like warning road signs)
  • DISASTER!!!! – the thing that keeps the MC from reaching the goal (I like a pink highlighter for his one, it’s close to red. – I know, I am a very deep thinker!)

After the disaster the sequel begins:

  • Reaction: an emotional response that follows the disaster, will probably include dialogue or internal thoughts. (back to blue highlighter)
  • Dilemma: the MC is in a situation with no perfect solution that will allow him to reach his initial goal.  The MC sorts out his options. (yep, yellow highlighter!)
  • Decision: MC has weighed his options and chooses a path, therefore a new goal.  (red again. though sometimes it is also blue for my next scene.)

Most of my chapters have between two or three scene/sequel cycles.  Some had just one, the most was probably four.  Keep in mind. my chapters run about 9 or 10 pages.  So what I’m calling scenes may be what someone else calls a beat.  I’m not going to get hung up on vocabulary.  The important thing is that I am analyzing my text for the good stuff it needs to have.  My book is also an action story, fast paced.  Stories that are slower paced or focus more on building suspense or scene setting may have longer chapters or fewer scene/sequel cycles.  With my target reader in mind, I need to keep the pace up!

The purposes for the other tools:

  • Purple marker: noted flashbacks, internal monologue, and transitions (all of which were used SPARINGLY!)
  • red pen, to do what red pens always do!
  • green pen – to record MRUs – ooooh what’s that? I’ll get into that in my next blog.
  • Index Card app: After I completed each chapter I recorded for each scene: the number of the scene, the chapter it belongs to, the act it was from, the headline, the goal, conflict, disaster, the number of words and MRUs (oh! there it is again!) and humor.  And for each sequel I did the same thing, but recording the reaction, dilemma, and decision instead.

What good did it do?

I quickly realized when I was missing key components.  Sometimes an entire sequel was missing.  I have at least 5 scenes or sequels that need to be written – and one entire chapter.  And the opposite is true too.  I am able to see what isn’t a scene or sequel that is moving the story forward and can be discarded.  Repetition, lack of scene setting, drifting from the plot,  wordiness – it all stands out more.    I noticed my habit is to often skip past a reaction by the MC to the disaster.  And I’m sure there is more too.  Thankfully, it’s all recorded on my index cards!

Next time – MRUs. They are nothing like MRIs!

Til then,

Happy Writing!

By the way, what it one thing you always include on your index card when you are analyzing your story?

Westview Questions of the Week

This is the last set of questions from my visit to Westview Elementary.  I have been surprised by the level of questions the students have posed and have enjoyed answering them.  Here are the last five questions.boy reading to snake

1.  What if you don’t know what to do at the end?

There is a saying that the end is in the beginning.  The main goal that the character wants to achieve must be figured out by the end.  If it was resolved, but you kept writing, it’s time to do some editing.  If you are not sure what your character wants to accomplish you probably have to rewrite the beginning.  It’s in the beginning that the main goal is set.  Through the middle conflict gets in the way of meeting that goal.  By the end, the character has figured out how to solve the problem and reach the goal.  If you’re having a problem with the end, look at the beginning.

2.  What kind of story is it?

The story I am writing is historical fiction novel for middle grades.  It’s historical fiction because the setting of the story is a true historical event, but the characters are made up.  True history and setting + fictional main characters = historical fiction.  It is intending for students in fourth through sixth or seventh grade.

3.  Why does it take so long to write a story?

It depends.  Short stories don’t take very long.  Novels take longer.  If a person writes for six or more hours a day, the story gets done faster.  If they are inconsistent it will take longer.

4.  How long have you been writing?

Most of what I have written has been academic, meaning I did it because I had to for school.  Even so, I still liked it.  I enjoy the relaxation that writing brings me when it’s going well and overcoming the frustration when it isn’t.   I liked proving my point through writing.  I also appreciated the things I learned through research. There is no better feeling than the one that comes upon completion!  Now, I entertain myself when I create a scene of my book.  I  didn’t start writing for the purpose of creating a manuscript to publish until a few years ago.

5.  How do you publish it?

There are two major routes.  The first is self-publish either online or pay a company to turn your manuscript into a book.  When you self-publish you are completely on your own with producing a great story.  The other way is to go through a publishing house.  Most publishing houses don’t take work from just anyone, so a writer needs to find an agent who will help get their books to an editor at a publishing house.  Another way to get access to a publishing house is to attend conferences where publishers also attend and invite you to submit your story to them.  They do this at writer’s conferences because they know that the people who attend are serious about their story and making it the best that they can.

That’s it, folks!  Thanks for the great questions.

Stop by anytime and enjoy Playing with Words!

Westview Questions of the Week

persevereA few weeks ago I visited Westview School in Champaign, Il to talk to the fifth grade students about the writing process.  I told the students I would respond to their questions on my website.  They have asked some really great questions.  Here’s a few for this week.

1. Do your kids write books?

Sometimes my children like to tell stories, but they haven’t started writing much.  One is not in school yet and the other is in early elementary.  For now I hope they enjoy reading books and maybe one day they will find their own story.

2. Did you ever doubt yourself or want to give up?

Sure, this has been a long process filled with times of both success and frustration.   My faith is a big part of my life, so when I feel like that, I pray.  I also take a break from writing long enough to read something for fun or watch an inspiring movie.  It also helps to have someone read something I’ve written and get some encouragement.  The main thing that brings me through, though, is my faith.

3.  Is your story on your blog?

No, I am actually saying very little about my story on my blog for now.  Until I have it on the way to the bookstores, I am keeping it pretty private.  What my blog is about is the stuff I’m learning about writing that I think might help someone else who is on the same journey.  I also like to share great books I have read and what makes them so good.

4.  What helped you become a writer?

Being a reader is the best thing you can do to become a writer.  By reading a lot you develop a sense of story.  You know how a story is suppose to work – plot, characterization, story arc, etc – by reading good stories.  It just kind of soaks in.  There is a lot to learn through books about how to write, but you can’t learn how to sense what works in a story or what doesn’t unless you are reading a lot of good stories.

5.  Is it a hard process?

I think like most things, the first time you do something is pretty hard.  You do a lot of things wrong and you learn from your mistakes.  I have written a lot of things in the past, but nothing like this.  So I am learning A LOT!  I’m hoping it will get easier with each story, but some challenge is good.  It keeps you sharp and when you get through the challenge you have grown and can feel proud of yourself.  Yes, it is hard, but not so hard that I don’t want to try.  I’m looking forward to the victory!

Next week is the last set of questions.

Until then,

Enjoy Playing with Words

Westview Questions of the Week

Mrs. O'Leary and her cow

Mrs. O’Leary and her cow

I recently visited Westview Elementary School in Champaign, IL.   I brought some questions home with me to answer on the blog.  May I add, I am impressed by the thoughtfulness of the questions.

1.  Do you like being an author?

I do enjoy writing quite a lot.  It is a bigger job than I ever imagined and sometimes incredibly challenging.  On the other hand, I enjoy seeing a story come to life at my fingertips and I LOVE hearing about the enjoyment my book brought to others.  If I can write something that makes kids want to read, then every moment of the battle during the creation is worth it!

2.  When did I first decide to write?

Sometime in 2001 I was reading about the Great Chicago Fire and thought it would make an exciting setting for a historical fiction children’s novel.  At that time I was a teacher and didn’t have the time to even dream about writing let alone try to do it.  A few years ago after being a stay-at-home mom for a while the interest came back to me.  Then one day I was sitting at a cafe by myself having some lunch and thought about how some really great ideas started on napkins.  And so I began writing some words of a story, not on napkins, I did have a notepad with me.  I had no idea what I was doing or where it would take me.  But it was fun.  (The words weren’t so good when I look back at it, but it was a great way to get started!)

3.  How many books have I written?

This is my first, but certainly not the last.  I have ideas bubbling in my head, so I need to finish this one and move onto the next!

4. Does the book have to be like the movie?

Generally, the book comes first and only a very small number of books are turned into movies.  I love to watch movies, but nine times out of ten the books are always better!

5.  How did the fire start?

For a very long time a poor cow was blamed.  Someone put that idea in the newspaper and it became fact, even though it wasn’t.   The world thought that a cow owned by Mrs. O’Leary knocked over a lantern while being milked.  That fire grew uncontrollably due to several reasons and burned for two days destroying much of the city.  In my research I read a book call The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow by Richard Bales.  In this book the cow and Mrs. O’Leary are proved innocent.  It appears that the likely cause was someone smoking behind the barn and accidentally started a fire.  No one stepped forward to take the blame.

6.  What does the main character look like?

My main character is a twelve year old boy who is an Irish Catholic.  He is lanky with black hair and blue eyes.

7.  How do you focus?

It is very easy to get distracted or to feel lazy!  It is sometimes hard to sit and get started.  If the house is too quiet it’s hard for me to concentrate.  Having soft music on or something like the weather channel or a news channel on quietly provides enough noise to help.  But if I put on a show that I like, forget about it, I’m watching tv instead!  It also helps me to set a goal.  Once I get started I want to reach that goal.  If it’s a really tough day to focus, I may even give myself a reward for completing that goal.

Questions from Westview School

It is time for another installment of questions from some very inquisitive young authors at Westview Elementary.

1. Are you a good drawer?

I enjoy drawing and painting.  I also really like to create with clay.  Most of the art I create is abstract, which means that it focuses on lines, color, and geometric shapes.  I’m not really great at drawing things the way they look in real life.

2. How many stops did take while you were making your story?

I have worked on my story very inconsistently over three years.  During the first year I got stuck on the first 50 pages.  I kept revising them and didn’t move forward.  I was also doing a lot of research in the beginning so I would write the history part correctly.  Summer months are very hard to write since my children are home and I need to keep them busy.  But over the last year I have made very good progress.  I have finished my story all the way through ( and then celebrated!) Then I revised it to look at the big picture,  Then I rewrote it taking out stuff that didn’t belong and writing parts that needed to be added.  Now I am in the middle of my next revision.  SO . . . I am hoping to not take any more breaks until I’m done, which I hope will be by the end of the year!!!!

3.  Is it fun to write all the time? Do you ever get bored?

abstract art

abstract art

I do enjoy writing most of the time.  I don’t think I get bored because it is a good challenge.  But sometimes I do get frustrated when I can’t get the scene the way I want it or when I know there’s a problem with the story, but I can’t figure out what it is.  I can also feel like there is a lot for me to still research, but when I break up one big job into many little jobs it doesn’t seem too bad.

4.  What’s the best font to use?

There are a few fonts that I like to use personally, but editors and publishers and agents prefer something basic like Times New Roman.

5. Have you ever been on an airplane?

Yes, I have.  I enjoy traveling and seeing new places.  My first time on an airplane wasn’t until I was in college, probably around 19 years old.

Thanks for the questions!

There will be more responses next Friday.

Until then,

Enjoy Playing with Words!

Number the Stars

Number-the-StarsNumber the Stars by Lois Lowry is my all-time favorite children’s book ever!  It’s a historical fiction novel intended for an audience of 9-12 year old children.  It’s the story of Annemarie Johansen living in Copenhagen, Denmark during the Nazi occupation of World War II.  Her best friend, Ellen Rosen, is Jewish. When the story starts the Nazis stop merely standing ominously on street corners and prepare to relocate the Danish Jews.  The lives of the two girls are about to change drastically.  One will be forced to go into hiding while the other’s courage will be put to the test.

It is the winner of the 1990 Newbery Medal.  Though it rightfully received this award, it’s true accolades come from how it stands up to its toughest critics, children.  I have taught this book with two fourth grade and five fifth grade classes across a variety of ethnic groups and spanning the socio-economic bridge.  I have read this book with reluctant readers and avid readers.  The most challenging part of reading it was being told they weren’t allowed to read ahead!

Why children like it

The pace is quick.  The beginning of the story grabs hold of you and you don’t want to let go until the very last page.   The events of WWII are so unbelievable that the setting is both intriguing and mortifying.  The real stronghold is how relatable the characters are.  Annemarie and Ellen are very much like the children in the classroom, but are called to do extreme things.  And the themes of the story are the themes of most children’s lives: friendships put to the test, needing to be brave when it would be easier to run away, coming of age and learning the truth of the world around them.  I’ve had so many great conversations with my students because of the events in this book!

Through a writer’s eyes

Every time I have read this book I got something new from it.  And I’ve read it a lot!  (I am not one for rereading books, but this is a clear exception! – remember I’m a reformed reluctant reader).  This is a book that should be studied by every aspiring fiction writer.  It’s a study of doing it all right!  Characterization, plot, sub plot, intrigue, plot twists, symbolism, voice, show-don’t-tell.  What makes this an even more impressive feat is that the setting of this story, WWII, is one of the most written about topics.  What’s equally amazing is that it is all done in 132 pages!

Give Ms. Lowry a visit at http://www.loislowry.com and be sure to enjoy this book that I am glad was written!

Five things children look for in a good book

boy reading to snakeMy favorite part of the school day was most often literature circle.  There was something very special about talking about a good book!  It connected people to each other, even students who didn’t always see eye-to-eye.  It gave them a chance to vent about their own lives when a character went through something they could relate to.  It was always therapeutic, informative, and bonding!

While children’s interests are as varied as their personalities, there are some elements that are consistently attractive to children.

1. Humor – Children love to laugh and they should! How many times has a child told you a joke that made absolutely no sense, but they burst out laughing anyway?  So make sure you include moments of humor.  Even if you’re writing a serious drama of a dark world, you must include moments of levity.  So what’s funny? That’s up to you.  Keep a little notebook handy and write down the things that amuse you.  What cracks you up?  Books reveal much about the author.  The humor you include must be funny to you in order for it to be funny to others.  Did you ever see a comedian delivering a joke he didn’t think was funny?  It just doesn’t work.

2.  Intrigue – Keep them guessing! Cliffhangers, twists, how will the character ever get out of the mess they got themselves into?  As adults we may think the plot is predictable, but that’s because we have read so much and we are not easily fooled.  And if you can pull off the unexpected and surprise your reader you have them hooked! I bet you will even figure out how to fool the well-read reader because you are that good.

3.  Something to talk about – Let’s face it, kids love to gossip!   The worst thing that can happen, has to happen IN EACH SCENE.  Don’t make anything easy for your MC and kids will be talking about it.

4.  Identification – Your reader needs to relate to the MC on basic struggles, so they care about the big struggles.  Most children have limited experiences to build from, but the core of children is the same.  They want to be loved, accepted, have friends, succeed, not embarrass themselves, privacy, have fun, to be safe, and more! That’s a lot of basic stuff to work with.

BUT, you still have to . . .

5.  Suspend reality – Your MC has to do things a typical child will never have to do.  Who wants to read a book that is as ordinary as life? We read to experience things we never could, to go places that are out of reach (some that don’t exist on this plane or in this time period), to be someone so very different (yet similar).

It’s so easy, isn’t it?

What’s missing from this list?

Next time I’ll compare historical fiction to documentary novel.  Which one are you writing? Are you sure?

Until then,

Enjoy Playing with Words!

Setting Goals

Summer break is over.  Kids are back in school and a new schedule is created.  Now that my youngest is in preschool three mornings a week, I look forward to have “sacred writing time.” Yes, everything will be trying to bite away those precious minutes, but I must protect that time.  Three mornings is not a significant amount of time, but when compared to no time that I had during summer, I’ll take it.

So now that my schedule is established.  It’s time to set goals!  Over the summer I chiseled away at my first rewrite of my MG (middle grade) novel and put it in the hands of my critique group.  Now what?

  • LOTS OF RESEARCH – though this won’t be the kind that fills the pages,  it will add minor details that will hopefully make the story vivid.
  • HONING MY PROCESS – what to do between the first rewrite and the second.  What the second rewrite will look like.  And beyond.
  • HUNTING FOR AN AGENT! – I actually have my first three chapters sitting with an agent now.  She said she would get back to me in one to three months.  ONE TO THREE MONTHS!  I know that’s pretty standard, but every time I get an an email I’m looking to see if it’s from her!  Oh the torture, followed by the most likely end (REJECTION!).  But here’s hoping!
  • ATTENDING CONFERENCES AND what’s the word . . . oh ya, NETWORKING!
  • GETTING A PLAN FOR MARKETING MY BOOK – yes, I am very hopeful!
  • ALLOWING MYSELF TO STOP WRITING – at least this book.  How will I ever think this story is good enough to stop editing it and start on my next project?

So these are my goals over this next school year.  Consequently, these are likely topics of future posts as well.  I will also continue writing book reviews and sharing some great quotes to think about and inspire from writers who have been there and done that.

Any particular topic you would like to see written about in the coming months?

Next time I will continue where I left off before the craziness of summer consumed me: writing books worthy of today’s youth audience.

Until then,

Enjoy Playing with Words!

Bud, Not Buddy

Bud, not buddyPublished in 1999, a winner of both a Newberry Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award.   I can see why!  This story is like a favorite song.  Where the melody is catchy, the lyrics are moving, the background instruments get highlighted in all the right places, and it’s easy on the ears.  Masterfully it comes together and appears seamless and effortless.

Another historical fiction novel that belies the difficulty of the craft, but gives me inspiration to keep at it nonetheless.  This will be one I reread to study how Christopher Paul Curtis did many things, but most significantly voice and characterization.   I also need to reread it because I enjoyed it so much that I zipped through it and forgot to pay attention to how the story was crafted.

It is written in the first person, which is a challenge I am not up for.   Clearly Mr. Curtis loved Bud, and most likely identified with his main character.

As a teacher, I told the students it helped to make a mental movie of the story to help with visualization and comprehension. This story made it so easy to do that.  The details did not beat you over the head, but was just enough so that I could take what the author gave me and incorporate it with my experiences and paint a great picture.

Bud was not a character in a story but a boy so much like many of the boys I have taught.  He had a funny sense of humor, a couple eccentricities that made him who he was, and very deep hurts that he dealt with so quietly.  Truly well done.  And one that I am glad was written

Inside Out and Back Again

Inside OutInside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

This was one of those stories that goes down easy.  Though the content was compelling  and deep, the presentation was gentle and unpretentious.   It’s apparent simplicity is misleading, for Lai is masterful with language.  She communicates succinctly with powerful words ideas that many could not convey nearly as well with entire paragraphs.

It is one of those experiences that seems easy to do; makes me want to try to write a story in verse myself.  I am sure I will quickly realize that I have minimized the difficultly of such a task!  Oh how her powerful management of language belies it’s easiness!

Inside Out and Back Again is a historical fiction account of a little girl, Há.  The reader follows her through her journey from war torn Vietnam to the United States.  Her  adjustment to a new culture and the mistreatment that her Vietnamese family face mingle with the seemingly insurmountable loss she endured.

As a novice writer, I appreciate Lai’s word pictures and her ability to conjure deep emotions with minimal words.  Let me share a taste:

 Rations

On the third day

we join the sea

toward Thailand.

The commander says

it’s safe enough

for his men to cook,

for us to go above deck,

for all to smile a little.

He says there’s enough

rice and water

for three weeks,

but rescue should happen

much earlier.

Do not worry,

ships from all countries

are out looking for us.

Morning, noon, and night

we each get

one clump of rice,

small, medium, large,

according to our height,

plus one cup of water

no matter our size.

The first hot bite

of freshly cooked rice,

plump and nutty,

makes me imagine

the taste of ripe papaya

although one has nothing

to do with the other.

I opened the book randomly, to be honest, to find something to share.  I was confident that wherever I opened would delineate my point.  From six brief stanzas we get a vivid picture of the scarcity she endures on this ship (while I sit here luxuriously munching on chips and pineapple salsa) as well as her feelings about her situation.  The wonderful part is that our imagination is left to fill in the gaps, which isn’t hard to do when you have the rest of the story in context.

What I need to take away from this magnificent work is how well the author strained all of her potential ideas and determined the essential parts, how powerful precise words are, and the importance of leaving some things to the imagination.  What is of most importance is Thanhha Lai created a piece that makes me want to read it again AND stirs in me a desire to write!

Oh, how can I forget to mention?  National Book Award Winner and Newberry Honor Book.