Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, or Welcome Snow?

Two things seem to baffle people during the holidays. One is what we're allowed to call them, the other is what to get for the people we love.

I agree with Kristen Lamb that some of the best giving is anonymous--Angel Trees and the like.

When it comes to buying for my family, it's never that easy. I worry I'm spoiling my kids, then worry they'll get nothing they really want. And in my house, even though I buy early, I don't plan it all out. So the present opening process is never even. Usually the youngest gets the most presents, with us giving her sibs the small-toys-are-cheaper-than electronics explanation. This year, the middle child got the most. Her siblings finished opening their gifts, then we all sat there watching her open her remaining four or five, tempted to hum the Jeopardy thinking song. Do I have to add present-counting to  my already busy holiday schedule?

Next year, I think I'll buy them just three presents each, then give my kids what they really want: a gift card.
Or we'll skip the whole present thing and go on vacation. We give presents out of love. But there's something to be said for peace as well.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Turn Your Limits into Your Strengths

We've talked about looking at your work from a new angle. How about doing the same for obstacles? Here, my son the artist took the problem of a lamp post obstructing the subject's face and turned it into a pivotal piece of work.
For illustrators, what does deliberately chosen white space add to your focal point? For writers, does your character have a blind spot that might give her a unique dimension?
For all of us, what is one of your writing obstacles or blind spots? How do you work around it, or better, make it work for, rather than against, you?
I could swear I see a grand piano and an anvil in the background of this piece, also by my son. How does your focus allow the reader/viewer to use his or her imagination to fill in the open spaces beyond it?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Need Scene Depth? View it From a New Angle

I went hiking recently. As I picked my way down the trail, sliding on wet rocks, using branches and tree trunks to lower myself past giant steps of rock, I thought about my book characters. They're presently being pursued through desert hills. Yet while my main character and his friend have obstacles, I realized a more realistic setting could give them additional organic challenges. They can’t just walk along a smooth slope. They should be scaling rocks above uneven ground, sliding down steep grades while clinging to tree roots. And in my story, it rained yesterday. Where are today's slick stones and muddy trail?

Getting out on that trail gave me a completely different way to look at my manuscript, somewhat akin to the Coke bottle story you've likely heard. A teacher challenged his class to draw a glass Coke bottle. Most drew variations on the Coke's unique curved shape. But one student's sketch made everyone wonder. He sketched one large circle with a smaller one inside it. His angle? Looking straight down.
If you’re struggling with where to go in your story, ask yourself: How can I look at this problem, plot, or character from a completely different angle?
If you're writing about exotic cooking, maybe you need to go try a restaurant that serves a kind of food you've never eaten before. Then, instead of your character complaining about "little green flecks" in his food, you can talk about the flavors of truffle oil, or Thai basil.
You don't have to go for a long, muddy hike. (I went for the waterfall. The story idea was a bonus.) Consider finding a new experience. Or ways to look at a common one in an uncommon way.
[This is a different version of my post at]

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Blog Tour--What, Why and How I'm Writing

I met Stephanie Kelley at WIFYR last summer, when we were both part of an amazing workshop with Martine Leavitt.

She's been kind enough to let me join her blog tour. For some great photos and details about her work in progress:

Yes, I admit I didn't follow directions. I eat dessert first and run with scissors, too. Yesterday I answered question 3 of the list she gave us, "Why do you write what you do?"

Here are the rest of the questions.

1. What are you presently working on?

My "Lawnmower" book. I have a child with Asperger's Syndrome, and wanted to write something from the point of view of a boy with those kinds of limitations.

My MC's lawnmower isn't quite this elaborate, but it's a great picture, isn't it? Love that helmet.*

#2, How does your book differ from other books in this genre?
Several years ago, I had the idea for a story about a boy who converts garbage into mower fuel, then takes his riding mower on a long-distance adventure. That story never made it past the first chapter, but I liked the lawnmower idea.

After I wrote my first draft, I read other books with characters on the spectrum, including MOCKINGBIRD, ARTURO IN THE REAL WORLD, and THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF A BOY AND A DOG.

As for my story, I never wanted a "problem novel" about ASD. What I've striven for is a story about normal things like fear, friendship, and not fitting in, with a dash of getting chased by cops and thieves. From the MC's unique perspective,even ordinary events can be terrifying. So, why would a boy who hates leaving his house decide to drive 300 miles on a riding mower?

I hope sometime you'll have the chance to read the book and find out.

#4, What is your writing process? This is something that's evolved over my 14+ years of writing. I used to be a pantser [writing by the seat of my pants], but learned that as fun as that can be, it's not the best approach for someone like me who doesn't enjoy editing. Now I outline, and re-outline. And even though my outlines tend to be long-winded exercises where I ask myself, "Where is this going?", it's worth doing.

I've also begun making story maps with details of each scene. This helps me make sure I have the right elements in each, and that my scenes have their own mini-story arc.

Incidentally, these approaches have helped me hate editing a little less, because I have a specific focus. Speaking of which, I've suddenly spent a lot of time blogging when I should be editing. Maybe this is a better procrastination method than online shopping, but it's time to get back to work.

* photo,

Monday, October 28, 2013

Pain and Plotting: What Makes Writing Resonate?

I didn't get invited to a neighborhood Halloween Party. By someone I thought was my friend.

So what? My teen years are so far in my rear view mirror I shouldn't even be able to wave at them. I'm a mom, then kind always telling my kids not to assume negative intent in others.

I'm sure she didn't mean to hurt me.

But even at my ripe old parental age, I'm still hurt.

Sorry, I don't want this to be a pit post. (Catchy. I like it.) Instead, I want to explore why we write, and why we read certain books.

Sure, I write kid lit  because I still like cupcakes and ironing fall leaves between wax paper. On a deeper level, it's also a cathartic exercise. My way of still waving back at years that I still remember, and perhaps need to work through. Like sixth grade. That year I purposely got hit in dodge ball to avoid having to play with the mean kids. Someone told my one friend that she could increase her popularity by un-friending me (no, that wasn't a word at the time, and it didn't involve online networking). That year didn't last forever, but in truth good things can come even from being the class pariah.

As we began our WIFYR workshop class last summer, Martine Leavitt quoted Katherine Patterson. "If I had known the debt I would owe to all those mean girls, I would have thanked them then."

How's that?

"Use it all," Martine told us. The pain of not getting invited, the sense of never fitting in, the girl who teased you so much you plotted to put a thumb tack on her chair.

Good writing resonates with these deeper feelings. It's good to create a likeable character. It's better, even essential, to create one who suffers. Not in a whiny, martyr syndrome way, but in a way we care about, one that makes us identify with their pain as well as their determination.

Fiction is valuable because it is truth wrapped up in story. What truth? For one, life isn't always parties and prom queens and getting picked first at kick ball. And when the character throws her own party or ends up as campaign manager for the thumb tack bully, we close the book somehow feel ready to face life again.

And just for fun, here's my Halloween Costume (for Dance Trance, not the party I've been whining about). It's supposed to be Lady Death from the Hispanic Day of the Dead celebration. I'm really into Sugar Skull face painting right now. Still trying to figure out why everything posts sideways!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Preparing for NaNoWriMo: Are All Word Counts Created Equal?

I just spent an hour and 35 minutes working on a scene that just needed some attention. 

One scene.


If I'm focusing on my edited page count alone, I have reason to feel discouraged. However, it's a good edit, and the elements I added did three things. First, the character now acts instead of waiting for the danger to leave. Second, he doesn't get out of the conflict in the slick way I wrote into earlier drafts. Third, the threat in this scene now continues to plague him and influence his actions in later scenes. These are important changes. It's a good scene (in my opinion, of course).

So it doesn't matter. 

Except to the part of me that is dying to get this draft done.

But anyway, editing is the time for spending 95 minutes on one scene. 

What about when you're writing?

When you are crafting your first draft,your goal should be to write without letting the editor in your head take too much control. A quick write for something like NaNoWriMo is a good way to get past the paralyzing need to get it perfect and instead just get your story on paper.
For me, this can me I worry less about what author Louise Plummer calls "Precious" prose and more about the plot. It's a great exercise, and the story I'm working on now came out of a November NaNo. 

Still, sometimes you just need to get a scene right. Maybe there's a picture in your head you need to capture now, or something your character needs to experience before the book can progress. 

If this happens, savor what you write. Even if it's only a couple hundred words. Since NaNoWriMo lasts for a whole month, you'll have plenty of days to recapture your desired word count.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Plotting Characters: Climb Rather Than Fly

There's one essential rule for plot: by the end of the book, the main character must undergo a recognizable change.

However, this change has to flow naturally in a way that's true to the protagonist's nature. Conflict is another essential plot element, and the events of the story should push the character into difficult situations that act as a catalyst for change. However, the character's reaction to difficulty shouldn't represent a dramatic departure from weakness to sudden strength. If she's used to crawling, for example, she shouldn't suddenly fly.

 For example, if a shy outsider is forced to speak in front of a school auditorium full of his peers, this can't be an easy experience. If his speech has the polish of a presidential address. Otherwise, there's no conflict or believability.

As an article in the January 2013 Writer's Digest puts it, "Characters who demonstrate instant skill or comfort with something they've never tried before resides largely in the realm of shlock. The less familiar the behavior, the clumsier and more uncomfortable it should be."*

That same awkward teen should have an experience similar to a moutain climber's difficult ascent. As he stumbles and stutters through his speech, the scene tension instantly increases, as does reader empathy.*  Then, when he succeeds in rallying the student body, his victory will feel earned rather than forced.

"Push Your Characters to Their Limits," David Corbett, Writers Digest, January 2013, p. 32.

Monday, October 14, 2013

An Unexpected Win!

I've been doing a bit too much ordering by mail lately. Nothing too big, just printer ink, mailing labels, a jacket or two . . .
Perhaps I'm distracting myself from the stresses of life right now, including getting this novel rewritten. It's coming, really. But sometimes online shopping is just so much easier. (Do I sound whiny? I should.)

Anyway, as I opened a manila envelope that arrived in the mail, I wondered, "What did I order this time?"

I didn't order anything.

I entered a contest.

Thanks to the encouragement of our local League of Utah Writers chapter, who set a goal for our group to have a good showing in the statewide writing contest, I entered the first part of my latest novel. (Yes, the same one I was just whining about.)

And it won!

I got first place in the League of Utah Writers Middle Grade Fiction Category!

I had a conflict I couldn't change on the day of the banquet, so I didn't even know.

Until the certificate showed up in my mailbox.

Sometimes a little boost like that helps me keep writing.
 I had to tell someone, so thanks for letting me brag just a little.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Editing Novels: Round Three + More Notes from Martine Leavitt's class at WIFYR

I just finished another revision of my MG novel. (fist pump).

It's cause for going out to lunch tomorrow (especially since my husband's guys-only backpacking trip has evolved into going out to dinner twice and one afternoon by a pool). I'm excited.

It isn't time to put the manuscript away yet, however.

I believe it was Ann Cannon who said her approach to editing involves only focusing on one fix each time through a manuscript. Since in the past I've to get bogged down on sentence structure and wanting to fix every little thing at once, this time I tried this approach.I went through the book with a goal to to fix the supporting character and give her better motivation.

Good things happened. Besides getting through another draft and actually liking the result, I found my changes to the supporting character added a new dimension and motivation to my main character.

Which never hurts. Because finding, clearly defining, and sticking to the main character's overarching desire is something I can never review too much.

As Martine Leavitt told our WIFYR workshop last June, desire seems to be the thing with which almost all her students [at Vermont College of Fine Arts] struggle.  I think most writers have to wrestle through a draft or two, or at least some major outlining, before we truly find the heart of our character's story.

Martine quoted John Gardner. To paraphrase this quote,  plotting, however childish or elementary it may seem in comparison to surgeons, physicists…the writer has no story until he has figured out a plot that will efficiently and elegantly express it…although action without meaning will have no universal appeal, plot is the essential element of every writer’s plan.

And a quote from Kurt Vonnegut which Martine reminded us of, with good cause, more than once: "Every character must want something, even if it’s a glass of water."

To me, desire means more than a casual wish for something. A glass of water can be nice. But if you're dying of thirst, that changes everything.

After a bit of a break, and lunch, I'll need to tackle my next two projects: 1. Making sure that desire or need, is clear and important throughout the book, and 2. Tackling that boring part in the middle. Which is good subject for another post.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Part 2: Creating a Book I Feel Good About Writing

Then again . . .

As much as I want to write a book that kids will want to read, as important as that is to selling a book, it isn't the whole reason I write.

Writing is expressive and cathartic for me. As my characters discover things about themselves, I often find they discover things I needed to know or relearn.

So I can't make that scene that had 1 cop car in it suddenly have "a whole troop of squad cars" like my daughter suggested, unless it's true to my intent and to my character.

Which makes me remember that important rule Martine Leavitt taught me at WIFYR: is every scene related in some way to the character's central purpose and desire? Even if it might be more Hollywood to have twenty police cars with sirens blazing, if I throw it in just for sensational appeal, it isn't right for my story. Am I adding things the way a new teen might add too much makeup, too many accessories? Time to remember the old design maxim.

Less is more.

While I could add more Hollywood action or fluff, maybe the emotion, the setting, and the description need bolstering. In other words, the true elements essential to the driving need of the main character, need more time and attention.

Off to do more editing.

And to go with my goal of adding photos, here's my oldest after getting a haircut. The stuff on the floor, as well as his great new do, is a great illustration of less is more.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Where I've Been

My husband is somewhere in the above photo. Spotting him may be a bit easier than finding any blog posts from me in the last month or so.

I've been editing.

I've been soo tired.

I've been on vacation.

Editing on vacation, and getting more tired from jet lag.

I'm back now. And as I've been trying to start reading other blogs, I've noticed I like posts with photos. So I think I'll insert a few here and there. This is a beautiful street in Nice, France. I had this idea to take photos of windows and come back and make a books of fabulous doorways and balconies.

What does this have to do with writing? Nothing.

But even if I don't get that book of windows made (a book for me, not for publication), I plan to keep working on the books I write.

And start blogging more consistently.

And actually follow other people's blogs better.

I also need to at least write down where I took all these photos before I have to say, "I took this somewhere, but I'm not sure where."

What do you need to do better in your writing world? Do some research to make sure your scene snapshots are authentic?

Write consistently?

Do a better job supporting other writers?

Or take a vacation?

Creating a Book Children Want to Read

I've mentioned it before. My children read my books.

Don't peg me as the type to send a query stating, "my family loved this book." I have a critique group (two  now, actually). I go to writing conferences. I send my work out for others to read. Okay, now that we've cleared that up, back to why my kids read my books.

Adult writers are kind. They, like me for them, appreciate the bundled hours of labor, worried effort, rejection and grief that go into creating a book.

Kids just want something great to read. It has to be fun. They have to like the characters, and stay interested.

So while my critique partner may politely suggest I might want to add a little more drama to a section, kids have too many other distractions to stick with a book that stops making sense or stalls. Unlike in critique group, at home I'm competing with Percy Jackson and Goose Girl. My kids are avid readers, and they know books well. If my daughter puts my book down, I know my plot just hit a sinkhole.

That's when I beg her to stop being nice and tell me what's wrong. So far I've heard, "I hate [Insert name of character I thought complex and fascinating]. She's too whiny."

"You didn't make the scene with [insert what I thought was a scary situation] bad enough. You need to add a whole bunch more, and make it last longer."

Sometimes my daughter asks about a part that didn't make sense. Then I'll say, "What about where . . .?"

And she will say, "Oh. I didn't know that happened." Uh-oh. In other words, I'm not getting that part of the story out of my head and onto the paper. It might need more sense of setting, or clarified language.

If my book is getting as boring as math class, they'll tell me. And if I'm going to write a book that's going to keep my kids attention, I really have to step it up. A bit like this photo of my youngest, trying to stand tall enough to fit this Bahamanian mask.

This book will go back to more beta readers. It might get a professional edit after that. But for now, I'm enjoying the fresh and honest perspective of my kids. Because if they want to read it, really want to, when they have the option of picking up a bestseller instead, then I know I'm off to a good start.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Tenacity--the Successful Writer's Secret

I went to the Solstice Writing Conference a couple of weekends ago. Not only was it delightful having a conference in my home court, but the invited authors, including Ann Cannon, Louise Plummer, and Dean Hughes, were a delight as well.

In Thursday's panel discussion, the topic of bad reviews came up. Louise Plummer mentioned how a bad review (from a random person posting on Amazon, not a knowledgeable critic) stopped her writing for some time. Even Louise? Ann Cannon made a great point. "If you want to write, you have to be tenacious." She said not everyone is going to like your writing, but the writers who make it have one thing in common: they don't quit.

The next day I got to test this maxim when I made the mistake of discussing a current plot idea with a non-writer. Bad idea. After hearing the message that my plot had completely unrealistic, impossible ideas, I changed the subject and spent the next hour depressed.

 I tend to be too concerned about what people think, according to that same plot-wounding family member. I take critique suggestions seriously, and have learned to listen rather than argue. I've never been the it's-my-story-and-you-just-don't-get-it's-brilliance type. So why wasn't I scrapping the entire book?

 I finally went for a walk in light rain that turned into a thunderstorm. As I darted from awning to awning, my brain sifted through ideas on how to rework my plot egress. Soon I had a potential solution, and felt good that I hadn't quit. But how do you know when to keep working on a book, and when to realize an idea just isn't worth continuing?

 At WIFYR, our workshop asked Martine Leavitt that question. She told us to hold onto the stories that are in your heart. If we're going to put our work out there in knowing it may end up with critic heel marks, it has to mean something to us. We have to believe it in knowing not everyone else will. If we are writing just to meet someone else's expectations, our ideas will shift as quickly as the newest trend. But when we write the story that means everything to us, it's different. We may shelve it for a time, wait for the ideas to ripen or even for our ability to write it to increase. But if it keeps coming back to us, we must at some point get back to the story.

Don't get me wrong. I refuse to blindly move ahead with a bad idea. I will continue renovations to make sure the plot is solid, the story line doesn't wander, and in this case, remove any plot twists too unrealistic to allow the reader to continue her path of suspended belief. But I can't give up the book itself. Because even as I'm taking a long, pouting walk through a rainstorm, the story is in my head with every step. It's stuck there, because my heart can't let it go.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Historyrectomy and Plotting Your Novel

My husband, who frequently reads health histories, often gets a good laugh out of peoples' creative spellings and interpretation of medicals. A rotator cuff surgery becomes surgery on a rotary cup, sounding like some civic award. Another term that confused me is "stent." Here in the west, the doctors say it like, "Stint." But it isn't a stint in jail, although the painful tubes they put certain places may make it feel like that.

Today a woman reported having a female procedure she wrote down as a "historyrectomy." After I finished laughing about painful ways to have your history removed, I thought that all of us, at times, may wish bad experiences could be surgically extracted.

Sorry,history removal isn't yet a real procedure. However, writers may at times need to do some serious surgery on our characters' life.

I'm doing a draft revision of my latest book. Yesterday I sat eating ice cream and feeling frustrated. I knew there was something wrong with my latest plot event. I've made some big revisions, but part of me still longs for the "history," or old parts of the story that no longer fit. I put down my spoon, picked up a notebook, and started writing questions:

  1. Is this event true to my character's true inner desires, or is it something I'm twisting to make fit?
  2. What are the main character's desires?
  3.  What will happen if he doesn't get them?

Then I tried some brainstorming alternate plot ideas based on advice Agent Ammi-Joan Paquette gave us at WIFYR in June, "Brainstorm three ideas, then pick the fourth. Don't go with the easy solution."

I brainstormed several ideas, once elaborating one idea and then suddenly writing, "bleh!" But as I wrote more ideas, I realized my character should have to do the hardest thing, not the one that helps me avoid having to research criminal law. (Teeny tiny plot hint).

 Martine Leavitt said we have to be open to our book and its characters enough to let go of our preconceived ideas of how we want the story to go. I've still got work to do. But stepping back and having the courage to do some historyectomizing (yes, I know it isn't a word) helps get my characters back where they want and need to be.

P.S. I have several blog drafts I need to post, including the final notes from the WIFYR conference. I'm still typing in a sling, and have other varied excuses too, but maybe this confession will help me finally get them edited and posted.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

WIFYR Recap #3: Children's Writing Cliches to Avoid

I'm guilty. If you're not sure you are, do a manuscript search. See how many times your characters roll their eyes, get various pains in their stomachs, have pounding hearts, or breathe deeply. I, for one, know my characters should have asthma to justify all the times I call attention to their lungs.

In Martine Leavitt's workshop at WIFYR, she talked about cliches. Any description of emotion that refers to internal organs--lungs included--is cliche. She says even vomiting is hard to do without sounding trite.

I've sometimes gone to absurd lengths to describe fear, sadness, or grief in a more original way, only to sound a little weird. "Her heart line-danced in her chest" or "His stomach mooed" may not be much of an improvement over pounding hearts or growling stomachs.

Martine suggested that instead of looking for new variations on old cliches, we try metaphor. One caveat: metaphors should be used sparingly, and should feel natural rather than superimposed on the scene.

In TOM FINDER, Martine Leavitt used gravity as a metaphor. In HECK SUPERHERO, she used quantum physics.We can find what works in our manuscripts by looking for patterns. She said our inner creative genius may come up in the repetition. To see it, we  must read our work over and over, looking carefully.

Martine spoke of the book, THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURINA TATE, and how the author spends pages describing how Calpurnia's mother, in her layers of long clothing, suffers from the heat. By contrast, Calpurnia sets off to discover a new species. In making this comparison, the author effectively shows how Calpurnia is destined to become a different species of woman.

She suggested when we're tempted to use a cliche, we instead have the character pause for a beat, then use objects specific to character and setting to describe the emotion. I took ten pages of a story I'm beginning, and was surprised to learn she liked the part where the character is upset with her father at breakfast. Instead of saying how angry she is, my mc looks down at her plate (the specific object) and says, "I hate poached eggs. It looks like a giant eyeball."

 As Martine Leavitt said, a good metaphor surprises with the unlikeness of things compared, while at the same time making reader marvel at how it fits.

My challenge for all of us is to look for the patterns already in our writing, and deepen them into relevant metaphors. Don't you love the idea of making a reader marvel?

Friday, June 28, 2013

Injured Wings and Writing Tics

The ER doc said my arm wasn't broken. So no big deal, right? Almost two weeks later, I'm still wearing the brace and typing with an ice pack draped over my splint. This does not make writing easy. Yes, I'm complaining (sorry), but this isn't meant to be a pity post.

Instead, considering my bad wing has me thinking about things that keep our manuscripts from flying. Writing Tics, as Martine Leavitt calls them. All writers have these. Some of us have to go back and consciously insert setting into our work. Others have to add a sense of time or insert dialogue into pages of description.

At WIFYR, Martine Leavitt spoke of a need for restraint. Agent Stephen Fraser calls a similar tendency "chatter," and Alane Ferguson called a similar concept "burying your lead."

In essence, when you write the perfect line, don’t run right past it and on to more words. Pull back a little. As you edit, one way to look for this tic is to underline phrases that contain key points, then read the sentence that comes next. Even if humorous or cute, when these words detract from the previous important message, they may need a red pen death.

Similarly, when Martine told us to avoid cliche in describing emotion, she said a lot can be accomplished by having our characters simply pause. Not a long, dramatic pause that stops the action, but a moment for the character to absorb what just happened. In doing this, the reader will recognize its import as well.

Whether it's a character pausing briefly in the scene, or slashing a useless attention hog of a sentence, restraint can streamline our work and help us avoid one dreaded writer tic.

Tomorrow: more on cliche descriptions.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

WIFYR Recap #1: Jennifer Nielsen on Creating a Memorable First Chapter

I just got back from a terrific week at the WIFYR Conference. This year my workshop instructor was Martine Leavitt, award-winning author and faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. We all had an amazing experience in her workshop. Martine taught us how to look at our own manuscripts in a totally different way, and I know many of us had important plot epiphanies. Our workshop group was also full of terrific, talented writers, and the critiques were both positive and helpful.

I've got a manuscript to revise following Martine's specific instructions for me, and I thought as I go over my notes, I could post some of what I learned on this blog.

In no particular order, I'm starting with Jennifer Nielsen, author of THE FALSE PRINCE series. In her afternoon lecture, she gave us tips on how to make our first chapters stand out.

Include at least one of these elements for a good first chapter/scene:

  • emotions—fear, anxiety, worried about character’s outcome. 
  • anticipation
  • curiosity—mystery element—get hero in such a bad fix, don’t know they’ll get out of it.
  • surprise
  • use one of these in first pages to hook agent
  • the moment right before the first kiss, holding breath kind of anticipation. 

Ways to do this include:
10 ways:
1.Make a great hero. (protag) 
  • in trouble, but not stupid trouble they could have/should have avoided
  • likely to lose
  • goal
  • fatal flaw
2. Great villain
  • no villain is ever just crazy. round character.
  • likely to win.
  • have an advantage the hero lacks.
3. Add mystery or a big question

4. Foreshadowing of something bad that might happen. 
Game of Thrones: because viewer knows author is willing to kill off his good characters, increases suspense that main guys won’t always be safe. 

5. Exploit relationships
  • romantic tension
  • friction between characters
  • betrayal
  • suspicion
  • loss of Mentor (the hero’s journey)
  • has inner demons
6. Raise the stakes. You should constantly be looking for ways, in each scene, to make things worse. 
Caveat: heroes fortunes must rise and fall. (but mostly they are falling). A steady decline from bad to good is boring and predictable. The inconsistency is what makes a story unpredictable. 

7. Shorten the timeline—like Dorothy and wizard of Oz, the big hourglass, timeline builds tension. constantly remind hero of the time limit, then cut timeline in half. slow down key scenes. 

8. Create unexpected turns—perfect example—Katniss and Peta, can let two people survive, but then the capitol changes it and says only one. Twists and turns must be logical. If use a gun in act 3, better be on mantle in act 1. and if it’s in act 1, have to use in act 3.

9. Setting

10. Dilemmas –Jean Val Jean—Mayor of town, people rely on him, but if I speak I am condemned, if I stay silent, I am damned. 

Great suspense comes from cruel authors. Be willing to be tough on your characters—I noticed Jennifer Nielsen does this in her first book, which I'm reading—she kills off one of the boys early on to show the uncertainty of an antagonist who is willing to do that. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Learning the Secret Agent Language

Do you ever get emails like this?


I am Mr.Van Voorst the former Sales Manager in the SNS Bank Rotterdam area
but am now based in United Kingdom after I retired, I have a proposal to
discuss with you is about a certain bonded account in SNS bank, which
shares the same last name with yours, Please contact me through my email
if you are interested to know more.

It will be beneficial to all parties concerned.

I didn't even have to open the email to know it was fake? Why? The language of the subject line: "This will be beneficial to all parties concern."

I don't bring this up to slam on anyone or get into a discussion of email spamming. Or to have a discussion of the finer intricacies of grammar.

Instead, how can we avoid looking naive or inept when we submit?
This ties into a post I read recently on SheWrites about "agent stalking."

We've all heard how important it is to research agents before submitting. Look for interviews by them. Go to sites like Literary Rambles. Know their submission preferences. Some prefer email attachments, but I've heard another agent say she never opens email attachments from an unknown source for fear of getting a bad virus instead of a bad query.

The SheWrites poster went one step further. Before querying an agent, she suggests following him or her on Twitter, and reading the agents tweets, or tweets about them, for at least a couple of weeks before you submit. That way,for example, you can learn about their extreme dislike of anything Star Trek before you submit a book with "Based on my popular Star Trek fan fiction blog" in the subject line.

My example: I plan to pitch to an agent I just learned doesn't particularly care for voice-driven books. In an interview, she said she prefers strong plots and fast pacing. I'd planned to present a book that's strongest in voice. Besides my momentary desire to drown my frustration in chocolate, I now know I need to reassess which book I present to her, and particularly how I pitch it.

Fortunately, knowing an agent's tastes and pet peeves isn't so secret in this internet age. Since we don't want our queries deleted before our emails are even opened, we're going to have to take some time to learn each agent's preference language.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Write Tight

In the same way deadlines sometimes make us work harder, a word count can help writers with concise word choice.

Last year I participated in a writing exercise with the Throwing Up Words blog. The hardest assignment for me was writing a story in 100 words. Frankly, mine stank. However, I learned a lot from the effort.

I submitted a revised 196 word version, to Utah Children's Writer's 30 Days, 30 Stories project this week.

Here's the link if you'd like to see it.

I encourage you to try writing something, perhaps your latest query, taking out 1/3 of the words. Even if you go back and add to it again, as I did with my short fiction, it's worth the effort.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

When You Get Stuck as a Writer

Lately I have been in a writing stall.

I can blame spring break, getting sick, editing, and redoing my query another 101 times, all of which are true.

But none of those change the fact that I have to keep writing.

This week I went back to a yoga class after a long break. Ow. I am so sore. Yes, I've still exercised, but in that class I used muscles I haven't felt in too long. I could easily tell when I couldn't lift my arms the next day. (Okay, I'm exaggerating.)

I've heard it said you can be in hiking shape but not tennis shape, dancing shape but not running shape, etc. In a similar way, if we want to be good writers. We have to write.

So even though I'm still editing, I have a goal to start writing something new again. Just a little. I use 750, but you don't have to have a site count your words, just make a goal. Fifteen minutes. One hour. Write while waiting to pick up kids, or during that interminable meeting you had to show up at but really don't need to listen to. Just keep in writing shape.

Maybe try getting in shape for a different sort of writing. This week I wrote a blog post for Authors Think Tank. I'm in the process of revising an old flash fiction, which has been a good reminder of how a short word count really encourages concise word use. I also had to write a short talk. Non-fiction uses different brain muscles as well.

So if you get stalled, keep writing. Write something, anything. Well, almost. The grocery list doesn't count. Unless, of course, it's a really creative grocery list, complete with adjectives, and maybe some dialogue. If you write one like that, I'd love to see it.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Ben's Book Bomb: Help Someone in Need

Dave Wolverton (aka David Farland) has been very influential in the local writing community, and it looks like he could use some help right now. Besides, his books are great, so what do you have to lose? I've been wanting to read Nightingale since I heard about it at LTUE.

Help Someone in Need: A Book Bomb for Ben Wolverton
Ben Wolverton, age 16, was in a tragic long-boarding accident on Wednesday the 4th, 2013. He suffers from severe brain trauma, a cracked skull, broken pelvis and tail bone, burnt knees, bruised lungs, broken ear drums, road rash, pneumonia, and is currently in a coma. His family has no insurance.

Ben is the son of author David Farland, whose books have won multiple awards, and who is widely known as a mentor to many prominent authors, such as Brandon Sanderson, Stephenie Meyer, and Brandon Mull. Costs for Ben's treatment are expected to rise above $1,000,0000. To help raise money for Ben, we are having a book bomb (focused on Nightingale and Million Dollar Outlines) on behalf of Ben.

You can learn more about Ben's condition, or simply donate to the Wolverton family here:

Monday, March 25, 2013

Writing a Query for a Middle Grade Book: Why Mine Isn't Working

Writing for Children is one thing. Then there's writing the query. Try taking the entire contents of your house and cramming them in one suitcase. Or putting an entire pantry shelf of food into your mouth in one swallow.
Yeah, it's about that easy.

I have been dutifully reading all the posts at Query Shark, and have two thoughts about why I've written so many version of this latest query, all of them about as tasty as chomping cereal still in its box.

First, a good query is much more than condensing the plot into a few lines. Not the pantry shelf swallow, in other words. According to Janet Reid aka Query Shark (, isn't a list of what happens, but how the characters react to what happens to them.

Second, when I gave the query to my critique group, they commented that what they like about my newest book is the voice, and that doesn't show up in the query at all. You can't write a query in first person, so how do I do that? Again from Query Shark, the language used in the query should sound similar to the wording in the book. So even if I can't put it in the character's voice, I can at least cut the words that sound like they're written by his middle school principal.

My goal for tonight: write it in first person, pick out the language I want, then write it in third person again.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Writing for Children and Writing for My Children

Not counting my two practice novels, I have four finished manuscripts and one nearly finished.

I need to get back to some serious editing of my newest story. Please stay tuned for a post on why scene editing is essential to a good book.

Recently I heard Dale Murphy, Retired Major League ball player and member of my church, talk about how the trophies and awards and fame aren't nearly as important in the long run as his eight children.

Why am I revising this old book? Well, besides the fact that I still love it. my daughter asked to read it.

Someday I hope to have it published. This week, however, I am relishing how good it feels to have my little (almost not-so-little) girl beg for another chapter. There's never going to be a more valued reader in my mind. Well, excepting my other three children.

How do you know when it's time to unearth an old manuscript?

And how do you fix a picture that insists on posting sideways?!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Essence and Editing

I have cut and changed and edited a lot of my manuscript. As it's lying there bleeding ink,I know I need to take the next step--to go back and look at what I have left. Cutting the fat has been hard enough. However, I'm worried that in losing unessential elements, I may have lost vital plot nutrients as well.
I went to an art show over Martin Luther King weekend. Two of the artists we talked with mentioned the importance of getting the "essence" of the work. In other words, good art does not involve using a brush stroke to capture every single detail. When I dabble in painting, I want to paint too much detail. That's probably a clue for why I have a hard time cutting when I'm writing a novel.

Whether you're learning how to paint or how to write, I think there is a definite "art" to being able to determine what's essential.
I have written down a list of the items I want to make sure this first section is showing. Now it's time to get up my courage and see if I accomplished my goal.
And when I do, I may have accidentally left out a vital piece or two. The good thing is that I can still go back and add some things. In talking about how to write plot, editor Cheryl Klein spoke about layering. We don't always need a whole new scene to establish a plot point. So my next job will be to see if I can layer those necessary elements into the scene I already have.

Okay. I'm geared up and ready to start.


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Weird Dreams and Details that Define Our Characters

I've had some kind of bug today, and spent the morning having the weirdest dreams. I kept dreaming that people I knew were walking in to my room and talking to me. All this despite knowing  very well that I was home alone. A bit freaky.

One person that walked in was my husband. He sat in a chair near my bed like he used to do, although we no longer have furniture there. I remember the chair, and also the crunch of crackers he ate as he talked to me. At one point I tried to wake up, and everything paused. But when I slipped back in the dream, there my husband sat, talk, talk, crunch, crunch.

My husband eats crackers that way in real life, too.

Then my mom. She was outside, intending to walk into my room and help me, but hadn't yet. I heard the calm sound of her voice, saw the purposeful energy of the walk she always has. My mom was on the phone, talking to someone in the voice she developed from years as a therapist--compassionate yet succinct.

Aside from the freak factor, I found it interesting how much certain characteristics define people to the point where these features accompany them even into our dreams.

I've been reading a book where the characterizations are very good, and I know the book will be memorable, in part, simply for that reason.

It has me wanting to make sure that the characters I write have distinct, recognizable characteristics. These don't have to be anything terribly extraordinary. They can be simple and humorous, like an unusual style of eating crackers or defining, like a distinctly energetic walk. Unique details can help make our characters lifelike, and thus memorable, to the reader.

P.S. My daughter has been reading one of my books. Every night she begs for more chapters. It's pretty gratifying, honestly. It makes me wonder if I should pull this one out and finish the revisions I started. (This is draft 15.)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Editing a Novel and Burying Your Lead

It's been slow this week, but I'm still editing. I've revised that scene that was so very wrong.

But in this revision I noticed another  mistake that goes along well with my last post about the important parts of your story.

In my scene, the main character looks over and sees the school bully. In the next sentence, he gives a description of what the bully and his friends are wearing. Soccer clothes
Yes, I needed a detail to make it obvious that the bully isn't where he's supposed to be. Still, [hangs head in shame] I glossed right over the important part.The main character's rapping on the computer screen, complaining. "Hello? I never got a chance to say anything. And I don't care about soccer clothes."

This made me remember how Alane Ferguson, an absolutely wonderful person, writer, and WIFYR instructor, always calling that "burying your lead."

I had an important moment in the story, and ignored it to describe soccer clothes instead.

Alane always said we have to watch for those important moments in the story, make sure they don't get lost in trivia.

Time for me to get back to writing, and  unearth my main character's reaction that I buried under an pile of words about shin guards and soccer jerseys.

As you edit, can you look for places where you might have missed, or glossed over, a key point or emotion?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Writing Chapter 1, or What Do You Want Your Book to Be

I hate rewriting. I hate, hate, hate rewriting.

I went to critique group yesterday, and my great critique partners reminded me of something. After revising my first and second chapters, the second chapter now isn't working.

I revised to follow the classic plot structure described in 1863 by German Plot Theorist Freytag and known as Freytag's Triangle or Pyramid. According to this, classic plot structure should be begin with an inciting incident. I had inciting action now. It just wasn't the right one.

When writers (me included) think they have to start their books with some kind of big action, I see two main reasons:
1. We think it will interest the reader (agent, publisher) more.
2. We are trying to get the action moving forward, or make an inciting event.

But if that action is contrived and not true to the character and heart of the book, it will seem contrived.

My chapter two had a bully being really mean to the main character. However, as my critique partners so kindly and gently reminded me, my efforts to move things along had taken me far from the core elements of my story. It wasn't the bully my m/c feared as much as the whole setting I'd put him in. And I'd been totally ignoring how everything around him should be affecting him, changing his character to make him react to the bully the way I thought he should.

I still need an inciting incident. But today I sat down and wrote what I wanted those first chapters to show. Tomorrow I want to review what I love about the story. I can't let those important elements get lost.

Rules, outlines, guidelines for writing are all important. I want to not only follow them, but learn to follow them better. But if when we lose our story under a pile of shoulds, then it's time to step back and reevaluate.

Consider writing down what you really want your character to be, what you want to show her doing, what you want him to accomplish.

Print off that page and keep it somewhere close.
Stories that follow rules can be good.
Books that use rules to reach into the story's heart can be great.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Plot Revision: Do Just One Thing

SCBWI asked us not to publish all or any part of Cheryl Klein's talk transcript online or in our blogs. I haven't done that, and my intent is to give homage to this workshop and talk about how I'm working to apply it. To further give her appropriate credit, I recommend you check out Cheryl Klein's book, SECOND SIGHT, AN EDITOR TALKS ON WRITING, REVISING, & PUBLISHING BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS.
 I've learned a lot with these plot revision exercises. I realize that while I'd rather edit than, say, see a slasher movie (not a horror fan) I still fear it. I've caught myself continuing to write ideas and new scenes. This is good, but it's become a way to delay my actual revision work.
 Like any writing, revising children's fiction can feel intimidating. Instead of trying to tackle subplots and story arc and theme and pacing at once, I've decided to focus on one area each day. 
Here's my list written January 1rst:
January 2: Add my new scenes that I've been rewriting. Revise my scene outline to incorporate those new scenes, especially the ones at the end which I need to change so that the character is acting, not just reacting, to other characters' behavior.  
January 3:Go through my notes of things to fix for my book, and highlight important things to do. Use a different highlighter for important theme elements.
January 4: Go through my book outline and identify an obstacle for each scene.
There is still something missing in the end of this book. So even though I love this book, I'm feeling like a loser because I still can't identify how to fix the ending. 
And I confess, I still haven't finished the Jan. 2 goal. I did, however, do the other two. There's something good about being able to say I did what I said I did instead of focusing on that "L on my forehead" and mourning over all I still haven't finished.
If there's something in your writing life you're dreading, can you break it into smaller tasks? 
Start today. 
Just do One Thing.