Monday, May 30, 2011

How Many Times Do You Revise?

One of the things that I'm learning about revising is that the more times I work through my novel, the more I can enhance the layers and depth in the story.

Sometimes I do this by adding a small detail, such as by a clue to the character's age or family background. Sometimes I rewrite sections of dialogue to bring out more personality in a minor character. As I get near the end, I may even rewrite an entire chapter, making the events in the ending clearer and more dramatic. The scariest part for me is adding entirely new sections, because I always worry that the story will become too long.

It's impossible for me to make everything work in two or three passes through the novel. I think this will be my fourth or fifth time. How many times do you go through your entire novel to revise?

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Secrets Inside My Writing Notebook

My writing notebook is precious to me. Sometimes, it feels like my whole life is inside. But I don't make any particular effort to keep it hidden or secret.  It's lying around the house, on my desk, beside my bed, on the kitchen table. My kids or husband could easily take a peek, but I don't think they do. Well, maybe the kids do, long enough to see that there's nothing much in it about them.

If someone did peek at my latest page, here's what they'd find:

1. Two quotes by Donald Maass from Writing the Breakout Novel:

"Great characters are the key to great fiction."

"The characters in your story will not engross readers unless they are out of the ordinary."

2. A bunch of nearly illegible ideas about applying some of what I've read in Maass's book to the novel I'm revising                               

3. A mysterious phone number (maybe I'll have to call it to see why I wrote it down)

4. A note to myself to back up my book files (I am going to do it today, I promise)

5. And the titles of a couple of new MG books profiled at the Middle Grade Buzz Panel of BEA:
  The Unwanted by Lisa McMann
  Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby

What's in your writing notebook today? Do you keep the contents of your notebook a secret?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

T is for Transitions: Avoid Confusing Middle Grade Readers

There are lots of places in a novel where you need to include information about a change in location, a change in time (e.g. it’s now two days later), or a change from one plot event to another. These connecting parts need to blend in or they can interrupt the flow of the story.

If you’re writing MG, transitions can be tricky.

Too much detail. If takes too long to explain how your character got from one place to another, or that it’s now the next day, you risk losing your reader’s interest. Sometimes, it’s best just to quickly tell the reader, rather than drawing out the movement by showing through actions. But at the same time, you don’t want to tell the reader too much. Long drawn out transitions can slow down the pace of the story. Some questions to ask yourself: Does the reader really need to know this? Does it matter to the story?

Too fast. A quick change of scene or time might easily confuse a MG reader. Make sure you have enough information to orient the reader, so they know where the character is in your scene. You can prepare the reader for a change in place or event in the last line of a chapter or paragraph. This allows anticipation of what might be coming next. Some questions to ask: Does the reader know where my character is? What do they need to know for this to make sense?
The key is to strike a balance between giving information while not slowing down or pulling the reader out of the story. Here are a few tips:
Make them natural. The transitions I use mostly fit in logically with what is happening in the story. For example, if your character doesn’t usually notice the way the light falls on the trees, then using that detail to show a transition will seem awkward or stick out to the reader.
Use sensory details. One effective way to signal a change is through a character noticing a different sensation, e.g. a change in light to signal the time of day, an unusual smell when walking into a new place.
Watch for repetition. Words signalling a transition can easily become overused in your story. Some examples:  “Suddenly”, “All at once”, “Then”, “Next”, and “But”.  

For more ideas, check out some of the great articles in the links below. Do you have any tips for how to create effective transitions?
*If you know of any other resources on this topic, let me know and I'll add the link.

Janice Hardy, author of the MG novel Shifter, blogs about why transitions are important and where your novel needs them, as well as some great tips for making transitions seamless.
In a guest post at Robin Lucas’ blog, Angela Ackerman from The Bookshelf Muse gives us strategies for helping writing flow from scene to scene.

Lydia Sharp gives some pointers on ways to show the passing of time.
Over at Mystery Writing is Murder, Elizabeth Craig and Riley Adams talk about some of the problems with writing transitions.

Allison Valentine Schrier shows us two ways of writing transitions, using examples.
P.C. Wrede, author of the middle grade novel Thirteenth Child, part of the Frontier Magic series, discusses jump-cut and narrative transitions.

Juliette Wade provides a few tips on using transitions to keep the story moving forward.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Thrill of Anticipation

With my query almost written (two lines to go) and my novel almost polished (one more round), I'm thinking about my next project.

I'm collecting ideas for the plot I sketched out back in March, when I thought I'd soon be finished revising Novel #4.

I'm free-writing thoughts from the perspectives of a couple of the main characters in the "new" book (it's actually a rewrite of Novel #3).

I'm taking another look at the first draft pitch and query I wrote (also back in March) to get thinking about the story again.

I love the part before I begin writing, because the idea of the project is so exciting. Right up until the moment where I start the actual writing, when a few anxieties creep in about whether it's the right place to start. You'd think I'd know by now that where I start doesn't really matter, because it's going to change when I revise.

How much time do you spend thinking about your book before you begin? Does the idea of putting those first words down make you nervous?

Friday, May 20, 2011

How Much "How-to-Write" Reading Do You Do?

The whole process of writing fascinates me, because it's such a challenge to fit all the parts together to make a satisfying whole. In the back of my mind, I think there's a tiny part of me that hopes reading a new book about the craft of writing might contain some "magic" that will elevate my writing to a whole new level.

Of course, reading alone doesn't get me there. The magic happens when you work hard at becoming a better writer, and at making your writing the best it can be.

But I do like to read different perspectives on the process and think about strategies that might help improve my writing. Even though I don't always consciously apply what I've read, I figure it will filter into my writing at some point.

My latest read about the process of writing is Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel. I can't believe I haven't read this before. So this weekend (which is a long weekend up here in Canada), I'm going to be enjoying my writing book as I start to think about my next project.

Do you read many books about the craft of writing? Do you have any recommendations?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

S is for Stereotypes: Are Your Characters Really Unique?

When we’re creating characters, one of the things we’re told to watch out for is stereotypes—simple, commonly held perceptions of people, like "smart kids are geeks". A few examples of stereotypes you might come across in MG novels:

The evil step-mother. Why is it always the step-mother who is a monster? It’s been done to death by Disney.

The smart older sister (or friend who’s a girl). You can’t top Hermione, so why not make your female characters stand out for another reason?

Teachers who get on a kid’s case because they haven’t done their homework. Believe it or not, teachers are not always cracking the whip. Is there another way you could show a teacher?

Girls with red hair. As the mother of a redhead, I know this hair colour is definitely not as common in real life as it is in novels.

And the list goes on. What’s so bad about stereotyped characters? They can come across as flat and dull because the reader has already met that type of character in other stories. Relying on a stereotype for a character can leave out interesting quirks, mannerisms, and personality traits that add depth and realism. If a character is too much of a cliché, it might be hard to connect with their problems.
Avoiding character stereotypes can sometimes be a challenge. Here are some ideas that might help:
Brainstorm. In the same way that you might not use the first idea you come across for your plot twist, don't settle for the first personality trait that comes to mind when you're creating a character. You could be choosing a stereotype.
Think about reader expectations. Are you writing about a hero or a princess? What does your reader expect? Change it up by adding an unexpected personality trait or hobby. Instead of the smart older sister, make it an older brother. A brunette. Try to create the opposite of what you’ve been seeing a lot of in your reading.
Use point of view. Remember that characters are seen through the eyes of your point of view character. Maybe your narrator sees the world in stereotypes. If not, the details your narrator notices can help to make your characters seem more real, and less like a stereotype.

Should you always try to get rid of stereotypes? Maybe not. Including a stereotyped character in a MG novel might sometimes be useful.
Short cuts to understanding. If your readers are familiar with “kindly old grandfather” they can make a quick connection between the book and their background knowledge. This can sometimes serve as a “short cut” that eliminates a lot of explanation. Or, it can serve as a starting point for developing a unique character when the story takes the character beyond the stereotype.

Adding humor. Intentional use of a stereotype can be a way to add some fun into your story. The stereotyped character can be exaggerated, giving the reader a chance to poke some fun.

Do you try to avoid stereotypes when creating your characters? If so, how do you make sure your characters are unique?

Links: *As always, let me know if you find a great article on this subject to add for our reference.
At Buried In the SlushPile, read about how seemingly unimportant details can lead to stereotyped characters.

Writing tips for avoiding stereotypes by Matthew Arnold Stern.
Over at The Character Therapist, Jeannie Campbell posts about ways to rejuvenate character stereotypes, for example, The Tomboy.

Susan Kaye Quinn of Ink Spells writes about moving past stereotypes in kid lit and gives us a look at a teen’s perspective on stereotyping in YA novels.

Blogger and book reviewer Meg talks about stereotyped highschools in YA novels and gives us the real life scoop.

Are boys stereotyped in MG and YA books? Hannah Moskowitz gives us one perspective.

Julia Daines writes with humor about how stereotypes can be useful.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Why Is It So Hard to Write A Query?

When I'm writing my novel, I rarely spend a whole morning on one sentence (a paragraph, maybe). But I often do when I'm writing a query. It's so hard to get it right.

For me, one of the most frustrating parts of writing a query is thinking that I need to pare the whole novel down to its bare bones and sum it up in a few exciting sentences. Guess what? That's not necessarily true. The key is to remember that the purpose of the query is to include enough about the novel to catch an agent's or editor's interest so they want to read more. Agent Kristin Nelson's two quick tips about querying really helped ease my mind.
Writing a query also brings so much pressure. It's like the whole fate of whether I'll ever get my novel published rests on how well I can write these two paragraphs. Which is ridiculous. Of course I know I have to interest an editor or agent in my story to get a chance, but it's really the novel itself that matters. If I've written 48,000 words, surely I can write two pages.
What do you find most challenging about writing a query?
By the way, in case you're struggling too, last week one of my followers Brooke Favero had a great post listing some good resources for writing queries.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday Fun: Seven (More) Random Things

This week, Cheryl Riefsnyder mentioned my blog and paid me some nice compliments, passing on the "Stylish Blogger" award. Thanks, Cheryl! Cheryl's blog has interesting posts on topics I haven't come across all over and over again, like games in middle grade fiction and creating characters that lie.

Anyway, in the spirit of the award, I'm going to tell you seven random things about my writing (since this blog is about writing). FYI, other random writing-related things about me are here.

1. Beginning when I was a middle grader myself (and through my teens), I used to write a family newspaper full of amusing, exaggerated "news" stories about family members (and they all had made up names).

2. My first published book was Sarah's Pet for Unibooks of Korea.

3. My favourite writing notebook is a 14 x 22 cm spiral sketchbook. I stick a book pocket inside the front cover to hold pencils. I also glue in interesting tidbits from blogs and quotes I find inspiring.

4. My current dream is to get a MG novel published.

5. I didn't think I'd enjoy blogging (or know what to say) but I like the way it helps me connect with other writers and the writing community. Plus, I've learned so much about writing from other people's blogs that I've become addicted.

6. I worked on the first round of revisions for my current project while on vacation last summer. I can't stop myself from waking up an hour or two before everyone else, so I'd quietly get out the laptop and work in the hotel room while they all slept.

7. I'm always amazed at the ideas that come to me when I force myself to write by bringing only my notebook somewhere that I have to wait (e.g. while my kids are at a lesson, on a long drive in the car).

I know I'm supposed to pass this award on to other people, but I don't like to obligate people to participate (and I hate leaving out all the other blogs I enjoy...if that's you, please don't feel bad that I didn't mention yours). So, I'm just going to list a  random selection of seven interesting blogs I've found:

Brooke Favero's Somewhere in the Middle has a great Friday roundup related to writing MG (and other bits of wisdom during the rest of the week).

Smack Dab in the Middle - A group of middle grade authors are sharing their thoughts on writing middle grade, with some interesting insights and inspiration.

Deanna Barnhardt has a cool Friday feature on writing-related Firsts.

Falling Leaflets by Jess has great writing links and tips.

Susanna Leonard Hill's blog is down-to-earth and makes me feel good every time I visit.

I've found some great resources at Writing While the Rice Boils by Debbie Maxwell Allen.

I've only recently discovered Wendy Delfosse's blog, but I love her writing style and the posts I've read are thought-provoking.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

R is for Rules: Creating Tension for MG Readers

If you write middle grade fiction, it helps to have a good picture of the life of a nine- to twelve year old. One big part of that life is rules. There are rules for home, rules for school, rules for friend’s houses, rules for sports, rules for games…Everywhere they go, kids have to follow rules.

Explicit rules. There are rules that kids hear around them all the time, like “Homework before computer” or “No talking during the quiz” or “No friends over when a parent’s not home.”

Implicit rules. Some of the “rules” kids follow might not be stated but are learned from the reactions of other kids in social situations, for example, “rules” about how to dress or where to sit in the cafeteria.

What are some key things to know about rules if you’re writing MG?

Think hard about which and how many rules a character will break. Some kids might enjoy reading because the characters in books can escape some of the rules in their lives and do things the reader themselves might not be allowed to do.

On the other hand, parents are still a big part of the lives of middle grade readers and may still be helping to make choices about reading materials and book purchases. Characters that break too many rules might be frowned upon, or depending on what the rules are, push your book more towards YA.

Take a kid perspective. Adults have a totally different perspective on rules than kids do. Have you ever tried to explain your logic in making a certain rule only to see a blank stare from your child? Because adults and kids value different things, there are some rules that kids just don’t get (e.g. Why do I have to keep my room clean again?)

Kids use rules too. Because they are still figuring out how rules work and which ones apply to them, rules are big in kids lives. They care about whether other kids follow the rules in the games they play. They also compare rules and use them to try to influence parents (e.g. “Well, Sophie is allowed to….”)

Rules can be a great way to bring in some tension and conflict in MG novels. Think about your main character’s attitude towards rules. Do they try to break them, maybe in a creative way? Or grumble about them but mostly go along? Which rules bug them the most? Does your story world have any unusual rules?

Do your characters have any rules to follow? How have you used rules in your stories?

Books where following (or not following) rules creates tension:
*If you can think of any others, please let me know and I'll add them to the list.

The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet by Erin Dionne
The Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson
The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau

Sorry, I couldn't find any on this topic. If you come across a related link, let me know and I'll add it for our reference.

Monday, May 9, 2011

So That's What I Planned to Write About!

Do you ever look back at your original notes for a story? When I do, I often find that my story has morphed into something completely different. So much for the preliminary synopsis and one-line summary that I wrote before I started.

The mental picture of Novel #4 that I had as I started jotting down those first, excitement-filled ideas is very different from the picture I have now, after all the cutting and layering and stopping to brainstorm "what if". Through the long process of writing and revising, the story I wanted to tell has changed.

It always surprises me when my stories always turn out to be much more serious than I originally think they will (even though I don't think other people would be surprised, since I'm a fairly serious person). Do your stories change a lot from the way you originally conceptualize them?

BTW, that other story? The one I initially dreamed up when I wrote the summary? It sounds really good. Maybe someday I'll write that one too.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Do You Read Your Novel Out Loud?

One piece of advice I've read about revising suggests you read your writing out loud. It's supposed to give you more of a feel for how other people "hear" your writing when they read it.

When I write picture books and learn-to-read stories, I definitely read them aloud, because it helps me make sure the story flows and hear how the words sound. Besides, these kinds of stories usually are read aloud. But a novel? Maybe I'd read out small sections, but never the whole thing. Until now.

Here's what I've noticed:

1. Reading a whole novel aloud takes a really long time (especially when I keep stopping to fix things).

2. It's helping me view the story more through the "voice" of my character.

3. It makes it easy to identify and simplify unnecessary words and phrases.

Do you ever read your writing aloud? Do you find it useful?

Don't forget about this great contest! The other MiG Writers and I are celebrating the release of Carmella Van Vleet's non-fiction book, Seven Wonders of the World and you could win! Check out our blog to enter.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Q is for Questions: Keep MG Readers Hooked

You probably ask yourself all kinds of questions as you develop and write your story. You might ask questions about:

Characters, to get to know them better (e.g. What does he look like? What does like to do for fun? What are his nervous habits?)

Wants, to develop motivation (e.g. What does the villain really want? Why does he need to stop the main character?)

Events and reactions, to develop plot (e.g. How does the reader want this to be solved? What else could happen?)

Something to keep in mind as you write is that readers ask questions too. You need to nurture that curiosity, both on a smaller, scene by scene scale and on a larger, whole book scale. The questions that pop into a reader’s mind keep them hooked on your story.

Big picture questions. Your story problem will generate questions for your reader that won’t be answered until they read the whole book, e.g.“Will the MC get what she wants/find a solution to that huge problem?”

In the moment questions. Other smaller questions emerge as stepping stones to keep the reader moving towards the solution, such as “How will the character get out of this situation?” Scenes that make the reader wonder, even about something small, can help to keep the reader interested.

These smaller questions often get answered in the next scene or next chapter, but the answers don’t need to be too obvious or easy. You want your reader to think, “Now what?” and make guesses about what might happen next before they find out what really does happen.

One way to know if a scene is working is to think about the kinds of questions that might come to mind as a reader. If there's nothing to wonder about, maybe the scene needs to be cut or revised.

Do you think about the questions a reader might have as they read?

*As always, if you know of any other useful links on this topic, let me know so I can add them to the list.

Janice Hardy discusses the importance of considering “why” as well as “what” in creating a story.

A.J. Hartley at Magical Words blogs about big questions that extend beyond the book.

Over at Cheryl's Musings, Cheryl Reifsnyder has an extensive list of questions you can ask yourself when creating villains.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What Would You Do With A Whole Day to Write?

Okay, this is my Monday post, even though it's Tuesday. I'm blaming the lapse on my writing brain. I was stuck in my story world all weekend, which made it hard to get back into the routines of the week (that's my excuse, anyway).

This weekend, I had a mini writing retreat -- the house all to myself for a whole day. Even though I try to stick to a regular writing schedule and work on my writing for an hour or so every day, sometimes it's nice to have a longer block of time.

I took the opportunity to try out a different ending for my novel. Since it involved making small changes at several different places throughout the story, I really appreciated having the time to actually make the changes, rather than making notes on them.

Have you ever given yourself a "writing retreat"? Did you actually use the time for writing?

Have you heard? The other MiG Writers and I are celebrating the release of Carmella Van Vleet's non-fiction book, Seven Wonders of the World.  If you want to win a copy, check out our blog and enter the contest.