Friday, December 24, 2010

At the Last Minute

Last minute shopping is kind of like writing the last few chapters of a novel:  it can either mean panic, if you're truly not finished getting what you need, or magic, when you discover something amazing you previously overlooked. Let's hope we all have the magic without the panic!

Wishing you a wonderful Christmas Eve and Christmas Day!

P.S. My posting may be a little sporadic for the next week or so, as I indulge in some holiday visiting and fun. Oh yeah, and finishing up those novel revisions I promised myself I'd complete.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Cool Writerly Gifts That Come From Books

Book characters often have a special talent or device that helps them to stand out. If we could get these things for Christmas, some of them would make writing so much easier! Here's a few that I'd like:

1. The extendable ears Fred and George Weasley invented in J. K. Rowling's The Order of the Phoenix, because they'd come in handy for helping to create natural-sounding dialogue.

2. Sam's curiosity in E.B. White's The Trumpet of the Swan, because his nightly questions would generate a lot of writing ideas. I wouldn't mind a dose of his patience, either (while I'm waiting for stories that are out on submission).

3. The Scrabble skill that Ambrose has in Word Nerd by Susan Nielson, because I'd love to beat my Mom at Scrabble sometime.

What have you found in a book that you'd like to have?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Writing or Wrapping?

Christmas holidays can really derail your writing (or revising) plans! All that time off work that seemed to stretch ahead of me is quickly being filled up with shopping, baking, house cleaning and watching Christmas movies. My best tips for getting some writing work done:

1. Get up extra early to squeeze in a little time for writing when the house is quiet. Take advantage of the fact that everyone is staying up late to watch those once-a-year Christmas movies.

2. Send family members out with a long list of last minute gifts and say you have to stay home to finish tidying up. (More needles are going to fall off that tree anyway, so who will know what you've really been doing?)

3. Lock yourself in a room to "wrap gifts" for an hour or so. (Wrapping, writing, what's the difference? Those small pieces of leftover giftwrap are great for jotting plot notes.)

How are you keeping on track with the big day getting so close?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

About Revising (Part 2): What I Love

In my last post, I talked about how revision gets me down, but honestly, I really do love it. Here are some of the good points:

1.Since I know the ending, it's clear what details I need to emphasize to set it up and can plant them gracefully, instead of throwing in everything relevant in sight.

2. I get a good laugh from some of the dumb things I put in during the mad rush to get something written. Why did I ever think they'd work?

3. I know more about my characters since I've seen them in action, so it's easier to get inside their heads. And it's interesting to see how they've changed my original plans.

4. Since I don't make lists of characteristics before I begin, my characters sometimes morph in unusual ways. They sometimes change their hair colour, height, or special talent, and, in one unfortunate incident, gender. These things are so easy to fix, it's a real confidence booster.

5. If the new section isn't working, I always have something to fall back on (assuming I remember to save the new stuff in a new document).

6. It's fun to develop more voice by drawing it out and exaggerating a little.

7. During revisions, I start to feel my jumbled words are beginning to turn into a book that someone besides me might actually want to read.

What about you? What do you like about making revisions?

Monday, December 13, 2010

About Revising (Part 1): What I Hate

Since I'm so immersed in revising, my next two blog posts are about the good and bad sides of the process. First, the bad stuff (I like to leave the best for last):

1. I love the idea of having that whole book sitting there waiting for me to be improved upon (it's written, yay!) but then about halfway through my revisions on the book, I have that same gigantic loss of confidence that I did when writing it. You know, the one where it all seems like crap. I thought the revision process would be different.

2. Problems that I thought I solved in my first draft somehow sneak in again. Sometimes, the solutions were not really solutions, or just bandaid solutions to hold it together so I could finish the draft. This is when I discover they don't work.

3. Cutting out great writing sucks. But as Gail Carson Levine recommends in her book Writing Magic, I always save the bits I cut. You never know. (Except I think I do know. They'll sit on my computer until one day four years from now when I'll find the file and say, "What did I save this junk for?")

4. Getting stuck shouldn't happen because I have the whole first draft sitting there but it does anyway. Why isn't it easier? I know the book needs work. Another case where I thought the revision process would be different.

5. It takes a long time to get the revisions right, even longer than writing the first draft. Sigh.

Okay, these are all the negative thoughts I have about revising. You can share your own gripes too -- but don't worry about adding encouraging remarks, because I'm going to write about the good stuff on Wednesday. So spill it. What do you hate about revisions?

Friday, December 10, 2010

What I Learned This Week

Some of the most interesting and helpful things I learn about writing come from reading other blogs. Here's what I discovered this week:

1. There can be blog contests with surprising twists. I love the Epic contest of Epic YA author Beth Revis is running to publicize her debut novel Across the Universe. I've heard a lot about this book and have been waiting for it to come out. But the contest itself is awesome - there are 100 prizes! If you haven't heard about it, you should check it out.

2. Writing seems so much more focussed when you keep the big picture in mind. This great post by Janice Hardy sums up the two key things you need for a good story: have a hook and be entertaining. And Laura Pauling expands on Sarah Davies' Unique Concept + Voice + Craft. Great stuff to read while revising. It helps keep you on track.

3. I love these tips for creating dialogue by Shannon Whitney Messenger. Definitely will be trying some out.

4. Sometimes you can only get past a tricky place in your novel by making a big change. But it's a good idea to save it with a new file name BEFORE you begin making the changes, just in case you need part of that earlier version. Duh!

5. Holiday treats provide great fuel for late night writing sessions. Sugar rush leads to better thinking, right? (Or maybe not. See previous point.) But I am on track to finish my revision of Novel #4 by the end of December.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Revising With a Plan

Taking time to plan my revisions for Novel #4 has been incredibly helpful. After breaking down my novel into sections and thinking about which parts contribute to the plot and which really don't (see my previous post for details), my next step was to decide what I needed to do to the existing book to make the new structure work. For each section, I wrote down what I needed to do.

For example, "Change part about chocolate so Maya refuses chocolate curls". By listing all the changes I need, the process has become less overwhelming. I can focus on one change or one section each time I get a chance to work on it. And then I get the satisfaction of crossing it off my list once I've accomplished it. We'll see if this process leads to a stronger book.

How much planning do you do for your revision process?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Made Up Words

Do you ever make up new words or phrases in your writing?

Since my middle graade novel involves a made up place and an invented scenario, I'm also creative with the language my characters use in dialogue. So far, most of my invented words are for emphasis -- the equivalent of "Wow!", "Really?" or "No way!"

Another way I use invented words is for some character names. It's easy to do by taking an ordinary name and changing it a little until it sounds right. Using invented names is one signal to my readers that the world of the novel is not quite the same as the world we live in.

I find that one of the tricks to using invented words or expressions is to balance their use. If they are too infrequent, they won't seem like part of the everyday lives of the characters. If they are overused, then I think they'd be distracting for a reader. I also try to make their meaning clear, so a page of translations won't be required.

P.S. The League of Extraordinary Writers, a group of YA writers of science fiction and dystopian works, are having a cool contest with giveaways of their new books. You might want to check it out!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Revisions: What Really Matters to the Story

I always get about halfway through my revisions and realize my novel is getting too complicated. I panic and think there's no way I'll get all the loose ends wrapped up by the time I get to the ending.

Part of it is because when I write my first draft, I throw in lots of obstacles for my main characters. The more tension and conflict, the better, right? Maybe not. During the revision process, I need to weed some of them out. But which ones?

One thing that helps me to decide is to think of my novel as made up of  3 or 4 big sections. In each section, there's a task that is going to help my main character reach her goal. After that, I look how the smaller obstacles in that section affect the big task. The only obstacles that matter for the story are the ones that make a difference to the character reaching her goal. 

Another thing I've noticed is that it's easier to build from a simpler framework to a more complicated one. Things get tangled up fast when you're trying to fit together all the pieces of the story. When I stop and look at the "bare bones" of the story, it's a lot easier to see what does and doesn't belong. KISS (keep it simple, stupid) is going to be my new motto for December.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Using Coincidence in Your Writing

It's enormously challenging to find ways for the main character to learn new information without the story events seeming too coincidental. My ideal way to write a story would be to avoid using plot devices that are too convenient. And to especially avoid these devices at crucial moments in the plot. The reader expects surprises, but they need to be believable and flow naturally from the story events.

One thing that helps me with this issue is to think about what the minor characters are doing when they aren't "onstage" in the scene. These characters pop in and out of the story, and may play a crucial role at some point, but as a writer, I need to think about what they're doing when they aren't with the main character. Otherwise, dropping them in just when they are needed can seem too coincidental.

How do you avoid coincidence in your story?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Going Beyond Lists of Character Traits

From time to time I do more reading about the writing process to work on developing my skills (aside from the great stuff I find on everyone's blogs). Right now I'm reading The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman, since I always seem to have issues with my plots. The first chapter is about characters. It essentially helps you to create a list of traits about your character. I've never done too much of this in the past, because I always thought I'd "discover" more about my character as I write.

But here's the thing I never understood before: once you have that list of descriptions of your character, the way it really helps your story is to think about how each one of these traits could affect the plot. Time consuming? Yes. But, wow, it really helps you get a deeper understanding of your character's world.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Good Books and What is Believable

I just finished reading Yours Truly, Lucy B. Parker: Girl vs. Superstar by Robin Palmer (#93 in my hundred book challenge) and really enjoyed it. What made it so fresh and enjoyable was definitely the main character Lucy, with her so-true to life grade 6 concerns and her personality quirks and anxieties. The novel is a great example of a book with a strong main character voice, which is really what got me hooked on reading it. And it was fun!

It got me thinking a little bit about the issue of believability in middle/tween books though. Some (adult) reviews of the book mentioned the unlikelihood of Lucy (the main character's mom) getting involved with the Dad of a tween superstar [this is a key element of the plot]. But I wondered whether that would matter as much to middle grade readers.

To what extent do middle grade readers accept a premise, without questioning whether it would happen in real life? I don't know the answer to this, but I suspect it has a lot to do with:

a) how engaging the characters and the voice are

b) background knowledge or experiences that relate to the premise (e.g. if you know a lot about it, you're more likely to be irritated when it's not realistic or logical)

c) the way it is presented (My 15-year-old points out that it is unbelievable that there are wizards, but that the Harry Potter books are written in a way that makes them highly believable.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Hardest Thing About Writing

What is the hardest writing-related thing you've ever done?

Coping with the daily ups and downs of writing is one thing, but sometimes there are really big things that are hard. Like having to rewrite an entire novel that you've already revised a few times. Or trying to cut out, say, 20,000 words from something that's too long.

I thnk my second hardest writing challenge was(is) struggling with the premise behind Novel #3, with 2 alternating POVs. Still not resolved, but hopefully I'll come up with a solution one day.

My first and hardest writing-related challenge? Putting my first, completed novel (The Toad's Kiss) in a drawer, after having no glimmer of interest at all to the many queries I sent out.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Balancing the Passage of Time

I've discovered that meshing together the passage of time for two different points of view is a huge challenge (another reason NOT to use more than one POV). Some ways I usually show time in my writing include:

1. Directly mentioning the day or time of day, e.g. On Tuesday....

2. Including brief sensory details to help orient the reader, e.g. fire sparking in the night; smell of coffee brewing, etc.

3. Using the weather or seasons, e.g. mentioning different weather from the scene before suggests time has passed.

These tricks might work this time, except that I have a problem. I'm mostly following the main character's timeline--she's in a contest and there's lots of tension about meeting the challenges of the contest. There isn't a lot of flexibility to her timeline. I can't stretch it out too much or it wouldn't be believable. Unfortunately, my second point of view character needs time. He's adjusting to a whole new life. Sigh. It's hard to weave it together.

So far, my strategy is to stick with the timeline for the main character and try to fit the secondary character's POV around it. But it's created a challenge for me I hadn't anticipated. Have you ever encountered an unexpected writing challenge? How did you make it work?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Writer's Insomnia

Do you ever find your writing keeps you from sleeping?

There's so much going on inside my head that sometimes it's hard to turn it off when it comes time to sleep. It's not always writing. A lot of the time, it's every day stuff. Things I have to do. Things I should have done. But once in a while, my writing keeps me up with mental discussions about what I need to change to make it better. If I get up and write about it, I'm exhausted the next morning. If I don't, I'm likely to forget it by morning.

Guess what I usually choose? Sometimes, writing down my ideas is more important than sleep.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

How Do You Process Your Critiques?

I look forward to getting critiques. Comments from my critique buddies always lead to changes that will make my writing stronger or lead me to think more deeply about my story and characters. Since I only submit a chapter or two to my critique group every three weeks, incorporating their awesome advice can take a while. Some strategies I've tried:

1) I collect critiques on one novel while I'm writing another. I read them, maybe nod my head at things they pointed out that I already kind of knew, then store them until I'm ready to revise the novel.

This approach has its advantages: I see the work with fresh eyes when I come back to it, and the disappointment of hearing about what doesn't work isn't so strong. I can also see if there are some common elements to the critiques across chapters, e.g. The main character doesn't show enough emotion. On the downside, if I have questions, it's difficult to go back to my crit buddy and say, "Hey, remember a few months ago when you wrote..."

2) I make revisions as I get my critiques.

Thinking about the critiques right away helps me focus on each chapter and how it fits into the story. Since changes early in the story affect what comes later, I don't waste too much time working on later chapters that will undoubtedly change after they are critiqued.

But there are some disadvantages, too. It's hard to work on another novel when I'm intensely involved in revisions. Also, I worry that this approach can be hard on my critique group. I can't stop myself from revising sections that they haven't read yet to go with the changes in the earlier sections. Then I need explanatory notes with each chapter submission to explain how I've changed the beginning so that they aren't lost when they read the next chapter.

What do you do with your critiques? Do you read and make changes immediately, or do you wait?

Monday, November 8, 2010

How Important is Length for a MG Novel?

I was hoping revising would shorten my novel, but so far, all I seem to be doing is making it longer. Some ways to shorten a novel:

1. Check to make sure every scene counts. Each scene should have a purpose in the story, maybe more than one purpose.

2. Cut lengthy descriptions. How many words are really needed to give the reader a picture of what's happening? Maybe a place or object can be described more concisely.

3. Read the story out loud, especially the dialogue. I find that dialogue can get wordy. Sometimes it ends up with words that don't do anything for the story, not even create a mood or establish a character's state of mind.

The problem is, even though I'm working on these things, I'm also adding scenes to fill in gaps or to create tension. So far, the adding is outweighing the cutting. At 57,000 words, this book is way longer than I want it to be for an upper MG novel. I know everyone says to write the novel and not worry about the length (and I didn't think about it when I was writing my first draft). But this is by far the longest book I've ever written and I'm not usually a wordy writer. Should I be worried? I'm hoping that when I get farther on in my revisions (now around Chapter 12) that there will be a lot more to cut.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Writing Lists is Part of Writing a Novel, Isn’t It?

I am constantly making lists. I have a list of things I need to do for my job. A list of things I need to do around the house. Several shopping lists (groceries, things for the house, gifts, my own wish list). Lists of books I’ve read and books I want to read. Even my blog posts turn into lists! Since I’m so good at making lists, I figure there must be some way I use this skill to help my writing. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. When I’m stuck on a section during writing, I make a list of what the reader knows about my characters and/or story from reading the section. It helps me focus on what I’m trying to do with a scene. If I can’t make a list, it’s time to cut.

2. During the first draft, a list of character names can help keep the momentum going (if you’re like me, and can’t bear to use a % or random something for a person’s name). Instead of stopping and checking on the name of that girl I wrote about in the last chapter, I check my handy, right-beside-the-computer list.

3. As I read my draft, I make a list of all the questions I have during reading. This helps a lot during revisions (though I can tell you, the more questions you have, the longer the revision process).

4. I often get stalled during revisions, debating over what to include. Last time, I got stuck (um...I think that was yesterday), I wrote a list of the key elements I wanted in my story. It got me thinking about what parts needed more emphasis and what parts were just becoming too complicated.

Do you have any ideas for using lists to help with your writing?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

When the Computer Breaks Down...Make a New Goal

Aack! Yesterday evening I turned on my main computer and the screen went black. Totally black. An eerie voice came through the speaker with something about the system failing a test. Remember to keep your work backed up, people!

I should be freaking out, but I'm not. My latest couple of novels are on my memory stick. Plus I have most of the stuff backed up (though probably the backups are a few months old). My daughters are a bit stressed that they might lose some of the music they've downloaded from iTunes. The most annoying thing is that I have to take time away from writing to take it somewhere to get it fixed (and pay for it). Time is always something I crave more of. It seems like I have less and less of it lately.

In the meantime, I'm back to working on my laptop. I had to do this earlier in the year for some reason (oh yeah, because the dog had surgery and couldn't go upstairs) and I actually got a lot done. I learned that a change of scene can perk up my writing, especially if it's a little harder to check my e-mail.

A computer breakdown may seem like an odd reason for setting goals, but nevertheless, here are my goals for the rest of November:

1. Finish first set of revisions of Novel #4.

2. Write a summary and one-sentence pitch for Novel #4.

3. Think of a title for Novel #4.

I could add "get the computer problems fixed", but that's not a goal. It's a necessary fact of life.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Using Multiple Viewpoints

I usually try to stick with one point of view in my writing, because having more than one seems to get me all tangled up (my evidence for this is Novel #3, sitting abandoned in my file drawer). So why, in Novel #4, did I add another POV? Am I crazy???

In Novel #4, there is a bit of a conspiracy against the main character. I wanted the reader to know about it, without my main character knowing about it. (See how I'm already starting to get tangled up?) So, the second point of view sort of emerged from that idea. It's challenging, but it has strengthened some parts of my novel. Some of the benefits:

1. Bringing in another point of view has forced me to see the events in the story from a different character's perspective. In the past, I've found that focusing too much on the main character's perspective can lead to weaker secondary characters. By taking another character's perspective, it has made me think more deeply about character reactions and emotions.

2. Deciding where to bring in another point of view has made me think more about the timeline for my book and how the reader will experience the story events. Do I want events to happen sequentially? Simultaneously? How does that come across to the reader? I have to think about what each character has experienced and when, then mesh them together so that it doesn't produce a jarring effect when the novel is read. This is more difficult than I thought it would be.

Have you ever worked with multiple points of view? Any suggestions?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

When a Book Takes Over

I don't know if you've ever felt this way, but sometimes, after I've read a book (or watched a really good movie),  it just fills up my mind. I don't want to let anything else in to take its place for a while. Not another book. Not a T.V. show. It's just my thoughts about the book and me. I want to savour the thoughts and feelings that rise up when reading a really great book.

My most recent read The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness was like that for me. I didn't like it at first, but I'd read the first book in the trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go, and I was hooked on the characters. So I carried on with it. Wow - did it get me. It stirred up so many emotions and made me think. Even when I wasn't liking it, I couldn't put it down.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Point of View Problems

One of the structural problems that worried me about Novel #4 was my changes in point of view. I went through my scene summary and highlighted whenever the point of view changed, using different colours for different POVs. I was surprised to see there were 4 different characters with a voice in the first draft of my novel. One of them only took the stage for a single scene.

I took a good hard look at whether those changes were necessary, and decided they weren't. Middle grade readers don't want to work so hard to follow a lot of different voices. So I rearranged some of my scenes. Cut some and invented others. This is so much easier to do when I'm looking at a summary of my scenes, rather than actual chapters. It turned out that I only need two different viewpoints, a main one and a secondary one. Yay!

Of course, now there will be a lot of rewriting to do, but I know it will improve the story.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Getting Past a Stumbling Block

I'm trying to question everything as I revise my novel and sometimes my questions get me stuck. For the past week, I've been faced with a plot problem that stopped me from moving ahead. But this weekend, instead of revising words and phrases, I went back to my scene summary to look at the bigger picture. What a great idea that was!

It's much easier to see the whole novel with brief descriptions of each scene. Since I'm not looking at my "beautiful" writing, it's also easier to make changes to the storyline. Making a few changes gave me confidence to make more. Here's a few things I want to remember:

1. Nothing is set in stone, just because the words are on the page.

2. It's easy to open a new file to save changes in to avoid messing up what I wrote before, in case I need it later.

3. I make the rules for my own story (as much as the characters might want things to go their way).

4. Sometimes it's okay to do what is convenient for the plot. Not everything has to be a new twist.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Writer's Best Friend

My dog is pretty helpful with my writing (I'd include a picture of her but it throws my old computer into a tailspin. She basically looks like a skinny black lab). How my dog helps with my writing:

1. When I've been at my desk too long, she paws at my arm for attention, telling me it's time to let her outside. Or take her for a walk. This forces me to notice I need a break, and possibly some head clearing fresh air.

2. She gives me a warm shoulder to cuddle up to when I'm feeling frustrated and my writing isn't working.
3. When I want to read my story out loud to check the rhythm, I can pretend I'm reading to her. So then it seems like I'm a weirdo that reads to dogs, not a weirdo that reads to nobody. Why aren't the kids around when I need them?

4. If I hide a dog treat inside an old rejection letter, she'll rip it to shreds for me. I haven't actually tried this, but it might be fun.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Escaping My Real Life

You know when you have one of those days where, by the end of it, all you want to do is curl up with a good book? Yesterday was one of those days for me, and why I didn't post on Wednesday the way I usually do. It was one thing after another that didn't go quite right. So I came home, put my feet up, watched an episode of Mad Men with my husband, and later, (ignoring the giant pile of dishes in the kitchen), pulled out a book.

In no time, I was in another place. Thinking about the character's problems (which are probably going to be solved by the end of the story). Enjoying the experience of the story unfolding.

That's what I love about books.

Monday, October 18, 2010

How Much is Too Much?

Do you ever wonder if you’ve revised your story so much that it’s lost the original spark that brought it to life?

I’m working on Novel #4, which I wrote in 3 months, and (hopefully) I will have finished my first pass of revisions for in another 3 months. My first two novels took 4 or 5 years of hard work and rewriting to get them to the point where I feel comfortable submitting them to agents or editors. Maybe this is just self-doubt creeping in. But I wonder sometimes, if, along with the improvements, something has been lost during the revision process too.

Do you ever think you are "over-writing" or "over-revising"? How would you know?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Birthday Wishes

Today is my birthday. I’m not telling how old I am, but it’s old enough to wish I'd gotten serious about my writing much sooner than ten years ago. Here's what I wish for today:

1. The ability to tell where my plot is weak before the novel is finished, so I don't have to take the whole thing apart to fix it.

2. Courage, to inspire me to send out more queries for my completed novels.

3. More sleep!

4. An express pass through my revisions so I can get working on something new.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Creating a Consistent Voice

As I revise my novel, I'm trying to create a consistent voice for my main character. Some of the strategies I'm using include:

1. Adopting a consistent style of writing throughout the novel that fits with my character’s background. While I’m not using a dialect (since I often find them annoying to read), my character does have certain phrases and grammatical structures that are typical of her (made up) societal group.

2. Making a conscious effort to write more simply. Though I tend to be sparse when it comes to description, I do tend to use long phrases, which may be more suitable for older age groups. This time, I’m trying to keep my sentences middle-grade short and sweet.

3. Taking time to think as my character would. Writing every day helps me slip into my character’s mind more easily. Even so, I sometimes have to stop and think about her experiences and background, to decide if what I’ve written really fits. I've had to cut sections of my novel or change elements that don't make sense in light of her past experiences or cultural background. I guess this is why we need to know as much about our characters as possible.

Friday, October 8, 2010

What I Learned This Week

My brain is stuffed so full of what I'm learning about teaching (I teach kindergarten and I'm trying out some new approaches this year), sometimes it doesn't feel like there's any space for my writing. It's hard to get a good balance between writing and the rest of my life sometimes. That's why I love reading other people's blogs to help me focus on the writing process. Here's some great things I learned this week:

1. What it really means to start a story with action. In a recent blog post, Jill Corcoran discusses how intriguing the reader is not the same as being thrown into the middle of an action scene.

2. How writing for different age groups might affect the process of getting an agent from Mary Kole over at

3. Some benefits of going to a writing conference. Between getting the time to do it (anything that happens during the school year and involves travel is out) and the cost, I always let them pass me by. But after reading this blog post by Jennifer Hubbard, I'm thinking about it again.

4. It is possible to get past Chapter 2 in revising Novel #4 (still no title). What I needed was someone to talk with about my ideas and help me to feel okay about taking the simpler, more obvious path instead of a more complicated, less logical one. I'm learning not to create unnecessary complications for myself when writing a story.

P.S. Happy Thanksgiving if you're celebrating this weekend!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Bookstores: Exciting or Scary?

Bookstores are one of my favourite places, next to libraries. As a reader, I love to browse. Skim back cover copy. Read a few first pages. I end up wishing I had a) the room to store more books at home and b) a lot more money. One of the best times on my summer vacation was discovering a wonderful bookstore in a small town in Michigan that was filled with the kinds of books I enjoy reading.

At the same time, bookstores often scare the writing side of me. There are so many great looking books there. I always feel like my own novel will never be that clever, that intriguing or that pretty. I have to remember not to compare my unpublished work to work that has already been edited a zillion times, with the benefit of the expertise of editors and agents.

Do you like visiting bookstores or do you avoid them to get past the scariness?

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Value of Different Perspectives

Recently, a one of my critique partners pointed out something about the events in the beginning of my latest novel that made her question its believability. Clearly, I hadn't thought about that aspect of story enough. It made me go back, think more deeply, and work out some changes to make the story stronger.

Why didn't I see it myself?

Sometimes I get so immersed in the story I can't see something that's right in front of me. Once I set up my story premise, I accept it and go on from there. I don't challenge it anymore. Even during revisions, when I stop and question everything from individual words to character motivations, I don't always see when one of the ideas isn't working or isn't coming through the way I want it. Hooray for my critique partners! They usually catch those kinds of problems. Thanks, writing buddies.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

An Amazing Gift

Today I started a fresh writing notebook (I love having all those blank pages waiting for me). I always get the same kind. It's a 5.5" x 8.5" spiral bound sketchbook, recycled paper. No lines, because I like the freedom to sketch out ideas. But this one is extra-special. Inside the cover there's a thank you card from one of my former grade 2 students. For the end of the year teacher gift, he had his mom take him shopping to find just the right kind of sketchbook, the kind I'd shown to the class when I talked about being a writer. I'm still touched by the gesture now, two years later, when I'm finally putting my pencil to the paper. It was an amazing gift.

Every time I see that card, I remember that boy and his passion for writing. It inspires me to keep going with my own. Interesting how such a small moment in time can make a such a difference to someone's life.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Does Reading Children's Books Affect Your Grown-Up Reading?

In the past couple of months, I've been easing up on reading MG and YA (since my 100 book challenge is going well) and reading more adult fiction.

Maybe I've made some poor choices (bestseller lists and the New section at the library?), but I've found it hard to finish a lot of the adult fiction I've picked up. Either it seemed unbelievable or I just didn't care enough about the characters. It makes me wonder if reading mostly MG and YA has affected my reading preferences or if the writing in children's books is different in some way that appeals to me. Or maybe it's just because they're shorter (ha!).

I recently read Fact of Life #31 by Denise Vega and really enjoyed it. It wasn't a particularly fast-paced story (which some of you know I tend to prefer), but I liked the emotional issues and internal struggles faced by the main character. Maybe that's what appeals to me in children's books? BTW, my teenage daughter began reading the same book and gave up on it early, saying she didn't like it at all. But I could see how she wouldn't relate to or connect with the main character at the beginning of the story, or her situation working in a midwifery. It all comes back to that connection, doesn't it?

P.S. Over at MiG Writers, I recently blogged about how I schedule my writing time, in case you're interested.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Compelling Characters: Readers Need to Care

When I signed up for the great blogging experiment about writing compelling characters, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be. For two weeks, I’ve been thinking about what to say and haven’t come up with anything besides the basic idea that readers need to care about the character. For me, this can include:

1. experiencing an emotional reaction related to the character

2. making a connection with the character based on a mutual interest or trait

3. wanting to know something about the character, like whether they’ll reach their goal or how they’ll get out of the terrible mess they’re in

Sometimes, I don’t even particularly like the main character in a novel, but if I’m intrigued about how they’ll solve a problem [i.e. I care what happens to them] I’ll stick with the story.

When I’m writing my own stories, character personalities emerge as I write my first draft. I rarely sit down and create long character descriptions or backstory. I know a few things about them. I add a slightly unusual hobby or trait. And I know what they want. After that, developing my character is a process of discovery.

I like to find out about my character through what they do and how they react to situations. Later, during revisions, I add to what I know about them to create deeper layers, or to bring out an interesting side to their personality. Are they compelling? I'm not sure. But I do know that they evoke emotional reactions from the few people that have read my stories.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Secret Identity: Children's Writer

For a long time, I was shy about telling people outside my family that I write children's stories. Even after I had a few books published with my Korean publisher, "writer" wasn't one of the first words that came to mind when people asked what I do.

It partly had to do with the fear that people would ask, "What have you published?" and I couldn't point them to a bookstore. People have said to me, "Writers don't make much money." It's hard to explain that isn't the point of it for me. It's nice to be paid for writing. When my kids were small, I worked from home as a freelance educational writer. But if someone told me right now I'd never be paid for anything I wrote for the rest of my life, would I stop? I don't think so. Writing is too big a part of who I am. I journal. I blog. I write stories my kids and I will (hopefully) enjoy reading. I know I'm a writer. And I love what I do.

Knowing that gives me confidence. I'm not so shy about telling people I'm a writer now. I even give details.  What about you? Do you tell people you're a writer?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Dreaming Up an Idea

This morning, one of my daughters told me about a detailed dream she had in the night. I immediately thought, Wow! What a great concept for a MG novel!  I wrote it on a scrap of paper (the back of a phone message) to be glued into my notebook later.

Do you ever dream anything useful for your writing? I know that Stephanie Meyer said the idea for Twilight came to her in a dream. Unfortunately, my own dreams are rarely that useful. The closest I get is having ideas while I'm lying in the dark, waiting to fall asleep. I root around, trying to find my notebook and pencil without turning on a light and waking up my husband. I'll scribble a few words, in the dark, on what I think is a blank page. In the morning, I may or may not be able to read it.

P.S. Have you heard about Angela Ackerman's awesome contest over at The Bookshelf Muse? Check it out!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Moving at a Snail's Pace

One of the things I find hard about the entire novel writing process is how slow it is. It can take months for a first draft. Then months for revisions. More months while my critique group gives me their valuable opinions, chapter by chapter. More revisions. When it's finally ready for submitting, there's the waiting for responses to queries.

Sometimes I feel very impatient. I'm tempted to rush through my revisions (I'm only on Chapter 4 of about 20 chapters), because I wanted to finish them by the end of September.

But as I'm working, questioning what I've written as I go, I notice things I have to go back and add. Or sections I need to clarify. Places where my character's voice isn't right. So I won't rush. I'll change my goal to completing my revisions by the end of October. I want the novel to be the best that I can make it. But grr! Sometimes the slowness of it all is really frustrating.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Was It All a Dream?

Why do I always get good ideas when I'm too busy to write them down?

Yesterday, I wrote a whole outline for a non-fiction article in my mind while I was on the way to the farmer's market. Of course, I didn't have any paper with me. When I got home, I tried to jot down the details but only managed to capture about 40% of it.

Acually, that happens a lot. The idea is perfect in my mind, I can envision the entire story. But when I try to write it in words, it ends up being a poor shadow of what I conceptualized. It takes weeks or months to get it to the place where it was when it sprang into my mind, if I can even do it. Does this happen to you? Why is it that "mind writing" can be so much better than the real thing?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Writing Journal: Online or On Paper?

For the past couple of years, I’ve only used my writing notebook sporadically. Instead, I began journaling in a computer file. It was easy -- I’m usually at the computer anyway, working on my novel. It’s a snap to search through the file for a key word if there’s something I want to check back to see. I can add interesting quotes or bits of information I found on the internet. All good reasons to stick with it. Except I missed my notebook.

This summer, I took my writing notebook on vacation with me. With nothing but my pencil and the smooth, soft paper of my notebook (actually an approx. 6” x 8” sketch book), the ideas burst out. The more relaxed atmosphere of the vacation might have had something to do with it. Or not. In my notebook, I mess around with doodles, notes in the margin, inserts & crossouts, glued in scraps of paper, thumbnail sketches, and different colours of ink. It’s more fun.

So, I’m going to stick with my notebook. Besides, when I’m feeling a little stuck or low, it helps to see my notebooks, lined up in their row on the shelf in my writing room. Full of ideas and fun stuff. They remind me of who I am. A writer.

Any thoughts on what I should do with my on-line journals? If it didn’t take so much paper, I’d print them out, and at least put them in a folder somewhere so they can be part of the collection.

P.S. Over at MiG Writers, I posted today on The Scrutiny of the Teenaged Critic.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Do You Use a Thesaurus?

I've heard some writing advice to the effect that if you need a thesaurus to find a word, you shouldn't be using that word. There's a danger that the word won't fit the tone of the novel, or won't capture the exact meaning you want to convey.

I do use a thesaurus occasionally. Mainly I use it to generate alternatives for words or phrases I overuse. As I revise my novel, I've realized how many times my character's "stomach tightens" in a tense situation. Thanks to the emotion thesaurus over at The Bookshelf Muse, I've managed to think up some new ways to show how my character is feeling. Thanks, Angela (and Becca)!! My alternatives aren't always words taken straight from the thesaurus, but reading thesaurus entries does get the ideas flowing.

Some ways I check whether a word works:

 1) I read my story (or that section of the story) out loud to hear how it sounds.

2) I ask myself, "Would my character use this word?"

Friday, September 3, 2010

Finding a Good Title

When I recently mentioned on my blog that my fourth novel is still untitled, even though it’s written and I’m in the process of revising it, commenter Dawn Simon mentioned that she hadn’t named her new project yet either. Why is it hard to come up with a good title? I’ve been thinking about what I want my title to do:

1. Hook the reader

2. Capture something significant about the story

3. Sound good when you read it (e.g. it shouldn’t make you tongue-tied)

4. Stand out by being a little different

Up ‘til now, titles for my novels have just come to me. I haven’t had to work at it. Sometimes, I’ve even thought of the title first and then the book developed around it. This time I’m stuck. Maybe as I revise, I'll stumble across an idea? Let's hope so. Novel #4 won't sound so great in a query.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What Are You Starting This September?

Yay, September! Good things come in the fall. Crisp new apples. Colourful leaves. New things to learn. September has always energized me. Probably because it's always been the start of a new school year, either for me or my children. This year, though,  I'm dragging my feet a bit. I don't want to let go of the lazy, relaxed days of summer. So, to kick off September, I'm setting some autumn goals:

1. Finish query letter and send out queries for novel #2, The Ethan Project.

2. Finish my revision of novel #4, and think up a title for it.

I'm keeping it simple. If I have too many goals to focus on, I accomplish nothing. Anyway, now that I've blogged about it, I'll have to stick to it. How do you feel about the fall? What do you think you'll accomplish?

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Strong Beginning Inspires Revision

When I'm revising, I have to get the beginning to feel right before I move on. It's not just the pressure of knowing that those first few pages--probably the most edited in the entire manuscript--are important for hooking the reader. At this stage, they're important for me too. They get me fired up to keep going.

Revisions are hard. Sometimes when I get to the middle, problems in my novel seem too big to fix. But I can go back to that "pretty good" beginning, and see the spark of where I'm supposed to be going. Remind myself what I promised the reader, and what my character wants.

What inspires you stay on track when you're revising your novel?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Catching Up on Writing and Reading

I'm slowly emerging from summer fun mode and getting back to a routine, including writing, critiquing, and blogging. Sometimes I worry that taking a break from it will take my mind too far away and I'll lose some of my "writing magic". Never happens. Even though it make take a day or two to get back into it, writing is a big part of who I am, and it always comes back.

During my break, I did some serious thinking about "behind the scenes" elements of my latest novel. Thinking that I wouldn't have been doing if I'd just kept on with my writing schedule. My notebook is full of questions and scribbled comments on topics ranging from the politics of the place where my characters live to small details about my character's personalities. It's made me more excited than ever about my novel revisions, even though I have a lot of sorting out to do!

The one thing I didn't make much progress on was my 100 book challenge, though I did read Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins this week. I'll need to read it again to absorb it properly. Because I was looking forward to it all summer, there were some elements I found disappointing. But I think that when you're hyped up about reading something, there's often a bit of let down. I felt the same way about This World We Live In by Susan Beth Pfeffer, but after I re-read it, I appreciated it more. Mockingjay contained surprises, good writing, and interesting new characters. It definitely needs a second read that isn't coloured by my expectations.

Monday, August 2, 2010

August Blog Break

Wow, the summer is already half over! I'm pleased to have finished revising my novel, though I hope to revise a second before the end of the summer. I also plan to have a little summer fun! But because it's so busy, I'm going to be taking a "blog break" until near the end of August. So, I'll look forward to catching up with you and all the great blogs out there in a few weeks.

If you're looking for some interesting reading in the meantime, check out some of our great posts over at MiG Writers.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What Revisions are Really About: Getting to Know Your Story

A lot of the time spent in the revision process involves getting to know your characters and story on deeper levels. I've noticed that it takes me a whole draft to get the story, then maybe two or three sets of revisions before I really know the characters. It's good to know I'm not the only one. In responding to my post on when to stop revising, here's what some of my commenters said:

Tabitha Bird: "I know to stop writing when I can write a good query letter. When I can sum up the book and I know what it is about and the whole thing makes sense, then I know I am there."

Karen Strong: "I can't even began to tweak my pitch or query until I'm almost near finishing revisions. I just don't really know yet until it's at that point."

I suppose that's why some people  make character sheets, setting descriptions, highly detailed plot summaries etc, before they begin writing. But until I put my characters into situations where they have to act and react, I don't really know them, or the surprises they will bring to the story.

Monday, July 26, 2010

How Do You Know When to Stop Revising?

For the past few weeks I've been working on revisions and I'm ready to stop. How do I know it's time?

1. My toughest critic (so far) read the revised manuscript and gave me a thumbs up.

2. I've cut as much as I can from the story, without removing anything essential. Any more, and I think the story would fall apart.

3. The story actually makes sense! I was able to write a coherent two-paragraph summary, a pitch sentence and a query letter. (They need more work, but the story is focused enough for me to capture the essence of it now.) I know, I know. It would have been easier if I'd done that at the beginning. For this one, I had to write the book to know what it was about.

4. The story has stopped filling up my thoughts. This sounds crazy, I know. It's summer. I should be out enjoying the world instead of feeling tied to my computer. Sometimes the story grabs hold and won't let you think about anything else. Yesterday, I spent a whole day poking around in my garden, chalking on the driveway with my kids, taking a long walk in nature. The story didn't call me back.

5. I have first drafts of two other novels waiting for more attention.

At least for now, I'm done with revising this story. Until it captures the interest of an agent or editor and they make more suggestions for improvement. I'm not kidding myself. I know there will likely be more revisions for this book in my future. And I won't mind. But for now I've taken it as far as I can. How do you know when to stop revising?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Revisions: Enhancing the Setting

I'm surprised about how much rearranging happens during the revision process. I thought events were pretty much in the right order, but once I started cutting and condensing, the structure became a lot clearer in my mind. Sections needed to be moved. Some needed total rewrites to make new transitions.

But....I managed to cut about 5,000 words! Even though I got rid of some writing I was proud of, the novel is much tighter and more coherent for having done it.

My next step is to think about details - details that show my characters personalities and details that show the setting. For settings, I've made a scene by scene list of the settings in my novel. This gives me an overall picture of whether there is variety in my settings (because some of the scenes I cut had interesting ones). My plan is to brainstorm sensory details that go with each setting. Then I'll look for places in the novel where I can bring in a few additional details to enhance the setting.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Make Two into One: Revising to Condense

Despite the pain involved in the process, I've managed to cut some scenes from my novel. Yay! It's making my story stronger. Something else I've noticed is that in some places I can condense scenes by combining two scenes into one. For me, this works when two scenes have some similarity:

 1. Setting. Does your MC need to visit the same location again? Maybe both goals can be accomplished at the same time. I had my MC walking the dog at the same park twice within a couple of chapters. Was the second visit necessary? I managed to combine the scenes to reduce the number of setting changes.

2. Dialogue. Sometimes when I'm preoccupied with solving my MC's problem, she has similar conversations with more than one character. I had to ask myself, is anything new emerging? Sometimes the same information is being rehashed in different conversations. Cut and condense.

3. Events. When notes from my critique buddies say things like, "didn't this already happen?" it forces me to take a second look at the obstacles I'm throwing up for my MC. They may be different, but not different enough to stand out. That's when I start moving around large blocks of text to capture the strongest reaction to the obstacle. It forces me to find another, even tougher way to make things hard for my MC.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Revisions Step 2: What to Cut?

One of the big things I need to do with my revisions is to cut some of the length of the novel. I know there are sections where the pacing slows down, or the story gets caught up with subplots, so I'll take a closer look at those.

To help with that, I'm revisiting all the critiques from my amazing critique group MiG Writers. I'm going through them carefully, not for the picky details (those will come later), but for larger ideas that affect the whole novel. Wow - it's so helpful to have a good critique group! My group members put a lot of thought into their comments and I'm taking them seriously.

There's some great advice for editing over at The Blood-Red Pencil. I love the idea of getting a quick feel for the pattern of tension and conflict in a novel by assigning a ranking to sections or chapters and making a graph to see how it looks. Maybe that will help me decide what sections I need to cut (another painful process).

What's your best tip for deciding what to cut?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Beginning Revisions: First Read

I waited a few months after last reading my (unsubbed) novel, hoping that would give me the distance I needed to be more objective about it when I started revising. My plan was to read it all the way through first, then think about what I needed to change. I was surprised how painful it was for me to read it. It didn't feel like a real book. It sounded a lot worse than I expected. And a few times I got so bored I wanted to give up on the idea of reading through it at all.

Maybe I wasn't in the right mood, but I made myself finish. After a while, it got easier. I slipped back into the world of my story and even began to enjoy a scene here or there.

The process of reading it through without trying to fix anything turned out to be valuable. For starters, those places where my attention wandered were telling me something. The fact that I didn't get into the book right away might mean I haven't got the opening right yet. The places that I enjoyed might be telling me about what I need to keep. 

Have you ever found your own writing difficult to read? Did it turn out to be helpful?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Blog Awards and Seven Interesting Things

In the past week or so, I've received a couple of blog awards:

Thank you to Karen Strong and Samuel Park, both of whom have interesting blogs you should check out!

In keeping with the spirit of the awards (or the rules) I'm going to tell you seven interesting things about myself:

1. I'm addicted to board games (okay, some don't have boards but they aren't computer games) and I play at least one game of something everyday. Current favs: Ticket to Ride Europe, Triominos, Backgammon.

2. All of my novels (4 so far) contain nature in some way, the influence of growing up in Northern Ontario.

3. Though I'm Canadian and have lived in Mississauga, Ontario for a long time now, I once lived in Brooklyn, NY, in Cobble Hill on Dean St.  

4. It may be hard to believe, but I actually enjoy teaching kindergarten. Teaching is my third career.

5. A place I've never been but would like to visit is Venice, or actually anywhere in Italy, for the art and the food.

6. I enjoy cooking and have changed the ingredients in almost every recipe I've tried.

7. I don't normally do these "pass it on" type of things, but since it's summer and I'm on a more relaxed schedule I decided to live a little.

In no particular order, some other blogs you might be interested in (I think there are supposed to be ten, but I don't always follow the rules):

M.B. West at M.B.Writes
Caroline at Caroline by Line
Marcia Hoehne at her blog
Theresa Milstein at Substitute Teacher's Saga

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Setting: Using Real Life

Something that helps me to create a strong sense of place in my novels is to use details from places I've been. That way, I can imagine the setting in my head as my characters interact with it -- how the hallway looks, what the restaurant smells like, where the best climbing trees are in the playground.

The downside of doing this is that sometimes, I don't include enough detail. I'm seeing it through my eyes, not a stranger's eyes. I may leave out a key detail because I've seen it so many times before. It almost makes me think I should choose an unfamiliar setting I could visit. Then I'd actually take the time to absorb all the sensory details I need to really bring it alive. Do you use real-life settings in your novels? How do you avoid the problem of being too familiar with them?

If you don't know it, a great resource for getting the right descriptive details is the Setting Thesaurus over at The Bookshelf Muse.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Celebrate...And Win!

I have a lot to celebrate! I finally finished the last chapter of my first draft! It's done! Yay! Now my children have stolen it away to find all the things they think I should fix.

If you are a follower of my blog:
As a thank you to my blog followers for their encouragement, I'd like to offer you a "first impression" reaction of the first page (approx 250 words) of your latest MG or YA writing project. To take me up on the thank you, paste your first page into the body of an e-mail, and send it to me at amackca at hotmail dot com by July 11, 2010. In the subject line, please write: first page critique. [Note: I won't open attachments.]

Everyone should check this out:
My critique buddies and I are running an awesome contest to celebrate our new and improved blog! Visit MiG Writers and post a one-line summary of your story to win a critique of your first ten pages by all six of us. Take my word for it, my critique partners dish out some pretty helpful feedback.

Monday, July 5, 2010

What a First Draft Reveals

Writing a first draft really shows up your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Have you ever noticed how some parts come easily? It shows where your writing is strong. For instance, when I write dialogue, it seems to flow naturally. Later, I probably won't need to do much editing of the dialogue (unless it relates to the plot, of course). I'd say it's one of my writing strengths.

On the other hand, I'm not so good at establishing the setting (among other things). I've been writing so fast, concentrating on bigger things, like the story, that my characters are practically floating in the middle of nowhere. Not always a bad thing, but if your character is in a market and suddenly walks into their bedroom...well you can see how that could cause problems for the reader. My critiquers often point out that I need to add more setting details. Sometimes, they say my settings are too much of the same and need variety.

Have you ever thought about your writing strengths and weaknesses? It's useful sometimes. If you're aware of your weaknesses, you'll have a great starting point for what to tackle when it comes to revision. And it shows where you can do more reading or exercises to develop your writing skill.

WIP update:  In case you're wondering, I'm still plodding along with my first draft, with about two chapters to go. Then I'll have to go back and make sure my characters aren't floating around with no sense of time or place.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Happy Canada Day!

What I enjoy most about Canada Day is all the blissful silence I get for writing, since no one else has to get up to go anywhere today. I can't sleep in, since I have some kind of built in alarm clock that wakes me up with the robins (or maybe it is the robins that wake me up). I love the early morning peacefulness. I get my best writing ideas before a lot of other stuff crowds into my brain. 

A quick update on my novel draft:  I'm still working on it. I didn't meet my "end of June" goal (but I did have fun celebrating the end of the school year with some coworkers). It's probably going to take me another week to get my WIP finished, which is still amazing for me, since I only thought up the idea for this story in March.

If you're celebrating, Happy Canada Day! I hope you get time to do something you enjoy!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Hooray for Deadlines!

Only 3 days (counting today) until the day I wanted to be finished the first draft of my work-in-progress, and I’m doubtful that I’m going to make it. That’s because, in the process of getting my character to talk about her situation (thanks to Andrea V.  for your suggestion), my plot has expanded to create more interesting events than the ones I had originally planned. Yay!

I’m still going to attempt to meet my self-imposed deadline. I’ve found that it’s been a good motivator for me. Plus, it helps me remember that this is only a first draft. Polishing, rewriting, going back to fix things—that’s all going to come later. I have ideas for more novels and I don’t want to spend forever getting the story down (like the 2 or 3 years I spent on each of my first couple of novels), especially when I know I’ll be changing things during revisions. So, hooray for deadlines (but also for having the flexibility to be able to break them if necessary, so I won't be up 'til midnight Wednesday scrambling to finish my novel).

Friday, June 25, 2010

Keep 'Em Coming - The Ideas, That Is

People often ask, where do you get your ideas? I usually answer that they come from everyday life—things the kids do or talk about, things I notice, tidbits that make me stop and think when I’m reading the newspaper. But in reality, they're always around me, popping out of thin air when I'm doing anything. A few places where I’ve gotten ideas this week:

1. Watching my daughter's swimming lessons at the community pool

2. Out looking for snails (for my classroom) in the garden

3. In the middle of the night during a thunderstorm, when I'm trying to stop the dog from digging a hole in the hardwood floor under my bed

4. While I’m rushing around trying to do 101 things and I can’t find a scrap of paper or a pencil that isn’t broken

5. Writing in my book journal in the perspective of the character in my novel

Where's the weirdest place you've gotten a writing-related idea?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Aack! I'm Stuck!

It’s not writer’s block. My brain and fingers are raring to go. But I’ve written my main character into a dungeon tower and I’m not sure how to get her out. My outline (which I slaved over months ago) is a little vague on what’s supposed to happen now. Maybe I thought I’d come up with a good idea by this point? Some ideas that have crossed my mind:

1) She unwinds her long hair and…oops! Not my story. Anyway, her hair is messy and tangled and the window is too small.

2) Friends rescue her just in time and—wait! She’s the main character so that’s cheating. She needs to do something to get out by herself.

3) ???

Since I’m stuck on this part, I’m going to skip ahead. I usually write in sequence, so it will be challenging for me. (I'm looking at it as another chance to grow as a writer). I just hope I don’t end up with a big hole in my story later.

Monday, June 21, 2010

What Do You Want From a Story Ending?

Now that I’m getting close to writing the ending of my first draft, doubts are starting to get in the way of my writing. The ending is tricky. What do I want it to do?

1. Achieve something significant for the main character. As one of my MG readers pointed out, “The mystery should be solved.” Even if there isn’t a mystery, feelings of suspense and tension need to be released. Loose ends need to be wrapped up.

2. Make sense. The solution shouldn’t come entirely out of the blue. For me, this means the main character needs to have a key role in resolving the problem.

3. Include something unexpected. Even though I want the ending to follow logically from previous story events, I don’t want it to be predictable.

4. Leave the reader feeling positive. I don’t think MG readers like stories that end with too many unresolved issues. Readers in this age group like to have something good happen to the main character at the end.

What do you want from your ending?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Thanks, Dad

Father's Day has been a little sad for me for the past ten years, because my father is no longer with us. I wish he was, because I see in myself a lot of his determination and persistence, and I'd like to think he'd appreciate those qualities in me.

My father always encouraged me to think about the quality of my life. It's bittersweet that the end of his life is what really propelled me to think about what I wanted out of my own. When I feel down or discouraged about my writing, I think about Dad and how his life was cut short, and it inspires me to continue to work towards my dream.

Friday, June 18, 2010

What I Learned This Week

I love blogging because it helps me feel connected to the writing community. Even better is all the stuff I learn from reading blogs. A few things I learned this week:

1) Some mistakes that get in the way of establishing a strong POV in your writing (Kathryn Craft over at the Blood-Red Pencil )

2) Tips for writing a synopsis of your story in a query letter (thanks to Meganrebekah’s blog)

3)  Different approaches agents have and how they might affect your writing career (another great post by Rachelle Gardner)

4)  A recipe for a good coconut cookie (from CakeSpy)

I also read a great article about critique groups and how they benefit writers, though it’s not new to me, because I have an awesome critique group that does all these things (guest post by Maurissa Guibord over at Adventures in Children’s Publishing).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Pause/Stop: Time to Think

I’ve made it to Chapter 18 of my current work-in-progress, and I feel like I might actually accomplish my goal of finishing the first draft by the end of June. Now that I’m coming into the last third of the book, I’m excited to see how it’s going to end.

Yikes – did I just say that? I should already know how it will end, after all the outlining I did before I started. Except that since then, my characters have taken over the story in ways I didn’t expect. The specifics of the ending are changing. Yesterday, instead of writing, I did a lot of thinking about what’s going to come next. What I noticed:

1) Now that I know my characters better (and which minor characters have developed a stronger role), I have a better sense of what they’d do in a given situation.

2) I discovered some details that I need to weave in and/or bring out earlier in the story. Like in the part I’m writing now.

3) Some of the questions I had at the beginning of the story are starting to get answered, and some still need to be answered, but at least I know which ones.

4) Taking a mini thinking break gives me an energy boost.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Off Stage vs. On Stage: How Much Do You Show?

Lately, in working on my current novel, I’ve found myself spending a lot of time on subplot instead of the main plot events. I need to make decisions about which parts the reader needs to experience as the story moves along and which parts can be summarized through dialogue or a descriptive paragraph.

It’s not as easy as it seems. I want to experience all of it. While that’s perfectly reasonable for the first draft, I also don’t want to lose my focus on the main storyline. Some questions I'm asking myself:

1) Is the information in the scene critical to moving ahead the plot?

2) Am I getting so far from the main story that the reader will forget what’s happening?

3) Do I need to know what’s happening here? If so, I write the scene but mark it for possible summarizing later. Maybe I need to know, but the reader doesn't.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Are Your Characters Like You?

Do you ever notice that your characters contain bits and pieces of your own personality? If the real me was ever in a book, I’d probably make for quite an eccentric character.

You see that woman at the side of the pool, hunched over and scribbling in a sketchbook while the kids are having their swimming lesson? Or that crazy lady hunting for snails in her front yard while other people in the neighbourhood are sitting on their porches enjoying the evening? She actually rejects watching an episode of Glee to type stuff on the computer. And she drags home huge bags of books from the library every week. Weird.

Luckily, I’m creating the characters in my books, so I can put in a few non-eccentric qualities of my personality and exaggerate the traits I like. You know, like magic. Or super powers. Hmm. I definitely see the appeal of writing fantasy. Of course, sometimes parts of my personality emerge unintentionally. (I swear that mean character is nothing like the real me.)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Hearing Character Voices

Sometimes I hear writers talking about how their characters tell them things. That hasn’t happened to me (yet), but it always makes me wonder how the character’s voices sound. You know how, when you record yourself speaking and play it back, it sounds different than you always thought?

I don’t often consciously think about what my character’s voices sound like. Are their voices high-pitched and squeaky or deep and gruff? It mostly doesn’t matter. I’ve noticed that when I read, I form my own mental soundtrack for a character’s dialogue, whether the writing describes it to me or not. I’ve always tried to avoid writing dialogue with accents or slang, again because of my reading preferences (too much is hard to read).

Lately, a few of my characters are developing accents when I hear their dialogue in my head. Weird, in a good way. Since it’s the first draft, I’m trying to record some of it, though I have no idea how to “write an accent”.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Writing Characters You Don't Like

I recently read The Thief by Meghan Whalen Turner. This story hooked me, even though during the first half of the book I didn’t particularly like the MC--he seemed to be always complaining. So what kept me reading? The story (especially the challenges the MC faced in trying to achieve his goal) and the interesting interplay of characters and personalities as the MC became friendly with his captors. The book was a satisfying read--and had an awesome, unexpected twist.

However, it made me think about the process of creating characters. For most of my characters, there’s something about them I like. For the ones I don’t, I tend to exaggerate what I perceive as “negative” qualities. I have a feeling that these more “negative” characters in my stories are not as fully realized as the others. Because I don’t like them, I find it harder to give them fully rounded personalities. Any thoughts or tips?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Moving Forward Inch by Inch

Yesterday was a perfect lazy Sunday—pancakes, games, working in the garden, mindless television. (I’m ignoring the part where I had to drive around looking for wax to melt for my daughter’s pseudo-ancient Greek artifact due later this week.) I thought of turning on my computer a couple of times but I stopped myself.

The result? Extra energy today. I’m eager to get back to my writing. My goal for this month is to finish the first draft of the novel I’m writing (now on Chapter 15). I find that “big picture” goals are better for keeping me motivated than short-term, daily goals, e.g. words or pages a day, which might just end up leaving me disappointed when other things get in the way.

If I keep in mind where I want to go, it doesn’t matter how I get there:  a lot of intense writing one day, a paragraph the next. As long as I’m moving towards my goal, that’s all that counts.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

What's Your Reading Style?

I’m normally a pretty fast reader. I gobble up books like some people go for chocolate or ice cream. I definitely don’t read every word. However, I slow down if a story really catches my interest, or if I really love the writing style or characters and I don’t want the book to end (e.g. most Jodi Picoult novels). Sometimes, I intentionally skim sections of a book that don’t catch my attention, because I just want to find out what happens. What I might skip over:

1) Backstory that doesn’t seem relevant to what’s happening
2) Sections following a subplot that doesn’t interest me
3) Long descriptions that (I think) get in the way of the story
4) Too much detail in explaining what a character is thinking

My reading style has an impact on my writing. When I write, I try to include only what’s relevant for the character’s situation at the moment. I tend not to use much description – I'll often have to go back and add some to create a more well-rounded picture. Does your reading style affect your writing?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

"I Made It to 50" Contest Winner

Thanks to everyone who checked out my blog and entered my “I Made It to 50 Celebration Contest”. I got some great suggestions for books to check out for my 100 book challenge.

After a random drawing, the winner is……..


Monday, May 31, 2010

A Path to Nowhere?

Down at the end of my yard, tucked away in a shady corner near a gummy old pine tree, is a little path made from fist-sized river rocks. Shorter than a jump rope, it sneaks through a tangle of lily of the valley and violets, curving to end in a mess of pine needles under spindly branches.

Some people in my family say it goes nowhere.

Every year, I spend two or three hours digging up the rocks, removing the plants that have decided they’d like to grow there, and putting the path back together. By the next spring, it is hidden again. A lot of work, for a path that goes nowhere.

Except I think it does go somewhere. It’s a secret in the garden, like the wide branch up in the birch tree that makes a perfect chair. Or the tiny plant growing out of the weird hole in the big bumpy rock. Or the toad that hides under the hostas by the water faucet, waiting for a meal.

For me, that path is the possibility of something wonderful. The kind of possibility I’d like my readers to feel from my writing.

Friday, May 28, 2010

If I Had One Wish...

Today I’d wish for more time to spend on my writing. Yesterday I got so absorbed in it, I almost forgot to go to my day job!

What would you wish today?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I'll Fix It Later

When you're writing your first draft, do you ever think, I’ll fix it later? I seem to be generating a lot of these with my current WIP. Here's a partial list:

1) Add in more character-specific details – At the beginning of my novel, my MC has a keen sense of smell, but I’ve been forgetting to mention that as I get involved writing down the story.

2) Build a foundation – When I come up with a great idea partway through the story, I need to go back and make sure it’s set up or at least supported by what happens at the beginning.

3) Make it consistent – Sometimes later ideas change a story situation or event (I’m flexible). I might drop or add a character. Change a name. I need to go back and fix places that will make my reader go, Huh?

4) Names of minor characters – I know it’s weird, but once in a while, when I refer to a minor character from an earlier part of the story, I can’t remember their name and don’t want to stop to check. (Maybe this means I need some kind of character chart?)

5) Enhance the setting – During my first draft, setting is one of those things that’s just there. Later, I’ll go back and help to bring it to life with carefully chosen details.

I’m sure there are lots more. How do I keep track of all the things I need to fix? Two ways. I write them right in the manuscript in bold, caps or some other font that makes them stand out from the rest of the story. Or I write about them in my story-specific journal, with a big heading: Fix This Later.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Writing is Not Always Writing

People who are not writers often think that writing means you have to be sitting at your desk, scratching out brilliant lines of prose. Not so. I was thinking today about all the valuable writing-related things that help in creating my novels:

1)  Staring off into space, wondering about what comes next. This can lead to making notes of possibilities, journalling about my story, or even working on an outline.

2)  Trying out activities that my characters do to make sure they actually work. (Okay, not all of them, but some. If my character is only a few cm tall, could she hold a raspberry? Or, could a character build walls using popsicle stick squares covered with paper? My kids love helping with these investigations!) Maybe this is why my latest WIP involves cooking.

3)  Checking out baby name books and sites to find the right names for my characters.

4)  Reading lots of fiction to find examples of how other authors use POV, structure their plots, develop their characters etc.

What non-writing activities help you with your writing?

Don't forget to enter my contest for a chance to win a free book!

Monday, May 17, 2010

How Flexible Are You About Your Writing?

Even though I like the momentum that builds from writing everyday (or trying to), I find that writing in small pieces makes for a disjointed novel. I try to forget about this problem during the first draft, but it’s a constant battle: Please, let me actually get some writing, any writing, done today vs. This section has to fit with the storyline.

I have to remember to be more flexible. Writing anything is good, not being strongly tied to where it should go is better. It reminds me of one of my favourite games, Bananagrams, where you connect words you make from letter tiles. If you’re flexible about moving around letters in your crossword to help use up tiles in your hand, you’re more successful. In writing a novel, it helps to remember you can move (or even cut) a section or scene if it works better for the story. Just try it, I say to myself. If it doesn’t work, try something else. Be flexible.

Friday, May 14, 2010

I Made It to 50 Celebration and Contest!

I am now halfway through my 100 book challenge! Yay! To celebrate, I'm giving away a copy of Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor, my 50th read.

I still have 50 YA or MG books to go in my reading challenge, so for a chance to win the book, all you need to do is include a comment with the name of a MG or YA book you recommend.

The contest closes May 30th. Winner will be selected by a random draw.

The Dead and the Gone

#48. The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer

I’ve waited a long time to read this YA novel. When I finally got the chance, I read it straight through, barely stopping to engage in my “real life”. I found it just as compelling as Life As We Knew It, which told of different characters experiencing the same life-changing event. For me, The Dead and the Gone was more gruesome and horrifying in some respects, but equally absorbing. I love Pfeffer’s writing style – straightforward, with every scene moving the story along, and very few adjectives or adverbs. Details are carefully chosen and mostly conveyed through actions.

#49. The Real Real by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

Though I don’t often like “average girl turns popular and gets the boy” stories, the reality TV setting made this one a little different. The writing was jumpy and hard to follow at times, but I liked the details and got hooked into the story.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Having Faith

“…faith was believing what you could not see, and pressing on until you could see it.”
K.L. Going, The Liberation of Gabriel King

This quote captures a lot of what I think about writing. You have to believe that the end result will be great, even though all you’ve got to go on are your ideas and, if you’re lucky, a shimmery vision of the story. And you have to keep going—sweating and crying and lying awake at night thinking about those words and how to put them together into something like that early glimpse. You have to believe that one day you’ll see a finished story.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Quick Writing Link: Word Choice

Don't you hate it when you're reading and a character you're trying to connect with uses words she wouldn't say or think? Jennifer Hubbard has a great post on word choice up today. She suggests that along with keeping in mind the character's personality and goals, you need to think about your goals as a writer - an interesting angle.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Creating Compelling Characters

One of my critique partners, Christina Farley, posted some great links that got me thinking about how I create my characters. I don't plan too much about them in advance. I jot down a few key characteristics, their family and friends, a name. I think about what they want, of course, since that's often the heart of the novel. But mostly, the rest of what makes my characters emerges as the story develops.

That's okay, for a first draft, which for me is all about getting a storyline that works. Now I'm thinking that the second draft really should be all about the characters.  I need to make sure to:

1. Bring out their unique or quirky qualities to make them memorable.
2. Make sure everything they say and do is consistent with their personalities (they are not necessarily the same as mine, which means I might need to consciously think about this instead of just letting it happen).
3. Include their emotional reactions.
4. Take a few risks, reaching beyond my own comfort zone.

If I don't connect with the main character when I'm reading, a book just doesn't capture my attention. Paying more attention to character is a different way for me to think about revising, but definitely important.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Quick Writing Link: The Ideal Middle Grade Reader

I loved this description of a middle grade reader from guest poster Suzanne Selfours over at Cynsations. It reminded me of why I love writing MG fiction. Like MG readers, I like to believe that everything (including mermaids, invisible creatures, books that talk) is possible in the world of stories. Occasionally, I do wonder if there is a monster lurking in the hallway late at night. And I'm wondering what my superpower is, since I'm sure I have one too.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Found Only In Fiction: Exhale

Breathing is an involuntary function. We're not usually aware of it. But sometimes, when we're lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, doing yoga, or recovering after a strenuous activity, it becomes the focus of attention. Do you ever think: "Wow, I'm exhaling pretty hard?" I'm betting you don't.

When I'm reading, the word "exhale" always strikes me as medical, drawing attention to itself. Sometimes the phrase "breathed out" is used instead. Or characters "let out a long breath". In some stories, characters talk or think to themselves, "breathe" or "deep breath" in stressful situations. Any of these alternatives work better for me (though my panel of kid readers mentioned that the last one especially bugs them). My best solution is to try not to refer to breathing at all, unless absolutely necessary.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Point of View: Handling a Temporary Change

My latest work-in-progress is written in a third person, subjective point of view. That is, I refer to my main character in the third person, e.g. “she”, “her”, but the story is told from her perspective, with her thoughts and feelings. However, as I write my latest chapter, I’m thinking about including a scene that doesn’t directly involve my main character. I’ve never done this before. I usually stick to one main character POV or alternating POVs of two main characters. But in this instance, I think the scene is needed:

a) to increase tension in the story

b) to add a complication to the circumstances my character is in

c) because my MC’s location is limited by her circumstances and she wouldn’t likely overhear or know about the conversation

The challenge is how to do this effectively. First, if it’s not my main character’s POV, then what POV do I use? An omniscient POV? Or do I choose a character that could come into the story again later (since I’m only at Chapter 7 of my first draft, this could happen, though it’s not my plan). Second, how do I transition to this scene to make it flow naturally?

I’m going to look for examples to see how authors have done this in MG novels. Maybe try it out a couple of different ways to see what works.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Thinking About the Reader

Ok, in my last post I said I don't think much about the reader while I'm writing, but it's not true. I'm actually learning to think more about the reader with each novel I write. Many of the decisions I make while I'm writing are influenced by:
  • whether I think the reader will be confused by what I've just written
  • what information I think the reader needs to know in a scene
  • leaving space for the reader to react and think about an event, without slamming them over the head with what the main character is thinking
  • questions the reader might have about what is happening and when to answer them
I don't always consciously think about the reader, but whether I'm aware of it or not, the reader's reaction does come into play.

I've read somewhere (many places!) that it's a good idea to have an ideal reader in mind when writing your book. I do have one or two of those, including myself--I have to write the kind of book I'd like to read.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Quick Writing Link: Plot, Structure and Creating an Experience for Your Readers

Today I came across three great posts at Laini Taylor's blog on plot, character motivation and conflict, and structuring a novel.

What I found especially helpful was a sidebar that included questions to ask yourself to help in creating an experience for your readers. I don't often think much about the reader when I'm writing, but perhaps I should.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Changing Up the Routine

It’s funny how a disruption to your routine can have such a huge impact. I can’t use my regular computer (a long story involving my dog, staples, and a staircase) so I’m working in a different place, on a different keyboard, with a few essential files on a memory stick. At first, I felt a bit lost. I read blogs, I surfed, I cursed the different computer, while writing down the names of files I needed to access and/or print at my main computer (a home network sounds good about now).

But once I got into my writing, none of that stuff mattered. It was all about my story. I really love it when stories just unfold as you write them. I’m going more slowly than I did for my last story, rewriting small sections as I go along, using my outline as a guide, and I’m really pleased with my progress, even if I'm not as far along as I want to be.

With this change to my routine, I’m not as distracted by the other "stuff" on my computer, because I don't have it on this one. Or maybe my brain is thinking differently because of the change of place. They say you can keep your brain sharp by trying new things. Hmm. Maybe I’ll have to change up my writing routine more often.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Week is Not Forever

Because of a combination of being sick and life events, I’ve been away from my writing for almost a week. It feels like forever. What I did manage to accomplish:

1) Decided I’m definitely sticking to Novel A, “Cooking story”, and leaving Novel B, “Bubble story”, for a later time. I’ll go crazy if I try to do too much.

2) Watched a T.V. show that gave me an idea for an early part of my story.

3) Worried about getting behind on my goal of finishing the first draft by the end of June.

4) Re-read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (because even when I’m sick, I read). Admired the writing once again.

Today I’m going to write something on my novel, no matter how small, no matter if I end up ripping it out later because it doesn't work. Building some momentum makes a huge difference for me, because once the writing is flowing, more great ideas follow.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Do You Write What You Like to Read?

In reading for my 100 book challenge, I’m finding out more about the kinds of books I like and don’t like to read. My most recent read, The Witch's Guide to Cooking with Children by Keith McGowan, was short and fast-paced, with several plot twists. I admired the cleverness of this retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story, set in modern day, and the way the author created a believable relationship between the brother and sister. But it took me a long time to get through. The story just didn’t hold my attention. Someone else probably thinks differently, because this is a matter of personal preference.

This leads me to think about my personal preferences for writing. I have common themes or elements in my stories but I don’t always stick within the same genre. It’s funny, because even though I do write some fantasy based in reality, I don’t like reading a lot of fantasy books for kids (except Harry Potter). Do you write the kinds of books you’d like to read?