An Interview with Manuscript Academy co-founder Jessica Sinsheimer

Manuscript Academy Happy #MSWL day! Today, agents and editors from around the world will Tweet their wish-lists. It’s a great way to fine tune your query list and to get an idea of what editors are looking for as well.

Manuscript Wish List co-founder Jessica Sinsheimer has been hard at work on another project recently as well: The Manuscript Academy. She stopped by The Winged Pen to chat with us about this exciting new opportunity for writers.

You already do so much for the writing community by running the amazing Manuscript Wish List, what made you decide to add The Manuscript Academy to your repertoire?

It’s actually an idea that had been brewing for years.  I was invited to speak at a conference a few years back—an amazing conference, one that sounded like so much fun. But, when I asked about travel stipend, they said that there wasn’t one—I could only get discounted admission. So I started pricing it out, and soon realized it would be well over $2,000 to attend. Worse, some told me that if I “really cared” about my career, I’d pay it.

It had never occurred to me that the events I attended regularly could be so expensive for writers—and that’s before considering the logistics of childcare, health, religious obligations, family needs, and just plain time. Plus, there’s just so much pressure to go—probably even more than was put on me, because I get to attend so many. It just seemed incredibly unfair. Having money shouldn’t be a prerequisite to a writing career. So this stayed with me, as a problem we needed to solve as an industry, but I didn’t know how.

But then co-founder Julie Kingsley and I met—thanks to a wild coincidence of her being on a bus to Book Expo with my colleague, then invited to networking drinks—and I was so impressed with her knowledge of the film, media, tech, and startup worlds. These were things I assumed were out of my reach forever, however fascinating I found them. But we quickly realized that, together, we could finally make something like this happen—and bring the conference to writers, in a way that’s accessible to so many more.

The concept is great–prerecorded content from industry professionals with unlimited access for thirty days for a price lower than any writing conference around, plus a series of live pitch sessions, critique sessions, and live webinars. How has the reception been so far?  

It’s been incredibly exciting. If anything, there’s been a LOT more enthusiasm than I expected (though I’m the pessimist of the group!) I mean, new different things are scary! Especially new, different things with technology. But we now have about 700 members, and the community is only growing. Lots of members are getting agents and book deals. We’re actually going to start making “class reunion” events to keep everyone in touch, because these are the people who are going to grow, learn, and eventually succeed together.

It’s always been important to me that we price everything as low as we can while still paying every single person who works for us—including those who helped Xerox and hold doors and organize agents and get snacks on filming day—a living hourly wage. We work with incredibly talented, kind people. And I’m thrilled that we could pay everyone right away.

There are lots of online writing courses out there and I know from experience that the quality varies greatly. How do you select faculty? How would you recommend writers decide how to spend their precious personal development dollars?

We select faculty not just for their brilliance but for their openness, kindness, and breadth of interests. I know it’s so scary to find yourself face to face with an agent—even if it’s through a screen. I wanted to be sure that I could trust everyone to handle that with grace, warmth, and kindness—to turn in work on time—and to bring new insight to their classes.

It’s true—there is SO much content out there. But we were very thoughtful about every single faculty member, every choice of class, and every new program. We’re very conscious of the fact that we’re not taking money from, say, bankers. We want everyone to feel like they get not just instruction, but a feeling of connection and support, from our programs.

Some people learn best in a group—and for that, we have classes (including our brand new Five Days To A Fab First Page challenge) where people can absorb the material, talk about it in a group, and then have live interaction with our faculty. Some people want individual feedback—for them, we have Ten Minutes With An Expert meetings to go over queries and first pages—and written critiques, so the notes are there and ready to be implemented.

Both of these web sites (MSWL & MA) are gorgeous. Who is your designer/tech guru? 

We work with Mike Chen and Sierra Godfrey of Atmosphere Author Websites. They seriously saved my life on the ManuscriptWishList.com site. Version 2.0 was a site that I updated myself—every time someone wanted a change, I did it. This was fine for awhile, but as we grew, it became not just a second job, but was taking over my life! Mike and Sierra then, as if by magic, appeared—offered to make a new site to benefit the community—and spent months with me (more than six months!) redoing the site in a way that made it sustainable for the future. Now agents and editors can update their own profiles, searchability is VASTLY improved, it’s MUCH prettier, and there are just so many things that work better. I could never have done it without them.

Plus, they’re both writers, so they really understand the creative brain that doesn’t get all of the tech speak—and could translate my clumsy descriptions of what I was hoping for into something that looks gorgeous and just works.

What’s next for The Manuscript Academy?

 Our next goal is to bring low-cost mini-courses to as many people as possible—all while creating a supportive community. Ultimately, we’re about access—to information, experts, and the support you need while taking this amazing creative journey.

You can check out ManuscriptAcademy.com, follow us at @MSWLMA, and check out our FREE podcast—including a mini first pages panel every week—on iTunes and Soundcloud. See more at ManuscriptAcademy.com/ourpodcast/.

MYC: Dynamic Dialogue

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series on revision with Editing the Big PictureThis week, we’re diving in to crafting dynamic dialogue.

Are your readers complaining of stilted dialogue, too many monologues, or not enough “voice” in your characters’ spoken words? If yes, you might need to take a look at your dialogue technique. Step one of revision is to listen, both to conversations (particularly conversations among people the same age as your characters) and to your own writing by reading aloud.

If you listen closely to virtually any conversation, you’ll notice that it is chock-full of fillers—words that take up space (thus giving the speaker time to think), but don’t mean anything. Although it might be tempting to include these fillers on the page, including words such as “um,” “uh”, and “like” don’t read well.

Another mistake it’s easy to fall into is writing dialogue that is too “on the nose,” which comes across as stilted and unnatural. This will jump off the page to you as you read aloud. But how to fix it? Except on very formal occasions, it’s rare for us to speak in complete and grammatically correct sentences or mention people by name multiple times in a single conversation. Instead, we almost always speak in contractions and fragments instead of complete sentences. Good dialogue should reflect the length and cadence of actual speech, but in tighter, condensed form. So get out the red pen and start chopping.

Furthermore, conversations are often loaded with hidden meaning, or subtext that can be layered on in revision. For example, a friend recently spent a great deal of time sewing my daughter a duvet cover, which made her son feel anxious and jealous.

Wanting to make sure the reader didn’t miss the emotional cues, you might write, “Mother, I feel jealous you are spending so much time on my friend. Will you make me a duvet cover so I know you love me, too?”

Of course this is what the boy means, but when writing dialogue, it’s important to leave plenty of room for the reader to make inferences. For example, the son’s emotions could be shown by depicting him hovering behind his mother at the sewing machine and asking, “Mom, if I wanted a duvet cover, would you make me one?” or even “Why are you spending so much time on that stupid duvet cover?”

Along the same lines is the temptation to use dialogue to convey backstory that the writer needs the reader to have but that the characters would already know (and thus not have a reason to tell each other). For example, a writer might need the reader to know that two sisters have a mother who died of cancer. It would be easy to have one of the sisters say, “Remember when Mom died of cancer after undergoing extensive chemotherapy when we were really little? Boy, do I miss her.”

But of course in real life two sisters wouldn’t need to tell each other about their shared experience. This scene could be revised to layer in subtext and character as follows:

As they walked out the door, Cherise unwrapped a red and white striped mint the server had delivered with their bill.

“How can you eat those things?” Latesha asked.

Cherise popped the mint in her mouth and ran her tongue over the smooth, sugary surface.

“I just can’t,” Latesha said. “Reminds me too much of the hospital.”

“It helps me remember,” Cherise said.

“Watching her go through chemo is one of the things I’d like to forget.”

“Not the chemo,” said Cherise. “Mom. Her breath was always so sweet and minty after.”

Not only does this dialogue reveal important information (Mom died of cancer), it shows us (without telling us) how the girls each feel about this shared experience. And it does so in short, natural bits of dialogue that don’t tend toward monologue. A good rule of thumb is that no character should say more than three “beats” (short phrases) without a gesture, dialogue tag, or another speaker breaking up the dialogue. Read more about the three-beat rule.

Finally, no conversation on dialogue would be complete without mentioning dialogue tags. As tempting as it is to include tags such as whispered, shouted, bellowed, groaned, etc., most of the time it’s better to stick with “said” or “asked.” These words disappear for the readers rather than calling attention to themselves. Similarly, it’s best to leave off qualifiers such as softly, quietly, and loudly unless these are absolutely essential for the reader to experience the scene (99% of the time, they are not).

If you are interested in reading more about writing dialogue, here are a couple links:

And don’t forget to tune in next week for refining world building.

A photo of author Julie Artz
Photo credit: Gail Werner

JULIE ARTZ writes stories for children that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. In addition to contributing to The Winged Pen, she works as a developmental editor for Author Accelerator, is a Pitch Wars mentor, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. She is represented by Jennie Dunham of Dunham Lit. You can also follow her on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

 

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A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. She also volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and eats copious amounts of chocolate. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at www.jessicavitalis.com.

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MYC – Two Approaches to Fantasy World Building

  Master Your CraftWelcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series with Welcome to World Building. Today we continue to examine the humongous topic by looking at two approaches to fantasy world building.

When Gabby & I started talking fantasy world building, we figured out quickly that, while we agreed that character is central to world building, we approached the actual process very differently. Instead of trying to come up with *the* way to build fantasy worlds, we decided to share our different approaches in hopes that you can use some of our techniques in your own writing.

Julie’s Approach:

The first thing I do after I get an idea for a new world is read every comp title I can get my hands on so I know what the tropes are and can either avoid or subvert. Our Writing Cross-Culturally workshop round-up is a mini-course in how to avoid harmful tropes in world building. But I also check the genre tropes section of the TV Tropes Wiki to make sure I’m going into my world building with a good idea of what’s already out there.

Then comes the fun part–brainstorming. I brainstorm both how my story is different from what’s out there AND how it’s the same. This step often happens as part of my messy synopsis so that I can get feedback on the world from my amazing critique partners.

“Every story has already been told. Once you’ve read Anna Karenina, Bleak House, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Wrinkle in Time, you understand that there is really no reason to ever write another novel. Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had. –Anna Quindlen, Commencement Speech; Mount Holyoke College, May 23, 1999

Then I dive in to primary research. For a mythology-based world (which many of mine are), I read the original epic poems or stories looking for themes. I often take something from the original that I find sexist or racist or otherwise irritating and subvert it in my story. China Mieville’s brilliant UnLunDun is a great example of subverting the typical Chosen One trope, for example, because the Chosen One doesn’t actually end up saving the day.

I also love fantasy world building that includes unexpected mash-ups. Finnish epic poems meet Star Wars. Ugly Duckling plus dragons. Goonies plus sea turtles. Building a world at the intersection of two things you love can give lots of room for creativity and help you bring that something special that Anna Quindlen is talking about in the quote above.

But that’s all pre-writing. What does the actual writing look like? You already learned last week that the ten-page info dump is a no-no and that it’s best to weave in details during scenes with forward action. Probably my most-used world building comment to my clients is: BE SPECIFIC. A platter of meat on the table is so much less evocative then roasted hell-boar basted with clarion berry jam. Even better if the main character’s father was gravely injured on a hell-boar hunt years ago or if the seeking out the clarion berries is a right-of-passage that the main character hopes to participate in soon. Then the details become a way to build character, foreshadowing what is to come, recall backstory, and, ultimately, make the world you’re creating on the page come to life.

The Girl From Everywhere has amazing fantasy world buildingSome recent books that have really vivid fantasy world building include A Curious Tale of the In-Between by Lauren DeStefano, The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, and Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo.

 

Gabby’s Approach:

I always do character interviews and development first. Then I do a sort-of world interview. At this point, I may have a general plot outline, but I know that as I develop details of the world, it will impact plot and character, and vice versa. There’s triangulation that happens between the three that takes on a life of its own. To build the world, I have a series of questions, some of which I’ve come up with myself, and others which I’ve gleaned from friends, the internet, and workshops.

I have a strong background in environmental science, so I always include details about the weather, the geology, the seasons, and the flora and fauna in my world building. These have impacts on the lives of my characters. For example, I might explore the variety of predators in this world. Is it a creature that might attack my character? Do they travel in packs, like coyotes? Will my character have lingering anxiety that it might eat her cat? I explore food sources. Are there plants that are harvested, or animals that are farmed–what are they and how are they made available?

I go for LOTS of details–everything from the culture and general beliefs or taboos of a world, to the ecosystem, to the clothing and housing. I’d say I might use about a third of this information in the book. If you’re not sure why these sorts of details might be key ingredients, just look at the role of the poisonous berries in The Hunger Games. Whether or not a character would know those berries isn’t just about the world–it’s about the way the character interacts with their world.

To me there are some details that are more emotional and evocative than others, because they’re universal heart-lines. In my mind those are housing, weather, food, and religion/mythology. These three areas inform all of the best, and most emotional parts of our lives. We share food with family (unless we don’t have one, and then we eat alone). We remember our mother’s cooking, the smells and tastes of our childhood. We believe what we’re taught, or we strain against it. A well built world exerts pressure on a character, and can exert opposing pressure in their relationships. A rainy day, with its scent of wet earth, and heavy sky might mean, and evoke, something very different for me, than it does for you.

I research as needed, as I go. Examples might be anything really: tie-ins to an existing creature or mythology, symptoms of respiratory disease, how to cook a hell-boar (nod to Julie), or I may want to know about the dragonfly life cycle to adapt it for a creature of my own. I don’t really start to think about tropes, cliches or sensitivity reading until I’ve got something pretty developed, unless I notice something that gives me pause along the way.

In terms of implementation of the world, I second Julie. SPECIFICS. Really what this is about is that you don’t find the emotional, evocative ties that bind in broad strokes. Painting the world (relaying all the work you just did) feels–well, it doesn’t feel at all. What touches the reader and ties them to your character, and to your world, is the relationship between that character and the world–it’s in the MICRO. It’s in the details. It’s in the freezing cold wind that your character is going to have to go out in to get their sister. It’s in the smell of that dessert, made with special berries that only come out once a year. It’s in the sad lonely song, sung by a man with no ear for music, that everyone knows, but hasn’t heard in years because it was outlawed. The rocks under your feet impact you. They bruise your skin. All of these things are about the world, as interpreted by the character.

Three Times Lucky has amazing fantasy world building Some books that do fantasy world building  really well are: Three Times Lucky, A Year Down Yonder, Icefall, Howl’s Moving Castle, Savvy, and Scorpio Races.

Tune in next week when we will explore world building in science fiction.

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MYC: Friends Don’t Let Friends Write Bad Books

Mug that reads "Friends don't let friends write bad books."Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series on character development with a Pantser’s Guide to Character Development. This week, we’ll share a method of using a long-form, messy synopsis to get early feedback from your critique partners. Because friends don’t let friends write bad books, right?

First, let’s clarify something. This post is not about writing the type of synopsis, usually 500-750 words, that is sent out with a query, or, for agented authors, with a pitch package to editors. We’ll cover that type of synopsis later on in Master Your Craft. This is about a long-form, messy synopsis written as part of the prewriting process to capture the general story and character arcs.

Imitation is the Highest Form of Flattery

Back in November 2015, in the super-secret Winged Pen Bat Cave (i.e. Facebook group), fellow Penny Kate Manning posted the transcript of a #mglitchat in which the amazing Jen Malone suggested sending out a rough-form synopsis like this to critique partners during planning stages so that they could ask 10-12 “what if” brainstorming questions. (Note: Someone storified it, but the Tweets about the synopsis happen earlier in the thread.) We all thought it was a fabulous idea, from a fabulous author, so a few of us tried it! The results were amazing–this tool is now a permanent part of my toolbox.

But Don’t Just Take My Word For It!

“I find the synopsis to be not only a great pre-writing tool, but also (especially when accompanied by a short writing sample) a great way to flesh out the story with critique partners and my agent.” — Jessica Vitalis

“I’ve found it really helpful to separate planning from writing. I use more of a chapter-by-chapter summary than a “synopsis” form. But I find in the midst of a drafting, I’m not as creative as when I’m just thinking big-picture. Drafting my WIP, there were several times I thought forward to the next chapter and was pretty ho-hum about what I thought would come next. Then I looked back at my outline and my reaction was “oh-yeah!” because what I’d planned was so much bigger/more fun than what was running through my mind at the moment. It’s like focusing on just the BIG things in each chapter helps me narrow in on the exciting and keep the story’s momentum moving fast.”– Rebecca J. Allen

“I used the messy synopsis trick with my latest WIP. I sent a six-page synopsis out to three of my writing buddies and asked them to have at it. They replied with questions and suggestions that helped me broaden the plot, flesh out my characters more deeply, and fix plot holes before I’d even dug them. AND thanks to doing the messy synopsis first, I didn’t need to write as many drafts to get my current WIP ready to query. I can’t imagine drafting without going through this step just prior to outlining chapters.” — Michelle Leonard

Master Your Craft

 

Details, Details, Details…

Unlike the tight, soul-less (oops, did I say that out loud?) synopsis that goes with pitch packages, this one is meant to be messy. It’s a dumping ground for all the things you’d like to work into your new story based on the prewriting you’ve already done on your concept and characters. It covers all the major characters, the main plot arc, but also the subplots, the twists, the unexpected turns. Put whatever you know about the story down on paper.

Whenever a group of writers get together to hash out a process, like we’ve done for Master Your Craft, there is bound to be some disagreement about the order of things. Some of the Pennies using this technique write the synopsis first before they do the character work outlined in the previous three Master Your Craft posts. Some do it after. I am somewhere in the middle–although I don’t send the synopsis to anyone until I’ve done the character work, I do work on them simultaneously. Do what works for you! But do this before you start to write.

So once you have around 5-7 pages that includes everything you think is going to happen during the story, send it off. Ask your most trusted critique partners, ones who already know your style and have critiqued for you before, and ask them to destroy it offer their feedback in the form of “what ifs” questions (What if that cat was really a magical jellyfish? What if that boy character was really a girl? What if the antagonist was also the love interest?),  comp titles that you should check out (oh, this reminds me of Goonies!), and any other thoughts they might have. The results are bound to jump-start your creativity and take your story to places it might not have gone without this technique.

 

Additional Resources:

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A photo of author Julie Artz
Photo credit: Gail Werner

JULIE ARTZ writes stories for children that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. In addition to contributing to The Winged Pen, she works as a developmental editor for Author Accelerator, is a Pitch Wars mentor, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. She is represented by Jennie Dunham of Dunham Lit. You can also follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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Cover Reveal, Interview, and Giveaway with Oddity Author Sarah Cannon

Photo of Author Sarah Cannon

The Winged Pen is thrilled to reveal the cover for Oddity, by debut author and pal Sarah Cannon. Read to the end, because there is a giveaway, too!

JA: So Sarah, tell us about Oddity.

SC: I can’t wait for everyone to read Oddity! It’s a Welcome to Night Vale-inspired adventure, so it’s both life-or-death and very tongue-in-cheek. It’s a love letter to geeky fan-children of all ages (and a lot of fun to read aloud!)

JA: The cover is gorgeous. How did it feel when you finally saw it?

SC: I love this cover with the fire of a thousand suns.

I’m so grateful to Katlego Kgabale for her wonderful work, which gives me actual chills. You should definitely follow her on twitter, and keep an eye out for more of her art.

JA: Tell me more about the cover design!

SC: One thing I specifically asked for was to have Ada Roundtree, the main character, featured front and center. Too often, children of color on middle grade fantasy covers are positioned to the left or right of (and behind) a white main character, and over time this communicates a clear message about who gets to have the adventure, and who gets to support the adventure. Oddity‘s cover is one small move toward countering that narrative.

Now for the reveal…

 

 

Do you want to see it? 

 

 

Are you sure? 

 

OK, here it is:

Full Book Jacket for Oddity

JA: I can tell you’re passionate about this topic (as am I). Can you talk about how this book fits in the ongoing conversation about diversity in children’s literature?

SC: Well, obviously, I’m a white lady, so the first thing I’ll say is that while this is a pluralistically-cast book, I’d stop short of calling it a diverse one.

Around three out of every ten Americans are non-white.  Two of ten are disabled. At least one in twenty identifies as LGBTQIA+. Obviously, these groups overlap, but as a general rule of thumb, if more than half of my characters are white, non-disabled, and cisgender/straight, I’m not representing the demographics of my community. Full stop.

As someone who has worked with children since I was old enough to work at all, it’s important to me write for all readers, and to provide a book in which every student I’ve taught can find a reflection of self. I’ve worked hard to get as many sets of eyes on this book as possible, through betas and sensitivity readers. I’ve done my very best to provide quality representation, and I welcome feedback from readers on areas where I could improve. But Oddity doesn’t belong on lists of diverse books, books by marginalized writers do— and let’s be honest— the publication of Oddity does nothing to put more books by diverse authors on the shelves.

JA: Which leads into this giveaway…

Exactly! As an author and a reader,  I actively support #ownvoices writers in a variety of ways, and so I wanted to do a cover reveal that furthers that goal. One of the reasons that children’s books lack diverse representation is because the staff at many publishing houses doesn’t reflect America’s diversity. One organization that has tackled this problem is We Need Diverse Books. Through their Internship Grant program, they make it possible for diverse applicants to accept publishing internships, which are often unpaid and favor candidates who are financially privileged. That’s where I’m focusing my energy today.

JA: Thanks for sharing your story, Sarah. And now for the fun part: FREE BOOKS!!!!!

In support of WNDB’s program, Sarah’s giving away copies of five middle-grade books by #ownvoices authors to readers who make a donation to We Need Diverse BooksThe Jumbies, by Tracey Baptiste (sequel out in September 2017!), The Gauntlet, by Karuna Riazi, Cilla-Lee Jenkins, Future Author Extraordinaire, by Susan Tan, Flying Lessons and Other Stories (a short story collection edited by the inimitable Ellen Oh), and last but not least, she has a signed copy of Ghost by Jason Reynolds! Enter to win by posting in the comments below, then emailing proof of your WNDB donation to hellosarahcannon @ gmail.com. Entries will remain open through May 23rd. Good luck!

Oddity book jacketSarah Cannon, author of Oddity, has lived all over the U.S., but right now she calls Indiana home. She has a husband, three kids and a misguided dog. Sarah holds a B.S. in Education. She’s a nerdy knitting gardener who drinks a lot of coffee, and eats a lot of raspberries. She is probably human.

Connect with Sarah on TwitterFacebook, or Instagram, and check out
Oddity on Goodreads, IndieBound, and Amazon.