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:

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.

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.

MYC: A Reformed Pantser’s Guide to Character Development

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 post on supporting characters. This week, I’ll share tips on fleshing out characters using my three favorite craft books.

A lot of writers start out writing by the seat of their pants (i.e. jumping in to drafting with no prior pre-writing/planning/outlining). After the painful process of seeing just how big of a dumpster fire my first drafts are when I don’t do any pre-writing, I moved toward the planning end of the spectrum and I called in the experts (in the form of craft books).

via GIPHY

I like to pre-write in a way that leaves my creativity room to change course and explore as I draft. So I spend the bulk of my pre-writing time working on character development. Because once that character starts talking to me, I know I can rely on her to tell me what needs to happen next in the story. Getting that character talking can be a challenge though. Here’s what I do…

I will admit up-front that I write character-driven stories, so you’re not going to get a lot of plot talk here. My what-if dreaming sometimes has a plot element to it, but it’s usually character-focused. Even if I start with a concept that is plot-based (for example, my work in progress right now started out as Goonies meets Hoot), the first thing I do is start thinking about who my main character is, what her interests are, how she interacts with her family and friends, and what’s going to make her the best heroine for this particular story. In this case, I knew I wanted the hero of the adventure to be a girl (don’t get me started on the problematic aspects of the girls in Goonies, that’s another blog post entirely), and not just any girl, but a tomboy who wanted, more than anything, to be an engineer so she could develop medical devices to help disabled people like her father.

At this stage I often make lists of hobbies, favorite books, what type of clothes she typically wears, what she loves, what she hates, what she’s most afraid of. I think about tropes and stereotypes and how I can turn them on their head here as I create this new person. This is where I do all the dreaming before I get down to the hard work of putting flesh and bone and soul into the character.

That hard work begins with Lisa Cron’s amazing Story Genius method. It focuses on what she calls the “Third Rail” or the combination of the character’s desire and the misbelief that keeps the character from achieving that desire. The book, and the Author Accelerator course that is based on it, takes you through the process of identifying that third rail and the pieces of the character’s backstory that led to the formation of the desire/misbelief combo. I also develop a third rail for my antagonist and any important secondary characters. [full disclosure: I work for Author Accelerator and help coach writers through Lisa’s Story Genius method, but I have also used it for my past two manuscripts. I promise, it works.]

Once I have an idea of what the character wants and what’s standing in her way, next I go back to my story structure favorite, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. My favorite thing about this book is that it ties a four-part character arc – Orphan/Wanderer/Hero/Martyr – to the four-act structure of a typical plot (click for more information on story structure). I use broad strokes to identify the main character’s mindset during each of these four acts, so that I have a very high-level view of the character arc.

All POV characters need an arc. Even if you’re writing the plottiest of plotty thrillers. I promise. A few supporting characters should have minor arcs to make the story emotionally satisfying as well. Extras (minor characters that would normally inhabit the main character’s world but who aren’t instrumental to moving the plot forward) don’t necessarily need arcs or they should be very minimal.

The next part is fun, especially if you enjoy torturing your characters. Because I then take my new character through Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. My biggest take-away from it is the idea of complicating the character’s desires and obstacles to inject more tension into the story. Coming up with ways to complicate/deepen the character is usually what helps me figure out what needs to happen in the major plot points.

So that sends me back to Story Engineering. I fill out a beat sheet with the major plot points and then I’m ready to move on next week’s topic, writing a long-form synopsis for brainstorming on plot and character. See you then!

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.

Writing Cross-Culturally

Pennies Michelle and Julie meet in real life at last week’s Madcap Retreat

This month, The Winged Pen’s own Michelle Leonard and Julie Artz were lucky enough to attend Madcap RetreatsWriting Cross-Culturally Workshop in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Not only was it a blast to finally meet up face-to-face, but the long weekend was packed with great information and resources. We’d like to share a peek at what we learned with our readers.

Highlights

We were surrounded by many talented writers of various backgrounds and made many new friends for life. The faculty (pictured below) included Leigh Bardugo, Daniel José Older, Nicola Yoon, Adi Alsaid, Danielle Clayton, Tessa Gratton, Heidi Heilig, Justina Ireland, Julie Murphy, and Natalie Parker. Dhonielle Clayton

Your characters should have several layers of description that comes through in your story.

  • Outside identity:  race, skin color, physical features, names
  • Belief system:  religion, traditions, sexuality, gender, fears
  • Frame:  family structure, house rules, foods

Cultures are not a monolith. Be as specific as possible about who your character is on the outside, inside, and the frame around them.

When describing skin tone and hair, use make-up and hairstylist hair terminology (google is your friend!) to avoid character description pitfalls like “pale” (pale compared to whom???).

DJ Older

To get past good vs evil, to a more nuanced view of conflict, you have to understand the power dynamics of the characters in your story world.

Some examples of types of power:

  • Institutional power (posse of armed men)
  • Community power
  • Magic – the physicialisation of power
  • Health/ability
  • Spirituality/religion
  • Economic
  • Education
  • Acceptance
  • Beauty
  • Heteronormative/Gender
  • Reproductive
  • Race
  •  Age

The crisis of your book must be determined before you develop your character. The crisis can be anything from your character “needs a hug” to “he’s gonna die.” Ultimately, all stories are about who has the power and how it’s used. Check out DJ’s Buzzfeed article about writing about “other” characters.

Justina Ireland

Microaggressions are indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group. They are often transparent to you, but not to others. Microagressions remind outgroups that they are outside the norm or social standard.

Example: A store owner following a customer of color around the store.

How do you prevent microaggressions?

  • Write with savage empathy by seeing the character like an individual.
  • Write for your entire audience.
  • Consider how people from outgroups will consider your depictions.
  • Acknowledge your blind spots and get help from others in writing characters unlike you.

Resource for sensitivity readers and more: Writing in the Margins

Another good resource good on microaggressions (not shared by Justina, but relevant) from The Atlantic.

Tessa Gratton

Metanarratives are an overarching account or interpretation of events and circumstances that provides a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and gives meaning to their experiences. Metanarratives are repeated until they seem like facts, but rarely reflect reality or what we want for future generations.

Basic western fantasy coding

  • Good: white, European Christian, pure
  • Evil: black, non-European, non-Christian
  • This comes from history
    • Medieval recreation of West v East (greeks v Persians) by Christian historians
    • Crusader ideology

Because this is the default, you must actively work against this metanarrative.

Nicola Yoon

It’s hard to hate what you understand. Avoid stereotypes because they’re not the truth. They are lazy. (Examples: sassy black woman, nerdy Asian, overbearing Jewish mom, demonization of poverty.)

How to write cross-culturally?

  • Diversify your life. Specificity is the key to building real characters. OK, they’re sassy. And then what?
  • Empathy + craft
  • When you engage in stereotypes, people see it as a moral failing but it’s really a failure at the craft level. You did not inhabit someone else.
  • When you write characters, be specific, write against stereotypes, and do no harm.
  • Use sensitivity readers.

Heidi Heilig

Cultural appropriation is adopting or using the elements of one (usually minority) culture by members of another (usually dominant) culture. Often the original meaning of those elements is lost or distorted, and this is disrespectful and oftentimes harmful to the members of the original culture.

Julie Murphy

Things to avoid in body representation:

  • Applying moral value to food and fat vs. thin.
  • Nobody “feels” fat. It’s not a feeling!
  • Just because you write a fat character in a book doesn’t mean that you need to explain why that character is fat.

Leigh Bardugo

Good worldbuilding:  playing god and not being a jerk about it. You should read work by “marginalized authors to learn how to build worlds that don’t make people feel like shit.”

N.K. Jemisin’s work is an example of excellent worldbuilding with diverse characters.

Adi Alsaid

Start your story as close as possible to the event that throws the main character off footing. Watch this very important TedTalk by Chimamanda Adichie on the Danger of a Single Story.

Book Recommendations

There are so many amazing things happening in kidlit, it’s hard to narrow down a list of recommendations. But here are a few:

Angie Thomas – The Hate U Give

Daniel Jose Older – Shadowshaper

Leigh Bardugo – Six of Crows

Heidi Heilig – The Girl From Everywhere

Nicola Yoon – The Sun is Also a Star

Julie Murphy – Dumplin’

Alex Gino – George

Donna Gephart – Lily and Dunkin

Additional Resources

Take Gene Luen Yang’s April Reading Without Walls challenge.
NaNoWriMo’s Preparing to write about diverse characters
Justina Ireland’s blog about writing about people unlike yourself.
WNDB We Need Diverse Books resources for writers
Writing With Color
Intersecting Axes of Privilege
Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) statistics on children’s publishing
Disability in Kidlit Tumblr and website

The best part of our weekend–all the amazing friends we made! ❤️

We hope you’ll enjoy a few blogs from our new writing friends so you can see different takeaways from the MadCap Writing Cross-Culturally Retreat. Please feel free to share any resources or questions you have for writing cross-culturally in the comments!

Aimee Davis’ blogBroken Girl Cured by Love: On Tropes and the Lies They Tell

Anna Jarvis’ blog: The Wonderful World of Writing and Friendship

Jordan Kurella’s blog: We Could Be Heroes, For Every Day

Sarah Viehmann’s blog: Favorite Quotes from MadCap

Carrie Peter’s blog: MadCap Retreat: March 2017

Happy Release Day to The Outs!

Today, I’m thrilled to welcome my friend and critique partner E. S. Wesley to The Winged Pen to talk about the release of his debut, The Outs.

JA: Congratulations on your debut! Can you tell us a little bit about The Outs’ journey toward publication? 

ESW: Sure thing! The Outs was the culmination of other work I’d done in the past, developing this idea and exploring what a world like this would look like. When I finished it, I threw it into the mix with an online contest called Pitch Wars, and the manuscript landed me an awesome mentor (JA Souders—go read her stuff!). Throughout the process, I got some really great agent interest, but Curiosity Quills saw the pitch as well, and asked to have a look. I’d heard great things about CQ, and when they offered on the book, I was happy to take them up on it.

JA: This story is a great mashup between a psychological thriller and a comic book-style adventure story. Can you talk a little bit about what gave you the idea and what other works from those genres inspire you?

ESW: I love, love, LOVE psychological thrillers. Something about having an author toy with my mind really adds a nice punch. As the story of The Outs began to form, I knew that it was the perfect vehicle for something like this.

As for the comic-booky thing: Kitzi (one of my two main characters) pretty much demanded it. In fact, Kitzi made herself come to life and demanded stage time. When I wrote my first draft of the story, she wasn’t even in there at all, but once she entered the scene she took center stage. And she demanded to be a superhero all her own, with her disability forming the core of her superpowers (can’t say much more about that, because SPOILERS!). From there, it was just a matter of seeing where she took the story, and I couldn’t be happier with her.

I’ve always loved the idea of people whose weaknesses double as their strengths anyway. There’s something so amazing about seeing someone take a rotten deal and turn it into something good that gets me where it counts, you know?

Also, if you love superhero stories and haven’t read Brandon Sanderson’s The Reckoners series (starting with Steelheart), then you’ve got some catching up to do. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

JA: You also write middle grade. How is MG different than writing YA and which do you prefer?

ESW: I totally love both, but for different reasons. Writing YA, I get to explore what it’s like to step into adult decisions for the first time, and take your life into your own hands. Middle grade can get some of that, but only so far. The strength of middle grade writing lies in the freedom to explore EVERYTHING. I think YA readers tend to have certain expectations—romance, angst, sequels—but middle grade readers haven’t come up with those limitations just yet. And besides, who doesn’t love stories about friendship?

The Outs does that, too, though. It shows a grittier version of life, more like what we discover when we see for the first time that our actions can have far-reaching consequences. And Caleb and Kitzi’s actions have really far-reaching implications.

JA: I know you work with children and teens. How does that reflect in your writing, and in the voice of your characters?

ESW: I think a lot of people have this idea that teens don’t have deep thoughts, or they don’t look beyond themselves. Having spent time with them and heard their deepest struggles, I know that’s a load of garbage. Teens think about all the same things adults do, but their thoughts and feelings about those things are heightened because they’re learning to handle life for the first time. Adults are jaded; teens are fresh. They see the world with new eyes. They allow themselves to feel their fears and make mistakes, and there’s something cool and honest about that.

JA: What does your writing day look like? Any tips or tricks you’d like to share with our readers?

ESW: For me, it’s all about routine. Getting up at the same time and putting my butt in the chair to work is all it takes to get started, and I won’t let myself whine about writer’s block or anything like that. Always move forward, you know? I typically work from around 7:30/8 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon. Sometimes I go a little longer, but not often. Gotta rest sometime!

JA: Congratulations and thank you for joining us!

E.S. Wesley is an author and advocate for the safety and mental health of young people. A long-time mentor and counselor, Wesley has worked for years to protect, encourage, and empower young adults to navigate a life that rarely makes sense. He believes all people are just waiting for someone to relate to their stories, so he makes up stories in the hope that someone will read and find a home there.
His stories are often strange and twisty.
Wesley lives with his wife in Texas, where he’s always writing. Texas has a lot of things that he likes, but Shelly is the best of them. Second best is his son, who introduced him to his wife. Sometimes we do things out of order—that just makes life more interesting.
Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, or subscribe to his mailing list.