Four on 400: June Feedback

Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest!

Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.

Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

Working Title: Patty Pat

Lower Middle Grade

Patty had nightmares about feeding the roosters, but the hens were sweet. She looked forward to their soothing cackles and bright eyes. They fluttered and jumped with excitement when she rounded the corner of the garage carrying a big bowl of carrot and potato peelings and leftover breakfast mush.

Patty tipped half the contents of the bowl onto the floor of the hen shed and watched the hens play with pieces of carrot and peck at the mush. The little brown hen hung back and then darted forward to get her share while the big speckled hens fought over a long piece of carrot peel.

Reluctantly Patty moved to the other side of the shed where the fighting roosters strutted and crowed in their cages. They were prettier than the hens, all reds and greens, shining purple-black feathers and swooping tails. They were also mean, beady-eyed, and sneakier than any villain the Lone Ranger thwarted on the radio. They stared hungrily at Patty and scratched up the dust in their cages with hard, curved claws.

Feeding the roosters made Patty wish she were one of the two big girls who helped Mother with the sewing and heavy housework. Or one of the two little girls with easy chores like feeding old sleepy Ming Chow, who had never nipped anybody. Ever. Patty felt stuffed between her sisters, and not just when they piled into the Buick, the little girls on the big girls’ laps, Patty squeezed between with the back of the front seat for a view.

Imitating the brown hen, Patty quickly opened each cage door and tossed food inside. Still she was pecked twice and nipped once. She had just darted in to check the latch on the last of the cages when she heard the Buick pull into the driveway. Dad was early. Maybe he was going to Three Lakes after dinner.

“Got the chickens fed, Patty Pat?” asked Dad. “Fed and watered,” Patty replied. Patty and Dad climbed the back steps together. Dad took off his hat inside the little screened porch and set it on the shelf.

Patty could see Joan and Connie already at the kitchen table swinging their feet as they waited for Mother to bring them stew and biscuits. There were only five places set. The big girls must be decorating for a dance. Or maybe they were at a movie.

 

Kristi: I love this setting. It’s reminiscent of CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN, which I read and re-read as a kid. A few things will really tighten this up and get the story moving. Your first line is only okay to me. I’d love it to have more punch. The entire first paragraph can be condensed to really draw in your readers. I’d suggest something along these lines:

Patty had nightmares about feeding the roosters, but the hens were sweet. She looked forward to their soothing cackles and bright eyes. The hens fluttered and jumped with excitement when Patty rounded the corner of the garage carrying a big bowl of vegetable peelings and leftover breakfast mush.

In your 2nd paragraph you overuse the word “hen.” In fact, I’d cut it and move on to paragraph 3 because that’s where I feel like you’ve hit your stride. I like the mention of the Lone Ranger and the radio and the family car. All of these things really set up where we are and what her life is like. Also, I loved that you planted a few things like dad being home early and not sure where the sisters are– this works perfectly in making me wonder if somethings up.

Karin: I completely agree with Kristi’s comments. I really like how you manage to anchor us authentically in place and time.  I would suggest tightening a little more and perhaps giving us a little more sense of what Patty wants. All we know is she’d rather be sewing with the big girls than feeding the hens and roosters. I love the reference to the Lone Ranger but would would cut one of the three adjectives describing the roosters. In paragraph five, I was confused as to how Patty was imitating the brown hen. Also, I would add “rooster” in here to remind us that she’s feeding them now. Also, not sure what the difference is between pecked and nipped. The ending makes me want to read more so I can find out why the older sisters aren’t there. Well done and good luck!

Gabrielle: Your prose is lovely–simple and evocative. I’m right with Patty Pat in the hen house. I agree with Kristi about too much use of the word “hen”, and would add that you also repeat “mush” too frequently. I would keep the first sentence of your first paragraph, but move it to the end of that paragraph. It gives us some good tension, with her fear of the roosters, but you could flesh it out a little with some details of the nightmares. Does she just have to feed them again and again in her sleep, until she wakes in a cold sweat, or do they get huge and chase her, or something different? Your line about the radio is a very clever way to show us we’re not in today’s hen house.

Overall, I think this is a great beginning, and it reminds me some of A YEAR DOWN YONDER by Richard Peck, though I do wonder a little about what’s going to be at stake. Hopefully, there will be an upping of the tension fast. You’ve got a good set-up with her being smashed between her sisters, but I want to see her decide to do something about it, or for there to be hints of something huge coming toward her that will throw a wrench in her life–soon. For example, In A YEAR DOWN YONDER, the heroine is leaving her mother and the life she knew behind, thrown into her crazy Grandmother’s life to make her way. She’s miserable, and we see every moment of her longing for home. As an aside, the scene you paint is easy to see, but I think you could also squeeze in a detail or two about Patty’s physical appearance that would help us see her better. Also, please mention what kind of creature Ming Chow is, so we can see her too! Nice work.

Rebecca: I like this start! We definitely see Patty is stuck in the middle of a large family and get a good sense for her life on the farm. Like the other’s, I’d like to know what the story’s about. Is Patty’s goal to be seen as one of the “big girls?” But this is only 400 words and I like your writing, so I’d keep reading.

 

Halfway through 2017 (GASP!) — Let’s Do a Goal Check-in!

Let’s climb that mountain!

Waaaayyyy back in January, I wrote a New Year’s post about goal-setting. A few of my fellow Pennies were inspired by that post to write down their goals with me – remembering to be specific, set deadlines, stay flexible, and above all, not beat ourselves up if we didn’t quite hit our marks.

Now that it’s June, about halfway through the year, I wanted to check in with everyone. And with myself.

My top-of-list goal was to finish drafting my WIP in March. I ended up finally typing “THE END” in mid-May, about six weeks late. I met a few other goals – launching our MYC series, for one! – but thanks to missing my initial WIP deadline, I’m a bit behind on everything else.

I checked in with a few of the Pennies and discovered that we were all pretty much in the same boat. Most of us had set and met a few goals, completely dropped the ball on others, and changed priorities dramatically as the year unfolded.

So the purpose of this post is two-fold.

First, I want to hear how your year is going? Did you set goals? Have you made progress like you thought you would? Let me know in the comments!

And second, I want to lay out some mid-year goal-setting dos and don’t’s:

DO reflect on the past six months. We all have to deal with the unexpected, which can interfere with our writing. From early November through February, I did not have one full week of work without kids, thanks to some crazy winter weather and a series of plagues that descended on my family. Those unexpected events messed with my productivity big time. Looking back in light of that, my six-week delay in finishing my draft was actually a pretty great achievement! Take some time to consider the reality of the first half of 2017 – you might find that you achieved more than it felt like you did.

DO reassess your priorities. That YA idea that seemed so hot in January might have started languishing in May. If you feel bogged down by a goal you set months ago, take a closer look at it. Is the project still calling to you, or are you slogging your way through it because you said you would? Did you pledge to attend an expensive conference, but are now realizing that the manuscript you’d hoped to pitch is far from ready? Consider a conference later in the year when your work is more polished. Or try a more economical conference instead. Life is not static, and neither should your goals be.

DO recommit. Are you right on track with your goals? Fantastic! Promise yourself that you’ll keep going and not coast on your successful six months. Not quite tearing through your goal list for 2017? Don’t toss it out just because you haven’t made the progress you’d hoped. Use this time to get back on track. You can still pull it out if you get busy now!

DON’T forget to have fun. January is a serious month, full of winter-deep thoughts about where we’re going and where we’ve been. (At least it is here in the Northern Hemisphere!) But June is a lighter month, where the call of the outdoors is strong. Get out there and enjoy it. Just bring your notebook and a pen!

Sound off in the comments and let me know how your goal-setting has gone. Let’s go climb our mountain — and fingers crossed we’re all a bit closer to where we want to be!

 

RICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

Master Your Craft: The Big Idea

Master Your Craft
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. (For more information, see last week’s intro post.) This week, I’ll discuss The Big Idea.

So you’re ready to write a novel. You’ve got a character, maybe a scene, a vague idea of the plot…you’re ready to sit down and start writing, right?

Not so fast.

Even seasoned writers can be fooled by a Shiny New Idea. So before you dive into drafting, take some time to test your book-to-be and make sure your new idea is also a Big Idea.

Here are some of the questions we Pennies ask ourselves at the dawn of a new idea:

  • Do I have passion for this story? This might seem obvious, but a novel takes a while to write, and it’s crucial that you have a deep and abiding passion that can sustain you. Another way to ask this question: Is this a story I must tell the world, or is it just a story I’d like to read? I wrote 20,000 words of my current WIP before realizing that one aspect of my story just wasn’t interesting enough to me to push me through all the research I needed to do. I’d love to read that original idea, but it isn’t a story my heart longs to tell.
  • Do I feel urgency to tell this story NOW? I have an entire file of story ideas. Some of them are really cool! But none of them are begging me to tell them right this second. That sense of urgency is another indication that this is a Big Idea.
  • Do I have a vivid protagonist with an overarching goal? In other words, who is your main character, and what does he or she want? Can you hear his or her voice? This is the foundation of any story, and if you don’t have this, it’s going to be so much harder to spin a full novel out of your idea. I’m not sure The Hobbit would have had such enduring power if Bilbo hadn’t longed with his entire being to be back in the Shire.
  • Can I visualize the entire story arc? Often the beginnings of our ideas are just the flash of a character or a scene. But of course, novels need more than one brilliant scene or one fascinating character. Take some time to consider where your story is going. What sets off the action? How does the MC change as the story progresses? What peak conflict will push your MC to the end of the story?
  • Can I write a logline for this story? If you can write a pithy pitch for your idea before you write a word of the story itself, chances are you’ve got the makings of a Big Idea.
  • Are others excited when I tell them my idea? How do your CPs react when you tell them your pitch? Are there “oohs” and “aahs”? Or are they asking questions and offering “what ifs”? Other writers are especially good at recognizing Big Ideas, and if they’re not sold, chances are you have more work to do. And it’s pretty important to get feedback at this stage, even though we can all be very protective of our fledgling stories. Our agented Pennies have reported sending slews of new ideas to their agents only to be told that none of them quite pass muster as is. Most of the time, this just means you need to do the work of fleshing out the idea and finding a unique way into the story. But it is way better to learn this before you write 60,000 words.
  • Is there a market for my idea? Although this question can put a damper on your Shiny New Idea excitement, it’s really important to do this research. Don’t be the author trying to sell a dystopian after the market flood of apocalyptic fiction!

Sadly, some story ideas are flawed from the get-go. Stubborn writers can spend years working on stories that will ultimately go nowhere…and a lot of that heartbreak can be avoided if you take a few days or weeks to really road-test your story first.

And if you can answer “YES!” to all these questions? Congratulations! You’re still not quite ready to write, but you’re one step closer to seeing your Big Idea become a Big Fat Novel.

(Need help coming up with a Big Idea? Check out this earlier Winged Pen post about creative cross-pollination, this one about writing prompts, or this one exploring where ideas come from, to get your creative juices flowing.)

Come back next Wednesday where we’ll discuss Main Character Development.

Introducing Master Your Craft: A New Series by the Winged Pen

Master Your Craft

The last month has been an exciting time here at The Winged Pen as Pennies have been hard at work behind the scenes coming up with a surprise for you.

Today, to coincide with Camp NaNo – the virtual writer’s retreat that helps you fit writing into your busy life – we’re excited to launch our new blog series: Master Your Craft with the Winged Pen (#WPMYC).

Every Wednesday for the next several months, we will take you through the entire process of writing a novel – everything from getting the Big Idea, all the way to the final, ready-to-query manuscript.

Our Pennies will share with you all of our best techniques and tools, starting with pre-writing tricks, including character development, research and world-building, to make your drafting as painless as possible.

Of course, writing a novel is going to include some pain, so we’ll walk you through the drafting process, too. We’ll help you fight that terrible enemy of the drafting novelist: the fear of the blank page. And we’ve got a host of tips and tricks to help you overcome the stalls, blocks and annoying plot bunnies that threaten to derail every first draft.

And once you’ve got your story down on paper, we’ll give you all of our favorite techniques for making a story shine until it positively gleams.

Each of our Pennies has a slightly different process and does each of our steps in a different order, so don’t feel like you have to follow this formula exactly. Instead, think of it as a compendium of writerly advice designed to help you on your novel-writing journey.

Writing a novel can be a lonely, demoralizing process. But it doesn’t have to be. Let us help you – and help each other – to shape the vibrant and enduring stories that are living so vividly in our heads into the best manuscripts we can possibly make.

We can’t wait to start sharing this treasure trove of posts with you! If you’re not already following us, go ahead and sign up so you won’t miss a single tip. And if you know someone struggling to write a novel, tell them to sign up, too. The fun starts next Wednesday, so don’t miss out!

Finally, if you have questions, comments or just want to cheer us on (sometimes we need cheering, too!), comment away here or on any of our Master Your Craft posts. We love to hear from you!

How To Give Good Critique

We’ve talked before about the need for critique partners to help you create your best work. (Jessica Vitalis had some great suggestions about how to find the right critique partners.)

But finding critique partners is only half the battle. If you want to have an ongoing, productive critique relationship – and write your best novel! – you also need to know how to be a good critique partner.

So, now that you’re exchanging on the reg, how can you make sure that you and your new critique partner can go the distance?

Unfortunately, sometimes even the best critique partnerships fade. Changing genres, differing schedules and mismatched priorities can all derail you and your CPs.

But you can help ensure a lasting and nurturing CP relationship by using some of these techniques for giving (and receiving!) good critique:

  • Use the compliment sandwich. Nobody likes to hear a litany of their mistakes. It’s demoralizing, and it doesn’t make you want to ever let that critical eye near your work again. The critique sandwich is a great way to soften the bad news and help valid criticism land. The formula: Compliment->needs improvement->compliment.

EXAMPLE: I love the way you describe this scene using so many sensory details. I really felt like I was there! Can you use some of those details to heighten the emotions of the characters? The dialogue felt flat compared to the lush scene-setting. It’s so, so close!

  • Ask questions. Questions are a great, neutral way to draw out anything you want to see more of or challenge a writer to new heights. Ask questions about anything that’s not clear, sure, but also consider asking questions when you think there might be more to a moment than is currently on the page.

EXAMPLE: For a scene where a couple is having an argument at a diner: How does he react to what she is saying? Is he mad? Sad? Surprised? What is happening around them during this fight? Do people notice? Or are they trying to keep their voices down? Are they having any physical reactions to the argument? 

  • Point out what they’re doing right. If you notice you’ve gone several pages without commenting, it may be time to pause to tell the author why you’re not. A simple “Amazing tension here” or “Heartbreaking, raw and real!” lets them know when they’ve knocked it out of the park. And sometimes that information is as helpful as knowing where you’re going wrong.
  • Brainstorm, but not prescriptively. It’s inevitable you’re going to have some great ideas about your CP’s story, and you’re going to want to share them. Try to avoid using language like “You should…” or “I would…” Instead of pushing them to embrace your ideas (which may not take the story in the direction they want to go), say, “What if…” Make it clear the idea is theirs to run with, not you imposing your own ideas/aesthetic on their story.
  • Avoid vague, unactionable comments, such as “not sellable” or “too quiet”. Instead aim for more empowering statements, like, “How can you make this scene pop more?” “I wonder if there’s more energy you can inject into this opening.” Or “What do you think could make this story really jump off the shelves?”
  • Know your CP’s goals. Some writers really just want to write for themselves and don’t care about getting published. Others are determined to get an agent who brokers a major deal. And still others would be satisfied with something in between. Sometimes, a writer has been working on a story too long and just doesn’t have the energy or the passion to do what needs to be done to take it from good to great – and that’s totally valid! Critique to motivate them to higher heights, but not against their own goals.
  • Receive critiques with grace. When it’s your turn to have your work critiqued, try to take your ego out of the equation. When you work so hard on something, it can be wrenching to hear that someone doesn’t understand or appreciate it as much as you do. But if you can put your ego in the backseat and view the critique with gratitude, you’ll have what you need to make your story the best it can be. And if it really is a bad critique…let it go and move on. Just because you didn’t reach one person, doesn’t mean you won’t reach many others. (Caveat: If multiple people are pointing out the same problem, take that seriously. You probably need to do some work on that.)

Critiquing – especially with new partners – can be nerve-wracking. But if you approach it with a service mindset, reminding yourself that you are there to help another author achieve his or her goals, then that will lead to kinder, more effective critiques…and hopefully, long-lasting and productive critiquing relationships!