Becoming an artist: Jackie Randall’s historical middle grade EMELIN

Book cover in graphic novel style. Boy and girl in brown medieval robes with dark branches and white medieval city in the backgroundIf you’re an eleven-year-old girl in the middle ages, becoming an artist is almost impossible! Even when you have a special talent.

Author Jackie Randall brings the earthy but beautiful world of the middle ages to life in this story of art, theft, persistence, and friendship.

“The year is 1398. Eleven-year-old Emelin Lambert is quick-witted, mouthy, and an orphan. She also has an incredible gift for illuminating manuscripts. When her last relative is killed, Emelin must travel to Reading Abbey in search of safety when she finds herself with a manuscript belonging to Geoffrey Chaucer. Follow her dark and wintery journey through medieval England where she encounters violent thieves, a boy named Wolf and the treacherous adult world she must face alone. Can her gift ensure her survival?”

We’re so excited to chat with Australian author, Jackie Randall! Welcome to The Winged Pen!

In the beginning of the story, Emelin worries about a lost and valuable “work ticket.” As a young girl in the middle ages, could she have gotten one?

The lost work ticket belonged to Emelin’s uncle, Calibor. It was vital to him so he could legally work. I wanted to create a significant problem early on because it would help immerse the readers in the rawness of life in medieval England.

That it was Emelin’s fault the ticket was stolen helped me dig down deep into her and her thinking.

Girls in England at that time were not taught to read or write, and they could never be apprenticed in any of the trades, so a girl, like Emelin, would never have had her own work ticket.

It wasn’t considered sexist. It kept the wheels turning so civilisation could continue to exist.

Women had the ability to give birth and to nurture children. They had finer fingers for sewing and preparing food. Men were bigger and stronger than women so it made sense that they worked to bring in harvest or meat, or to build homes, boats, carts etc.

Everyone did what they could to contribute to life based on what they could do best. It wasn’t always fair, but it worked.

What surprised you most (or was most inspiring) about the research you did for this book?

I loved learning about the creation of illuminated manuscripts. As much as it was unlikely that a girl could do this in this era, it was not impossible if the right things fell into place.

The girl, Emelin, had a fierce attitude that got her on this path and kept her alive when circumstances would normally have made survival impossible.

I was most inspired by the way people had to work so hard, just to live, which is a lot like people still do today in poorer countries.

And I loved using the first person POV to get inside Emelin’s head and find out how real she was. Putting her in a male world – her uncle, the guilds, the abbey – made her a like a candle flame on a black and white photo.

Writing a novel can be like living in an imaginary country. After all the time you’ve spent writing Emelin’s world, would you like to live there? Why or why not?

I think I would have liked to live there. But life was harsh and people often lived only four or five decades. I plan on living until my ninth or tenth decade, even if it’s just to annoy my friends and family… but if I could still be writing well then, that would be great joy to me.

I love Geoffrey Chaucer’s cameo appearance in the story! It had such a fun “medieval rock star” feeling. This story is a brilliant way to introduce young readers today to the author of The Canterbury Tales. Was he well-known in his own time? Or did he become famous later?

Geoffrey Chaucer was known as a poet in his lifetime, but his fame grew gradually after his death. It was only forty or fifty years after Chaucer died that the printing press was invented and books could for the first time ever be produced without people painstakingly hand writing and decorating them.

There are a couple of versions of the hand-produced ‘The Canterbury Tales’ around. One is called the Hengwrt Manuscript and the other the Ellesmere Manuscript.

The cover is so inviting, but it also looks true to the era. Can you share the story of how it came to be?

As much as I enjoy trying to do a bit of art, I knew I didn’t have the skills for this. One of my adult sons helped me find the right person to hire to do the job.

I wanted the cover to show Emelin with the manuscript, and I really wanted the cold, harsh winter in the background. And, of course, Wolf had to be there. After a bit of tweaking, I was thrilled with the end result.

Will Emelin and Wolf have more adventures?

I have a couple of books planned but I’m torn right now as to whether to write for the Australian market (where I live) so local publishers can market my work, or to write medieval and continue to self-publish (Australia has no medieval history as it was not discovered until after medieval was finished).

The books I’m planning about Emelin and Wolf are based first in London, then in Europe. There’s a crime to solve, a dead person who’s not dead, and someone to rescue. I’d really like to get my teeth into these stories as soon as I can.

Is Emelin your first Indie published book? Any advice for aspiring Indie authors?

Emelin is my first Indie book. I did not want to self-publish. My writing had begun to gain interest from Australian publishers, but they really wanted Australian fiction from me.

I didn’t want to bury my novel Emelin so I eventually published myself, with a lot of help from someone who understands marketing (and technology) much more than me.

My advice to Indie authors is don’t do it for the money, for now at least. Become excellent at writing. Don’t publish until you’ve had some beta readers or editors look at it, then listen to their suggestions, because if it’s not good the bad reviews will damage you and your sales.

Brace yourself for the ever-popular lightning round!

If you had a superpower, what would it be? Superdooper wordsmith.

Writing implement of choice? For practical writing… my MacBook Air so I can write fast and edit later. For deep and serious wordsmithing, my Lamy fountain pen and a lined notebook.

If I have a problem sentence or paragraph, I write it out. Then I rewrite it changing a word or two, or starting from a different angle, then I rewrite it until I think I’ve got it. Then I look at it tomorrow. If I still like it, it’s in. If not, I work it again. Sometimes I delete it completely then realise I didn’t need it anyway.

Vegemite, peanut butter, or Nutella? Seeing as I’m slowly eradicating sugar, it has to be Vegemite. If I could eat anything, Nutella… preferably on a fresh, warm crepe on a sidewalk in Paris, with a good coffee (I have done this once).

Dog, cat, goldfish (or pet leech)? Small dog (wire hair fox terrier perhaps) if it doesn’t bark too much (I hate yappy dogs). Or a cat if I can’t find the quiet dog.

Thank you, Jackie, for stopping by The Winged Pen!

Where can readers find you and your work?

You can order your own paperback or e-book copy of Emelin here.

For people in Australia the pricing for the paperback is better through my website www.JackieRandall.com or on the shelves at The Children’s Bookshop in Beecroft.

I blog on Goodreads,

And share illuminated manuscripts and a video on Pinterest.

The Emelin book trailer is on YouTube at https://youtu.be/ZbFyYRz7aLk.

Jackie’s Facebook page.

Jackie’s Twitter.

Headshot of Jackie Randall, author of EMELINJackie has been writing for tweens and teens since 2009. She loves researching and writing historical fiction especially medieval, but is also beginning to plan some pieces of Australian fiction based anywhere between 1850–1950.

The most important aspect of writing for Jackie is developing her writing to the best possible standard.

Jackie was born in England but left there in 1967. She has been back several times and has visited many of the places she writes about, including the remains of Reading Abbey that is featured in ‘Emelin’.

She has a husband, some children and a few grandchildren.

photo of Laurel DecherLAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. Find her on Twitter or her blog, This Is An Overseas Post. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale!

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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.

From Writing to Entrepreneuring

Writers serve their community. Actually, a good way to connect with your audience is to be of service because many writers are also future readers.

Some writers go beyond the usual networking and offer unique services to other writers. Brooke McIntyre is one of them. She helps connect writers with critique partners. She helps writers meet with agents and editors.

What drew me into her community was the opportunity to ask questions to professionals who might be otherwise hard to access. Brooke does not hesitate to work personally with you. She will take you by the hand, present you to other writers, and make sure you are connected to the right group.

Brooke McIntyre writes children’s picture books and some poetry. She doesn’t have an author’s website yet, but she has Inked Voices, a community for writers. And I am so excited to welcome her on The Winged Pen.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/InkedVoicesLLC/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/InkedVoices

Blog (this is new, new): http://blog.inkedvoices.com/

 

Sussu: Who are you, Brooke? What is your motto?

Brooke: Words to me are connection. To family, to myself and to the world. As a child, words were time spent one-on-one with my parents and especially my dad, who worked long days. Reading was a salve, helping me feel understood. It was also a portal to magical places. I started writing as a teenager to make sense of the world. Words, read or written, play versions of these roles for me today. Connection, and so, discovery.

I believe life is short and we should grab it and make a difference as best we can during our brief stint here. I believe in people and think we have an amazing opportunity to help one another realize our potentials.

 

Sussu: Why and when did you start Inked Voices? Did the project interfere with your writing?

Brooke: I started Inked Voices in 2013 as a solution for my personal critique group. We were exchanging manuscripts over email and critiquing with Google Docs and it felt disjointed and disorganized. I wanted a space where we could come together more collaboratively. I’m a very process-oriented person –it’s the same part of my mind that led me to my MBA—and I could see a better way. And so I started sketching it out on paper that summer. I reached out to writers and writing group organizers to get their feedback and tweaked the idea, working iteratively until I was satisfied. Then, in the fall I hired developers and started translating the idea into the tangible site it is today. The beta launched in the spring of 2014.

Before Inked Voices, I worked full-time in business-to-business marketing and strategy. Because I went from one full-time something to another, the amount of time I spent writing didn’t change. I was always writing in the margins. But starting Inked Voices allowed me to be surrounded by reading and writing—just where I wanted to be.

Now a few years in, I write much more than I did before and with consistency. I have to credit the women I’ve been working with in two different accountability groups on the site with that. The groups gave me the structure I needed to commit the time I wanted to.

 

Sussu: What skills did you need to build the server and advertise the site? On a scale of 1 to 10, how hard was it?

Brooke: Inked Voices is parts technology and parts community. Both of these are hugely important, but require different skill sets.

On the tech side, I knew I didn’t want a forum, but a web application built for the workshopping process. Inked Voices would allow writing groups to share work, exchange critiques and hold discussions in a single virtual workspace. This implied a custom-built web application.

To accomplish this, front and backend coding were required, as were design skills and project management. There were three months of full-time development before any writer saw the site, and development continues to this day. For a web application, it’s helpful to understand Agile development, which is a system of continuous innovation for tech. We make incremental improvements based on writer feedback and my vision. I manage our tech projects. With this, I conceptualize features in sketches, design process flows, and work with writers to understand their goals and translate them into capabilities. Our developers contribute their expertise and create the next build.

On the community side, skills in engagement, mentoring and coaching are important. I do a lot of one-on-one matching of writers with groups, and so networking, or facilitating connections, is another important skill.

To start something new, whether tech or not, you do not need to be able to do all the parts, but you do need to understand them and ensure things are done. What is easy or hard will vary depending on one’s own strengths and personal challenges.

Doing this has taken a lot of grit. Things go wrong and when you are so invested – time, finances and heart –it is more than tough. It can take a toll personally and on one’s family. But I go back to the joy of creating, building and connecting. The tenacity –just as in writing—is in the continued revision.

 

Sussu: You contact agents, writers, and editors. How do you contact them? Do you get a lot of rejections? 

Brooke: Agents and editors do critiques in our online First Pages events and sometimes they give talks for us as well. I research in advance and often work via referrals, either from agents who have done First Pages with Inked Voices in the past, or from our writers who may have met the person at a conference. I look for editorial agents and those who are strong teachers and mentors.

Sending an email is usually easiest. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to see the person speak and I will approach them after. When I first started, the process was a bit scary – who was I to do this? But the format has been awesome for both writers and agents and so my lack of confidence has faded. It is a matter of fit: what is the person acquiring and interested in coaching? What are the places I am trying to fill? How booked is the person’s schedule?

 

Sussu: What did you learn from creating this site? 

Brooke: There are so many levels to this question and the truth of things is that I learn something new every day. This is the first venture I’ve undertaken, and while I’ve had the background training in business and management-level experience, putting all the pieces together is a different matter. It seems easier on paper. J

From an expertise perspective, I’ve become very comfortable with the tech development process through work on Inked Voices and our writing tracker app Ink On. I’ve also learned much about building strong writing groups by working with writers, and observing successful and failed groups. Inked Voices is a 70-group strong learning lab.

I get the most joy from connecting with people individually and connecting others together. Perhaps the biggest lesson is one in humanity. I am humbled at the commitment, passion and belief that many of our writers bring to their work. I am inspired by what writers give in the way of their time and hearts to support other writers. And I feel too aware of the terrible challenges that people go through in their lives, that impact them as writers, as people. With that awareness, I try as much as possible to assume good intentions and give people the benefit of the doubt.

It goes back to connection. And I am lucky to be able to connect with writers through this medium.

 

If you liked this article, please connect to Sussu Leclerc on her website: Novel Without Further Ado, on Twitter: @bookriders1, and on Pinterest: bookriders1.

 

My Month of Poetry

I recently found myself in a writing rut. A hectic home life, a stressful and stressed-out world, and somehow writing became both trivial and inaccessible. I could not connect with my creativity, and it felt self-indulgent even to try.

Over dinner, a wise friend suggested a poetry challenge. Write a poem a day for thirty days, to clean out the spiders of doubt and despair, and to get my creativity flowing again.

Huh, I thought. Poetry.

I’ve written poetry off and on since college. I’ve never let anyone read it, not even my wife. But this wouldn’t need to be shared. This was about healing, not productivity or entertainment. And April, being National Poetry Month, certainly seemed an appropriate time for it.

I quietly decided to give it a try. The only rules I set were that each day I had to write a poem at some point before midnight, and that I was not allowed to read it after I closed the document.

I wasn’t sure how it would go, and so for the first week, I didn’t tell anyone that I was doing it. As the days stacked up, though, I became more confident. And then I began to have fun. Poems allow for such freedom to play with language and with white space. Amazing things came up. I would open the blank document expecting to write about one thing, and almost immediately, something entirely different came to my fingers. That’s what I’m worrying about? Who knew?

Some days were harder, particularly as I happened to choose the month we were moving back into our not-quite-fully renovated house. So, sometimes the poems were really short. On the day we moved, I wrote a haiku. Other days I wrote longer and more nuanced pieces. The topics varied. Some were intense, others light. The key was that I didn’t judge myself for what I wrote—for how good it was, or how many words I got down. I allowed myself to experiment and to explore my thoughts.

I started this in late March, so my thirty days are up today. It’s been both fun and illuminating. I’ve gotten back into the groove of daily writing, which feels wonderful. I have a moment each day of reflection and creativity, which I don’t believe I will be able to relinquish. My creativity has been primed, and I have a few new ideas for stories and writing projects. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve found a way to remember that writing is, for me, healing. I know that writing is a business, but that’s not all it is. It is a sacred practice, a way to connect with myself. And if I allow it to, it can save me.

For those looking for more ideas about writing and reading poetry, Laura Shovan, the wise friend who started me on this journey, has a wealth of information on her blog, including, this month, an amazing lineup of interviews with verse novelists. And if anyone is inspired to try a month of poetry, here are some prompts to help you get started.

Katharine Manning blogs here and at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. She writes middle grade stories about strong, brave girls who sometimes make mistakes. She was thrilled to serve as a 2016 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. You can find her online at www.katharinemanning.com, on Twitter, and on Instagram. Her book blog is KidBookList.

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!

 

First Pages: My Search for the Un-put-downable Start of a Story

I’m revising manuscript number five of my not-yet-illustrious writing career. The story is complete, has been read one critique partner and revised, and is ready to go to beta readers. This story has heists, fight scenes and even kissing (new for me since my prior stories were middle grade), and I’m very excited about it. I dream of agents begging me for this manuscript…if they get past the first five pages.

Sigh.

The story’s good, but the start…meh.

With past manuscripts, I’ve polished my first pages. Changed my start from the bus on the way to summer camp (which apparently rates as low as waking up in bed for interest level), to something more active. But I wasn’t looking for small improvements here. I’d really like manuscript five to be “the one,” so I pulled out all the stops on rethinking my first pages. I don’t want okay first pages. I’d settle for good, but not before trying for great.

Can I get to great?

Not sure. I hope so. (The gremlins are whispering probably not even as I write this). But I thought I’d share what I learned by trying.

What had me worried about my opening pages? Critique partners said they were “really close” but not quite there. I tried:

  • starting just before my main character’s life changed (two different ways),
  • just after her life changed,
  • a flash forward to near the climax for the “How did I get here?” effect,
  • a flashback to the incident that set the chain of events in motion,
  • the first confrontation with the bully, and
  • the first confrontation with the other main character/love interest.

I was pretty desperate for a set of first pages that would draw cries of “YES! THIS!” from critique partners and propel the reader into the manuscript. But kept getting the same very kind, sympathetic response. “Really close.”

What did I do wrong? In retrospect, it’s easy to see that some of my starts were destined to fail.

  • “No action,” said the critique partners.
  • “Scene 1 is too disconnected to scene 2.”
  • “What does this scene have to do with the story you pitched in your query?”

I felt in my gut that there was a set of great first pages for this story out there somewhere. There was this one scene, the scene the 2nd or 3rd in the manuscript depending on which first chapter option I was trying at the time, that worked. Critique partners said, “Things really started happening here.” I knew if I could just introduce the main character enough to set up this scene, that I could pull the reader in. But what words would do that, without getting my query slotted into the form reject pile before an agent ever got to that great scene?

I complained to the Pennies, because that’s why you have a writing group, so someone can pat you on the shoulder when you need it, and I found out something interesting. Julie Artz, whose lovely, heartfelt middle grade story I’d read months before, said she’d been through five versions of her first chapter. In fact, each of the first four chapters of her story had at one point been her first chapter. What? I felt like slightly less of a loser for sweating version after version of my first pages after that. Tara Lundmark, who I met at WriteOnCon when looking for more feedback on my pages, said she’d written ten different first pages for one of her stories. Armed with this knowledge, I dropped the angst and decided to just give in to as many rewrites as it took to get it right.

At this point, I’ve written 8 different versions of the start of my story, as well as polishing several versions, including the one currently titled “Chapter 1” in Scrivener. This is what I learned through the process of trying to make the start of my story un-put-downable.

 1. Don’t Fall in Love with One Set of First Pages.

I was stuck on Version 1 of my first pages for hours even after being told by trusted CP’s they weren’t right. I was stuck on Verion 2 for weeks. I loved the setting and how those pages developed my character. Allowing myself to get stuck on that idea blocked other ideas for how to start the story from flowing. Once I decided to not settle for meh, the ideas flooded in, as demonstrated by the fact that I ended up with 8 different starts. And, really, what’s the harm of trying something different? I wasn’t going to delete those words I loved, just tuck them out of the way. I could always go back to them if my new start wasn’t better.

2. Look to Master Books for Ideas.

Okay, admit it, you laughed at that flashback start. Everyone knows not to start with flashbacks. Except when they work. I was pulling ideas from master books. Both Harry Potter and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo start years earlier in their main characters’ lives. The idea for trying a flash forward came from Twilight and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Flashbacks and flash forwards can be done well, just not by me, at least not for this manuscript. But turning to master texts for ideas is great prep for brainstorming the start of your story.

3. Get Fresh Eyes.

I am blessed with wonderful critique partners who love me even when my words aren’t working. My closest critique partners had been hacking at this story idea with me from the idea stage, seven months before I hit my first pages wall. So when I got stuck, I wasn’t the only one too close to the story to see the pages clearly, they were too. That was stressful! Who do you turn to when that happens?

I found a couple great options: Adventures in YA Publishing holds a monthly first five pages workshop that is fabulous. (We also host our 4 on 400 contest monthly, but I can’t sub to that one!) WriteOnCon hosts an online writing conference with forums for posting your work and exchanging critiques with other writers. If all else fails, you can find a new critique partner. Someone I met on the WriteOnCon Forums asked if I wanted to exchange chapters, and since we’d already critiqued each others’ first five page and her comments were helpful, it was an easy decision. Just what I needed! A new reader who knew nothing about my story and had no worries about disappointing me.

4. Remember that Your First Pages Aren’t Your Only Pages.

I was jealous of Gita Trelease’s gorgeous first pages. They’d been right from soooo early in her revision process. Then, I was reminded that she was sweating her climax. The grass may look greener over by your critique partner’s writing desk, but there are weeds in everyone’s lawn.

Also, eventually you need to let those first pages rest so you can fix up the all the other pages in your manuscript. Don’t worry, they’ll still be there for you to take another look at later.

So, after writing 8 versions of my first pages, workshopping at Adventures in YA Publishing and WriteOnCon, and polishing the final pick, are my first pages unputdownable? Sigh. No. But they’re pretty good. Good enough that I’m going to take my own advice and move onto revising the rest of the story.

Maybe version 9 of my first pages will come to me while I revise.

Or maybe I’ll figure out how to polish this version until it’s unputdownable.

DON’T STOP HERE! If you made it through this post, I bet you’re a writer. And if you’re a writer, you’ve written some first pages and have something to say on this topic. HOW MANY VERSIONS OF FIRST PAGES DID YOU WRITE FOR YOUR WORK IN PROGRESS? WHAT HELPED YOU FIND THE RIGHT START FOR YOUR STORY? I’m no expert! Let’s learn together. Leave comments below!

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult thrillers with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

Tame Your Revision: 7 Tips to Finish Your Novel Before Your Battery Dies

Revising a novel is a form of bookkeeping. So many moving parts!! How do you keep from losing your mind?

Never fear, writer friends!

The Winged Pen is here!

Ta daaaa!

Give your revision Wings: Download the Tame Your Revision Infographic here.

INVENTORY

  1. Make a scene list.
  2. Timeline
  3. Map of Major Scenes
  4. Draw, Doodle, Diagram, Index Card, Cut up Manuscript, Synopsis, Query Letter, Colored Markers.

SLICE AND LABEL

  1. Duplicate all the scenes you want to revise. (#protip: Scrivener)
  2. Cut up into topics and label in Scrivener’s Binder. (“castle burns down” “tea party” “transition to vineyard”)
  3. Put like things together.
  4. Draft connections.

THROW STUFF OUT

  1. Duplicate all the files you want to revise. (If you didn’t already.)
  2. Delete everything that isn’t true.
  3. Cut stuff you don’t want. (Darlings, throat clearing, engine starting, letting characters off the hook.)
  4. Can you see?

FEEDBACK FOLDER

  1. Create feedback folders. (synopsis, draft, query, pitch) (#protip: Scrivener)
  2. Label files (reader/chapters/date. Paste in comments from e-mails.
  3. Add a status in Scrivener for “send to crit partners”, “to do”, “done”.

SORT BY SIZE

  1. Read Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K: How to write faster, write better, and write more of what you love.
  2. Make a list ranked by size of mess.
  3. Do the big stuff first.

CYCLE

  1. Go back a chapter. What did you promise the reader?
  2. Deliver it.
  3. Go forward a chapter. What did you deliver that needs to be set-up?
  4. Set it up.

DESPERATE MEASURES

  1. Find the question first. (See INVENTORY)
  2. Let subconscious work.
    (walks, water, sleep, music, whatever* works!)

*Dark chocolate Lindt truffles.

Happy revising! May your batteries and your Scrivener project targets always shine green!

Need that infographic link again? Here it is:

Give your revision Wings: Download the Tame Your Revision Infographic here.

photo of Laurel DecherLAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. You can read THE WOUNDED BOOK, her adventure story for young readers on Wattpad. Or find her on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.

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Creating Your Website

Welcome back to my series Basic Marketing for Authors. In the last blog post of this series, Creating Your Brand, I mentioned there are many uses for your brand including social media, promotion material, and websites.

Today we are focusing on websites. A scary, but necessary part of your platform and career-long marketing. (Who am I kidding? It’s all scary!) Okay, you have your brand. How do you use that to create a website?

Step one: take a deep breath. 

Step two: Buy a domain.

What is a domain? It is an easy to remember name that hides the technical IP address for web pages, and the easiest way for people to find you is by using your name. For example: halligomez.com. I am fortunate to have a unique name that was available (that’s the first time I’ve ever said that!) If your name is unavailable, try a similar variation such as gkbyrnebooks.com.

Step three: Decide on which company will host your site.

What is hosting? It is the business of housing, serving, and maintaining files for websites. You rent space on a host computer which assigns an address for files to your domain so anyone can find your website on the Internet.

There are many choices and most have similar features, so it may require a little research to find which products and services best suit you. Keep in mind some products are free and some cost money.

Step four: Choose a template and theme.

What are templates and themes? A template is the layout of your website, or where you put pictures and words (think of it as walls and furniture in a house). A theme is the design of your template/website, the specific colors, pictures, fonts, and words you choose (or paint and decorations).

Before choosing the template and theme, you must decide what your website will be used for. Marketing your books with cover reveals? A calendar of events? Blogging? All three?

All templates and themes have customization options, some offer basic changes while others allow you to be more creative. There are many companies, each offering a dizzying number of templates, so take your time and find the one right for you.

Step five: You have your template and theme, you’ve incorporated your brand, now you have to decide what to put on your website. This is a list for published and unpublished authors, although not everything will apply to both.

  1. Your bio including a professional headshot (Ugh! Painful.)
  2. Links to your social media profiles
  3. A contact form for readers to subscribe to your website and for you to collect emails to send notifications of those very important announcements like your publication date(s).
  4. Book cover images and brief descriptions of your book(s)
  5. Reviews of your book(s)
  6. Links to major online retailers selling your book(s)
  7. Contact information for agent or publicist

Obviously you want your website to be a place for readers to find your books, but until you have some to offer, or before your next one is published, what can you do to engage readers? A few suggestions are promotions, giveaways, writing tips, daily/weekly/monthly inspirational quotes, games, and blog posts.

Which brings us to the question I hear the most when writers are creating a website: to blog or not to blog?

The answer has been consistent throughout the industry. If you are going to blog, you need a new post at least once a month. Once a week is even better, but a lot of writers have other jobs, families, and necessary activities such as breathing and showering (not necessarily in that order). Keeping up with a weekly blog is difficult.

No matter what format you chose for your website, it is important to remember who your audience is and will be. Before you have published books, your audience may be other writers and agents (I’ve heard some agents look for your online presence, including a website, and others do not.) When you have book(s) published, your audience will include readers, parents, teachers, and librarians.

I love to check out writer websites! Please comment and provide a link to yours.

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.

Twitter 101 for Writers

Over the holidays, my father-in-law mentioned that a friend had just written a book, his memoirs about the Vietnam War. Since my father-in-law knows I write, I felt like I should offer to help his friend, but I write middle grade and young adult stories. What useful advice would I have?

Then I asked if his friend was on Twitter. He wasn’t. That opened up a wealth of information and connections that could help him revise his manuscript, find an agent, or self-publish his story. I thought we might have a few Twitter newbies following the blog, or others who got the “my friend wrote a book” prompt over the holidays, so I decided it was worth a post.

The Twitter writing community is awesome, a great resource at all stages of the writing process. While you’re writing, it can be the water cooler, the place to chat for a few minutes between projects. It’s also a great source of craft advice. Once you’ve finished a manuscript, it’s a source of advice on revising your project to make it the best story it can be. You can also find critique partners to exchange your work with and get feedback from. When you’re ready to get your work out into the world, Twitter can help you learn about literary agents or participate in writing contests. Or if your plan is to self-publish, you can find out how and connect with professionals who specialize in packaging books. And it doesn’t take much time on Twitter to see that it’s an avenue for book promotion.

Where can a writer go on Twitter to dig into these topics?

Community

Writing is a solitary process. But Twitter can help you find like-minded folks who’ll inspire you to get your butt out of bed at 5:00 am to get some words written before work, or someone to chat with when taking a few minutes off from banging on your keyboard. Great hashtags for finding writing folks are:

#5amwritersclub
#AmWriting
#1linewed

Look for people writing in your age category or genre, or whose stories interest you. Follow them and over time you’ll carve out “your people” in the Twitter writing community.

Craft

There’s always more to learn – story structure, character development, how to write those darn kissing scenes. I don’t even know what aspects of craft might be important to a memoir…but I know someone on Twitter does. I frequent #kidlit, but found a bunch of hashtags for different genres in just a couple minutes.

#memoir
#TravelWriting
#HistFic (for historical)
#steampunk
#nonfiction

Writing hashtags will help you find experts who tweet about helpful topics, frequently with links to blog posts with even more info. I like:

@writerunboxed
@ayaplit (Adventures in Young Adult Publishing)
@nerdybookclub
And, of course, @WingedPen!

Revising

Once you’ve got a draft of your story, or at least the first few chapters, you need some critique partners to help you refine your story – identify what’s working well, what’s not clear and what’s just plain boring (erm…I mean…the pacing’s off). Find them through the community of writers you’re building or on critique partner match-ups hosted from-time-to-time by bloggers. #amrevising is a good hashtag for connecting with other writers trying to fix their words and for advice on wrangling your hot-mess of a first draft into something great.

Pitching

If you’ve chosen the traditional publishing route and are looking for a literary agent, many have an active presence on Twitter. You can follow them to get a sense of their personality and taste in books. Their Twitter profile should have a link to their website where you can find submissions guidelines. #askagent has querying tips, or try #10queries if you like advice without any sugar-coating.

You can also find writing contests and pitching opportunities on Twitter. The rules for writing contests vary. Some, like our 4 on 400 contest or Adventures in YA Publishing’s First Five Pages workshop, are focused on feedback. Others are selective and aim to refine your work and get it in front of agents. Selective contests include #sunvssnow, #pitchmad, #pitchwars, and many others.

Pitch contests allow you to pitch your story in a 140-word tweet. This is no easy feat! See our post here on writing a killer Twitter pitch. Pitch contests include #pitmad, #pitchmas and #sffpit.

Self-Publishing

If you’re going the self-publishing route, you’ll need things like cover art, a cover designer, and an editor to give your words a final polish. Tons of advice is available over on:

#selfpublish
#indiepublishing

Promotion

If you’ve checked out any of these hashtags, you probably found that there’s lots of book promotion happening on Twitter. #amreading is a good place to start.

 

The bottom line is there’s a mountain of information out there to help you no matter what point you’re at in your writing journey. But don’t forget to turn off your internet and get back to writing!

Want to know more about leveraging Twitter to support your writing? The Twitter 101 for Writers series continues with Building Your Writing Community.

What are your favorite spots for hanging out with the Twitter writing community and getting writerly questions answered? Let us know in the comments! And if you have any tips for my father-in-law’s friend writing memoir, please let me know that too!

For more on leveraging Twitter as a writer, see my prior posts:
Twitter 101 for Writers: Building Your Community
Twitter 101 for Writers: Etiquette

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult thrillers with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

Creative Cross-Pollination

Cross-pollination: the transfer of pollen from one type of plant to another type of plant of the same species, often by insects or wind.

When you’re working really hard on a writing project, tunnel vision can creep in. It makes sense. Your life is busy, the publishing industry is slow, and you need to finish your book yesterday. So if you have time to do anything, you focus on books written in the genre and age-group that you’re writing for. You follow writers, editors, and agents in that specific field. And while some of that intense, single-minded focus is absolutely necessary, I’m going to encourage you to be open to cross-pollination.

Cross-pollination for plants is necessary for their survival. Some trees, such as willows, depend on it because willows don’t have male and female plant parts on the same tree. For other plants, cross-pollination ensures that the successive offspring are diverse, robust, and potentially more likely to survive changes in the environment, such as drought.

In order to create books that will stand out in the marketplace, I believe it’s necessary to open yourself up to influences outside your literary ‘gene pool.’ Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games is a case in point. In an interview, Collins noted that she’d read the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur when she was eight and it had stuck with her. And then,

One night, I was lying in bed, and I was channel surfing between reality TV programs and actual war coverage. On one channel, there’s a group of young people competing for I don’t even know; and on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting in an actual war. I was really tired, and the lines between these stories started to blur in a very unsettling way. That’s the moment when Katniss’s story came to me.

Collins had already absorbed a literary precedent (Greek myths). Her open mind then took in a story of children in war (journalism/non-fiction) and a story of children in a competition (reality TV): those disparate sources came together to create a literary work that was compelling, complex, different—and an enormous success.

So go ahead, blur the lines. If you write MG fantasy, read PB non-fiction. Read biographies, like the one that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to create Hamilton. Read manga and a book of obituaries. Go to the circus and think about writing. Listen to podcasts about the past. Learn a new language, do something you used to do when you were younger, sing in a choir. Take in the ballet, watch a documentary, visit an art exhibit or an ethnic grocery.

I think most writers do this very naturally; but this year, one of my goals to cross-pollinate more consciously. I’ve set aside pages in my journal where I’m listing the disparate things that spark something for me. Interestingly, the more I do this, the more I see.

So, be the bee. Blur the lines. Stay open to the wind.

I’ll be tweeting cross-pollination inspiration under the hashtags #amwriting, #creativity, and #crosspollinate, as well as on my blog. I hope you’ll join in with what inspires you.

This week’s inspiration: a man devotes himself to sculpting espaliered trees.

 

Further reading:

Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist and his blog

Jessica Crispin, The Creative Tarot

Cheryl Klein, The Magic Words

 

IMG_1617 GITA TRELEASE writes YA fantasy. She was born in Sweden and has lived in France, Italy, and the United States. In her former life as a college professor, she taught classes on fairy tales, monsters, and Victorian criminals. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and Maine Coon, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current project takes place during the French Revolution: hot-air balloons and gambling, decadence and dark magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

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