It’s BACK! Master Your Craft Returns

So you’ve finished your book, polished and pruned and read it through a few million times. What do you do now?

The Winged Pen’s Master Your Craft (#WPMYC) Series is back to guide you through all the hard work that comes after you finally complete your novel.

Next week, we’ll be tackling the very first question you should ask yourself when you’ve revised as much as you think you can and are ready to think about querying: Are you really ready?

Then you can look forward to weekly posts about writing the perfect query letter, tackling the dreaded synopsis, pulling together your list of potential agents, querying strategies, and more.

Many of the posts we’ll share will have multiple Pennies bringing our unique perspectives, experiences and success stories, so you can be sure this won’t be a prescriptive, do-this-not-that series. We’re confident you’ll be able to find some advice that resonates for you and helps you along your path.

We’re all really excited for this next phase of Master Your Craft, and we hope you are, too. Make sure you subscribe to the blog so you don’t miss a post.

And if you have questions, hit us up in the comments!

Dear Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

I’ve been writing love letters to books that shaped me, as a person and as a writer, and for this month, it’s Karen Foxlee’s Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy. I so enjoyed this book, a dreamy and beautiful retelling of the Snow Queen. What I want to talk about today, though, is how it influenced my writing.

I write contemporary fantasies, and love to come up with sumptuous settings and vast and daring adventures. When writing my first book, though, I kept getting feedback that readers weren’t connecting with the main character. I tried all the tricks for character development. I wrote questionnaires and character sketches galore. I composed backstory that would never see the light of day, and even drew pictures. Nothing.

When I met Ophelia, it finally clicked. The story is just the kind I like, with a heartbreak at its center, and an epic battle to save a beloved driving it on. But this character was so likeable. I devoured it for the story, but I studied it for the technique. How did she do that?

A few things, I decided. Done so quickly that they could easily be missed, but crucial in establishing character immediately. Consider the title of chapter one: “In Which Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard discovers a boy in a locked room and is consequently asked to save the world.” That is followed swiftly by the first line: “Ophelia did not consider herself brave.” Right away we know both that Ophelia is going to have to do something very important, and that she is not going to be thrilled about it. That makes me curious, and it makes her seem self-effacing. I like that.

Ophelia’s reluctant bravery is a characteristic carried throughout the story. Every time that marvelous boy locked in the room asks Ophelia to do something, she says no. Then, grudgingly, she does it anyway, because she can’t just leave him locked in that room. She takes on incredibly scary tasks, but hems and haws and complains the whole time, which certainly seems relatable to me. I wouldn’t want to go walking through rooms of ghosts, either.

Foxlee also gives Ophelia a few idiosyncrasies that help us to see her more clearly, and that show us Ophelia’s fear without her having to remind us. Ophelia makes lists to distract herself. She tugs on her braid when she’s worried, and when she gets really scared, she has to take a puff of her inhaler. Isn’t that perfect?

I began to think anew about other characters I love. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we see the Dursleys’ horrid treatment of Harry, and then one of the first things Harry does is free an unhappy snake from its cage. He is an underdog, and he wants to save other underdogs. In The Golden Compass, we see Lyra hide and eavesdrop, but ultimately come clean and risk punishment to protect her uncle. She is sneaky and has a strong sense of self-preservation, but also a redeeming moral code.

It isn’t merely about fleshing out character, I realized. Lists of their favorite ice cream flavors and the like weren’t helping, because they didn’t reveal what the reader needed to understand about the character for this story. Ophelia’s inhaler sure did, though. I now believe that the key to a good characterization is to understand the character’s defining quality that drives the story, then give a clear early example of it and a few tics or traits that show it throughout. For that understanding, I will always be grateful to Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy.

Favorite quote:

Ophelia had never been prophesied before. It made her feel annoyed.

Kate Hillyer writes stories about brave girls who fight for what they love. She blogs here and at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. She currently serves as a Cybils judge for Poetry and Novels in Verse. You can find her on Twitter and at www.katehillyer.com. 

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How to Survive Your Toughest Draft

For the last couple of years, every time one of my writer pals would ask me what I was working on, the answer was the same breezy, “Oh, I’m still plugging away on that rockstar mom book I told you about ages ago.”

I’m pretty sure that more than a few of them wondered if I shouldn’t just give it up and move on to something else. Something that would actually get written. And if they didn’t, they were stronger, better writers than me because that was something I wondered every time I sat down with my laptop.

But I persisted, mostly out of sheer stubbornness, and I completed a very, very messy first draft in April of last year. In November, I finally had it shaped into something resembling a novel.

FINALLY!

I’m not sure why this draft took so much longer than anything else I’ve ever written. I could cite a busier-than-ever family life, or a robust year of paid freelance work. Maybe it was because most days, I can be best described as a “ball of anxiety with fingers.”

But I can tell you how I got through an interminable draft (and managed to avoid quitting writing entirely!).

I Was Selfish. My mantra this past year has been “eyes on your own paper.” I withdrew from social media, avoided contests, and spent a lot less time engaging with other writers. It was difficult, and I felt like a jerk, but I knew that my top priority needed to be getting my work done. I am thrilled for my friends who have been out in the world this past year, but I knew I would not be with them. Not right now. Right now, my entire focus had to be a bit selfish. Eyes on my own work.

But Not Too Selfish. Instead of focusing on what *I* wanted – to finish the draft, to write a great book, to get an agent, to get a publishing contract – I made a choice instead to focus on service. We’re writing books for people, specifically children and/or teens, to read. So while I wanted to tell the story of my heart, I kept in mind that, ultimately, that heart-story needed to be in service of the teenage reader. That guiding star helped me re-focus when my way wandered and kept me writing when it seemed I would never get done.

I lowered my expectations. For years, I wrote 1,000 words a day, five days a week. I had reasonable expectations of finishing a draft in a couple of months, of being able to query a book every year, of catching the attention of an agent in the near future. But this year, I realized that wasn’t going to be possible. I spent some time looking over those expectations in a bright light, and I realized that they weren’t doing me any good. I’m a goal-setter and a rule-follower, but that doesn’t matter much in the wider world. No one is lining up to give me a cookie because I did things in the right order, in the right way, at the right time. So I made 2017 the year of NO expectations, other than that I would keep my head down and keep writing.

I used a timer. In order to take some pressure off but still keep getting words down, I started writing for 15 timed minutes each day. That was it. When the timer went off, I stopped. If it was the middle of a sentence, so much the better! That way I had a starting point for the next day. There were days when I only logged 5-10 words on a tricky scene. But I counted those as writing sessions and just kept going.

I relinquished control. Years ago, a colleague of mine listened to me rant about how other people were failing to do their jobs and it was ruining what I was doing. She said, “Well, you can’t control the outcome. You can only control what you put in to it.” That rattled through my head this year. I can’t control what happens with this or any piece of writing. All I can do is control what I put into it. So that is all I worried about.

I reached out. A few times over the course of the year, I did reach out to other writers to share what was going on with me and to reconnect with their work. Getting out of my head was important, but even better was the chance to share in others’ creative processes, successes and challenges. I went out and saw art and live music, too, feeding my own creativity. Writing is so solitary that it’s nice to remember there are other artists out there traveling a similar path.

I looked for joy, not results. I won’t sugarcoat it: for months I was pretty sure I was going to quit writing entirely. Writing for me is a singular joy. Word counts and pursuing publication and developing platform are not joyful. Letting go of the results side of writing for goal-oriented me was painful for my ego, but it was manna for the creative part of my soul, the part that just wants to play with words and stories and doesn’t actually care if anyone reads them. That play without pressure was revitalizing in a way that I desperately needed this year.

Some might call what I experienced this past year Writer’s Block. But I don’t think that’s what it was, even after taking two years to draft a novel. After all, I wrote all the time, and the words flowed fine, when I could find the time to let them flow.

But something happened with this year, with this manuscript that tested me – and I was reminded again that writing fiction is not for the faint-hearted!

If you find yourself facing a similar time of slow production mixed with a bit of despair and a burning desire to quit the game entirely, I have some advice:

Take a deep breath.

Then: Head down, do the work however you can, don’t worry about the mess, keep your eyes on your own paper.

Find your joy.

 

RICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon, often in the company of her husband and their three spirited children. 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.

Writing About Native Americans: A Diversity Conversation with Kara Stewart

Welcome to The Winged Pen, Kara! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about Writing About Native Americans. I know many readers/writers in my circle are eager to learn more about this topic. Tell us a little about yourself and your passion for Native American Literature, especially for children.

Kara: I’ve been a Literacy Coach and Reading Specialist in the public schools for twenty years. I was the Honor winner in 2014 for Lee & Low’s New Voices award, and am still working on that manuscript! I’m an enrolled member of the Sappony and have served a number of terms on the North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education and my Tribal council, am an educational consultant, and was the recipient of a University of North Carolina’s 2015 Community Diversity Award. I’m also an SCBWI Carolinas member.

As a Sappony person, I’ve done a lot of stereotype busting in the schools. Instruction is driven not just by data, but also by popular literature, resources, and what people think they know, and when those concepts are inaccurate and full of stereotypes, so is the instruction and hence, the learning. I want to break that cycle of misrepresentation for all children so that it won’t continue to roll on for the next three hundred years as it as for the past three hundred years.

Based on the most recent data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, although there has been a small increase in the number of books written about Native Americans in recent years, the number of books written by Native American authors remains rather flat.

Related to this information, is it okay for non-Native Americans to write books about Native Americans or with Native American main characters? Should these types of books primarily be #ownvoices? What type of knowledge/experience should an author have before they write a book about Native Americans?

This has been quite the controversial topic over the last few years. I can’t give ‘the Native opinion’ – I can only give my personal opinion. After reading hundreds of books about and including Native people by non-Native people in a professional capacity and as a parent (now a grandparent), I do believe these books should be #ownvoices.

My reasons fall into two major categories:

1)    Colonialist/inaccurate/stereotypical portrayals- I have read books by non-Natives that technically have the facts correct, but the overall atmosphere of the book is still colonialist, which was most likely not the author’s intent. But does intent matter when a child reads that book and either has the colonialist mindset reinforced, or a Native child is given reminders that their family is ‘less than’? Can you, as a non-Native writer, recognize when your words combine in a way that perpetuates a colonial mindset?

2)    We should leave these stories for Native authors to tell, ones who are finding it difficult to get published. Many agents and editors seem to find the colonial/inaccurate/stereotypical content more palatable and probably marketable, as it is the same content about us that has been cycling for hundreds of years.

I’d like to take this opportunity to give air time to some authors who have already written phenomenal blog posts about this topic. Writers will find a lot to chew over in these posts.

·      Jacqueline Woodson’s Who Can Tell My Story in The Horn Book

·      Torrey Maldonado’s Write What You Know: Encouraging Young Authors of Color on Ideas Never Sleep

·      Torrey Maldonado’s Demand Change in the Publishing World on Ideas Never Sleep

·      Celia C. Pérez’ When Google Translate Gives You Arroz Con Mango: Erroneous Español and the Need for #ownvoices in The Horn Book

·      Sarah Hannah Gomez’ How Privilege and Diversity Affect Literature and Media on Scoop.it!

·      Margarita Engle’s Cuba For Beginners on Multiculturalism Rocks!

I’d also like to invite writers to read some of my blog posts on writing about American Indians to get an idea of the nuance necessary (with over 567 very different sovereign federally-recognized nations and hundreds more sovereign state-recognized nations, nuance is everything), and real life consequences to Native people:

·      Writing About Native Americans

·      On Obligation and Percy

·      Indian 101 for Writers – co-written with Alison DeLuca, a five part traveling blog series that can be used as a mini-course and perhaps the most important resource in this post specific to American Indians.

With the push to make sure children’s literature mirrors the diversity we see in the real world, many authors are trying to be more inclusive with the characters in their novels.

Is it okay for authors to write novels with supporting characters who are Native American? What advice do you have for avoiding stereotypes and harmful narratives?

Professor Snape was a secondary character. Yet we knew him deeply – or so we thought! He was fully fleshed out and came alive from his mannerisms and attitudes to his outward manifestations of his beliefs and motivations.

Secondary, and even tertiary, characters shouldn’t be demoted to the token Indian, or the speck of diversity to attract an agent or editor. I think writers need to ask themselves why they want to write a Native character. See more on this on Questions Agents and Editors Can Use To Evaluate Native Content.

A tool you will want to learn to use to avoid stereotypes and harmful narratives is the Criteria From How To Tell the Difference: A Guide for Evaluating Children’s Books for Anti-Indian Bias (adapted from oyate.org).

It was created originally by the wonderful people at Oyate as a tool to evaluate already-written books. Media specialists and teachers who attend my workshops report afterwards that it does take three or four passes at evaluating books before they feel they have the hang of it, but through using it they have become much more adept at recognizing harmful narratives, inaccuracies and stereotypes. Writers can also use it to learn to evaluate their own writing, although they will most likely need to study Indian 101 for Writers first. The Criteria would be a great activity for writing critique groups.

As writers, you will also want to be sure to use sensitivity/beta readers. This is a great way to find problematic language and bias you may not realize are in your writing. You can find helpful thoughts and even a spreadsheet full of people willing to be sensitivity readers on Writing In The Margins. Debbie Reese has also written a very helpful post on her blog American Indians in Children’s Literature that is specific to Native content. If you do hire a sensitivity/beta reader, please be sure to believe her or him. It is discouraging when you care enough about your group to offer these services, but your feedback is primarily met with the author defending their writing.

Those are great points, Kara! We talked about sensitivity readers and the importance of well-developed characters in this recent post. What can we do as consumers, educators, writers, and readers to increase the number of books written by Native Americans and to raise awareness about correctly portraying Native American culture in literature?

The good news is that there are many things you can do! The number one best thing you can do is to educate yourself, which means being willing to put in a LOT of time reading and thinking – not just about Native Americans, but about yourself, and being willing to seriously consider and reconsider beliefs you may hold, uncomfortable as that may be.

One tool to help you with this is Indian 101 for Writers. If you are serious about wanting to learn as a writer, reading all five parts and investigating the resources listed in it will be a mini-course worth your time. Take your time and let the information sink in.

Another great thing you can do is promote Native authors. There are so many amazing books out written by Native authors! Debbie Reese has a Best Books page by year that includes very recently published books, and the North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education has a lengthy Recommended Books About American Indians list. Just a few of my personal favorites are Tim Tingle’s How I Became A Ghost and Saltypie, Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get Out of Here, Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House series, We Sang You Home by Richard Van Camp and Julie Flett, and Cynthia Leitich Smiths Jingle Dancer.

Thank you, Kara! So many great resources and things to think about in your responses! We greatly appreciate your time and your dedication to helping other writers and readers!

Thank you, Michelle, for inviting me to share my thoughts and information with you and your readers!

For more great books written by Native Americans, check out our post from last month on Native American Literature for Young Readers.

For more information about Kara Stewart check out and follow her blog From Here to Writernity. Or follow her on Twitter.

 

 

 

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, an Indie children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

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MYC: Do You Need Feedback? Yes!

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 talked about Writing with Your 5 Senses  This week, we’re discussing feedback.

Writing is a lonely business. We joke about our “co-workers” being animals and cups of coffee, and for the majority of the work, such as drafting and querying, that is true. But there comes a time when we need to get out of our pajamas and reach out to others. Critique partners and feedback are necessary parts of the writing life. Let’s face it, writing is hard, revising is hard, and rejections are heartbreaking. We can’t, and shouldn’t, bear those alone. Today three Pennies, Richelle, Halli, and Gita, are here to help.

Where Can We Find Critique Partners?

Richelle: A good CP who gets your work makes a huge difference. Conferences, online contests, and message boards are all great places to find them.

Halli: I found my first CP’s at an SCBWI conference and others through the SCBWI discussion groups. (See a pattern?) Some work, some don’t, but CP’s should offer the right amount of support and honesty for you and your writing.

Gita: Conferences are a good place to look—that’s where I found my first two, who have stuck with me through all sorts of stormy weather. Contests, too. In terms of qualities to look for, you need to have readers who will both call you out and cheer you on.

When Should We Seek Feedback?

Richelle: I usually get one or two people to read my first coherent draft. I may send a couple of chapters out for spot checks at any point during writing. I do another round once I’ve got it basically “done”. And I usually ask for a few volunteers to look at the first 3 chapters right before I query.

Halli: I wait until I have a pretty decent revised draft. When I have a good hold on where the characters are going and what they want to see out of their story. That way when feedback comes, I know if my vision is clear.

Gita:  I’ll ask for readers on a pre-draft query or synopsis, then a long synopsis outlining my story (15,000 words), followed by a few readers reading the first draft and, then, finally, I’ll ask for feedback on what I think of as the second-to-last draft. Phew! I’m lucky to have CPs who are willing to read twice. They are GOLD.

How Much Feedback Should We Get?

Richelle and Halli: For us, 3-5 trusted readers are the sweet spot for the whole manuscript. The list gets longer when you figure in those who might help with the first couple of chapters, a query, a tricky spot, or a specific issue about which they have expertise. We find too much feedback overwhelming, but we need enough to get a sense of what’s generally working and what’s not.

Gita: I like to do a few rounds of feedback at different stages of the drafting process. The number of people reading in each round may vary—sometimes it’s just one person, sometimes a few at once. Getting several responses at once can feel overwhelming, but it’s also useful, because if a few people say a certain character isn’t working, I’ll know I’ll have to deal with that!

When is it Okay to Ignore Feedback?

Richelle: I usually ignore comments that either really didn’t get what I was trying to do or that are the opposite of what other readers are saying. But even then, I mull them over. Sometimes they’ll spark something later on.

Halli: I group my critiques together and see what the majority says about a certain issue. If the majority understands (or doesn’t), I will put aside the random comment. But only after I make sure to look at the CP’s life experiences that may have influenced their comment.

Gita: I never ignore feedback. My reader took time to respond to my work and I will always ponder what they have to say. Sometimes a comment—especially one that’s proscriptive, telling me to do x—may not at first seem to be useful, but if I dig down to the “deep” comment below the “surface” comment, there’s often something there.

How Can You Survive Feedback?

Richelle: When I started out as a copywriter, I had a boss who marked up my work with red pen and labeled it “AWFUL!” or “BORING!!!” (with triple underlines and big, fat red circles). So I am pretty Teflon when it comes to criticism. That said, I prefer working with people who critique in a positive and cheerleading manner. If you struggle, try to remember that when people critique your work, they’re not saying you are bad, they’re saying that you have the power to make your work better.

Halli: This is one of the places you need thick skin. It’s hard not to take critiques personally because we’ve put so much energy into our stories and I have been known to scream, cry, and sulk after reading them. I do try to read the comments and take a step back. A day, two days, a week while I let my brain process the meaning. Then I dive back in.

Gita: Unless I know what to do right away, I print out the notes, write my responses in the margins, and then let the feedback sit for a week, or more if I have time. Everything looks more doable after a little time has passed.

What was the Best Feedback You Received?

Richelle: My two best moments of feedback came at at a workshop. An agent rebuked me for being too prescriptive in some feedback I was giving in a small group, which was a lightbulb moment for my own writing. Now I ask myself questions instead of dictating ideas, and it makes a huge difference in how I develop characters and plots. And another agent gave me the feedback gift of completely understanding and articulating what I was trying to do with my novel.

Halli: The best feedback came just recently from an agent’s first reader. It was glowing. All of it. She got me, my characters, and our story. It was a dream come true review.

Gita: This wasn’t feedback per se, but more of a meta-comment from my agent about dealing with her feedback. In a preface to her notes, she told me that her edits were not instructions, but suggestions—even if they didn’t sound that way. This is really important to remember.

What was the Worst Feedback You Received?

Richelle: I received some editor feedback last year on a pitch that was complimentary, but very vague. I had no idea what she wanted to see, and I’m not sure I succeeded in implementing it at all!

Halli: The hardest feedback I received was also one of the best writing lessons. “Your book starts in chapter three. Toss the rest.” I didn’t understand at first because it was the backstory that set up my character’s personality. You see where I’m going right? First chapter and backstory should not be in the same sentence.

Gita: I find structural changes—hey, move this chapter closer to the beginning—the hardest to implement, because even a “small” structural change like that can affect so much of the manuscript.

We hope this post helps you understand the good and bad of feedback. It’s a necessary evil, but one that will allow you to continue growing as a writer. For more information on finding critique partners, being one, and dealing with feedback, check out these Winged Pen posts: Finding Critique PartnersMore on Finding Critique Partners, The Seven Stages of Writerly Grief, and How to Give a Good Critique.

See you next week for our Master Your Craft post on Editing.

 

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Need Stronger Backstory for Your Characters? The Emotional Wound Thesaurus to the rescue!

Bookcover for The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Psychological TraumaAt The Winged Pen, we’ve written about Angela Ackerman’s and Becca Puglisi’s wonderful writing books before. So we’re super excited to tell you about their newest one:

The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma.

Yay!!!!! *shoots off rockets*

A wound, in the writing world, is the hurt the main character carries around that keeps him or her holding onto a lie.

A few examples of wounds from The Emotional Wound Thesaurus:

  • Being Bullied
  • A Speech Impediment
  • Failing to Do the Right Thing
  • Witnessing Violence at a Young Age

A lie can be anything that the character uses to protect that wound from getting bumped again. The same lie keeps the character from moving forward and achieving his or her goal.

Replacing the lie with a healthier truth gives the character partial healing. Transformed, he or she can win the battle or the soulmate, seize the prize, or lead the team to victory.

Where do authors find the lies for their characters to confront? Like all other aspects of story, lies are all around us. Unfortunately, the flaws in our characters (and in our own character) that are perfectly visible to everyone else—friends, enemies, readers—are flickering, distorted images for us. Critique partners, editors, and beta readers can help us bring them into focus.

The title of my work-in-progress, THE WOUNDED BOOK, feels a little ironic to me today, because the long process of working on it has wounded me and healed me by turns. This is the mysterious alchemy of writing: we write what we know and sometimes healing our character’s wounds helps us heal our own.

For example, J.K. Rowling’s dementors in her Harry Potter books are a terrifyingly realistic metaphor for depression. I don’t presume to know what personal connection they may have had for her, but, as a reader, I recognized them immediately. In this video of her visit to the apartment where she first wrote Harry Potter’s story, she talks about how hard writing was.

Her belief in Harry’s story carried her through and presumably changed her life as much as Harry’s story changed millions of readers.

Writing believable characters is challenging, but worthwhile. It’s the inverse of reading a book that tells a truth you always suspected, but could never articulate.

I’m looking forward to “shopping” a little in The Emotional Wound Thesaurus. I may finally diagnose my main character’s wound in a way that transforms her into the person I always meant her to be: a girl who encourages and challenges middle grade readers to become the truest versions of themselves!

Happy Writing!

Bonus: The Emotional Wound Thesaurus promises to be extra useful for creating characters when used with the well-loved Reverse Backstory Tool (from The Negative Trait Thesaurus.) It’s my absolute favorite for building strong characters.

More Bonuses: The Emotional Wound Thesaurus includes the new Backstory Wound Profile and the new Character Arc Progression Tool. You can download them free on Angela and Becca’s Tools for Writers page. There’s also a #writerspersevere giveaway in honor of the new thesaurus!

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 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!

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MYC: Tightening

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 talked about Sentence, Paragraph, Chapter, and Story Length. This week, we’ll discuss Ten Steps to Tightening.

One of the important steps in the revision process is tightening. This is a multi-level, multi-step process, but oh so important to make your writing sparkle. This task is a bit tedious, so I normally save it for the end, just before sending it to betas.

1. Cut unnecessary words!

  • Eliminate as many of these as possible: very, really, just, back, up, quite, rather, start, begin
  • Eliminate “that” (but be careful with “that”––sometimes “that” makes a sentence much more readable). That phrases can be tightened. Example: The house that sat up on the big hill… becomes… The house up on the big hill…
  • Eliminate “of” when it follows all, off, outside
  • Check “up” and “down” when it follows a verb. Chances are you don’t need it. Example: Sat down at the table. Stood up.
  • So” and “such” are unnecessary: so tired, so lovely, such injustice, such beauty
  • Look at “but“. Sometime it’s a good conjunction and sometimes you can use it to start a sentence as an emphasis word. Often you can cut the “but” and write two separate, more powerful sentences. If you use “but” to start sentences often, it loses its punch.

To eliminate these unnecessary words, in your Word document, type the word in the Find function. Go through the entire document and delete as many as possible. Then move on to the next word.

I’ve found that after going through the exercise of doing this on several manuscripts, I’ve trained myself to use these words less often in more recent WIPs.

2. Cut unnecessary dialogue tags!

Said, answered, asked…

You can definitely do this, especially if you are paragraphing your dialogue appropriately so that it is clear who is saying what.

Example:

“Pass me that tomato,” Dad said as he grabbed the cutting board and a serrated knife.

“Pass me that tomato.” Dad grabbed the cutting board and a serrated knife.

3. Cut filtering verbs!

These include overused seeing verbs and thinking verbs: heard, saw, felt, knew, imagined, wondered, pondered, thought, understood, realized

For the sensing verbs, the sentence is normally stronger without the filter. Example: She heard the car door slam against the garage wall. Replace with: The car door slammed against the garage wall.

For the thinking verbs, just deliver the information or ask the question directly.

Examples:

She thought about all the people like her who had failed to finish college.

So many others like her had failed to finish college.

She wondered why she’d been successful when so many others had failed.

Why had she been successful when so many others had failed?

4. Question your adjectives! 

I’m not bashing adjectives here. They can stir emotions and visual images that are comforting and make the story come to life. But sometimes ,the description is excessive and takes you right out of the story.

Do you really need to say a “bright, warm, cloudless, sunshiny day”? I think not. Think about how your character would describe it and keep it simple.

5. Also question your adverbs!

We already got rid of “really” and “very”, but carefully scrutinize your -ly words to make sure they add value to each sentence. Sometimes an adverb is just a signal that you need a more precise verb and. Example:

She spread butter thickly on the toast and quickly put it in her mouth on the way out the door.

She loaded the toast with butter and stuffed it in her mouth on the way out the door.

6. Eliminate redundancies!

She nodded her head and shrugged her shoulders.

This can be simply be written as: She nodded and shrugged.

Another example:

Emily began eating her soggy bagel. Three boys ran into the cafeteria and started yelling, “Everyone, go outside. Now!”

“Began” and “started” are redundant. Skip them both.

Emily ate her soggy bagel. Three boys ran into cafeteria yelling, “Everyone, go outside. Now!”

7. Check for “was”! 

A high density of “was” in your writing normally signals that your sentence structure doesn’t have much flavor and is likely very passive. Often this means you aren’t using active verbs. Active verbs reduce wordiness and pulls your reader in.

Examples:

I was envious of your grade on that last test.

I envy your grade on that last test.

At the party, she was dressed like a fairy and had wings and a wand.

She wore fairy wings to the party and carried a wand.

We were at the party, but there were so many people we had to leave early.

We left the over-crowded party early. 

8. Check your fall back words! These are your words that you tend to overuse, often when you’re trying to convey what your character is feeling.

Only you know what these are for you. Mine are breathed, shrugged, nodded, heart raced…

Seeing the same reactions repeated over and over will make your story flat. Mix it up by finding new ways to express that your character feels relieved, frustrated, excited, or scared. One of the best resources that I’ve found for this is the Emotional Thesaurus. It’s filled with thousands of different emotional responses that will help set your story apart.

9. Check for “stuff” and “things” and make them specific!

There was so much stuff swirling in her head that she couldn’t think of the answers to the questions on the test.

The history facts swirled in her head, making it impossible to answer the test questions.

10. Eliminate unnecessary phrases!

I notice these when I look for “that” in my manuscript. Sometimes the that seems necessary in the sentence, but really you just need to get rid of the phrase accompanying it.

Example:

Maria became furious as Allison kept bringing up examples that had nothing to do with the topic.

Maria became furious as Allison kept bringing up unrelated examples.

 

Additional Resources:

10 Overused Words in Writing

30 Filler Words You Can Cut Out of Your Writing

43 Words You Should Cut From Your Writing by Diana Urban

44 Overused Words and Phrases

 

We’d love to hear your suggestions for tightening in the comments! Come back next week to read our discussion about Using All Five Senses.

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, an Indie children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

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Four on 400 October 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.

Camp Chrysalis (Middle Grade)

Baby carrots ruined Owen Fortner’s life.

Owen stood, braced against the door of the boys’ bathroom next to the kindergarten classroom. His safe haven during lunch for the last two weeks, it was about as far away from both his fifth-grade classroom and the lunch room as he could get. Only three days before summer vacation, Chris and Jerry found his hiding spot and were beating and pushing on the door to get in.

Owen relaxed his mind, pushing his thoughts to his twin sister, Allie. They’d been able to talk to each other mentally since they learned to speak. They found me. I’m in the bathroom over by the kindergarten, and I won’t be able to hold them off for long.

His sister’s voice was only a mumble in his mind until Owen focused on it.

…help. Just hold them off for as long as you can.

He’d only redirected his concentration for a moment, but it was enough that his sneakers slid on the hard tile floor.

The door opened a few inches before Owen could stop it. Sensing weakness like the ruthless predators they were, Jerry and Chris gave a coordinated effort and slid through.

Although fellow fifth-graders, Chris and Jerry stood much taller than Owen. Of course, Owen reflected, so did everyone else, including his twin sister. Chris’s lips curled back, revealing teeth too big for his mouth and the gap where a canine tooth should be—and was, two weeks ago…before The Baby Carrot Incident.

“Got you,” Chris snarled.

Owen backed up against the side of the bathroom stalls, thinking a swirly wouldn’t be so bad. No… he’d much prefer a swirly to getting punched hard enough to lose a tooth. Chris had been preaching “a tooth for a tooth” for the last two weeks. Jerry leaned against the closed door, making it difficult for anyone to interrupt them.

Owen circled in front of the sinks, hoping he could make it back around to the door and possibly escape.

All this because of baby carrots… Those stupid little orange vegetables his mother stuffed into his lunch two weeks ago. If only the small bag hadn’t been so darn hard to open. If only the carrots hadn’t exploded out of the package. If only they hadn’t landed on the floor just as Chris stepped, and made him slip, hit the table, and knock out his tooth.

Halli: Thank you for sharing! The first sentence definitely hooked me! As did the overall theme. The pacing is great and I loved the paragraph describing Chris and keeping up the mystery of the baby carrot incident. I have two tiny comments to mention. First, the part about Owen talking to his sister pulled me out of the immediate action and danger. If it is crucial to the first few pages and first chapter, I would recommend moving it a little farther down. Second, I had a hard time grounding myself in the first full paragraph. I think because there is a lot happening – the actions of the boys as well as three different locations. Overall, great job! Good luck.

Julie: I agree with Halli–great first line! And I actually like getting the twins’ telepathy onto the first page, but think it could be integrated a little bit more into the action so that it doesn’t pull us out of the narrative. Could you cut the lines about relaxing his mind and talking mentally and just have him think “I’m in the boy’s bathroom. Need help fast” and then let Ally respond. Kids will pick up on what you’re talking about without disrupting the tension of the door slowly working its way open. I think the “Although fellow fifth-graders” paragraph could be cut or condensed too. Stick to the immediate danger Owen is in, and the actions he takes to protect himself, and I think this will be a winning opening.

Richelle: I’m with Halli and Julie — great first line and very fun, fast-paced opening. That promise of the first line is dulled a bit with the next few paragraphs. I struggled a little with that first full paragraph. Try shorter sentences, maybe? And I don’t think you need to specify there where he is since he tells his twin in the next paragraph. Really think about what we absolutely must know to get through the rest of the scene and get rid of the rest — the curiosity of baby carrots, telepathy and the “tooth for a tooth” bullies will keep kids reading! And I’m with Julie — I don’t think we need to understand any of the history of Owen communicating with Allie. You can just have them do it urgently in that moment, and then explain it later when you give your readers a “take a breath” moment. Thanks for sharing!

Karin: Nice job! You throw us immediately into a tense scene that has us asking: will Owen escape? I think the last sentence in paragraph two is a little confusing as he’s bracing against the door but this is safe haven away from the two boys. “Figures that only three days before summer vacation, Chris and Jerry had found his hiding spot and were beating and pushing on the door to get in.(you don’t need to tell this as the action shows it.)” And “relaxed his mind” is awkward, and in fact I would cut that whole sentence. Then shorten the rest. “He needed his sister. They could talk to each other mentally ever since they could speak. Allie, they found me…” I love “swirly” and “tooth for a tooth”! This sounds like a fun adventure! Good luck going forward!

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A New Writing Podcast! MOM WRITES: THE DIRTY LAUNDRY ABOUT WRITING WITH KIDS

Mom Writes Podcast, Jennie Nash I subscribe to Jennie Nash’s newsletter and read her blog posts. She’s an instructor at the UCLA Extension Writing Program; the founder of Author Accelerator, a book coaching company; and generally a smart lady. So when I read that she was involved in a new writing podcast I wanted it to know what it was about.

Mom Writes: The Dirty Laundry about Writing with Kids is the brainchild of Abby Mathews, an unpublished writer mom. Abby was struggling through the process of writing a book with young kids underfoot. She guessed that she was not the only one who’d started stories and run into difficulties along the way and had the idea for a series of podcasts showing Author Accelerator’s step-by-step process for helping writers. In the podcasts, Jennie discusses the challenges of just getting a book written at a quality level that would pique the interest of traditional publishers, let alone accomplishing this with several kids and their friends dashing through the house or dribbling a basketball in the room overhead. Jennie will lead Abby and her friend, Melanie Parish, through the Author Accelerator’s Blueprint for a Book program, critiquing their manuscripts and helping them to do everything from identify their ideal reader to strengthen their story concepts to improve their writing skills. The podcast will also include tips from other Author Accelerator writing coaches and tips and encouragement from writers who’ve used the program.

Does it sound like an infomercial? I was a bit nervous about that. But as Jennie talks about why writers have trouble finishing their stories and face rejection when they query literary agents, you can hear how much she cares about helping writers improve. And what better way is there to work through common writing problems than by listening in as Jennie helps Abby and Melanie fix their stories?

I invited Jennie, Abby and Melanie here to talk a little more about their podcast.

Rebecca: Jennie, thanks for this podcast! As someone who has been writing for seven years and still does not have an agent, I would have loved to have had this podcast earlier in my journey! You talk in the first episodes about why writing a book seems a lot easier than it is. Can you give Winged Pen readers a sense of this?

Jennie: Yes! So the tricky thing with book writing is that book reading is a thing most of us do Jennie Nash, Author Accelerator, Mom Writes Podcastalmost every day, and have been doing almost every day for many years. In that way, it’s more akin to eating breakfast then it is to, say, flying an airplane. Most of us have never flown an airplane and never will. We also don’t presume that we have the slightest idea how to do it. Anyone who gets into the cockpit of a plane with the intention of flying it has embarked on a rigorous training program, passed tests and shown competence. But because reading is so familiar to us — an activity that we love and cherish, and probably consider ourselves quite good at  — we often presume that we know how to write a book that will captivate a reader. We imagine that we could just sit down at the keyboard and craft a compelling narrative.

But very often, we can’t.  At least not our first time out, or even our second or third or fourth.

Writing a book may not be as complex an undertaking as flying a 747, but it is still a very complex undertaking. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, you are making a myriad interrelated choices and designing a logical framework and organizing a ton of material and determining a structure and deciding on a point or argument and considering your audience, and deploying various skills (skills related to scene structure, dialogue, body language, language use, narrative drive, pacing, flow and, resolution) and underneath it all is a great deal of emotion — your emotion, your reader’s emotion, and in fiction, your character’s emotion.

It’s a lot! And many writers simply underestimate how hard it is — or how hard it is to do well.

Rebecca: Abby, you are sharing your manuscript, mistakes and all, with the Internet! That’s very brave! Why did you decide to take time out from your writing to create the Mom Writes podcast?

Abby Mathews, Mom Writes PodcastAbby: You know, deep down it’s probably just the teacher in me! In my former life (BC, before children) I was a high school art teacher. I can’t tell you all the crazy things I learned how to do in the name of teaching. Once the kids had the idea to make a really, really big block print but we didn’t have a large enough printing press. To solve the problem I learned how to turn a car into a printing press! So, see, this isn’t the craziest thing I’ve ever done. But it does feel pretty close.

At one point in an early episode, Jennie told me that an agent wouldn’t have made it past page one of my manuscript. Page one! That’s when I paused and thought, “Oh my god. It’s really bad! I am insane for doing this in front of a live studio audience…” (Well, not live, but you get what I mean!) After the initial sting wore off, it occurred to me this is exactly why I have to do it. I’m putting all my dirty laundry out there because I know I’m not alone. I know there are others out there just like me- like us- toiling away at their kitchen tables trying to teach themselves how to do this massive thing. And we need help. Because this problem is not going to go away. Writing is a curse, and one bad manuscript isn’t going to lift it. I’m on my third bad manuscript and I keep coming back for more!

My solution was to find professional help. (And book coaches seem to double as therapists, so trust me, it’s a lot of bang for your buck!) I feel confident that coaching is going to help me write the book that’s in my head- the one where readers don’t just make it off the first page, but to the end of the novel and want to come back for more. I’m so confident, in fact, that I am willing to lay it all out there to teach others how to do it as well. Even if it is super embarrassing!

Plus, I won’t lie, having to publicly answer for my work keeps me on track!

Rebecca: Jennie, what are some of the common writing problems that you’ll be talking about in the podcast?

Jennie:  Abby and Mel are perfect “subjects” to show how the chaos of creativity can be tamed because they exhibited all the most common problems! Neither of them had really thought before they started to write. Like so many writers, they just liked to write and felt called to write and started to write. (This pull is often very strong for moms of little kids because it’s one time in your day when you can just rest in the musings of your own mind. You don’t have to make sure no one is going to stick a fork in the electrical outlet or figure out how to make a dinner for one kid who won’t eat anything but white food and another who won’t eat anything but green. )Then Abby and Mel did what writers tend to do next — they went to conferences and workshops and writing groups, and kept writing, and really just kept digging their holes deeper — the holes caused by lack of thinking first.

So by thinking first I don’t mean plotting. I don’t mean giant grids of scenes. I mean understanding your story’s deep-level WHY and bringing that to the visible surface, and working to let the reader IN. That’s the work most writers skip — and skipping it leads to all the writerly problems, from openings that wander to middles that sag to ends that fall flat — and Abby and Mel were no different.

What’s fun is that Abby is writing a middle grade fantasy starting from scratch and Mel is revising an adult sci fi dystopian thriller so, in addition to the common problems I mentioned above, we get to dig into a lot of different problems from a topical standpoint — so everything from the logic of an imaginary world, to the motivation of a villain, to a character’s true desire.

Rebecca: Melanie, you guys got a lot of feedback on your opening pages from Jennie. What was it like to go back to those pages and revise after the feedback.

Melanie:  I’m not gonna lie, it felt a bit brutal at first.  Neither Abby or I had a lot of Mel, Mom Writes Podcastexperience being edited.  It was eye-opening, though, and I personally felt so much clarity on my story afterwards.  I had been unable to articulate what was wrong with my draft and Jennie was able to pinpoint exactly where I had gone wrong and how to fix it.  She doesn’t do the work for us, and I don’t feel that as a book coach she is taking me in any one direction vs another.  It’s more like she’s asking the right questions in order to help me find my own answers – questions that I initially didn’t ask myself when I first started writing my novel!  We are learning so much about the process that one can (and maybe should!) do before you write a single word of your story.

I’d like to thank Jennie, Abby and Melanie for joining us on the Winged Pen today! Mom Writes launched September 15th and is available here. Check it out! And tune in for our Twitter chat on October 2nd, 8 pm EDT, 5 pm PT to Tweet live with Jennie, Abby and Melanie, find out more about Mom Writes, and get tips on writing with kids constantly pulling on your elbow! To tune in, put #momwrites in the Twitter search box and press enter.

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is and middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure. She on Twitter at @RebeccaJ_Allen and her website is writerebeccawrite.wordpress.com.

MYC: Using Metaphor

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss pre-writing and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about revising your world building. This week, Gita Trelease and Gabrielle Byrne talk about how to create powerful metaphors.

Metaphor and simile are among the richest, most useful tools in any writer’s kit. The word “metaphor” comes from the Greek metapherein: meta, meaning “across, over” and pherein, meaning “carry, or bear.”  The word describes what a metaphor does: it carries meaning from one place to another.

A writer uses metaphor and simile to do the same thing, that is, by “carrying meaning” from one thing to another, a metaphor brings together two seemingly dissimilar things as a way of deepening the reader’s understanding. Ideally, the comparisons are surprising and help the reader see something they hadn’t seen before.

Simile uses “like” or “as” to highlight one aspect of similarity: “Pip’s uncle was like a burning-down house, angry and about to collapse.” Or, “Pip’s uncle was as angry as a burning-down house.” Here, I’m saying that Pip’s uncle was angry in the same way a raging house fire is angry, but that’s all I’m saying. A simile is specific and limited, because sometimes you just want to talk about one aspect of the two things you’re comparing.

Metaphor, though, sets up an identity for the reader (and often the writer) to explore. Using metaphor, I would say, “Pip’s uncle was a burning-down house.” Pip’s uncle = burning-down house. He is the whole flaming thing, not just a part of it. And once I’ve set that identity up, I can go further if I want, extending the metaphor: “Pip’s uncle was a burning-down house. And if you’d forgotten something inside, you weren’t never going back in to get it.”  I could even keep going, describing the burning house, how the fire started, what was destroyed—all the while still describing Pip’s uncle.

At the root, metaphor and simile are both powerful tools in the author’s arsenal, but both are just comparisons. So what makes them so powerful then, you might ask. My explanation is that writing a book is a little like a bachelor party.

Um, sorry Gabby, you lost me.

So, you know that bit when all the guys pile in the window and pretend-kidnap the groom and tie him to a chair and take him out and lead him from one place to another and the whole thing is a blast for everyone? Yeah, that. That’s what authors do. We go in and stealthily bind the reader to our story like a bachelor to his party chair. One loop for the characters they love, another for exciting plot lines, one for beautiful prose, and metaphors? Metaphors make great knots. They connect the physical and the emotional, or the emotional and the spiritual, using details that plumb the story’s heart. They tie the reader to the character in deep ways that can’t be easily undone.

Her hair rose in the wind, black ribbons that whipped the air, her anger holding back the storm.

  • Physical (black hair)
  • Emotional (she’s mad about something)
  • Spiritual (okay it’s a stretch, but the storm)

The best metaphors (IMHO) always draw from at least two of these areas. Added to this is that there are certain categories of things, that are intrinsically bound to our human hearts. Their very nature is emotional. Using one of these categories in your metaphor makes the knot that much stronger. I talked a little about these in the MYC post on fantasy world building (weather, food, housing, and religion/spirituality). On top of these universal categories, you may also have some “Bonus character quality” categories that are deeply powerful, because they act as reminders to the reader of the essence of the character/s in that scene. For example, a cook is going to use lots of food metaphors, but a soldier might use lots of battle/blood/loss metaphors. A seamstress might describe things using lots of sewing metaphors:

The sparks in his dark eyes gleamed, silver threads tugging her forward and meant just for her.

  • Physical (dark eyes)
  • Emotional (passion)
  • Bonus Quality (she’s a seamstress)

These character-specific metaphors can also work by comparing something that’s happening to one character, to a quality in another:

The needle of her intent sharpened against Billy’s guileless smile.

The comparisons can work alone (the sea was a cold embrace), or you can deepen them further with added details (the sea was a cold embrace, heartless and unforgiving). It can be fun to play with reader expectation at this level too, as in this simile:

Her teeth were like Desperado pearls, and I figured they were just as stolen.

Last but not least, the way an author uses metaphor can set up a tone for the whole book. A dark, psychological thriller might use dark and eerie metaphors:

She waited, holding her breath until she was certain the men had gone. Her feet pressed against the cold tile as a single beam of moonlight arched across the kitchen floor, a slow, silent bird diving toward dawn.   

While a quirky, funnier story might go with quirky, funny metaphors:

The new girl had a pancake face, wide and doughy, but sure to make a person happy by the time breakfast was over.

Playing with metaphor is a great way to get more energy and depth into your story. If you use them to explore your characters and your world, you’ll be sure to lift the whole manuscript to another level.

We hope you’ll come back next for next Wednesday’s MYC post to learn about Writing With Sensitivity.

Gabrielle Byrne’s debut MG fantasy, RISE OF THE DRAGON MOON, is due out in Winter, 2019 with Imprint/Macmillan. She’s represented by Catherine Drayton. Learn more about her at www.gkbyrnebooks.com

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. Also, wigs. She is represented by Molly Ker Hawn at The Bent Agency. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

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