MYC: Two Steps to Make the Saggy Middle Berry, Berry Good

Blackberries in a pottery colander

 

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 covered Facing the Blank Page. This week, I’ll discuss the “saggy middle”.

Note: Handy list of Master Your Craft topics so far.

The “saggy middle” happens to the unsuspecting at any time. Some are struck down during plotting or drafting, others during revising.

But if your story is suffering from a lack of baking powder, there’s hope!

Blackberries in a pottery colander
Fixing the saggy middle is as easy as picking blackberries. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

The middle doesn’t have to stay a muddle. Managing the middle is very much like blackberry picking. There are two basic rules.

A. Make decisions. The middle of any story can look like vast, uncharted territory, but there’s really only so much room. If you can’t tell how much, try fitting your scenes into a recipe–a story structure–that appeals to you. (See Resources below).

Choose dark, sweet-smelling blackberries that give to the touch. You want scenes that excite you and:

  1. develop the story you want to write,
  2. tie into your theme, and
  3. show your main character’s growth/failure.

That way your plot is always flavored with juicy goodness!

B. Keep on picking. Don’t get so caught up finding the perfect berry patch/story shape, that you stop putting scenes in your story. As long as you keep on, you’ll eventually get enough of the good stuff. When it’s early in the writing process, ripe scenes are mixed in with undeveloped, green “berries”. Leave them until later. When it’s late, watch out for old berries (read: dried-up story “darlings”) and wasps (apparently unsolvable barriers that yield only to patience and calm).

Don’t let the deciding make you stop picking. You don’t have to visit every blackberry bush in your neighborhood to get the overview. If it looks like a blackberry, (see short list above), put it in.

Resources:

Use these wisely, writer friends! If you find one that works, run away and WRITE. Reading about berry picking does not a berry cobbler make.

Darcy Pattison’s list of 23 ways to fix the saggy middle: draws from the Hero’s Journey, the Snowflake Method, A list of handy Act II “meta-metaphors” via Syd Field for the outline averse among you, and a quick refresher of Peter Dunne’s Emotional Structure, a.k.a. what each Act in the story is for.

Libbie Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants: helped me see the connection between the story, i.e. the character’s necessary growth to overcome a weakness or release themselves from a lie, and the plot, i.e. the series of events that happen in the book for the hero to achieve or fail at the physical/external goal. She shows how to draw from the “Story Core” to populate your plot.

James Scott Bell’s Write from the Middle: the book on what to do when you get to your story’s exact middle and how it helps you shape the rest of your story. Most of my highlighting is from Chapter 5 “The Magical Midpoint Moment”.

Writing Excuses 15-minute podcast. Episodes related to the saggy middle for outliners, discovery writers, and some-of-eachers:

  • Q & A on Outlining and Discovery Writing talks about outlining scenes, index cards, when to stop outlining, and whether the writing process changes for every book
  • Creating Great Outlines covers a variety of outline techniques from a list of the “details you’re afraid you’re going to forget” to extensive outlines as long as a middle grade book, and outlining backwards.
  • Retrofitting Structure into a First Draft is about revising once you have a draft, but it’s also a handy list of things to do with the middle of your story to make it more fulfilling. Try/Fail cycles, fulfilling story promises, introducing new characters too late in the story.

Come back next Wednesday when we’ll discuss Tricky Plot Bunnies.

photo of Laurel Decher

LAUREL DECHER writes stories for middle graders about things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany.

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8 Tips for Writing Picture Books

Writing picture books is hard. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written one or one hundred, just ask Jane Yolen or Mo Willems or John Klassen. But good news is if you keep writing and reading picture books, you will get better!

  1. Don’t think your way into your story–feel your way in. Instead of seeing your characters as separate, become your character. For example, if you’re writing about a budgie who has escaped out an open window, imagine what it’s like to be outside for the first time and feeling the wind rustle your feathers, or hearing the sound of cars zooming by.
  2. Remember it’s a picture book and pictures tell much of the story. Don’t waste words telling us something already described in the illustrations.
  3. Sweet spot s between 300-700 words. We get into trouble by going too wide. The secret is to focus on one main idea/feeling/theme/goal. Focus on your character’s goals. Does our budgie dream of being free and wild? If so, focus on this, and how what happens perhaps changes his goal.
  4. Picture books are audio books with illustrations! They are supposed to be read aloud so be aware how your words sound, the rhythm and cadence of your sentences. Use repetition, alliteration, onomatopoeia to plop us into your  world!
  5. Any good picture book captures a familiar feeling in a new and unfamiliar way. Twist, turn, and loop the world to find the unexpected and surprising. A talking crayon, a farting dog, a pigeon not allowed to drive the bus, or a budgie who wants to fly south with the geese… You get the idea!
  6. Avoid teaching a lesson. No preaching, no morals. Of course, your picture can and should have a theme but it should be an organic part of your characters and their choices.
  7. It’s all about the page turn. What will make your reader eager to turn the page to see what’s going to happen next? Some writers use the rule of threes or fives to build the page turn. Or you can ask a question, use ellipsis, or make us care so much about the character that we just have to find out what your character decides to do. Finally, creating a picture book dummy  is an excellent way to test your page turn-ability.  See Tara Lazar’s post on creating a dummy here.
  8. What to write about?  Character-driven picture books are wonderful, but don’t forget concept books. They are timeless and funny and mindful and beautiful and sometimes very funny. Some have characters but they don’t have a traditional story arc. Here are just a few:

KARIN LEFRANC is from nowhere and everywhere. She lived in Sweden, Lebanon, South Africa and the UK but now lives in the US in a small Connecticut town which boasts the largest tree in the state. She’s an admitted tree hugger, who has on occasion, even been spotted kissing a tree or two.  Her debut picture book I WANT TO EAT YOUR BOOKS was published in 2015 by Sky Pony Press. When she’s not writing picture books, she’s time traveling to the 6th century in her middle-grade novel. You can find her on Twitter.

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MYC: Conquering the Dreaded Blank Page (and other drafting tricks)

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 reviewed our treasure trove of pre-writing posts. Today we’re on to starting — and keeping going on — your first draft.

You’ve finally arrived. You’ve got your coffee (or tea), your snacks, your favorite writing socks. Your writing space is perfectly set up, and you’ve got an hour or two of quiet uninterrupted writing time.

You open your computer, gently rest your hands on the keyboard, and…

Now what?

Many, many writers are daunted by the sight of a blank page. It’s a little unnerving to open a new document and realize that you’re exactly zero words into a 60,000+ word manuscript.

And even when you’ve tackled the blank page, there will come a moment when you sit down to write, and nothing comes out. You’re stuck. Where is this scene going? What happens next? It’s easy to waste a lot of time staring at the blinking cursor, trying to find your way back into your story.

While we can’t eliminate the fear and frustration completely, we can help you overcome.

Here are some of our favorite Winged Pen tips for conquering the blank page and pushing through the sticky spots:

Julie: I have a lot of time to stare at the blank page built into my writing process, since I usually prewrite for about six months and then draft in a month or so. But I also try to stop mid-scene at the end of each writing session so I can pick up the next day knowing roughly what needs to happen.

I also use a placeholder [TK] in the ms when there’s a fact or bit of research I need to look up. So I’ll write something like [TK research what moon jellies eat] and just keep going rather than stopping and going down the worm hole of doing research, which can pull me off track for days. I also use [TK] when I know something needs to happen but can’t figure out what. So I might write [TK Nic bickers with Mom over something to introduce frustration].

Jennifer: You know, the blank page has never been an issue. The beginning is always the easiest part for me. It’s everything past the first few pages that is hard. But getting past being stuck? For me, if I’m stuck, it means I took a wrong turn, and I need to go a few pages back and decide if this is really where I want to be. Sometimes I push through, but usually, I need to figure out what the problem is.

Michelle: I stop and have a heart to heart with my MC to ask (her usually) what the problem is. I also use the tricks that were in my Creativity to the Rescue post.

Halli: I tell myself I’m just going to write notes about the MS. Nothing official, just whatever comes to mind. Usually I find a place to start. I have also been known to write a scene or scenes out of order if that’s what strikes me at the time, but that is not my preferred method.

Gabrielle: Long walks and hot showers. Looking at art.

Gita: I give myself a very small amount of time to write. It could be 1 minute, 5, or 10–whatever seems very easy, no problem at all. I set the timer and usually I find myself needing more time. I repeat until I don’t need it anymore.

Richelle: From my years of writing to hard deadlines, I’ve learned that a blank page is far, far worse than bad copy. So I write something down, even if it’s complete garbage. I can always fix it later! I don’t remember where I read this, but one of my favorite pieces of writing advice is that your first draft is you telling yourself your story. Subsequent drafts are you telling it to someone else. I keep that in mind while drafting, and it eases a lot of my anxiety – after all, I’m just telling myself a story, not writing the next best-seller!

As for stuck spots, like Julie, I stop mid-scene – or sometimes mid-sentence – to keep my momentum going and give myself a road map for the next writing session.

And if that’s not enough inspiration, try these tried-and-true drafting tips:

  • Check in with your outline or other pre-writing work. Chances are there is a pivotal scene, key character motivation, or even a phrase of inspiration that will propel you back into your story.
  • Backstory is a great way to remind yourself where your characters have been and where they’re going. For best effect, connect your backstory scene with the current scene…and then watch as the ideas start flowing for what comes next. (For more on backstory, check out this post.)
  • If you’re stuck on a scene, try writing it in a different tense, or from a different perspective. Have the main character’s mom or best friend tell what happens next, or change from first person to third (or vice versa).
  • Often, when our scenes aren’t sparking enough for us to want to write them, it’s because we’ve made it too easy for our characters to get what they want. Toss a new obstacle or two into your scene and see what happens. It can be as simple as making their environment a bit more challenging, like having two characters try to talk over a fight happening nearby. Or if your MC is just trying to get to her bestie’s house, make it difficult for her. A sprained ankle? A lost child who needs her help? Those obstacles could add a spark to your scene and help you find new ways to keep going.

Above all, when you’re in the thicket of drafting, remember that perfect is the enemy of done. You don’t need anyone else to understand what you’re trying to do right now. You just need to get it down, to tell yourself what happens next.

Revisions are the magical place where your own bedtime story gets shaped into a book that we all want to read.

Tune in next week when we will look at ways to overcome the dreaded saggy middle!

MYC: Two Approaches to World Building for Science Fiction

Master Your Craft, writing craft, world buildingWelcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series with Two Approaches to Fantasy World Building. Today we continue with world building by looking at two approaches to science fiction world building.

After reading Julie and Gabby’s post last week, we actually considered not writing this post. Really, what’s the difference between world building for fantasy and science fiction? Call the world you’ve created a newly terra-formed planet in the Andromeda galaxy, drop the magic system and add in some photon blasters and your good, right?

We found that while the basic building blocks for your world remain the same, our approaches to world building were different. We started in different places and built our characters differently, so it seemed worthwhile to do the post after all. Here’s a quick look at two approaches to science fiction world building.

Rebecca: I start with a technology concept. It’s not necessarily a huge concept; I don’t write space opera. Rather, I like to explore small changes in the technology available to a world, and the large ramifications they might have. Like the iPhone. I’m dating myself here, but do you remember when it came out? I have a vivid recollection of a friend showing me his phone and tipping the screen sideways and seeing the image reorient itself and thinking “Wow!” But I didn’t think I’d ever spend $600 on a phone. I certainly didn’t think that phones like that would dominate the market. That everyone would use them, not just for calls and texts but to manage their calendars and for Internet searches and navigation and games and entertainment. This is what I find interesting…the unexpected consequences.

After thinking through the tech, how it would work and most importantly what trouble it world building, writing craft, master your craftwould cause, I start thinking about characters. What types of characters would be the most interested in trying a revolutionary and possibly dangerous technology? I love writing geeks and entrepreneurs! Who would be nervous about the tech, perhaps wanted outlawed? Who might steal the tech for themselves and what would they do with it? Suddenly I’ve got the two sides of a conflict and can start thinking about plot points.

Halli: I didn’t start my sci-fi novel with the idea of writing in this genre. I had an idea for the plot – boy has a big, huge problem – and planned to write it as a middle grade contemporary story. It wasn’t until I developed this boy, and he showed me how much he loved science, that I realized the only way he would solve his problem was with some kind of crazy tech. So I let my imagination run wild.

I researched everything from emotions to matter, the brain to blasters. Then I took it to the next level, the fiction part of science fiction, to achieve the results my character wanted. Of course nothing works right the first time, which led to bigger and badder tech and inventions. The novel is contemporary, but the ideas, tech, and inventions still had an impact on the belief and political systems, and ideas and cultures of the world my characters lived in.

Rebecca, Julie, Gabby and I all have different processes for world building. There are as many different ways to create a fictitious world as there are Star Wars fans. And whichever one you choose, however detailed your world ends up, enjoy the opportunity to create an original part of the universe!

Tune in next week when we will recap all thirteen posts on prewriting. The week after, we’ll dive into drafting your manuscript!

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.

 

Photo by Pam Vaughan

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’s on Twitter and her website is here.

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MYC: Welcome to World Building

  Master Your Craft Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series with Setting as a Character. For the next few weeks, we will be talking about the humongous and intimidating topic of world building. Today we start by looking at the topic as a whole and how it can be applied to contemporary stories.

At it’s most basic, world building is fun, the height of creativity. Close your eyes and imagine a society as strange and decadent as Panem, the capital in The Hunger Games, or place as real and (to some) familiar as a middle school basketball court. Let your imagination run wild, or keep things simple and true. What will serve as the best backdrop for your characters and action?

  • When is the story happening? Past, present, or future?
  • Where? Small-town, America or a galaxy far, far away?
  • What resources do your characters have at their disposal? Money? Magic? Advanced weapons? Or nothing but their own muscle and ingenuity?
  • What do your characters believe and how does that square or contrast with the beliefs of the society around them?

So why is world-building intimidating? Because if you allow yourself to dream up something spectacular and then take the ten or twenty pages to outline your masterpiece of a world, every critique partner will tell you to delete it and get your plot moving. The hard thing about creating a world isn’t dreaming it up, it’s dropping bits and pieces everywhere in your story, not serving it up in one big chunk.

Let’s look at building the world for a story. There are so many potential areas to consider,  it’s helpful to have a checklist:

  • Geography– environment, terrain, weather, rural/urban setting, natural resources
  • Politics– types/roles of governments, stability, power, laws
  • Society– population, city/town size, diversity, gender/family roles, education, language, architecture, naming conventions
  • Economics– finances, socioeconomic status, cost of living, unemployment, import/export
  • Belief Systems– religion, spirituality, practices, freedom, tolerance
  • Ideas/Cultures– values, dress, arts, heroes, communication, leisure time
  • Technology– types, availability, usage

So how can you avoid the ten-page info-dump? Here are a few hints about slipping your world into the story.

  • Character’s actions
  • Social context
  • Physical descriptions
  • Language/Emotions
  • Names
  • Sensory descriptions – smells, sounds, texture
  • Dialogue

Let’s look, again, at The Hunger Games.

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
From The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

In the first paragraph of the book, we learn that Katniss’s family is poor (bare mattress), and we’ll know by the end of the second page that her whole district is. We learn that Prim is important to Katniss. We don’t know what the reaping is, but we know it’s bad and will keep reading to find out more. The trick that Suzanne Collins pulls off so well, is to keep the action moving while you pull the reader about your world. To show the world it in everything the characters see, feel and think.

It is easy to pick out the world building bits in fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction, but what about contemporary stories? On one hand, writers of contemporaries get it easy. The world of their story is the world of the reader, so it’s all out there. That allows some short cuts. On the other hand, ours is a big world. Where does this story take place within it?

Let’s look at the first page of The Crossover by Kwame Alexander.

Dribbling

At the top of the key, I’m
MOVING & GROOVING,
POPping and ROCKING
Why you BUMPING?
Why you LOCKING?
Man, take this THUMPING.
Be careful though,
‘cause now I’m CRUNKing
CrissCROSSING,
FLOSSING
flipping
and my dipping will leave you
S
L
I
P
P
I
N
on the floor, while I
SWOOP
 in
to the finish with a fierce finger roll…
Straight in the hole:
Swoooooooooooosh.
from The Crossover by Kwame Alexander*

The constant movement, slang and trash talk sets the world quickly. A sports game. Did you guess we were on a basketball court before the swoosh? In this world, the young player knows he’s good and wants his opponent to know it too. You may not know much about the character yet, but I bet you’re not imagining this gym is in some fancy prep school. This world building is all done while he’s taking the ball to the net.

Tune in next week when we will explore world building in fantasy. You can also find more information on world building here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4nVDoojTrs
http://nkjemisin.com/2015/08/worldbuilding-101
http://io9.gizmodo.com/7-deadly-sins-of-worldbuilding-998817537

*Apologies to Mr. Alexander. I could not get the formatting of his words nearly as cool as it is in print. See the published novel for the full effect!

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.

 

Photo by Pam Vaughan

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