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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MYC: Dynamic Dialogue

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series on revision with Editing the Big PictureThis week, we’re diving in to crafting dynamic dialogue.

Are your readers complaining of stilted dialogue, too many monologues, or not enough “voice” in your characters’ spoken words? If yes, you might need to take a look at your dialogue technique. Step one of revision is to listen, both to conversations (particularly conversations among people the same age as your characters) and to your own writing by reading aloud.

If you listen closely to virtually any conversation, you’ll notice that it is chock-full of fillers—words that take up space (thus giving the speaker time to think), but don’t mean anything. Although it might be tempting to include these fillers on the page, including words such as “um,” “uh”, and “like” don’t read well.

Another mistake it’s easy to fall into is writing dialogue that is too “on the nose,” which comes across as stilted and unnatural. This will jump off the page to you as you read aloud. But how to fix it? Except on very formal occasions, it’s rare for us to speak in complete and grammatically correct sentences or mention people by name multiple times in a single conversation. Instead, we almost always speak in contractions and fragments instead of complete sentences. Good dialogue should reflect the length and cadence of actual speech, but in tighter, condensed form. So get out the red pen and start chopping.

Furthermore, conversations are often loaded with hidden meaning, or subtext that can be layered on in revision. For example, a friend recently spent a great deal of time sewing my daughter a duvet cover, which made her son feel anxious and jealous.

Wanting to make sure the reader didn’t miss the emotional cues, you might write, “Mother, I feel jealous you are spending so much time on my friend. Will you make me a duvet cover so I know you love me, too?”

Of course this is what the boy means, but when writing dialogue, it’s important to leave plenty of room for the reader to make inferences. For example, the son’s emotions could be shown by depicting him hovering behind his mother at the sewing machine and asking, “Mom, if I wanted a duvet cover, would you make me one?” or even “Why are you spending so much time on that stupid duvet cover?”

Along the same lines is the temptation to use dialogue to convey backstory that the writer needs the reader to have but that the characters would already know (and thus not have a reason to tell each other). For example, a writer might need the reader to know that two sisters have a mother who died of cancer. It would be easy to have one of the sisters say, “Remember when Mom died of cancer after undergoing extensive chemotherapy when we were really little? Boy, do I miss her.”

But of course in real life two sisters wouldn’t need to tell each other about their shared experience. This scene could be revised to layer in subtext and character as follows:

As they walked out the door, Cherise unwrapped a red and white striped mint the server had delivered with their bill.

“How can you eat those things?” Latesha asked.

Cherise popped the mint in her mouth and ran her tongue over the smooth, sugary surface.

“I just can’t,” Latesha said. “Reminds me too much of the hospital.”

“It helps me remember,” Cherise said.

“Watching her go through chemo is one of the things I’d like to forget.”

“Not the chemo,” said Cherise. “Mom. Her breath was always so sweet and minty after.”

Not only does this dialogue reveal important information (Mom died of cancer), it shows us (without telling us) how the girls each feel about this shared experience. And it does so in short, natural bits of dialogue that don’t tend toward monologue. A good rule of thumb is that no character should say more than three “beats” (short phrases) without a gesture, dialogue tag, or another speaker breaking up the dialogue. Read more about the three-beat rule.

Finally, no conversation on dialogue would be complete without mentioning dialogue tags. As tempting as it is to include tags such as whispered, shouted, bellowed, groaned, etc., most of the time it’s better to stick with “said” or “asked.” These words disappear for the readers rather than calling attention to themselves. Similarly, it’s best to leave off qualifiers such as softly, quietly, and loudly unless these are absolutely essential for the reader to experience the scene (99% of the time, they are not).

If you are interested in reading more about writing dialogue, here are a couple links:

And don’t forget to tune in next week for refining world building.

A photo of author Julie Artz
Photo credit: Gail Werner

JULIE ARTZ writes stories for children that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. In addition to contributing to The Winged Pen, she works as a developmental editor for Author Accelerator, is a Pitch Wars mentor, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. She is represented by Jennie Dunham of Dunham Lit. You can also follow her on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

 

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A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. She also volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and eats copious amounts of chocolate. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at www.jessicavitalis.com.

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MYC: Editing the Big Picture

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 the importance of Writing with EmotionThis week, we’re stepping back and looking at the Big Picture.

One thing this MYC series has taught me over the last few weeks is that there is no one way to write a book. Each of us Pennies has our own individual approach to getting the words on the page and then making those words sing once they’re there.

My revision process consists of several passes through the manuscript, each time looking for different things I need to fix. And one of my first passes involves looking at the Big Picture.

Usually, this involves reading through the entire novel making notes about each chapter, how the tension is building, how the plot unfolds, where it drags, and how the characters’ emotional journeys are playing out — your basic quick-read, impressionist take on the overall story.

I’ve used a few different methods to tackle this pass. Once I printed my manuscript and put it in a three-ring binder, using tabs to mark the chapter breaks (Ooooh, the office supplies I bought!). I made notes right there on the manuscript itself.

Other times, I have read onscreen while taking notes in a special notebook purchased just for that novel. And with my current WIP, I’m saving trees by using the note feature in Scrivener.

Once I’ve got my Big Picture sense of what’s working – and what’s not – about my first draft, the fun starts.

So what are some of the things I look for during the Big Picture editing phase?

  • The first thing I usually notice is when scenes or chapters are in the wrong place. As I read through my current WIP, it was clear to me that a conversation that happened midway through the book really needed to come earlier – too much of the later action stemmed from that conversation. And I don’t think I’ve ever written anything where I started drafting from the exact right place. This time I found my opening about four chapters in.
  • Reading through after a good break is a great way to see plot holes that I swear were not there when I drafted. For me, since I write short drafts, it’s usually a matter of having skimmed over a key scene or difficult conversation. By coming at it with fresh eyes and reading all at once, I usually catch those spots.
  • I often have spots in a first draft where I make a note to myself: “Fight scene TK” or “Double check this character’s last name”. The Big Picture round of edits is a great time to fill in those blanks and confirm the facts I didn’t want to stop my flow to look up in drafting stage.
  • I also use my Big Picture read to find errors in continuity. That time I accidentally changed a character’s name for a chapter? A scene that started at the coffee shop but ended at the beach with no transportation  or acknowledgement of a change of venue? Or that backstory detail I dropped in chapter one and then never referred to again? These are easy fixes that make a huge difference in readability.
  • The Big Picture edit is a great time to spot pacing problems. Are there a couple of chapters where nothing seems to happen? Maybe it’s time to condense those events into one concise scene. Or does my emotional climax feel rushed? Time to give that pivotal scene all the love it needs. (And if you have more questions on pacing, check out our previous MYC post!)
  • One of the biggest things I look for in my Big Picture Edit is the emotional progression of my characters. Are the main characters changed at the end? Did that change happen in an organic way, or is it forced? Do their feelings evolve in a way that is understandable? I want my characters and their emotional journey to drive the story forward, so I pay close attention to this at every stage of revision. (And if you’re looking for more nitty gritty information on writing emotion, see last week’s MYC post.)

Each of these areas will likely get another pass later in my editing process — there’s always room to refine them! But my Big Picture Edit is essential for me to really understand the story I am trying to tell and how I can best tell it.

However and whenever you take a look at the Big Picture, try to enjoy it! After all, you’ve completed a manuscript! And now you get the fun of shining it until it sparkles!

Now that the Big Picture is taken care of, it’s time for some fine-tuning. Tune in to next week’s #WPMYC post where we look at perfecting dialogue!

 

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.

MYC: How and When to Write Emotion

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 the importance of Pacing and Tension. This week, we’re looking at emotion.

I don’t know about you, but this topic brings out a lot of emotion because it is so closely tied to the phrase writers love to hate: show don’t tell. But, before we can show emotion, we need to discuss where it is needed.

Have you ever read a scene in a book that made you feel something – terrified, joyful, helpless – but the character didn’t show any emotion? How did that make you feel? Emotionless scenes leave me feeling empty. Cheated. They remind me I’m not really part of the story. I’m just a reader.

That doesn’t mean every scene needs heart-racing, sweaty hands, and lip-quivering. In fact, too much of that can make the story and characters seem unrealistic. What they do need are realistic responses to events.

When writing, look at each scene. Imagine you are the character (and by this I  mean all the characters. Even secondary players have feelings). Close your eyes if you want, dress the part if it helps. Put yourself in the specific event you are writing about. What are you feeling? How strong is it? If you felt something, your characters should too. After all, they are people just like us.

Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Now that we have a way to identify where emotion is needed, we can move to the more difficult part of writing: the dreaded show don’t tell. A good place to start is with the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The book catalogues the physical responses, mental responses, and sensations associated with each of a broad list of emotions. While most people and characters exhibit specific habits when excited, frightened, or anxious, too many “my heart raced as she walked into the room” can be predictable and boring.  Instead of just telling us the character’s palms are sweaty, try showing the character wiping her hands on her skirt or shying away from shaking hands with someone, hiding those sweaty palms behind her back. Show her wiggling an eyebrow because she’s in a cold sweat that’s tickling her as it drips down her face. It’s OK to do some physical cues–face getting hot, skin prickling, electricity running up the back of her legs–but don’t only do that.

There are many ways to write emotion and all are acceptable, within reason. My suggestion is to mix it up.

Here is a great example of using multiple techniques to convey emotion in a single scene, from Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star.

“I knew it was a big mistake as soon as I said it. His whole face turned red–cheeks, nose, the tips of his ears–the whole thing. He was practically aglow. His eyes darted sideways to where his new friends were watching us like we were on TV.

Why don’t you get some friends of your own and stop following me around like a baby?” he said instead.

He should’ve just hit me.

He grabbed his bike out of the dirt and puffed himself up with so much angry air I thought he’d burst, and I’d have to tell Mom that her older and more perfect son exploded.

“My name is Charles,” he said to those boys, daring them to say another word. “Are you coming or what?” He didn’t wait for them, didn’t look back to see if they were coming.”

This is such a quick scene, but conveys so much information about the relationship between the main character and his older brother, and conveys character emotion in a gut-punching way.

State the emotion – Yoon names Charles’ anger, but in a fresh way–“puffed himself up with so much angry air.” Remember, the reader wants to feel the excitement, not be told about it.

Show through dialogue – Voicey dialog can make a character come to life, but make sure it’s not the only way you’re showing emotion, and that you’re not telling us (“I’m so excited!”) but showing us. Look at the way Yoon reinforces the anger in this scene with dialog. Charles calls his brother a baby, but also uses short, choppy bits of dialog at the end of the scene, which reinforces his anger–“Are you coming or what?”

Descriptive phrases – for example, similes and metaphors. Here, Yoon uses some great description of Charles’ face to describe his anger. He turns red, which could be cliche, but then she freshens it by adding the tips of his ears, and the phrase “he’s practically aglow.”  Later in the scene, as his anger escalates, he goes from “aglow” to downright explosive. So the imagery builds as the emotion of the scene does.

Hope your toolbox is now filled with more tips for writing emotion. Tune in to next week’s #WPMYC post where we look at big picture fixes!

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.

 

A photo of author Julie Artz
Photo credit: Gail Werner

JULIE ARTZ writes stories for children that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. In addition to contributing to The Winged Pen, she works as a developmental editor for Author Accelerator, is a Pitch Wars mentor, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. She is represented by Jennie Dunham of Dunham Lit. You can also follow her on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

 

MYC: Letting it Sit

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 looked at two Pennies’ thoughts on revising while drafting. This week, we’re talking about the very first step in revising your novel: letting it sit.

Congratulations! You’ve written the first draft of your novel! Yay you!

Now what?

You might have noticed that we actually had very few posts on drafting compared to pre-writing. That’s because at the end of the day, drafting is about putting your bum in the chair (or your feet on the treadmill at your standing desk) and doing the work.

Once you complete a draft, you are on the long (and for a lot of writers the very fun!) road to revision. And we’ve got a LOT of tips and tricks lined up to help you walk that road.

But there’s one crucial step I always take between drafting and revising: letting my novel sit.

It’s amazing what happens when I come at something I’ve written with fresh eyes. Typos I’ve been glossing over for weeks suddenly jump off the page. That place where I accidently switched my MC’s best friend’s name for three chapters is easier to see. Plot holes? Oh yeah, there they are.

I think most authors have their own time period for letting something sit. I need at least a month away from a project that’s in-process, and I’ve even taken a year between drafting and revising when I got busy with another project. Other writers might only need a week. (Writers under contract may not have the luxury of much “letting it sit” time, but even a couple of days out of your story world can help!)

With my current WIP, I gave it a month. During that time, I worked on pre-writing for my Shiny New Idea, wrote more for the Winged Pen, and wrote a picture book for fun. All that playing flexed my writing muscles and refreshed my creative juices so that when I sat down to start revising, I was immediately engaged.

And because I’d taken the time away, I saw so much better what needed to happen with my draft this time around.

I know it can be hard to wait, especially on a story we’re so excited about. But there are a lot of benefits to resting a project:

  • Better problem-solving. Problems always crop up as you’re drafting something. You know this needs to happen to move the characters from Point A to Point B, but how to make this seem natural? Your MC needs a reason to change a lifetime of behavior and finally go after what she wants…but how can you make that reason seems organic? Trying to figure that stuff out can sometimes seem impossible. But when you step away for a week, often the solution becomes completely clear.
  • Better voice. Outsiders can often hear regional dialects much more clearly than locals do, and the same is true for the language of your novel. Stepping out of your characters’ world can help you “hear” how they speak and notice the unique way they see the world even better.
  • Better plotting. It took me stepping away from my WIP to see that an important scene I had placed in the second half of the novel needed to be right up front. Without time away, it’s so easy to get attached to the way we have things happening that we can’t see how to make things better for the reader.
  • Easier editing. Your darlings become a lot less darling when you haven’t looked at them in a month. Which makes it a lot easier to kill them when needed.
  • Perspective. Things that seem brilliant in the moment — from too-similar character names, to that flashback that seemed so crucial when I wrote it, to the same old coffee shop setting that ends up in every book I write — can be seen in a new light when I let it sit.

In essence, time away lets us come at our own work more like the reader will – with fewer preconceptions and less investment in our favorite lines or characters. It gives us the chance to prove to ourselves that our story works, which in the end makes it easier for us to prove it to other readers.

Of course, there is a drawback to letting it sit: Procrastination!

If you find yourself making more and more excuses for why you’re not quite ready to pick that story back up – and those excuses are sounding less legitimate every day – then “letting it sit” time is over. It’s time to open that file back up and get to work!

But despite the risk of procrastination, I am a firm believer in “letting it sit” time. Like a farmer lets a field lie fallow for a season in order to replenish the soil, letting your novel rest can result in a more robust story later on.

Tune in to next week’s #WPMYC post where we look at tension and pacing!

 

rm-picRICHELLE 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.

MYC: Two Opinions on Revising While Drafting

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 looked at the saggy middle. Today we’re tackling a somewhat controversial subject: revising while drafting.

Two of our Pennies sat down and discussed their different approaches to revising your manuscript while you’re still drafting it.

Richelle: When I say I revise while drafting, I don’t mean major revisions. Those I save for after I type “THE END”. But in an effort to ease myself back into my story world, I’ll often read over what I wrote before and do minor edits/cleanup on that section. I look for typos first and foremost, but also ways to make it voicier or fix pacing issues. I usually pace too quickly and have to find ways to slow down, which means I’ll sometimes expand setting or beef up emotional arcs. This usually takes up the first 10-15 minutes of my writing time, and after that, I dive into writing new. In essence, it’s like the warm-up song in spin class! Once I get my brain and fingers moving and coordinated, then I can get to the main workout.

I’m not alone in doing this! I’ve seen other writers talk about doing a light edit as a way to ease into their drafting sessions. That said, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, especially to newer writers. The temptation to polish and perfect is strong and can easily keep you from moving forward, particularly if you’re in a stuck spot. Plus, chances are you’ll end up throwing out at least some of your first draft, and having to throw out a scene you spent hours on hurts a lot more than one you only spent fifteen minutes scouring for typos and inconsistencies.

I do have one major exception to my don’t-make-big-revisions-while-drafting rule. Despite my best efforts to pre-plan and hash things out before I draft, more than once I’ve realized halfway through a manuscript that I’ve gone wrong somewhere. If it doesn’t change the entire plot, I can make a big note for myself (REMEMBER TO FIX FIRST HALF TO SAY HER DAD’S ACTUALLY ALIVE!). But if my wrong turn sends me off a cliff, I may have to go back and do a big revision before I can move on. That actually happened to me recently when I realized 30K into my WIP that I was writing the wrong story…UGH! That was painful! But in that case, I had to go back and work through the first half of the story so I could write the second half.

Julie: Although, like Richelle, I sometimes read over the previous scene as a warm-up for my next writing session, I am fairly militant about not revising while I write. I am a fast-drafter (often drafting during NaNoWriMo and CampNaNo because I love the rigor of the daily word count goal), so it doesn’t take much tinkering with what I’ve already written before I’m way behind on my goal. And my inner editor is brutal, so I need to keep her silent or I might never finish a story. This latest work-in-progress was particularly hard to draft because I’d just finished revising for the first time ever with my agent, so of course my finished manuscript was highly polished after rounds and rounds of beta reads and lots of great agent feedback. That made completing the draft, no matter how rough, an important emotional milestone for me too. Because the doubt demons were hard at work telling me that this piece of junk first draft was never going to measure up to my previous project.

So unlike Richelle, even if I make a major change to the story while I’m drafting, I don’t go back. Here’s an example. I fast-drafted my next project, a middle grade adventure, this past April and realized the last week of the month that I had missed an opportunity for a mystery element to the story that would tie in really well with the main character’s arc. I was 32,000 words in to a 38,000 word draft when I realized this and the change not only required a bunch of tinkering with little things, but a whole series of new really fun mystery/problem-solving scenes that didn’t exist in the draft I had nearly finished. I literally jotted the new mystery subplot down in my Messy Synopsis document and kept writing the final 6,000 words just like I’d already made the change. That allowed me to get to the end of the month/end of the story, and reach my goal without being sidetracked by what will be a lengthy revision. Since I typically spend about six months doing the prewriting exercises for a book, I was surprised that this fun subplot didn’t occur to me until I was writing. But hey, plot twists happen in real life too.

One technique that has worked really well for me as I fast-draft is a revision spreadsheet. My brain is constantly trying to sabotage me brainstorm new totally fabulous plot bunnies, and having a place to jot them down gets them off my mind so that I can focus on the task at hand–writing the draft. The great thing about this is that when I get to the end of the draft, I already know what I’m going to work on for my first pass revision. I group the items on the list by theme and sort them by size so that when I do start revising, I can tackle some easy fixes first until I get into the flow. Does it sound like I play a lot of mind games with myself while I write? Because I totally do.

The Bottom Line: Both Pennies agree that whichever way you choose to move through your first draft, make sure that you keep moving forward. After all, the most polished half a novel in the world is still only half a novel.

Tune in next week when we start to look at the long, exciting process of revising your novel!

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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