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Mom Writes: The Dirty Laundry about Writing with Kids is the brainchild of Abby Mathews, an unpublished writer mom.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.

Coming Back After a Writing Hiatus

Does life ever get in the way of your writing? It does for me, and never more so than during my recent move from Georgia to Canada. With all of the logistics that came with moving a family internationally, I was forced to set aside my writing for a period of more months than I care to admit.

It wasn’t until after we were settled and my children started school that I finally had the time and emotional energy to get back to work. Unsure where to start after such a long break, I reached out to my friends at The Winged Pen to get their advice. Their thoughts were so helpful that I asked for their permission to share them with all of you.

Q: How do you get back to your writing after a hiatus?

 Halli: I’m dealing with that now. I just tried to jump into my manuscript, but I’ve been out of the story for so long, I’ve lost the feel and voice. So I am diving back in with research I need to do for the story.

Julie: Between travel and Pitch Wars, I took six weeks off this summer. I wanted to ease back into things, but not too gently because I didn’t want it to take another month for me to get going again. So this weekend, I made a 30-day revision plan. I reread my notes to myself about what needed to happen to take this zero draft from dumpster fire to something I could send to CPs by the end of September. I mapped out a new beat sheet (because I’m changing a couple of the plot points and getting rid of some others) and created a chapter map with color coding for the four act plot/character arc structure, with an added set of columns for the themes & subplots to make sure they’re echoing enough/making regular appearances in the storyline. Then yesterday, I sat down and started reading. It took me at least an hour, maybe two, to get back into the voice, but after a while, I was able to start making tweaks, and tweaks led to a new scene, and now I feel like I’m back in the groove. My ms just happens to have 30 chapters, so I wrote 1-30 on my chalkboard and will try my best to cross off at least one chapter a day until I’m done! That will hopefully give me some accountability, plus I get a huge sense of accomplishment when I cross off those numbers on the chalkboard.

Kate: What helps me, like Julie, is setting up a schedule. I did my month of poetry as a kickstart. Then I tried to get back into the manuscript, but was still dithering a bit. Finally, I just gave myself some deadlines. I’m writing 3k a week (2 pages a day, 6 days a week). I have a chart. I’ve accepted that I’m basically a toddler when it comes to whining and stubbornness, and sticker charts and rewards are really helpful!

Rebecca: Tackling a new revision is always intimidating. I find that setting a timed-goal for my first couple dips into revising really helps. The hard part is thinking about revising 96,000 words. If I pick a place to start and tell myself to work for 45 minutes and then I can have a break, I find by the end of the 45 minutes that I’m usually engaged with the work and happy to keep revising.

Richelle: Scheduling usually works for me. I like to dedicate a couple of nights a week to an away-from-home writing session. It’s on the calendar so everyone knows I’ll be unavailable. I find that having even just two nights a week to immerse myself in writing means that I can squeeze in shorter (but very productive) bursts the rest of the week because I have those longer stretches to really figure out what I need to do.

Jessica: In addition to incorporating many of the suggestions above, I’ve decided to jump back in by reading my entire manuscript and writing myself an edit letter—something that I can use as a roadmap for revisions.

One last thought:

People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.
– Harlan Ellison

With that in mind, let’s all get back to work!

Posted by: Jessica Vitalis

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 Canada, 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.

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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Are There Genres in Picture Books?

We always talk about genres in novels, but what about in picture books? Are there any? Are they the same as for novels? Is it even helpful categorizing picture books into genres? It seems to me that picture books can definitely fall into the adventure, mystery, sci-fi, horror (monster books), and fantasy genres, even though we don’t usually do this. Instead, we think of them falling into either character-driven or concept picture books. Then, of course, there’s nonfiction like biographies, and fairy tales, fables and folktales. Of course, there’s the ever-popular fractured fairy tale, which are fun twists on traditional fairy tales, like The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, Little Red Gliding Hood, and Good Night Baddies.

But there’s also an emergence of other picture book genres that are wowing young readers.

  • The first are what I call Wonder Picture Books. They’re usually beautifully illustrated with rich poetic language, often for a new baby or young child. Adults love them as much as children, maybe even more so! Some examples include: The Wonderful Things You’ll Be, All the World, and On the Night You Were Born.

Mindful Concept Picture Books are similar to wonder books but written for slightly older children. The text is sparse but the feelings are deep and sensory. Books in this category include The Quiet Book, Say Zoop! (which also falls into the meta category below), Water Can Be…, and I Wish You More…

“Meta” Picture Books: They ask the reader to think outside the book and question what a book is. Often readers are pulled into the action with the use of second person and even asked to physically interact with the book like in Press Here and Tap the Magic Tree. This has been the breakthrough picture book category of the past few years. Other books in this category include We are In a Book (Elephant and Piggy Series) and The Book of Mistakes.

The Don’t Books: Maybe, the recent surge in Don’t Books took off with Don’t Let the Pigeons Drive the Bus. Nothing thrills children like a bossy picture book because they’re usually the ones being bossed around. Examples include: You Don’t Want a Unicorn, I am Not Book I am not a Chair, You will not like this Book, The Day the Crayons Quit, and Be Quiet.

The Mash-Up Picture Books combine two popular things and mash them together. Kids love these, too, because they’re unexpected, and they break the rules and that’s pretty exciting stuff. Plus, they are usually packed with a big splat of humor. Examples include: Dragons Love Tacos, Dear Santasaurus, Pirosaurs, and Dinotrux.

I hope this has been helpful. Let me know your thoughts on picture book genres!

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: Pacing and Tension: The Heartbeat of Your Story

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 letting your manuscript sit. This week, we’re talking about pacing and tension.

Pacing and tension are the drivers that have us flipping through the pages from the first chapter through to the last one.

Pacing is the speed at which our story unfolds, sometimes fast and sometimes slow, allowing us to catch our breath and regroup. Ironically, in a fast action scene, we zoom in and slow down the moment, paying more attention to detail with shorter snappier sentences. In between our action scenes we have reaction and anticipation scenes, and when events slow down, we can zoom out and occasionally tell, instead of show, the passing of time or events.

We are always told to cut out the boring bits, which is true. We don’t need to hear routine details, so it’s important to show the progression of time. Here’s a post from writershelpingwriters.net that shows you some examples of how to show the progression of time from one chapter to the next.

Tension is the anticipation before the action. It’s the suspense of now knowing what’s going to happen. It’s expecting and hoping that something will happen. It occurs before the action. The more we care about the character, the more tension we, the reader, will feel.

Tension relies on the author making it difficult for your character to get what they want or need. Conflict is tension. So your character should have both an external conflict and internal conflict.  If your main character is perfectly content and serene and doesn’t want or need anything, your pacing will feel slow. We turn the page to find out if your character will get what they want.

Outlining your story helps you pace your novel, whether you choose Martha Aldersen’s The Plot Whisper or K M Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel or Larry Brooks Story Engineering. Whichever story structure you choose, it will help you pace your story and build the tension.

Here are some more insights on pacing and tension from other writers and editors:

“Sometimes you’re creeping or walking and enjoying the view and other times running for your life.”—Stephen King

“Pace means change.  If plot circumstances don’t change, something must.  In practical terms that means complications, twists, turns and surprises that aren’t visible but are nevertheless real, changes that happen inside.  These are the steps in an arc.”—Donald Mass (Read his excellent post on the four kinds of pacing here on Writer Unboxed.)

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”― Alfred Hitchcock

“…even though you know what’s going to happen next, your readers shouldn’t. They need to have a sense of excitement and uncertainty as the plot and pacing unfolds because this is where magic lies.”–J.K. Rowling

“Pacing is the manipulation of momentum and time in a piece of writing and how the characters and reader experience it. April Bradley.” Check out more the entire post here.

Tune in to next week’s #WPMYC post where we look at writing emotion!

KARIN LEFRANC is from nowhere and everywhere. She grew up 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.