The Magic of Friendship

I’m working on revising one novel and pre-writing another, and one thing keeps coming up with both projects: friendship.

I have two teen daughters, and I can tell you that EVERYTHING revolves around friends. And I remember that from my own teenage years – friendships were all-consuming, intense, up and down, and central to my daily life.

So as I’ve worked on these two projects, it has been especially important to me to make sure that the friendships in my stories are as vivid and central to my characters’ lives as they are in the lives of the teens I know.

Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially if your story and its conflicts aren’t based on your main character’s relationship with his or her friends. How can you ensure that your character’s friendships always feel authentic, rich and real?

I recently attended a talk at my local SCBWI led by editor Abby Ranger. She called friendship a key entrance to your story. Whether you’re writing an epic fantasy set in a completely new world, or a contemporary set in a world that is familiar to nearly all of us, your character’s friendships give readers a view of the heart of your character and her journey.

And friendship is different than other relationships your character has in his life. For one, it’s completely voluntary – friends don’t have to love you like family does. And the relationship isn’t clouded by romantic feelings.

So friendship is important to get right in any story for middle grade or YA. But how?

Take a minute to think about your own friendships. What are they based on?

I have a few friends who have known me for more than 20 years. We share some things in common – kids in some cases, hobbies in others – but our primary bond is one of time and deep understanding. They know what skeletons I have in my closet, they remember when I was a vegetarian who refused to eat beans, and at least one of them was there to drive me home from work when I had a horrid case of the stomach flu.

I have other friendships that have grown from a common interest. My knitting friends know a bit about my life, but they are even more well versed in what yarn-based project I’ve got in my bag at the moment. And of course my Pennies know each and every up and down I have with my fiction writing.

Think about your character and his or her friends. How did they meet? What drew them together? How did they cross that threshold between acquaintances and friends? What keeps them coming back to each other?

What do they know about each other that other characters don’t know? What are their power dynamics – is one the bold go-getter, dragging the other along? Is there a protector and a protected?

As you sketch out this important relationship, consider these tips, loosely gathered from Abby Ranger’s fantastic talk (and with examples from Harry Potter, an epic fantasy series with friendship at its core), for creating authentic friendships that push your characters to grow over the course of the novel:

Lean into contrast/conflict. Friends don’t always get along, and they often grow in different directions at different times. Show those conflicts – big and small – and use them to challenge your main character’s inertia.

HARRY POTTER EXAMPLE: When Hermione and Ron begin to recognize their feelings for each other, they each approach those feelings in different ways. That conflict is amped up by the ball and the character of Viktor Krum and adds a great layer of complexity to the story.

Communication between friends often consists of their own language. Show that in both dialogue and in non-verbal communication. Our closest friends can often say a LOT with a tiny change in expression!

HARRY POTTER EXAMPLE: How many times do Ron and Harry crack each other up with just a glance?

There is an intimacy in details, so be specific. Use details to show your characters knowledge of each other and their expectations of their friends. HARRY POTTER EXAMPLE: When Hermione explains Cho’s feelings of sadness, grief, guilt and confusion to Harry and Ron after Cedric’s death, she shows a relationship with Cho that we don’t see on the page, but that is clear from those few details she shares. And Harry’s and Ron’s responses show that they never expected such complexity from either Hermione or Cho.

Teen friendships have DRAMA. Emotions are bigger and more unwieldy when you’re a teenager, and most of the situations you face, you’re facing for the very first time. Let the drama out! And that drama can crop up in many different ways – does your character have to sacrifice something for his or her friend? How do your characters earn their relationship? Do they fight for it? Do they risk something – parental or societal disapproval, say – to keep the friendship?

HARRY POTTER EXAMPLE: Right at the beginning of the first book, Harry faces a choice between being friends with Draco (and joining ranks with the “right sort” of wizard) and being friends with Ron (the “wrong sort”). He chooses Ron. Later, the two friends together choose to befriend the unloved Hermione. Both times, Harry is risking his social capital for his friends – and that choice continues to create drama that resonates throughout the series.

Friendships, particularly groups of friends, have their own circuitry. How do your characters connect to each other in the world of your story? What are the layers of friendships, from inner circle, to outer ring? What role does each character play?

HARRY POTTER EXAMPLE: Harry, Ron and Hermione each have their own specific role to play in their trio. But they’re not an independent entity. They’re also influenced and influence Ginny and Neville and Fred and George and Luna. Their influence also spreads to enemies like Draco. The various connections between the characters come back over and over again throughout the series, and the picture that network forms is complex, dynamic and rich.

Friendship should have an arc throughout the book. Even if the friendship doesn’t supply the main core of conflict in your story, your character’s relationship with friends should still have some sort of beginning, middle and end related to the journey he or she takes in the book.

HARRY POTTER EXAMPLE: While the first book in the series is about Harry learning his true history and facing his greatest enemy for the first time, it is also about his journey from a lonely boy to a boy with friends. His friendships with Ron and Hermione wouldn’t be enough on their own to fuel a book about wizards, but they do give Harry a personal arc to go along with his hero arc, making him much more relatable in the process.

But perhaps the biggest clue that two (or more) characters are friends? Fun! Don’t be afraid to let your characters – even in the darkest and grittiest of dramas – have fun with their friends. That joy is the glue that has kept them together and that shows your reader the depth of your characters’ friendships.

Friendship is one of the most central relationships tweens and teens have. Whether you’re writing a space opera, a modern rom-com, a historical fantasy, or something else entirely, friendships are a great way to zero in on your novel’s heart.

 

 

RICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon, often in the company of her husband and their three spirited children. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

How to Survive Your Toughest Draft

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

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

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

FINALLY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take a deep breath.

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

Find your joy.

 

RICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon, often in the company of her husband and their three spirited children. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

Four on 400 November Contest Feedback!

Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest!

Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

MG Fantasy, JAMES RASH AND THE SEPTACULAR SEPTUPLETS

Copper coated James’ tongue as he bit into his lip and glanced over the first-floor balcony of the three-story castle. People danced, laughed, and ate in the lantern-strung courtyard below. He pulled at the collar of his shirt as two beads of sweat raced past his ear. It felt as if he were in the castle hot tub on extra high. He leaned his neck back to gaze at the pale moon sitting high in the endless black sky above; the stars scattered across like little shining sprinkles.

He closed his eyes. Stop worrying. Everything’s going to be fine. You’re going to get—

“There you are! What’re you doing?”

James’ tired body gave a slight shudder seconds before his head whipped around from the balcony. Grandpa towered over him, skinny arms folded. Gray eyes, the same as James’, stared down at him. The image of James’ face on Grandpa’s shirt mimicked him perfectly, from his curly brown hair to the front tooth he lost to a green apple. James licked the empty spot.

“Really?” Grandpa sighed. “Your life’s about to change forever and you’re hiding?”

James held his hands up innocently and shook his head. “I’m not hiding. I was … uh … going to the bathroom.”

The bathroom? That’s the best you could do?

“This doesn’t look much like the bathroom to me.” Grandpa peered over the balcony. “How about instead of watching the party, we join it? You haven’t forgotten it’s your seventh birthday, have you?”

He smiled and winked as he held out his right hand. James’ nerves kept him rooted to the spot, still as a statue.

I can’t face them … what if… what if …

“James?” Grandpa frowned and raised an eyebrow. “Come on, it’s almost midnight. What’re you … Oh. Please tell me you aren’t still worried about that, are you?”

He knows! Act calm! Lie! Do something!

“What?” James forced a laugh. “Ha. No, I—”

Grandpa snapped his fingers. James grabbed his throat as it closed up. He could still breathe fine, but if he tried to make a sound it would get pushed back down when it reached the top of his throat as if bouncing against a net.

“Didn’t you and your siblings learn you can’t lie to me and get away with it?” Grandpa chuckled and tapped his unwrinkled forehead. “Now, why are you afraid you aren’t magical?”

Gita: Thanks for being willing to share your opening pages with us! I love the idea of a protagonist who worries about not being magical. I’m also intrigued by the relationship between James and his grandfather. I wondered a bit about the age of your protagonist, though. Is James seven years old throughout the story, or is this a flashback? Usually, middle-grade readers are 8-12 years old, and at that age especially, kids like to “read up,” that is, read about protagonists who are slightly older than the readers themselves are. So if James is seven throughout the story, he’s too young for MG. At the same time, an MG protagonist’s concerns and behavior still need to be appropriate for readers on the younger end of the age range, say 8 or 9. Best wishes as you continue on with this project!

Jessica: There are a lot of fun elements in this story; thanks for sharing! By way of suggestions, I’d encourage you to flesh out the “world” this fantasy is set in. James is peering over a castle balcony, so I assumed it was a medieval setting, but then the reference to the hot tub and the modern usage of “Grandpa” tripped me up. I think you could clarify by expanding the description of “people” in the second sentence; what they are wearing, eating, etc. will give us a much better picture of the world we are dealing with. Good luck!

Michelle: Uh-oh. Looks like James is in a bit of a predicament. Great job building sympathy for him quickly, and your premise is intriguing! Your first sentence threw me off. I think you meant the coppery taste of blood coated his tongue instead of actual copper. I’m also wondering if he’d really be aware that there were “two” beads of sweat. Simply calling it “beads of sweat” gives us a great image of how much stress he feels. My only other suggestion is look for places to tighten. For example, “He leaned his neck back to gaze” could be “He gazed” because we already know the neck is involved in that action. Best of luck with your writing journey!

Halli: Congratulations on winning this month’s contest. I love stories about magic and I’m intrigued about this story and James, who may not have magic.  My fellow Pennies had some great comments already so I will focus on the beginning since that is what agents see first and base their requests on. The first page is typically 250 words, so we don’t get to issue of magic until halfway through the second page. That means the first page is full of worry without even a hint as to what is going on. I would not suggest giving away his fear of not having magic right away, but if the reader could get a little hint earlier on about his fear (for example, he would be letting his family down or be in grave danger) that would up the urgency and the desire to read on. Thank you so much for sharing!

 

 

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MYC: Wrap-up

This week’s MYC post is going to be a bit different because instead of focusing on an aspect of writing a novel, this week, we’re focusing on YOU!

So, THANK YOU for following along on our series, which addressed everything from finding a big idea for your story, to honing in on voice, to charging through that first draft, to tightening your manuscript and getting feedback. (Whew!) We had a blast putting this series together, but knowing that you were reading and commenting and pointing us to new resources really made MYC hum.

If you missed any of our posts, you can easily search all of our MYC entries using the search tools to the right. We tried to keep things roughly in the order that you might use them while you’re writing a novel, so just keep scrolling through. And if you can’t find what you’re looking for, let us know! We’d be happy to do some supplementary MYC posts down the road.

Questions about posts we’ve already written? Ask away in the comments. If you need a deeper dive, we’d love that, too!

And of course, MYC is not done because there is more to cover — now that you’ve come up with an idea, done your pre-writing, drafted and edited your novel and gotten feedback…what’s next?

After a short end-of-year break, MYC will be back in the New Year with posts on writing queries and (the dreaded!) synopses, along with advice about polishing your novel for agent submissions.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for MYC review posts, which will pop up on Wednesdays throughout the next couple of months.

Again, THANK YOU for checking in each Wednesday, for letting us know what you thought, and for sharing our MYC posts so widely. You ROCK!

Writing About Native Americans: A Diversity Conversation with Kara Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

My reasons fall into two major categories:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

·      Writing About Native Americans

·      On Obligation and Percy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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Q&A with Middle Grade Author Julie Leung

Julie, congratulations on the release of your latest book, Mice of the Round Table (Voyage to Avalon) and welcome to The Winged Pen! Your cover is gorgeous––tell us about the story.

Julie: Young mouse Calib Christopher has nearly completed his training to become a squire to the Knights of Camelot when news of a deadly plague reaches the castle. Soon all of Camelot is showing signs of the illness, animals and humans alike. Desperate to find a cure, Calib and his friend Cecily set off on a voyage to find the healing land of Avalon. But even as their journey takes them over land and sea, back at home, Calib’s human friend Galahad discovers that the true enemy may have already found a way inside the castle walls…

Thanks, Julie––this sounds like a fantastic adventure! Let’s talk about your favorite children’s books. What books inspired you while writing?

One of the most influential books of my childhood would have to be The Neverending Story by Michael Ende—upon which a pretty cheesy, but also childhood-defining ’80 movie is based. As a secluded bookworm, I was absolutely enraptured by the idea that I could imagine something into “being.” I longed to be Bastian Balthazar Bux and get whisked away into a fantastical book. While I can’t say that it’s happened to me literally, I feel like I’ve achieved the next closest thing by becoming an author.

If you could whisk yourself into any of your favorite fantasy novels, which would you choose?

I probably wouldn’t survive very long before some undead thing ate me. But one of my favorite fictional places is the Old Kingdom in Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series. My other, safer answer would be Mossflower Wood in the Redwall series. I would incarnate as squirrel probably.

What are your favorite creative retellings of classic stories?

As a huge Oz fan (who read all the books past The Wizard of Oz, no less!), I enjoyed Wicked by Gregory Maguire a lot. I’m generally fascinated by good vs. evil dynamics getting turned on their heads when envisioned from the villain’s perspective. I also very much enjoyed Cinder by Marissa Meyer, which speaks to my Sailor Moon fangirl roots.

If you could retell any famous novel with mice, which would you pick?

Thinking of cool retellings is one of my favorite past times, so I have a lot of ideas along this vein. But if I had to pick, I would love to reimagine the Robin Hood adventure through the eyes of a woodland creature…maybe a scrappy pine marten. Have you googled pine martens? If you haven’t, you should. You won’t regret it.

Thanks for the tip! *makes mental note to google pine martens* Speaking of googling, when you’re writing a medieval fantasy, how much do you depend on research versus your own imagination?

As far as Arthurian lore goes, I’m lucky that this sandbox has already been played in by many authors before me. A lot of my research had more to do with folklore and literature than history. I revisited a lot Arthurian fictional classics in my preparation for writing: T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, Mary Stewart’s  Merlin trilogy, etc.

Before we go, can you tell us more about Calib Christopher’s next adventure?

In Books 1 and 2, I’ve been hinting at the idea that Camelot is perhaps doomed no matter what our heroes try to do. In the third book, we’ll see Galahad and Calib confront this prophecy and Camelot’s greatest enemies firsthand. The ending may surprise you.

 JULIE LEUNG was raised in the sleepy suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, though it may be more accurate to say she grew up in Oz and came of age in Middle-earth. By day, she is a senior marketing manager for Random House’s sci-fi/fantasy imprint, Del Rey Books. In her free time, she enjoys furtively sniffing books at used bookstores and winning at obscure board games. Her favorite mode of transportation is the library.

 

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 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.

MYC: Tightening

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about Sentence, Paragraph, Chapter, and Story Length. This week, we’ll discuss Ten Steps to Tightening.

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

1. Cut unnecessary words!

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

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

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

2. Cut unnecessary dialogue tags!

Said, answered, asked…

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

Example:

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

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

3. Cut filtering verbs!

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

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

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

Examples:

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

So many others like her had failed to finish college.

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

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

4. Question your adjectives! 

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

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

5. Also question your adverbs!

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

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

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

6. Eliminate redundancies!

She nodded her head and shrugged her shoulders.

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

Another example:

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

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

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

7. Check for “was”! 

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

Examples:

I was envious of your grade on that last test.

I envy your grade on that last test.

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

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

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

We left the over-crowded party early. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Eliminate unnecessary phrases!

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

Example:

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

Maria became furious as Allison kept bringing up unrelated examples.

 

Additional Resources:

10 Overused Words in Writing

30 Filler Words You Can Cut Out of Your Writing

43 Words You Should Cut From Your Writing by Diana Urban

44 Overused Words and Phrases

 

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

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

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MYC: Playing with Language

Master Your CraftWelcome 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 a look at first and last pages. This week, we’re diving into making your language shine.

After the long slog of drafting and re-drafting and revising and editing, it can be hard to remember what you even liked about your book in the first place. When I get to this stage, I like to take a pass at my manuscript that’s all about play.

This is one of my favorite rounds of editing, and it was born way back in the days before streaming television, when my husband bought me the DVDs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Three as a gift. I watched all the episodes, of course, but the DVDs were also great because of all the extras. (Did we have more time back then? Did I call in sick to work?)

Anyway, one of the DVD extras was an interview with one of the Buffy writers, Jane Espenson, who talked about writing and editing and workshopping and polishing a script until it gleamed. She’d hand it to the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, who would go through the script and take all the best lines and find a more unique way to say them.

She said she learned quickly to try to turn her dialogue on its head wherever she could.

That story has always stuck with me. Whether it’s because I too suffered under an uber-controlling, perfectionist boss who always knew better than me what word to use where, or because I just enjoy playing with language, but I’ve grown to love this editing pass on my novel, where I search out my time-worn and clichéd phrases and trade them out for something delightful and fresh.

Of course, you can be too delightfully fresh with your language. No one wants to read a book that is written so creatively you have to pause every sentence to figure out what the author means. So here are a few dos and don’ts for hacking away at your stale phrasing:

DO…look for the expected and see how you can change it up. Do you describe a sunrise as a symphony of pink and orange? See if you can tweak it a bit by trying something more like this:

Pinks and oranges played dueling themes across the lightening sky.

DO…take your character and their interests into account. Is your character into computer programming? Maybe she would describe a sunrise in those terms:

Bits and bytes of pink and orange arranged themselves into perfectly programmed layers.

Pro Tip: Writer Emery Lord keeps a vocabulary list for each of her major characters based on their interests, backgrounds and dialects. A reference like that would come in super handy for this pass.

DO…check in on your dialogue. Can you tell what character is speaking without dialogue tags?

See if you can give your characters their own distinct voices. If you open up any of the Harry Potter books and see that a character is saying, “Bloody hell!” you’d have a pretty good idea that Ron was speaking. Or, to borrow again from TV, Chandler Bing from Friends wouldn’t be the same without his trademark, “Could this sunrise be any more pink?”

DO…consider where your story takes place and where your characters are from. I have yet to hear my Oklahoma in-laws utter the word “car” – it’s always “vehicle” with every syllable distinctly pronounced.

Even sprinkling in a few region-specific words will give your readers a feel for the where of your story or character, which deepens the reading experience. Consider how a few of the people I know say “hello”:

From England: Howya?

From South Africa: Good Day!

 From Brooklyn: Hi, hi.

From Oklahoma: Howdy.

From Oregon: Heeeyyyyy…

DON’T…go overboard. This is an easy step to get carried away on, and that leads to passages that are overwritten and dialogue that sounds stilted or over-the-top. Your reader shouldn’t need a decoder ring to get the gist of your story. So if you find yourself editing your sunrise into purple prose like this:

The sky blushed as his lover the sun eased her way into the sky, draped in a negligée of glorious rose and peach…

…then you’ve gone too far! Step away from the keyboard and save your creativity for another story!

When I’m drafting, I’m so focused on telling the story that I need to just get words on the page. Too often, this leads to a few turns of phrase that are drier than stale toast. By adding in an editing pass specifically for playing with my language, it not only helps me polish my work, it also helps me recapture the fun and joy of creating a new world with words.

We hope you’ll come back next for next Wednesday’s MYC post to learn about Chapter and Sentence Length.

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: Writing “Other” with Sensitivity

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 Power of Metaphor. This week, we’ll discuss writing “other” characters.

What is writing “Other”?

It simply means writing characters that are not like yourself.

Some writers are terrified to try this. If you’ve ever witnessed arguments about writing diversely or seen Twitter posts “dragging” authors who make mistakes when they tried to do so, you probably understand why!

But, it’s important that the stories we craft represent the world we inhabit. This post at Lit Reactor by K. Tempest Bradford sums up the importance of diversity in our writing and our reading pretty well, especially this paragraph:

 

Seeing oneself reflected in fiction, even if partially, is important for people from marginalized communities and identities. It’s also important for people who align with the dominant paradigm as well. It allows them to see and understand that people who aren’t like them exist outside of narrow stereotypes and also outside of the confines of their own narrow understanding.

 

So hopefully, you’ve included an interesting variety of people from different cultures, beliefs, or abilities in your masterpiece. And if not, this is a great time to tweak a few characters to give your story depth and sparkle.

 

But…

And this is a REALLY BIG BUT

Don’t do it unless you’re invested in doing it well.  

There are a few steps to that process.

Ask Yourself Why????

Why are you writing this “other” character?

Maybe you have a unique perspective. For example, you may have adopted a child of a different ethnicity or maybe your child has a disability and you want the world to see life through her eyes. Maybe your nephew has recently “come out” and you want (with his permission) to use his experiences to help others. Having a personal connection to writing “other” automatically puts pressure on you to get it right.

But maybe your reason is just because you feel it’s important to show that a gay, black, hearing-impaired boy can have exciting adventures. That’s okay too. BUT, you’re going to have to work extra hard to make sure your character is authentic and realistic for your reader. Put yourself in the shoes of the gay, black, hearing-impaired boy who might be read your story. Will he like it? Will he relate to the character? Will he recommend it to his friends?

After you’ve answered why, the real work begins.

Research!

A lot of it. Thoroughly. Yes, it’s a lot of work. But if you care about your readers and you want to make fans, you’ll do it. If you don’t approach your characters thoughtfully, you may do more harm than good and lose readers in the process. One of the worse things you can do is to write stereotypical characters.

Examples: the blind person who can “see” visions, the crippled evil villain, the savage Native American, the gay male who loves theatre, the sassy black girl…

Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.

As we mentioned in our post about Writing Cross-Culturally, not only are those stereotypes unrealistic, but––especially in kid lit––they do harm. Just like there are millions of different behaviors of a “typical” white girl, the same is true of every character regardless of religious beliefs, skin color, sexual orientation, bodily abilities…

Make all your characters real people. (For more details about how to do this see this post on character development and this one on supporting characters.) Understand what makes them tick, their beliefs, their concerns, their limitations, and their special abilities. This is important even if your “other” character isn’t the main character.

One great way to research is by reading books written by #ownvoices authors. Check out this Kirkus post by Cynthia Leitich Smith for more info.

See below for a list of resources about writing a variety of “other” characters.

Sensitivity Readers!

Yes, you’ll need them. Several in fact. If you don’t know what that is, read this or this. You may have a person in your life who can serve as a sensitivity reader for the “other” that is in your story, but I’d also suggest finding a reader that you don’t know. A reader who doesn’t know you personally will be more comfortable with being completely honest with you and will be able to provide a deeper insight to make your story more authentic. Heads up: If you haven’t employed a sensitivity reader before you submit to an agent, sometimes they will ask you to find one. Sometimes your editor will do that, but you should be prepared to pay a sensitivity reader for their time and experience. And here’s the most important part: LISTEN TO YOUR SENSITIVITY READERS!

One recent example of a book about “other” is Dusti Bowling’s Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus. The story is about a girl who was born without arms. But Dusti has arms. How could she possibly write this book? She did her homework and followed up by reaching out to someone who knew first-hand what it was like to live without arms. Check out this Publisher’s weekly post to find out what inspired Dusti to write this book and this interview for more info about her research and sensitivity reader.

Here’s a database for finding sensitivity readers: Writing In The Margins

Own Up to Your Mistakes!

This may be the most important step. Hopefully you’ve taken the first three steps very seriously and done all your homework. But no matter how hard you try, you will make mistakes because you are human. The best thing to do is to very clearly apologize to all those who you’ve offended. (Please note: True apologies do not contain the word “but”.) Accept your mistake(s) and learn from it. Do not blame anyone, not your friend readers, your betas, or your sensitivity readers. It’s yours. Own it. Move forward graciously.

General Resources:

Twitter Handles You Should Follow:

@writingtheother

@diversebooks

@disabilityInLit

Race and Ethnicity:

Gender:

Sexual Orientation:

Disability:

Be brave in your writing, but sensitive to your readers.

Let us know about other resources in the comments! Thanks for reading this week and come back next week to read our discussion about Writing Openings That Hook Readers and Endings That Turn Them Into Fans.

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

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MYC: 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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