Master Your Craft: The Big Idea

Master Your Craft
Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll  discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. (For more information, see last week’s intro post.) This week, I’ll discuss The Big Idea.

So you’re ready to write a novel. You’ve got a character, maybe a scene, a vague idea of the plot…you’re ready to sit down and start writing, right?

Not so fast.

Even seasoned writers can be fooled by a Shiny New Idea. So before you dive into drafting, take some time to test your book-to-be and make sure your new idea is also a Big Idea.

Here are some of the questions we Pennies ask ourselves at the dawn of a new idea:

  • Do I have passion for this story? This might seem obvious, but a novel takes a while to write, and it’s crucial that you have a deep and abiding passion that can sustain you. Another way to ask this question: Is this a story I must tell the world, or is it just a story I’d like to read? I wrote 20,000 words of my current WIP before realizing that one aspect of my story just wasn’t interesting enough to me to push me through all the research I needed to do. I’d love to read that original idea, but it isn’t a story my heart longs to tell.
  • Do I feel urgency to tell this story NOW? I have an entire file of story ideas. Some of them are really cool! But none of them are begging me to tell them right this second. That sense of urgency is another indication that this is a Big Idea.
  • Do I have a vivid protagonist with an overarching goal? In other words, who is your main character, and what does he or she want? Can you hear his or her voice? This is the foundation of any story, and if you don’t have this, it’s going to be so much harder to spin a full novel out of your idea. I’m not sure The Hobbit would have had such enduring power if Bilbo hadn’t longed with his entire being to be back in the Shire.
  • Can I visualize the entire story arc? Often the beginnings of our ideas are just the flash of a character or a scene. But of course, novels need more than one brilliant scene or one fascinating character. Take some time to consider where your story is going. What sets off the action? How does the MC change as the story progresses? What peak conflict will push your MC to the end of the story?
  • Can I write a logline for this story? If you can write a pithy pitch for your idea before you write a word of the story itself, chances are you’ve got the makings of a Big Idea.
  • Are others excited when I tell them my idea? How do your CPs react when you tell them your pitch? Are there “oohs” and “aahs”? Or are they asking questions and offering “what ifs”? Other writers are especially good at recognizing Big Ideas, and if they’re not sold, chances are you have more work to do. And it’s pretty important to get feedback at this stage, even though we can all be very protective of our fledgling stories. Our agented Pennies have reported sending slews of new ideas to their agents only to be told that none of them quite pass muster as is. Most of the time, this just means you need to do the work of fleshing out the idea and finding a unique way into the story. But it is way better to learn this before you write 60,000 words.
  • Is there a market for my idea? Although this question can put a damper on your Shiny New Idea excitement, it’s really important to do this research. Don’t be the author trying to sell a dystopian after the market flood of apocalyptic fiction!

Sadly, some story ideas are flawed from the get-go. Stubborn writers can spend years working on stories that will ultimately go nowhere…and a lot of that heartbreak can be avoided if you take a few days or weeks to really road-test your story first.

And if you can answer “YES!” to all these questions? Congratulations! You’re still not quite ready to write, but you’re one step closer to seeing your Big Idea become a Big Fat Novel.

(Need help coming up with a Big Idea? Check out this earlier Winged Pen post about creative cross-pollination, this one about writing prompts, or this one exploring where ideas come from, to get your creative juices flowing.)

Come back next Wednesday where we’ll discuss Main Character Development.

How To Give Good Critique

We’ve talked before about the need for critique partners to help you create your best work. (Jessica Vitalis had some great suggestions about how to find the right critique partners.)

But finding critique partners is only half the battle. If you want to have an ongoing, productive critique relationship – and write your best novel! – you also need to know how to be a good critique partner.

So, now that you’re exchanging on the reg, how can you make sure that you and your new critique partner can go the distance?

Unfortunately, sometimes even the best critique partnerships fade. Changing genres, differing schedules and mismatched priorities can all derail you and your CPs.

But you can help ensure a lasting and nurturing CP relationship by using some of these techniques for giving (and receiving!) good critique:

  • Use the compliment sandwich. Nobody likes to hear a litany of their mistakes. It’s demoralizing, and it doesn’t make you want to ever let that critical eye near your work again. The critique sandwich is a great way to soften the bad news and help valid criticism land. The formula: Compliment->needs improvement->compliment.

EXAMPLE: I love the way you describe this scene using so many sensory details. I really felt like I was there! Can you use some of those details to heighten the emotions of the characters? The dialogue felt flat compared to the lush scene-setting. It’s so, so close!

  • Ask questions. Questions are a great, neutral way to draw out anything you want to see more of or challenge a writer to new heights. Ask questions about anything that’s not clear, sure, but also consider asking questions when you think there might be more to a moment than is currently on the page.

EXAMPLE: For a scene where a couple is having an argument at a diner: How does he react to what she is saying? Is he mad? Sad? Surprised? What is happening around them during this fight? Do people notice? Or are they trying to keep their voices down? Are they having any physical reactions to the argument? 

  • Point out what they’re doing right. If you notice you’ve gone several pages without commenting, it may be time to pause to tell the author why you’re not. A simple “Amazing tension here” or “Heartbreaking, raw and real!” lets them know when they’ve knocked it out of the park. And sometimes that information is as helpful as knowing where you’re going wrong.
  • Brainstorm, but not prescriptively. It’s inevitable you’re going to have some great ideas about your CP’s story, and you’re going to want to share them. Try to avoid using language like “You should…” or “I would…” Instead of pushing them to embrace your ideas (which may not take the story in the direction they want to go), say, “What if…” Make it clear the idea is theirs to run with, not you imposing your own ideas/aesthetic on their story.
  • Avoid vague, unactionable comments, such as “not sellable” or “too quiet”. Instead aim for more empowering statements, like, “How can you make this scene pop more?” “I wonder if there’s more energy you can inject into this opening.” Or “What do you think could make this story really jump off the shelves?”
  • Know your CP’s goals. Some writers really just want to write for themselves and don’t care about getting published. Others are determined to get an agent who brokers a major deal. And still others would be satisfied with something in between. Sometimes, a writer has been working on a story too long and just doesn’t have the energy or the passion to do what needs to be done to take it from good to great – and that’s totally valid! Critique to motivate them to higher heights, but not against their own goals.
  • Receive critiques with grace. When it’s your turn to have your work critiqued, try to take your ego out of the equation. When you work so hard on something, it can be wrenching to hear that someone doesn’t understand or appreciate it as much as you do. But if you can put your ego in the backseat and view the critique with gratitude, you’ll have what you need to make your story the best it can be. And if it really is a bad critique…let it go and move on. Just because you didn’t reach one person, doesn’t mean you won’t reach many others. (Caveat: If multiple people are pointing out the same problem, take that seriously. You probably need to do some work on that.)

Critiquing – especially with new partners – can be nerve-wracking. But if you approach it with a service mindset, reminding yourself that you are there to help another author achieve his or her goals, then that will lead to kinder, more effective critiques…and hopefully, long-lasting and productive critiquing relationships!

 

Bill Blume and the Teenager Vampire Hunter

 Bill Blume

Website: http://www.billblume.net/gidion01.html

Bill works as a 911 dispatcher for Henrico County Police.

He served as the 2013 chair for James River Writers.

Despite the red covers, little blood is spilled. Gidion is the younger male version of Sookie Stackhouse and Veronica Mars.

A fast-paced thriller. A witty boy. Written by a police expert. Fresh spin on the vampire trope from the hunter’s perspective. Appropriate for MG and YA readers. Last, but not least: funny.

As Gidion closes in on the Richmond coven, he must save his teacher, his girlfriends and his BFF who is a feeder.
A cunning assassin brings more danger. Three generations of secrets spill and shatter Gidion’s beliefs about vampires.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sussu: After writing a review of the exciting duology “Gidion’s Hunt” and “Gidion’s Blood,” the story of a vampire hunter, I thought the next logical step was to ask Bill Bloome for an interview. Welcome Bill to The Winged Pen.

Bill Blume: I remember your review, because it made my day when I saw it. My son was an advanced middle-grade reader when the first book came out, and it was cool to see someone recognize it wasn’t a book that’s exclusive to the YA crowd (even if that was the originally intended market).

Sussu: What choices did you make in order to make the story attractive to boys?

Bill Blume: The main reason I knew boys would be more inclined to like it is probably the most obvious: the protagonist is a boy. The YA market targets girls most of the time (folks more knowledgeable than I am have helped me realize just how complicated an issue that is). I think part of the reason Gidion works well for boys is because his character hits on a lot of the things every boy wants to be at that age: smart, tough, and clever. One review of the book called it a mix of Blade, Encyclopedia Brown, and John Hughes films, which isn’t far off the mark. Most of all, Gidion is at that age where he’s fighting to prove he’s ready to be an adult, which I think any reader at that age can relate to.

Sussu: Why did you choose to write a vampire novel with no gore?

Bill Blume: It’s funny you mention the gore, because I get mixed reactions on that. I certainly don’t dwell on it, because I’m more interested in exploring Gidion’s search for answers. Gidion is basically like a love child of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Michael Westen from Burn Notice.

Burn Notice brought a common sense approach to spy work, and Gidion brings that same kind of common sense way of doing things to hunting vampires.

Sussu: I think kids will connect with the realistic and believable aspect of the story. How did you choose your vampires?

Bill Blume: My goal, before I even realized it would be a YA novel, was to write the best damn vampire hunter story ever. I wanted it to feel as real as possible, like this could happen around us with most people never noticing. Most of all, I wanted my protagonist to be all human. So many supernatural series make the big bads so tough, they have to give the heroes powers to even the playing field. Keeping Gidion de-powered meant going the other way, making the vampires more human, too.

Sussu: Did working in TV news help you as a writer?

Bill Blume: Honestly, no. The biggest contribution had to be working as a 911 dispatcher, which I’ve done for 15 years now. If you’d told me years ago that working in law enforcement would help me write a vampire hunter novel, I’d never have believed it, but it informed the book a lot.

Sussu: What TV shows or novels influenced you?

Bill Blume: Have to give Burn Notice its due. The voice for Michael Westen is also Gidion’s. The guy I got to voice Gidion in the book trailers even watched clips of the show to get the cadence. Only reason I started watching the show was because I was teaching a training class at work and was told I sound like Michael Westen (they were right!).

Sussu: How cool! What is a word you live by?

Bill Blume: The best word to describe me is probably “stubborn.” Haha! It can be such a negative trait so often, but it can be helpful when you need to finish something that requires a long time to stay focused. Writing a book takes a long time, and you doubt yourself more than you don’t as you’re writing. I’m 80,000 words into a non-Gidion YA book that’s very different for me, more character-driven than plot. There’s no guarantee it’ll get published, but by God, I will get this rough draft finished before the end of the month. Very different voice for me, too. Gidion comes naturally, this new character does not.

Sussu: Does that mean no more Gidion’s books?

Bill Blume: Sadly, Gidion is shelved for the moment. The first two books need to prove themselves a little more to the publisher before they will greenlight a third. A manuscript was started, and I know where his story goes next, but the first two books also provide his first major arc. A third book would start him on a new journey, and one day I plan to go back. Don’t think I could abandon Gidion. He’s become a part of me. His quirk for good luck charms and numbers has even infected me. He also turned me into a big, BIG Tim Drake fan. I collect DC comics now to follow Tim, and before that I was a Marvel fan all the way.

 Sussu: It was wonderful having you here. I appreciate your time.

Bill Blume: Thank you! This was a lot of fun.

 

If you liked this interview brought to you by Sussu Leclerc, visit her blogs, at Novel Without Further Ado and Book Riders for MG readers. Connect with her on Twitter and Pinterest. Thanks for reading.

 

Star in MG / YA Magazines

Although often not lucrative, magazine publications can offer you many benefits.

  • They help your name get out there and stand out from the crowd of writers;
  • they can give you a unique insight into the publication world;
  • they can help you be more productive and serve as experimental pieces;
  • they can help you connect with other authors;
  • you might attract the attention of an editor and get further and better offers such as writing for series;
  • finally but not least, short story credits will impress agents or editors because it tells them your work is worth both reading and paying for.

(NB: *CTS! Means “Closed To Submission.” Some magazines only accept submissions at specific times.)

 

Middle Grade Magazines:

CRICKET. Covers all ages. Have many different magazines: Babybugs, Clicks. Ladybug. Ask (arts and sciences). Spider. Cricket. Cobblestone (American history). Dig Into History. Faces (cultures). Muse (Fun science and tech). Cicada (YA). Welcome works by writers from underrepresented groups. <http://www.cricketmedia.com/submission-guidelines?_ga=1.139948403.1938444544.1485226635 >

EMBER. MG and YA. Age 10 to 18. Poetry, fiction, flash fiction, creative nonfiction. <http://emberjournal.org/submission-guidelines/>

 

 

 

FROSTFIRE WORLDS. Ages 8-18. Fantasy and science fiction stories up to 6000 words with strong world-building. Adventure stories, space opera, and magic opera. Also accept poems, art, articles, reviews, and interviews.<http://albanlake.com/guidelines-frostfire/>

NEW MOON. Girls 8 to 12. Fiction and non-fiction.
Show powerful women in charge of their lives. Show parents how to support girls “to express their voices, strengths, needs, problems, and dreams.” <http://newmoon.com/getting-published-daughters-com/>

SPACEPORTS & SPIDERSILK. Short stories, poems, art, brief essays on science and the environment, interviews, quizzes, fantasy, science fiction, and mild horror. Open to hard to sell stories. <http://nomadicdeliriumpress.com/spaceportsgl.htm>

 

WEE TALES. Magical, heart pounding tales, 2000 words maximum. <https://goldenfleecepress.com/submissions/>

 

 

YOUNG EXPLORER’S ADVENTURE GUIDE. Combine adventure, space, and science. Diverse characters, strong girls, and fun. <http://dreamingrobotpress.com/young-explorers-adventure-guide-submissions/>

 

 

YA Magazines:

 BALLOONS. 12 years-old and up. Looking for unconventional materials, “elements that could enlighten and amaze the young minds.” <http://www.balloons-lit-journal.com/submission.html>

CAST OF WONDERS. YA science fiction or high fantasy for podcasting. *CTS! <http://www.castofwonders.org/submissions/>

CBAY. Teens. Fantasy or science fiction. *CTS! <http://www.cbaybooks.com/submission-guidelines.html>

 

 

CRICKET. Covers all ages. Have many different magazines: Babybugs, Clicks. Ladybug. Ask (arts and sciences). Spider. Cricket. Cobblestone (American history). Dig Into History. Faces (cultures). Muse (Fun science and tech).

Cicada (YA). Welcome works by writers from underrepresented groups.   <http://www.cricketmedia.com/submission-guidelines?_ga=1.139948403.1938444544.1485226635>

 

EMBER. Ages 10 to 18. Poetry, fiction, flash fiction, creative nonfiction. <http://emberjournal.org/submission-guidelines/>

FOREST FOR THE TREES. Poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction up to 6,000 words. <https://ffttjournal.wordpress.com/contactsubmit/>

FROSTFIRE WORLDS. 8-18 and beyond. Fantasy and science fiction stories up to 6000 words with strong world-building. Adventure stories, space opera, and magic opera. Also accept poems, art, articles, reviews, and interviews. <http://albanlake.com/guidelines-frostfire/>

 

HUNGER MOUNTAIN. Short stories, poetry, novel/novella excerpts, and creative nonfiction. Follows themes. <http://hungermtn.org/submit/>

LUNCH TICKET. YA short stories and flash fiction up to 5,000 words. <https://lunchticket.submittable.com/submit/11940/young-adult-writing-for-young-people-13>

ONE TEEN STORY. Literary fiction between 3,000 and 8,000 words. <http://www.one-story.com/index.php?page=submit&pubcode=os>

 

 

REFRACTIONS. YA fantasy with a delicate, magical touch, 5000 words maximum. <https://goldenfleecepress.com/submissions/>

SPACEPORTS & SPIDERSILK. Short stories, poems, art, brief essays on science and the environment, interviews, quizzes, fantasy, science fiction, and mild horror. Opened to hard to sell stories. <http://nomadicdeliriumpress.com/spaceportsgl.htm>

SUCKER LITERARY. YA fiction up to 10,000 words. *CTS! <https://suckerliterarymagazine.wordpress.com/submission-guidelines/>

SUDDENLY LOST IN WORDS. Poetry, short stories, and memoirs up to 3000 words.
<http://writingcareer.com/suddenly-lost-in-words-re-opens-for-ya-short/>

YARN. Poetry, essays up to 3000 words, and fiction up to 6000 words. <http://yareview.net/how-to-submit/>

YOUTH IMAGINATION. Real issues facing teens, from 200 to 20K words. <http://youthimagination.silverpen.org/index.php/submission-guidelines>

 

 

CONCLUSION:

Think of making your stories crossover because it is difficult to find magazines looking for specific genres you might specialize in. You could make your YA stories reaching into adult realms. You could, for example, submit to TOR and CICADA at the same time.

Keep in mind that magazines pay little but expect the best.

Some magazines will only accept excerpts. Read guidelines carefully.

Have fun exploring and submitting!

 

Resource:

Duotrop Magazine List. < duotrope.com >

♥♥♥

 

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If you liked this article, visit Sussu’s blogs, at Novel Without Further Ado and Book Riders for MG readers. Connect with her on Twitter and Pinterest.

Thanks for reading

 

 

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The Four C’s — Yoga Rules for Writing

Back when I took my first yoga class, the teacher warned us to avoid “The Four C’s” – comparing, competing, complaining, and criticizing.

balance-1107484_640I can still vividly remember feeling so chastised – I had committed every single one of those sins!

In the years since that first class, The Four C’s have popped into my head at various times – while taking yoga or other gym classes, while going about my daily life, and while writing fiction.

But while The Four C’s are big Don’ts, they can lead to some even bigger Do’s.

DON’T Compare

It’s so, so tempting to look at other writers and wonder why you don’t have the same success they do. How does she write so fast? How come he is getting a multi-book deal? How did she sell so many copies if everyone thinks she’s a terrible writer?!?

But here’s the thing: comparisons don’t move you forward. All of your observations about other writers could be 100% true (although they’re probably not), but they have absolutely nothing to do with what you’re writing. In fact, wasting a bunch of head space on how another writer is progressing just gets you mired in picking apart your flaws and all the ways you can’t measure up.

DO Study and Learn

Where it’s damaging to compare, it can actually be really helpful to look at what another writer is doing to achieve such success. That writer with the killer output? Maybe she’s getting up at 4am to write every day or another productivity technique you could use in your own work. And the best-sellers? Study what they do right rather than picking apart what they do wrong. People are buying them for a reason – can you see what that reason is?

DON’T Compete

I was at a children’s soccer game recently where a parent was so upset that his son’s team was losing that he lost it. He began yelling at an eight-year-old child on the opposing team and had to be escorted out of the park. It didn’t help his son or his son’s team play better, it didn’t increase anyone’s enjoyment of the game, and it didn’t change the outcome. While some drive to win is a good thing, in general, competing with your fellow writers isn’t going to get you where you want to go.

DO Collaborate

hands-1445244_640Instead, try collaborating. My fellow Pennies have given me fantastic writing and life advice. They spot my weak spots and celebrate my strengths. Different minds have different takes on the same situation, and working together can help everyone succeed…and make this often lonely journey a whole lot more fun.

DON’T Complain

I like to complain as much as the next person. But let’s face it: whining about a situation isn’t getting you any closer to fixing it.

It’s OK to have a venting session if you need it. Get that frustration out with a trusted friend. But once you’ve purged the bad feelings, try to remember what an incredible privilege it is to have the time, energy and ability to create art.

DO Embrace Challenges

Writing — like life — doesn’t promise to be easy, comfortable or fun. Instead, it promises one challenge after another. So embrace those challenges. Come up with creative ways to solve them. Sometimes, the knocks we take in writing end up pushing us to heights we never would have reached without them. (And sometimes they’re just knocks. Sorry.)

The bottom line: the sooner you embrace writing’s challenges, the more joyful the time you spend writing will be.

DON’T Criticize

Criticism has no place in yoga, where the idea is to do the best practice you are capable of doing at that specific moment. But what about in writing? Shouldn’t we criticize in order to produce the best possible work?

Well, no. Criticism is inherently negative. Criticism is that voice in your head that tells you you’ll never be able to do justice to this story, you are a terrible writer, and you should probably just set your laptop on fire to save the world from your pitiful attempts at fiction. Criticism hurts.

DO Critique

Unlike a good critique, criticism doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for what’s you’re doing right. And I actually think that is often just as important — if not more — than what’s going wrong.

In their fantastic book on change, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath talk about one of the key steps that people who successfully change situations take: they follow the bright spots. By looking at what is working and trying to do more of that, we’re usually more successful than if we look at what’s not working and try to change it.

In other words, endless criticism is not going to get you where you want to go as fast as thoughtful critique. Try to look at where your current story gets your heart pounding. Why? What are you doing there that you can do in the rest of your story?

In my Saturday morning spin class a few weeks ago, the instructor ended the class by telling us, “I want you to go out today and remember: You showed up, you tried, and you didn’t quit. That is something to celebrate!”

That powerful message – and my mantra for whenever my writing gets a little tough — is the opposite of The Four C’s.