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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An Interview with Manuscript Academy co-founder Jessica Sinsheimer

Manuscript Academy Happy #MSWL day! Today, agents and editors from around the world will Tweet their wish-lists. It’s a great way to fine tune your query list and to get an idea of what editors are looking for as well.

Manuscript Wish List co-founder Jessica Sinsheimer has been hard at work on another project recently as well: The Manuscript Academy. She stopped by The Winged Pen to chat with us about this exciting new opportunity for writers.

You already do so much for the writing community by running the amazing Manuscript Wish List, what made you decide to add The Manuscript Academy to your repertoire?

It’s actually an idea that had been brewing for years.  I was invited to speak at a conference a few years back—an amazing conference, one that sounded like so much fun. But, when I asked about travel stipend, they said that there wasn’t one—I could only get discounted admission. So I started pricing it out, and soon realized it would be well over $2,000 to attend. Worse, some told me that if I “really cared” about my career, I’d pay it.

It had never occurred to me that the events I attended regularly could be so expensive for writers—and that’s before considering the logistics of childcare, health, religious obligations, family needs, and just plain time. Plus, there’s just so much pressure to go—probably even more than was put on me, because I get to attend so many. It just seemed incredibly unfair. Having money shouldn’t be a prerequisite to a writing career. So this stayed with me, as a problem we needed to solve as an industry, but I didn’t know how.

But then co-founder Julie Kingsley and I met—thanks to a wild coincidence of her being on a bus to Book Expo with my colleague, then invited to networking drinks—and I was so impressed with her knowledge of the film, media, tech, and startup worlds. These were things I assumed were out of my reach forever, however fascinating I found them. But we quickly realized that, together, we could finally make something like this happen—and bring the conference to writers, in a way that’s accessible to so many more.

The concept is great–prerecorded content from industry professionals with unlimited access for thirty days for a price lower than any writing conference around, plus a series of live pitch sessions, critique sessions, and live webinars. How has the reception been so far?  

It’s been incredibly exciting. If anything, there’s been a LOT more enthusiasm than I expected (though I’m the pessimist of the group!) I mean, new different things are scary! Especially new, different things with technology. But we now have about 700 members, and the community is only growing. Lots of members are getting agents and book deals. We’re actually going to start making “class reunion” events to keep everyone in touch, because these are the people who are going to grow, learn, and eventually succeed together.

It’s always been important to me that we price everything as low as we can while still paying every single person who works for us—including those who helped Xerox and hold doors and organize agents and get snacks on filming day—a living hourly wage. We work with incredibly talented, kind people. And I’m thrilled that we could pay everyone right away.

There are lots of online writing courses out there and I know from experience that the quality varies greatly. How do you select faculty? How would you recommend writers decide how to spend their precious personal development dollars?

We select faculty not just for their brilliance but for their openness, kindness, and breadth of interests. I know it’s so scary to find yourself face to face with an agent—even if it’s through a screen. I wanted to be sure that I could trust everyone to handle that with grace, warmth, and kindness—to turn in work on time—and to bring new insight to their classes.

It’s true—there is SO much content out there. But we were very thoughtful about every single faculty member, every choice of class, and every new program. We’re very conscious of the fact that we’re not taking money from, say, bankers. We want everyone to feel like they get not just instruction, but a feeling of connection and support, from our programs.

Some people learn best in a group—and for that, we have classes (including our brand new Five Days To A Fab First Page challenge) where people can absorb the material, talk about it in a group, and then have live interaction with our faculty. Some people want individual feedback—for them, we have Ten Minutes With An Expert meetings to go over queries and first pages—and written critiques, so the notes are there and ready to be implemented.

Both of these web sites (MSWL & MA) are gorgeous. Who is your designer/tech guru? 

We work with Mike Chen and Sierra Godfrey of Atmosphere Author Websites. They seriously saved my life on the ManuscriptWishList.com site. Version 2.0 was a site that I updated myself—every time someone wanted a change, I did it. This was fine for awhile, but as we grew, it became not just a second job, but was taking over my life! Mike and Sierra then, as if by magic, appeared—offered to make a new site to benefit the community—and spent months with me (more than six months!) redoing the site in a way that made it sustainable for the future. Now agents and editors can update their own profiles, searchability is VASTLY improved, it’s MUCH prettier, and there are just so many things that work better. I could never have done it without them.

Plus, they’re both writers, so they really understand the creative brain that doesn’t get all of the tech speak—and could translate my clumsy descriptions of what I was hoping for into something that looks gorgeous and just works.

What’s next for The Manuscript Academy?

 Our next goal is to bring low-cost mini-courses to as many people as possible—all while creating a supportive community. Ultimately, we’re about access—to information, experts, and the support you need while taking this amazing creative journey.

You can check out ManuscriptAcademy.com, follow us at @MSWLMA, and check out our FREE podcast—including a mini first pages panel every week—on iTunes and Soundcloud. See more at ManuscriptAcademy.com/ourpodcast/.

MYC: Revising A World

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 Dynamic Dialogue. This week, we’re diving in to how to revise your world-building.

Building a world is a lot like building a life. There are a lot of ways to do it. For me, when I’ve got pages and pages of ideas and details, and mythology, and STUFF written about my world, it can be difficult to sort out what’s important to keep, and what’s chaff. In the moments when I begin writing my story, I try to remember that the world is like another character. It gains power in relation to other characters.

What that means is that it’s the details that are important. Not just any details, but those which tie to the heart of the people in that place—the details that matter to the characters. A few well-placed details of the world, in relationship with the characters are much more evocative than a vast array of details that aren’t bound to someone’s heart. Compare these two approaches to sharing details of a world:

Example 1: The table was scattered with oogleberries, picked from the tanglewood that hangs from the darkest edges of the cliffs of Baka. The sour purple berries weren’t ripe, and with a growl, I threw them to a banglebird sitting on the veranda.

Example 2: I sat down and popped a handful of oogleberries in my mouth, letting out a squeak as the bitter zing tensed all the muscles in my jaw. Mara had done it again. I’d lost count of how many times I had told my sister to pinch the leaves to see if they were ripe. It was like she was doing it on purpose. Groaning, I spit the berries out in my hand, resolving to make Mara eat them herself. This was just perfect. Now I would go to school with a headache and purple stains on my hand. I could forget about a good first impression. Everyone would take one look at me and think—amateur.

Taken at face value, the first paragraph has more world-building in it. It’s a broader stroke. The problem is we don’t connect with it. It has no real relationship to us. It’s when we dig deeper, and put it in relationship with the MC, and her sister, that we connect. We can learn about the banglebirds, and the cliffs, and the tanglewood as we get to them, in the context of the story, and when they matter.

That’s not to say things can’t sometimes be mentioned in passing, but those things should be a set up. If there are things in your world that need history/explanation (at some point) they should serve the story. They can serve the plot, or they can serve the internal development of the character, but they should matter.

For example, we first hear about a “bezoar” in passing, in Harry Potter’s first ever poisons lesson. We hear about it again, in the Goblet of Fire, when Harry is freaking out about how to ask Cho Chang to the ball. Bezoars come up again during potions class, in Half-Blood Prince, and then at last, Harry remembers what he’s learned about a bezoar and must find one to save his friend’s life. The details about the thing are trickled in when they’re relevant  (potions class) to move the story, as we need to know them. This works as a fantastic set up, because it’s repeated, and because it’s not swamped in a mire of other factoids. We learn more as Harry comes into relationship with the bezoar, and as it becomes important. Beware of stacking oddities and details simply to say, ‘hey look at all the stuff I know about this world’.

By revealing your world as your characters move through it, it becomes easier to figure out which details are vital and evocative, and which can be cut, or left in the pages of your pre-work for another time, or another book. It may be anti-intuitive at first (more is better, right?), but you’ll find that it’s the micro—the deeper dive over the course of the story—that will have universal appeal, and will paint the broader picture of your world.

–GABRIELLE K. BYRNE writes MG/YA fantasy in Olympia, Washington where she lives with her husband and two daughters. Gabby studied opera in Philadelphia, medieval studies in New York, literature in Scotland, and marine biology in the Pacific Northwest, but writing is the common thread that ties all her passions together. Her debut, RISE OF THE DRAGON MOON, comes out in winter, 2019 with Imprint/Macmillan. She is represented by Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management. Find her on Twitter. Her web site is here.

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