Thursday, August 28, 2014

Stickers, Word Counts, and Other Demotivational Tools by Dianne K. Salerni

The image above was the first “demotivational poster” I ever saw – back in 2009, according to the date I saved it on my hard drive. There are many sites devoted to these satiric little beauties, including Despair, Inc., where the motto is: MOTIVATIONAL PRODUCTS DON'T WORK. BUT OUR DEMOTIVATOR® PRODUCTS DON'T WORK EVEN BETTER.

I had my own experience with demotivation last month. Having resigned my teaching position (due to despair in the workplace, ironically enough), I was faced with the task of making writing my full time job. A fairly well-known YA author suggested the “calendar method” for staying on task. It basically boiled down to giving yourself a sticker for every 1000 new words written. At first I laughed at the idea of a former teacher giving herself stickers. But – I did find some shiny stickers when I cleaned out my desk at school. What the heck? I thought. I’ll try it.

At first it was great. I usually write late at night, so my family checked the calendar every morning to see if I’d earned a sticker the night before. They high-fived me when I got two stickers in one day.

Then, the inevitable “stuck-point” happened – the thing that occurs several times in every one of my first drafts where I’m not sure what needs to happen next. I might know the next plot point – just not how to get there. Days went by. No stickers. Usually, when I need to stop and think about my draft, I know I skip some writing days, but this time I knew exactly how many days I’d missed. Because of those damn stickers.

No stickers meant I wasn’t writing. No stickers meant I obviously couldn’t hack it as a full time writer. No stickers meant I was an idiot to quit my day job. No stickers probably meant I would never finish another book again! I’d been a full-time writer for less than a month, and I’d already failed!

Incidentally, during this time period I was conducting a series of a paid gigs as a visiting author at a summer camp for student writers. One of the most frequent questions I got was, “How do you combat writer's block?” My answer was always, “Walk away from the project.” I don’t know how many times I gave that answer before I realized I wasn’t allowing myself to follow my own advice!

As Matt McNish and Marissa Burt expressed in their excellent blog posts earlier this summer, writing doesn’t always mean putting new words on the page. The most commonly given advice for full-time writers (in fact, for all writers) is to write every day.

But “writing” can mean:

  • Blogging and making new contacts
  • Creating a promotional package for school visits
  • Looking up contacts to send the promotional packages to
  • Updating your website
  • Taking out old stories you never intend to finish just to play with voice and POV
  • Re-reading a book that uses a POV-switch you hope to emulate in a future project
  • Brainstorming ideas for another story
  • Researching Colonel Percy Fawcett’s journey into the Amazon just because you might model a character after him some day

I ignored the demotivational stickers and did all those things above, which furthered the business of writing. After about ten days, I started adding words to my WIP again. And I threw out the stickers.

Goals are good, and so are schedules. Writers should have those things, but only to the extent that they motivate us and make us feel good about ourselves and our work. The instant they start to demotivate, they need to go. If I don’t write new words for a week because I decide to binge-watch all 4 seasons of The Killing on Netflix, then yes – I need a kick in the butt. But if I don’t write new words for a week because I need time to think about my story, then that’s just part of being a writer.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

My Time in the Secret Garden

This week, I read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett for about the twentieth time. I first read The Secret Garden when I was nine and borrowed it off my best friend’s bookshelf. We often played in one of the local gardens together, so she thought I’d love the book since it was “full of flowers.” She was right—and over the next couple of months I must have borrowed her copy two or three times before I finally saved up enough money to buy my own. I still have it, still read it, and it has been much worn and much loved over the many years since then.

There were many things I found magical about The Secret Garden as a child. Who wouldn’t want a beautiful garden all their own, locked away from the rest of the world, overrun with roses and lilies and daffodils and all sorts of beautiful growing things? I loved the old-fashioned setting where people relied on ships and trains and carriages to reach their far-flung destinations instead of cars and airplanes. I loved the colorful cast of characters, many of whom spoke in a charming Yorkshire accent that I couldn’t quite reproduce out loud no matter how hard I tried. I loved Dickon’s way with animals and wished I was talented enough to entice fox cubs, squirrels, and birds to sit on my shoulder and follow my every step. And because I lived in such a warm, sunny climate, I was entranced by the idea of romantic, rainy moors where the wind “wurthered” throughout the night.

I think even back then, I appreciated the book’s themes of regeneration—of a garden, an outlook on life, a family. I loved the idea of the transformative powers of nature. Of course, I couldn’t articulate these thoughts as a nine-year-old, but I knew these themes were there and loved them all the same. As an adult, I’m probably even more appreciative of quite power that comes off the pages when I read the book, of hope, redemption, regrowth, and rebirth.

When I finished The Secret Garden last week, it was the first time I’d read it in a couple of years, and it was a lovely reminder that I need to revisit some of the classic books of my childhood a little more often. If there is one book forever linked to my childhood love of reading, it’s definitely The Secret Garden. Sometimes, I get so caught up in new releases about magic and monsters and aliens and secret societies, I forget the quiet beauty of some of the classical works of children’s literature. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the exciting new books that make their way onto bookstore shelves as much as the next person. (Maybe even MORE than the next person.) But I’m trying harder these days not to forget some of the amazing stories that have been entrancing readers since long before I was a child reader myself. After all, they’re classics for a reason.

What classic books made your childhood magical?

-Dawn Lairamore

photo credit: ukgardenphotos via photopin cc

Friday, August 22, 2014

What picture books taught me about writing for middle-graders by Kell Andrews

I am a middle-grade writer first, but not only.

I read so many picture books when my children were young that I wanted to write one. Finally an idea hit me, and the story flowed out in a sitting. But that was the beginning -- that story required many, many more sittings, drafts, and subsequent stories that improved on my first effort. As simple as a picture book manuscript looks, it's hard to write one.

Switching gears between middle grade and picture books creates challenges, but it has its lessons. Here's what I've taken into my middle-grade fiction from my efforts to write for younger readers.

Let story guide progress. 
One of my inspirations, a few years ago...

When I was beginning to take writing seriously, I believed that a writer ought to write a thousand words a day. But if you're writing picture books -- where the average published book is 500 words -- if you write a thousand words, you're probably doing it wrong.

That's not to say that high word counts are wrong for all writers, but it's not how I measure progress now. I try to use scenes as markers -- I'm telling a story, not stringing together words by the thousand. Word count is a simple metric to use when it works, but it can lead your story astray if you race after numbers.

Every word matters. 

When you revise a picture book, you look at every word. Every one is a decision -- is it the most precise one? Will it be understood by the reader? Is it colorful enough, fun enough? Can the sentence be said in a more concise way? Can the whole sentence go?

When writing and revising a novel, most of us won't take that kind of care on every word unless we don't care if we never have time to write another. But every word still matters. If not, it shouldn't be

Let go of what doesn't work. 

I can't speak for other picture book writers, but it takes me a lot of ideas to find one that I can execute well enough to put in front of my agent. And then it takes a good number  of manuscripts before my agent finds one she feels is commercial enough to put in front of editors. I'm not sure how many stories it takes to find one editors will buy, but fingers crossed that my time will come.

That winnowing process has taught me to let go of ideas and stories that haven't found a home, even if I love them. That's harder to do for a novel, which is a bigger commitment of time and craft.  But sometimes you do have to let go and move on -- which can mean leaving a favorite scene on the cutting room floor, shelving a problematic manuscript unfinished, or trunking a book that didn't find a publisher. Hard, but not every story will find a readership, even with the possibility of self-publishing.

Leave room in the text. 

For a middle-grade writer writing picture books, one of the biggest adjustments is leaving room for the illustrator. That means not describing what can shown in a picture and not trying to control the illustrator with too many notes.

For a novel, it means not overdescribing what the imagination can fill in. Don't underestimate your reader. Young children understand more than they are often credited with. So do older readers -- write up to them, not down.

Let go of control.

Picture book writers do not usually get to choose the illustrator, nor do they have veto power over the illustrations. Sometimes that can yield unexpected results in the wrong way, but in the best collaborations, the illustrator will bring more to the book than the writer ever imagine.

The same is true for novels. Once the story has been published, the writer does not own the story any more. It belongs to the reader. Sometimes readers misunderstand authorial intent. Sometimes they hate the story with burning intensity.  Sometimes they love it. But love it or hate it, once they've read it, it's part of their understanding of the world. That's the gift the writer gives, and the gift the reader gives back.

Do you write other genres or for other ages? How does it affect your work for middle-grade readers? 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

How Do You Learn? – a post by Chris Eboch

What's the best way to learn?

It depends on each individual's optimal learning style. Some of us do well with printed material – books, magazines, blog posts. (There is even debate about learning from printed books versus electronic formats.) Others do better listening to an instructor. Some need visuals, or must be physically involved in an activity.

Do an Internet search on "learning styles" to find out more. You can also try a quick online survey to find your learning style here. (FYI, I came out at 92% linguistic and also scored highly in intrapersonal and interpersonal, but low in musical and visual-spatial. So I guess I should talk to people.)

If you’re a writer, understanding your learning style may help you improve your craft. Should you be taking live classes or is an online correspondence school a better fit? Can you really learn everything you need to know just from reading books on the craft?

There's also a relatively new technology gaining steam: webinars.

 At the recent SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles, the subject of webinars came up during the regional advisor meeting. Small regions were especially interested, as they may not have the money and attendance numbers to pay for bringing in speakers. Webinars are also good for spread-out regions, or even large, active regions that want to make classes more accessible to those who live outside the main urban areas. And webinars can work well for people who simply have a hard time leaving home, for whatever reason – needing to care for children or aging parents, health problems, difficulty driving at night.

Last Tuesday, I presented a webinar on Writing for Children's Magazines for the combined SCBWI Texas regions. They are holding webinars every other month, and people outside of Texas can also sign up. (SCBWI members pay $10, others pay $35.) I have a three-hour webinar set up in September for the Caribbean regions. Since the Caribbean has members spread out over multiple islands, it would be nearly impossible to bring everyone together for an event. And a live event would be too expensive, because of the travel costs, for both speakers and attendees.

I've also done webinars through a company called Delve Writing. We are experimenting with what works best as a business model, whether it's a class that meets once a week for several weeks, or a single class. I expect to have a couple of workshop options set up this fall.

By the time this posts, I'll be in Connecticut, at the International Women's Writing Guild retreat. There I'll be teaching a workshop on plotting that meets for four days in a row, leading critique groups, and participating in a Q&A panel on traditional and indie publishing. I'm looking forward to hanging out with other writers in person. I enjoy being able to see my students. It's nice to walk among them while they do exercises, so I can offer extra help to those who need it. Given the choice, I’d present live.

But living in the center of New Mexico, travel is an expense and hassle. Being able to offer lower-cost workshops online is a great option, for me and students.

If you would like to be added to my mailing list for writing workshops, sign up by sending an e-mail to me through my website contact page.)

Monday, August 18, 2014

Revision 101: Quotes and Links to Help You On Your Way

Revision requires an author to see her work with new eyes. Here are some quotes and links I used in my revision class last spring. I hope they point you in the right direction with your own work:

Quotes from Novel Metamorphosis:

Revision: What is the most dramatic way to tell this story?

“Revisions are the messy route toward powerful stories. ...I never tell someone how to revise their story. Instead, I ask you to look at your story in different ways, apply various strategies of revisions, and tell your story, your way. You are in control and will make all the decisions yourself.”

“Competence is a hard-won prize that only comes with lots of study and practice.”

Quotes from Second Sight:

“When you’re writing that first draft, don’t worry about following the rules. Instead, tell yourself the story you’ve always wanted to hear, the story you’ve never read anywhere else, the one that scares you with the pleasure of writing it. Treasure the joy of the work, because it is hard work, but when you can find that just-right word, that perfect plot twist -- there are fewer greater pleasures.”

“Editors work forward from the manuscript to make its truth all it can be...paying attention to details that add up to an overall result.”

“Good prose repeats words in close proximity to each other only by strategy or design, not by accident or sloppiness.”

“I test every sentence against the question ‘What purpose doest this serve?’”

“An editor’s greatest joy is a writer who can recognize his own weaknesses and respond with an intelligent revision.”

“For a writer, an artist, making a choice gives you something to work with. You make a choice, get the words on the page, see if it feels right. If it doesn’t, you edit it or go back and make a different decision. The hardest thing is getting past the fear of making a choice at all.”

Saul Bellow: “The main reason for rewriting is not to achieve a smooth surface, but to discover the inner truth of your characters.”

“As you’re sitting down to write, you need to ask yourself: Am I writing a specific story that could only happen to this character in this world, in this time? What am I trying to say with this story? What do I want my readers to think when they put my book down?”

“What questions or mysteries does your first line raise?”

“Just because you put it first doesn’t mean that your current opening section is the real beginning.”

“Be a curator, not a camera...Believe it or not, most beginning writers will transcribe, as if they were a video camera...Another big mistake is focusing on transition scenes because you think you need to show how a character gets from one place to another.”


Novelists: You Are Gifted and Talented :: Darcy Pattison
WFMAD The Bones of the Writing Process, Parts 1 and 2 :: Laurie Halse Anderson
23 Essential Quotes from Ernest Hemingway About Writing :: The Write Practice
WFMAD (Write Fifteen Minutes a Day) Revision Roadmap #18 :: Laurie Halse Anderson
WFMAD Temper Tantrums and Do Overs :: Laurie Halse Anderson
I don’t want an honest critique :: Darcy Pattison
WFMAD Getting Feedback on Your Story :: Laurie Halse Anderson
WFMAD Belonging to a Critique Group Without Murdering Anyone :: Laurie Halse Anderson
Balancing Thoughts, Description, Dialogue, and Action :: Between the Lines: Edits and Everything Else
Novel Revision Charts: 2 Tools for Smart Re-Thinking of Your Story :: Darcy Pattison

What quotes, techniques, or tips have you found helpful when it comes to revision?