Choosing the right set of words–the diction of your novel–is crucial, especially in the opening pages of your novel. Novels are a context for making choices, and within that context, some words make sense and some don’t.
A novel sets up a certain setting, time period, tone, mood and sensibilities and you must not violate this. If you are writing a gothic romance, the language must reflect this. For thrillers, the fast paced action demands a certain vocabulary. Violating these restrictions means a bump in the reader’s experience that may make them put down the book.
Let’s look at some examples. This is from my book, SAUCY AND BUBBA: A HANSEL AND GRETEL TALE. Just from the title you know that this is a contemporary retelling of Hansel and Gretel and this sets up expectations for the language that will be used. This is a first look at Krissy, the stepmother.
Krissy was singing to herself. Gingerbread days were filled with music, too. Once a month, Krissy made a gingerbread house and took it into town to sell to the bakery for $200. The bakery displayed it in their picture window for a month, and then donated it to a day care. Each month, Krissy checked out a stack of architecture books and pored over them.
Let’s substitute a couple words and see if it bothers you as a reader:
Krissy was caterwauling to herself. Gingerbread days were crammed with music, too. Once a month, Krissy slapped together a gingerbread house and took it into town to peddle to the bakery for $200. The bakery displayed it in their picture window for a month, and then dumped it off at a day care. Each month, Krissy checked out a stack of architecture books and flipped through them.
I’ve been extreme here in word choice, of course. The key is to listen to your story. Where are the places where a single word might interrupt the narrative? Work hard to control your word choices and the overall diction of your story. And I’ll stay with you for the whole book.
The Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, Siebert and other awards for the best books of children’s/teen literature were announced recently. And every year the question of gender bias is raised. Overwhelmingly, the industry is dominated by female authors/illustrators, yet the awards go to male authors/illustrators.
This year the Caldecott went to 75% male illustrators, with the winner a male.
The Siebert is 20% male, with the winner a female.
The Newbery is 40% male, with the winner a female.
The Siebert is 20% male, with the winner a male.
Except for the Caldecott, it seems the awards are spread out.
Considering the possibility of gender bias–which is generally skewed toward male authors/illustrators, it’s interesting to read this article by Lilit Marcus, who spent 2013 only reading female authors. She was accused of being sexist, reverse sexist, and misandrist. “One Flavorwire commenter dismissed the significance of focusing on female authors and announced that he would only be reading books by authors who were tall.”
And yet, many readers are now contacting Lilit and asking for recommendations for women authors.
I wonder what it would look like to only read women’s fiction and nonfiction for a year. What picture books would emerge as winners? What middle grade novels would you champion? What YA novels would rise to the top? What if you spent the next year only reading men’s fiction and nonfiction? What would you learn from each year’s experiences?
Do you feel that the world of children and teen publishing carries gender biases? Where do you see it most?
Winner of the 2014 Newbery Medal for Distinguished Contribution to Children’s Literature.
If you want a career in writing, you must keep the stories coming. In the midst of life, with all its ups and downs, words need find their way onto paper. Here’s how to keep the characters talking to you.
Create an office. Even if you don’t have a separate room, create some sort of office space. You need a consistent place to keep your computer, your drafts and supplies. Even if it’s a box that sits under your bed until you need it, don’t waste your precious time collecting supplies.
Instant Success. Do something small that will give you success. Perhaps just a character description or a description of a setting. A bit of dialogue. Start and end each day with something that you know you can complete.
Use psychology. Tell yourself that you only need to write for five minutes. Quickly get into the flow and when you finally stop, you’ve likely done twenty minutes. The key is to keep writing no matter what. If you don’t’ know what to type, try this: I don’t know what to write next. Repeat that 100 times if you have to until it turns into something else. Believe me, you’ll get so bored with that phrase that you’ll write something else.
Plan marathons. Kids are spending the night with someone and the hubby is going hunting? Bingo. It’s time for a writer’s marathon. Star as soon as the house clears out and write until late into the night. Get up early and repeat as long as you can. Marathons like this can jump start a big project, or get you through those rough spots.
Plan a writing marathon to jump start a project or to finish your novel.
Turn off the internal editor. Write, do not revise. Keep the flow of writing going and ignore the internal editor when s/he wants to stop and look up facts or check a dictionary for spelling. This isn’t the time for that. Instead, let the story flow.
Stop early. Some writers swear by this technique: stop writing in the middle of a sentence and pick up right there on the next day. It makes sense. Just competing the thought gets your head back into the story and it’s easy to move on from there.
Don’t wait. Are you waiting until you get answers to a bit of research or until you figure out a plot point? Instead, write and trust the process. Trust that there will be tidbits to save out of whatever you write.
Trust your instinct. Don’t worry so much! And certainly don’t think about what a reader or an editor will say at this point. Just write. Trust your storytelling ability and write. Trust your sense of story. Trust your choice of words. Write, write, write.
Where should your novel begin? The Harry Potter series doesn’t start with the death of Harry’s parents, because Harry wasn’t old enough to remember that. It doesn’t start with the first day in Hogwarts School because it wouldn’t bring us into Harry’s world with a strong enough sense of character and a strong sympathy for Harry.
Instead, JK Rowling begins the whole series in the Muggle world, with a misfit Harry trying to survive while living under the stairway.
Build Sympathy. One crucial goal of openings is to create sympathy for a character that will carry through many challenges and events. An orphaned child who is forced to live with disagreeable parents will most certainly get sympathy. Poor thing, to be treated so shabbily; it’s not fair. We love our underdogs, don’t we? Start with the Normal World. For Harry and for the reader, the normal world is the Muggle world where there is no magic. It’s the right place to start, but the wrong place to linger. Readers should understand exactly what the normal situation is before something comes along to shake up the world of the story.
Start with a Day that is Different. Harry’s under-the-stairs world is normal, but it doesn’t stay normal. Immediately something is different. It’s a delicate balance to make sure the contrast is set up between normal and the exciting world introduced in the story. You want enough of the normal to set up the contrast, but too much gets boring. Normal is boring. Think hard about where you might start the story and what are the first small inklings (or big huge inklings, if you choose) of change. Start there or a bit later.
The watchwords of my website are “Believe in Your Story.” Everything I do as a writing teacher is devoted to help YOU take your story from a dream to reality. This year, I hope you’ll let me become a small piece in your journey toward publication. Here’s a brief schedule of speaking engagements for the year. Notice that there are limited spots in most of the workshops.
NOVEL REVISION RETREAT June 6-8, 2014. Tacoma, Washington.
Originally, this was open to only 8 people, but the response has been great, so it is open to 12. Only 2 spaces left.
For information on the Novel Revision Retreat, see here.
Download full information on the Tacoma retreat here.
Contact: Claudia Finseth.
PICTURE BOOKS AND ALL THAT JAZZ, June 12-15, Highlights Foundation Workshop.
Full information on the Highlights Foundation website.
Darcy Pattison says:
“One of the joys of traveling the U.S. to teach is meeting amazing authors like Leslie Helakoski, who has served as the Society of Children’s Bookwriters and Illustrators Regional Advisor in Michigan. This transplanted Cajun takes a delightful and insightful look at picture books. We’ll be team-teaching, riffing off one another, in this intensive picture book workshop for dedicated writers. I’ll crack the whip; Leslie will crack the jokes. Did I mention that it will be intensive? Expect to revise your gem a dozen times until it gleams. And sells.
My ebook, How to Write a Children’s Picture Book has sold worldwide, from South Africa to Canada to Arkansas. The book covers picture book genres, picture book basics, the actual writing process, the revision process, and the submission process. Leslie and I will cover all these topics—and more. Writing rhymed picture books, dummy your manuscript, phonics for picture book writers, tips on getting a reader to turn the page, and fine-tuning for that crucial read aloud quality—we go in-depth and help you jazz up your story. We’ll go far beyond the basics.”
Want to host a retreat in your area, or invite Darcy to speak at your conference? Email Darcy for more details.
This is a special four days of workshops with three options.
August 22-25. Rolling Ridge Retreat and Conference Center, North Andover, MA.
Contact: Anne Broyles
Choose one or all of the following three workshops, all of which are held at Rolling Ridge.
BUILD AN AUTHOR WEBSITE. Friday, August 22, 2014. 9 AM-3 PM
In this hands-on seminar, we’ll set up your domain/blog and learn four strategies for maintaining a strong blog with a minimum of effort. Darcy Pattison’s website (darcypattison.com) receives half a million visits/year. Learn from her mistakes and triumphs as she walks you through the process of developing a viable website. Computer access required—bring your own computer; you will be paying for your domain (about $12) and webhosting (about $80/year), so you’ll need to be prepared to sign up for services with a credit card or PayPal.
Limited to 8 participants.
Contact: Anne Broyles
NOVEL REVISION RETREAT. Friday, August 22, 2014, 4 pm to Sunday, August 24, 11 am.
Darcy will share her unique revision methods and give concrete tools for writers who have finished a middle grade or young adult novel manuscript. The goal of the retreat is that every author will go home with strategies for revising their own particular novel. The retreat is designed for maximum participation and advance preparation is required. Writers will be in critique groups with three other writers, and are expected to have read their group members’ complete manuscripts, as well.
Limited to 20 participants.
Contact: Anne Broyles
SUNDAY, AUGUST 24 OVERNIGHT Dedicated Writing Time Meals will be available for those who want to stay at Rolling Ridge to write/canoe or kayak/have a massage/hang out with other writers.
PICTURE BOOK WORKSHOP. Monday, August 25, 2014. 9 AM-3 PM
Picture books demand strong, creative storytelling. Join picture book author Darcy Pattison to work on your word choices, story structure, pacing, addressing different audience, and the possibilities—and pitfalls—of rhythm and rhyme. You will focus and shape that vague idea into a lively story with great illustration possibilities and interactive read-aloud fun. Bring a story in progress. You’ll need to purchase the ebook, HOW TO WRITE A CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOK, by Darcy Pattison.
Limited to 16 participants.
Contact: Anne Broyles
Want to host a retreat in your area, or invite Darcy to speak at your conference? Email Darcy for more details.
Are you outdating your book? It’s easy to do. Books are the archival medium of our culture. Their production time is the longest partly because of their archival nature.
Instant. If you want something published instantly, you should use a blog post, a newspaper article, or a radio report. This type of information has a short shelf-life and has information that relates mostly to the current day.
Intermediate Time Frame. Some mediums that take a longer view of information and stories are weekly newspapers and magazines (on or off line). These formats offer a wider view of a story and provide more in-depth analysis and discussion of the ramifications of the story.
Long-term. Books are the long view of a story or information. Some books are only viable for a limited amount of time; but many are timeless, meant to be a classic view of a subject.
Let’s assume that you want to write a classic book. You are in danger of outdating your story if you use these things:
Jargon, slang or just-for-this-moment-in-time language.The Oxford Dictionary declared “Selfie,” as the Word of the Year for 2013.
SELFIE: Darcy Pattison, January 2014.
selfie noun, informal
(also selfy; plural selfies)
a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website
If you include the word “selfie” in a book this year, will it be outdated in ten years? That’s the question you must ask yourself. While taking photographs of yourself and posting them is current HOT today, will it be hot in ten years or 100 years? Will this blog post be outdated by 2015?
There’s a trade-off, of course. You want to sound contemporary; however, you don’t want to be so contemporary that you’re outdated in a decade.
It’s a judgment call. To prevent being outdated, make sure you consider the long-term ramifications of your language.
What’s your favorite contemporary word? And have you used it in your current WIP?
Quick. What is the one thing you can do to improve your writing the most?
The answer isn’t sexy. It’s not flashy.
Instead, it’s a back-to-basic answer that directly relates to the underlying structure of your sentences.
The Answer? Improve your verbs.
I told you it wasn’t sexy. But it’s true.
I recently listened to the books-on-tape version of Red Moon, by Benjamin Percy, a hard-hitting werewolf story. Percy narrates and his deep bass voice is amazing to listen to, but his prose is even more amazing. Master of the VERB, Percy enlivens even small things. This small bit of action – getting his suitcase out to the truck – isn’t crucial to the story, but notice the great verb.
“The suitcase chews its wheels through the gravel and Patrick struggles two-handed with its weight.” From the Prologue of Red Moon, by Benjamin Percy.
How else could you write that?
The suitcase rattled through the gravel. . .
The suitcase wheels dragged through the gravel. . .
Gravel kicked up as the suitcase. . .
Clattering wheels jarred Patrick. . .
I could go on, but why? Doesn’t that verb “chew” say it all? Such economy of language! Percy is full of such gems.
I recently helped a local first-grade teacher as her class did a research paper. Yes! Under the new Common Core State Standards, first graders must do a research paper. We discussed appropriate writing goals for six-year-olds and I suggested focusing on verbs. The research topic was nutrition, so we created a Word Wall with verbs about eating. We were giving the kids words, but also modeling the importance of using the right verb. The teacher talked with the kids about verbs and then handed them a piece of aluminum foil and asked them to shape it into something that showed a particular verb. One student brought back a silver butterfly.
Word Wall for First Grade Class: a thesaurus for the word “eat.”
“What verb does that show?” asked the teacher.
“The butterfly is eating.”
“Then, can you shape its mouth? It needs a tiny tube for eating.”
Wow, we got in a biology lesson, an art lesson, and by the way, a writing lesson!
How did this play out in the student writing? After discussing great strategies to open a paper, one student wrote this: One day, I ate three strawberries.
Then, we asked students to circle ONE verb. Notice that we made this a very manageable task, they only had to find one. When they had circled a verb, we asked the students to replace that verb with a stronger one. The student wrote this: One day, I nibbled three strawberries.
WOW! The first grade student revised her work and added a stronger verb. The first grade research papers were enhanced by using one single strategy: use great verbs.
From Percy to first grade, it matters little what you’re writing, the idea is the same. One great verb elevates a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter faster and easier than anything else. We can forgive many other lapses of writing skill, if you master this one. Use great verbs.
2.Picture Book Standards: 32 Pages. The most frequent question people ask about picture books is how long should they be. Here’s the standard answer, with explanations for why 32 pages is the standard.
An odd thing is happening on my current WIP: I am writing the story out of order.
Here’s the process for this story–which will change, of course, for the next story.
Jot down rough ideas for the story. This project is book 3 in a series, so I knew the characters and setting. I just needed to sketch out the main conflict and how it fit into this world.
Check continuity issues. Of course, this mean that I had to check continuity issues. What was the name of the homeroom teacher and how is she described. In other words, I had to dip back into the previous stories and re-immerse myself in the milieu.
Expand the ideas. Next, I expanded the ideas to a paragraph or more for each of the ten chapters.
Check the narrative arc and strengthen. At this level, it’s easy to see flaws in plotting: not enough tension, not enough suspense, not enough at stake, etc. I worked with story line, actually struggling for about two weeks, trying to get all the elements to work together. The result was about ten pages, or one page per chapter. These consist of snippets of setting, dialogue, or character emotions. I know roughly what story beats will be involved, though each chapter needs expansion.
Some sequences are easy to write out of order; some sequences must be written in order or the author gets confused.
Expand. With that foundation, I am now writing out of order. The narrative arc is strong, so I’m confident that the planned scenes will actually fit into the story about where I have them now. I am confident of the content that belongs in each chapter. I’m not worrying about fine-tuning each scene, I just want something down and I can turn to any chapter/scene that I want at this point.
Integrate. I have about six of the ten chapters written and already much has been revised. I reread the whole thing each day and find weak places to edit and continuity issued to address. This time, I mean continuity within this novel, not necessarily within the series. But I am also going back to Books 1 and 2 to change things for series continuity.
Repeat steps as needed. I am working all over the landscape of this short novel and it’s interesting to see it unfold and how connections are creeping into the draft, making it stronger.
Will I use this process again? I don’t know. Maybe for Book 4 of this series, but maybe not for another genre or other series. Usually, each project needs its own trajectory and working method. All I know is that this is moving me forward. For now.
I get up early and exercise, sometimes taking a two mile walk, and sometimes going to the gym to bike and lift weight. Home again to get ready for the day.
I actually go to an office to work–lucky, I know. In the attic of our blue Victorian house–Mims House, in the Quapaw Historical District of Little Rock–I flip on my computer and get busy. I sort of ease into the day by answering email, checking stats on my blog and other business activities.
Then, I try writing for a couple hours. Lately, I’ve been using a Mac App called Freedom, which turns off access to the Internet for a specified length of time. When I’m disciplined enough to do that, I get in a couple hours of writing. But my stomach always interferes–lunch time.
Mims House. I work on the 3rd floor of this Victorian House in the historic Quapaw District of Little Rock.
After lunch, on a good day, I’ll get in another couple hours of work. But usually there are more emails, responding to Re-tweets and such. I also allow some afternoons to go to marketing tasks: creating marketing materials, writing blog posts, or responding to questions or requests for speaking. Or, I may use the afternoon for research on topics related to my current writing project.
In other words, my natural rhythms are to be most alert and productive about mid-morning. I can and will work other times, but I don’t feel as productive. Afternoons, if I try to do too much editing, I get sleepy. That’s when it’s best to keep the mind in motion by researching or other tasks. Editing tasks are essentially boring for me, which is why I’m not great at grammar and I need those of you who are grammar witches.
I leave the office about 4 pm and do whatever errands need to be done–grocery shopping, dry cleaning, miscellaneous shopping, stop by the library, etc. Then home to fix supper. Evenings, I read. And I read almost anything. Currently reading a couple sff novels, a business book on marketing, and looking for a book about the health benefits of juicing.
It’s a rhythm that fits me and my work. What sorts of rhythms fit your work? When do you work best? When do you produce the most writing? When do you edit best? It’s worthwhile to notice and plan around it.