Category Archives: Novel Revision

13 Apr

Full Life? Take a Class

My life is full and overflowing! My son is moving to Denver to go to school. I’m traveling and speaking a lot this month: see the Highlights picture book retreat and the Eastern PA SCBWI conference. In the midst of lots of busyness, how do you keep your focus on writing?

I’m taking a class.

Athletes stay in shape with zumba classes. Authors stay in shape with writing classes.

Athletes stay in shape with zumba classes. Authors stay in shape with writing classes.




Classes Give Accountability. Especially when I’m busy, I like to take an online class because it gives me structure and makes me stay focused on the writing. Accountability is always a good thing; it’s crucial when days are swamped with non-writing activities.

Classes Give Thinking Points. Often when life is busy it’s because I’m traveling, which involves lots of down time. Sitting on a plane or in a car, there’s time to think. Some of you may actually be able to work in that situation, but I can’t. I’ll read a book about writing, publishing or general business, but I can’t really produce anything. Thinking, though, is often overlooked when I’m in a really creative mood and pouring out words. I find that thinking is a good use of travel time. Often, a book is enough. But when I can find a challenging class–delivered by email or an online video class–it keeps me learning.

Classes Give Challenges. Classes also give me a challenge. I look for topics, genres, strategies that challenge me to think in a different way, to try a different process, or even turn everything in my writing world upside down. I want to learn how someone else thinks about story, or how they create characters.

Sure, I teach classes. At heart, I’m a teacher; whenever I hear new information, my first instinct is to try to make it easier for the next person to comprehend, and most important for me, to apply it in a practical manner.

However, I am also a student. If I’m not stretching myself and learning more about my craft and my profession, then I stagnate. This month, when I’m off to teach at the Highlights Foundation, I’m also taking a class. It’s a perfect balance for me.

Find out more about Darcy’s Online Video Courses.

I am considering adding new online courses this fall.

Please answer this one-question survey: Which of these online video course would interest you the most?

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06 Apr

Fight, Chase, Shoot, Battle! Action Scene Checklist

Darcy’s Note: In my quest to understand action scenes better, I came across Ian’s book and was blown away by how practical it is. To make it even more practical I created an Action Scenes Checklist. To understand it and fully exploit it, you should buy his book and read it cover to cover. Yes, I’m that enthusiastic about it. If you plan ANY action in your story, you need this book. Stay tuned below for a chance to win a copy of this book and Healy’s latest novel.

Guest post by Ian Thomas Healy

Like many people, I love movies, and I have a special love for tight action sequences. I have always taken pride in my ability to translate that type of action into my books, and as a writer specializing in superhero fiction, action is an important component of my work. After years of being asked by my writer friends to help them with their own action sequences, it occurred to me that there might be a need for this sort of information across the industry, and so I sat down and analyzed what was it exactly that I did instinctively when I wrote action scenes, and how I might teach that to others. Thus, ACTION! WRITING BETTER ACTION USING CINEMATIC TECHNIQUES (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0055LH0MU ) was born (naturally, during a running firefight with explosions and hair-breadth escapes).

ActionNewLHP
A lot of writers dance around action, because writing it is daunting and uncomfortable. By its very nature, action is high-energy, full of motion and intense pacing, and for many writers, it’s a weird change from what they’re used to. At its very root, though, action is a means to resolve conflict, and conflict is the basis of all good storytelling, so it’s not something to run from (crashing through a window, sliding down a rooftop slope, and then dropping into a waiting convertible), but to embrace as an important part of your toolbox.

castles-healyIn ACTION, I break down what makes an action scene tick, from individual acts, called Stunts, up through Engagements (related series of stunts), to the all-encompassing Sequence, which contains more than one Engagement. Here’s an example of an action scene from my new book CASTLES, which released on April 1:

Sally rushed into the building. All she knew was in the space of a single breath, her entire squad had been taken out. Who were these guys, and how had they stayed under the radar so long? Parahuman criminals didn’t just appear out of the woodwork at random, especially when they were working as a team. There had to be records on these guys somewhere.

And then Sally ran across someone who could move nearly as fast as she could, and she was fortunate not to have been gutted like a fish by the barbed quills sprouting from the new combatant’s arms. He slashed at her and she twisted and dodged through the lobby of the building on full defense. Unlike the criminals two floors above, the guy attacking Sally wore less of a jumpsuit and more of a wrestling-style singlet. The quills seemed to grow all over his body and she thought of him as Porcupine Man.

Super-speed abilities were rare in the world, even more so than psionic powers, and yet this was the second speedster Sally had fought in as many weeks. “Is there a factory churning you guys out or something?”

Porcupine Man’s perceptions were apparently accelerated like hers, for he understood her despite her rapid speech. “The times, they are a-changin’.” He spread his arms wide and flexed his chest in a peculiar way.

Sally dropped to the floor as several quills whisked over her head to embed themselves in the reception desk, quivering like arrows. A sharp, burning pain shot down her back and she knew one of them had grazed her. She hoped like hell they weren’t tipped with poison. “That’s a Bob Dylan lyric. My husband loves that song.” She pulled her horseshoes from her belt.

“Maybe he can play it at your funeral.” Porcupine Man shot more quills at Sally and she threw herself backwards over the reception desk to put something solid between her and her opponent. With his speed, she only had a moment to decide on her next action, and she froze when she saw a terrified woman huddled beneath the desk, eyes wide, a quill poking out of her bloodstained blouse.

Sally had no time to check to see if the woman was severely hurt. She couldn’t stay hiding where she was and put the civilian in danger. Nor could she risk slowing herself down enough to offer any comfort. She heard the patter of Porcupine Man’s approaching footsteps and forced herself to move. She ran, leaning forward to make herself a smaller target. The slice on her back burned like a paper cut with lemon juice in it. He skidded to a stop and Sally knew she had an advantage over him, being able to stop and start instantly.

She glanced back and saw him fire another quill at her from his chest. It had gone from a veritable barbed forest to a sparse stand in just a few moments. His quills didn’t replace themselves very quickly. Maybe she could get him to use them up. She dove for the floor again, twisting herself around to land on her shoulder. The quill passed right over her face, close enough that she could see the wicked barbs on its tip. As she slid, she hurled one of her horseshoes at him. Normally, throwing away one’s melee weapons was a poor choice, but Sally had spent thousands of hours at the targeting range, learning how to throw things effectively. When accelerated by her super-speed arms, the most innocent objects could become deadly projectiles.

Her horseshoes were hardly innocent.

The iron ring caught Porcupine Man on his sternum, hitting him hard enough to send him flying back into a wall, which cracked with his impact. He fell amid a pile of broken drywall and didn’t move.

This scene represents a single Engagement in a larger Sequence, which is Mustang Sally’s team of superheroes versus a group of super-powered bad guys. There are several Stunts in this Engagement:

  1. Sally dodges as Porcupine Man attacks her in melee combat.
  2. Sally dodges again as Porcupine Man shoots spines at her in ranged combat.
  3. Sally dodges yet again as he keeps shooting at her (she’s having a rough go of it).
  4. Sally goes on the offensive and throws a horseshoe at Porcupine Man, taking him down.

In ACTION, I coach you on methods for writing these types of scenes on a step-by-step basis. When Darcy contacted me to say how helpful she’d found my book, it made my day, because any time I hear that I’ve helped someone to become a better writer, it makes the whole process worthwhile. If you find it a valuable tool for yourself, please don’t hesitate to post a review online and to let me know how it helped you!

Download my Action Scenes Checklist based on Healy’s book.

Leave a comment and your name will be in a giveaway for a copy of one of Healy’s ebooks (Kindle, epub or pdf). There’s one copy each of ACTION! and CASTLE.

23 Mar

My UnEasy Relationship with Metaphors

There’s an apocryphal story about a writer who worked hard all day. In the morning, he inserted a semi-colon; in the afternoon, he removed a semi-colon.

This morning, I inserted a metaphor; this afternoon, I removed the metaphor.

Metaphors continue to be a thorn in my side. I appreciate when I’m reading a story or novel and there’s an apt metaphor. It adds to my enjoyment because it expands the story and creates new connections. Such glimpses into the thought process of another human are one of the joys of reading.

Yet, when I sit down to write, I’m practically metaphor free. Partly, it’s because I find it tedious to sit down and add metaphors just because someone says my prose would improve with the use of metaphors. But as I’ve thought about it more, I’ve decided my problem is the difference in dominant vs. scattered imagery.
rhinometaphor

Dominant vs. Scattered Imagery

In their work of genius, How Does a Poem Mean, Miller Williams and John Ciardi discuss “The Image and the Poem” in Chapter 6. I refer you to their book for a full discussion of imagery, metaphors, similes and so on. For my purpose, though, let me concentrate on the question of dominant and scattered imagery. Here’s what Williams and Ciardi say:

“When the images of a given poem, or of a given passage, are related by their denotations, that poem or that passage is said to be constructed on a dominant image. When the images are related by their connotations but range widely in their denotations, that poem or passage is said to make use of scattered imagery.” (p. 247)

1000Days-HaleHere are some imagery (metaphor/similie) from Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days

  • P. 1 I feel like a jewel in a treasure box. . .
  • p. 2 Stay until your heart softens like long-boiled potatoes. . .
  • p. 2 . . .skinny as a skinned hare.
  • p. 8 It (the candle flame) tosses and bobs like a spring foal. . .
  • p. 11 My heartache felt like a river, and I was sinking into it, carried away fast in its coldness.
  • p. 12 . . if all they find is a delicate lady and her humble maid shriveled like ginger roots
  • p. 13 I feel like a mucker from the ends of my hair to the mud of my bones.
  • p. 13 It (lord’s house) was near as beautiful as a mountain in autumn. . .
  • p 15 she sat on her bed, alone, straight as a tent pole
  • p. 16. . . they resembled my own deel (clothing)as much as a worm resembles a snake.
  • p. 18 . . . my lips thinner than the edge of a leaf.
  • p. 18 He slapped his daughter’s face. . . like a snake striking.
  • p. 20 She (Lady Saren) reminded me of a lamb just tumbled out, wet all over, unsure of her feet and suspicious of the sun.

Taken together, they don’t create a dominant image; Hale is using scattered imagery in a masterful way. Each image is directly related to the immediate situation. They don’t add up to a bigger image at the end—the collection of images don’t combine to create any symbolism.

Most of the time, when people mention the need for more metaphors in a piece, they mean this sort of scattered imagery.

However, when I write, I tend to write for a dominant image, using symbolism more than metaphors. The principle of selection of details for me is a wider scale. I’m looking for imagery that spreads across a whole chapter or even a whole novel.

Miller and Williams call this an overtone theme. (p. 110) They analyze the themes in a selection from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, concluding that Milton chose words and images based on two themes to describe the Biblical serpent who visited Eve: watery motion and regal splendor. A third category is when the two themes mesh.

Here’s a catalogue of the language:

  • Watery Motion: indented wave, circular base, rising folds, fold upon fold, surging maze, floated redundant
  • Regal splendor: carbuncled, burnished, gold, circling spires
  • Combination of water and regal: towered, crested aloft

They say, “Whatever the value of such a tabulation, it cannot fail to make clear, first, that a unified principle of selection is at work in this diction, and second, that the words are being selected from inside their connotations and in answer to one another’s connotations, rather than from inside their denotation.”

Milton chose words/phrases because when they banged up against another word/phrase, they changed each other slightly. Circling spires weren’t just an architectural delight; instead, they hinted at regal splendor.

When I write, this is what I’m trying for: connotations speaking to connotations. I hope that I create a cumulative dominant image. I choose words based on certain themes and then work to make them collide.

Tips on Scattered Imagery

One reason I’m not fond of scattered imagery is that in the hands of a novice, it jerks me out of the current story. Here’s an example.

Setting: The principal tells you that you’ve won a scholarship, but to get it, you must accept an exchange student into your home for a year.

“. . . awesome news tossed into her lap like a grenade.”

Setting: A girl is thinking about a weird boy.
“ Thinking about him made her stomach hurt like she’d eaten a dozen McDonalds burgers at one sitting.”

These similes are easy to understand, contemporary, and not my favorite. In the first situation, a grenade carries the connotation of war, shock, and a shattered body. It’s too much for my taste because it pulls me out of a teen novel and instead, puts me in the Vietnam or Iraqi War.

In the second situation, I certainly understand that a dozen burgers (from anywhere) eaten in one sitting would give you a tummy ache. But how does this relate to the situation? It didn’t relate for me.

Hale sticks to imagery related to the immediate scene.

Setting: The princess and her maid are forced to become scullery maids in order to eat.

“Stay until your heart softens like long-boiled potatoes. . .”

In a kitchen setting, this makes sense. It also relates to the character who comes from the country and is familiar with the humble potato.

When you use scattered imagery, then, especially metaphors and similes, give them deep roots in the setting, not just a reference to a general cultural region.

And when you critique writing for others, remember the range of possibilities. Certainly, I always need to be challenged to use deeper imagery; but maybe, I don’t need to worry so much about just the one option for imagery called the metaphor.

16 Mar

8 Things Writers Do When Life is Crazy: The Crazy Writing Life

Life has been crazy the last two weeks and I’ve struggled to keep up. There’s been a major family crisis, a funeral, major snow storms, and illnesses. In spite of all of that, people get up and go to work. Writers must do the same thing: when life throws us crazy, we spin it into something useful.

  1. Accounting. With April 15 almost upon us, I found the extra time at home useful for doing accounting. Not sexy. Not writing. But necessary stuff. (The fact that I’ve been in accounting hell has more to do with my background and abilities than with the rest of the craziness.) I wish I could give you advice on how to do accounting better, but alas, I can’t. You might want to read, though, Laurie Purdie Salas post on her writing income last year. She’s posted this every year since 2007, so you can see her career over a long period.
  2. Reading other blogs using Alltop.com. Several years ago, I followed blogs by subscribing to RSS feeds. The programs that made that easy are discontinued, and I’ve found myself reading fewer and fewer blogs–which isolates me from the community. Alltop.com is filling that space for me. It’s a service that lists the top blogs in many categories, pulls in headlines/teaser from their five latest posts and displays it in an at-a-glance format. I set it as my browser’s homepage, so I’m reminded to check out the latest conversations. Here’s my personal Alltop page. You can create one for yourself that lists your top blogs by creating an account and following their directions.
  3. Clean up your book’s listings at AuthorCentral.com. This continues to be a catch-all site for anything related to my books on Amazon/Kindle. From here, you can change/correct listings, upload cover images, monitor sales and reviews, and more. The links to Amazon Help here are the most useful. Usually, they’ll call you right away. If you only have 15 minutes to do something in the middle of a hectic situation, clean up your book’s description.
  4. Take pictures. I recently got a hand-me-down Digital SLR camera and I’ve been trying to learn how to use it. By keeping it out and available, I can snap off a shot here or there. These are so useful for blog posts, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and most social media sites. Great photography is a useful skill for communicating in any online venue these days. Basically, online you can provide text, images or audio. That’s it. You might as well practice the image thing, because it’s crucial.
  5. My husband, Dwight, doing a "faceprint" in the snow, while the grandkids watch.

    My husband, Dwight, doing a “faceprint” in the snow, while the grandkids watch.




    Olga, Olaf's special friend. This would be a great image to add text for accompany a blog post.

    Olga, Olaf’s special friend. Putting text on top of this image would make it a good advertisement for a blog post.

  6. Choose a writing prompt. It almost doesn’t matter what prompt. Just choose something that will allow you to write. Even in the midst of Life (with a capital L), you need words flowing out.
  7. Start a blog. Oh, my gosh! Start a blog in the midst of Life? Shrug. Why not. You need one. And there’s no good time to do it. So, just get it done. OK. Then, just work on your author website for five minutes.
  8. Cheer for other writers. A friend recently got an offer for her first contract. While I’m in the doldrums, it’s inspiring to see her joy. She’s worked hard for this and deserves success. Who can you cheer for? Who can you cheer up? Do you know that when I get the occasional email about my blog, it totally makes my day? You could do that for someone else. It’s writing; it’s getting your mind off your own swirl of problems; it’s amazingly uplifting to the person getting the email–and to the person writing it.
  9. Observe. Hey! All this craziness is grist for the mill. The best writers see the world at a slant and can communicate that unique perspective in compelling ways. If you’re in a place where the communication can’t happen, then observe all the more. It’s our basic task: pay attention. Don’t check out. Look, listen, taste, smell, feel–live to tell about the crazy times

Send me your good news! I’d love to hear it!

03 Mar

Advice to Academy Award Winners: Trust Your Art

As I watched the Academy Awards last week, I was struck by how little the winners trusted their works of art. The ceremony was peppered with political statements for one cause or another. (Don’t misread: I have sympathies for these causes, but not for taking over the ceremony to smash us over the head with the cause.) There were pleas for women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, and disability rights. Really? Their work of art, the film that was being recognized, had already said what needed to be said in poignant, touching, and life-changing ways. Why didn’t they trust their art?

In the 1970s, children’s book publishers put out a lot of “problem novels,” which addressed social issues. The backlash against them was huge and still has echoes today in how easily some manuscripts are rejected. Since then, though, we’ve learned how to include our passions in our stories in ways that shine as art. We don’t stick it in our reader’s faces.

Bringing a Cause to Life

Morality. If you’re passionate about a cause, though, what should you do? First set up a moral dilemma around the cause because that will allow you to explore multiple perspectives. Moral dilemmas force characters to make a choice, which allows your readers to feel the weight of the issues and either agree or disagree with the character’s choices. You almost have to include someone making wrong choices–usually as the villain.

S&B COVER3-CS.inddEmotions. For example, in my book, Saucy and Bubba: A Hansel and Gretel Tale, Saucy runs away from an alcoholic step-mother. She must decide whether to live with an aunt or go home to live with her father and the step-mother. It’s a moral choice, but also an emotional choice, complicated by the question of where will her little brother go.


Sometimes you have to help yourself before you can help someone else, but if you mark your trail, you can always find your way home. That’s what the spunky main character of Darcy Pattison’s Saucy and Bubba learns in this modern day Hansel and Gretel tale. Saucy is a real character dealing with real stuff—hard stuff that doesn’t have easy answers, not in real life and not in fairy tales, either. This is a really compelling and ultimately hopeful story. Highly recommended.
— Debby Dahl Edwardson, National Book Award finalist
and author of My Name is Not Easy


Plurality. We live in a pluralistic culture; that is, many different cultures co-exist peacefully, and our work should respect that variety of cultures. Your ideas must compete in the marketplace of ideas and as time passes, certain ideas will gain popularity and others will fade. Yes, there are some things that are right and some things that are wrong; I believe in some absolutes (Thou shalt not kill!). But some things DO depend. As you write, recognize the variety of ideas possible and work to include characters who bring those ideas to enrich the story you are telling.

Trust your art. In the end, I choose to trust my art. Growing up, I had an alcoholic step-father; today, about 11 million children live with a caregiver who is an alcoholic. I could rant; instead, let me tell you a story. Read a sample chapter or listen to the audio of Chapter 1 of Saucy and Bubba.

23 Feb

A Big Storytelling DON’T: Messing with Timelines

Writers should respect timelines.

TimeWords


Ten years ago, I taught writing at a university and the world-wide-web was just coming online and theories of hypertext fiction were bouncing around. One popular theme of these stories was that the timeline didn’t matter. Imagine a central event and going out from that, like spokes in a wheel were the other story events. The theories said that non-linear stories were possible; translated, that means a story’s timeline didn’t matter.

Since then, we’ve seen stories that mess with the timeline with varying degrees of success. For example, Paul Fleischman’s book, Whirligig, explores the results of an action. In doing that, some sections jump 25 years into the future, while others explore the results of actions closer in time to it happening. The story has a reason to mess with the timeline and does so effectively.

But most of the time, writers should respect timelines. We live linear lives; we can’t skip ahead a year and then skip back. The act of reading is a linear act: we start at one point and read forward. Sure, some of you read the ending last. But even then, you go to five pages before the end and read forward. Humans are hard-wired to understand time lines, and when you mess with the timeline of a story you risk reader confusion.

On a micro-level, I think this is especially important. Let’s say that you have three events that happen in this order: A, B, and C. Event A happens first, Event B is second, and Event C is third.

It’s crucial that the author clearly know the event order; however, the storyteller often writes the events out of order. Here’s some strategies that I see.

Event C is the most interesting. In an attempt to keep the reader’s interest, authors sometimes cut straight to C but then circle back to pick up A and B. The question here is why come back to A and B? Why not just make this a big scene cut and leap ahead to C?

Events A, B, and C are episodic and there’s no cause-effect relationship. Here the events have no relationship except perhaps the time of day or season of the year. In this case, I wonder why these events belong in the same story. Episodic stories do work, but they are hard to hang together without the cause-effect relationship. Perhaps, you really need A caused D, which caused F. Maybe that story would be a more satisfying read.

A, B, and C are presented in order, but the relationship is vague. In this case, the writer needs better transitions that make the relationships clear. Sometimes, the transitions will short and sometimes prolonged. However, you can’t leave these out or the reader is lost.

In a current WIP, I found myself getting things out of order even within a paragraph. Jake falls into the water and in an attempt to keep hypothermia at bay, others offer an odd collection of clothing for him to wear. He changes inside a school bus.

My first draft had him putting on clothes from a variety of people, and then getting on the bus to—well to change clothes. That didn’t work! Instead, he had to climb up the bus steps, someone hands him clothes, one piece doesn’t fit and he trades it for another, and so on.

Did it make sense out of order? Sorta. But it’s much easier to understand when I took the time to straighten out the time order. Time words are your friends: use them to help keep things straight. Whether it’s on a micro or macro level, respect the timeline of your story—unless you have a really good reason to tell things out of order, don’t do it!

16 Feb

5 Amazingly Simple Ways to Transform Quiet Scenes into Exciting Scenes

Today, I worked on a difficult scene. It wasn’t a big action-packed scene; those are easy. Instead, it was a transition scene that moved the story along a week and had the potential to lose the reader with it’s lack of tension.

Donald Maass, in his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, repeats this signature mantra, “Tension on every page.”
He points out three types of scenes that can be a trap for the lazy writer: Tea time or any time people eat together; transporting characters from one spot to another; and dialogue. Maass recommends that you cut these scenes:

The most controversial part of my Writing the Blockbuster Novel workshop pis this exercise, in which I direct authors to cut scenes set in kitchens or living rooms or cars driving from one place to another, or that involve drinking tea or coffee or taking showers or baths, particularly in a novel’s first fifty pages. Participants look dismayed when they hear this directive, and in writer’s chat rooms on the Web it is debated in tones of alarm. No one wants to cut such material.

Unless you give these scenes careful attention, they can wind up as BORING!

Strategies for Dealing with Low Tension Scenes

5 Amazingly Simple Ways to Transform Quiet Scenes into Exciting Scenes

In working through my scene, I focused on a couple strategies for approaching such Bore-Traps.

The moment before. What happened right before this scene? Characters don’t go into a scene neutral. Sometimes, just thinking about the moment before will help you get a handle on what tensions or conflicts could be built into the scene. For example, if Jillian and Dad step out of the car at a used-car dealership and talk to a salesman about the 2012 Toyota Camry, it could be boring: How much is it? Do you finance? Want to take a test drive?

If, however, you take a moment to explore the moment before, you might find some interesting points of tension:
Our salesman, William, has just learned that his brother was in a motorcycle wreck and while he lived, William is now obsessing about car safety. Jillian has been trying to convince her Dad to get her a new car and is angry that he’s stopping at the used car shop, while Dad is worried because Mom just told him she’s filing for divorce and Dad doesn’t know how he can afford to buy Jillian any kind of car, what with the upcoming lawyer bills. Try writing that scene again, after all of THAT!

Character’s attitudes going into a scene. Similar, but slightly different is an emphasis on character attitudes going into a discussion. For William, we could choose from several attitudes: obsessing over safety, anxious to get done and get to the hospital so he speeds through everything, angry with brother because William just convince his wife to get a motorcycle and his blockhead brother just messed up that deal. Jillian could be pleading, sarcastic, grateful, or even indifferent. Dad could be generous, angry, stingy, resentful and more. Decide on the character’s attitudes, making sure that they are coming into the discussion at tangents.

Small moments of tension. This may seem obvious, but what I mean by this is to look for things or situations within the scene that could go wrong. For example, in my current story, the kids are in a cafeteria, and when the boy opens his coke, the carbonation explodes all over. It’s a small thing, a common thing. But it’s conflict. What is present in your situation/scene that could spill over with some small conflict?

Foreshadow something that is coming – look forward. Another reason the coke explosion worked for me is that the story involves volcanoes! It’s a minor foreshadowing of what’s coming. Look ahead in your story to see if you can provide even a minor foreshadowing.

Refer back to something – look backward. Don’t just look forward. Also look back to previous chapters and try to echo something. Can you echo it with some kind of progression? Make it faster, higher, bigger, etc? And plan another time to use that element and make it the fastest, biggest, highest, etc.?

My scene, which started as a bore, is much tighter and has more tension. It’s a collection of small moments of tension that adds up to an important transition scene that keeps the reader turning the pages.

09 Feb

Pacing: Space out the Tense Moments

Tension on every page is the mantra for fiction writers. But what if your tension is spread unevenly throughout the story? That may be fine, because stories need a natural rhythm, an ebb and flow of action, thoughts, dialogue and reflection (inner dialogue). Some scenes may be crammed with small actions, while others pace steadily through the setting. Sometimes, though, I find that I’ve packed a scene with too many MAJOR revelations or actions, creating a top-heavy scene; that scene is usually matched by another scene that lacks enough tension.

My current WIP was in that position this week. One scene had two major confrontations. So, I decided to see if I could lift one Major Complication and put it elsewhere. The actual text, a revelation that someone was searching for the main character, took about 20 lines of text. Not so bad to move elsewhere, I thought.

But every part of a story is intertwined with every other part.
Puzzle
Timeline. First, there’s timeline issues. EventA happens before EventB. The RevelationEvent was originally the EventA, but I moved it to an EventC position, which meant that I had to go back and clean up the time line. There could be no mention of the RevelationEvent before Event B, of course. This is tedious work. You have to reread chapters thinking about what a reader should know at this point in the story, and make sure there’s no hint of the RevelationEvent that will spoil the surprise. Of course, I can hint at it; that’s called foreshadowing. Foreshadowing’s role, though, is to make the reader slap his/her forehead and say, “Duh! That’s exactly what should happen. Why didn’t I see it coming?” The reader should still be surprised, but the surprise is believable. Cleaning up the timeline is hard work, and if you slip up with even one half-sentence, you’ll be nailed on it by some alert reader.

Fitting it in. Unfortunately, you can’t just pick up the 20 lines and insert them where Event C occurs. Much of it may be salvaged verbatim, but much of it needs to be worded differently at the new place of the story. Keep the core of it, the meaning, but be willing to rewrite to make it seamless. The goal is to make it seem that the story was originally written this way.

As a revision exercise, I required my freshman composition students to write eight different openings for their essay. Often, the third or fifth or eighth opening was dynamite, and the writer chose to start his/her essay with it. Too often, though, it was stuck on the front and had no relationship to the rest of the story. I modified the assignment: students still wrote the eight openings. But then, in class to make sure they did it, they had to start writing the essay again from that starting point and keep writing for a timed period. I made sure the writing time was long enough to carry them into the body of the essay. That resulted in strong openings that were integrated into the whole essay. That’s what you want here, too.

One caution: keep a copy of the original version, because you may not like moving the event to a new place. In Scrivener, take a snapshot. In word processors, make a backup copy or a versioned copy; or use track changes to make the preliminary changes and then decide if you want to make them permanent.

The strategy of moving events is easy on the imagination. I don’t have to think up new events or complications; instead, I just need to use what I’ve already written in a stronger way.

08 Feb

I Want a Dog by Darcy Pattison

Today launches two new books for me.

9781629440118-ColorPF-alt.indd 9781629440323-Case.indd

How the Stories Started. For years, I’ve taught writing. I teach everything from kindergarteners to advanced novelist, gifted-and-talented kids to reluctant writers. I’ve developed techniques for helping people write stronger and they usually involve either revising or prewriting. In schools, it’s hard to get kids to revise; they see it as torture to copy out a perfectly good essay again. Too often, it’s an exercise in handwriting instead of real revision. So, I started flipping the process and putting more emphasis on prewriting. A rich prewriting environment gives a student a better chance at a good first draft (which is often the only draft). A single prewriting activity isn’t enough; instead, you want a rich environment with multiple ways of thinking, discussing and drafting about a topic.

Everything I’ve learned about teaching writing an opinion essay to kids is instilled in these two books in just 500 words (Dog) and 750 words (Cat). Cousins discuss the type of dog/cat they want for their family. They use about ten criteria (and another 5-6 criteria are suggested in the back matter) to decide what breed of dog/cat is best. Then, they write an opinion essay. And because all writing should have a real world effect and be successful, they get the dog/cat of their dreams.

Characters. I knew that I wanted to write something helpful to teachers about writing essay; however, first and foremost (as always) I wanted to write a fun STORY. The relationship between cousins Dennis and Mellie was important to develop. Each has a different family life, so their priorities on a pet differed drastically. Creating interesting characters helped ground the information in a story.

Research. Do you research topics for a fictional story? It was crucial for these two stories that I had the facts right about the dogs and cats. The American Kennel Club (AKC) regularly publishes information on the most popular breeds of dogs for a particular year. I used the latest data from 2013 and decided to feature the top 20 breeds of dogs: in order of popularity – Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherd Dogs, Golden Retrievers, Beagles, Bulldogs, Yorkshire Terriers, Boxers, Poodles, Rottweilers, Dachshunds, French Bulldogs, Doberman Pinschers, German Shorthaired Pointers, Siberian Huskies, Shih Tzu, Great Danes, Miniature Schnauzers, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Pomeranians, Australian Shepherds.

Then, it was a juggling act to slot each breed into a criteria for deciding for/against a breed. I used the Animal Planet’s Dog Breed Selector Tool as a beginning point, and filled in with research on each breed. Many dogs are friendly; some dogs are better at being a guard dog than others. Each criteria needed a matched pair, one dog included by the criteria and one breed excluded by the criteria. It was impossible to satisfy every breed enthusiast, but the AKC went through the manuscript and approved the way the breeds were described.


10BreedPoster500x500x150


For the Cat Lovers. I was pleased with the story and sent it around to a couple editors. One was very interested, but eventually rejected the story, saying, “A dog story just isn’t for me. I’m just a cat lover.” That weekend, I wrote the companion book, I WANT A CAT: My Opinion Essay. It went through a similar process using the Animal Planet Cat Breed Selector Tool, and generous input from Joan Miller, Chair of the Cat Fancier’s Association Outreach & Education efforts.

The CFA statistics say these are the top 20 cat breeds, in order of popularity: Persian, Exotic, Maine Coon Cat. Ragdoll, British Shorthair, Abyssinian, American Shorthair, Sphynx, Siamese, Devon Rex, Norwegian Forest Cat, Oriental, Scottish Fold, Cornish Rex, Birman, Burmese, Tonkinese, Siberian, Russian Blue, Egyptian Mau

I was unfamiliar with some of the breeds, so Miller’s input was invaluable–thanks, Joan!

Illustrator: Ewa O’Neill

These are debut picture books by European illustrator, Ewa O’Neill. She’s got an eye for color and design! A dog-lover, she studied the twenty dog breeds and twenty cat breeds to create active, interesting collection of pets.

Free on Kindle for 5 Days

Amazon allows certain promotional events and I’m happy to say that I WANT A DOG: My Opinion Essay will be a free Kindle book from February 8-12. Get it during these five days and spread the word to your friends.

Free on KOBO and Apple: I WANT A DOG and I WANT A CAT will be free for your iPad or Kobo reader on February 13-17. Check the iBookstore and KoboStore then. Sorry, a Nook version is not available. You can also find ebook copies at MimsHouse.com – Dog and MimsHouse.com – Cat.
Both books are available in paperback and hardcover.

Coming Fall, 2015: My Crazy Dog: My Narrative Essay

02 Feb

Is My Story Good or Bad? Wrong Question

Last year, I did a simple survey on the list and asked writers, “What is your biggest challenge for 2015?”

The answer blew me away. You want to know, “Is my picture book/novel/short story/piece of writing any good?”
GoodORBad
This was expressed in many different ways, of course, but at the core, you want to know what makes one piece of writing good and one piece of writing bad. Is it just a matter of opinion?

When I taught freshman composition, this was a constant problem, as well. An essay turned into one teacher might receive an A, while the second teacher gave it a C; giving grades is one way to answer the good/bad question. Research showed that the solution was simple: teachers needed to meet and discuss criteria for grading. Once they’d gone through a couple essays together, they were more likely to grade consistently.

Why the problems? What does make good writing? The answer isn’t about grammar, and only incidentally about the content of the piece. Instead, you must look at the fuzzy concerns of audience, purpose, genre conventions,

AUDIENCE

Who are you writing for? Do you take the time to search images till you find a person who is your ideal audience? Writing for a middle grade student is very different than writing for a middle-aged history professor.

Again, let me demonstrate this with an example I gave to my freshman comp students. Let’s say that an 18-year-old boy has a car wreck. Now, he must tell three people about that wreck: the policeman, his mom, and his best friend. You can easily imagine each conversation. The tone—apologetic to bravado—changes with the audience. Details creep into some accounts (To Best Friend: Mary was tickling me) and are deleted from others (To Mom and Cop: I was under control of the vehicle at all times).

Which account of the car wreck would be considered “good” and which is “bad”? Is one more truthful than the other; i.e. can you apply the criteria of truthfulness to determine good/bad? You’ll agree that tone, voice, content, style and more depend on the audience.

PURPOSE

When you write a novel, do you want your reader to weep or to guffaw? The purpose of any piece of writing should—in a sane world—determine its effectiveness. Did it accomplish what you set out to accomplish?

In other words, can we use effectiveness of communication as one measure of good/bad?

GENRE CONVENTIONS

Think with me of what you expect from a mystery novel. There’s a murderer, a detective and a dead body (victim). Beyond that, though, one common convention in a mystery is to TELL the answer to the mystery. The detective arranges for all the suspects to be present at the same time, and then explains how s/he cleverly solved the problem. When confronted, the murderer tries to run away. That sort of scene would rarely happen in other genres.

Each genre has its own conventions of characters, events, plot points, settings, and so on. If you break or bend those conventions, you risk angering your readers, who will exclaim loudly, “This is a horrible mystery.”

Is it good writing or bad writing? Wrong question.
Is it a good mystery (according to the genre conventions of today)?


Is My Picture Book Manuscript Any Good?

Do you need to know if your picture book manuscript fits genre conventions? Darcy Pattison and Leslie Helakoski will be teaching PB&J: Picture Books and All that Jazz, April 23-26, 2015 at the Highlight’s Foundation, Honesdale, PA. Learn more about the workshop.

If you can’t see this video, click here.


DOES THE STORY PLEASE YOU?

Aside from issues of audience, purpose, and genre, there’s one that looms large in my mind. Does the story please you, the author? Are you happy with what you’ve done? It’s very hard to step back from your work and evaluate it. Your worries about what others think consumes you, and you can’t separate THEIR opinion from YOUR opinion.

I recently re-read my latest novel, LONGING FOR NORMAL, and at a certain point, it made me cry. A friend read it recently, too, and I asked her, “Did you cry at XXX scene?” No, she didn’t. But when I re-read that scene, I always cry. Is it a good scene? It touches me emotionally in a deep way; but it doesn’t affect my friend the same way. Is it good? Or bad?

Do you start to see that the question is the wrong one? Or that there are really two questions here:

1. Did I write the story I wanted to write?
2. How will others respond to that story?

And the terminology that you use should NOT be good/bad.
Instead, try these criteria: useful, effective, matches genre expectations, pleases me.

Then, you need to ask a final question: Do I want this to be published?
If so, you forget the good/bad question and find a publisher whose purposes, audiences and genre fits what you’ve written. And send it in. Period.

Stop those pestering questions about good/bad. Send it in. You’ll soon find out if it will fly in the marketplace you’ve chosen. If it doesn’t, go back and ask the right questions again: useful, effective, matches genre expectations, pleases me? If you’re sure you’re on target, send it out again. And again and again. Repeat until you find the right market for your work!

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