do-over

Thank you, Hannah Fergesen (@HannahFergesenLiterary Agent at KT Literary)!  Hannah is the creator of the NaNoWriMo do over known as #NaNoReDo.

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Basically, if you missed out in November, here’s your shot to try again in December. It’s like a big red friendly “do over” button!  Only this time, set your own goals.

I didn’t participate in NaNoWriMo because reasons.  But I’m taking NaNoReDo  literally, and using December to complete my full manuscript revision.  This is perfect because many (if not most) agents close up shop during the month of December, and then spend January playing catch-up.  So I wasn’t going to start querying again until February.  This gives me time to revise the whole ms, then get some feedback and polishing in before February.  But with NaNoReDo, I have a goal in place and a support structure to lean on.

If you are thinking about NaNoReDo, just follow Hanna and/or the hashtag #NaNoReDo.

Good luck! See you in the funny papers!

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Unless you’ve studied Charlie Chaplin’s films, you may not immediately see what I’m getting at.  If you can find it, there is an amazing documentary in three parts from 1983 called Unknown Chaplin, which breaks down his creative process and shows for the first time lots of his unused film.

But failing that, let me give it to you in a nutshell: Chaplin worked to his own schedule, refusing to let studio execs tell him what to create or how long it should take.  He often puzzled over a single “gag” for months without shooting a second of film, while all of the cast and crew sat around and waited.  He once re-shot almost an entire movie after recasting the leading lady. He never threw away an idea. And once he was satisfied with something, the finished product always looked utterly effortless.

That’s the key.  When you write make it look effortless, no matter how long or how hard or how many reams of paper you went through to get there.  One mistake writers make is to show how clever they are and make it obvious how hard they worked to get their story on paper — pages of in-depth backstory, obtuse and lengthy set-ups, flowery, purple descriptions of scenery or weather or location — all there to demonstrate the writer’s dedication to research and the richness of their invented world.  Chaplin’s best work was silent, with almost no dialogue, and in back and white.

There’s a scene in City Lights, in which the Tramp buys a flower from a blind girl, and she mistakes him for a rich man.  How did he do it?  No long set-up or clever dialogue. To avoid a cop while crossing the street, the Tramp climbs into a parked car and gets out at the curb.  When the transaction is done, the car’s owner gets in and drives off, leaving the Tramp standing there waiting for his change, which he never gets.  Smooth, natural, completely organic. Effortless.

Chaplin spent weeks filming that one 2-minute scene.

If you take this kind of no-excuses approach, and strive for these kinds of simple-but-sublime results, you should go far as a writer. Pick every word carefully. Make every word count. Rather than “a picture worth a thousand words,”  try to find those words that are worth a thousand pictures.

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In case you’re not familiar, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. The idea is that aspiring authors attempt to write a complete 50,000 word novel between November 1 and November 30.  A lot of amazing writing has gotten done during past NaNoWriMos.

The social media arm of the world writing community do a lot to promote this. If you aspire to be an author, you can hardly get through the month of November without being reminded that Most of your fellow writers are knuckling down and keeping careful count of their daily word totals.

You can be forgiven for feeling a bit of peer pressure.  I mean it’s not Movember, where men grow moustaches during the month of November to help raise awareness for men’s health – moustaches just grow. Churning out an entire novel in 30 days takes a bit more of a commitment than putting down your razor.

Some writers “cheat” by only writing part of a longer novel, but still aiming for that 50,000 word goal. However they do it, they are justifiably proud when they make progress, whether or not they completely succeed in the end.

So what if you aren’t ready to commit, but feel guilty about that?  I’m here to tell you, there isn’t a writer out there who will say you have to participate. To begin with you have to subscribe to the notion of “quantity over quality,” at least for the month of November. Nobody expects you to have a polished manuscript on December 1. Just 50,000 consecutive story words on paper. It’s an exercise in just going for it. But rest assured, it isn’t for everybody. I myself have never participated, and don’t imagine I ever will.  For one, as much as I revise and polish my prose, I like to feel as if what I’m writing is good, not just the first words that fly put of my fingers. But even if I could put that personal bias aside, I don’t have a lifestyle that allows the kind of time needed to write 50,000 words in a month.  I only write at night after the rest of the family goes to bed (so I don’t take time away from “dad time” with my kids), and some nights I’m working on this blog or simply too tired.

So, hats off to all my fellow writers participating in NaNoWriMo! But if you’re not one of them, I respect you every bit as much.  We all write in our own way.

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This is a blog about writing children’s books, and I have always tried to keep it appropriate for all audiences. I have no plans to discuss politics, unless somehow politics affects how we write children’s books, and as far as I know that hasn’t happened.

However, it feels like we are living in a new world this morning, and there is a great deal of talk about “coming to grips with our new reality.” In that vein, I had one thought that pertains to writing children’s books, and in particular about my daughter and I writing our children’s book.

The theme of THE LAST PRINCESS has always been the struggle of a young woman to become the leader her people, but faced with a ruthless, powerful goblin prince of a rival who threatens her loved-ones if she gets in his way. It occurs to me that there may be a huge market for this kind of thing, now. I imagine mothers all over the country might want to purchase such a book for their daughters.

Because in THE LAST PRINCESS, the girl wins.

I Got Nothing

Posted: November 9, 2016 in Uncategorized

Sorry.

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I’ve noticed something pretty significant about this latest revision my daughter and I are doing on our middle grade manuscript.  With every revised paragraph, we are tying together tiny loose ends that previously dangled.  Many of these were not noticeable or even an issue, but in the process of writing any story things get invented and added on page 157 that you hadn’t considered on page 3.  And nobody expect you to go back and reference every nuance throughout the book in the first chapter.

But there is something very … mature … about a manuscript in which it is clear the writer clearly knows what’s coming.

It has always been my practice when writing to make every scene, every paragraph, every sentence, and as many individual words as possible accomplish more than one thing.  Why use a sentence to just describe the weather, when with that same sentence you can also establish a mood, give a glimpse of the setting, tie in the character’s motivation, or hint at some detail that will be revealed in full later?  Beginning writers often have difficulty smoothing out info dumps in their writing, because they can never figure out how to bury that information in the rest of the text.  This is how; you spread it out and dribble it into your text little by little.

Here’s an example: On the first page of our book (in this new revision) our hero thinks she sees an ogre hanging out at the fair.

I sat perfectly still while my heart thudded. Ogres were the ones that ate children, right?

Except that nobody in the crowd seemed to notice him. Magic dust or something sparkled all around him, but everyone else walked by like he was just some random guy hanging out at the fair. I didn’t know what was scarier – the fact that I was looking at a real live ogre, or the fact that I was the only one seeing the freaking ogre. Was I a few crayons short of a full box? I held my breath and squeezed my eyes shut … then looked again.

The guy in the Hawaiian shirt was just a guy. No sparkles or anything.

I blew my breath out slowly. Get a grip, Cat. Rose told you not to read those fairy tales right before bed the other night. Right. Like I’d ever actually do school work at a sleepover at my best friend’s house.

Which was why I was doing my homework now. Feeling guilty, I looked down at the paper in front of me. I was homeschooled, so Mom would be the one reading my report – and the only thing I’d written so far was, “Catherine Brökkenwier, age 12.”

Look at the paragraph in red.  In these two lines, while ostensibly describing Cat’s reaction to what she’s seeing,  we also introduce Rose, the fact that Cat reads fairy tales, the fact that she was at a sleepover, as well as transition into the next action — her homework.  We also introduce Cat’s voice and the way she talks to herself in her head.  In the final paragraph, above, we give you Cat’s age and full name without “telling” it to you.

Okay, so with this tool in hand, what’s so significant about this latest revision is the fact that we can now do this with full knowledge of what’s to come — not just plot, but emotional arc, little details, jokes that need to be set up, hints about things that won’t be revealed until the end, and details to support conclusions that Cat draws about her circumstances later in the book.  And we can fold them in subtly, almost invisibly, as we smooth over the manuscript.

And that’s why it’s called “polishing.” All of this smoothing.  Instead of unsightly lumps of info dumped her and there, we can level them out and at the same time tie up all kinds of tiny loose threads poking up everywhere.  This is the part where we make the manuscript even, silky smooth … where we make it shine.

If you know anything about woodworking, you know, you can’t sand your table to a mirror-like finish before you attach the legs.  Polishing is the last thing you do.  And it only works when all of the pieces are already in place.

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Here’s the thing about being a writer with a goal of becoming a published author: the target keeps moving.

Okay, sure — the prize is always to get your book published.  But there are lots of steps along the way.  And not all of them are baby steps; some of them are ginormous steps.

  • Coming up with a novel-worthy plot and compelling characters.
  • Finishing a complete manuscript.
  • Learning how to give and take useful criticism.
  • Nailing a killer beginning.
  • Learning to get comfortable killing your darlings in the revision process.
  • Writing a 2 page synopsis of your entire novel.
  • Writing a 2 paragraph synopsis of your entire novel.
  • Writing a 2 sentence synopsis of your entire novel.
  • Sending out your first query.
  • Receiving your first rejection.
  • Taking the plunge and entering a pitch contest.

Every time you hit one of these milestones, you’ve accomplished something big in your career as a writer.  Each of these milestones is something you can build on to help you get to the next one.  Like way points on a long mountain-climbing expedition.

Here’s another thing about being a writer with a goal of becoming a published author: you have to know you might never actually get there.  Yet, for every published author, this did not deter them along the way.

So, what does “success” look like?

Have you ever climbed a mountain?  No, me either.  But I’ve seen a lot of movies and stuff.  It seems to me that along the way up the mountain, when you stop on those scenic way points and put down your pack, you can take a moment to look over the vista from your new vantage point.  Look back on where you came from and all you have passed through to get to where you are.  Assess your progress.

That is what success looks like.

Taking the Slow Road

Posted: October 20, 2016 in Writing
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So I’m doing a targeted and substantial revision of my daughter’s and my middle grade novel.  I mean, another one.  The first one was actually an R&R (Revise and Resubmit) requested by an agent who had read our manuscript, and for that one I felt compelled to get the revisions done in 2 months.  I wanted to have time to consider and polish the changes the agent requested, however I also didn’t want her to lose interest or think we were non-responsive.  If we were going to have a professional relationship with this agent, I wanted her to see us as professional and reliable.  And we got the revisions done in time.  The agent still didn’t sign us, which I understand is not uncommon.

This time, though, our revisions are based on some feedback from a CP (critique partner) and an editor who generously gave us a three chapter critique, which together pointed out some key issues and offered similar ways to fix them.  So, like many of you have done or will do, we’re holding off on querying for now and taking on a full-manuscript revision, chapter-by-chapter.

But this time we’re taking it slow.  It didn’t start out this way.  In fact, at first I imagined I could get the new revision done in few weeks — after all, I had already been down this road once before.  But the more I examined all the ways these changes in chapter one were going to affect all of the following chapters, the main character’s emotional arc, and the tone of the book as a whole, the task of revising stopped resembling cosmetic surgery, and began to resemble a brain transplant.

There’s a scene in the 1984 movie, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, where the hero is performing brain surgery, and says to his assistant, “No, no, no — don’t tug on that. You never know what it might be attached to.”  That’s exactly what this revision feels like. Except that I have to tug on things, and even rip them out completely.

Rebuilding is going to be a delicate operation, and I’m inclined to take my time at it.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  I think there is a perception in the writing community that you must produce all the time and get so many words down every day. And if you make your living entirely from your writing, yes, that may be true.  But for the rest of us, we need to get it right.

So if you are inclined to take your time but feel pressure or guilt, I’m here to support you. Slow and steady wins the race. It’s okay to take your time, as long as you continue to stay engaged.

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If what you’re looking for is a beta reader or critique partner who will tell you your book is wonderful no matter what, and spare your feelings — this isn’t that.

That is a unicorn.  I suppose you could find one, if you looked really hard.  But what would be the point?  It certainly won’t advance your writing skills, let alone your writing career.

No.  A sensitivity reader is a professional you hire who’s job is to read your manuscript with special emphasis on how you portray people from marginalized groups or key historical events that involved those groups.  Marginalized groups includes women, people on the fringes of the economic scale, people with disabilities, people in the LGBT community, and of course people of color.  Also, if any of your characters practice a faith, have weight issues, a non-traditional family arrangement, or are victims of sexual assault, they can be considered marginalized.  Historical events that affect those groups might include the Holocaust, the Civil War, 9/11, and so forth.

We are in the midst of an unprecedented and far-reaching change in the books we read and write, and the books agents and publishers want.  Books are becoming more diverse, and at the same time, people are more sensitive to the way groups they belong to are portrayed in literature.  Negative stereotypes are no longer ignored.  And that includes the stereotype that all characters in a book should be white, or all soldiers or superheros should be male, and so forth.

Which means, as you write your book, you will most likely be including people unlike yourself.  And in so doing, you begin to write outside your comfort zone.  Which is fine — you want to write outside your comfort zone.  That’s how you grow as a writer.  But if your book contains both men and women, people of difference races, and a gay person, chances are you aren’t 100% familiar with all of those cultures.  And through no fault of your own, even despite extensive research, you may write something in your story that inaccurately portrays a marginalized person or puts them in a bad light.  If for example one of your characters suggests that a person with mental illness is somehow weak, you are stigmatizing mental illness as a weakness, which is a negative and inaccurate stereotype mental health professionals have been trying to erase for decades.

A sensitivity reader will read your manuscript and point out places where you might want to revise to remove problems like this.  But like any reader you pay to evaluate your manuscript, be prepared to make changes — even major changes — to your characters or story line.  After all, you will have paid for their advice.

So where can you find a sensitivity reader?  Here is a links to get you started:

Writing In the Margins

Shop before you you buy.  You will want to find a reader who specializes in your particular topic — woman’s issues, gay issues, mental illness, etc.  At present sensitivity readers are not especially expensive.  Typically $250-$300 per manuscript.  Also be aware, these readers are looking for a rather narrow range of issues within your writing.  Don’t expect a sensitivity reader to serve the same function as a professional editor.

Good luck, and keep writing.

 

 

Demers

I’m talking about myself, here.

Last week I wrote about cultural appropriation.  Badly.  I called the piece “Cultural Misappropriation” because I thought there was a difference.  I thought I was being clever, and I thought I had enough information to write intelligently.

I was wrong on all three counts.

I’ve had several conversations and read a number of essays, and while I by no means can speak with authority, I think I can speak without embarrassing myself again. It is entirely possible I am wrong about that, so I welcome your comments, positive or negative.

Let me state right up front that I was writing (had been writing for some time) from a place of resentment. It would appear that this is common among white people (coupled with ignorance, often willful, as in my case), and I understand how that is frustrating to people of color and other marginalized people who have a much more clear understanding of white privilege than I did.  I read a very informative post by Lori Lakin Hutcherson about that, and along with some patient and sage advice from Tessa Gratton (@tessagratton) a switch flipped somewhere in the depths of my lizard brain and I got a glimpse of clarity.

Here’s what I now believe: White privilege is not a form of blame, any more than you can blame someone for being young or tall.  I think the blame, if any, comes from a white person failing to understand that they are in a position of privilege and as a result of that failure harming a person who does not enjoy that privilege.

Before that switch flipped I resented being called out for writing what I wanted, not having taken the time to understand that what I had written was insensitive, belittling, and putting myself above my critics. I read comments along the lines of: white people who complain about being told they can’t write what they want just hate being told “no.” That they resent it due to white privilege. And when I read that I didn’t understand it, because I felt like I was being accused of having white privilege. But I believe now that isn’t really what’s happening.

I think it goes something like this: White people who complain about being told they can’t write what they want fail to recognize their own place of privilege. In this case it’s the privilege of living a life without being constantly questioned because of the color of our skin. So when a white person is called out on their writing by a person of color, I think it can be perceived as a new experience – being questioned by someone different than ourselves. Some people respond to this by making an effort to understand what they did wrong and making an adjustment. Others – myself among them – deny our own ignorance and make things worse by continuing to speak without taking the time to understand. I’m hoping to switch groups.

I got a lot of feedback on my post about cultural appropriation, last week.  The feedback from people of color was swift and sharp and to the point.  They were direct, spoke with absolute conviction, and within a few hours had moved on. I was just another white person who didn’t get it, in a long line. And that’s fine, because it’s nobody’s responsibility to educate others about this.

But the feedback I got on my post from white people went on and on for days and was mostly less helpful, because virtually all of it came from a position of privilege.  It was actually quite illuminating if for no other reason than it gave me the chance try out the nascent understanding I was coming to grips with. Where people of color had pointed out I was whining about criticism and conflating it with censorship (I was), white people mostly wanted to reinforce their right to write whatever they wanted and felt any criticism was unjustified.  I attempted to clarify my poorly-made point from my new perspective, and was met with anger.  Who was I to tell an “artist” their work should be anything other than “pure?” My response: But if it is about marginalized people and also wrong and hurtful, those people have the right to point that out.  Oh, yeah? Shouldn’t I be offended then when Hispanics speak English poorly? Isn’t that them appropriating my culture?  And are you saying I’m not allowed to complain about Liberals?  Me: So this is what people of color have to deal with every day.  My white privilege became pretty obvious. I still have a lot of learning – and unlearning – to do, but I think I can see it, now.

Look, nobody is telling anybody not to write whatever you want or about whomever you want – it’s just being perceived by people in privilege that this is what they are being told.  All anyone asks is that you do it well.  And be prepared to receive criticism from the people you write about if you get it wrong.  Because nobody is above criticism.  You’re a writer; do your research.  Tessa Gratton said it best during one of our conversations:

All marginalized people ask is that people with privilege do no harm, and do everything in our power not to erase their experiences.

Cultural appropriation really is a thing. But there’s nothing wrong with creating art from or with cultures outside your own, as long as doing so does no harm – does not insult, degrade, stereotype, or nullify the living people from that culture.  Ignorance is not an excuse, nor is a desire to remain “pure.”  What does that even mean?  I think you mean “raw” and that’s not a recipe for good writing.  If you have questions, seek out a sensitivity reader.  And above all, be open to feedback.  You’re a writer, nobody should have to tell you that.