Archive for November, 2016

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 will stop at nothing to win and 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.