Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Guest Post: Author C.Lee McKenzie, 'What I've Learned'

When Tabitha invited me to do a post about what I’d learned since I started writing for kids and teens, then tell what I wish I’d known, I thought, “OMG, I’ve got a book here!”

I suppose the honest answer to part one is I knew nothing. I didn’t even know what a young adult or a middle grade book was. I certainly didn’t know how the publishing world worked. Query? What was that? What was the difference between an editor and an agent? Hmmm. There are critique groups? Where?

One thing about starting at zero is that there’s no fear and the only way to go is ahead. So that was me: dumb, fearless and charging forward. I learned the answers to all of those questions above and discovered there were tons more questions popping up every day. I guess I’m lucky in that I stumbled around, finding writers who knew more than I did, finding groups that were supportive and instructive, discovering that I couldn’t write worth diddle squat (that was humbling), and then setting out to teach myself the craft (that’s been daunting).

I also learned about failing. I couldn’t sell anything I submitted: my short stories bombed, poetry came back in the mailbox before I could drive home from the post office (*raspberry sound goes here). Then as I entered the little more advance dumb-fearless stage I wrote this novel about a girl who cuts herself. I subbed it to about six publishers (Notice I didn’t mention agent here because . . . well, just because. I’ll explain later.)

They all turned me down or ignored me. How dare they! Then I subbed it to WestSide Books and the next day I had a request for a partial. The next week I had a request for a full. By the end of the month I had a contract. How about that? I’d done it. Now what?

Oh, yes, there was this small portion of the writing-selling-publishing business that no one mentioned. It’s commonly known as “marketing.” The real name is “full time job,” at least for me since now I had to learn another whole set of skills. That’s when Dame Fortune smiled. Not really. She gave me more of a smirk with, “Now you’re in for it” implied. I connected with 2009 Debutantes knew what they were doing, and I did whatever they told me to do. I kept my SCBWI membership current and started attending more conferences. Verla Kay’s website was invaluable during this time. Here’s my thanks to all of those communities and the people who showed me the way.

I guess that covers what I didn’t know, so I suppose these could be added to the column labeled, What I Wish I’d Known Before I Started. Yet, when I think back I might never have taken on the challenge if I’d known what I was up against. Maybe it was better to back in, learn by doing, and to stick it out. Even though I love learning new stuff there are some writing-editing-marketing my books days when I’d love to know what I’m doing. (Please note the plural books. I didn’t have my fill of labor intensive days with the first book experience, so I wrote a second one.)

Remember when I didn’t mention agents earlier in this post? Well, I didn’t because I don’t have an agent. That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t like to have an agent; I just haven’t gotten around to really researching and querying them yet. For heaven sakes, I haven’t had a lot of time.

Since I still have some middle grade books hibernating on my C Drive, I thought I’d focus on getting representation for those, so that will be a 2011 goal . . . I think. I hesitate because I don’t know how it will be to have a person between the publisher and me. If I succeed in finding representation I guess I’ll find out, then if Tabitha asks me to poke my nose into her great blog again, I can tell you what happened.

Thanks for the opportunity to go on and on here, Tabitha. It’s been fun setting out my experience from knowing nothing to knowing a little about what I’m doing as a published author.

Thanks so much, Lee, for sharing all this great stuff with us! And we would love to hear how it all works out. Right, guys? :)

To see what all Lee is up to, check out the links below. And, because she's so awesome, she's giving away an ARC of her newest book, The Princess of Las Pulgas. Just fill out the form below, and come back here on Dec 10th to see if you've won. Good luck!

Blog: http://writegame.blogspot.com/
Webpage: http://cleemckenziebooks.com/
Sliding on the Edge http://tinyurl.com/2e6lr3x
The Princess of Las Pulgas http://tinyurl.com/2eul96n

Monday, November 29, 2010

Crafting Powerful Sentences

Last week, Andrea Welch from Beach Lane Books showed us how to put emotion into our stories. Today, I want to share what Marilyn Brigham from Marshall Cavendish had to say about choosing the right words for your story.

The first thing she said was this: Repetitions are bad! When we repeat words or phrases in our stories, it lessens the impact each time it’s used. This includes repeating a single word, phrases, and imagery. Then, she listed some specific things to watch out for.
Common, everyday words: just, then, anyway, so, though, etc.
Words that echo each other: unfair/unfairness, though/although, etc.
Common phrases: of course, I was like, I couldn’t help but wonder (this last one is apparently in nearly all of her submitted manuscripts, so don’t use it!)
Ideas: conveying the same idea in several different ways too close together will lessen the impact on the reader, and make the story sound preachy

She suggested that a good way to keep the language fresh is to mix it up by effectively using a thesaurus or dictionary. She also said to watch out for adult phrases or ways of saying things, using slang that is out of date, and clichés. She even cited some examples:
Only to be met...
...sent shock waves...
Like a bat out of hell
Glimmer of hope
Throw in the towel

Instead of taking the easy way out and using a cliché, or even a phrase that you’re familiar with because you grew up with it, find a new way to say it. Constantly ask yourself if there’s a more kid-friendly way of telling your story.

Next, she talked about the importance of avoiding clutter. That is, using several words where one will do. And she broke it down into four parts.

Adverbs: most are unnecessary. Instead, use a stronger verb that conveys the same meaning, but gives the reader a sharper image of what’s happening.

Adjectives: too many can create purple prose. Purple prose speaks down to the reader and takes itself too seriously. So keep these to a minimum.

Unnecessary Prepositions: An added preposition is just padding, and your prose won’t be as sharp or clean. Avoid adding a preposition when it’s not needed, such as “at about,” or “order up.” In both cases, only one of those words is needed. Watch out how you use other prepositions, such as above, across, below, beneath, aside, etc. In each case, ask yourself if that word is needed in the sentences.

Implied Words: Using two words that convey the same meaning is overkill, and again your prose won’t be a clean or sharp. Instead, use one word that will get your point across, and it will have a greater impact on the reader. Some examples to avoid: mutual cooperation, very unique, tall skyscraper, etc.

Finally, she said that when you’re in your final stage of revision, look at each word and assess whether it is necessary, and whether it is doing the job it’s supposed to do. A good tool to do this is to read your work aloud.

She also had some recommended reading:
Dear Genius, The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom edited by Leonard S. Marcus
On Writing Well, The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Winner of the November book giveaway!

I know this is a day late, and the only excuse I can come up with is too much turkey.  :)

So anyway, let's just see who wins this month's book giveaway, shall we?

According to Random.org, that person is...

Inspired Kathy!!!

Congratulations!!  I'll get those books out to you in the next couple of weeks.

For the rest of you, I've got some great ARCs to give away next month, so stop by next saturday to see what they are!!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Matched by Ally Condie

Cassia has always trusted their choices. It’s barely any price to pay for a long life, the perfect job, the ideal mate. So when her best friend appears on the Matching screen, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is the one . . . until she sees another face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black. Now Cassia is faced with impossible choices: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she’s known and a path no one else has ever dared follow—between perfection and passion.

The premise to this story is very interesting, and I really liked the way everything was set up. The Society controlling everything, making the citizens dependent on it, making changes and interfering as it sees fit, etc. I loved the way the story unfolded as well as the direction it took. The pacing was spot on, the characters were interesting, and I thought the voice was just perfect.

In fact, there was only one thing that gave me pause...but it was a big thing, and bothered me throughout the story. And that was why Cassia went in the direction she did. I wanted to see more of her thought process here. I wanted to feel her curiosity in a palpable way, because I’m sure she was feeling it. But I didn’t feel it, and so subsequent actions felt...off. I think that with just a tiny bit more, this could have been a story that blew me out of the water. Instead, it was just good. :)

Since it was still quite good, I give it two thumbs up. And, I’ll be giving away my ARC next month. So stop by if you’re interested!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Infusing Your Story With Emotion

Last week, Katherine Jacobs from Roaring Brook Press showed us her brilliant ways to manipulate pacing within a story’s structure. Today, I want to share what Andrea Welch from Beach Lane Books had to say about putting emotion into your story.

Andrea focuses more on picture books, but I still found many nuggets of information even though I write novels. So I’ll share those nuggets with you.

She started out talking about what she looks for in a story, and needs it to capture her on the first page and evoke an emotional response. For picture books, this is essential because the book is so short. For novels, this is idea, but not always possible. But I would say that the reader would need to make an emotional connection by the end of the first chapter. The earlier, the better.

Next, she referred to a handout she’d given us, which was a list of questions she asked herself each time she assesses a story. I can’t reproduce it here, but I can summarize the highlights.

She said a story needs to have a clear audience, a compelling narrative arc, strong pacing (with fun page turns for picture books), and memorable and relatable characters. That’s really good, basic advice that we should all follow, but then she said this: the story needs to meet a developmental or emotional need.

That’s genius! We all have milestones to reach both developmentally and emotionally, no matter how old we are. They vary as we grow older, so some kids may experience what others don’t. But if your story meets one of those needs, then your readers will connect on a deeply emotional level and will come away loving your work. They may re-read it, and will likely recommend it to their friends. Most importantly, though, they will seek out your other books.

On that note, a picture book is designed to be read over and over again. So that’s the way it needs to be written. For novels, this sort of applies. Sure, there are some subjects that can have such a strong impact that the reader can only read it once, but it’ll never be forgotten. But others should be written such that the reader will get excited about reading it over and over again.

Another thing she said that are picture book specific is that the text needs to leave room for detailed artwork that also tells part of the story. Therefore, you should cut your description to the bare minimum. She also had some recommended reading (all picture books, of course):
Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus
Officer Buckle and Gloria
Winter Is The Warmest Season
Who Said Coo?
Fold Me A Poem

Even though they’re not novels, I plan to read all of these because I can still learn from them. A picture book has a compact narrative arc, and every single word is there for a purpose. And I’m going to figure out what that is.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

NaNoWriMo Update

I always schedule most of my posts weeks ahead of time.  That way I can focus on other things, like writing, reading other blogs, responding to those who comment on my blog, etc.  And I'm usually very good about not missing a post.

Not so today.

I got so caught up in NaNo that I just realized I didn't have a book review scheduled for today.  Um...oops.  :)  NaNo is taking all my spare thoughts every minute of every day.  Every chance I get, I sit down to write.  My house is a wreck, and I haven't folded laundry in two weeks.  If we need something to wear, we go rummaging through the basket of clean clothes.  :)  So it really shouldn't be surprising that I didn't have a post written for today.

But, I'm okay with it because I'm making good progress.  Considering how little time I get to sit down and write, I'm quite proud that I just passed 18k words last night.  I'll keep plugging away, and I'm still hopeful that I'll meet my goal of finishing the first draft by the end of the month.  We'll see, though.

So, no review this week.  I'll have one next week for sure, I promise. :)

ETA: Per LM Preston's suggestion, here's the first page of my NaNo project. Enjoy!

Chapter 1: The Bribe
Dad slid the small velvet box across the cracked formica table. “For you, Alexis. Neil says this is at least two thousand years old, probably older.”

I stared at the box. I really wanted to open it because I was nuts about antiques and other really old stuff. Whatever was in the box had come from Dad’s head archeologist—Neil, who was on a dig in Peru—and I was dying to see what was inside.

But it was tainted. This box, plus a sumptuous milkshake at our favorite diner, was nothing but a bribe to get me to stop sulking. I knew it. Dad knew it. And that was the only thing keeping me from snatching up his gift.

Then again, it was an unspoken bribe. Technically, that meant I could ignore Dad’s intent, take the box, and do as I pleased. It’s what he would do...which was reason enough for me not to.

So, fine. I would stop sulking for the next few hours. At least Dad knew he had to give me something for it. Especially after what he’d put me and Mom through.

I pried open the box, and a tear-drop-shaped piece of carved stone was nestled on a bed of satin. It was old, all right. The surface was pocked and worn, and you could barely see the scroll design etched into the surface. Not the best piece I’d ever seen, but still good.

I turned it over. It was heavier than I expected, and...warm. The way stone feels when it’s been sitting in the sun for a long time. My fingers kind of tingled, too.

A hole had been cut through the narrow part at the top, like someone had strung it onto something. A piece of jewelry? Strange. Jewelry from this time period in Peru was usually gold. That made the piece unique. I loved it instantly.

“I thought you’d like it.” A triumphant smile stretched across Dad’s face.

I suppressed a snort, snapped the box shut, and tucked it into my pocket.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Manipulating Pacing Via a Manuscript’s Structure

Every November, the Illinois chapter of SCBWI puts on a conference called Prairie Writer’s Day. I’ve gone to it for the past four years, and it just keeps getting better. This year was no different. The lineup consisted of Jennifer Mattson from Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Edward Necarsulmer IV from McIntosh & Otis Agency, Katherine Jacobs from Roaring Brook Press, Andrea Welch from Beach Lane Books, Marilyn Brigham from Marshall Cavendish, and Tamra Tuller from Philomel Books.

As I’ve done in years past, I’d like to share the highlights from each person’s presentation, starting with Katherine Jacobs. She gave an amazing talk about pacing, and how to keep it from sagging. She used brilliant charts (which I don’t have), but I’ll try to explain as best I can.

She started out by explaining the difference between plot and pacing: plot is what happens in the story, and pacing is how the story unfolds.

A well-paced story reveals the character and conflict at the same time. For example, she said she gets manuscripts all the time that introduces the character in his/her normal day, usually with back story or explanations behind certain relationships. She also gets manuscripts where there’s a very exciting plot, but we don’t know enough about the character to care about what’s happening to him/her. The perfectly structured pacing is one where we learn enough about the character to connect to him/her, and we also learn that the current situation is not normal.

She put up a picture of Freytag’s Pyramid, which looks like this:

Next, she went through each of the pieces and told us how much time we should be spending where.

The Exposition and Denouement were the shortest. The Exposition is used to set the scene and give us some indication that all is not well, and then we move straight into the Inciting Incident. The Denouement is used to tie up any loose ends after the story’s Resolution. Basically, once the story is resolved, we need to get out as quickly as we can. Otherwise we might wonder why we’re still reading.

The Rising Action is where the story spends most of its time. It’s where the events unfold, and the best way to pace it is with a sort of ebb-and-flow pattern: the stakes are raised, then we have a tiny drop; the stakes are raised again, then another tiny drop; etc. This keeps the tension mounting, but also gives us a little bit of time to relax. Too much tension and we may feel too exhausted to keep reading. So, the pacing should keep this pattern until the story reaches its climax.

The Falling Action consists of the events that happen as a result of the climax. This is shorter than the Rising Action, but longer than the Exposition or Denouement. Basically, here, we only want to know about how the characters are going to reach the resolution. Anything else isn’t necessary, or can be shown at another time.

She said that if you’re having trouble pacing your novel, then the best thing you can do is implement a very rigid structure. This will force you to face some difficult problems. After those have been solved, then she said it’s perfectly okay to abandon that structure. She also said that if the pacing of your main plot seems lacking, then you can use subplots to give it a boost. Once it’s going strong, then you can resolve the subplot and go full force with the main plot.

Pacing doesn’t usually happen in the first draft. It’s almost always honed and crafted in the revision process. A really good pacing structure is transparent to the reader—we will be so caught up in discovering what happens next that we won’t even notice how the author has put the story together.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Blue Fire by Janice Hardy

Part fugitive, part hero, fifteen-year-old Nya is barely staying ahead of the Duke of Baseer’s trackers. Wanted for a crime she didn’t mean to commit, she risks capture to protect every Taker she can find, determined to prevent the Duke from using them in his fiendish experiments. But resolve isn’t enough to protect any of them, and Nya soon realizes that the only way to keep them all out of the Duke’s clutches is to flee Geveg. Unfortunately, the Duke’s best tracker has other ideas.
Nya finds herself trapped in the last place she ever wanted to be, forced to trust the last people she ever thought she could. More is at stake than just the people of Geveg, and the closer she gets to uncovering the Duke’s plan, the more she discovers how critical she is to his victory. To save Geveg, she just might have to save Baseer—if she doesn’t destroy it first.

I read The Shifter earlier this year and loved it. Nya is my favorite kind of character: a spunky, proactive, reluctant hero. She doesn’t want attention or kudos, or even to be noticed, really. But when someone is in danger, she steps up without even thinking twice. I love her.

Blue Fire picks up almost right where The Shifter leaves off. And, it packs just as much of a punch as the first book. Lots of action, great characters, and interesting twists. It explores some great themes of preconceptions, relying on others, and knowing who you really are.  Some of the twists were fantastic and heightened the tension tenfold.  I loved it. This is definitely NOT a sophomore slump of a book.

If anything, the story was a bit too fast-paced. It wasn’t quite as smooth as The Shifter, and sometimes felt a little rushed. But still, the tension never let up and I was glued to the book from the first to last page. If I’d had the time, I’d have finished it in one sitting. I’m definitely looking forward to book three.

If you'd like to win an ARC of this book, go here and fill out the form.

Monday, November 08, 2010

NaNoWriMo--How's It Going?

So?  For those of you doing NaNo, how's it going?  Are you keeping with your goals?  Are you ahead?  Behind?  Are you able to ignore the fact that your words might be crap?  :)

Me?  I'm behind.  I set myself a goal of 1000 words a day, but so many unexpected things came up that I didn't even make half that.  Fortunately, last friday my youngest son went to a friend's house to play so I was able to get back up to speed.

I am currently close to 5500 words so far. I know, kind of pathetic, considering some of my writing buddies have more than twice that many words.  But hey, it's better than nothing, right?  :)

Although, the goal I set myself was to have a finished draft by the end of the month.  At this rate, it's going to be February before I'm done.  So I need to figure out a way to step up the pace...which means I'm going to have to roar like a mama bear whenever my writing time is threatened.  :)

Yeah, we'll see how that goes.  :)

Saturday, November 06, 2010

November Book Giveaway!

It's time to give some more books away!  I've got three ARCs this month:

Nightshade by Andrea Cremer
Calla Tor has always known her destiny: After graduating from the Mountain School, she'll be the mate of sexy alpha wolf Ren Laroche and fight with him, side by side, ruling their pack and guarding sacred sites for the Keepers. But when she violates her masters' laws by saving a beautiful human boy out for a hike, Calla begins to question her fate, her existence, and the very essence of the world she has known. By following her heart, she might lose everything--including her own life. Is forbidden love worth the ultimate sacrifice?

Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler
“Thou art the Black Rider. Go thee out unto the world.”
Lisabeth Lewis has a black steed, a set of scales, and a new job: she’s been appointed Famine. How will an anorexic seventeen-year-old girl from the suburbs fare as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?
Traveling the world on her steed gives Lisa freedom from her troubles at home: her constant battle with hunger, and her struggle to hide it from the people who care about her. But being Famine forces her to go places where hunger is a painful part of everyday life, and to face the horrifying effects of her phenomenal power. Can Lisa find a way to harness that power — and the courage to battle her own inner demons?

Blue Fire by Janice Hardy
Part fugitive, part hero, fifteen-year-old Nya is barely staying ahead of the Duke of Baseer’s trackers. Wanted for a crime she didn’t mean to commit, she risks capture to protect every Taker she can find, determined to prevent the Duke from using them in his fiendish experiments. But resolve isn’t enough to protect any of them, and Nya soon realizes that the only way to keep them all out of the Duke’s clutches is to flee Geveg. Unfortunately, the Duke’s best tracker has other ideas.
Nya finds herself trapped in the last place she ever wanted to be, forced to trust the last people she ever thought she could. More is at stake than just the people of Geveg, and the closer she gets to uncovering the Duke’s plan, the more she discovers how critical she is to his victory. To save Geveg, she just might have to save Baseer—if she doesn’t destroy it first.

To enter, fill out the form below, then come back on November 27th to see if you've won.  Good luck!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Mermaid’s Mirror by L.K. Madigan

Lena has lived her whole life near the beach—walking for miles up and down the shore and breathing the salty air, swimming in the cold water, and watching the surfers rule the waves—the problem is, she’s spent her whole life just watching.
As her sixteenth birthday approaches, Lena vows she will no longer watch from the sand: she will learn to surf.
But her father – a former surfer himself – refuses to allow her to take lessons. After a near drowning in his past, he can’t bear to let Lena take up the risky sport.
Yet something lures Lena to the water … an ancient, powerful magic. One morning Lena catches sight of this magic: a beautiful woman—with a silvery tail.
Nothing will keep Lena from seeking the mermaid, not even the dangerous waves at Magic Crescent Cove.
And soon … what she sees in the mermaid’s mirror will change her life ...

I enjoyed Madigan’s first novel, Flash Burnout, so much that I got excited when I saw this one coming out. I really liked Lena, and her situation was very interesting. The story unfolded at a good pace, and, once I started reading, I didn’t want to set it down.

The first half was fantastic. I was glued to the pages and loved finding out the mysteries of the sea as Lena did. And then, once we found out for sure why she was so drawn to the ocean, I couldn’t wait to see how it was all going to work out. The characters were interesting, and I loved that Lena didn’t want to go all ‘McSwoonypants’ over her boyfriend. McSwoonypants!! Love it!

Some SPOILERS below.

This story is basically about how the absolute choice of Mom vs. no Mom can be painful and terrifying. Lena’s mother went through this when she made her own choices of how to live her life, so I was hoping to see some growth in Lena when the same choice came around to her. Unfortunately, this is where the story disappointed me. Instead of standing up and fighting for what she wanted, and insisting that her grandparents compromise, she succumbs to them. Yes, she does a great thing for her father, but she hurts so many others in the process. It feels like she learned nothing. Like no one learned anything, actually, and that was kind of frustrating. Lena is a child of both land and sea, and, of anyone, she has the right to fight for both. Being forced to choose means she’s missing half her heritage. Very sad.

I understand there is a sequel coming, and it may address the concerns I have about the ending. But I was hoping for a bit more here. Still, it was an enjoyably light read.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Flashbacks and Back-Story

A few weeks ago, I started a new novel. I’ve already gone on and on about how I start my new projects, so I won’t rehash. But there are two aspects I’ve never touched on: back-story and flashbacks.

When we start a new story, we need to get the reader into the conflict as soon as possible. But we also need to bring him up to speed on what’s happened with the characters up to that point. This is usually done through back-story or flashbacks.

Just so we’re all working from the same page, here’s how I define these terms.
Back-story: a summary of an incident that has happened in the character’s past.
Flashback: taking the reader to the past incident and showing it to him through action and dialog.

Back-story is almost always necessary because the reader needs to know where the character is coming from. Flashbacks aren’t always necessary, but sometimes the reader needs to be in the moment to truly understand the character’s position. The key is to get that history across without interfering with the story.

A story needs to have forward momentum, meaning it needs to unfold at a steady pace. Flashbacks (and sometimes back-story) stop that momentum. They take the reader somewhere else and get him involved in a different story. Then that stops, too, and we’re brought back to the real story. If this happens too much, it can frustrate the reader because he’s being pulled in too many directions at once, and left wondering when he’s going to get back to the ‘real’ story.

In general, it’s smoother for the reader if back story can be conveyed in a sentence or two. This is hard to do, but it’s worth it because the reader won’t be skimming ahead to find the real story. In this case, less is definitely more because it has a greater impact on the reader.

Flashbacks are trickier because they can’t be conveyed in a sentence or two. If a flashback is absolutely necessary, then a good way to keep the reader from feeling jerked around is to start the flashback at the beginning of a chapter. That way, the reader is already at a natural break in the story (the previous chapter has ended, and he’s got some breathing room), so shifting into a flashback may not feel as jarring as it might in the middle of a chapter. The catch here is that you will need to make it clear from the beginning that this is a flashback—either put all text in italics, give a date or time frame of when this happened in the past, or change the point of view. This way, the reader will settle in without any confusion, and will also be expecting to switch back to the real story later on.

For me, personally, I avoid flashbacks because they are very hard to get right. And I make a conscious effort to limit my back-story to no more than two sentences. If I can’t get it all across in two sentences, then I figure out what the reader MUST know at that moment, and then I’ll move the rest to a later point in the story. It keeps things from sounding like an info dump.

How do you handle back-story? Flashbacks?