Love Letter to My Critique Group and #writemotivation check in

My critique partners are really the wizards behind the curtain when it comes to my writing. I may be getting compliments on how great my  latest YA novel is , but it would still be a floundering suggestion of a good idea without the combined effort of these wonderful ladies. They have helped me shape this manuscript by having me question some of my word choices, my character motivations, even my whole story arc until I was sure that I had it watertight. And then I started over and let them go at it again. They all push me to do better because they know I can my story to where I want it. They are all just as invested in its success as I am. And I feel the same about their stories.

I know not everyone’s search for a critique group has been a positive experience and I stumbled into this amazing mix of talented women quite by chance, still, I would encourage every writer out there to join a critique group. It may take you a few times to find the right chemistry, but once you do, once you all click together, it’s just magic. I can’t tell you how many times these women, I now count as some of my closest friends, have had to talk me down off the wall when I was at my worst – thinking that I’d never figure out how to fix a plot problem, that my writing was no good,  that I should just give up, etc.

And So…to Barbara, Helen, Marilyn, Sharon, and Stephanie I say I love you and thank you all so much for everything!

On to my #writemotivation goals:

1. Finish revision suggestions for interested agent and send off my FULL manuscript as soon as humanly possible. I tackled the hardest part of this revision – FINALLY! I’ve been struggling with writing a new opening for over a month, now. It was my fabulous critique partners who helped me push through this deadlock. I discussed my frustration with them at our monthly gathering this past week and they were very encouraging as always and something one of them said jarred the right wire loose and helped me get things stirred up in the right way. I kicked out the new opening scene the next morning. SO much weight lifted off my mind.
2 .Finish up novel revisions on my Middle Grade manuscript for November workshop and mail off copies to my group. DONE.
3. Read through manuscripts received from my group for the novel revision workshop. I put some of my fancy schmancy office supplies to work this week and started line-editing the first manuscript. Really enjoying it. I always learn so much when I edit others. 
4. Continue first draft of new YA WIP. No action on this project this week.
5. Exercise at least four times a week. I did play soccer with my kids a few times and my daughter had me doing this ridiculous dance with her one day, so you could say I was more active this week, but still not as much as I need to be. Keep cracking the whip, I’ll get there!

Hope you are doing well with your goals.

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Read, Read, READ!!! A Writer Gets Back on her Soapbox…but this time she’s called in some backup.

For those all of those aspiring children’s writers out there who still think they can write an authentic manuscript that kids will enjoy reading without ever cracking open a single middle grade or YA book themselves, think again. Consider reading as your new homework. Some books are master classes on the art of writing all by themselves. For those of us really obsessed nerdy types who actually enjoy reading, this is one of the best parts of our job. The rest of you need to trudge through it and do the work, even if you don’t like it.

You don’t  have to take my word for it; the importance of reading was another resounding theme during the SCBWI LA Summer Conference.  The overall message? If you want to be a writer, you have to read. Period. It was stated over and over throughout the weekend. READ! Read everything!

Karen Cushman, author of the Newbery Award winner The Midwife’s Apprentice, gave a wonderful keynote address about courting surprise. It was all about how we can find inspiration; the magic that turns words and pictures into a story.

Be curious, be aware, be open.

This applies to so many aspects of the writer’s life – look for accidental repetitions, images in your drafts, go for a walk, daydream. As it applies to reading, Cushman said it was important not only to read many, many books – “Read 100 books, read 1000 books, like what you want to write” – but also to read diverse topics. She said she reads as many books about writing as she does about dieting.  If you really enjoy a book, ask yourself why you love it.

I would also add read diverse genres. Although you should definitely read the most books in the genre for which you want to write, you should read outside of your area as well. The more diverse the creative influences, the bigger the pool to draw from for inspiration.

Clare Vanderpool, author of the Newbery Award winner Moon Over Manifest, discussed how universal the need for stories is in her keynote speech. She said, “We learn more not by dissecting books but by immersing ourselves in stories. We all have this need for a connection to story. It is through stories that we find our bearings.”

I loved this. Story immersion? Sign me up. Emotional connection? Ah, I’m yours for life.

As a writer, I find I don’t always have to analyze every story I enjoy to see why it works, what plot devices were used to move it along at the right pace. The more I read, the more I intuitively absorb how a good story should ebb and flow. My writing reflects this for the most part. If something’s not right with a manuscript – mine or a critic partner’s – it usually starts with a gut reaction of something feeling off.

Ari Lewin, editor at GP Putnam’s Sons, discussed during a breakout session that she could detect a writer’s level of skill and competency from a query as well as how much they read.“All of you should be reading so much! Sometimes I read things and can tell that you’re not reading.”

That just blew me away. My writing could show that I’m not reading enough? Like a writer’s DNA map spelling out all my faults? Yikes. I felt naked just sitting in the room with her. I wanted to cover up with a big fat copy of Anna Karenina.

Jill Corcoran, agent with the Herman Agency, when answering a question during the Agent Panel about the path she would recommend for a new, unskilled writer said, “You have to learn your craft. If you read a lot of books, you will discover your own voice.”

What a concept, eh? Read enough books and you’ll find your own voice? I love it! Are you a writer who struggles with voice? Ask yourself if you’re reading enough. (I know, I know, I talked about voice ad nauseum in the last post, but if you’re one who’s struggling with voice, maybe this is something that could help.)

Eugene Yelchin, illustrator and author of the Newbery Honor book Breaking Stalin’s Nose, expanded on this point a bit during the Picture Book Panel. When discussing the issue of trends in picture books, he said,“When you read tons of books, research them and say, ‘Can I be a part of that?’ It’s still you.”

I thought that was an interesting point. Even if you read tons of books, research them and figure out what makes them tick, when you go to write your own books, what comes out will be all your own; your own story told in your own voice, filtered through your own unique experiences. It all goes back to:

Be curious, be aware, be open …and read!

Okay, okay, so I’ve brow-beaten you into wanting to read – have I got any suggestions?

Of course! I have a whole page all about the books I’ve read so far this year.

There were also several book suggestions that I managed to scribble down furiously during the conference:

  • Editor Farrin Jacobs was discussing characteristics of enduring stories and she recommended The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall and The Giver by Lois Lowry as stories with emotional truths of life.
  • Editor Neal Porter gave First the Egg by Laura Vaccaro Seeger as an example of an enduring story.
  • Three books that influenced author/illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi were The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum, Peter Pan and Wendy by James M Barrie, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
  • Editor Krista Marino recommended The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan as having one of the most captivating first pages she’s ever read. She also recommended Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn as an adult novel with great tension, a real page turner.
  • Agent Linda Pratt touted Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby as YA version of Water for Elephants. She gave it as an example of the type of realistic fiction she is looking for.
  • Clare Vanderpool recommended Mystery & Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Connor – an essay collection on writing.
  • Editor Ari Lewin recommended Chime by Franny Billingsley as an example of what she’s looking for. She also mentioned the following as pleasure reads: The Passage by Justin Cronin, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles, The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, and The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart.

What about you? Do you have any reading suggestions?

A Brief Discussion about V-O-I-C-E and #writemotivation check in

One thing you hear so often from agents and editors about what grabs their attention most when they read a manuscript is VOICE.

They will even overlook plot problems and still offer you a book deal if you have a strong sense of VOICE. And yet ask these same publishing professionals to define this VOICE and…well, they know it when they see it.

So, stop fooling around! Tell us! What is VOICE? How do we get VOICE if we don’t have it?

Here are some of the quotes and comments from the SCBWI LA Summer Conference:

“If I’m picturing you at your computer typing away, it’s not an authentic voice. Take specific experiences of perspective of a character and translate them naturally.” Jordan Brown, editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books.

“That which makes an author unique – style. A reflection of who you are.” Laura Godwin, Vice President and publisher at Henry Holt. She said this is is a skill that you can hone. the better you know who you are, the better you will know who your characters are.

“Speak authentically. By knowing your character well, you’ll speak through them.” Farrin Jacobs, editorial director at HarperCollins Children’s Books. She said that she automatically rejects books that are “too voicey”.

(Are you kidding me? A manuscript can have too much VOICE?)

Elise Howard, editor and publisher at Algonquin Books, instead of giving a definition, read Dan Gutman’s faculty bio for the conference as an example of voice which starts out like this: “Dan Gutman was born in a log cabin in Illinois and used to write by candlelight with a piece of chalk on a shovel. Oh, wait a minute. That was Abraham Lincoln…”

Elise added onto Farrin’s comments about the manuscripts that are “too voicey” by saying that the major issue with Middle Grade manuscripts she is seeing is that too many of them are in first person with a voice that is too sophisticated for the age of the character they are portraying. she suggested changing the POV to third person which allows for a wider perspective than first person and can help fix the problem.

Still confused?

Me too.

Then I attended a breakout session with Linda Pratt, an agent from the Wernick & Pratt Agency, where she talked about readying your manuscript for submission. During this session, she discussed some of the main elements that you should take into consideration during your creative process. One of those things was VOICE. Here is how she defined it:

Voice is the element of writing that brings the reader into a conversation with the narrator or the characters. Voice is the key way for a writer to ‘show’ rather than tell. An authentic voice will use: inflections, word choices, and contextual references that ultimately tell the reader who that narrator and/or character is without specifically spelling it out.

She said that VOICE comes through in dialogue, the way the character speaks.

For me, this was the best definition of VOICE I’d ever heard. Linda went on to give some examples of how using word choices would effect the VOICE of a story. This is different from writing in dialect. Knowing where a person is from – knowing their background – should effect the word choices you make. People in Wisconsin talk differently than people in Arizona. Their daily experiences are different.

Here’s an example Linda gave:

When discussing the fact that her dog seemed to be in some discomfort because his, ahem, nether region was perspiring, she hypothesized how two very different relatives would respond.

“Why, Kim, I think Henry’s balls are chafing.” Her mother-in-law from Louisville, Kentucky

“Ya’ dog’s balls are sweating.” Her brother from NY.

Distinct differences in voice.

Keep this in mind when you are writing your manuscript. Listen for the distinct voice in your head that is your character. When you’re writing, think about your word choices. Knowing your character’s background, would your character naturally say the words that you are putting into her mouth?

I hope that helps clear up some confusion and gives you all a better understanding of the elusive animal that is VOICE. Let me know what you think.

Now for my #writemotivation goals, week two is cracking right along.

1. Finish revision suggestions for interested agent and send off my FULL manuscript as soon as humanly possible. I did start the final run-through near the end of the week. I have a ways to go.
2 .Finish up novel revisions on my Middle Grade manuscript for November workshop and mail off copies to my group. DONE.
3. Read through manuscripts received from my group for the novel revision workshop. No progress this week. I did buy some fancy colored flags to use for my notes. Forget expensive purses and matching shoes, give me sticky notes and highlighters. Ahhh! Office supplies. 🙂
4. Continue first draft of new YA WIP. I did write a new beginning pitch for this. Yes, I wrote the pitch BEFORE I finished the story. I’ve hardly started it, actually. (Thank you to the person who gave me this wonderful idea. I read it on one of your blogs, but I’m so brain dead right now, I can’t remember which one – if it’s you, please remind me so I can ping back to the post and share it!)
5. Exercise at least four times a week. Ummm…look! Dinosaurs! (Damn, that worked on my godson when he was three.) I only made it twice last week. 😦 Really need to drag my butt out the door more often.

Here’s to progress on most of the goals, wahoo! Here’s to getting that revision done soon, oh yeah! How are you doing this week?

#writemotivation month check in…and Things Beginning Writers Don’t Know

Header image and thumbnail photograph by Hugh Lee and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. http://www.flickr.com/photos/sahlgoode/

Hooray! I’m so excited it’s another #writemotivation month! Not just because I’ve got some serious goals to get through and I’m going to need a LOT of cheering and cookies to get through them, but because last month was wrought with pitfalls and illnesses and too much time away from these wonderful people who help me stay focused and laugh while keeping my outlook positive.

On to the goals!

1. Finish revision suggestions for interested agent and send off my FULL manuscript as soon as humanly possible. This is for my YA manuscript that I’ve been working on and submitting for the past few months. I had an amazing face to face critique in LA – just such a wonderful conversation with this agent –  I want to get it right and send her my absolute best.
2 .Finish up novel revisions on my Middle Grade manuscript for November workshop and mail off copies to my group. DONE.
3. Read through manuscripts received from my group for the novel revision workshop. Received the last one this week. Will take my time with these.
4. Continue first draft of new YA WIP. I want to keep working on something else once I’ve sent off my full manuscript so this will most likely be a goal I start near the end of the month.
5. Exercise at least four times a week – yeah, it’s time to step it up another day.

How are you all doing with your goals?

I’m also supposed to work on marketing ideas for my YA novel. The agent gave me some pitch idea homework I need to figure out. I’m constantly thinking about that, mulling ideas over in my head.  And a new title for my book. Apparently Institutionalized may not grab the attention of the average teen browsing the shelves. One should never get too attached to one’s working title. I’ve got some ideas I’m kicking around, but none that really wow me, yet.

This reminds me of some other things that I learned at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference that I wanted to share. A little segment I want to call…

Things Beginning Writers Don’t Know:

The first thing that beginning writers don’t know about how the acquisitions process works.

We all may know that it is hard to get published, but what beginning writers may not know is that even when an editor loves a manuscript and wants to buy it, they don’t always get to say “yes” right away. There’s this process called acquisitions that most manuscripts have to go through. Although each house is different, most publishing houses hold acquisitions meetings about twice a month. The editor must send out a proposal for the manuscript they want to buy, along with the manuscript, in advance of the meeting, as well as something called a profit and loss statement. This is “advanced algebra in a horrible excel spreadsheet” as Ari Lewin, editor at GP Putnam, described it and it spits a figure, projecting how much the house can expect to make on the book.

At the acquisitions meeting, everyone involved in saying “yes” gathers to review all the potential manuscripts. At some houses, this could be as many as twenty people including heads of imprints, editors, associate editors, the art director, the publisher, someone from marketing, sales, and publicity, etc. It takes a short time to say “no”. The books right on the edge are the hardest to decide on and may require more discussion and more meetings.

To learn more about acquisitions, I’d suggest reading Harold Underdown’s excellent article entitled “The Acquisitions Process” originally published in The Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market back in 2010. He even shows what a sample acquisitions proposal looks like.

The second thing beginning writers don’t know is that they should be prepared to deliver EVERY YEAR after their first book is published.

Josh Adams, agent at Adams Literary, said this in the Agent Panel and went on to explain that there is a higher demand on writers; an increase on demand in social media, with school visits. You will also be expected to be active in marketing.

Jill Corcoran, agent at the Herman Agency, echoed this sentiment and added, “Books are coming out faster.”

Linda Pratt, agent with Wernick & Pratt Agency, expanded the discussion to talk about how second book choices for new writers are even more important than their first. Second book choices need to be weighed carefully. “You can’t always write the more obscure book or whatever you want – what you’re passionate about. You have to be a little more pragmatic. You have to consider your sales track.” Publishing houses are less likely to take a risk on an author whose first book sold poorly unless their second book shows more sales potential.

So think about how long it has taken you to perfect this current work that you are submitting to agents. Two years? Five? Do you have other projects you are working on while you are submitting? Are you thinking ahead about your next writing project? You should be.

The third thing beginning writers don’t know is how small the publishing world is, and that being unprofessional can close doors.

Josh Adams said during the Agent Panel that, “We see a lot of unprofessionalism out there and people burn bridges. The worst thing a client can do is close doors.”

Jill Corcoran seconded this: “You cannot bad mouth editors (or others in the industry) online. Be careful.” She suggested that you untag yourself from unprofessional pictures on Facebook or other social media and delete any negative content.

It DOES hurt to be rejected, but it happens to all of us. Remember that this is a business and conduct yourself accordingly. The publishing world IS very small; negative and unprofessional behavior does get noticed and word is easily spread.

The fourth and final tidbit of wisdom I am imparting to new writers is…you won’t earn a lot of money.

Shocker. But you’re not in this for the money, right? You write because you have to, because it’s your passion. If not…there’s your cue to exit.

As Josh Adams said, “You shouldn’t expect that you can quit your day job.” He also said that you should look at your career long term. School visits and multiple rights that a good agent should help you maximize can add to your income.

Jill Corcoran also said something really important: “The advance is not the end-all. You want to get to the royalties.”

So what does she mean? Don’t we all dream of that big, fat advance?

The advance is just a promise.

A bet.

A bet against how many copies you will sell.

You don’t start really making money until you sell more than that original promise. And what about your next book? You have to think about your career long-term, remember? If you DON’T sell enough copies of your first book to meet that promise, that advance, you’re going to have a much harder time getting the second book sold. The goal is to sell enough copies to get to the royalties. That’s where things really start to pay off. That shows the publishing world that you are worth betting on; you are worth the risk.

To recap; publishing is slow, painful, it asks you to work your ass off without always loving you back, (It really IS like raising a child) and it doesn’t always bring you riches. You have to do it because you love it, because you’re passionate about it, and because you’re in it for the long haul.

And Now for Something Completely Different – Blog Tag!

The new season of Dr. Who starts tonight and I’m too excited. This sort of looks like they’re playing tag, doesn’t it?

I’m so slow at playing this game of blog tag it might as well be freeze tag. The lovely Literary Tiger at The Tiger’s Eye blog, tagged me at the beginning of last month. I finally found some time to play so, here we go!

The Rules:

1. I must post the rules. (Voila!)
2. I must answer the questions the tagger listed for me. (I will answer, but I may not do it truthfully, you be the judge.)
3. I must create or reuse 11 questions for those I tag.  (I may tinker with them a bit as they aren’t as topical now – totally my fault!)
4. I must tag 11 people. (That…is a lot of people. I may fudge this one.)
5. I must let them know they’ve been tagged. (Even I can’t screw up these simple instructions.)

The Questions:

1. What do you want to be when you grow up?

Wiser.

2. What is your favorite thing to spend money on?

Books. Books and chocolate.

3. What time of day do you read/write the most?

Reading? All times. If a book is too good to put down, I don’t. I’ve lost sleep over books.

Writing? My best writing is done in the morning, but I also write throughout the day when there are no distractions *cough* family members at home. When the kids get back from school, the writing stops.

4. When you’ve had a hard or a bad day, what makes you feel better?

Venting about it with my husband while he rubs my feet and I eat chocolate. Beer’s good too.

5. If you could own any kind of creature (mythical or not) what would it be?

 I’d love to have my own daemon like in The Golden Compass. A constant animal companion that knew me like no other and could talk to me when I needed to work things out? Awesome! I’d hope it’d be a snow leopard or something equally bad ass, not a bug or a finch. What an outstanding idea Philip Pullman had there, eh?

6. Are you an extrovert or introvert?

A little of both really. It depends on the situation.

I used to be such an introvert at conferences; I’ve forced myself to be more social. I hate schmoozing, but it’s necessary. I love talking to new people, I just hate just starting up conversations with total strangers. I feel like I’m forcing myself on them, but hey, that’s what you’re supposed to do. It feels so unnatural to me. I like sit back and observe people in crowds. You can learn a lot from people-watching.

7. If you could be anybody for just a day, who would it be and why?

One of the kids from Jersey Shore. To apologize to the our nation’s youth and tell them to it’s cool to be smart and start reading more and that they should all stop tanning before they die.

The Doctor. Just because it would be too cool to put into words. (I mean, why waste an opportunity like that, really.)

8. If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?

This may seem odd, but I’d like some kind of zapping power like the POV gun from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie. So many conflicts arise from people not understanding where the opposite side is coming from. A few zaps from the gun and things could be resolved, yes?

If nothing else, my household could be more peaceful.

9. What’s your favorite Olympic event?

Swimming, gymnastics, and volleyball are my favorites to watch. Not bad outfits either.

10. What were your best and worst subjects at school?

Best? English and History. I was in a GT program in high school and had the same amazing teachers in a block for two years. To teach GT well, you have to be fantastic and special yourself and those ladies definitely were that. They let us stretch and grow and be our weird little special selves in their classrooms. I will always remember Mrs. Harris and Mrs. Franklin. Always.

Worst? P.E. was compulsory when I went to school. I hated this, so I chose to rebel by not going. I mean a section on swimming? In high school? What could be more mortifying to girls with negative body issues? I skipped this class so much that I had to write a report on why my P.E. teacher shouldn’t fail me. My writing skills saved my ass and I eked by with a ‘D’.

11. What’s one thing you want to learn before you die (e.g. a musical instrument, a language, how to perform brain surgery, e.t.c.)?

I never want to stop learning. There are so many things to know! Like, how does sound stick to plastic discs so we can listen to it in a CD player? I get that it works, I just don’t understand HOW. I’ve got a million questions like that rattling around in my brain, don’t get me started.

The Lucky Tagged:

AG at  Nerd Couture

Stephanie Theban at Stories. Read’em. Write’em.

Mike_Reverb

Vik Lit at Scribblings of an Aspiring Author

Laura Stanfill

Andrew at Dyadic Echoes

Cricketmuse

Jocelyn Rish

Katharina Brendel at Portable Magic

MY QUESTIONS: (for the chosen ones)

1. What do you want to be when you grow up?

2. Were you ever afraid of the dark or anything under your bed?

3. What time of day do you read/write the most?

4. When you’ve had a hard or a bad day, what makes you feel better?

5. If you could own any kind of creature (mythical or not) what would it be?

6. Are you an extrovert or introvert?

7. If you could be anybody for just a day, who would it be and why?

8. If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?

9. What’s the worst trouble you ever got into or the best thing you ever got away with as a kid?

10. What were your best and worst subjects at school?

11. What’s one thing you want to learn before you die (e.g. a musical instrument, a language, how to perform brain surgery, e.t.c.)?

Have fun! I look forward to reading your answers.