Portfolio Proceedings

Post updated on 11.16.15

This is a new portfolio piece I've just finished. I used this month's SVS 3rd Thursday Critiques prompt:

"As Charly walked deeper into the forest, he heard singing and dancing. He peeked out from behind a huge tree and saw..." 

I began with a detailed under-drawing:

And then I colored the piece digitally. I first tried out this (unfinished) daylight scene before switching gears and settling on the night scene: 

Which direction do you prefer? 

Update: Turns out I won the challenge by SVS and so I was thrilled to receive an online critique of the piece, which can be viewed here, along with critiques of the two other winners' pieces: 

I then tweaked my piece, and here is the result. I'm much happier with it now!


The Liberation of the "Shitty First Draft"

Years of editing have taught me a great deal about writing, and I’m very grateful for it. But an editor’s path can be a tricky one when it comes to writing her own book. As so many of you who are inclined toward self-editing will know, it’s so easy to get mired in the morass of perfecting each paragraph in chapters one to three, when you really know you should be leaping with abandon though the narrative.

Anne Lamott, in Bird By Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life (what’s not to love with a title like that?), speaks of the importance of allowing yourself to write “shitty first drafts”:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep       you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.  

Possibly you, like me, have more than one manuscript that has been well and truly stymied before the halfway mark by agonizing over individual scenes (or, more often, sentences) before you have the basic plot down. If one is lucky enough to feel the rush of love that comes with a new project, one should keep going and not fuss it to death a few steps in. There will be time enough for revision and the subtleties of each phrase later on. Plenty of time to fill in the richer details. Loads of time, in fact, as revision should be at least nine tenths of writing a book. (If you love revision and editing, as I do, that’s great news. But if you’re past the honeymoon phase with your project, or if you never really fell in love in the first place, you’d still be well advised to forge ahead and not edit. You’re already on the edge of a soul-sucking quagmire.)

I'm finding it's very freeing to allow yourself to write stuff that sounds awful (rather like this sentence). I’m taking my own advice on this project I started a few weeks ago, and I’m writing mad wonderful garbage. At least, if I were to read it as an editor, I’d think, “Oh dear, we do have quite a bit of work to do here, possibly starting with the basics of sentence construction, but there’s something special about the story.” But I’m not editing; I’m just getting scraps of scenes down. I’m letting characters say what they want to say even if it’s repetitive or nonsensical right now. I’m catching incomplete impressions, jotting unfinished and ridiculous sentences, and I’m ignoring my spellchecker until the end of each writing session. I’m letting the story reveal itself as I forge about it without stopping—and lo and behold, it is.  

The only time I’m returning to a paragraph is when something additional or better occurs to me in a flash of inspiration as I pass by it. I must admit there have been a few sentences that I have tweaked, but only—and this is the kicker—ONLY when a better way to say something comes to me as part of this naturally energized process, that is, only within the pure flow of inspiration. If I catch myself starting to fuss, I stop and move away from the paragraph or scene. Among other strategies and even more strategies I’ve discussed before, try simply scrolling through the manuscript or through your notes until something else catches your attention. Turn your focus to another scene altogether, whichever tugs you hardest, and then start writing forward afresh. 

Your draft might sound like muck, but you’ll be finding your way across the narrative terrain, though possibly chaotically. Sure, you might arrive muddy, disheveled, feathers askew, but you’ll be creating a map, almost by default, which you can later refine and revise. You’ll know the basic way, relatively quickly, and with MUCH more FUN. It doesn't mean you won’t write some dead-ends on your map along the way, because there will be some, of course. 

Move on through that mucky, messy, probably non-linear first draft, before the energy and the will to make the journey flee. Before you lose sight of what you really wanted to write about. Before the maps for possible plot-lines are so thick around you, you cannot see your way past them. Before you're afraid to even try. Don’t get bogged down planning the trip and what you might need along the way, or whether you even know where your story is going. Start somewhere (wherever you are is just fine), and just get on your way. Because it’s extraordinary how you tend to get where you want to go, if you keep your gaze fixed on the horizon, stare less at the stuff by the wayside... and just start writing.

Originally posted on cleverbirdy.blogspot.com on 10.29.13 

The Path to Publication

Recently, a writer asked me to be honest about whether he should continue to pursue writing or not. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked that question. It always catches me very off-guard, but it does make me want to say what follows:

I’m really not the one you should be asking. 

It would be the height of arrogance and stupidity for me—or anyone else—to suggest someone not pursue writing. We all start somewhere, and we all have quite a learning curve. Everybody. If we write, it’s because we are writers. And so we must write (or paint or sculpt or garden or whatever) or shrivel up and die a bitter, strangled creative/spiritual death.

But should we ‘pursue’ it…which I assume really means ‘pursue publication’?

When I was a younger, less experienced editor (and probably thought I knew more than I did, as is natural), I worked with a gentleman who was determined to be an author. He was incredibly eager, earnest, and gung-ho, but he just seemed to be starting in a difficult place. His work seemed a bit… well, unpublishable. But he just wanted to keep trying, no matter what the critique.

And so he did.

We kept working together, multiple drafts of first one book  and then another, both of us learning much along the way. Beneath the unpublishable veneer of what he was doing, there was something wonderful and inspired and rich in what he thought and felt and cared about. But it was just all coming out in ways that were not working at all. In truth, I didn’t think his chances of ever getting published were very good. I was almost certain he wouldn’t, in fact, even though I wanted it for him. But he loved it and wanted it for himself, and that’s all he saw in front of him (or so it seemed to me). So no matter what, he just kept on.

I don’t know what ups and downs he went through on his private journey as a writer, but I guess they’re the ups and downs we all go through. The self-doubt and the frustration, the elation and late nights. All I saw was his consistent drive, the revising, the eagerness, the upbeat attitude, the desire, the focus, and the pleasant, grateful willingness to listen intently, to learn every single thing he could. When he was ready he let go of ideas he’d tried and which he now understood weren't working. He tried new things that incorporated new knowledge. He was willing and ego-free and hardworking.

And he quickly proved me wrong. He grew. His work became good, then really good (in my humble opinion). It was amazing and wonderful to watch. He soon did what I had not managed to do at that point: he found a publisher who wanted his book, signed the contract, and produced a very saleable story with a lovely heart and appealing vehicle. I’ve never seen a writer with such a short journey to (traditional) publication. (Sure, it took years, but not even close to double digits like most of us.) 

He might well have wondered if he’d ever be a published writer. He never discussed that with me. Yet he knew he would, no matter how long or how hard the journey. He was the only one he needed to ask. 

Do you use Word’s ‘embedded comments’ feature? It’s a tool I use every day when I am editing, but I also find it extremely handy when I am writing.

I often want to leave a note to myself about a character or a plot idea or some back-story, but not stop to find the place where it fits or break the flow of the section I’m writing. Sometimes it’s a possible rewording I might like for the sentence I’m working on, or just some added info about the scene that I haven’t yet found the right spot for. So being able to quickly throw in an embedded comment with that extra information is a very nifty thing.

Don’t know how to use them? It’s easy:

In Word 2007, select review from the tool bar:

Select the text or place where you’d like to put the embedded comment:               

 

And then select ‘New Comment’ from the toolbar:

And the comment will be inserted on your text, as well as the comment box opening up to the left (or below if you have your options set up that way). Then just type your comment in:

Comments can easily be removed by selecting ‘delete’:

Even if you don’t have this version of Word, the process is pretty much identical once you have located the editing/review functions on your tool bar.

It makes my writing life so much easier, and I hope you will find it helpful, too! 

Point of View, Yes, POV!

Well, I’m doing it. I’m throwing my two cents worth into the ring labeled “POV.” It’s something I’ve considered blogging about for a long time, as it’s one of the biggest, gangliest, toothiest, hairiest, wartiest, most frequent, and most significant technical issues I come across when I am editing and teaching. Some of what I am going to say is absolutely personal opinion, but it’s a studied personal opinion, developed over years of being a kid and a reader, a lifetime of reading kids’ books, and many years of editing and teaching.

Ok. So. I rarely feel that an omniscient POV works in books for kids. I am personally not a fan of omniscient POV’s in books for kids. (Note that: books for kids. Bold. Italics. Underline. Fiction for adults is another matter entirely.) BUT, there are notable exceptions.

Reading as the kid I used to be (which is partially how I approach all kidlit) and reading as an avid adult reader of kidlit (as I am now), plus reading as an editor (which I get paid to do), I almost invariably feel a greater connection with the protagonist of a story when scenes in which he/she is present are written in either first person or limited third person. I think I’m far from alone in this, and I’m certain this is why you really don’t see omniscient POV’s all that often in kidlit today, even in fantasy.

POV? Huh? Limited whatsit? Ok, let’s back up a bit.

Point of View, POV for short and when scribbled in the margins of manuscripts, is the technical term for describing who is telling the story and what their relation to the story is. This person, if a character in the story, is called the viewpoint character. The only other person it can be is the author.     ~ Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft

First Person:  “I” is the viewpoint character. All information comes through “I”’s perspective. We can only know what "I" thinks, feels, sees, hears, etc. We infer what other characters think through what they say, how they behave, and through what “I” thinks about them.

Limited Third Person: “he” or “she” is the view point character and tells the story. Only what they think, feel, perceive etc. is told.  We infer what other characters think through what they say, how they behave, and through what “he” or “she” thinks/observes about them.

Tactically, limited third is identical to first person. It has exactly the same essential limitation: that nothing can be seen, known, or told except what the narrator sees, knows, and tells. That limitation concentrates the voice and gives apparent authenticity. ~ Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft

Omniscient: Numerous viewpoint characters. Writer can tell us what anyone is thinking/feeling and interpret that behavior. Sometimes narrator has a strong voice.

Sometimes the omniscient narrator has a strong voice… in fact, unless the narrator has a strong voice, I really don’t feel an omniscient POV works. Yes, that’s my opinion.

In fact, I think POV shifts are fraught with danger and must be done with skill and complete awareness—if at all.

It’s also very easy to slip outside the viewpoint character’s POV without realizing or to hover half-in and half-out—to not be deep enough inside that POV. ALL INFORMATION (unless using omniscient) must come through the viewpoint character’s emotional, physical, cultural, psychological etc. filters. Yep, in my opinion.

I feel that:

  • When your main character is present, everything should be seen through his or her or its limited third person POV. Or first person, of course. Other POVs are acceptable in scenes when your protagonist is not present, but there should be far less of them.

Why?

  • To go from protagonist’s POV to those of secondary characters is actually “head-hopping."
  • We may never manage to fully and completely connect with your protagonist. You may relegate your protagonist (whom the reader expects to know inside and out) to a minor character at times.
  • POV changes and many characters’ POVs may make an your story unnecessarily frantic or confusing at times. Your young reader may have trouble keeping track.
  • When you step outside your character and refer to them as the girl for example, that also has the effect of taking us even further outside her POV, away from her experience, as he doesn’t think of himself as “the girl.” She would think of himself (in third person) as “she” or by her name.
  • As a (young) reader, I don’t want to go right into an antagonists’ POV. I don’t want or need to go into minor character’s POVs, and if I do, I may be confused about their importance to the story.
  • I want to stay in the head of the protagonist (when he/she’s in the scene), and that’s where my greatest empathy wants to lie. I want that chance to feel empathy for the protagonist, but it takes contact and consistency of POV (when he/she is in the scene) for me to care about him/her. I want to experience the story through the hero, so I can be the hero for a little while.
  • If you go into the mind of another character when your protagonist is in the scene, you distance me from your protagonist. You don’t give me a chance to see the world, other characters, and the action through your protagonist’s eyes, so I lose that connection with him/her. Just as he/she has to do, I want to be able and should be able to infer what other characters are thinking and feeling by the way they act. If their feelings and thoughts are ambiguous, that forces an even greater empathy with your protagonist, as we are fully immersed in his/her experience—even if his/her experience is one of confusion or lack of full knowledge. We get the chance to be a confused, troubled young person/animal-person/alien creature/etc. under great duress.
  • By extension, I would rather view an antagonist from an external view and make up my own mind about what he/she is thinking and feeling by the way he/she behaves, just as the hero has to do.
  • As a (young) reader I don’t care what most adults think and I don’t want to be inside their boring grown-up heads. I am interested in the concerns of kids my own age. I don’t care very much about politics or grown-up relationship stuff like that unless it’s all part of an exciting plot, which is presented very clearly to me in a way I can conceptualize through my young perspective, without too much boring background or stuff about the weird, boring stuff adults do, talk, and think about. Again, that means don’t let me inside adult heads. I care more about what kids (especially the protagonist) are thinking and feeling.     

In my opinion, this is one of the things that makes Harry Potter so incredibly successful. Rowling (after some interesting POV stuff as she establishes character and voice in the first book) is a master of POV. And she does extraordinary amounts by staying exclusively in Harry’s limited third person POV (except when he is not present in a scene…and that’s quite rare, but she handles the POV change in a separate chapter). We never go into Hermione’s head or Ron’s, but we know what they’re thinking and feeling through Harry’s experience of them. And we especially don’t go into Snape’s or Voldemort’s heads…but that does not limit our understanding or experience of them in any way. It does, in fact, enhance it while keeping the tension between protagonist and antagonist high. 

For a very successful example of limited third person with two protagonists, take a look at the first in The 39 Clues series, The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan. The two characters are a brother and sister and their two POV’s are handled in separate alternating chapters.

If you stay in your protagonist’s POV when he is present in a scene, that means we cannot know what your other characters are thinking or feeling unless they show us by what they say in dialogue, or by what they do physically: facial expressions, movements, reactions etc.

In scenes in which your protagonist is not present, then you might take a more third person omniscient approach, but really I’d aim to avoid what’s called ‘head-hopping,’ even in those scenes, and mainly just show (yes, show, not tell) us how the characters are feeling or what they are thinking by what they say in dialogue and how they act.

Omniscient POVs are VERY tricky to do well, and they’re something you don’t see that often, really. There are some books with omniscient narrators on the market and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a fairly well known example, and then there’s Kate DiCamillo’s brilliant The Tale of Despereaux—at least those are the two which spring readily to my mind. One thing you’ll notice about those books is that the narrator has a very strong and distinctive voice.

If a writer wants to develop an omniscient POV, then they would be (again, in my opinion) advised to develop a stronger narrator’s/storyteller’s voice, but they should be be wary.

Will an added voice detract from the story and style? Is it something that the story doesn’t actually need? Is there already quite enough going on (including a lot of characters and subplot points to keep track of), without needing an additional speaker’s voice into the mix?

I recently posted on my Facebook page an article about head-hopping (http://www.floggingthequill.com/flogging_the_quill/2004/12/an_executive_ed.html) and I expressed my feelings about successful omniscient in children’s fiction, which some very well-known editors and agents immediately went on to share on their pages, agreeing heartily that head-hoping has no place in kidlit. So, as you see, it’s widely felt.

Here are some links about POV in general:

Now, I expect a bit of spirited debate about this. What do you think? 

The Wretched Curse of Rhyming Verse

The curse will give you ugly spots,
The curse will give you twitches,
The curse will make you quite confused
And give you heaving glitches.

Your words will come out backwards
And you’ll maybe lose the plot.
By then of course it’s much too late,
Diagnosis: Published? Not!

Symptom #1: Ugly spots. Imperfect rhymes are a pox on a rhyming text.

A good rhyming dictionary will help you find the best, most meaningful rhyme, and here’s an excellent online resource. There may be no rhyme for what you want to say, so try saying it differently. Or say something different.

Symptom #2: Twitches: irregular and jerky meter makes one dizzy.

There is perhaps no clearer evidence to an editor that you have the Curse than an irregular, changing and awkward meter. Try reading your text aloud into a recording device. Have someone else read it to you. This will help you define where the problems lie.

Symptom #3: Confusion: Um, are you talking to me?

Many authors who write verse find they have an issue with changing POV (Point of View), feeling compelled to suddenly and inexplicably address the audience directly or change narrators in order to make their lines rhyme. Just as quickly the urge retreats and the author returns to the initial POV, but by then the damage has been done.

Symptom #4: Heaving Glitches: You won’t know whether you’re coming or going.

Structural changes are an enormous problem for the rhymers: for example, changing from rhyming every second line to rhyming every line. Or every third line. And often within the same stanza. Structural changes should be carried out with intent. They should be repeated. They should say something about the narrative, pace, or emotional changes occurring within the story. More on rhyme schemes here. 

Symptom #5: Speaking backward: Sayeth to me, what art thou trying to?

Rhymers also must be wary of using words and phrases with either inappropriate or obscure meanings… or back-to-front phrasing… or archaic speech patterns… simply because they rhyme.

Symptom #6: Completely losing the plot: What were you trying to say again? At this point you know that the curse is in an advanced and possibly incurable state.

Diagnosis: Spurned, returned and possibly burned.
 

But look at it like this. Editors are people, too. They receive many texts. Many of them are in poorly-written verse. They are familiar with the Curse of Verse, well-‘versed’ in its symptoms. And they do not have the time, money, or inclination to affect a cure. And even if yours is good, the editor may simply have had too much exposure to the bug. They may have become immune to anything that even resembles Rhyming Verse.

Prevention and Cure: First, take a deep breath. Don’t be dismayed. You’re not alone. The curse is prevalent and catching, but it is absolutely curable.

You do have something worthwhile to say. You know that a story needs a beginning, middle and end. It is really difficult to write rhyming texts that are consistent in meter, rhyme, style, and that still portray what the writer wants them to portray.

And maybe there’s no reason to write your text in verse. Rhyme lends itself to texts that are humorous or light-hearted in nature or that are designed primarily to entertain. Prose might suit your story better. You may consider re-writing your text in a combination of prose and verse with a rhyming ‘refrain/chorus’ repeated with minor variations. This may free your writing style, allow you to avoid all the other symptoms and retain your character and narrative development.

The best picture books work like a poem (whether they rhyme or not).Owl Moon by Jane Yolen is a great example. Martin Waddle’s Little Bear books show a different, equally successful approach for a younger audience. These each have a certain metre, cadence and lyrical quality and even some rhyming elements through the text. Bursts of rhyme can be used with intent, as does Maurice Sendak inWhere the Wild things Are.

Pick up your pen and just begin again. Just start writing in prose, and don’t stop, you’ll be free.

Recovery: is usually speedy. You’ll feel better. And so will your audience.

Permission

As an often-blocked writer and writing teacher, I think a great deal about process and the conditions required for us to write, keep writing, and write well. So much of writing (or perhaps any creative endeavor) is about ignoring, overcoming, or otherwise harnessing one’s basic personality flaws and/or neuroses.

For me, like many writers, it’s a fear of my stuff never being as good as I want it to be that sometimes stops me not long after I’ve begun. But as the inimitable Katherine Paterson said in her keynote address at the SCBWI winter conference a few years ago:

"I knew that if I didn't dare failure, or worse, mediocrity, I would never be a writer at all."

These words will stay with me always. But becoming a writer is not just about daring mediocrity. And it’s not just about hard work.

What it might really all boil down to is permission, the permission we give ourselves to:

  • Make a space (physical, emotional, time) that is reserved for writing and creating.
  • Request our loved ones respect that space.
  • Ignore the growing pile of dishes in the sink and the dusky hue of the usually pale kitchen floor.
  • Spend the money on the tools/equipment/memberships/conferences needed.
  • Pull over on the road when our characters begin to whisper, pull out our notebooks in the supermarket’s dairy aisle, stop and listen and take notes.
  • Go for a run or a walk or a drive or a shower if that’s what it takes to get them whispering.
  • Unplug the router, to turn off the phone/TV,  give the social media a rest.
  • Put the eternal research aside in favor of the writing.
  • Go to crit group and share.
  • March to the beat of your own drum.
  • Fail.
  • Try again and again and again.
  • Succeed.
  • Enjoy it all.

At some point in a writing career, the permission of others (agents, publishers, buying audience, etc.) becomes important too, but well before that it’s our own permission that matters. When you’re a person with a career and family responsibilities and all the things a modern person has to deal with, giving oneself permission can be extremely difficult. But really, aren’t we the only ones accountable to ourselves for the choices we make?

So if we don’t give ourselves full permission to be happy, successful writers and to undertake all that journey entails, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get anywhere.

How do you give yourself permission to write/create? How do you deny yourself permission?

 

Possessive Apostrophes' Problems

Most writers are quite clear about how to use apostrophes with possessives:

Singular nouns— for most nouns, the possessive is simply made by adding an apostrophe followed by an s:

The mustachioed man’s chickens have laid their eggs.

Plural nouns — except for a few irregular plurals* that don’t end in s, the possessive is made by adding an apostrophe after the s:

Many of his chickens’ eggs are ready to hatch.

* For example: Many mustachioed men’s favorite egg-dish is the humble omelet.

But in my experience, there is a great deal of confusion when it comes to proper nouns, particularly names ending with s, and since many writers—particular those who write fantasy!—tend to choose names that end in s, x, or z, this issue arises frequently when I am editing.

The general rule** is that for (most) proper nouns, and this includes nouns that end in s, z, and x, the possessive still takes an apostrophe followed by an s.

Singular:                                        

Thomas’s toenails

Cortez’s gold fillings

Jimi Hendrix’s hairy knuckles

Karl Marx’s moustache

Robbie Burns’s sideburns

Plural:

The Williamses’ washboard abs (Everyone in that family is an exercise nut!)

The Higganbothams’ horrible halitosis (Mr and Mrs Higganbotham are, sadly, both sufferers. Probably just as well).

Of course with every rule in the English language, there are exceptions happy to confound the unsure. The Chicago Manual of Style (7.18 – 7.22 15th Edition) gives lots of lovely examples including:

For Jesus’ sake but Jesus’s contemporaries

Also: Euripides’ tragedies (“a name of two or more syllables that ends in the eez sound”)

Decartes’ three dreams (“singular words and names ending in an unpronounced s”)

Confused? I suggest you follow the general rule… or you could just use of, such as the dandruff of Dickens and the sneezes of Strauss.

** According The Chicago Manual of Style, the fiction editing standard. 

Rhythm & Soul

During my run this evening, listening to the rhythm of my sneakers pounding the pavement, and passing a pair of swans sitting still on a perfectly still lake surrounded by autumn foliage, I started to think about rhythm in writing.

Years of editing and writing and reading picture books have instilled in me a keen sensitivity to the rhythm and cadence in the language I read, write, and edit. I think rhythm is important not only in texts for the very young, but in any matter which uses the written word to convey ideas, thoughts, feelings, tone, drama etc. The rhythms and cadence of individual words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs can have a profound psychological effect on the reader—and yet they do it almost by stealth, with subtlety.

I frequently relate to my writing students the story of a client I once worked with. She had written a picture book text about the plight of an endangered species of eagle. Her language style of choice was (as happens so often in first drafts of picture books from new writers) rhyming verse with a jaunty and galloping meter. This stylistic choice had, as you can probably imagine, the unfortunate effect of taking what was a serious and soulful subject and making it almost comical—which was absolutely opposite to the writer’s intention. And as so often seems to happen when rhyming verse gets out of hand, the narrative went completely off-track…the story quickly became something that didn’t work at all or even quite make sense.

When I pointed out to her that perhaps a galloping meter did not fit the flapping of eagles’ wings, the swooping and soaring, or the serious tone of the subject matter, she rewrote the text in a more lyrical prose style. It was quite extraordinary: it was as if she had been set free and so, too, the eagles in her story. She quickly came back to me with a piece that exactly evoked the soaring of eagles, their swooping, the beat of their wings and so forth in its rhythm and cadence. The entire tone of the piece had changed—and it not only worked now, but had become something of incredible beauty that absolutely achieved what it set out to do. Through attention to rhythm, it had acquired the soul it was seeking.

This is a fairly overt example of the effects of rhythm. Those who study picture books and spend any significant time trying to write one will soon understand the importance of rhythm, become hyper aware of it, start to intuitively incorporate it, play with it, and use it to great effect. Rhythm and cadence are so important in texts for the very young, which are primarily designed to be read aloud.

But, more subtle are the effects of rhythm and cadence in the written word for older readers (including adults). It’s easy to get caught up in plot, character development, and narrative arc in longer works—and these are, of course, essential. But I encourage the writers with whom I work to really think about the sound of language in each sentence they write, and it’s something I pay great attention to in my own work. Each sentence, I believe, should have an appropriate rhythm and a cadence and tone that suit the context and soul of what is being conveyed.  

Short, sharp sentences, for example, tend to increase tension, speed up the pace, and add drama. In many cases longer, more fluid sentences, create a calmer and more reflective tone. Of course, there are exceptions to these examples (just as there are almost unlimited ways to use rhythm and cadence). But my point is that rhythm and cadence can have very powerful effects, and writers would do well to pay more attention to them and then milk them for all they’re worth.

The key? Read your work aloud. Your manuscript may not be designed to be read that way, but try it anyway. Listen to how the language sounds. Tweak it until the rhythm and cadence complement and complete what you’re trying to convey. Then have someone read it back to you.

One day, when you’re doing your first live reading of your newly published book, you’ll thank me. 

 

Punctuation: How to write a character's thoughts

Once, I was involved in an interesting discussion on our regional SCBWI listserv. One member asked a whether a character’s thoughts should be denoted by quotation marks, no quotation marks, or italics.

This is a commonly asked question, and this was part of my short answer:

When I edit, I let the context and target audience dictate quotation marks or no quotation marks. If it's a dialogue heavy text, I use no quotation marks for thoughts. If it's a work for younger kids, then I suggest quotation marks for thoughts. If it's MG or YA, I'd generally go with no quote marks. 

The Chicago Manual of Style*, the industry standard for fiction editing, states:

Thought, imagined dialogue, and other interior discourse may be enclosed in quotation marks or not, according to the context or the writer’s preference.

For example:

“My dear friend must fly south for winter,” thought Wordy Bird, “or else he will surely die.”

Or,

We must say goodbye, thought Wordy Bird, but perhaps we will meet again.

Both usages are clear and easily comprehended, are they not?

You’ll note that the Chicago Manual of Style is silent on the use of italics to denote thoughts. But, many people do use italics when they are writing to denote thoughts, and I’m sure we all know published books in which italics are used in this manner. 

From Michael Sussman’s fabulous picture book Otto Grows Down (Illus. Scott Magoon, Sterling 2009):

             I love this rattle, Otto thought. Why does Anna get to have it?

But then in this book, as in so many picture books, typography is used in exciting ways throughout (which my daughter loves as she gets to read the ‘big words’).  

But—and this is the main reason for this post—I think there’s really more to discuss here.

Often, there may be a more seamless way to convey what a character is thinking, without resorting to what may at times be a rather clunky use of internal dialogue and dialogue tags which may tend to toward verbosity such as ponderedconsideredspeculatedconjectured, and so forth. (Dialogue tags are, of course, a subject for another blog post!)

Let's look at some randomly chosen examples from my bookshelf. From Judy Moody #1 by Megan McDonald, Candlewick Press 2000:

“ROAR!” said Judy. She would have to get used to a new desk and a new classroom. Her new desk would not have an armadillo sticker with her name on it, like her old one last year. Her new classroom would not have a porcupine named Roger.

From Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Simon & Schuster 1999:

Jessie didn’t think it was fair that she still had to wear Hannah’s old clothes. Jesse was an inch taller. It wasn’t her fault Hannah was fatter. But people in Clifton didn’t care about a girl’s ankle showing a little. She’d heard Ma and the other women say it was a scandalous thing back east, but on the frontier people had other things to worry about.

In each of these examples, it is clear these are the protagonist’s thoughts. When writing in first person and limited third person there’s really no necessity to present thoughts as dialogue.

But, there are times that using unspoken discourse will certainly add weight to the thought and to the moment. Here’s an (italicized!) example from The Maze Runner by James Dashner (Delacorte Press, 2009) which comes at a pivotal moment.

Thomas looked back at his captors, feeling awkward but desperate to ask questions. Captors, he thought. Then, Why did that word pop into my head?

When conveying a character’s thoughts, do consider saving actual interior discourse for those pivotal moments. And whatever you choose—quotation marks, no quotation marks, italics—be consistent throughout the text. If your manuscript is acquired, the publisher will adjust according to what best suits the book and their house style.

Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, Point 13.41, The University of Chicago Press 2010

 

Bad Seeds: Began to [verb]

Consider the following:

It was dawn. Wordy-Bird began to fly to the window. She looked out at the rising sun and started to sing.

At first glance, it doesn’t really seem like anything is wrong, right? But there is an issue here, which I see in just about every manuscript I edit and sometimes in published books. It’s an issue of clunky writing, which can also become a big deal in manuscripts with blown-out word counts.

The offending phrase? Began to fly. Or its variations: began flying, started flying, started to fly.

Wordy Bird doesn’t just begin to fly to the window, she continues and finishes flying to the window, too, because in the next sentence she is there, looking out at the rising sun. So began to fly is not only unnecessarily wordy and unwieldy, it’s also lacks complete logic. Why not just write:

Wordy-Bird flew to the window.

Not only does that strengthen the sentence and complete the logic, but right there you’ve cut 28% of the words in that sentence. If this is a phrase that's consistently used in a manuscript—and when writers use began to (verb) it’s often very liberally—that can add up to a surprising number of excess and clunky words.

But consider the second sentence:

She looked out at the rising sun and started to sing.

In this context, started to sing works well. We don’t know what happens after she begins to sing, so it is suitable and actually adds weight to her act of singing to greet the dawn.  

As you become more aware of it, you’ll find that begin to (verb) and its variations rarely add more than excess words and an undesirable smattering of clunk. 

Bad Seeds: Lay and Lie

One of the Wordy Bird’s biggest pet peeves is misuse of the words lay and lie, and it's also probably the most common grammar mistake I see. 

Nestmate pointed at Baxter. “Lay down,” he said. Baxter laid down. Nestmate laid down beside the dog. Chickling laid on top of them.

What’s wrong with this?

“It’s lie down!” puffed Wordy Bird. “Not lay down. Unless you are actually laying the dog down, which you’re not.”

Lay is a transitive verb, so Baxter cannot lay down—

Ok, let’s back up a bit. What’s a transitive verb? A transitive verb takes an object. For example: put. You wouldn’t say:

The dog put.

It doesn’t make sense, does it? A transitive verb must take an object for the sentence to make sense.

The dog put the bone down.

The opposite of a transitive verb is an intransitive verb, for example: run.

The dog runs.

An intransitive verb doesn’t take an object.

Lie is an intransitive verb, so it doesn’t take an object. Some of the confusion between the two verbs comes from similarities when they are inflected:

Lie, lay, lain

Baxter lies down. Baxter lay down. Baxter has lain down.

But the transitive verb lay is inflected like this: lay, laid, laid

Baxter lays the bone down. Baxter laid the bone down. Baxter has laid the bone down.

So when Nestmate wants the dog to be on the floor, he should say:

“Lie down, Baxter. Good boy.”

Then he can lie beside the dog and Chickling will lay herself over both of them and everyone will be happy. Especially Wordy Bird. 

Bad Seeds: Dangling Modifers

I’d like you to take a look at the following paragraph:

As Wordy Bird perched there, watching the sun rise beyond the nest, her belly rumbled, thinking of the worm she’d catch for breakfast. Her wings flapped faster, just knowing how good it would taste. When she landed, her head tilted, listening for that telltale rustle of worm flesh beneath the earth.

What is wrong with these sentences—grammatically? (Don’t worry, I’m not going to weigh you down with too much grammar-junkie jargon today.)

Let’s look at the first:

As Wordy sat watching the sun rise beyond the nest, her belly rumbled, thinking of the worm she’d catch for breakfast.

This is a sentence of a kind that I see in writers’ manuscripts on an almost daily basis, so that means a lot of writers are making this error. Let’s break it into parts:

As Wordy sat watching the sun rise beyond the nest,

her belly rumbled,

thinking of the worm she’d catch for breakfast.

The first two work together, right?

As Wordy sat watching the sun rise beyond the nest, her belly rumbled…

What about this part:

…her belly rumbled, thinking of the worm she’d catch for breakfast.

Do you see the problem yet?

If you don’t see it yet, ask yourself this: who or what is thinking of the worm? In this sentence construction, it’s her belly. And apart from giving us a gnarly case of butterflies when we’re about to do something scary, bellies are not known for their capacity for intelligent thought.  

Now, if you go back to the second and third sentences, perhaps you'll see why I have a problem with those, too. 

Some of you, including those of you who have worked with me before or taken one of my classes, may pick up on at least one other (potential) problem when the three sentences are put together. Can work out what it* is?

* Hint: try reading them aloud. 

The moral of story is: Don't dangle your modifiers. (*And watch out for repetitive sentence structure!)

Query Letter Basics

"This is really hard!" I’m quite certain that’s the most uttered sentence from writers about concocting a good query or cover letter.

They’re absolutely right. It is hard to write a good query letter, especially when you’re starting out. I don’t know anyone who really likes writing queries, and most agree: the process can be confusing and feel very daunting. But adhering to the list of ingredients and following the basic formula can make it that much easier.

These days, most queries to agents will be e-queries. In an e-query, you don’t need to start with your address, the recipient’s name/title/ address, or date as you will in a traditional snail-mail business letter to editors/publishers. For e-queries, simply begin with the greeting.

First paragraph: Some agents and editors like essential basic information in the first paragraph:

  • Title
  • Genre
  • Word count
  • Target audience/age range

Others prefer you to start with why you’ve chosen to submit to them, or to dive straight into the hook and synopsis, and leave these basics until near the end. But note: this basic information must be somewhere in the query.

Do your research, online and through writers’ organizations such as SCBWI, to learn about the agent you’re approaching. Does the agent maintain a blog? Then read it. For example, Agent X may be one those with a rampant distaste for queries beginning with a rhetorical question, especially one they can easily answer in the negative:

Writer: “Have you ever wondered what it’s like to escape from a pickled herring factory?”Agent: “Um. Actually, no.” *Queryfail*

Thorough research will make your process so much easier.

 

The Synopsis: You need to answer the basic questions:

  • Who is the protagonist?
  • What do they want and why?
  • What is getting in the way and what’s at stake?
  • What does the protagonist do about it?
  • How does the problem escalate?

Common errors:

  • It’s too vague. Be specific. Editors and agents see way too many vague synopses. What makes your plot different from all the others out there? What is specific about these characters that will make us want to hear their story? It’s no use whatsoever telling an agent or editor that:

Betty-Sue goes on an emotional journey of self-discovery and learns what family means to her.

That doesn’t provide any concrete information about the plot or character, except her name, and it’s also:

  • Too didactic-sounding. Agents and editors don’t need you to tell them what the protagonist or audience will learn from this manuscript. The themes of the book should be readily apparent from the synopsis—if it’s written properly.
  • Too much self-appraisal. Good writing is so much about Showing vs. Telling, and you, the writer, have the opportunity to show you can ‘show.’ Don’t tell them your text is whimsical or lyrical—let that come through in the way your synopsis is written. Show them that you can write—and with style.
  • It’s too dry. So often, writers say to me of writing the synopsis: “It doesn’t flow like it does when I’m writing my book. It feels stilted and awkward.” Try to get into your happy place or sad place or use whatever emotional fuel writing your book required. Make it exciting. Make it voicey. Make it sing. Have fun! Your passion and excitement will come through in your synopsis.
  • It gives away the ending. Set up the protagonist, setting, conflict, and what’s at stake, and then leave the reader hanging and desperate for more.
  • Not enough revision. Just like any fine piece of writing, a synopsis needs to be revised multiple times until it is right. I usually work with my clients and students on multiple versions of their query and cover letters before we consider them ready.

 

Bio Paragraph: What you include here should be as relevant as possible. It can only help to say you are a SCBWI member, if you are. Certainly, if you’ve won awards (as long as they’re not utterly obscure) include that. If you have relevant publishing credits, list them. Your day job may or may not be relevant. For example, if you’re an elementary school teacher or librarian, it is. But don’t try to plump up your bio with irrelevant details or tell them about your dream of being an author (Why else would you be subjecting yourself to this query torture?) And if it’s your first book, don’t be embarrassed to say so. (You’ve written a book. That takes guts and determination and dedication and lots of hard work. What a feat! Good for you! You’re amazing!) But never “argue for your limitations.”

Sign off: Thank the editor or agent for their time; that’s just common courtesy. Do say you look forward to hearing from them—but I recommend you don’t say “soon,” especially if you’re writing to an editor/publisher rather than an agent. It may be soon, but it may be not, and I’ve heard some agents and editors say use of the word “soon” may come across as impatience or a lack of understanding about the industry. And, if you're querying an editor or publisher, don't forget to say whether this is an exclusive or multiple submission.

 

Email signature: A neat, concise email signature—with your name and contact details and a link to online presence, such as a website or blog—looks professional.

 

And finally: Proofread it! Check for grammatical and spelling errors. Check for word misuse such as their/they’re/there, sight/site etc. Then have someone else proof it for you. If you have used clipart or fancy stationary (either e-stationary or the paper kind) get rid of it—simple and professional is best. Make sure you have the correct phrase in the email’s subject line. Follow the agent’s directions. And then proofread it again. Remember, this letter is your introduction as a writer, so errors in the query are unlikely to go down well.

 

The process of concocting a query is not nearly as difficult when you know the right formula. Keep it professional, keep it courteous, and above all, don’t be afraid to send it. An atrophied manuscript is far, far worse than a rejection.

Bad Seeds: Looking and Turning

I never cease to be truly grateful for what I’ve learned about writing from editing other people’s work. But when one reads other people’s manuscripts all day, every day, one starts to notice the same sorts of things over and over and over… and after a time (usually a fairly short time), these things go from being notable and interesting to being downright annoying. Now don’t think I’m becoming complaining and snarky—it is my my job and I love every day of it. If I didn’t love it, I’d hardly be taking the time to share this with you, would I?

But I do believe these are just the kinds of things that don’t belong in a MS. Wordy Bird calls them Bad Seeds. I thought you might find it helpful if I share some Bad Seeds with you every now and then. Because once you’ve really tasted a Bad Seed, rolled it around in your beak and spat out the husk, you may not want to try one again.

Bad Seed #1: Turning and Looking

Imagine Nestmate and I are having a conversation. I might write about it like this:

Wordy Bird kissed Chickling goodnight and flew down the stairs to tidy up the living room. She turned to Nestmate. “Matey,” she said, looking at him, “I note you haven’t done the dishes.” 

Nestmate turned and looked at her. “I rinsed them for you,” he said. “Geez, I thought you’d think that was helpful.”

Wordy Bird looked at him. “Nestmate, rinsing the dishes and lining them up so I can wash them, is the kind of help one gives when one wants to appear as if one’s being helpful, but when one’s real intention is to watch the Patriots.”

Don’t you think all this turning and looking is implied? When we have a conversation, we usually face the person and look at them when we speak to them. In regular dialogue, turning and looking is implied. It’s when a character DOESNT turn and look at someone during conversation that it becomes interesting and therefore noteworthy.

For example:

Nestmate watched Tom Birdy score another touchdown. “You’re always nagging me,” he muttered.

Wordy Bird studied her toes. “Not always,” she said quietly. She turned and looked at the teetering pile of dishes. “Now are you going to help me, or what?”

The bottom line is this, and it’s about much more than looking and turning: readers, even readers who happen to be small people, do not need to have everything spelled out for them. Not only can it be boring and tedious, it doesn’t leave room for the reader to read between the lines, to fill in the gaps, to imagine.