As promised, this is Critique Connection. If you are looking for a critique partner, briefly describe your manuscript in progress in the comments and leave a way to contact you. With enough people, the comments section will likely turn into a bit of an online dating site for people writing children’s books who want another set of eyes. Many critique groups and partners have come about as a result of this system and so I’m happy to keep doing it.

It’s up to you to decide what you need from a potential critique partner. Do you want them to look at your query? Your first 10 pages? Your entire manuscript? Be as clear as you can (and as realistic as you can about what you’re willing to do for others) for best results.

To boost your chances for a successful match, include the following information in your comment:

  1. Your audience and genre (ie: YA thriller). Most people are going to be writing PB, MG or YA because this blog is specific to children’s books. I don’t know how many have tried to connect with other types of projects, but I’d imagine children’s books do best here.
  2. A short description of your story. There’s no length limit but please be kind. :)
  3. A way to contact you. If you’re worried about spammers attacking a link to your email, format it like this: mary (at) kidlit (dot) com and trust potential critique partners to translate it to mary@kidlit.com.

Finally, be PROACTIVE! If a book looks good or even if it looks similar to what you’re doing (a situation that usually gives writers the fits until they realize that idea is just part of the puzzle and execution of that idea is where the differences are), reach out to that writer. Introduce yourself. See if there’s a connection. Writing is a solitary pursuit but there’s actually a tight-knit, awesome community out there. You never know who you can meet!

 

 

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I have been a terrible blogger for the past two months. With some life obligations taking my attention, more freelance clients, and starting a round of professional development classes for the hell of it, I have heaped much more on my plate than I can chew. Lesson learned. (Or is it? I’m still one of those optimistic people who keeps waiting for life to get less busy. “Maybe it will slow down come summer? Christmas vacation? This weekend? Never? Okay, never sounds about right.” Ha!)

Like the broken human robot that I am, taking on too many things at once has tanked my resolve to update the blog. (For a comedic explanation of what happens when I overload myself with too much, click here.) This is not good. This blog has known me longer than most boyfriends I’ve ever had, and it’s a source of great joy and satisfaction for me. It’s also, from what I hear, helpful to writers and a trusted source of valuable information.

So to ease back into posting, I’m giving myself this one as a freebie to reintroduce myself and, I suppose, confirm to my loyal readers and visitors that I’m not dead under a pile of manuscripts somewhere in Brooklyn. I’m also announcing (read: this is for me, not you) that I will now reduce my frequency of posts to once a week, probably on Mondays. That’s a little crappier than my lofty twice-weekly goals but I’d rather have one post once a week than no posts for months and then an apology.

Next week, I will do another Critique Connection to freshen up the pool of available manuscripts and critique partners. Then it will be back to business as usual! Feel free to email me (see sidebar) with your questions in the meantime!

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I’ve written a lot about dialogue (start here and here). Now I want to introduce the idea of keeping a scene going and picking the right time to interrupt the flow. What’s the best time to insert information, description, dialogue tags, or action?

If your answer is, “Uhhhh, whenever I think of it?” then congratulations, you’re like most writers. But just because you think of inserting something into a scene at a certain moment doesn’t mean that’s the best moment.

We’ve all had the experience, I think, of reading a manuscript (our own or a critique partner’s) and getting involved in a scene. Great! We’ve all also gone with the writer on a tangent when they interrupt the scene to insert some kind of block of text, right? Then the scene restarts with a rejoinder or response–”I completely agree with you,” she said–and…wait a minute! What were they talking about? You scroll up madly to reconnect the conversational thread.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: scene is about the dialogue. It’s not about the dialogue tags. It’s not about the actions or gestures that accompany the speech. It’s not about the description of the cafeteria around the characters who are speaking, unless it just so happens to break out in a food fight and interrupt them. It’s about what’s being said. Or at least it should be.

Whenever you interrupt the flow of dialogue, you best have a good reason. This is not the time for big blocks of text that derail the reader’s attention and train of thought. This is not the time to establish part of the setting (which you should’ve done as we were entering the location) or reinforce a character’s personal appearance (which you should’ve done when we were meeting them the first or second time). When we hunker down for a scene, think of it as an express train that makesvery selective stops. It should stop for things that are important to the plot, first and foremost. If that food fight is going to happen in the middle of the scene, then, yeah, by all means stop the dialogue. If the mean girl comes to harass everyone, then include it.

But there’s a time and place for all sorts of other distracting information, and in the middle of a scene usually isn’t it. By being selective and figuring out the right time to drop information on your reader, you are gaining control over your prose. The more writers practice, the more organized they become. They realize that there’s a natural ebb and flow to good writing and that it’s perfectly fine, desirable even, to be strategic in handling where and how you introduce different character and plot elements. For now, you should be vigilant about not disrupting a piece of dialogue’s train of thought. That’s an easy fix and it helps instill good writing habits.

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This post relates to notes I’ve found myself giving to writers and it’s along the lines of my Pimp Your Premise post last month. The theme is the same: You’ve done all this work, created this thing, so why not get the most out of it?

The note that originally elicited this response was a scene with high emotional potential that, for some reason, didn’t live up to its potential. Rather than becoming a sensitive life wire of emotion, the character drifted through, basically, the climax of the story with all of the interiority and sensitivity of a crash test dummy. (For all those who are new to my story theory rhetoric, I define interiority as having access to your character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This is possible to accomplish in either first or third person.) The emotions were definitely possible in this intense scene, but the writer wasn’t going there.

More and more, my advice to writers can be summed up as: GO THERE. If you set up a premise with a really unique element, exploit that element to the fullest and design as many plot points around it. If you’re writing a grief story and there’s a lot of potential for your protagonist to hit rock bottom, have them crash into it at high speeds. If you’re writing a love story, give us that moment when he loses himself in her eyes entirely and becomes vulnerable for the first time ever. There are a million story opportunities for your characters to become a raw nerve.

As a group, writers–and don’t think I’m insulting writers here, this sentence could just as easily read “humans”–like to play it safe. They have their pet storytelling techniques, their favorite plot twists, their go-to phrases, their easy physical clichés that they deploy instead of having to write about the messy world of emotions. But the writer’s role job isn’t to play it safe. It isn’t to tread the familiar path, because the familiar path isn’t going to electrify readers. Artists in general search for the truth of the human condition by getting out of their comfort zones…and by taking their audiences with them.

If you yourself are unwilling to GO THERE, your reader’s potential to suffer, triumph, and understand diminishes. I’m constantly impressed by how many manuscripts scratch the surface in precisely those moments when they should be plunging in. Interiority flourishes during a boring classroom scene but is oddly silent when it’s time to visit Dad in the hospice, for example. Or we spend a lot of time on happy emotions but completely sidestep anything negative. (Reverse this dynamic for a dystopian manuscript!)

Let me get down to it: The scene that feels the hollowest in your manuscript should either be cut or you should screw your courage to the sticking place and GO THERE with it. Especially when the events transpiring call for high, noble, intense, painful, or otherwise uncomfortable emotions.

To call upon a book outside the kidlit canon, this was my biggest problem with THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, an insanely successful adult novel by Kim Edwards that came out in 2005 and was incredibly successful. (SPOILERS) While it is a very emotional story, there is one glaring missed opportunity, a moment begging the author to GO THERE that was never realized. Briefly, the story is about a husband who immediately realizes that one of his newborn twins has Down’s syndrome. This is another era and he quickly spirits the girl away to a nurse, then lies to his wife, saying the second child died. Flash forward many years and the secret is close to coming out. Just as I was expecting the BLISTERING reveal and ensuing confrontation between husband and wife, the husband dies suddenly. The wife finds out another way and rages at his memory.

I know plenty of people who loved this book. But I really, really, really would’ve loved to see the scene where husband and wife stand naked before the truth. It’s one thing to rage at someone’s memory, it’s another to confront him in the flesh. And not just him, but the pastand the future. I would never call this author a coward, but I wondered what kept her from GOING THERE and giving us this highly emotional scene using both characters, not just one.

So if you’ve got a premise that’s locked and loaded with the high-stakes potential for emotion, don’t just skirt around it or do the next best thing. It’s going to be challenging, because you have a lot wrapped up in these characters and part of you probably wants to protect them, but you have to think of the most emotional points in your plot as an invitation to unleash those feelings without holding back. GO THERE.

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A reader wrote in over the weekend to ask:

I wrote a nonfiction article for a kids’ magazine. I sent it recently, haven’t heard back yet. Because I’m completely fascinated with the subject I wrote about, I sat down and wrote a different story on the same subject that ideally would be a nonfiction children’s picture book. I’ve sent it to just one agent a few days ago. No here’s my dilemma: I know all the “first-time rights” and “all-rights” lingo, but I’m wondering that, 1. does it apply because the mag article is different than the picture book story, and 2) in the 1-in-billion chance that the agent wants to pursue my book, do I need to jump up and shout- wait!- a magazine might publish a different-but-same-topic article I wrote. I feel like this could be potentially sticky…and I’m just wondering if there’s any justifications for my worries.

An interesting question! Here’s my response:

Rights to a book are pretty heavily connected to the text of a book. A lot of authors publish NF articles in their subject area before writing a full-length book about it (and lots of people pitching NF book proposals are told “This is more of an article” because there’s not enough meat in their topic/angle to support a full book).

In children’s, you could wander into a bit of a gray area because I’m imagining that both texts will be shorter and will cover a lot of the same information–i.e.: both overview biographies or both simple explanations of a scientific principle, etc. This is where you will want to pay close attention to the text and make sure that you’re not publishing a close replica.

If your article vs. book angles are very different, like one is an overview and one covers a much more specific area of the subject, you have nothing to worry about. But if the topics are close and lightning happens to strike twice in the form of a magazine acceptance AND a book publishing opportunity, there is nothing wrong with strategically delaying the article until you can share your concerns with an agent or editor. As opposed to the book manuscript and publishing plan with your acquiring editor, the article will be a lot easier to edit in a way that still meets the magazine’s purposes.

A larger point deserves to be made here: If you have a magazine editor, agent, or book editor on the hook and they like your work or area or expertise (in the NF world especially), there is nothing wrong with communicating openly, asking thoughtful questions, or attempting to get that person to work with you if something like this should come up. Your magazine editor might be perfectly willing to publish a slightly different article or time the article differently (delay it while negotiation is in process, run it closer to your book’s publication date to build momentum, etc.) in case you happen to get a book contract.

The good thing about this potential scenario, of course, is that being published in various venues on a subject will help you leverage yourself as an expert on a certain topic. As you build your career, you’ll actually want to seek out these types of situations and get your name out there. I know some of these questions are stressful, but try and think of this as a potential positive, because it very easily could be!

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I’m seeing some submissions lately that put the cart before the horse in terms of what they’re pitching. Several writers write and say, “I have such and such project that would make a great app. And then this other project just screams to be developed into a touring ice show. Finally, I can just see the face of my third protagonist plastered on everything from stuffed animals to t-shirts.”

There’s a lot to be said about focusing on your project as a book idea and letting all these other things come later. Since I’m seeing more and more of this type of pitch, I want to remind everyone that it’s okay to simply have a book that’s going to make a good book. In fact, that’s the point of trying to query a book.

And let me just add to what I’ve already said by emphasizing that nowhere is it stated that every single book idea will get every single ancillary product/right/option in the world. When you look at the sheer number of things that get published every year, a much smaller percentage goes on to merchandising opportunities, movie options, video game licenses, and all of the other things that some aspiring writers dream about.

I think that all this talk of apps really got people’s imaginations going. “It’s going to be a book AND an app, guaranteed,” one thinks, “because everyone is talking about apps!”Then that “and…” mentality spread to theme parks and licensed coffee tumblers and international editions. I get it. But it’s very important to remember that most books don’t get apps, or foreign sales, or entertainment deals.

That’s the danger of REQUIRING anything on your publishing journey, whether it’s a trilogy of books in order to tell your story or a read-and-play app that plugs into your premise. The more you require, especially as a debut, the fewer incentives you’re giving a house to take a chance on you. Your “and” turns into their “but,” ie: “We really see the potential for this book idea BUT they’re pushing us for a trilogy and I’m just not sure that we can make that kind of investment.”

Require less, open your mind to telling your story in the simplest way possible, and celebrate the ancillary successes that roll in. It’s often a fun and happy surprise when Hollywood calls or a comic book edition is picked up, and it can pay a month or more of your rent. Yay! But it’s not guaranteed and it’s also not the end all and be all. Keep it in perspective. That’s the best way to establish market savvy and tone down your expectations, thereby becoming a writer that many more people would be willing and excited to work with.

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Worldbuilding is tricky business. You need to convey the unique fictional world you’ve created without dumping a bunch of information inelegantly in your reader’s lap. You have to give them enough context to understand what’s going on and to make sure that the framework, boundaries, rules, and unique qualities of your universe are conveyed clearly.

Let’s say that people can fly in your world. This isn’t a unique premise but it is your premise, and that’s what matters. Now, let’s say that you choose to hold off on this fact and use it as a reveal at the climax of the book. The character has no idea that people can fly in this world and only learns it at one of the last moments. Thrilling, right? Well, maybe. If it’s done right. But if this is a world where people can fly, why save that unique tidbit until the very end? Why not blow your character’s mind right at the beginning and get more mileage out of the flying than you would if you hid it away?

Your job is to attract readers to the world you’ve created by giving them something that will get them interested in your unique idea. You certainly can tease and hint and withhold things about your world, but I would do this sparingly. Instead of counting on a big surprise to raise stakes and elevate tension, get the coolest stuff about your idea out in the open early.

Instead of hiding your world, SELL IT to your readers by dropping clues for them to follow or exposing the elements that made you fall in love with your story and pursue it. This is a great way of drawing in your audience. It’s saying, “Sure, you’ve read a lot of fantasy before but MY fantasy world has people flying, and glittering unicorns, and a giant who only falls asleep while guarding his cave of precious treasure once every hundred years.”

The more we’re in that world and understand how it works–all of which takes information and revealing these elements in a timely manner–the more we can focus on the other elements of your storytelling. Compared to a rich world full of interesting elements, the cheap fizzle of a last-minute surprise starts to feel like a bummer.

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A few months ago, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Gabriela Periera who runs a wonderful writing website called DIY MFA. I love this idea. As someone with a traditional MFA, I certainly advocate for getting into a program, but I also see the benefits of structuring your own course of study with resources like this one. It’s a really great idea and I’m very glad that someone is out there in the world doing it.

You can check out the video and write-up on the DIY MFA website, then stick around and learn more about it. Or you can watch the interview below. Gabriela has been kind enough to let me embed the video right here on the blog.

 

In other news, Cristy Zinn was kind enough to do a blog review of my book and my client Bethanie Murguia’s new release, SNIPPET THE EARLY RISER (Knopf/Random House) was reviewed by the talented Michael Ian Black in this past weekend’s New York Times. You can read about that here.

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Everyone knows the feeling of loving a joke so much yet having it fall flat. Then, instead of accepting defeat, explaining to everyone how the joke works and why it’s so brilliant. If you’re me, you might also strongly imply that your audience is somehow deficient for failing to laugh.

If any of you have heard me speak or taken one of my MG/YA webinars, you may remember the lame Twilight vampire/”high stakes” joke that I try and shoehorn in every time. It has met with a tepid response from Idaho to Japan but I keep on trying because, well, I’m convinced that one day I’ll fall upon the perfect audience that willget it.

If you’re in this boat with me, we all need a wake-up call. Sometimes a bit of cleverness or specificity doesn’t have the payoff you’re seeking. This doesn’t just apply to jokes, of course. I see this phenomenon at work especially with imagery in people’s writing.

An example from the actual literary canon  (rather that some stupid made-up thing that I wrote last minute) that has always bothered me: “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” by Adrienne Rich. This has literally vexed me FOR OVER A DECADE.

Adrienne Rich is a wonderful poet, may she rest in peace. And this is poem reproduced widely in many school texts and taught all over the place, which is a testament to her talent. But the work itself is rather–please excuse the obvious pun–heavy-handed. I’ve included a link so you can read it, above.

Uncle’s wedding band is heavy on Aunt Jennifer’s hand. Her hands are ringed with ordeals she was mastered by. She’s desperately stitching a bunch of tigers. The tigers are not afraid of any men. The tigers are free, ironically, while Aunt Jennifer is caged. Etc. etc. etc.

Here Rich explains the images over and over again, in case you didn’t get it the first three times. She works very hard to make sure you know exactly where she’s going with the poem. In this case, I can let it go (I guess!) because the image works with the story that the poet is telling. Wedding bands, hands, etc. all tie into the symbolism of a woman feeling trapped in a marriage.

There are times when writers are just as insistent about images, however, and the image isn’t successful to begin with, like my lame vampire joke. This is something to watch out for in your own work. If you catch yourself trying a little too hard to CONVEY THE PERFECT-EST THING EVER to the reader, you may be picking either the wrong image or something so specific that it’s not going to be  resonant enough.

Some less-than-graceful examples would be these stupid made-up things that I’m writing last minute:

The sound of the children’s laughter bounced down the hallway like a tin can full of quarters bouncing down a concrete staircase.

It was her turn to go up and give the science presentation. Nerves shot up Nellie’s spine like that feeling she always got when breaking down a cardboard box and feeling the brown paper surfaces rasping against one another.

These are not successful images to me. The first one is off because the two things being compared have very little connecting them. The writer may have once heard the perfect tin can full of quarters and it could make total sense to her to compare it to children’s laughter, but it’s more likely that the link exists only in her head. The same idea goes for the second image, and here it’s like the writer is trying very hard to describe exactly what this type of nervousness feels like but it’s too specific to have that frisson of recognition or universality. I happen to hate anything the results from pieces of cardboard touching one another, but that’s me, and my personal biases may not belong in the scene about Nellie’s science presentation.

The examples convey a feeling of jamming a square peg in a round hole. The writer is working hard. Sweat is blooming on her brow. She really wants you toget it. Oftentimes, though, the best images, jokes, turns of phrase, etc. are more simple and organic than that. Keep an eye out for instances where you might be explaining the joke at the expense of your true meaning and goal in the moment.

Also, a round of applause to Bethanie Murguia, whose SNIPPET THE EARLY RISER was reviewed in the New York Times yesterday!

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It has been a while since I’ve opened up the blog to a Critique Connection. Writers are always asking me how to find critique partners so I periodically make a post where y’all can introduce yourselves in the comments and hang your “I’m looking for a critique partner!” shingles.

It’s simple: Comment below, list your email address (I recommend spelling things out like “mary at kidlit dot com” just so it’s harder for people or bots to spam you), and describe your project, the genre, the audience, whether it’s finished, and what you’re looking for out of a critique experience. For example:

Hey! I’m Mary (mary at kidlit dot com) and I’m working on a 75,000 word YA about space hamsters and the women who love them. I’d like a critique partner who vacuums my living room and cooks me dinner, but I’d settle for someone to give me feedback on my first three chapters.

Only try not to be a cheeky monkey in yours. Leave a comment or browse them and reach out to people who might be a good fit for your work. There are no guarantees here, but I’ve heard of several groups who have met and mingled as a result of these posts, so I keep doing them occasionally to give writers a chance to connect.

In other news, there are two workshops that I highly recommend, one through a lot of personal experience. That one is the Big Sur Writing Workshop put on by my former agency, Andrea Brown. It is truly phenomenal, a hands-on opportunity for close, personal attention on your pages from talented faculty and other writers. The registration deadline was last Thursday but there just might be more room, so it never hurts to double-check. If not, you should put this one on your radar, and know that it recurs every December and March.

Also on the west coast and a bit later in the summer in case you can’t get into Big Sur or need to scrape together pages or finances is the Oregon Coast Children’s Book Writers Workshop. I haven’t had any experience with this program personally but it is another interesting option to consider if you’re looking for the kind of intensive manuscript attention that’s a huge help for writers working on their craft.

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