Brainstorms and Tips

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday weekend! Now — *cracks whip* — back to work! Just kidding. But we are wrapping up Revision-o-Rama. Of course, I will continue to talk about revision topics on the blog but not in this concentrated way.

Since there are a bunch of smaller things that didn’t warrant full posts but that are still fun and important to do. I call them Brainstorms and Tips. Read on!

100 Declarative Sentences

This is a great brainstorm tool, and it’s really hard. This works best with a character or a setting that’s giving you difficulty. Maybe your critique group thinks it’s thin or flat or unconvincing, or it just doesn’t feel right to you. Concentrate on this place or this person and write 100 declarative sentences about her, him or it. Sounds simple, right? Well, it really calls into question how well you know what you’re writing about. A declarative sentence is just an informative sentence that states a fact. Let’s say I have a character called Claire who isn’t working for me. I would start my list:

  1. Claire plays JV tennis.
  2. Claire likes to eat ice cream but only after she wins a game.
  3. Claire wishes she had long hair like Abby does.

Etc. etc. etc. A lot of it will feel like you’re just riffing. You’re making things up. You’re improvising. But you’ll come up with some great surprises, like quirks of a character that you never thought of. Then, around sentence 80, you will feel like you will never finish this stupid exercise. And you will hate me. And you will probably give up and watch some TV. So it goes. But the point here is that you’re thinking of the place or person as something real. Declarative sentences are simple and informational. It will force you to think about things you haven’t been considering yet.

Who knows if you will use all of the 100 things you come up with? But the truth and beauty of fiction always lies in the specifics. Here, you have an opportunity to come up with specifics, quirks, tidbits and other things that will flesh out your character or setting and make them seem more real, more significant. Some of my favorite details about a character or place, the ones that stick with me long after the book is over, are small things like this. That Claire has the purple nail polish chipped off the big toe on her left foot. That Bellmeadows, the town where Claire lives, has three car dealerships but no gas station. Character and setting are in the details. Force yourself to come up with some. You’ll get maybe 10 or 20 new things to add throughout your manuscript.

Boring and Ambiguous Words

In my slush pile, I get a lot of queries that use boring and ambiguous words. What do I mean? Here’s an example (an amalgamation of all that is bad, one it has pained me deeply to write):

Johnny learns a mysterious secret at the beautiful Temple of Adventure that will change his life forever. Shadowy conspirators push him into a meaningful choice — and there’s no going back. When Johnny is faced with the truth, dangerous circumstances propel him to a thrilling and exciting climax that will leave readers begging for more.

Huh? What? What is this book about? All I have are general words that are meant to hype me up but they’re all fluff. Just like a booming announcer’s voice during a movie trailer that’s trying to tell me a story, it’s all dazzle and no substance. There are some words that are so general that they mean nothing. Or they mean different things to different people. What one person finds “beautiful” or “thrilling” isn’t the same across the board. Using some in a query or manuscript is okay, but I’m seeing a lot of paragraphs that resemble the above. If I read a paragraph full of generalities and ambiguous words, I really have no idea what your plot is. Plot is made up of specific events, not hot keywords. Avoid these words in your query and in your manuscript. Specifics are key. What does “beautiful” look like to this character? How does that character react uniquely to something “exciting”? Use instances where you’d normally use a boring or ambiguous word as an opportunity to show us something about the characters you’ve created. Striking out these blah words also goes a long way toward adding to voice.

Filters

Filters are phrases like “I think” and “I see” and “in my opinion” that dilute your prose. They’re most noticeable in first person but appear in third person, too. For example, it’s a lot more wordy to say, “I saw a dog bounding across the lawn,” than, “A dog bounded across the lawn.” Obviously, the narrator saw it, or they wouldn’t be describing it for the reader. Same with, “I thought her hair looked stupid.” That’s weak compared to, “Her hair looked like a skunk had set itself on fire.” The “I thought” and “I saw” just lessen the impact of what follows. Of course, you’re allowed to say things like, “I thought I saw a ghost,” if they’re important to your plot, but try and weed filters out of your ordinary prose. Tangentially, one of my biggest pet peeves is when writers put: “… blah blah blah, I thought in my head.” Yes. Obviously. What else do you think with? Your elbow?

Reading Aloud

As many readers have mentioned in comments, a nifty trick during revision is reading your manuscript aloud. Yes, it’s tedious. Yes, you sometimes lose your voice doing it, but you catch so many things you never would’ve caught before. My favorite thing to do — during workshop and critique sessions — is to actually have another person (or, you know, if you’ve got such a patient person at your disposal at all times) read your manuscript or parts of it to you. This is extremely instructive. You hear it in another voice (one that’s not inside your head) and you get to see where you reader stumbled or seemed to get caught up in certain sentences. You get to see if another voice makes the prose come alive (which means it has voice of its own) or if it lies flat on the page and makes your reader start droning. Very useful stuff!

The above are just a few tips and brainstorms that you can use. There are literally millions of writing exercises, books, methods and other authorities that you can study on the subject. I’ll name some of my favorites in my next post (and the last for Revision-o-Rama, boo!).

In the meantime, you can find more tips in previous blog posts. Here’s a post about why to avoid the word “suddenly” in your writing, and here’s another post about a nifty and quick revision trick that will help you see your manuscript in a whole new way. Feel free to leave your hot tips and brainstorming ideas in the comments.

Voice, Loud and Clear

So, voice is the number one thing that separates the published from the unpublished and, after that, the good books from the mediocre ones. The most successful writers in kidlit these days have undeniable voice. One way people describe voice is that, if you pick up a book without seeing the title or cover, and start reading, you’ll be able to guess who the author is. Sure. That’s what I like to call “authorial voice” and it’s important. But if you’re just starting out or you’ve only completed one or two projects, your authorial voice is still developing. So that explanation of voice isn’t satisfying enough, in my opinion.

How else can we define voice? Where does it come from? I want to argue that it comes from character. And since a lot of main characters are thinly-veiled versions of the author, this means the character’s voice shares a lot of elements with the author’s own voice. Two birds with one stone! What do I mean by “the character’s voice”? Well, if you remember, a character should be as fleshed-out and vibrant as a real human being. They should have their own favorite words that they use (not necessarily slang, people, that’s the cheap and superficial way to do it!), their own way of speaking, their own way of describing things, their own way of seeing the world.

If you want to experiment with voice, or if people keep telling you that your voice didn’t hook them enough or wasn’t enough for them to make a connection, I would seriously try writing in the first person. That’s where you can see the effects of voice most easily and immediately. There are a lot of great authors who write with a lot of voice in close 3rd or omniscient 3rd, but it is much more challenging. Either way, let me explain voice in the context of a character.

I said in my post about imagery and description that theme is like a lens… something everything else in your manuscript is filtered through. This idea holds even more true for voice. You need to figure out who your main character is and then see the world through their eyes. Use the words that they would use. Describe things with that character’s particular slant. Here are two ways of describing the exact same thing: a green couch. First: “It was a moss-green item of furniture that could fit four people.” Second: “The lumpy old raft of a couch was baby-poop-green and threatening to make me sick. After all, it was jammed with my three least-favorite people: Uncle Mordy, Aunt Mildred, and my lech cousin Kenny. Oh yeah… and me.”

That is in a character’s unique voice. Aunt Mildred might’ve described the couch in a completely different way, because she happens to watch a lot of Martha Stewart, or whatever. And we still get the information that the couch is green and fits four people. But we get it through a special filter. Just like we’re learning something about a manuscript’s theme through the writer’s use of imagery and description, we should also be learning about the character through the voice.

Voice also circles back to word and verb choice. Boring words that sound like they’re out of a business memo or that are too adult and drab for the kidlit audience are the bane of my existence. Words that are stilted or businesslike, like “objective,” “achieve,” “vehicle” (instead of “car”), “communicate,” “item,” “object,” even general words like “beautiful,” “exciting,” “dangerous,” mean nothing. That’s because they lack voice. And a reader isn’t going to respond to them and get engaged in the material. Two paragraphs above, I used the verb “jammed” instead of the more static “sat” or “reclined” or “rested” or even “was stuck” because it’s active, it fires up the imagination. And it fits the mood and tone of the situation I’m describing.

Some people liken voice to almost “hearing” the character whispering the story into your ear as you read. That’s a nice way of thinking about it, if it helps you. I think voice is equal to the life in your character. Pitch-perfect word choices create voice and define character. A well-defined, unique character generates voice. The two are in a constant feedback loop. And the same is true for 3rd person, only it’s really the narrator’s voice that shines through here. Depending on how far removed your narrator is from the story, you can either make the voice a really big part of the tale, like Adrienne Kress (Read a quick review from the holiday gift guide) does in her books, or you can be more distant. Whether your voice is outrageous and brash, as in the example above, or a little more subdued, like your average 3rd person narrator, it still needs to be carefully crafted, word by word, so that its unique essence comes through on every page.

And that’s a huge challenge. I can tell you honestly that the books which I choose to represent all have voice. 99.99% of what comes in to me might not be “bad.” It might even be “pretty good.” There may be nothing technically wrong with the writing, either. But the voice will be lacking, and that’s really the “x-factor.” It’s usually the last thing to fall into place for a writer as they wade through their Million Bad Words. It’s when you’re proficient at all the other writing tricks and tools that you really feel like you can play around and experiment and play Frankenstein… create a living, breathing thing on the page.

But the only way to get there is to write and study writers who have great voice, like Laurie Halse Anderson and David Levithan, Carrie Jones and Frank Portman, Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) and M.T. Anderson. Meg Cabot (Yes, even her! Some people find her sugary energy grating, but that’s why so many people love her!) and J.K. Rowling. If you want to read an adult book (Gasp! Heresy! And on KIDlit.com, of all places!), I would seriously recommend THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz. That is voice heaped on top of voice and piled with even more voice and slathered with a heaping scoop of voice to make a delicious voice sandwich. It’s the only adult book I’ve read this year (how awesome is that?) and I read it twice.

One thing that works for me sometimes is speaking the story into a pocket recording device and transcribing it later. The first stories that people told each other were oral histories around the campfire. This was long before the Bible and the printing press. Composing your story to yourself aloud helps open up creative channels you’re not used to using, helps you improvise, forces you to get a little hammy and act it out. It also reminds you to use a unique voice (yours!) and that you’re, at the end of the day, telling a story. Write a whole book that way or just try a chapter. It’s worth a shot.

Teenage Perspective Cheat Sheet

One of my favorite parts of SCBWI (where I took no pictures, because I am made of #epicfail, by the way) was Krista Marino’s voice workshop, where we dissected and discussed what an authentic teen voice is. One of the keenest insights came when she invited her author Frank Portman (mastermind behind KING DORK and the forthcoming ANDROMEDA KLEIN) to talk about his songwriting for his band, The Mr. T Experience (better known as MTX).

Now, full disclosure time: Frank Portman didn’t land on my radar with his brilliant YA debut novel, far from it. I was a fan long, long ago. When I was 14-15-16-17, I’d pile into a friend’s ride or drive my junker Ford Taurus up and down the San Francisco Bay Area and go to MTX shows. (There’s a fangirl picture of me with Dr. Frank, in fact, that I tried to find for you guys, where I’m wearing a leopard print coat, a rockabilly dress, an Avril tie, knee socks… all the trappings of good teenage fashion sense, believe you me… It’s probably best that I seem to have misplaced it, on second thought…)

Dr. Frank and Krista made a very good point during the workshop. Writers, remember:

Teens aren’t stupider versions of adults. They’re just as smart, just as emotional, just as perceptive… they’re simply lacking the experience and perspective that most adults get in the process of living more years on the planet.

And, since your character will change over the course of your story, your narrative is just one way they’ll get some different perspective and evolve as people, right? Excellent. In the meantime, as you’re fleshing your characters out, MTX songs make an excellent primer in teen voice and angst.

Have you forgotten how desperate guys are to find a girl, any girl who likes them/wants to talk to them/can stand looking at them? Do you remember the sting of feeling completely alone and invisible to the opposite sex? Listen to the hilarious “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend” off of Our Bodies Our Selves.

Have you forgotten the tremendous roller coaster of first love? The ups and downs and the dizzy compulsion to make it work despite any and all common sense? Try “Who Needs Happiness (I’d Rather Have You)” from Revenge Is Sweet, And So Are You on for size.

Do you remember the ecstasy of finding the one person who understands you? The relief of discovering an oasis amidst the torture of high school? Listen to “Thank You (For Not Being One of Them)” off of Love is Dead.

If you think your voice is lacking authenticity, if your teen emotions aren’t ringing true, do yourself a favor and pick up a couple of Mr. T Experience albums. And yes, this is extremely, extremely gratifying for my 16 year-old inner fangirl. Who knew my nerdy MTX fandom would pay off career-wise? You can check out their record label’s minisite by clicking here. You can also check out Dr. Frank’s website.

When to Use the Second Person

Is everyone clear on what the 2nd person is? It’s the “you” in a narrative. Many narrators, usually first person, use the “you” occasionally. Here are a few examples:

“My heart pounded with the kind of beat you only get after running for your life.”

“I’m telling you straight, man, she was so hot you could fry an egg on her.”

There’s also the implied 2nd person, which is sort of like the second example only the “you” is never explicitly stated. This implied 2nd person is usually used with a storytelling sort of voice:

“It rained so hard, honest to God, I never thought it’d stop.”

In all of these examples, there is either a “you” addressed or hinted at. The narrator is always talking to someone (usually interpreted as “the reader”) and breaking the fourth wall. (Theatre geek here, remember? “Breaking the fourth wall” is a theatre term, meaning the actors break the barrier between the stage and the house and address the audience directly.)

There’s also a less widespread use of the 2nd person… that’s when the “you” is another character in the story and the narrating character is talking directly to them. An excellent recent example of this is WHEN YOU REACH ME.

Finally, there are books that are written entirely in the 2nd person, where “You” is the main character. These do not work for me, at all, as the direct address feels like it’s pulling me out of the story the entire time. A book that I have recently been unable to get into, despite knowing how brilliant it is and having deep respect for its writer and editor, is (the aptly titled) YOU by Charles Benoit.

Now that we’re all clear on what the 2nd person is, I want to make a point about it. A lot of writers are very careless with the occasional 2nd person because it has become very common in our way of talking. Everyday speech is studded with expressions like “you know?” and they translate into our manuscripts. Sometimes a narrator will go on a 2nd person jag, and every simile has a “you” embedded in it. Other times, the “you” will be absent for hundreds of pages at a time only to show up randomly.

Be very careful with the 2nd person. It is confrontational. It breaks out of the 1st or 3rd person and crosses the line between story and reader, fiction and the real life of the person reading it. It makes the reader part of the story and, when used intentionally, can have a really cool effect (which I still probably won’t appreciate, as is the case with YOU, because I don’t personally enjoy 2nd person).

But I’m seeing a lot of sloppy, careless 2nd person outbursts in narratives that don’t necessarily demand the 2nd person. My tip, while you’re just feeling out a story and getting the hang of writing it, is to leave the 2nd person out, if you can. If used correctly and consistently, it rocks. Otherwise, it just seems spotty and annoying. From me, it gets the reaction of: “Leave ME out of it and get on with the story!”

So that’s what I’d say. Either you use 2nd person consistently in a manuscript (and I’m talking narrative here, not dialogue) or write a draft without the 2nd person and see if you miss it. All I’m saying, folks, is make it intentional.

Bonus Tip: If there’s one thing that bugs the jeebus out of me, it’s the use of a 2nd person rhetorical question to launch a query letter:

“What would YOU do if a flesh-eating virus was descending on YOUR town and only YOU had the antidote… locked in a small capsule in the base of YOUR spine?”

Um… are you honestly asking me? Because I’d probably mess my pants, eat a pint of ice cream and go hide in the basement with my back to the wall.

See, when you get the 2nd person involved, it automatically elicits a reaction from your reader. By starting a query with a rhetorical question, you’ll get on your reader’s nerves and most likely elicit the reaction of: “I don’t want to hear about ME, I’d rather hear about YOUR book, dingus!”

Not that any serious publishing professionals have ever been known to use the word “dingus.” (Okay, that might be a lie.)

Am I Wrong to Pursue A Writing Career?

For today, I’ve got a question from a reader! Take a look at what L.S. wanted to know:

I’ve been writing for a few years (I’m 17) and I know I want to be an author. It’s all I want to do but I know my writing needs work – a lot of work. I’ve heard from some people that the only way to improve your writing is to practice, just keep writing and reading. Is that true, or is it different for everyone? And is it wrong to pursue this as a career?

It seems like the most common advice is to do something else, “write in your free time”. I originally decided that if I made it to college, I’d major in Creative Writing. I thought that would help me become a better writer, but I’m worried now that it would be a waste of time.

There isn’t a single writer in the world who hasn’t doubted whether writing is the path for them. These questions are definitely normal. The first thing I have to say is that you’ve got plenty of time on your hands. A lot of writers discover their passion for it early. This is the part you might not want to hear, though: a lot of writers start early but then spend years and years and years honing their skills. To answer your question, yes, practice and reading are the best ways to improve as a writer. That’s not just for some people, that’s for everybody. The more you write, the better you get, and the more you read, the more you absorb for your own craft.

Even though you’re thinking of majoring in creative writing, don’t think you’ll get out of college with that degree and begin a career writing books right away. The truth of the matter is, you’ll learn a lot more from years and years of practice than you ever will in creative writing classes. Those classes were nice but did little to prepare me for writing a book and getting into the publishing world. Heck, my MFA in creative writing was only marginally better than college in terms of craft and literature curriculum. Luckily, nobody cares about your degrees or your resume when you’re a writer. They only care about the work, as should you. That’s your responsibility to hone, so don’t feel like you need to put so much pressure on your degree.

Being an author isn’t an easy career to get into. Most people don’t realize how long it takes to start writing good, saleable books. Most people have no idea how slowly the publishing world moves. I talk to writers all the time who say it took them ten years of solid writing to finally get a manuscript that sold. But if that’s the only thing you can possibly imagine doing, if writing is an irresistible, compulsive thing for you, then pursue it. Most people try and then drop out. This is a field where tenacity is pretty much a requirement.

The thing you really need to explore right now is your voice. For young writers, the voice is usually the last thing to develop and solidify. It’s true. To carry any kind of book for 300 pages, a writer needs a mature, dynamic and compelling voice. A voice that feels like a real human being, not just some caricature or persona. If there’s any advice I’d give you, it’s to educate yourself, put in grueling writing time every day and to work tirelessly on your voice. That and don’t give up just because it’s hard. The most worth-it things are always difficult.

The Last Threshold and Writing What You Can’t

Here’s a post written by Mary-the-Writer, not Mary-the-Agent. I’ve written a lot of manuscripts in the pursuit of my craft. Each has been better than the last one and I have no doubt I can tell a story, but there’s a threshold in my way that I’m always grappling with. It’s the hardest, most menacing final hurdle, and I haven’t hopped over it yet, as my work remains unpublished.

My struggle is voice. A voice that’s believable, that changes, that evolves and reeks of humanity. Because that’s what is necessary in today’s market. And my biggest problem is impatience. I want to publish a book and I want to do it right now. But things don’t work that way. In my pursuit of the manuscript “just good enough for someone to publish it already!!!” I’ve been turning out lazy, one-dimensional, generic writing. Some writers, those trained in critique groups and workshops, will automatically move to pat me on the knee and whisper that no, it’s actually very good and that I shouldn’t say that, and that I’m being self-critical, and blah blah blah. But compliments don’t help a person improve. They’re the last things you’ll remember, after you process all the real, honest and challenging advice you get.

In the pursuit of the book that’s good enough, I haven’t written a book that’s alive. Something with a pulse. Something that has the “x factor” to succeed. (Hint: the “x factor” in any manuscript is voice.) Not yet. That’s what I finally have to tackle (in all my “spare” time, ha!). And the painful funny thing is, I’ve known it all along. In my rush to write and revise, I’ve known that these manuscripts haven’t been my absolute best work. A long time ago, in college, I figured out that my lazy try was better than some people’s absolute best writing. That’s the moment when I decided to play it safe. I know I’m not alone in this.

People have a tendency to stop short of doing their best. It’s a self-defense mechanism. If they don’t write the things they really want, if they don’t pour out the real effort, then the failure they’re imagining (and will most likely experience) can’t hurt them that deeply. Criticism slides right off, because they have a dirty little secret: this wasn’t the real try anyway.

Well, I am throwing in the towel on that attitude these days. It’s childish, it’s self-defeatist and it’s the last great threshold in my writing life. Is there anybody out there with me who’ll do the same? Have I hit upon anybody else’s dirty little secret? Good.

Here’s my advice to those writing what’s just good enough:

Write what you can’t. Write what you’ve been afraid to write this entire time.

I’m done with writing safe, bloodless manuscripts that get me nowhere. Just like any writer, I’ve faced a lot of rejection. But I’m grateful for it, so thank you to all the editors who haven’t published me yet. Thanks for not letting me get away with it. I’ll be here until next time, getting over my self-inflicted BS and finally writing the manuscript that’ll make me vulnerable, that’ll seem impossible, that’ll take me over my last threshold.

I want nothing less from the writers who query me.

Describing Emotions With Physical Cliches

Without further ado, here are the Four Horsemen of the Prose-ocalypse:

  1. Eyes
  2. Hearts
  3. Lungs
  4. Stomachs

What do I mean? These four areas of the body are the well-worn favorites of writers everywhere when it comes to describing emotions of any kind. Count how many times you’ve seen the following (or similar) phrases:

She darted a menacing glance over her shoulder.

He cast his eyes to the ground.

My heart clenched in my chest like a giant fist.

His heart knocked against his ribs like a caged bird.

She let go of a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.

Timmy gasped for air like a drowning man.

The sound of his raspy breathing was the only noise in the otherwise death-silent room.

A gnawing feeling radiated from her guts.

Acid roiled in my stomach, threatening to make an exit up my esophagus.

And on and on and on. Now, that’s not to say these phrases are inherently bad. They’re not. But as writers, you should always be aware of your descriptions. There aren’t many areas of the human body that act as emotional centers. Eyes, hearts, lungs and stomachs are the four biggies. A lot of stuff happens at these hotspots as a character moves through the emotional arc of a story.

But every time you write something about eyes darting, a heart clenching, breaths catching in throats or guts rumbling, just know that these Four Horsemen appear in almost every manuscript. It is your job to put a fresh twist on these descriptions and to give your readers new images.

Just because you know everyone struggles with this problem and just because you want to easily convey emotion in your work doesn’t mean you can get complacent and fall back on the stuff I’ve outlined above.

I issue you a challenge and throw down the gauntlet! What are some fun ways you outsmart the Four Horsemen in your manuscripts?