Workshop Submission #4

Today’s workshop submission comes from an anonymous source for her project, SCARLET BUTTERFLIES. From her brief introduction to the piece, it looks like the story is about music and a girl who plays guitar.

This is what she says:

I’m struggling showing what the story is from the beginning. Also, I’m not sure if I’m a seasoned enough writer to be writing in first-person present.

Here’s the submission material!

***

Mom flaunts a plumber’s crack as she lifts my sixteenth birthday cake from the oven. The pleasant aroma of box cake slithers up my nose. Her finger scoops up batter from an empty bowl and misses her willing lips. A smelly sink rag soaks her breast onto red scrubs. “Gosh darn it!”

Two things here. The four description sentences are all around the same length. Try reading them in a monotone voice. You’ll get into a sing-song rhythm because your brain will start skipping over sentences that all look the same. To keep readers engaged, vary sentence length.

Second, this opening paragraph is all about the mom. While there are some actions and images here, who is the focus of the story? The first image in your novel, the first person you describe, they are in an extremely important position. More people will see the very first thing you talk about than the last thing. Shouldn’t these first moments be focused on your principal POV character rather than an adult?

My feet cringe to the touch of concrete floors colder than a polar bear’s butt as I reach across the counter for some frosting. “Yum, ma.”

This is disorienting. Usually, our feet get used to the floor pretty easily. This makes it sound like she just came in the room. How close is she to Mom, spatially? Why does their kitchen have concrete floors? Also, two mentions of butts in the first two paragraphs. Even to teenagers (unless they’re middle school boys), butts do not equal instant voice or comedy.

Every once in a while she tries to be wonder woman. And right now, she’s slipping on black shoes, frosting cake, searching for car keys, and still managing to speak with me.

Really chaotic, but not in the way you intend. You’re making the reader scramble a lot to try and keep up. We just saw description of her working on the cake but all these other actions are jarring. Doing all these things while trying to get a cake out of a hot oven seems risky, not heroic. Also, notice, still very Mom-focused. The Wonder Woman comment sounds like something a mom would say to describe her own mom efforts. Teens, no matter how good their parent/child relationships, don’t always have this kind of insight into how hard their folks really work on their behalf. That’s a more retrospective thought that comes later, with more life experience.

“Hey, did you make any progress on your math homework?”

She tries her best to care, but school stuff is the last thing I want to talk about on my birthday. I suck it up for her sake. “No, not really, but I’m gradually getting there.”

I don’t get the “she tries her best to care.” This implies that she really doesn’t care, which implies problems. This also doesn’t square with the Wonder Woman comment, above. A Wonder Woman parent would care, deeply. “Progress” and “gradually” are also dry, voiceless words. If you can find it in an office memo, it probably doesn’t belong in a teen’s mouth, especially in first person POV.

Cutting the first part and just saying: “School stuff is the last thing I want to talk about…” would make this stronger… and also less Mom-centric. Look at how Mom is still the primary subject in most of your sentences.

With a quick frown, she relates. “I wish I could help you Roberta Rae, but you know how important my job is. I’ll try to call you tonight on my break and help you out.”

“Thanks mom. That would be great.”

This dialogue isn’t the most natural. These people sound like they’ve never talked to each other before. A lot of writers use spoken backstory in their dialogue to try and introduce information that the characters already know but that the reader should know, too. If you ever find yourself saying, “You know…” or “I know I’ve already told you…” or anything similar, that’s a red flag. Would two people who have been living with each other for 16 have this conversation? Also, “Mom” by itself is capitalized, and should be, above, “my mom” or “her mom” is lowercase.

I know my mom’s trying to be nice, but I hate that she calls me by my real name. I’ve always wanted to tell her I don’t like it, but it would hurt her feelings. My name is Robbie. Robbie Rae McIntyre. What kind of first name is that anyway? McIntyre’s fine, but Roberta? It reminds me of some old lady. And I’d bet anyone a million bucks there’s a Roberta living in the nursing home down the street.

Almost every first manuscript I read has a character talking about how much they hate their full name. This is a very simple way to introduce information, as per the backstory comment above. This is also extremely overdone. And again… the beginning of every piece of your manuscript is the place where the spotlight will fall. The beginning of the novel. The beginning of a chapter. The beginning of a paragraph. That’s where readers will expect you to put the most important information. And here… who, once more, occupies the privileged place at the beginning of the paragraph? That’s right, Mom. Also, nitpick: “bet a million bucks” is a tired cliche.

***

To wrap up, I’d say this author could devote some energy to finding her authentic teen voice. Focus less on the mom and more on the POV character. I feel like we got to know the former better than the latter. From a story perspective, though, I’m struggling to find what the larger manuscript will be about. I didn’t get a sense of a) the possible conflict that will arise and b) any music stuff, which seems central to her brief plot description.

Both need to be present from the opening. Also, here’s a consideration… what will be the core relationship in the story? Will it be with Mom? In that case, that comes across clearly. If it will be with a boy or with a friend or with a sibling, though, there’s no hint of that at all.

You set the tone with your beginning. Reading this, I think it will be a family story about a girl’s relationship with her mom. If that’s not the case, maybe pick another moment to start the story with, one that better conveys what we’ll be reading about.

Workshop Submission #3

I’m punctual this morning. Yay! Our next workshop selection is Tiffany Bennet and her manuscript, GO. GENTLY.

Tiffany is writing from the male POV and wants to know if it sounds authentic.

Here’s the material!

***

Folks got a lot of ideas about us guys. Some of these ideas are born from television or movies. Hell, maybe some are born from books. If people still read books. And no, I don’t count reading myspace pages or twitter as reading, though some of it can be pretty entertaining. Some of these ideas are perpetrated by some girl’s bad experience which now, somehow, without explanation, will mark our species forever. And let’s be honest, men and women are two entirely different species.

Wait, I’m confused. Am I reading a fiction novel or an essay on gender roles in teenagers? Phrases like “Some of these ideas are perpetrated” sound downright clinical and don’t have an engaging voice.

This is what I like to call a rant. Every once in a while, a character will go into a long monologue about an issue that “they” (sometimes I wonder if it’s really the author sprouting off here) care about. In almost all cases, rants are unnecessary. Nobody likes to hear someone on their soapbox, even if that person is fictional. Especially not at the beginning of a piece. This also tells us nothing about the character, since they’re speaking in vague terms about teenagers, males and society in general.

Also, this writer wanted to see if her writing worked well in the male POV. I don’t know if there’s a LESS convincing way of portraying maleness than by having that person talk about, “I am male. I am having a specifically male problem.” This doesn’t seem very natural or authentic and might not fly with today’s readers.

But not all of us are happy merely fitting into the mold so effortlessly created for us. I sure ain’t. And neither was Tristan. We’re not all appeased by a quick go-around in the backseat of our mom’s mini-van with some girl we won’t call the next day. Maybe that’s why Tristan is dead. You can only deny something for so long before it eats away at you.

Trust me, I know.

And talking about “generic teenage issues,” like being forced into a mold, won’t automatically make teenager relate to the character because, again, the issue here is very general. Readers open a book to read about a specific character who has a specific problem, not to have a list of vague problems described. I also am a bit unsure re: “I sure ain’t.” Is the grammar here trying to be folksy? In that case, it sounds downright odd right next to the more formal diction of “And neither was Tristan.” Plus, “ain’t,” though not widely accepted, stands for “am not” and is present tense, while the rest of this has been in past.

Here we finally get a hint at a specific problem, though. Tristan is dead and the character has some denial and, apparently, some guilt or grief about it.

Soon my mother will be up to tell me he is dead. Drunk-driving accident. But I know the truth. It was no accident. He wanted, needed, to go. I have to decide how I will react to the news. Do I retreat inside myself? Would it be simpler for everyone around me if I pay homage to the I-have-no-emotions-give-me-a-beer-I-will-cry-if-the-Falcons-lose-the-game-but-not-acknowledge-any-human-connection-man that so long carried the flag for my species? Or maybe I should recklessly abuse drugs and alcohol. I could become another actor in the teen drama, I Have So Many Issues. Please Notice Me.

I’m wondering how this character knows what is about to happen. It does raise the tension. I’m also wondering if this is early morning or late at night — there could be more grounding. “needed to go” is also a bit vague. Needed to “go” as in DIE or needed to go to wherever he went (a party?) before he was killed?

Again, we get some pontificating on what it means to be a male and what kinds of male emotional responses are acceptable or expected. But that sentence with all the hyphens is overlong and I lose steam halfway through it. There’s a voice issue with “recklessly abuse drugs and alcohol.” I can’t imagine an older teen saying this. This actually sounds like an anti-drugs-and-alcohol brochure, not a teenager considering a bender.

The last line really does rub me the wrong way. The character here seems pretty condescending toward teenagers. Like he’s got their emotional responses and their experiences all figured out and he’s judging them. If I was a teen, I’d want to tell this guy off. He’s not giving a teen’s emotional experience any respect. And even if most teen drama seems like it’s just another case of “I Have So Many Issues, Please Notice Me,” it’s all very real and very important to teens themselves, no matter how frivolous it appears to an outsider. And because of that judgmental tone, this character really does seem like an outsider… and he seems like an adult. With a YA novel, that’s a problem.

***

My notes of advice for this submission could best be summed up with urging the writer to focus on the character and his problem, not on expounding on various issues about life and the teen age. This person’s brother (implied by “our mom’s mini-van,” emphasis mine) has died, and he seems to know about it before the rest of his family. And he doesn’t seem too broken up by it, either. That’s the tension there. Focus on it. And don’t use fiction as a personal platform for yourself or for what you think a male would want to say. That makes it less convincing. Get to the story and let who he is and how he thinks about the world unfold naturally from there.

Stay tuned. The next submission will appear on Monday.

Grand Prize Winner, Novel Beginnings Contest!

As promised, today is the big reveal of the Grand Prize winner for the Kidlit Novel Beginnings Contest! Without further ado, I present an entry by Mary Danielson, a (light) paranormal/mystery YA called THE SHERWOOD CONFESSIONS. This entry embodies the voice, tension, and intrigue that I like to see at the beginning of a novel. While we haven’t gotten a scene yet — which I’ve always said is very important at the beginning of a novel — I think that one is coming, just by the set-up. Find out why this book sounds compelling enough to read “from beginning to end.”

The funny thing about Mary Danielson, today’s winner, is that she actually entered the contest twice. For my initial judging, I like to keep entries anonymous. Lots of my frequent readers — whose names I recognize from comments and the like — enter the contests, so I don’t want to be biased when reading their entries. Either way, I whittle down the entries to about the top 25 or so without looking at names. Then I start to really analyze the top choices. And, by some incredible stroke of either luck or genius, two entries from this selection of the top 25 (out of more than 400!) belonged to Mary Danielson! And both entries were so good that it was difficult to choose just one to place among the winners that I’ve posted here.

Read on to find out what caught my eye… twice!

***

Five weeks before his disappearance, Miles St. John pushed me up against a locker and kissed me. Hard.

I really enjoy the voice here. And we have a disappearance already in play. There’s a lot of action in this sentence, and that “Hard,” for emphasis, is a nice touch.

This didn’t exactly make it into the police report. A lot of things didn’t. Not that night, not our plan, and especially not this little fact: I could have saved him.

Lots and lots of mystery! And the danger element of lying to the police. And the high stakes idea of her being able to save him. There’s immediate tension!

Even the reporters, who descended on Verity with their news vans and power ties, didn’t discover our secret. They badgered witnesses and dug up rumors, but still not a single tabloid mentioned my name.

And this character has managed to fly under the radar. I want to know a whole lot more about that.

In a few hours, I could be away from it all. Suitcases and secrets in hand, I could get on that plane to Texas and never be caught. Those stories would stand and you people could go on guessing and wondering, your theories swirling around and around until pretty soon everyone loses interest. It would be yesterday’s headline.

It would all be a lie.

Now she’s running from it, “suitcases and secrets in hand.” But will she get away with it? Will it be a clean severing of ties? And what will the emotional ramifications of all this secrecy be? I’m already so invested in this character’s story and I’ve only read a few sentences.

And if there’s anything my time at Verity Prep taught me, it’s this: a lie, even one that no one suspects, will do more bad than good every time. So, this isn’t going to be like before. I’m telling the truth now.

Lots and lots of tension again. My question from my last comment — about the ramifications of her lie — still stand here. I find that when the reader thinks something, and then the author mentions it and picks up on it, that’s a really well-written manuscript. I was just thinking about how the lie would impact her, and then it turns out Mary has thought about it too, and mentioned it right as it bubbled up in my brain. There’s the risk here, also, of this character finally telling the truth. I’m guessing this is the “confessions” part of THE SHERWOOD CONFESSIONS. What does this have to do with her impending escape? There’s also tension with the mention of “before” that piques my interest, and I want to know more about Verity Prep, where they’re apparently teaching whole lessons on lies and scandal instead of calculus and chemistry.

Not just about Miles, but about everything – the robberies, the fire, the curse.

And there’s a CURSE! *swoon* I want to know about all these things, but especially the curse.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? Uncle Dash says that the best quality in a good journalist is that she gives all the facts – from the very beginning, when things first get fishy, all the way until the villain’s confession.

I also like that she’s a journalist. If I hadn’t know this, I would still have noticed the way she talks about reporters and the news, abov,e and guessed that it was one of her interests. It’s cool to see a character’s narrative through the lens of their passion, and her interest in journalism is clear even before she says it outright. Good voice here, too.

So, here it is – from my beginning to his end — the confessions of Evie Archer: amateur sleuth, freak of nature, and criminal mastermind.

Great button for this excerpt. I want to know about all three of these roles that she’s taken on for herself.

***

So there you have it, folks! Congratulations to all the winners and the entrants… it takes a lot of guts to share your writing and put it out there into the world. I’ll do a bit of a “deconstruction” post for this contest on Friday, with some of my lingering thoughts on novel beginnings. Thank you all for playing along with this great exercise!

Creative Writing Revision Exercises

Here are some creative writing revision exercises that’ll help those of you wondering how to rewrite a novel. Grab your red pencil and read on!

creative writing revision exercises, how to rewrite a novel
Want to know how to rewrite a novel? Sharpen that pencil and dig into these creative writing revision exercises.

Creative Writing Revision Exercises to Strengthen Character

100 Declarative Sentences

This is a great brainstorm tool, and it’s really hard. This creative writing revision exercise 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.

Creative Writing Revision Exercises to Strengthen Prose

Cut 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.

Eliminate 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 for how to rewrite a novel 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!

More Resources for How to Rewrite a Novel

The above are just a few creative writing revision exercises 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 creative writing revision exercises in previous blog posts. Here’s a post about how to avoid writing cliches, and here’s another post about a nifty novel revision tip. Feel free to leave your hot tips and brainstorming ideas in the comments.

Feeling stuck on your WIP? Need help with how to rewrite a novel? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll offer a fresh perspective on your work.

Developing Writing Voice, Loud and Clear

Developing writing 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.

developing writing voice, types of voice in writing
You need to figure out who your main character is and then see the world through their eyes.

Developing Writing Voice Defined

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 work on developing writing 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. But there are different types of voice in writing — some authors 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.

Voice is How Your Main Character Sees the World

I said in my post about writing imagery that theme is like a lens… something everything else in your manuscript is filtered through. This idea holds even more true for developing writing 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. Different types of voice in writing will reveal different sides of the story.

Word Choice Matters

Developing writing 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.

Character and Voice and Inseparable

Some people liken developing writing voice to almost “hearing” the character whispering the story into your ear as you write. 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 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.

Do Your Research

But the only way to get there is to write and study types of voice in writing. Try 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.

Use Your (Literal) Voice

One thing that works for me in terms of developing writing voice 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.

My manuscript critique services will help you develop a unique voice that suits your story.

Teenage Perspective in Your Young Adult Novel

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 the young adult novel and writing teen characters. 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).

young adult novel, writing teen characters, writing teen perspective, writing authentic teen voice
As you’re writing your young adult novel, remember that nailing voice is critical. If you need a push in the right direction, use music as a reference point.

Know the Teens Who’ll Read Your Young Adult Novel

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 young adult novel, 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.

Tap Into Those Angsty Teen Emotions

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 Need Inspiration, Try Music

If you think the voice in your young adult novel 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 Dr. Frank’s website by clicking here.

Are you hitting the right young adult voice? Hire me to be your young adult fiction editor.

 

When to Use Second Person Writing

Is everyone clear on what second person writing is? It’s the you POV in a narrative. Many narrators, usually first person, use the “you” occasionally.

second person writing, you pov
Leave me out of it and get on with your story.

Examples of Second Person Writing

“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 implied second person writing, which is sort of like the second example only the you POV 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 second person writing… 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 you POV, 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.

Avoid Carelessness With the You POV

Now that we’re all clear on what second person writing is, I want to make a point about it. A lot of writers are very careless with the occasional you POV 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 POV 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).

Second Person Writing Tip

But I’m seeing a lot of sloppy, careless second person writing 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 Query Tip

If there’s one thing that bugs the jeebus out of me, it’s the use of second person writing in your query letter POV:

“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.)

If you’re still struggling with POV, tense, or revision, hire me for freelance editing services. I’m well-versed in these and all other craft topics and we can tackle big changes together.

How To Become A Novelist

Here’s a question from LS about how to become a novelist:

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.

how to become a novelist, writing career
How to become a novelist: Read, write, read, write, read, write, repeat.

How to Become a Novelist: Read and Write (And Read and Write Some More)

There isn’t a single writer in the world who hasn’t doubted whether a writing career 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 to pursue how to become a novelist. 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 like a writer 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.

Degree Optional

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. If you want to learn how to become a novelist, 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 a writing career. 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.

Tenacity Required

Writing careers aren’t easy 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. If you want to know how to become a novelist, tenacity is pretty much a requirement.

Find Your Voice

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 on how to become a novelist, 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.

Hire me as your novel editor and publishing consultant, and we can figure out how to position your novel in a competitive marketplace.

Writing Bravely: The Last Threshold

Here’s a post by Mary-the-Writer about writing bravely. 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.

writing bravely, permission to write
Write what you can’t. Write what you’ve been afraid to write this entire time. Writing bravely means you’ll cross the threshold to more authentic, vibrant writing.

Developing Authentic Voice Requires Patience

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.

Are You Playing it Safe?

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 give themselves permission to write bravely, 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.

Writing Isn’t Supposed to be Easy

But here’s the cold, hard reality. If want to do it well, if you to get published, writing is hard.

So I’m throwing in the towel on my lazy attitude these days. It’s childish, it’s self-defeatist and it’s the last great threshold in my writing life. I’m finally giving myself permission to write bravely. 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.

Writing Bravely Will Carry You Over That Last Threshold

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 bravely in order to craft the manuscript that’ll make me vulnerable, that’ll seem impossible, that’ll take me over my last threshold.

If I’m giving myself permission to write bravely, I expect nothing less from the writers who query me.

I know that writing bravely is hard. Hire me as your book editor and I’ll give you feedback that’ll get you a little closer to crossing the threshold to authentic, vibrant writing.

Describing Emotions With Physical Cliches

Without further ado, here are the Four Horsemen of the Prose-ocalypse with regard to describing emotions:

  1. Eyes
  2. Hearts
  3. Lungs
  4. Stomachs
describing emotions, showing emotions in writing
She darted a menacing glance over her shoulder at the Four Horsemen coming for her lazy writing…

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.

Well-Worn Favorites in Describing Emotions

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 that describing emotions in this way is inherently bad. It’s not. But as writers, you should always be thinking about how to describe emotion in creative ways. 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.

Innovate How You’re Showing Emotions in Writing

But every time you’re showing emotions in writing with 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 describing emotions and giving your readers new images.

Just because you know everyone struggles with this problem and just because you want to easily jump to showing emotions in your writing 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 mix up describing emotions in your manuscripts?

Characters need to be believable and relatable in order to hook readers. Hire me as your book editor and we can hone in on your protagonist together.