Monday, March 27, 2017

How Do You Know When Your Book Is Done?



Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her author website.



"How do you know when your book is done?"

I get this question a lot when I have the privilege of talking to young writers at writing conferences or over email. I hate that I can't provide a, "If you've done A, B, and C, then your book is ready!" kind of answer.

Here's what I tell them:




1. It's a gut thing.

Similar to how you "knew" that was the right name for your main character, or the best last line for your book, "knowing" that your book is done is more of a feel. This is a piece of the process that's more intuitive than mathematical.

And sometimes my gut is more like, "I think my book is maybe done...?" rather than, "I'm SO ready! Let's do this!"

2. Process is important.

When you're a new writer, and you don't have a process yet, it's hard to follow the advice of "trust the process." Some writers are three draft writers and others are twelve; Until you've written and edited a few manuscripts, how can you know and trust what you're doing?

Every writer's process is a bit different, but generally speaking your book needs to go through several rounds of edits, several rounds of feedback, and several rounds of copy editing before it reads like a real book.

3. Let time be your tester.

If you have been writing stories for a few years or less, you are learning, growing, and changing crazy fast. Especially if you are a teen writer. If it takes you six months to write a first draft, you are likely a vastly different writer by the end of that process than you were at the beginning.

Seeing this kind of rapid growth is wonderful, but it's also a challenge when you're editing. Regarding their first novels, I frequently hear young writers say things like, "I may as well just scrap the whole beginning and rewrite it!"

And I understand, because I've been that writer!

I know we're an impatient people, and nobody likes to hear "give it time" as advice, but I strongly believe in its value to the creative process. That's why with every book, I give myself at least six weeks between the first draft and the second. I need that distance to be able to see the book clearly.

There's nothing wrong with putting your completed book aside for a month or two, and then reevaluating it's doneness. (Yeah, I know. Not a word.)

4. The only real way to know the book is done and readythat you are readyis to fling her out there and see what happens.

You know when I knew that I had become a good enough writer to be published? When an agent said to me, "You have a lovely writing voice!"

I thought, "I do? Yay, I'm finally here!"

Before she said that to me, I had no idea I had finally developed a writing voice. I just kept doing my best work, and then sending it out to agents and editors to see what they thought.

I know that's a scary way to find out if your book is good enough to catch a professional's eye. I wish you could just upload your Word Doc to a program and have it give you a red light or green light, but that's not a thing yet. (Surely someone is working on it...)

But I can't find a way around it: The only way to really know that your book is done and that you're ready is to have not-family, not-friend people read it and give you their opinion.

This doesn't mean that if one editor at one conference doesn't like it, you should scrap the book and rewrite it. Again, this goes back to point number one, that deciding your book is done is largely a gut thing. We'll talk more about receiving and incorporating feedback in the coming weeks as we transition into talking about publishing.

One last note: I picked the word "done" for this article because I heard a quote (I cannot figure out who said it, so if someone knows, please help me out) that "No book is ever finished, it's just done."

I've found that to be true in my own books, that I could nitpick them forever, and I imagine you'll find it to be true for your stories as well.

Have you finished a manuscript yet? (It's okay if you haven't!) If not, what's the farthest you've gotten?










Friday, March 24, 2017

Writing Exercise #7: Asking Why

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

People are one of the best writing prompts out there. A day of people watching will give you endless story ideas if you're diligent to bring a pen and paper, and are willing to ask yourself, "Why? Why did they just do that?"

"Why is she wearing pipe cleaners on her head?"
"Why is his cat on a leash?"
"Why is that couple arguing?"
"Why is that kid's leg in a cast?"
"Why is she crying?"

But beyond the simplicity of people-watching, the individuals around you often prove to be puzzles that need a little solving. Have you ever had someone in your circle do something outrageous and you couldn't quite figure out why? Maybe it was just something small, inconsequential. And maybe it stuck with you because it seemed so out of character.

What about people who make news headlines? Have you ever wondered, "WHY? WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?"

Sure you have. We all wonder. The people around us are often mysteries, but the truth is that most of the time, people act in a manner which makes absolute sense to them. Most people don't wander around doing random, aimless things. Actions, even ludicrous ones, are often nothing more than the next step on a road started some time back. Today, we're going to explore this a bit.



Here's what I want you to do:

Use your noggin and think back. Can you zero in on a moment where you were completely baffled by another person's actions? Think, think, think! Once you have the moment in your mind (and yes, it's okay to embellish it!), I want you to work backward and develop a list of plausible reasons for that person's action. Do me a favor and change the person's name, okay? We aren't trying to embarrass anyone. On the contrary, this exercise should show that there's often more to an action than we can can easily see.

Set it up like this:

 

Action:
Tom shows up to a wedding wearing smeared clown make-up, muddy boots, and carrying a wrench.

Because:
-He's a professional clown and was on his way to a gig when his car broke down. He walked a mile looking for help but the church was the only thing open on a Saturday.
-He's a debt collector for the mob. He was throwing his five-year-old daughter a birthday party when he got word that a sneaky debtor had returned to town for his sister's wedding.
-He's the groom and he's late. He fell asleep after a rowdy bachelor party and his best man took advantage--dressed him like a clown and super-glued the wrench to his hand before dumping him on a park bench to sleep it off.

Okay, my example is silly. But think you can do something similar? It takes a bit of brainpower, but it's good for you to consider the whys behind the curious actions you see out there.

Remember, when you participate in our exercises, you're automatically entered into a drawing where winners have the opportunity to submit a question for our next Go Teen Writers LIVE video panel. We'll have another one for you very soon. Details here.

Now do a little people watching and get to work!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Intuitive Writer

Roseanna M. White pens her novels beneath her Betsy Ross flag, with her Jane Austen action figure watching over her. When not writing fiction, she’s homeschooling her two children, editing for WhiteFire Publishing, designing, and pretending her house will clean itself. Roseanna is the author of a slew of historical novels and novellas. Spies and war and mayhem always seem to make their way into her novels…to offset her real life, which is blessedly boring. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and through her website.



~*~


Ready to talk about math?!

What? No, I’m on the right blog. I promise. And I shall prove to you in a few quick steps that you, you writer out there, may in fact be a mathematician. Ready? (Strap your seatbelt on if you feel the need. But I promise, this road won’t be too bumpy, LOL.)

I’m going to start us off with an intro to a truly awesome man named Blaise Pascal. No doubt you’ve heard of him. He was the “Heart has its reason that reason knows nothing of” dude. He was a brilliant man, expounding on math, physics, philosophy, and faith. I love his Pensees (translation: Thoughts), especially the ones dealing with faith. But it’s also worth reading his thoughts on subjects like math.

In one of these writings a bit too long for me to quote here, Pascal delves into two different kinds of minds—the mathematical mind and the intuitive mind. Here’s the skinny: the mathematical mind goes from step to step to step, making reasonable, logic leaps in a progressive fashion--you can in fact call it a "logical mind" if the word "mathetmatical" makes you break out in hives. ;-) The intuitive mind, on the other hand, sees the answer clearly without knowing the steps taken to get there.

So today, we're going to apply this to writing.

We all know that there are Pantsers and Plotters. And quite a few levels between. And we also all know there are methods galore on structuring your story, plotting your story, winging your story, building your characters, tormenting your characters (that’s totally a legitimate way of putting it, right?), and every other part of constructing a book. But I’m positing here that those methods are for the mathematical mind.

So what about the intuitive?

First, let’s determine if you might just be an intuitive writer. Here’s a little quiz to help you figure it out.

  1. What’s your favorite book on craft?
a. Bell’s Plot and Structure
b. Lamott’s Bird by Bird
c. Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel
d. Craft book? Hmm, I have twenty of them, but I can never get all the way through one...


  1. Where do each of your Three Acts begin?
a. Chapters Four, Twelve, and Eighteen
b. Chapters Three, Ten, and Nineteen
c. Chapters Five, Fifteen, and Twenty-Five
d. My what now? You do know I’m writing a novel, right, and not a play?


  1. What’s the lie your character is telling herself?
a. That she is nothing special
b. That she cannot succeed without help
c. That if she tells the truth, he’ll kill her
d. Lie—wait, I know this one. It’s...um...well, she...Stephanie! What’s the lie my character is telling herself??


Detecting the theme yet? ;-) If you’re an intuitive writer, you tend to see the story and, whether or not you plot or pants it while writing, have a hard time putting labels on the elements. Oh, you can usually identify climax, maybe a black moment, some of the big stuff. But all the little labels that spring up? You'd rather clean your room or empty the litter box or scrub the toilet than deal with those.

I’m here to tell you that that’s OKAY.

For years, I sat in classes at conference and read blog articles and thought, “Yes, of course, this is how we writers write. This is how we take it up a level or five. This is how we make sure our stories are solid and strong.” Then I’d take my notes, my newly-purchased book and workbook, I’d sit down in front of my WIP...and I’d go blank.

It was frustrating, because I knew my stories had these things. I knew my plots were balanced, that my characters were well developed. And when I emailed Stephanie (my critique partner) for her opinion on these aspects in my book, she could give me the answer in about ten seconds. Did Stephanie know my story better than me? No. Does she have a better grasp on writing? Sometimes I think so, LOL, but it’s not necessarily that. But what she does have is a mathematical mind.

(Insert Stephanie laughing hysterically, calling me all kinds of crazy...) ;-)

But seriously. There are those who know how to organize and label and progress from step to step to step. And there are those of us who just can't. It makes our minds go blank, our creativity dry up, and leaves us frustrated and doubting ourselves.

Now, Pascal himself advocates the perfectly balanced combination of these traits. To put it in terms of writing, it’s the person who can come up with a nearly complete idea and then go through and identify the important parts, tweaking where necessary to make sure each aspect is strong. Those craft books and seminars no doubt come in handy there, but it’s their instinct that helps them apply it wisely and creatively.

But most of us lean one way or the other. And there is advice aplenty for those who need the bullet points and diagrams. The other side is much quieter—and for good reason. How, exactly, does one teach a non-system?

Well, I don’t dare to say I can teach it to someone who isn't inclined that way, but I can give you intuitive writers out there a few pointers on how to strengthen your intuition and beef up that mathematical side too.

1. Give yourself permission to not be a labeler.

If you happen to have a great answer to the questions about lies and black moments and acts, great! Use them! Tack them to your wall and go with that. But if you don’t, don’t stress it, don’t fret over it, and don’t waste time that you could be writing trying to figure it out. If methods make your creativity dry up, then they're not serving their purpose, and you need to give yourself permission not to use them. The whole point of these things is to help you. If they're not, then don't feel bound to use them.

2. Learn to recognize the voice of your intuition.

If you’re going to go this route, then don’t slack at it. Does a sentence not sound right or feel right? Don’t be lazy. Fix it. Does one character bother you? Figure out why—and don’t be afraid to ask a critique partner for her opinion. Is a line of dialogue flat? Delete it, replace it. Does your ending feel weak? Rewrite it. Do you feel trapped in the character’s drawing room? Send them out on a mission. After manuscript revision after manuscript revision, I realized that I usually knew what was off long before my critters helped me label it. But I ignored it, and ended up with more work in the end. Once I learned to trust that voice, to know that voice, I eliminated a lot of correcting.


3. Know the Systems.

I’ve never studied the Snowflake or mapped out my Acts, I only made it through a few pages of the Breakout Novel Workbook. But I know the gist of them all, and keeping them in the back of my mind helps me to identify where my weaknesses are and some standard ways of strengthening them. I’ve even tried my hand at various methods of organizing. Index cards, color-coded charts, you name it. I never use one more than once, LOL, but trying them out has helped me in general. Not with labeling, but at least with organizing. ;-)

4. Don’t be afraid to twist the rules.

Sometimes my black moment becomes a bright moment. Sometimes my climax involves the character deciding not to act. Sometimes the lie they tell themselves turns out to be true. Sometimes rules have to be twisted--but first I have to know the rules, so the twist is deliberate and well planned. Never break rules just for the sake of it, but once you understand how they're supposed to serve your story, you can determine whether or not breaking them would serve it better.



5. Trust your instincts.

I wrote, oh, ten or so books before I joined a writers association and learned all the rules. And while I wish (oh, how I wish!) I’d known all these basics of POV and Show v. Tell from the get-go, I also appreciate the rules more because I can look back through my manuscripts and see how I evolved toward them on my own. The last book I wrote before learning about head-hopping didn’t, actually, head-hop. I occasionally shifted POVs when one character left a room without inserting a break, but the scenes themselves were within POV. Still, I needed the Rules to help me solidify those instincts, and to know which ones were right and which ones needed better hewn.


6. Don’t mistake pride for intuition.

My writing has always been and will always be more gut than structure. I do plot—but I don’t examine what part each scene plays. My plotting is more just taking notes on the story that has laid itself out in my mind. Still, I have to be careful not to confuse instinct with knowledge. Knowing how a story should go or a character should grow doesn’t mean I executed it right.



Which takes me back to math class. I drove my teachers nuts in middle and high school by not showing my work. I’d get the right answer, which I thought was all that mattered—but each and every one of them told me that wasn’t enough. Because then, when I was wrong, I had no idea where I’d gone wrong.

The same is true in writing fiction. Intuitive writers will often get it right—but when we don’t, how are supposed to fix it? That’s where we have to learn enough of the mathematical way to keep our instincts in shape. We have to be willing to grant our weaknesses and learn how to shore them up. We have to learn how to apply some of the structure so that we can be wise in what we ignore. ;-) And yes, it’s very, very helpful to have a critique partner who leans the other direction. That way she can help you label when labeling is required, and you can help her fill in the blanks when structure leaves a hole.

In the end, hopefully you’ll end up with a system that combines math and intuition...even if those craft books do gather dust on your shelf.

So which kind of writer are you? Intuitive or mathematical?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Writing Unplugged: Why it matters, and how to do it well

A junior in high school at seventeen, Grace spends a disproportionate amount of time writing. She has penned two novels, various poems, songs, and short stories, and several freelance articles. When she’s not in front of her laptop screen or talking with characters, Grace can usually be found with her flute, piccolo, ukulele, or piano, playing and composing music. She also enjoys reading, biking, swimming, learning Spanish, and eating Jolly Ranchers.

I’ll tell you a secret: while I love the idea of writing on a cool fall evening, pouring my heart out into the depths of a worn notebook, it’s not very realistic.

What would actually happen is I’d sit down with my laptop, begin fleshing out a story idea when OH! I need to research That Thing That Will Probably Only Make Up One Sentence In My Book right now!

So I’ll open a new tab, type in a Google search and be flooded with pages upon pages of information. While I’m wading through the dregs of the Internet, my phone will ding. I’ll pick it up and answer the text… and I might as well check Pinterest since I’m already on my phone.

An hour later (And still on Pinterest), Mom will call me to ask if I’ve loaded the dishwasher yet. I’ll get up and do it, grumpily, because Can’t she understand she interrupted my writing?

After that it will be time to eat dinner; I’ll look back on another afternoon wasted on technology when I could have been writing.



Now, don’t get me wrongtechnology is great. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have passed AP Physics without videos from the Internet. However, just like almost everything, there is a time and a place for technology. As writers, it’s easy to feel like we are doing productive research when we are actually wasting time doing basically nothing.

But I’m not naive. While I would love to endorse pouring your heart out into the depths of a worn notebook, I know that for the majority of us it’s just not possible. Maybe some of you actually use a notebook to write, and if so, more power to you! However, I have over three hundred pages from novels and short stories in various states of completion, all on that wonderful application called Google Drive.

So for me, switching to writing solely in a notebook probably would be more trouble than it’s worth. Right now you’re wondering, “Then why is she blogging about writing unplugged?”

I’m not suggesting we all unplug completely from technology while we are writing. I just think that it would benefit a lot of us to find a healthy balance between technology and traditional pen-and-paper writing. And so y’all don’t have to figure it out on your own, this is how I have gone about doing that:

When it’s time to write, write.

I often find myself looking for distractions if I’m having trouble getting into the scene I’m writing.

I’m always tempted to find a new song to listen to every five minutes, which is a real time killer. Lately, I’ve started to either set up my own playlist of pre-chosen songs or find one song I really like and find a ten hour loop of it on YouTube (I would like to point out that I do not actually write for ten hours at a time - but with the ten hour loop I know I won’t have to go back and choose another song because I won’t be writing for ten hours, if that makes sense).

I also set my phone to “Do Not Disturb” so the tempting sound of a text alert doesn’t draw me into the internet like a siren song.

Save research for a designated time.


I don’t let myself research when I’m trying to write. The thing about research is that it is deceptively easy to feel productive and not actually get anything done.

To combat this, I sort of took the Go Teen Writers story workbook and ran with it; now I have a ‘to do’ list for things I have to research organized by topic, page number in my book, and specific questions I need answered. It is a godsend, and I really recommend it (I would also like to point out that I was not paid to endorse this blog but I’m going to anyway because it really is amazing).

If you don’t have a workbook set up, keep a notebook by your desk and write down things you are tempted to look up.

Write by hand


Next is where the "writing unplugged" part comes in. I think it’s really important for anyone who writes to use a pen and paper at least once a day (and no, your math homework doesn’t count). There have been a bunch of studies done about how writing by hand stimulates the brain and actually increases your creativity, which I’ll take when I can get.

Since I don't write my novel by hand, I:

Write a journal

It’s actually a fantastic way to improve your skills while getting away from technology. My little sister hated journalling until she started doing it in verse, so maybe that’s something y’all could try.

Keeping a journal is the best of both worlds when it comes to writing: you get the sensory experience of writing with a pen, but you are still free to do writing and research on your computer.

So, that’s my take on writing unplugged. Thanks so much to Shannon, Jill and Stephanie for letting me post so late! See y’all on the shelves someday!

Do you struggle with technology distracting you while you write? What tips do you have for writing unplugged?

Friday, March 17, 2017

Writing Exercise #6: What Is Your Story Problem?

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

Both of my kids are voracious readers. We're at this fun stage where the twelve year old is forcing his favorites into the hands of the eight year old. I love watching the two of them share and compare notes. I can't do it without a big, fat smile on my face.

It wasn't always smooth sailing though. When my youngest advanced to chapter books, it was a bit of a shock to her young mind. Unlike many of the more educational books she'd enjoyed as new reader, chapter books made her heart race. It was the angst. The problems bombarding the heroes. The seemingly unsolvable dilemmas. It was almost too much for her.

I can't tell you how many times I had to wipe her tears and ask her to close the book so we could talk. So we could find perspective. Again and again I reminded her, "Every hero has a dilemma. It's not a story if there isn't a problem to be solved."

Today, when she climbed into the car after school, she asked me about my day. When I told her I spent it writing, she said, "You've been writing that book for a long time, Mom. What's it about?"

I stumbled for an explanation--as I always do when asked that question--and I said something brilliant like, "Oh, it's hard to explain, baby."

And she said, "Well, just tell me the problem then. What's the problem in your story?"

And I smiled. Isn't she a clever little thing? Using my own words against me.

So, today, I ask you.



Here are a few things to consider:

Who is your hero?
How would you explain your hero so an eight year old could understand? You want to keep it simple, but consider that things like setting and vocation may help you define what makes your character unique.

My answer: My hero is a truck driver named Sylvi who lives and works on a mountainous island that celebrates two seasons: a wet winter and a frozen one.

What happened? 
To properly explain your story problem, you must be able to pinpoint exactly what happened to force your hero into action. We call this the Inciting Incident and YES, your story must have one.

My answer: Sylvi's best friend was kidnapped by smugglers.

What does your hero want?
Because of what happened, your hero has a want or need. And that desire is going to propel him or her forward.

My answer: Sylvi wants her best friend safe at home.

What's standing in your hero's way?
The truth is, if you've answered the first three questions, you have a pretty good start on your story's problem. To adequately explain it though, we should ask ourselves a few more questions.

What obstacles prevent your hero from reaching what he or she wants? There must be obstacles. There must be blockades standing in your hero's way. Hint: These hurdles make up the bulk of your plot.

My answer: In order to get to her best friend, Sylvi has to truck a thawing ice road that will take her through mountains thick with the magic of Winter and rife with corrupt law dogs and angry rebels.

What happens if your hero fails?
We call this 'the stakes' and the stakes should be high. As high as you can possibly make them. What happens to your hero, to those he or she loves, to the world at large--what happens if your hero fails?

My answer: If she fails, Sylvi will likely lose her rig, her only source of freedom, while her best friend will suffer and die. 

A note here: The stakes in my story are continually rising and they aren't as clear cut as my hero believes. But for the sake of this exercise, stick to what your hero is aware of at the outset. Getting caught up in rising tension and subsequent storylines, will not help you define your story's problem.

BUT! In five simple questions, questions you can easily answer, you're able to hone in on your story problem. What's left is to condense it into something simple and easily shared.

There are many reasons for creating a pitch you can share, but first and foremost this exercise is for you. So many writers have no idea what their story is about. Knowing your story problem will help you write your story and it is the first step toward reaching a satisfying conclusion for your reader. It's as simple as asking yourself a few questions and then taking the time to rearrange the answers into something that makes sense.

The next time my eight year old asks me what my story's about, this is what I'll say:

Sylvi Quine, a rig driver on the enchanted, but frozen island of Layce, finds out her best friend has been abducted by smugglers and taken to a rebel camp at the very end of the Shiv Road. To get her friend back, Sylvi will have to risk her life and her rig to truck a mysterious haul through the mountains, across a rapidly thawing highway rife with corrupt law dogs and angry rebels, and she'll have to make her delivery before the road melts clean away. Failure means the loss of her rig, her freedom and the life of the only friend she's ever had.

It's a little long. Not quite as snappy as a one-sentence summary, but it conveys my story's problem clearly and simply.

Now, it's your turn! In the comments section below, PUH-LEASE share your story problem with us. Maybe get out a pencil and paper and answer the five questions above and then drop your cursor in a comment box below and give us a paragraph that tells us your story's primary problem. I can't wait to see what you're all writing about!

And remember, when you participate in our exercises, you're automatically entered into a drawing where winners have the opportunity to submit a question for our next Go Teen Writers LIVE video panel. We'll have another one for you very soon. Details here.

Now, write! Tell us what your story's all about.