Friday, October 31, 2014

Brainstorming with Jenny Lundquist

Shannon here. I'm so excited to introduce you guys to YA and Middle Grade author, Jenny Lundquist. Her newest book, The Opal Crown, came out this week and you so want to read it. Trust me. Jenny and I met just before we each signed with our respective agents and we've stuck together through the ups and downs of our publishing journeys. EVERYONE should have a writer pal like her. Now, listen up. She's crazy smart. AND we're giving away a signed set of The Princess in the Opal Mask and its follow up, The Opal Crown.

Jenny Lundquist grew up in Huntington Beach, California, wearing glasses and wishing they had magic powers. They didn't, but they did help her earn a degree in intercultural studies at Biola University. Jenny has painted an orphanage in Mexico, taught English at a university in Russia, and hopes one day to write a book at a café in Paris. Jenny and her husband live in northern California with their two sons and Rambo, the world's whiniest cat.

One of my favorite parts of writing a novel is that early, daydreaming stage where your idea is little more than a wisp of dialogue here, a tendril of internal monologue there. Long before I sit down to write my first chapter, I spend a decent amount of time dreaming and brainstorming. And for me, that requires three things: Color, Coffee, and Great Atmosphere.

Sitting down at my computer reminds me too much of school assignments and business projects, and it prevents me from accessing that more emotional, daydreaming place inside of me. So oftentimes I need to create an atmosphere that looks something like this:

I spend a lot of time writing down my ideas and thoughts, usually into a Moleskine journal. Once I think I have enough to start a story, I start plotting scenes. Colored index cards are a life-saver for me, as I need to be able to “see” how each story thread is playing out. For middle grade projects, I tend to have a color assigned to the different locales that my character is spending time in. In fact, this is what my storyboard looks like for a middle grade project I’m currently working on:

(Pink is for school; yellow is for home; green is for extra-curricular activities, etc. The empty spaces are where I think my two boys thought it would be funny to steal a couple of the cards.)

In The Opal Crown, and for the entire Opal Mask series, I really needed to be able to see if I was giving Elara and Wilha, my two main characters, equal time for their story to develop. So I assigned them different card colors (green for Elara, purple for Wilha), as a visual illustration of how their scenes/chapters were playing out, so I could make any alterations, if need be.

The above photo shows early on when I was plotting The Opal Mask series, and starts at the beginning of the series, from the first scenes in The Princess in the Opal Mask, to the very ending scenes in The Opal Crown. The middle, you’ll notice, was largely blank, as that’s the hardest part of a story for me to write.

I realize there are apps and computer programs that can generate online corkboards, but again, I needed something less business-like and more sensory-based to access that place inside of me where my stories come from.

I think the key to brainstorming novels is to find a creative process that works for you and embrace it, no matter how strange that might look to others. Don’t be afraid to find yours!

What about you? How do you brainstorm your ideas and stories?

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

A NaNoWriMo Pep Talk

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

NaNoWriMo is almost here! Who's in?

I wanted to give you NaNo participants some encouragement before you dove in. So here goes...

1. Give yourself permission to write ugly.

2. No editing! It doesn't have to make sense. It's all about writing fast.

3. If you get stuck, skip ahead and write a scene you're excited about. Then later, when you're in bed or showering or cleaning or in the car, think through that stuck scene until you've worked your way through it and are excited about it.

4. Also if you get stuck, try interviewing your character. You might delete it all later, but you'll add words and learn something new about your character.

5. Stay off the Internet! It will only distract you. Write comments in Track Changes with notes of things you'll need to come back and do later.

6. If you have to go online, use it as a reward system. Once you type 1000 words, you can go online for ten minutes. Type another thousand, you get ten more minutes of Internet time. This also works well for me with chocolate bribes. On the writing retreat, I put the candy bar where I could see it, but just out of reach. And I knew that once I finished my chapter, I could have it!

Hope that helps. I can't wait to hear how you all do. Good luck! And many words to you all.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Firsts and Lasts

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

I attend several writers conferences each year. I love it. I love learning. There is always more for me to learn. I inhale writing information, always looking for ways to improve my process and make myself more productive.

This year, one piece of advice topped everything else I learned. It came from Ronie Kendig, a talented author, who, next year, will release her first young adult fantasy novel--which is AMAZING. (I got to read the first three chapters.)

Here are some of Ronie's books. You should check them out. They're great.

And here is Ronie's picture:

Okay, now back to Ronie's writing wisdom that changed the way I edit.

Last week, I talked about the importance of the opening line of a book. Ronie talked about that in her class. But she took it ever further. She encouraged us to pay strict attention to the firsts and lasts.

-Of every chapter
-Of every paragraph
-And sometimes (in the white space) of every sentence

Especially on the first page of your book.

-You also want to give a good first impression when the reader glances at the page. This is about paragraph length vs. white space. (White space is good. You want lots of it.) But also, a reader's eyes are drawn to white space and the words that show up there. Look at the words in the white space. What do they say? Is there action in those words? Is something happening? Do those words strike a mood? Hopefully they don't say something completely awkward.

So, yes. Pay close attention to your first sentence. But also to your last sentence of the chapter. And to your last sentence of the first paragraph. And the first and last words of each paragraph on that first page.

For an example on how to put this into action, let's look at one of my first pages. This is from Onyx Eyes, the book I started writing on my author blog that I had to temporarily abandon. (I will return to it soon, but if you want to read more, click on the title above.)

I haven't done too badly here. The paragraph that begins with "Silence" feels too long. I'd like to rewrite it to give more white space.

The words I've highlighted are my firsts and lasts. I want to make sure I use strong words there. Words that mean something and grab the reader's attention. I might change "We are not fairies, Kenneth" to "We are not fairies." Fairies is a stronger word than Kenneth, who the reader doesn't yet know. I'd also look at the pronouns and see about changing some of them out.

There isn't much movement in this scene. They're just standing around talking. Perhaps I could rewrite this to have them entering the room and taking in the scene of the crime.

The mood is tense. Drake is upset, and he is in charge, so his behavior has everyone else on edge--except Kenneth, who is always calm. I think readers could relate to that.

As to the words in the white space... The reader's eyes are drawn to what I highlighted blue. I'm not opposed to what I have. It's not awkward. There is a lot of eye movement. But it doesn't grip the reader, either.

Here is my quick rewrite. See how this looks a bit better?

See how these tweaks helped? Most of what I did was simply shifting words. But it added movement in the first block of white space. And it added extra white space, which gave me more phrases to highlight in blue and consider what the reader might see at first glance. And I switched out some of the first and last words for stronger ones. Some I left. As with all writing rules, they are not set in stone.

But can you see how such an exercise is useful? Especially for page one?

Do keep in mind, this is just for submitting to an editor or agent. If your book is published, the words, paragraphs, and white space will shift during typesetting (which is when they format your Word file into a book file). You can look at the firsts and lasts again when you're proofing your final galleys. But at that point, you can't change a ton or you'll annoy your editor.

I visited a school a few weeks back. I set five books (that were not mine) in front of them and asked how they chose a book. First I had them judge the books by front cover alone. Then I read the backs. Then I read the first page. I was really surprised at how many kids changed their minds about which book to read after hearing the first page.

First pages matter. A lot.

What do you guys think? Do you see value in this "firsts and lasts" exercise?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Value of Critique Partners (and the chance to find one for yourself!)

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

It's my birthday, and I can't help but think about the many, many things I'm grateful for. My husband, my kids, the Kansas City Royals, my job, etc.

Me and Erica Vetsch at ACFW
Something I'm continually grateful for are great friends who are also writers. My first writing friend was Erica Vetsch. We met at a writers conference in Florida back when I was so green I didn't know about business cards, that there were organizations like RWA, ACFW, and SCWBI, or that dialogue tags were not necessary for every line.

While Erica and I did sometimes critique for each other, what really mattered was the support. When I didn't final in a contest, she encouraged me. When the publishing house passed on my book, she told me how much she still believed in it. And after years of being a lonely writer, that meant so much to me.

Carole, Mary, me, and Roseanna. Our original critique
group, which was formed in 2007 but eventually split as
our needs diversified. Sadly, Mary passed away in 2010.
The next writer friend I made was Roseanna White. We met at ACFW (thanks to Erica!) and bonded over our identical taste in briefcases, our mutual baby bumps, and our similar ages. Roseanna and I have buoyed each other through rejections and hairpin turns in our careers that we never would have expected. We helped each other through the tricky season of writing with babies and toddlers underfoot. While we do still critique for each other and help brainstorm, again it's more about having someone who encourages you when the writing day is rough and cheers for you when it's good.

Me and Betsy St. Amant (Hey, Jill, you're in the background! I think this is right before we became buds!)

I could also talk about Jill Williamson, Shannon Dittemore, Betsy St. Amant, Jenny B. Jones, Melanie Dickerson, Nicole O'Dell, Sally Bradley, my fellow Playlist Fiction authors, and many others who have provided an important writing community, but I'll get to the point.

Me and Jill at the ACFW awards gala (color coordination unplanned!)

Many of you have sent me emails asking for a way to find critique partners. Since we're not able to have a Go Teen Writers Conference, we're going to try a "critique partner match up" of sorts. 

Below is a form that we've created in hopes that we can help you meet a writer friend or two. We (Jill and I) have been in many critique groups of varying success, so we've given lots of thought to what made groups a success.

If you're interested, you can fill out the form. As we get responses, we'll try our best to match you up according to your preferences. Will it work out for everybody? We hope so, but we know from experience that some groups and partners will click and flourish while others won't. Some might work for a time but eventually fade away. That's just how it goes with critique relationships.

But our hope is that at least some of you will make a great new writing friend, and that all of you will grow through the process.


Monday, October 27, 2014

How to Prune a Manuscript

Katie Clark writes young adult speculative fiction, including her dystopian Enslaved Seriesmade up of Vanquished, Deliverance, and Redeemer. You can connect with her at her website, on Facebook, or on Twitter.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary how does your garden grow?

Writing—or writing well—usually takes time, just like growing a garden. I started writing novels in high school. If I remember correctly, I wrote three full novels during this time. However, I didn’t have an awesome site like Go Teen Writers where I could get advice on the writing craft. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a “writing craft”. The result? My manuscripts sorta kinda stunk. That was perfectly fine with me, though. I had no idea I’d one day go on to be a published author—I was just having fun writing the stories in my head and heart. After high school, my writing fell away for a while…but not for long.

I got back into writing in my mid-20’s. I participated in NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. I pounded out a complete novel in 30 days! I thought it was perfect, but a few honest critique partners quickly let me know that is wasn’t. Frustration set in and I just didn’t understand why my story wasn’t any good.

After three years of learning, rewriting, and learning some more, I finally realized my issue was editing. There had been no plot revisions, no cutting or adding, no polishing my sentences or rearranging scenes to make everything flow more smoothly. I had cut out the editing stage completely!

Okay, so how does all of this relate to Mary and her garden? Let me tell you!

One of the first things you do when planting a garden is taking a seed and putting it into the ground. You find the right spot, prepare the dirt, lovingly place your seed inside, then cover it with soil. Writing your first draft is like planting a seed. You pick the right setting, do a little pre-plotting to figure out what your story is about, then put words to paper.

Now, this is when most newbies make their big mistake—the same mistake I made. They feel that once the seed gets into the ground, they’re finished! But we all know putting a seed into the ground isn’t the end of growing a garden. There is watering, weeding, and pruning to be done. This is when the real work begins! In the writing world, we call it editing.

It took several manuscripts before I got into my editing groove, but now I’ve streamlined my process to a place of comfort. Editing is my favorite part—the part where I can prune my plants into masterpieces!

My process actually begins while I’m drafting. I do not edit as I draft, but I do often realize I’m on the wrong track with something, and so I make myself notes in the manuscript as I go. Once I’ve finished the entire draft, my next step is to go through these notes and make all the necessary changes. This might include plot holes I’ve noticed, or places where I can tie certain subplots together. When this is complete, I read through the entire manuscript again to check for other big changes that need to be made, and I make them.

After I get the plot worked out, I do another complete read-through. This is usually the stage where I do a lot of pruning—cutting, shaping, and filling out. I check to make sure scenes or paragraphs are in the best possible order. Sometimes I realize that what makes sense to me won’t necessarily make sense to others, so I need to rearrange my descriptions and actions.

My last step is to read through the manuscript for voice. I want to make sure I’ve used the words my characters would use. In one manuscript, my main character was a baker. I went through the manuscript and changed a few expressions to reflect this. For instance, instead of saying Kayla was going to have a nervous breakdown, I wrote that Kayla was about to invade the baker’s chocolate. I love raking through my manuscript, looking for little changes like this that can bring the story to life!

Once I’ve given it one last read through, I send the story off to a critique partner. That’s right! I rarely send off a story for critique until it’s gone through several rounds of editing. I want to make sure my seed has not only been planted, but lovingly tended before I show it off to others. I almost always still end up with a lot to change—but this is OK! I keep working my garden until it’s a prize winner.

Unlike a garden, unfortunately, there is no Miracle Gro for your manuscript. Editing takes time and hard work, but in the end you will have yummy fruits and veggies to share. And the best part? People will be glad you shared—unlike if you tried to saddle them with a first draft, because really, who wants to eat a seed?