Wednesday, May 31, 2017

5 Important Tips Fiction Writers Can Learn From Screenwriting by Caitlin Eha

Jill here. Today I'm super excited to welcome Caitlin Eha to the blog. She was one of our top ten semi-finalists in the Go Teen Writers #WeWriteBooks Contest. I remember her contest entry. It was a fabulous contemporary fantasy with a Peter Pan twist, and I couldn't put it down. She has been studying screenwriting lately, and when she pitched this article idea to me, I knew it would be something different and fun for you all. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Please welcome Caitlin.

Caitlin Eha fell in love with books at a young age and never recovered. Today she is pursuing her dream of being a published novelist and screenwriter, in between the multitudinous demands of adult life. She is also a staff writer for the website Geekdom House ( When she has a free moment, she enjoys reading, fencing, archery, cosplay, and time with her Lord. Caitlin can be found on her blog,, and on Wattpad @authorcaitlineha.

I’ve been writing fiction for most of my life, but screenwriting is a recent passion of mine. Although the format of a screenplay is quite different from a novel, the basic principles of storytelling do not change from one to the other. Below are some of the most important lessons screenwriting has taught me for writing my novels. 

1. FADE IN: Writing Distinctive Characters

Novelists and screenwriters alike strive to create distinctive characters, but strange though it may sound, physical description is not the most important element to consider when designing characters. For proof, all you have to do is compare Gandalf to Dumbledore—although they have similar physical descriptions, their personalities and abilities clearly distinguish one from the other. 
Screenwriters are encouraged to keep the physical descriptions of their characters to a minimum. Details like the actor’s hair color and the style of his jacket are usually decided by the casting director and costume designer, not the screenwriter. Instead, the screenwriter’s job is to convey the character’s personality, or essence, and this is an important skill for novelists as well. Think: what visible elements of your character’s behavior and bearing reveal who the character is?
Consider these screenplay character introductions from the opening scene of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl:

Gibbs’ introduction is one of my favorites. There are only two phrases of description for him, but they’re enough to encapsulate his whole character. The phrase “who was born old” immediately implies a weather-beaten appearance and a severe outlook on life without the writer having to include any additional description. 
Here’s a similar, but longer, description from a following scene of Pirates. Notice how the physical specifications for Will’s character serve the purpose of highlighting his personality and social station: 

Capturing the essence of a character is a difficult task. Some writers try to do so by piling descriptor on top of descriptor—usually of a physical nature—but this creates ambiguity and bogs down the reader. As the Pirates script illustrates, short and effective descriptions without excessive emphasis on physical details are the best way to go. 

2. ANGLE ON: Including the Right Details

Choosing the right details to include in each scene of your story all comes down to context. What does your reader need to know in the given situation, and what is just extra information?
Here’s an example from J.K. Rowling’s script for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This is the beginning of the scene where Newt attempts to recapture his niffler inside the bank:

Notice that the description of the bank is pretty skeletal, even though this location is a bustling business. Rowling didn’t bother to give extensive detail about the bank because, in this scene, the focus is on Newt finding his niffler. The interior of the bank, beyond some general specifications, is not relevant. 
However, here’s another description, taken from the scene where Newt and Jacob go inside Newt’s Tardis-like suitcase. In this scene, the focus is very much on the place and what it reveals about Newt, so the description is deeper:

It’s important not to overload your readers with descriptions, particularly of place, when a shorter explanation will do the trick. Too much description risks distracting your reader from the storyline and characters. However, as these examples show, longer description can be warranted and even needed when understanding the place is essential to understanding the storyline. 

3. ZOOM: Focusing on Your Plot

Once you’ve reduced your description to only the right details, you’re no longer as apt to find yourself writing “bunny trails” of irrelevant information. One of the things I love about the screenplay format is that it challenges me to be concise, forcing my focus away from detailed descriptions and onto the progress of my plot. 
Below is an example of screenplay format, showing the three main formatting elements: the scene heading, the action paragraph, and the dialogue block. 

  As you can see, screenplays are a streamlined format that focus on telling a story through sight and sound. Notice that there is no room for internal monologues or lengthy exposition—the screenwriter is limited to story elements that can be shown or heard. This really tightens the action of a story and keeps the plot moving. When I learned to write screenplays, I discovered that I could write a good story much more concisely than I imagined.
Novels have different demands than scripts, of course, and require more substance. However, making a screenplay-like draft is a terrific way to outline your novel’s plot and stay focused. You don’t have to use rigid screenplay format, but try jotting down a sequence of scenes and their locations in general terms. Then make notes on the essential action and lines of dialogue you need to include in that scene. When writing this outline, be as spartan as possible with your details—only include what is necessary to carry the story. If a detail isn’t needed to keep the reader tracking with your plot, leave it out for now. However, don’t be afraid to take some extra time with this outline and make your writing as good as possible. You might end up with some lines of description and dialogue you want to keep in the final draft.
Once you’re ready to write the first full draft of these scenes, stick to your outline as much as possible without adding too much extra detail. Then, when you’re finished, examine the result. You’ll find that you can tell a story with far less “extra” than you thought. It’s okay to add in more details in later edits, but starting with a scene framework should help you keep your focus where it belongs: on telling the story itself.

4. MONTAGE: Visualizing the Sequence of Events

When you’re writing your novel, it’s easy not to notice a plot flaw or to accidentally make your characters behave irrationally. But these errors are easy to notice in a movie. When you can see the characters moving and talking in front of you, it becomes obvious when their actions do not coincide with their personality or situation. 
Whether I’m writing a screenplay or a novel, it helps me to pause in my writing every so often and visualize what I want my characters to do next. If I don’t, I find myself in the middle of writing a scene and wondering, “Why are my characters here?” Then I have to backtrack and redo the scene, changing it to something that coincides with the plot.
It’s important to periodically take a step back and orient yourself in any story you’re writing. You can do this in your head or on paper, but try taking several minutes to imagine the story situation you’re having trouble with. Come up with some ways it could play out, based on the characters you’ve placed in that scene. Then compare your results and pick the one that makes the most sense for your story.
Don’t pressure yourself to write out minute details during this exercise. The goal is to visualize how the story plays out as a whole. If you’re getting caught on the details, just remember this humorous example from The Fellowship of the Ring script, in which the lengthy scene on the staircase above the Bridge of Khazad Dûm is reduced to a few sentences:

5. EXT. or INT.: Using Your Setting

Setting is a somewhat forgotten gem of storytelling. Because scripts are meant to be interpreted into a visual medium, the best ones use setting to create a mood and even say something about the characters. Check out this example from The Fellowship of the Ring

Notice how these descriptions of Lothlórien serve to create a certain impression. The second paragraph of this section (starting with WIDE ON) describes the forest and its capitol city, giving the reader a sense of wonder and nobility. But the following paragraph impresses the reader with a sense of foreboding by comparing Lothlórien’s brightness to the darkness of the rest of the world. 
When you draw your reader into a setting, you have control of his “mind’s eye.” By directing the reader’s attention to certain aspects of the setting instead of others, you can manipulate his feelings about the place. The reader’s impression of a setting also affect his feelings about the scene that is occurring in that setting. Point the reader’s attention where you want it to go to create the impression of place that you need.

Remember, no matter what you do, the perfect novel is not going to happen on the first draft. It’s important to have these tips in mind as you write to save yourself lots of trouble later, but mistakes can always be corrected during the editing phase. Don’t be afraid to cut material if you realize it’s hindering your story more than helping it (just make sure to save multiple drafts, in case you need that edited material later on). 
Most of all, relax, have fun, and keep plugging away. Lights, camera…write! Start by leaving a comment about which screenwriting tips you’d like to try!

Monday, May 29, 2017

How to Deal With Hard Seasons as a Writer

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of 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 free books on her author website.

Here's something I know is true for all writers: If we stay with writing for long enough, we all go through hard seasons.

When I was trying to get published, one of my rough seasons came after a particularly hard rejection. My book had been under consideration for months, had moved through several parts of the process, and then one day in the mail, a form rejection letter came. A form. All that waiting, all that hoping, and I got nothing more than a vague "Dear Author" letter that they had photocopied.

A short time later, I was at Barnes and Noble, and when I walked in, I felt overwhelmed with how many books were crammed onto the shelves. And I thought, "Why would anybody want to publish anything written by me? What can I possibly say that hasn't been said before?"

This was one of many hard seasons before being published, I've had many after being published, and I'm confident there are more dips and twists in the road ahead of me. If you're in such a season right now, I hope these ideas will encourage you. If you're not, I hope you'll tuck them away for a day in the future when you might need them.

Know it and name it.

Those words I spoke at Barnes and Noble over ten years ago? I heard them echo back to me just a few weeks ago.

I have a darling neighbor who has wanted to write for a long time, and as she was preparing to go to a conference, she said to me with a laugh, "I keep thinking it's silly. Who am I? What can I possibly say that hasn't been said before?" She doesn't feel like a "real" writer, and I told her, "Welcome to the club. None of us do. Especially in the beginning."

I think it's powerful when we can say, "Here's what I'm feeling." I think it's especially powerful when we can confess it to another writer:

Don't write alone!

When I've gone through dark creative times (and dark life times in general) my tendency is to shrink up, and close myself off. But I've yet to drag myself out of a funk with my own strength.

We need writer friends we can be vulnerable with. To whom we can say, "I'm struggling." If you don't have writer friends, friends who are creative can do the trick too. Or just friends who love you and understand what writing means to you.

Roseanna White and I have joked that after so many years of friendship and repeating advice back to each other, we should just create a form email for each of the following statements:

  • I thought this book was going to be my best yet, but it's such a mess! How will I ever fix this?
  • I saw so-and-so gave me a negative review...
  • Life is so busy that I hardly ever get to write. And when I do have time, I can't seem to get any words out.
Even if you know your friend so well that you know what they're going to say, it's still reassuring to hear the words.

Learn to celebrate with others.

One rough thing about having writer friends (or being a human being, really) is the tendency to compare. And sometimes, just like in life, we're going through a rough season while a friend is seeing a lot of success.

A few years ago, as I was struggling in both writing and my personal life, Roseanna was getting offers for contracts that she hadn't even asked for. I'm not kidding. Contracts seemed to be raining down on her.

I had to accept that it wasn't My Turn. That it was Roseanna's turn, and that it was my job to be supportive, encouraging, and even happy for her even though I was struggling. And even though Roseanna was receiving a lot of good news, she was still great about empathizing with me during my rough time.

We have to learn how to celebrate with those who are celebrating even when we're mourning, and to mourn with those who are mourning, even when we have a reason to celebrate.

Stay creative, even if it's not writing.

While it's true that sometimes I need to push through my laziness, get my booty in my chair, and write, there are other times when I need to give myself time away from my manuscript. Especially if what's hitting me hard is something like a rough critique or an unexpected rejection.

In Big Magic (which I think is a wonderful read for creatives, if you don't mind some language) Elizabeth Gilbert says it much better than I can:
Einstein called this tactic "combinatory play"--the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another. This is why he would often play the violin when he was having difficulty solving a mathematical puzzle; after a few hours of sonatas, he could usually find the answer he needed. Part of the trick of combinatory play, I think, is that it quiets your ego and your fears by lowering the stakes.
There's something about continuing to pursue creativity, even if it's something different than the area you want to be creative in, that renews your energy.

Don't look to the world to tell you that you're successful.

Often when I'm in a hard season with writing, I find that at least part of my problem is I've lost track of what makes me successful. I've started looking for validation in the wrong places. 

I've talked about this before on the blog, but Shannon Dittemore forever changed my life when she gave me the question, "What kind of writer do I want to be?" 

That question protects me against guilt when I make decisions like limiting my work time so I can be more present to my children over the summer. Yes, there's a lot more I could be doing, but that would keep me from being the kind of writer I want to be. I don't want to be the kind of writer who works crazy hours.

You have to decide what success looks like to you, because the world will always push you to be more, do more, achieve more, want more, and so on.

Review your Ws:

Sometimes for me, my hard season is born out of me trying to ignore the reality around me. But life is full of different seasons with different demands, and it's helpful to review your Ws and see if part of the problem is your expectations.

Where am I in life right now?: Sometimes a hard season in writing is born out of a hard or busy season. There's no sense in pretending like your creativity isn't impacted by being a full-time student, or having health issues, or sharing a computer with five siblings, or having parents who are going through a divorce.

Also, where are you with writing? If you're working on your first book, it's not fair to expect yourself to be Tolkein. There's nothing wrong with being a beginner, and once you acknowledge the gap between your tastes and your abilities that Shannon talked about a few weeks ago, you will hopefully be able to relieve some of the pressure you're putting on yourself.

When can I write?: Few of us have as much control over our time and schedules as we'd like. If you share a computer, or you work, or you're in school and sports and theater, consider that when you set expectations for how much you should be able to produce.

What do I want to write?: When Roseanna had publishers chasing her with contracts, and I had publishers running away from me, I would say things to my husband like, "What's wrong with me? I can't seem to get anything going, and Roseanna gets new contract offers, like, every day."

"Roseanna writes historical romance for adults. Do you want to write historical romance for adults?"


"Okay, then. They're different genres with different demands and markets. Stop acting like that's a fair comparison."

Like he nearly always is, my husband was totally right. I was trying to ignore or shrug away the realities of writing in my chosen genre, and that wasn't fair.

Why do I write?: Sometimes when I'm in a hard writing place, it's because I've forgotten that I don't write for money or attention or critical acclaim or bragging rights. I write because I love it. I write because it's something that makes me more fully alive. 

Maybe that won't always be true. Maybe I will need to write for money at some point in my career. If I do, I'll have to make different choices than the ones I do now, but that's fine. The Ws are not static things, which is why they need reviewing from time to time.

Have you gone through creative dips or struggled with writing at times? What has helped you?

Friday, May 26, 2017

The First Go Teen Writers Instagram Challenge

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. 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 an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

YOU GUYS! Go Teen Writers has an Instagram account! We've spread the word on social media but realized we hadn't actually announced it here on the blog. Major fail!

To kick off our first full month on Instagram, we're going to launch an Instagram challenge for the month of June. Have you guys ever participated in one of these? If you haven't, let me tell you how it works.

First, you'll need the graphic we created. You'll find it here and on our Instagram profile: @goteenwriters. Post the graphic to your Instagram account this week to tell your followers that you'll be participating and to help us spread the word. The more, the merrier!

As you can see, each day of June has been given a prompt. Your job is to snap a picture that somehow addresses the prompt and maybe works in books and/or writing. You don't have to be super literal. Feel free to use the prompt as a jumping off point, and get creative. It's fun to stretch our wings and use our creativity in areas other than writing.

Once you've snapped your picture for the day, post it on Instagram and use the challenge's hashtag (#GTWJune17) in your caption. Throughout the challenge, we'll monitor the hashtag and share some of our favorite pictures on Fridays.

Make sense? If you have questions, please feel free to ask them in the comments section below and we'll do our best to get to them this week before the challenge kicks off on June 1st!

We're so excited, you guys! Come find us on Instagram! 

>>> It is TOTALLY okay to not have social media, you guys! I'm a mean mom and my kids aren't allowed to have Instagram just yet. But there are a decent amount of Go Teen Writers readers that are active on Instagram and we want to make sure we're having fun and providing content across all our platforms. So, please don't feel left out. If you're looking for a way to participate, you can absolutely use the challenge to provide you with daily writing prompts. THANK YOU ALL FOR LOVING US and for letting us stretch our wings a bit. <<<

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Tracking Time: Analyzing Your Work Week For Maximum Productivity

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

Last week I talked about 10 ways to increase your productivity. And, as promised, here is a breakdown I did of one of my work weeks and what I learned from it. If you can, I highly recommend keeping track of your hours working on one of your books, just to give you an idea as to how long it takes you and to reveal patterns of low and high productivity. So let's take a look at one of my weeks.

As I mentioned last week, I really struggled to finish my book King's War. Ever since we moved, my new schedule was sabotaging my efforts. First, let's examine my schedule, which looked something like this:

Monday- Babysit my charge from 7:30 am until about 1:00 pm. Write from 1:00 pm - 2:00 pm. Pick up son from 2:00 pm - 2:30 pm. Write in the afternoon.
Tuesday- Go Teen Writers blog post day. Write fiction when finished. Pick up son from 2:00 pm - 2:30 pm.
Wednesday- Babysit my charge from 7:30 am until about 1:00 pm. Write from 1:00 pm - 2:00 pm. Pick up son from 2:00 pm - 2:30 pm. Write in the afternoon.
Thursday- Home to work on book. Pick up son from 2:00 pm - 2:30 pm.
Friday- Occasional babysit my charge day (from 7:30 am until about 1:00 pm). Once a month writers meeting from 9:00 am - 12:00 noon. Otherwise, home to work on book. Pick up son from 2:00 pm - 2:30 pm.
Saturday- Random activities on the schedule. Often home to work on book.
Sunday- Day off.

Add to that schedule taking my son to school from 7:00 am to 7:30 am and a couple physical therapy appointments and you can see there isn't a lot of time that could be blocked out for writing. And ideally, I'd prefer not to work on Saturdays, but that hasn't been an option for me. I did my best, however, with this book, but things got stressful, especially every Monday through Wednesday.

Now I'd like to show you a sample of writing results from an average work week. I used Stephanie's free story workbook tutorial on this book, so I was able to keep track of my writing time, which helped me see where I was productive and where I was not. Here is a sample week:

Monday- 512 words. It's always hard to write coming off the weekend. So Mondays are usually down a little in word count. But on a babysitting day, it's especially difficult.
Tuesday- 2840 words. I did better this day, even with it being a GTW blog post day. It helped that I did some writing the previous day and I was home all day this particular Tuesday. No physical therapy or any other appointments.
Wednesday- 1547 words. Another babysitting day, so my word count was down.
Thursday- 1140 words. Home all day, but this chapter was a difficult one (a major battle) and it took me all day just to get this many words, though to be fair, I did delete quite a few other words too, so I bet I wrote closer to 1400. Still. Super tough scene.
Friday- 4860 words. I picked up easily this morning and got right into things. Did much better.
Saturday- 4449 words. This was an equally productive day.

From this I learned:
-I write better in the mornings.
-I am not so productive on Mondays
-I am not so productive on any day in which I didn't write the day before.
-I am not so productive on a babysitting day or on the day after a babysitting day.
-I am most productive when I am able to write for at least three days in a row. 

Mondays are rarely great writing days for me. I'm coming off the weekend, and I need to get back to work and back into my story. Plus I babysit on Monday mornings, so that makes it extra hard to get to work since I'm often exhausted when I do finally sit down (my charge is a three-year-old, quite active boy). Tuesdays are rarely good writing days. It depends on the blog post. I sometimes can write them in a couple hours, but often it takes me all day. But even if I do manage to get the post done in a few hours, it takes a different type of concentration for me to write fiction than it does to write nonfiction. So it's not easy for me to transition from one into the other.

Since I have been writing mostly on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons (after I finish babysitting or my GTW blog post), all day Thursday, and sometimes on Friday and/or Saturday, it has been tough to consistently get into my story. On the weeks when I didn't have to babysit on Friday and I had Saturday free as well, I did so much better. Having three full writing days in a row makes a huge difference. I'm able to draw progressively deeper into my storyeach day builds on the lastand I get a lot more done. To do my best fiction writing, I need to be immersed.

Since I like to write nonfiction writing books and have a few projects I want to start working on once I finish King's Blood, I'm going to embark upon a new trial season in which I'm going to alternate between projects. For example, I might set aside a month or two to write a nonficiton project, then switch to three or four months of fiction. I'm hoping that this method might make it easier for me to work deep and be more productive on each project than trying to switch back and forth in a day or even a week. I'm hoping I will no longer continually derail myself from trying to multitask. I don't know it it will work, but I'm hopeful. It's good to try new things to see what works and what doesn't.

Have you ever tracked your writing time to see where you are most productive? What works best for you? What is a hindrance? Any experiments you might like to try to be more productive? Share in the comments.

Monday, May 22, 2017

What an aspiring writer needs to know about editing, marketing, and publishing: An interview with editor Jillian Manning!

Stephanie here! I'm really excited that Jillian Manning, the acquisitions editor at Blink YA Books, is here with us today! Jillian was my editor for my 1920s mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, and is a rock start of an editor. Not only is she great at the red pen stuff, but she's super encouraging, and will even dress up for her authors:

Jillian and me at the ALA Midwinter Meeting. Wouldn't we have been great flappers?

Jillian was gracious enough to take time out of her schedule to answer a few questions for me about the unique struggles of trying to get your first book published. I wish I could have read her detailed answers back when I was a flailing and confused aspiring author!

Also, we're giving away a signed, hardback copy of The Lost Girl of Astor Street to one U.S. resident! Entry details can be found after my interview with Jillian.

Here's a little more about Jillian:

Jillian Manning is the acquisitions editor for Blink YA Books, where she acquires young adult titles across all genres. Jillian is passionate about helping authors create their best books and has had the honor of working with dozens of incredibly talented writers, New York Times bestsellers, YouTube stars, Olympic athletes, and more. In the stories she acquires, Jillian loves fresh voices, a dash of humor, and captivating protagonists. She does not love insta-love. Find Jillian on Twitter at @LillianJaine or on her blog at

SM: I talk with a lot of young writers who want to be traditionally published, but are kinda stressed out about the idea of needing a platform. When you're looking at a manuscript for a writer who hasn't been published, what kind of marketability do you like to see? What kind of social media numbers make you say, "Okay, we can work with that."

JM: Publishing is a business, and sales and marketing people want to know that the books editors bring them can be commercially viable—meaning they can sell! One of the ways to help sell a book is by being an author with a platform online, since that means you have a built-in fan base.

For a debut author, I definitely want to see a professional website/blog, as well as a minimum of 1,500 followers across a maximum of three platforms. Those three can be a mix of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube, and it helps to see a steady number of followers on each site, rather than 1,000 on Twitter and 10 on Facebook. (P.S. Editors know what a follow-for-follow account looks like, so someone who has 10K followers but is following 12K people will give us pause.)

I’ll admit, it’s a little scary when I get a manuscript in and when I go to look up the author online I find…nothing. No website, no blog, no social media. (And by social media, I mean professional social media, not a personal page for friends and family.) That being said, I know that someone who has never published a book won’t have the same draw to followers as a published author would have. So the only real “rule” I try to follow is to make sure the author has some form of professional presence online to use as a starting point.

SM: Lots of writers (me included) feel nervous about pitching a novel to an editor at a conference. Do you have any thoughts on this or advice that can help us chill out a bit?

JM: I have a blog post for that! The most important thing to remember is that you are talking to another human being who loves books and writing as much as you do. WE ARE YOUR PEOPLE! We are simply the people who hold the red pens, which does make us a little scary. But if you come with a polished manuscript and meet with someone who publishes books in your genre, you’re likely to have a great conversation.

SM: That "conversation" word is key, I think. When I first started pitching, I rehearsed so much that I kinda forgot it was supposed to be a conversation. The publishing process can feel really mysterious and confusing. Is there something you wish writers understood better about editors or how it all works?

JM: You know, the publishing world always feels a little bit like a secret club, which I think can make it tough for writers to know what’s going on behind the scenes. Here are a few things I often tell new writers about our little universe:

  • Most editors do not make unilateral decisions when it comes to acquiring a book. Even if I love a manuscript with all my heart and believe it will sell a billion copies, I still have to convince my publisher, my marketing team, and my sales team. And that convincing requires research, presentations, and a whole lot of data—not just beautiful words!
  • Companies can only publish a certain number of books each year. There are only so many people to do the work, and only so many books that can fit on the shelves. As a result, we have to be incredibly picky about which books we publish and when.
  • Publishing isn’t usually a speedy business. Sometimes it can take two years (or more, if you’re George R. R. Martin) to publish a book, even after the initial version is turned in. This is a result of the best timing to release a book (e.g. you always want to release a Christmas book around Christmastime), as well as the sheer number of hours it takes to edit, design, print, market, and distribute a book.
  • Last, and most importantly, editors can tell when you are turning in a first draft vs. a fourth draft. And on behalf of my people, please, please take the time to edit and revise your novel once on your own and once with a critique partner before submitting it. The whole process is more enjoyable when we can work with a polished draft.

SM: So, sometimes as a reader, I hear a concept for a book, and I think I'm going to LOVE it. But then the experience doesn't quite live up to my expectations. Does that ever happen to you with submissions. Have you ever requested a submission because you liked the story idea, but then when you receive the manuscript and start reading it, you don't connect to the story like you thought you would?

JM: Unfortunately this does happen. I’d say the most common reasons I have to say no to a good idea are:

  • Unpolished writing: Check out my rant on drafts in the fourth bullet above. Editors can work a lot of magic with a manuscript, but if we get sent something that contains obvious typos, major plot holes, or just mediocre writing, we’re not likely to want to spend the time and effort to get the book into presentable shape.
  • Poor execution: Great ideas are great, but great execution is better. If your pitch promises to be totally original and utterly fascinating, the entire book needs to live up to that—and I mean every single sentence. I’ve been excited about unique concepts before, only to find that the author has bitten off more than they can chew and the story ends up feeling weird or confusing.
  • Undeveloped characters: In YA especially, characters are hugely important. Due to the age of the protagonists, most YA novels feature coming of age stories, which means I need to see a character change and grow and learn (for better or for worse) throughout the story. If someone has an awesome pitch but a character that is one-dimensional, I quickly lose interest.

SM: Let's go back to that unpolished manuscript thing. Many writers struggle with editing their own novels. Obviously, there's no replacement for getting feedback and corrections from a professional editor, but do you have one or two tips for how to be a better self-editor?

JM: First and foremost, take a break—at least one month—from the time you finish your book until the time you edit it. In that month, read one or more books in your genre to inspire you…and also show you places where your story needs work. Then, when you go back to edit with fresh eyes, think about what you loved about those books (without copying them, of course!) and how you can improve your work.

Second, I recommend reading the book out loud. Not all of it, necessarily, but definitely the dialogue. That will help you catch spots that don’t quite feel like a normal conversation. Third, when you’re editing your book, pay attention to repetition of certain words and phrases. We all have ticks in our writing, and you might find you used the word “dangerously” 128 times, which, in my professional opinion, is about 120 times too many.

And last but not least, learn more about editing! There are tons of books and blogs that talk about the art of editing, and the more you learn, the better you will be when editing your work or someone else’s.

Stephanie here again. That's a perfect note to leave it on, because it gives me another chance to mention that Jillian has a fabulous blog that you should all be reading on a regular basis.

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Writing Exercise #12: Working Backward

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. 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 an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

Since finishing my latest manuscript, I've had trouble settling into reading again. I blame it on Newton. His first law of motion says that "an object in motion stays in motion" and that has absolutely been the case for me.

After several weeks of pushing to the end of my manuscript, I've been unable to stop my brain from whirring and spinning. I try to sit still, try to rest--something I thought I had mastered--but my hands want to be busy, my legs twitch, and I find myself simply skimming the words of books instead of actually reading them.

There's not much to do but wait it out, I think. I'll get reading back. It'll happen. I just have to wait. There's a lot of waiting in writing. Did you know that?

Anyway, as I've been unable to sit still, I've been doing a fair amount of walking. And listening. To podcasts. To lectures about writing. To instructional videos. And one thing that's been surfacing again and again is this idea that you can (should?) start drafting your novel by writing the ending first.

I've touched on this idea before. There's conflicting advice out there--and that's totally normal--but it's never been easy for me to start my stories by writing the ending first. If I know how it ends, I get bored with the writing. I feel the ending should be earned by all the work that comes before it--both by the story's protagonist, and by me, the author. I fight my way there and it's a struggle I enjoy.

That said, the more I write, the more I choose my habits with self-preservation in mind.

"What do you mean?" you ask.


The truth is that the more you write, the better you get at it. And, in my case, the more I write, the more I realize I don't like rewriting scenes any more than necessary. Oh, I love editing. But editing my seventh or eight edit? That's a bit painful. And writing chapters and chapters that I'm going to end up cutting? It's almost like hacking off an arm.

It's not even about the words that I love. It's about the time that I lose. I hate losing time.

And so, from a self-preservation standpoint, the idea of starting at the end is an interesting one. Because when you start at the end, you know exactly where you're going. And you write to that moment. And, ideally, you don't waste too many words getting there.

Author Victoria Schwab--read her stuff, seriously--picked up video blogging again and in one of her recent videos she talks about how she writes the ending first. She does this for several reasons--go watch to find out--but one of her reasons beckoned to the self-preservationist in me.

She writes the ending first so that she can reverse engineer her characters.

Now, I do this too. Only, I do my reverse engineering after I've written an entire first draft. The idea of tackling it from the outset is compelling and I just may have to try.

Reverse engineering is practiced in all sorts of different fields. It's the process of taking apart a completed product to understand how it's put together. By doing this you can explain, and possibly replicate, what's been done.

When we talk about reverse engineering a character, we're talking about looking at that character at the end of the story and working backward to develop a story arc. I've done this, to some extent, for most of my books. And it does take a little practice.

So that's what we're going to do today.

Your task


1. Pick up a favorite book and flip to the last chapter--this is so you don't spoil a new book for yourself. Read that final chapter through.

2. After you've read it, create a list of questions that can be asked based on the information in this chapter alone. Do not attempt to answer these questions. Simply let yourself ask them. 

3. Leave your list of questions in the comments section below--PLEASE DO NOT GIVE US THE TITLE OF THE BOOK (and, if the characters have unique names like Katniss or Peeta, please replace the names with pronouns like he or she). We're not in the business of spoiling books here.

What we're looking for is proof that endings, inevitably, give us story fodder simply by existing. I think they just might.

Remember!!! If you participate in the writing exercise, you can use the Rafflecopter to enter our drawing. A winner will be selected next week and will have the opportunity to ask Jill, Steph and me a question for an upcoming episode of Go Teen Writers LIVE.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

10 Ways To Increase Your Productivity

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

Feeling unproductive lately? Boy have I ever! To be fair, I did write a 250K book in eight months, not that it's done yet. (Now entering the editing stage...) But King's War was one of the most difficult books to crank out. Ever. Why? I pondered that a lot over the last eight months. The biggest obstacles against me getting that draft out sooner was a combination of my work schedule (or lack-thereof) and my work style, meaning I sat at the computer for far more hours than I actually worked. I Googled things. I Facebooked, Instagramed, and Tweeted. I checked my email. I bit my fingernails. I ate food. All while staring at the screen, wishing I was writing.

I felt I knew what was wrong, and I was mostly correct. I couldn't do much about it, though, because of life. There are things in life I can change and things I can't change. But I learned a lot though this experience, so I'm going to share it with you all.

1. Have a plan. When I set out to write a book, my plan goes something like this. I start by defining the book (ex: 100K medieval fantasy novel set in a new storyworld). Then I look at the calendar, things I have coming, and I set myself a loose deadline. Or if I sold this book idea to a publisher, they will set the deadline. So I have a genre, a word count goal, the general idea of a plot, and a deadline. I'm good to go.

2. Prepare. It's no secret that I am a storyworld first author. I can't start writing until I've done all my storyworld building and character development and some level of storyboarding or outlining. I also need to make a map and create a story bible document. I might also need some family trees or lists of characters and ranks. I might have to create some foreign language, so I'll have some sheets of paper with translations for reference. In this last book I had a list of characters with their titles, magical abilities, the name of their shadir (a creature) if they had one, and the names of their family members.

All this preparation might take me several months. It's actually one of my favorite parts of the writing process, but I cannot write productively until I have all this figured out.

3. Get organized. I print out a bunch of the stuff I created in number two. I need my map and important character lists nearby. I need my foreign translations! It's the worst to be writing a scene and have to stop and go look for something to help me get through it. Then I waste an hour looking. I try not to do that anymore. Instead, I will put a comment in the manuscript as a flag that the scene is missing important information. But I still have to find that sheet of paper later and then go back in and add it. If I am organized, I save time.

4. Set aside time to work deep. I've been reading the book Deep Work by Cal Newport, and it's fascinating. What is deep work you ask? Here is Cal's definition:

"Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It's a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there's a better way."

I've always been a multi-tasker. Multi-tasking produces a feeling of instant gratification that makes me happy. But Mr. Newport says that multi-tasking is actually bad for your brain! It deteriorates the muscle that helps a person focus for extended periods of time. Now, there is a time and place for multi-tasking says this mother of two. I try not to do work when my kids are at school or sleeping that I can do when they're home. For example, I can save the dishes until the kids are playing in the living room and do something more important when they're sleeping or at school, like writing my book! That's good use of my time. But when I do sit down at the computer, Mr. Newport suggests I set my sights on "immersive single tasking"no distractions!

Writers have been doing this for centuries. It's the concept of going to that cabin in the woods to finish your booka place where you can concentrate and not be disturbed. This is much more difficult when you're sitting at a computer that is connected to the internet. Or when you have your cell phone sitting right next to you with the notifications set so you can hear them. Any little distraction such as glancing at the phone to see if someone texted you breaks your concentration and impairs your ability to focus and complete the task you working on.

I'd like to add a caveat for us writers. Mr. Newport gives examples of taking an hour or two to work deep. And I think that's great for a lot of thingsI can get things done in that kind of time. But I think most writers work best when they have at least three uninterrupted work days in a row. I might only write for two or three hours each day, but the consecutive days help keep my brain stay deeply immersed in my storyworld.

5. Set the timer. Use word wars/word sprints to help you. For example: Write as fast as you can for the next fifteen minutes with a goal of 500 words. Or a goal of 100 words in a half hour. Whatever goal works for you. Intense, focused work trains you in concentrating. This will help you be more productive faster. The reality is, you could learn to write so fast that you only need to work two hours a day! Then you would have more time in your day for others things.

6. Have a routine. I blogged about this a few weeks ago. The human brain likes routines. Click here to read that post.

7. Take breaks. If you have to write all day (or want to), great. But you need lots of breaks. I feel there are two types of breaks necessary to the productive writer. First you need periodic breaks to keep your body healthy. Use word sprints or word wars to help you know when to break, or set a timer and break every hour for five minutes. Get up from your chair and walk around, have a snack, stretch, whatever you need to do, then get back to work.

The other type of break is needed on a daily basis. This is a boredom break. A do-nothing break. Something you need for your mind to stay healthy. Go on a walk. Go sit on your porch for an hour and drink some lemonade. Go for a drive or a bike ride. Exercise. All this gives your brain some free time to think and recharge. And if you do this every day, you'll find yourself energized and inspired with new ideas.

8. Learn to say no. I wrote about this a few weeks ago too. It's super important to "protect the asset," as Greg McKeown says. Click here to read that post.

9. Limit (quit?) social media and television viewing. It's best to turn off the internet and hide those cell phones or tablets when you sit down to write. The internet and social media can be a terrible distraction. But the truth is, we waste our lives online and watching television. While these are different activities, they're both more screen time on your eyes (for us writers who are already looking at a screen all day), and they're both pretty much a waste of time. I can't imagine anyone on his death bed saying, "I wish I had spent more time on Twitter." Or, "My only regret is that I never got around to binge watching Merlin." *heavy sigh* It's fun to spend time on social media. And it's fun to watch television. But we were made to be with people, and we should do more of that in our off hours and certainly during work time!

10. Get enough sleep. This is so important and so neglected by many over-achievers. Not getting enough sleep is bad for you. Period. It's bad for your brain (impairs alertness, concentration, and reasoning). And it's bad for your health (weakens your immune system, which can increase your chances of getting sick; can lead to serious medical conditions like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes; and increases anxiety and depression). Getting enough sleep will keep you from burning out on life. It will help you make fewer mistakes and better decisions, both in life and in the story you are writing.

I have to point out that I wrote a post on a similar theme back in January, so there's proof for you that I've been struggling with this for a long time! If you're struggling too, here is the link to the post I wrote called 10 Ways to Get Something Done When You’re Feeling Unproductive, which you might also find helpful.

Are you a productive writer? Do any of these tips resonate with you? Do you have a tip that works for you that I missed? Share in the comments!

Monday, May 15, 2017

How do you find the right agent, editor, or writers conference?

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of 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 free books on her author website.

If you read my journey to publication, then you already know that I made loads of mistakes along the way. Including, but not limited to, submitting my manuscript on purple paper, and not knowing what genre I wrote. I thought I had invented YA fiction, for crying out loud. You can't get much greener than that.

When I talk to aspiring writers, I often get asked questions like, "What are the best writers conference to go to? How did you know your agent was the best agent for you? How did you know which publisher was the right one?"

We've talked many times about query letters, literary agents, and publishing. Here are some highlights if those are topics you're interested in:

What I haven't talked much about is the doubt involved in all the choices. The fear that maybe you're choosing wrong, or missing out. The nervousness you feel when you're taking leaps of faith. Here are some of the questions I get asked the most when it comes to these choices:

"How do you find the right writers conferences?"

Writers conferences can cost a lot of money, and if you've never been to one, it can be hard to understand what kind of value you get. So a lot of writers will ask me about finding the best conferences.

I started with what I could afford (read: what was local and my parents would pay for). I was seventeen when I went to my first conference, and my dad came with me. We paid for a day pass, not the whole thing, and it was a conference put on by one of our area community colleges. I only remember a few things from it:
  • In one of the classes, the teacher had us write about an embarrassing moment, saying we wouldn't have to show it to anyone, so we shouldn't be afraid to be vulnerable on the page. Then she picked me and another writer to read what we had written. Not only did this seem dishonest to me, but I had anticipated that the exercise might take this turn, so I had been careful to pick a moment that wasn't too embarrassing. (Which undermined her purpose, and cost her my respect.)
  • My parents paid for me to have lunch (along with several other writers) with a literary agent. I didn't bring anything to submit, because I didn't know you could, so I just asked questions and listened. Which, really, was the best thing I could possibly do. This was the first time I really understood the purpose of literary agents.
  • I took a class taught by an editor. She worked mostly with picture books. I asked her several questions during the class and after, and she was really kind. I also remember her saying that a lot of new writers had big visions for their book, and would talk to her in their pitches about what the cover should look like, and the stuffed dog that could be sold with it. I remember her saying, "You have to show me you've written a good book before we can have a conversation about a stuffed dog." That's something that stuck with me, which is funny considering I've never written a picture book. 
Was this the best conference? The most right conference for me? I say yes it was. It was cheap, and I got my toes wet. Several years later when I went to a bigger conference to pitch my stories, I felt braver because I had gone to something similar before. Considering my experience level, my understanding of the industry, and my financial situation, yes. This was the best conference for me.

I listen to the DIY MFA podcast pretty frequently, and one of the things Gabriela talks about a lot is "honor your reality." Meaning there are things in your lifefinancial restrictions, experience level, health complicationsthat you can't just ignore when you're making plans.

If you want to go to a writers conference, great. What can you afford? If it's not much, that's fine. Look for something close to you. While those enormous conferences like RWA, SCBWI, or ACFW offer a lot value, it can actually be easier to make connections with agents, editors, and writers at the smaller conferences.

While it's smart to think about conferences that are the best fit for your genre and goals, don't get locked into thinking there's only one or two conferences that could benefit you.

"How did you know which agent was best for you?"

If you're like most writers, trying to find a literary agent might be one of the slowest pieces of your journey to being a professional writer. Even after you sign with an agent, it's very possible it won't be the best long term solution. (Anne R. Allen talked about this in point four of her post on mistakes she's made.)

From the beginning, I had a lot of hesitations about signing with my first agent. She had a lot going for her. She was really active in the writer's group I was a part of, and she only took on unpublished writers as clients because that was her passion. But she had a personality that was very polarizing, and she seemed to often be engaged in strange email arguments or twitter conversations.

Her clients seemed to love her, however, and she had sold a decent amount in her first year as an agent. Even though she wasn't really a person I would want to hang out with as a friend, I decided this was a business relationship, and my agent didn't need to be someone who I would hang out with at the mall. 

But your agent should be someone you can respect. Our professional relationship didn't last long. She was kicked out of at least two major writing organizations, and I routinely saw social media posts or emails of hers that made me cringe.

When a sticky sales situation came up with my first publisher, I realized I didn't trust the advice my agent was giving me, and that was when I admitted that I needed to let her go. Even with trying to sever the relationship as professionally as I knew how (I had no experience with firing anyone, so I'm sure I made mistakes) it still turned into a big, dramatic situation that my editor got roped into. Yuck.

So here's what I debate: Was she the right agent for me? No. She made mistakes that I was too naive to realize at the time, and they maybe (probably?) did some damage to my career.

But she did get me published, and I'm not sure that my current agent (who I've been with for seven years now) would have considered me if I wasn't. The only reason I had the chance to submit to my current agent is because an author recommended me to her. And I might not have known that author except that we were both published in the same YA niche, which, again, wouldn't have happened without my first agent.

So maybe the benefits that came from signing with not-the-right agent outweigh the bad stuff? Or maybe not. Maybe if I had been patient and waited for a more skilled, knowledgeable agent, I would be further along in my career.

I don't know. And I certainly am not advocating, "Just sign with any agent! It doesn't matter!" because it definitely does. What I am saying is that even if it turns out you chose wrong, it's not an irreversible decision.

"How do you pick the right editor?"

I was listening to The 10-minute Writer's Workshop podcast's interview with Judy Blume, who I found to be refreshingly frank in her answers. The interviewer asked, "What do you look for in an editor?"

Ms. Blume said, "Someone who wants to work with you."

And I burst out laughing, because it's so true and writers so rarely say that.

Ms. Blume went on to say, "In the beginning, I don't think any writer feels that he or she can look for something in an editor. You're so grateful that somebody is interested in what you're doing and wants to work with you." (You can listen to this interview in its entirety here.)

Jillian and me at the American Library Association
Midwinter Meeting.
While I certainly believe editors vary in skill, and that editors make a huge difference in the quality and life of a book, it's not like shopping for shoes.

I landed at Blink because Jillian Manning was so enthusiastic about The Lost Girl of Astor Street. I absolutely love working with Jillian, but I had no idea when I signed my contract that she was going to be such a fabulous editor to work with. (Jillian is going to be with us next week, talking about what she looks for in debut authors!)

Here's the thing about all of those, "How did you know...?" kinds of questions. The answer is almost always that I didn't.

I've always done my best to research the options, and then made the choice that seemed like the best at the time. I was always filled with doubts and insecurities, and sometimes I was flat out terrified that I was choosing wrong. Even the times that it went well, like with Jillian. Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.

My friend was telling me about a cartoon she saw that showed someone looking at two directive signs pointing down two different hallways. The character could choose between "Workshop on Taking a Leap" and "Taking a Leap."

Let me be clear that I think researching so you can make smart choices is valuable and necessary. I love classes, and learning techniques that help me improve as a writer. But I also know that sometimes I'm guilty of taking the workshop (or reading the book, or listening to the class) on how to do something, when really I just need to push through my nervousness and do the thing. 

Do I need another class on marketing? Maybe. Or maybe what I really need is to just apply the ones I've already taken, even though marketing can feel awkward and uncomfortable to me. Same with writing. Do I need to spend time reading another book on writing? Or do I need focused time with my manuscript?

What about you? Do you have leaps that you've been putting off in favor of learning about the leap? Or do you need to spend some time learning so that you can take more educated leaps?