Category Archives: Writing Techniques

What do you really want?

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It’s 9:26 p.m. You’re hungry for something. But what? Celery? (Be serious.) Hummus andDSC06295 chips? Last night’s kitchen-sink casserole? A scoopuh B&J’s Cherry Garcia perhaps? Yum.

Sometimes it can be like that with manuscripts too. You want help, but you’re not exactly sure what you’re after. The levels and type of help varies depending on where you are in the process–mid-draft? ready to revise? preparing to submit?

Maybe these explanations will give you some clarity (sorry, no ice cream included):

Manuscript critique – a critique consists of a compilation of feedback in the form of a letter regarding  pacing, flow of narrative, transitions, voice, structure and other essential elements of stylish prose. This will provide a subjective view of the strengths and current weaknesses of your manuscript. You typically do not receive comments on the manuscript itself, as with a line edit.

Developmental editing – this extensive type of editing allows you to take a birdie’s eye view of your whole manuscript. With this type of editing, you may receive feedback in the form a of lengthy, detailed letter focusing on “opportunities for improvement,” regarding issues such as pacing, flow, transitions, voice, plot, structure, dialogue, character development and more. You may also receive positive observations and suggestions too. Developmental editing does not include the nitty-gritty elements of a line edit.

Line editing – what you have here is the big enchilada of edits, aka “comprehensive editing.” This level of editing, which can vary from heavy to “light” (don’t think fluffy here), consists of a careful combing of your manuscript regarding all of the important elements of fine writing, such as voice, pacing, rhythm, dialogue, character and structure.  Think of it as someone cleaning out the crumbs in your silverware drawer, only in this case, the toaster tidbits pertain to issues like transitions, voice, word choice and character development. You can expect many comments on the manuscript itself.

Proofreading – the main objective here is to ensure your manuscript is as clean as it can be–free of typographical errors, grammatical gaffs, style inconsistencies or other mishaps that will distract or confuse your reader. This article gives you a helpful rundown on what to expect.

Eventually, every manuscript will need all of these interventions, but for now, take a look at your manuscript and ask yourself what would help you take it to the next level, get you unstuck or unravel a plot knot for you. If you’re a visual learner like me, this chart from Yellow Bird Editors may also help you decide.

[Insert thought bubble here–“Sheesh. Isn’t she going to tell us where to find help?”]

So, my little summer strawberries, where can you get help with your manuscript? (I just had a hunch you’d like to know. ) Sources for critiques and editing are often offered in connection to writing workshops, and are also available via SCBWI, professional services like Yellow Bird Editors or even among your own circle of writing friends or critique group. (And about that last one–if you seek the help of an author/friend–unless you are able to reciprocate in kind–pay them, okay?)

My very best shimmery, summery wishes to you, my talented friends! You can do this.

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple. ~ Jack Kerouac

 

To my friends who write for teens

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Dear Friends Who Write for Teens,

new frog background

Collage by Vicky Lorencen

Car-less high schoolers in my neighborhood must meet at a bus stop a stone’s throw from my house. I heard them gathering this morning as I lay in bed. A loud-mouth girl shouted to her friends down the street. Other kids laughed. And although I didn’t peek out my bedroom window, I imagine there was at least one stoic kid standing solo in a sweat-drenched cocoon, clutching a sack lunch.

I rolled over on my pillow and thought about those kids. My heart went out to all of them, to the loners for certain, but truly to each of them, even Ms. Loud-Mouth. I knew that once they boarded that bus, they were headed to an emotional meat grinder. Part of me wanted to open my window and yell, “Listen! There’s some important stuff you need to know!” and then I’d talk as fast as I could before the bus roared down our street. But that part of me didn’t move off the mattress. And so, this is where you come in, my dear friends who write for teens.

Will you, in your own unique, skillful way, remind these kids of how precious they are? They are no less loveable than when they were darling, chirping preschoolers. I know some of those kids may not be or feel loved right now, but they are no less love-worthy.

Will you, somehow, in a way only you can, let them know that what the cool kids think of them during high school will not matter AT ALL after graduation?

Will you, using your subtle magic, encourage them to talk to everyone–not just the kids they like, to get involved at school, to take wise risks and to keep the long view in mind (i.e., there’s life after high school) because the choices they make now matter?

Will you woo them into seeing the value of a trusted adult friend–a teacher, a coach, a grandparent–who can act as a mentor and support?

Will you, with sincerity and without condescension, offer them some kind of hope for the future and a touch of inspiration that will spark imaginings and dreams?

Will you, with your prosey powers, help your readers feel seen and heard and known?

Yes, yes, I appreciate the pressure I’m placing on you. But you’re more than up for the challenge! I also know I probably sound idealistic and maybe even mushy (yeesh), but I know that you, like me, have who-knows-how preserved a soft, empathetic chamber in our hearts for teens. We remember that merciless emotional meat grinder and we’ve lived long enough to tell about it.

Finally, will you remember how much I appreciate what you do so well? Because I do.

Growing up is hard, love. Otherwise everyone would do it. ~ Kim Harrison

 

 

 

a fine use for bullets

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I hate outlining

I hate outlining

“Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.” Right you are E.L. Doctorow. I can’t argue with you.

Up until recently, I’ve been a writing pantser–someone who flies by the seat of her pants like a magic carpet. Weeeeeee!!! It was a fun, exhilarating, spontaneous, surprising, unfettered, chaotic, halting, sputtering, who-knows-how-the-heck-I-got-here way to write.

When I’ve considered a popular alternative, outlining, my skin literally crawled. No kidding. It wriggled clean off muh bones. (See why I can’t outline? I can’t even write without doubling back and making silly asides.) SO, anyway, outlining was not attractive to me. What a time and fun-sucker. Why not just jump in? I wanted to be surprised! At the same time, I liked the idea of pre-planning as a means of making steadier writing progress.

But as a card-carrying AntiOutlineist, I yearned for a way to enjoy the benefits of outlining without actual doing it. There were plenty of alternatives involving Post-it Notes, index cards or oversized sheets of paper, but I wanted something even simpler. It if could involve my adoration for list-making, that would be a bonus. That’s why I chose bullets. Round. Simple. Readily Accessible. Inexhaustible in supply.

Now, my little warm cinnamon crumb cake, you know I mean these kinds of bullets. . .

  • Yes,
  • I
  • knew
  • you
  • would.

When I recently approached an extensive novel revision, I chose bullets to help me compile the sequence of events and actions of my characters. I didn’t write long descriptions of each scene. I wrote just enough to ensure I’d have what I needed when I returned to my list later. As I compiled this list, naturally, I’d identify roadblocks. But then, I could easily scan back to see, and then change, the sequence of events to release that blockage. I was able to think through each character’s actions or responses and their natural consequences. I could think proactively about how to crank up the story’s tension or humor or tenderness.

And now, armed with my bullets (hardy har har), I’ve had an easier time approaching the revision process. Plus, I’ve felt energized and encouraged because the bullets serve as an assurance that it’s going to be okay. Keep going. You know you can work this out. You’ve already untangled your plot and mapped out a path for your characters. And I know they won’t fail to surprise me, so there’s still fun to be had.

E.L. Doctorow is right–we can’t just yack about writing, we need to actually do it. But, before you do, see how you like writing with a batch of bullets by your side. G’head. Give it a shot. (Ouch.)

I’m one of those writers who tends to be really good at making outlines and sticking to them. I’m very good at doing that, but I don’t like it. It sort of takes a lot of the fun out.  ~ Neil Gaiman

writers can learn a lot from a dummy

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Collage by Vicky Lorencen

Collage by Vicky Lorencen

Back in the late 1900s, there was a clever public service announcement encouraging seatbelt use. It featured crash test dummies and the tagline “You can learn a lot from a dummy.”

Fast forward to, well, right this very minute. When I hear the word dummy, I think of a mini mock-up of a picture book, not a badass mannequin.

Some of my friends write picture books exclusively. (If you must know, I admire/loathe them all. Blast their bundles of talent! Promise not to repeat that, okay?) While, I, on the other cramped hand, write picture books illusively. Meaning, I get a won’t-go-away idea. I do my best to puzzle the idea into a manuscript and then tinker with it until it begs for mercy. Then rinse and repeat. It is never easy or pretty. But, Seuss help me,  it brings me a perverse, inexplicable delight when I finally pin that butterfly of an idea to the board. Making a dummy helps me get to that point.

Whether you and picture books are going steady or you only hang out when the mood strikes,  dummy-making may be wise for you too.

Smart dummy pointers . . .

  • Do not waste a nanosecond worrying about your inability to draw. Dummies are designed to be tools, not  objets d’art.
  • Illustrators need a dummy. Writers need a dummy. All God’s children need a dummy (more or less).
  • If your picture book word count needs a serious count down, making a dummy can really help. You can easily see which words are keepers and which are just leftovers. Aim for 500 or less–a whole heap less.
  • Dummies will also tell you if your cute or clever idea is robust and active enough to sustain a 32-page page-turner.
  • For a tip-top primer on how to make a dummy, visit this blog post from picture book author extraordinaire Tara Lazar.
  • At a recent SCBWI event, I picked up this cool trick from masterful picture book author Kelly DiPucchio. Once Kelly has a decent draft, she prints it and cuts out each line, then uses an existing 32-page picture book (any one will do) to check her pacing. She paperclips or lightly tapes her lines into the book to see how well her story fits the format. If not, she can tailor and tighten or expand.

You simply must be convinced of a dummy’s brilliance by now.

And so, my little cummerbund of cuteness, my bon vivant of brilliance, do you dare devise a dummy? Indeed, I hope you do.

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. ~ Steve Jobs

can’t even believe I’m giving you my secret to character interviews

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Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

I knew I wasn’t crazy. (Hey, I saw that eye roll!) In her lecture about the interior life of our characters, young adult and middle grade author Coe Booth said, “Characters should exist before we know them. They should keep ‘talking’ when we aren’t writing about them.” Coe had no idea how good her words made me feel. I wasn’t the only one who thought that about my characters!

When I began my third middle grade novel, I interviewed the people I hoped would populate the story. My goal was to become better acquainted with my already-identified main character and his family as early in the novel-writing process as possible.

Why? Well, for one thing, we were going to spend a heck of a lot of time together. Why start out as strangers? Also (and this is a big ALSO), knowing my characters allows me to anticipate how they’ll think and feel in the situations I’ll plot for them.

Based on the interview outcomes for each player–primary and secondary–I compiled character sketches. Each character has a job to do and I had to know they were up for it. Slackers need not apply!

Oh sure, my characters have surprised me already–and that’s the fun part–but hosting that meet and greet for the entire cast at the outset made a big difference before we buckled up and motored into the unknown together.

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Here’s my secret for a great character interview–turn off your inner censor. Unplug the darn thing and put your mouth on mute. Not unlike a brainstorming session where you agree there are no “good” ideas or “bad” ideas, the same must hold true as you query characters. LISTEN. Don’t interrupt or wonder if what they’re telling you is factual or even fits with the story you want to tell. Let your subconscious and your intuitive side have free rein. If you can do this, you will be amazed by what will surface. I recorded information about my characters and only afterward learned how the pieces fit together in powerful and significant ways I never could have planned or predicted.

 

 

Here are some sample character interview questions:
Who is your hero?
What’s your favorite day of the week? How come?
What’s under your bed?
What’s your earliest memory?
Do you have any allergies?
What candy is your all-time favorite?
If you could change your name, what would it be?
What’s your biggest fear?
What are you good at in school?
What do you wish you were good at?
When you look in a mirror, what part of your face do you like best?
What do you like to do when you get home from school?
Do you have a pet?
Do you have brothers or sisters?
How do you parents get along?
Who lives at your house?
What’s the best vacation or trip you’ve ever taken?
What seems unfair to you?
If you could live in another time in history, when would it be?
What ticks you off?
What rule would you change if you could?
What would happen if your best friend moved away?
What’s your least favorite chore at home?
Do you have a bad habit?
Do you like being hugged?
What would you do with $100?

Consider these questions for starters. I know you can think up even better ones (and please, feel free to share!)

Why not interview your characters too? Even if you’re mid-novel, it’s not too late to conduct an impromptu Q and A session. You may discover something that will add depth or quirkiness to your characters and “maybe” even help to explain why they do what they do (or aren’t cooperating).

But remember the secret–shift your censor into neutral. Let your characters delight, surprise and perplex you, and then they will do the same for your readers.

Every time I write a new book, I want to push myself to try something different. ~ Lauren Myracle

recognizing the detail smorgasbord (plus spring giveaway winners!)

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Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

This time of year is an absolute boon for children’s writers. If you have children or grandkids, you’ll soon be attending award ceremonies, field days, banquets, carnivals, graduations, end-of-year parties or picnics. Well, when you do, be sure to take notes. These occasions are an All-You-Can-Record Detail Smorgasbord!

Oh, I know you think you’ll remember. You are wrong. Even if you take photos, many details will be spirited away. I am the mother of a high school senior. Benefit from my experience.

Write.

It.

Down.

Jot down the names of the various awards and how students react to them, the food and amusements offered at the carnival, how the banquet was decorated and what was served, choice sound bites you overhear, and what teachers say to regain crowd control. Take note of the popular (and the not-so-popular) kids are wearing and how they talk, the words to songs that are sung, the music being played at a ceremony, the names of the games being played (and so on and so forth and what have you).

These notes will become precious to you when you sit down to write. You’ll have a stockpile of details to bring your work to life and ground it in a reality that is so familiar to your readers. (Oh,  and yes, you’ll have recorded dear details from your child’s school year, so there’s that too.)

The truth of the story lies in the details. ~ Paul Auster

Congratulations to the winners of the Frog on a Dime Spring Cleaning Giveaway . . .

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Lindsay Fouts–winner of Writer’s First Aid: Getting Organized, Getting Inspired and Sticking to It by Kristi Holl

Danielle Hammelef–winner of Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books by Uri Shulevitz

Please contact me with your address and I’ll be delighted to send you your book!

 

time for the spring cleaning giveaway!

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Take your pick!

Take your pick!

It’s time. As much as it pains me, I must purge my bookshelves a bit. Because I’m your fan, I want to share my purgings with you. Huh. That didn’t come out right, did it.

Moving on–we have a resource for non-fiction writers, one for picture book attempters,  a practical book for any writer and (yes, there’s more) a set of brilliant middle grade novels by masters of the genre. And you thought this was going to be an ordinary day. Silly you!

Lean in and I’ll tell you how you can be a winner of the Spring Cleaning Giveaway: simply comment on this post and let me know which book (or books), you’d like to win. Then, I’ll draw names on Friday, April 17 at Noon. Easy sneezy.

Here’s what’s on the menu (and good luck deciding!) . . .

The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It Write It by Peter Jacobi

This book was published in the late 1900s (makes it sounds really outdated, doesn’t it). What it lacks in advice about online research, it more than makes up for in how to add substance, depth and honesty to your work as a non-fiction writer. Plus, it’s Peter Jacobi. He’s amazing. If you ever get the chance to hear him speak, do. He’s a true orator. And can that guy write. Oh, my. Did I mention this book is signed? I almost hate to part with it.

Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books by Uri Shulevitz

This is a classic. If you write (or aim to write) picture books, you simply must have this book. It’s a treasure. And yes, I am willing to share it with you. Is that love or what?

Writer’s First Aid: Getting Organized, Getting Inspired and Sticking to It by Kristi Holl

I met Kristi ages ago at a Highlights Foundation workshop. This lady knows her stuff. While this little volume looks demure, it can be a real kick in the pants.

These fine middle grade novels, I’m offering as set. You can study them for craft, enjoy each as a fun, quick read and then share them with a child you love.

  • A Series of Unfortunate Events, No. 2: The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket
  • Lost in Cyberspace by Richard Peck
  • Hank Zipzer, The World’s Underachiever: Niagara Falls, or Does It? by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver
  • This Gum for Hire by Bruce Hale

Have you made up your mind? Don’t wait too long. Leave a comment by Noon on Friday and hopefully you’ll be a winner. Regardless, you are a fine person and there are plenty of kids who would be happy to sit by you at lunch. Remember, don’t slouch.

With freedom, books, flowers and the moon, who could not be happy? ~ Oscar Wilde