Monday, October 12, 2015

Five Ways to Get Inspired: Guest Post by Katy Towell

Our guest today is author and illustrator, Katy Towell. Appropriate for the month of October, Katy’s newest novel, Charlie and The Grandmothers, will certainly chill and thrill. Don’t miss her frightfully creepy animated preview. (

- Eden Unger Bowditch

If you were anything like me as a kid, one of your biggest dreams was to write a novel. You spent a vast percentage of your free time fantasizing about your novel’s title and doodling book covers in notepads meant for school. In your head, you played the trailer for the film adaptation over and over. You carried that dream with you as you grew up, and now here you are: writing your own novel for the kind of kid you used to be!

But you’re an adult now. How do you get into the right mindset for middle grade fiction? Here are a few of my favorite tools:

1)    Write down a list of things that mattered to you when you were your readers’ age: your fears, your wishes, things that made you sad, things that gave you joy. Set a time limit--five minutes or less--to avoid overthinking it. The first memories that come to mind are the strongest, and they stand out to you for a reason. Use them!

2)    Struggling to find an idea? Start making up titles! When you write one down that really grabs you, you’ll soon think up a story that fits it. (I’ll tell you secret: that’s how came up with the plot for my latest, Charlie and the Grandmothers.)

3)    Feeling stuck? Go back and look at the books and movies you loved as a child. Consider what it was you loved about them, and ask yourself what your current project is missing.

4)    Stop thinking so hard! Listen to music and let your imagination take over. Film scores are excellent for this because they cover a wide range of emotions. I find it’s best when they’re from a movie you haven’t seen so that your thoughts aren’t hijacked by a story you already know.

5)    Play make-believe! Don’t be afraid to get into character and act out your scenes. If you get too wrapped up in the process of writing, you might forget that your characters are meant to be people! So, try being those people for a little while. Maybe wait until you’re home alone, though.

In short: when writing for children, the secret to finding inspiration is as simple as letting go and allowing yourself to become a kid again. Not just in terms of the story itself, but in the way you start writing it. The grownup in you can take over when the story’s ready for polishing.

To find out more about Katy's work, click on the links below:

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Revision Strategies

So, you’ve written a huge, ugly monster of a first draft—something so distorted, scarred and ridden with plot holes that you're tempted to grab a shovel, bash the thing over the head, and bury it.

Don’t. You can save Franken-draft.

The first thing I suggest is outlining your book. Yes, outline it after you wrote it – even if you had an outline before you started writing the thing. You may have had a planned outline, but what did you actually put into the manuscript? A simple two column table in a Word document works for me. I use the left hand column to summarize the events in each chapter. The right hand column is for recording changes I need to make.

To help guide my revision choices, I also use a separate color-coded outline to analyze the way sub-plots are woven into the story. Again, I work chapter-by-chapter, boiling the events down to one or two sentences. In this example, I assigned purple to the central mystery, blue to a secondary mystery, and yellow to the romantic sub-plot. The color-highlighting helps me see where the various plot elements appear and make sure that they balance each other and that no sub-plot disappears for too long.

As for the actual revising, I prefer to make several successive passes through a manuscript rather than try to perfect the story in one revision. My second draft usually focuses on plot holes and character development. In my third draft, I refine the world-building (no matter if it’s historical, fantasy, science-fiction, or realistic). My fourth draft tackles voice, as well as the succinctness of the prose. This is where I get out my Grim Reaper robe, grab a virtual scythe, and get ruthless about word slashing.

Most of the time, you can remove just, even, and very without changing the meaning of your sentence. People can stand and sit instead of stand up and sit down. They nod and wave. (No need to say which body part is getting nodded or waved. We know.) Avoid phrases with multiple prepositions. In the back of becomes behind, and on the top of can often be reduced to on. I have a bad habit of identifying characters by their first and last names when one or the other will do. I also use multiple adjectives when a single precise one would be more effective.

By the time you've done all this, hopefully, Franken-draft has been civilized a little bit and is ready to bring out in society, or at least shared with beta readers.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Spine-Tingling Read for Halloween: Lockwood & Co.

In the spirit of Halloween, I’m dedicating this post to my favorite middle-grade series of recent years, since it features plenty of spooks, specters, and things that go bump in the night. I’m talking about Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co., which takes place in a haunted alternate version of London. Since Talented youngsters are the only ones who can actually see ghosts (sorry, adults, the best you can hope for is to lock yourself in and try to stay safe after dark), it falls to kid agents to track down unruly spirits and put them to rest for good.

It’s a rich and complicated world that Stroud has created, full of ghost-hunting techniques and devices, even rivalries between competing agencies. It’s definitely a series with solid plot and premise, but for me, what really makes the story are the characters.

We see events unfold through the eyes of the plucky Lucy Carlyle, who is a fantastic narrator—bold, sarcastic, more than a little on the cynical side. But underneath her tough exterior, there is a undercurrent of vulnerability that makes her endearingly human. Lucy also has an extremely rare Talent—the ability to actually talk to ghosts. Most agents can only see and/or hear spirits, so Lucy is quite a special agent, indeed. (Even if she doesn’t always like what the spirits have to say.) Researcher George is the brains behind the operation—and a constant source of wonderfully biting dialogue. Then there’s Anthony Lockwood himself—the mysterious leader of the team, whose not above keeping secrets, like maybe a few ghosts of his own.

Stroud is an absolute master of character development. From a writer’s perspective, this is a great series to read just to see a strong example of three-dimensional characters that mature and grow as the storyline progresses. I enjoy that Stroud doesn’t always do the expected with his characters, but through their trials and tribulations, their interactions and conflicts, they always come out the other side changed somehow, usually for the better. It isn’t always a smooth transition, but somehow they always seem to get there in the end. And I love that this is a series where even the antagonists are not above a little character growth, as well.

Like Harry Potter, Lockwood & Co. is also just so charmingly British, with plenty of rain, tea, and biscuits to go along with all the ghost hunting. Also like Harry Potter, it’s one of the few series that has made me laugh out loud. Some of Stroud’s characters simply thrive on witty comments and one-liners.

There’s been rumblings about a movie version of the Screaming Staircase, the first book in the series, being in development. And I, for one, would love to see Lockwood & Co. come to the big screen. But in the meantime, if you haven’t delved into this fantastic series yet, I’d highly recommend it. Lockwood & Co. is the perfect Halloween read!

photo credit: Pumpkins! via photopin (license)

Monday, October 5, 2015

Outline or No Outline: Where Do You Fall?

I'm not an outline driven writer. For me, the closest I'll ever get to an outline, is a few random, but nonetheless important items I want to get into the manuscript, usually written on various pieces of paper saved in various places...under my laptop, stuck in drawer or a book. I even found notes once under the seat of my car (yes, as you can tell I'm the queen of organization). It's not that I have anything against writers who create outlines for each book, it's more that, innately, it's just not in me. If fact sometimes I wish I could go the outline route, but I've realized my brain just doesn't work that way. It would be difficult for me to create an entire outline to begin with (or even the outline of a single chapter) and if I ever actually did complete one, I know I'd probably ignore most of it once I got going. Generally, when I do save any kind of notes on my laptop, I actually forget that I saved them or what I saved them under!

Now, I'm sure some writers out there who do follow the outline format just cringed as they read the above. There must be a wonderful level of comfort for having your book all mapped out and I can't imagine the fulfilment a writer must have after following their outline through to completion as they write their manuscript and having that manuscript be successful. I've realized, though, I tend to start with a main character and then build the world around that character scene by scene. So as willy-nilly as my process might appear, it's really not. There is more structure to it than meets the eye. 

So, for those of you who outline, have you ever written a manuscript without an outline? Do you think you could or you'd even want to? And for those of you whose outlines are the equivalent of scribbles on a cocktail napkin (like me), do you think you could ever complete an outline start to finish, before diving into your manuscript?