Thursday, May 26, 2016

The 3 Acts of Sound: Re-inventing How You Write with Audio by Donna Galanti

 photo by Jonathan Grado Creative Commons License 

Sound. It’s such an important part of our every day. Nature. Music. Machines. Heartfelt conversations. Heated arguments.

Writing requires digging into our senses to show what a character feels, hears, sees, tastes, and smells. But what about the writer? Enriching our own senses can enrich our writing. It can spur a mental and physical response that deepens our characters and setting.

Silence was once my friend and what I thought was required to write. This past year, my writing process has evolved out of necessity. My writing habits grew stale and the words lost their fluidity.
Without realizing it, over the past few months I’ve organically infused new processes into my writing to combat this. When taking a closer look at them I realized they all had one thing in common: sound.

Here are the three ways sound has become a new foundation for my writing process.


Use real life setting to infuse your story setting

photo by Paul Bilca Creative Commons License

Act 1
Audio record 

I discovered the magical concept of recording on my new smartphone. Not since I was eleven years old with my push button cassette recorder, had audio story telling so claimed me! Back in 1980 I downed Kool-Aid and Nutter-Butters with my best friend as we created commercials on wishful products like … Pepsi Flakes Cereal (wouldn’t that be a cool breakfast?).

Now, strolls through woods suddenly became paths to other worlds. People in my story walk beside me, speak to me. They love, they fight, they suffer, they rejoice. Mountains loom, storms rage, rivers flow, and secrets tumble. My character’s words and their world spill out from me, the narrator, onto the story stage (and if no one is around I get theatrical and act my scenes out!). 

The earth and air around me weave into my story, crossing into fantasy. The whispering wind chills my skin, the burbling creek roars in my ears, the crackling leaves crush beneath my feet. And it all infuses my story. The real life world becomes my story world.

As I fade back to the solid world and my desk, I transcribe my words and embellish on all I’ve recorded.

Try this:
Place yourself in a similar setting of your scene (or one you can connect to for your story’s sake) and use it to your advantage incorporating the senses as an active participant in the story. See the story setting before you and use the real world to describe it. In transcription, you will have a second pass to edit what you’ve recorded and likely guaranteed to have extended thoughts that build on your audio file.

 My awesome critique group! 
Act 2
Critique Group 
I was excited to be invited to be part of a critique group of children’s authors this year that meets once a month. This was something I’d never ventured doing! I’ve used editors and beta readers, but never been held accountable to submit work and review work in a group.

Our rules state that a moderator reads the first page then the person being critiqued must wear The Sombrero of Silence for twenty minutes while the other members speak freely about their work (thanks former Mayhemmer Joe McGee!). Listening to others debate your scenes while keeping mum has been fascinating. I am a fly on the wall, scribbling notes as their words, passion, and ideas spew around me. This one-way audio sensory experience enables you to hone in on each spoken word with clarity and to seek its meaning. You are a receiver of sound but not a producer of sound.

Try this:
Paired with writers of the same level and mindset in a critique group keeps you accountable to your work and pushes you to see issues in other works that you may see in your own. Also, the camaraderie inspires community in a business that is very much solitary. Being a non-participant, hearing your work read aloud and discussed without your engagement, peaks the senses to pick up on each idea and word with total awareness.

The Sombrero of Silence

Act 3
Write to Music

I had always connected songs to characters and scenes in my previous novels, but I never wrote to the music. I would listen to theme songs prior to writing and then sit down to write, the melody and mood flowing through me to capture scenes on paper. Recently, stuck on my current work-in-progress, I decided to write to instrumental music. I purchased headphones and chose soundtracks to match the storyline and setting (Lord of the Rings and Gladiator) not knowing what to expect.

My first day I wrote with such fervor, the tears flowed and covers flew off two letters with my keyboard pounding. Like recording scenes outside in nature, I was transported to my world. I became this anguished character, witnessing the roiling sea before me and facing a life of desperate yearning. A new doorway had opened for me writing to music. One I never knew existed.

Try this:
Music sets the mood and our mood as writers. Having difficulty envisioning a scene? Close your eyes and listed to mood-inspiring music to see it and feel it on the page. Some writers I know use Pandora to create playlists. Try these directories to write by: Sound Fuel and 8Tracks.

I wonder what sense is next to be blended into my world of writing? They say the nose knows. New research proclaims that the nose can remember 1 trillion smells – far from the long believed 50,000. Smells are powerful memory triggers. When you first smell a new scent, you link it to a person or event. Like the scent of fresh cut grass can remind you of a summer day, even if it’s the end of autumn. And when you happen upon that smell again, the link is there, ready to pop that memory open.

Imagine popping open those memories to deepen character and setting. I love stewing apples with cinnamon all throughout the year. Why? The smell reminds me of childhood when my mom gathered apples in our orchard and stewed them for breakfast with homemade biscuits and sorghum. Up next – writing to scents!

Has sound transformed the way you create as an artist? If so, how? Share your experiences!

Monday, May 23, 2016


“Wait, you have two moms?”
“What do you mean your dad’s a…she?
“Please bring these permission slips home to your moms and dads.”

Many writers want to present a variety of family configurations when they are crafting middle-grade fiction, but they’re not sure how to do it well.

Life is just different for kids of LGBTQ parents. They navigate awkward questions, tricky social situations, and hetero-normative language on a daily basis.

At the recent New England SCBWI Conference, I presented Re-imagining Families: Writing about Characters with LGBTQ Parents with my wife Bonnie Jackman, a seasoned middle school counselor.

Here are a few points from our presentation, specifically tailored to writing about middle graders:

**Kids of LGBTQ parents have to explain their existence all the time. Who's your real mom? Where's your dad? What do you mean your dad’s a she? Just as middle graders have the strong urge to “blend in,” to not attract undue attention from peers, their family makes them…well, different! There are many dissonant moments our kids deal with as a matter of course in their daily lives. How does this affect their character, their quest, their relationships, their resilience? This is rich material for character development.

**We all know that LGBTQ rights and protections shifting rapidly and are often in the news of the day. Life for a family with LGBTQ parents can differ dramatically depending on where they live. Consider the setting of your story carefully. Geographical setting is critical to any story with LGBTQ characters; it can be an antagonist, a support, a mix of the two. Think about the political/social climate for LGBTQ people in the town/state where you have set your story. There are wide variations in social and political climate for alternative families, and it will have an impact on the landscape of your character and his/her family.

**How “out” is the family? Are the parents activists, or do they tend to be more low-key? Where are their children on this spectrum? This is so important when considering your middle grader’s perspective. A kindergarten-age sibling may delight in having her two moms come into the classroom for a celebration; a fourth grader might ask to be dropped off a block from school, or cringe at the thought of same-sex parents or a transgender parent attending Open House at school. A sixth grade girl may have a crisis when the family’s annual outing to a Gay Pride celebration conflicts with a best friend’s birthday party. As writers, these crises present us with a real opportunity to show character depth and family dynamics.

**School is a place where kids of LGBTQ parents may experience all kinds of dissonance. For middle graders, the centrality of family shifts to the all-important force of peer relationships. This brings challenges: school and community factors like mother-daughter book clubs, father-daughter dances, filling out forms with mother/father blanks on them, questions and misunderstandings from teachers, administrators, the school nurse… this is rich territory to explore in character development. How does your character respond to these “micro-aggressions,” when the world around them seems to constantly make hetero-normative assumptions?

**Statistics have shown that same-sex couples (with or without children) are much more likely to be interracial or inter-ethnic. This presents writers with the opportunity to portray very diverse families and to consider the concept of intersectionality—layers of identity and difference. How will this affect your middle grade character, how they view the world, and how they navigate school and community?

To read and consider more about LGBTQ-parented families, check out these organizations/resources:
COLAGE: An organization for children of LGBTQ parents

Family EqualityCouncil: network and resources for LGBTQ-parented families

Rainbow Rumpus: “the world‘s only online literary magazine for kids and teens with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) parents.”  

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Grab Readers with Page-Turning Pacing, by Chris Eboch

Fast-paced. Gripping. A page turner. “I couldn’t put it down.” Why do some books get these comments, while others are called slow or flat?

Characters, plot, setting, and theme are all part of pace. But once you have a fast-paced draft, you can pump up the pace even more by focusing on the line-by-line level. In fact, relatively minor changes in sentence structure and paragraphing can make a scene much more dramatic. A page that is one solid block of text looks dull and intimidating. On the other hand, with short paragraphs the reader’s eyes move more quickly down the page, giving a sense of breathless speed. The book literally becomes a page turner because the reader finishes each page so quickly. This means you can make action scenes more dramatic by using short paragraphs.

Here’s an example from my middle grade mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh. Seshta is on the roof, spying down a stairwell. When someone comes up the stairs, she must escape.

     She glanced back at the stairwell. She didn’t have much time.
     Seshta turned and lowered herself over the edge of the roof until she hung from her elbows, her legs scraping against the wall.
     From the stairwell, a head rose into view.
     Seshta let go and fell.

Imagine all that in one paragraph. It wouldn’t have the same pace.

Sentence length affects pace as well. Short sentences have a different rhythm from long ones. Long sentences can feel leisurely, while short ones have blunt impact – the difference between a hug and a slap. You want a variety of sentence and paragraph lengths, because if everything is the same the story will feel clunky or sluggish. But save the longer sentences and paragraphs for description and introspection, and use short sentences and short paragraphs for maximum impact in action scenes.

Here’s another example from The Eyes of Pharaoh. This is the end of a chapter where Seshta is waiting for a friend who is supposed to bring important news.

     Ra, the sun god, carried his fiery burden toward the western horizon. Horus caught three catfish. A flock of ducks flew away quacking. Dusk settled over the river, dimming shapes and colors until they blurred to gray. The last fishing boats pulled in to the docks, and the fishermen headed home.
     But Reya never came.

The long paragraph of description conveys time passing slowly. Putting the last short sentence into its own paragraph gives it added emphasis, causing it to seem more important and ominous.

Print your story or a chapter of your novel and look at your paragraphing. Don’t read it, just see how it looks on the page. Do you have variety, or is everything about the same length? Do you favor short paragraphs or long ones?

Now look closer. Do you have long paragraphs of action, where several things are happening within one paragraph? Consider breaking that into shorter paragraphs, starting a new one for each small piece of action, as in the first example above.

Look at your chapter endings, especially when you have cliffhangers. Can you break your paragraphs into smaller pieces for more drama? Can you shorten your sentences? How does the feel of the section change as you play with sentence and paragraph length? Note the difference between even small changes in wording and punctuation. For example, compare these unpublished examples:

     I heard a noise and looked up with a gasp in time to see a huge rock tumbling toward me.

     I heard a noise above my head. I looked up and gasped.
     A boulder tumbled toward me.

It’s almost hard to follow the action in the first example, because too much happens in one sentence. Shorter sentences clarify the action and give each piece more impact.

You can do this exercise with published books as well. Note sections that are poorly paced and try rewriting them to see how things change as you vary the structure.

Master pacing, and keep those pages turning.

Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the StairsLearn more at or her Amazon page

Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting. Check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

Photo: The Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge.
This media file is in the public domain in the United States.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Self-Editing Is For Suckers by Jim Hill

Why is it so easy to edit someone else’s writing and so hard to edit your own? I asked this question on Facebook and received a lot of excellent answers. And a few hilarious ones (looking at you, Julia). The consensus is that we're too close to our writing to be objective. We all get that, right?

That objectivity is why writing workshops and crit groups are a necessity for improving your work. When I read someone else's pages, I see all of my flaws in their writing. (Thanks, terrible writing partners!)

Putting aside bigger revision issues for today, let's look at copy edit concerns. Typos. Basic grammar. These are my fatal flaws. My kryptonite. My third example and unnecessary metaphor. I am one of the worst offenders when it comes to shitty-first-second-and-third-drafts. I am blind to the copy editing problems I create while crafting that perfect gem of a story (Hahahahahaha. *cries*). It's kind of embarrassing at this point. Its v. it's. There and their. I mean, c'mon, Jim. Really? Then there are all the throat-clearing words, and overuse of others like "like" for example.

I'm a job creator, and that job is copy editor.

I've gotten better. Practice, intention, and attention all make a big difference. I've also discovered a handful of online tools that help with seeing the forest. Come with me and we'll check them out, but leave a trail of breadcrumbs, because forest joke. *groan*

My reaction to bad jokes.
Come for the writing tips, stay for the jokes. *tap tap* Is this thing on?


Word cloud by Wordle.
Wordle creates word clouds from text. Not only is this a fun distraction, but it's also a useful tool to get that thirty-thousand-foot-macro-look at your writing. I pasted my entire manuscript in and shuddered at the giant LIKE that claimed so much attention. I went back into the book and counted ninety-one similes that began with like. After revising, I got it down to like only eighty-eight. Win!

The Hemingway App

The Hemingway App in action.
Paste your text into the Hemingway App one and it kicks out an immediate review of your writing. Color coded highlights help you spot problem areas onscreen. It checks for readability by grade level and gives a word count. The highlighted areas tell you if a sentence is hard to read, very hard to read, if there are simpler alternatives, written in passive voice, and counts adverbs. It really hates adverbs.

The online version is free. They have a paid desktop app too.


Grammarly in action.
Grammarly has become my go-to writing partner. Like the Hemingway App, there's an online version and a desktop app. It also offers a browser plug-in that reviews any text you enter on the fly. Very helpful for social media updates.

I liked the free version so much I ponied up the annual subscription fee for the premium service. It's much less than my monthly Starbucks bill and boosts my productivity even more than my favorite venti iced caramel macchiato.

I draft short pieces (like this one) directly in the desktop app. For my novel, I pasted full scenes in for review. The unobtrusive interface is clean and offers pop-up details so you can see why it flagged something, and make the choice to correct it or not. A cool incentive to better writing is the score shown in the corner. It kicks my competitive mojo up a notch and makes me strive for that perfect 100.

As the attention grabbing headline says, self-editing is for suckers. These tools don't help with the big picture stuff of story, character arcs, themes, etc., but they do smooth the road. Copy edit and grammar issues are speed bumps that distract you and your crit partners from the quality of your writing. Not to diminish the value of these vital aspects by any means, but in revision at any stage, why get tangled up in the nuts and bolts when what you want to work on is the machine?

Now, get out there and write like you mean it.


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Writer's Block: 5 Tips That Work!!! by Hilary Wagner

Writer's Block...uck...the invisible wall of zero inspiration! Don't let writer's block win, or even worse, stop you from finishing your story!

Over the years, Project Mayhem writers have written some great articles on writer's block and how to get over it. In that spirit, I'm at the end of a manuscript that has been riddled (and I mean riddled) with writer's block. I've found these five methods effective ways to get over writer block and actually make your book better. If you have any tips or tricks you'd like to add, please let us know! 

Writer's Block Quick Fixes:
1. Think it through! Mentally run yourself through the scene. Figure out what's stopping you by taking a mental walk-through--do not read your manuscript--use only your memory. Sometimes this trick can ferret out holes you were glazing over by reading and not thinking about the manuscript. It can also spark a new idea you weren't seeing before. 

2. Edit! Start at whatever point in your book you prefer and start editing. Sometimes editing gets you back into your book. Let's face it, we all forget things. Little bits and pieces you wrote, but not might remember reveal themselves and can lead to that piece you were missing. When I was pathetically "stuck" in the manuscript I'm currently writing, I went back and started editing and a small paragraph I forgot about inspired a completely new idea and changed the scene I was having issues with altogether. 

3. Step back! I'm sure you've heard this one before. As though a policeman is talking to you, "Put down the laptop and walk away!" Easier said than done, but even taking five days off can totally change your perspective. A quick mental vacation will bring you back refreshed and able to handle the tough stuff. 

4. Keep going! Opposite of the above, but many times I'll save a scene or chapter I'm stuck in and move on. Yes, it leaves a nagging hole in my book, but it also allows me to keep writing where I'm going to be useful and the new scenes many times trigger a thought or idea that helps me finish the "problem child" parts. 

5. Get the adrenaline going! I don't care if it’s a good kick boxing session or beating your treadmill to a pulp, a really good workout sends endorphins to your brain! In a recent article, researchers noted that regular exercise seems to be associated with improved divergent and convergent thinking, which are considered the two components of creative thinking; the former involves thinking of multiple solutions for one problem, while the latter involves thinking of one solution for a problem. A win-win, you burn some calories and get through your block! Science at work! This method got me out of one of the biggest blocks in my book. My mind truly did open up! 

I hope one of these helps you get through your own blocks and please let us know what works for you!