Monday, July 24, 2017

Beyond the Numbers: Finding My Path to Writing (Guest Post by Karen Pokras Toz)

I am not one of those people who always knew they wanted to be a writer. In fact, growing up, I probably wanted to be everything but a writer. I was a numbers person (still am, really). While others signed up for writing classes in college, I took advanced math classes … by choice … for fun … and they were.

I had always believed you were either a numbers person or a writing/creative person. Clearly I loved numbers, so I deducted (mathematically and statistically speaking, of course) that writing or any other form of creativity was not my thing.

But something happened on this crazy journey of life. An adult story popped into my head. It happened twenty years ago. I tried to ignore it, but it wouldn’t go away. Then, I tried to write it, never getting through more than a paragraph or two. At each attempt, I would tell myself I had no business trying to write and would promptly put my notebook back on its shelf while returning to the comfort of my numbers.

For ten more years, my story sat, nestled in the back of my brain, but never far from my thoughts. In my heart, I felt I would be missing out on something huge if I let it go. The trouble was, I didn’t know what that something huge was or even how to try to find out. I decided to give it one more try. So I wrote – and I wrote – and I wrote. I couldn’t stop. Without any explanation, I had suddenly become the Forrest Gump of literature. Of course, I thought what I had written was pure brilliance. I would obviously become the next J.K. Rowling of the adult fiction world.

At a neighborhood party, I met a woman, who was a writing coach. She mostly worked with high school students on their college essays, but she offered to give my book a read. The results were worse than dismal. It seemed my masterpiece was not quite the best seller I had imagined. Not even a tiny bit close.

However, she found one redeeming factor. Buried within her many, many not so flattering, yet constructive comments, was a compliment about a flashback scene I wrote where my main character was seven years old.

“This voice is fabulous! I’m instantly brought back to my childhood. Have you ever considered writing for children?”

I hadn’t. And I’ll be honest, I wasn’t immediately on board with her idea. In my mind, this novel was to be a one and done, at which time I’d go back to my career in numbers. But when my two older children, who were nine and twelve at the time, expressed less and less interest in reading anything outside of their assigned schoolwork, (How could this be? I loved to read!) I heard my writing coach’s words again.

Going against my logical theory of numbers vs. creativity, I looked outside of my mathematical box and knew from that moment on I would be a children’s writer. I haven’t looked back since, although I still do love those numbers.

Did numbers play a factor in your writing? Share your story!

About Karen:

Karen Pokras writes middle grade fiction under the name Karen Pokras Toz. A self-proclaimed coffee-addict and lover of daisies, Karen spent fifteen years as a tax accountant, writing solely in numbers. 

When the voices in her head insisted she write in words, she discovered a passion for story telling. Since that fateful day, she’s published six middle grade titles, several of which have won awards. 

A native of Connecticut, Karen now lives outside of Philadelphia with her family. For more information, visit www.karentoz.com.



Thursday, July 20, 2017

HIGHLIGHTS WRITING RETREAT: OR, HOW I REGAINED THE JOY by Mary E. Cronin



 

Back in the short, dark days of January, I was notified that I was the recipient of the Eileen Spinelli Scholarship at the Highlights Foundation, allowing me to attend a Highlights writing workshop. I want to tell you about it.

I was delighted that Eileen Spinelli found promise in my middle-grade novel pages and chose me for the scholarship. But when it came time to choose a workshop, I veered off the predictable path. I’ve been working hard on writing and revising two middle-grade novels for the past few years, and I decided to work on some other writing muscles at Highlights: picture book writing.

By the time the June workshop rolled around, I knew I had made the right choice. The twists and turns of the writer's life had drained all the joy out of my writing practice. Part of my brain (the novel writing part) felt over-worked, stale, and burned out. I needed badly to play, to have fun with writing. Returning to picture books, which is what drew me into the world of children’s writing in the first place, was just what I needed.

With author Darcy Pattison

Picture Books and All That Jazz was led by three dynamic picture book authors: Darcy Pattison, Leslie Helakoski, and Kelly Bennett. We workshopped picture book manuscripts and soaked up information about illustrations, page turns, word count, drama, character quests, and more. It was a long weekend packed full of information and inspiration!  
Making picture book dummies

Special guest presenters included Scholastic editor Natalia Remis and Boyds Mills Press art director Tim Gillner. The workshop took me out of my comfort zone and got me back into a more playful mode.
with author Kelly Bennett

Now, about the Highlights retreat itself. It’s a writer’s dream.  It had always seemed financially out of reach for me, so the scholarship was a true gift. I got to stay in my own little writer’s cabin (something I’ve always wanted to do!). 



Three healthy, beautiful meals are served each day, with coffee/tea/water and snacks on hand all the time. 
Did I mention the snacks?

There are opportunities for quiet reflection and writing, for walks in the woods, or for looking up from your laptop to see a deer prance by your cabin. It’s heavenly.



The Highlights Foundation offered several scholarships this year, and they will again—watch this space!  I recently found out that the artists-in-residence who will each choose a scholarship recipient are Laurie Halse Anderson, Kathy Erskine, Matt de la Pena, Denise Fleming, and Varian Johnson. I recommend choosing a workshop that will feed your creative spirit, refresh your writer’s brain, and perhaps build new muscles. It made all the difference for me.


Monday, July 17, 2017

On Getting Ahead of Myself (& Downward Dog) by Joy McCullough



When I was still acting, I loved the rehearsal process. Everything about it, from first read-throughs all the way through tech. What I did NOT love was the performances. It wasn’t a stage fright thing. I just loved the process, and not so much the product.

It was one of the reasons I quit acting—there really weren’t any gigs where you got to keep rehearsing indefinitely.

Writing novels, I’ve been working through the process v. product thing. Because there’s definitely something extremely product-oriented about writing a novel. And even more so if it’s going to be published. I mean, it will be a literal product. On bookstore shelves. People will hold my book in a way they never held my performances.

But focusing on the product makes it really easy to get ahead of myself. And there’s so much to be learned and gained from where I’m at right now. The moment I got my book deal, publishing friends started asking me about my plans for swag, or my plans for a launch party, or what I wanted the cover to look like.

But for the first time ever in my publishing journey, I wanted to be where I was without leaping on to the next thing. (Not that I’m not excited about those things—I am. Mostly. But what if I have a launch party and no one comes???)

Maybe it comes from my current spot on the publishing journey being so long-fought and hard-won. Maybe it’s all the yoga I do, and my teacher’s insistence that it’s not about making the perfect yoga shape, but about your intention and honoring yourself where you’re at. (“My teacher” sounds like I go to a swanky studio, but if you’ve ever been curious about yoga, might I introduce you to Yoga with Adriene?)

If you’re at an earlier stage of the journey, it might seem easy for me to appreciate where I’m at. Part of my overdrive of the last few years was always headed exactly here—getting the next book ready to query, so I could get the agent, and get on sub, and get the book deal. But any published (or to-be-published) author will attest that the ways to get ahead of oneself only multiply with each step along the way.

I don’t have magical wisdom on how to appreciate where you’re at, how to let go of making the perfect shape. Here’s what I do know: 99 times out of a hundred, the stuff I get ahead of myself about is not the actual writing. The writing is the process, the intention, the downward dog that’s maybe totally wonky and I’ve been doing it for a few years and my heels still don’t touch the floor, but I breathe through it and honor myself for showing up.

So as I sit down to write today, I’m going to try to breathe through that moment too. I invite you to do the same.


Do you get ahead of yourself in your writing/publishing journey? What helps ground you in the moment?



Thursday, July 13, 2017

Cheers to the Copy Editors, the Unsung Heroes of Writing by Hilary Wagner




Definition: Copy editors begin the editing process by fixing any grammatical, punctuation and spelling errors. They also double check that names, places and organizations are spelled properly and that facts, dates and statistics are accurate.

As writers, we are very lucky. We get to live in wonderful worlds we create, places that defy reality and bring our readers somewhere we hold dear. What makes us even luckier, is having editors who work with us to make our stories shine. They help us ferret out plot issues. They take out the unnecessary. They approach us with the utmost honesty and are straightforward about changes that will only make the story better. 

All that said, there's special folks in this process that take it a step further. They are the highest quality of researchers. They are grammatical wizards. They have supernatural x-ray eyes. In essence, they perfect the imperfect. They are copy editors. 



I was very lucky to have a chance to work with one such wizard by the name of George L. Newman, who copy edited books two and three of the Nightshade Chronicles. Not only is he the nicest person you'll ever work with, but he truly cares about getting things right. Whether it was something as mundane as a comma or as detrimental as a line that could potentially throw off the reader, George found it. I can honestly say a copy editor is a prized possession to any writer. They allow us to write our story in our voice, but they make sure we are following those wonderful rules (and there are so many) of the English language. If we compare a book to a fine dining restaurant, a talented copy editor gives it that gleaming polish to contend for a Michelin Star.


The wonderful George Newman
I'd love to know others experiences on working with a copy editor and of course, give a big thank you to George Newman and all you copy editors out there. For someone like me, copy editing would be a grueling task and I'm so very thankful as a writer and a reader that you take the time to make those many books we all treasure glow with perfection. 

Of note, this was copy edited by my own eyes only, so be gentle. :)

CHEERS TO THE COPY EDITOR! 

Thanks for reading,

Hilary Wagner

Monday, July 10, 2017

Fear of Missing Out, or from FOMO to YOLO by Jim Hill


The internet is great. The internet is terrible. One way that it's great is how it enables like-minded people, say people who write books for kids, for example, to share the daily events that make writing and publishing the ecstatic roller coaster ride that it is.

Then there's the way the internet is also terrible. That'd be the way it takes all those kidlit folks we love and shows us how they're all doing the cool things, or getting all the great book deals, or hanging out together the way we wish we were to the point that you think you're no longer in the club, you're permanently outside with your nose pressed up against the glass.

This past weekend was full of big FOMO feels. The SCBWI Summer Conference happened in Los Angeles, and the summer residency kicked off at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I've been to the LA SCBWI conference once and had an amazing time meeting friends I'd made online in person, digging into craft workshops, and soaking up the wisdom of keynotes. And summer rez at VCFA? Pure magic. Ten days over-stuffed with lectures, readings, and deep, passionate conversations with people that have become family. It's a bit like summer camp for adult nerds.

So, instead of wallowing in all the potentially negative emotions, I bought tickets for a whale watch with my family. Brilliant! How to go from FOMO to YOLO. I clapped myself on the back (I'm flexible), and even tweeted about it.

And then. And then.

And then I literally missed the boat. We arrived two minutes late, the bow lines had been cast, and we watched the ship sail.

Fortunately, my family is flexible, too. After a fair amount of mockery over my utter lack of planning skills, we rallied with ice cream and fried scallops (not in that order, gross) and set our alarms for the next morning's whale watch.

Which left me with some time to ruminate on the ways a whale watch is like writing.

1) You take a bit of a journey to put yourself in the right position
2) You never know when something will surface
3) Sometimes a bunch of things happen at once
4) If you're lucky, you might get caught in a feeding frenzy
5) The best parts are often a fluke

And with that, I'd better get myself to Barnstable Harbor and on board in time to see some cetacean sensations.




Thursday, July 6, 2017

Telling My Own Story, Now Improved With Dragons by Kell Andrews


Many writers make careers out of telling their own stories. That's true of memoirists, essayists, bloggers, and even some fiction writers, but it's not true of me.

Then in May, I attended a digital storytelling workshop by StoryCenter, held at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. I was there for my day job as a university digital content producer (that is, writer for mostly online media) to find ways to deepen the create about students, faculty, and alumni. But after signing up, I realized that the workshop format involved telling your own story. I'd be practicing on myself. 

Benjamin Franklin, founder of the university where I work, wrote, "Either write things worth reading,
or do things worth the writing." (He did both, and was a celebrated autobiographer to boot).
I've always thought the mundane particulars of my life are not worth the writing. It's only when I use my experience to make things up that my writing gets interesting.

Now, I'm used to telling I write stories about other real people in my day job, and my writing fiction for children is currently my side hustle. I'm even used to writing blog posts like this one, but when it comes to telling my own story, I tend to lose the plot, mainly because there isn't one. I've once took a class on first-person narrative nonfiction, and the personal essays I wrote lacked both shape and detail unless I considerably embroidered them -- and embroider enough, and they turned into fiction. . Embroider some more, and they turn into fantasy. (I tried this once as an exercise, and which turned into the middle-grade short story The Mermaid Game, paired with a nonfiction essay, Shark and Minnow.)

Sitting in the story telling workshop, I didn't have the option to embroider reality, but I managed to add dragons anyway (along with a JRR Tolkien reference) while talking about how insomnia led me to write middle grade fantasy. Here is the result.

 
Did deepen my story telling skills for my day job? I hope so. And I did get some good tools for my next book trailer...

Monday, July 3, 2017

A ROVING BOOKMOBILE?! I WISH I COULD DRIVE IT by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin


The other day a friend of mine gave me a copy of High Country News ("For people who care about the West.") It wasn't a magazine with which I was familiar, but it turned out to be a fascinating read. The November 14, 2016 edition focused on writers in the West, and I enjoyed browsing through the articles. But one that really made me sit up straight was a fabulously written piece by a librarian called R. Kelley. (I'm not sure of the librarian's gender--it's never mentioned in the piece--so I will use the s/he construction.)

R. Kelley drives the Flagstaff City-Coconino County Public Library Bookmobile "around the second-largest county in America--through sparse deserts, blue volcanic mountains, and forests, towns, and villages." S/he describes the bookmobile driver as wearing "many hats, including transient therapist, reference librarian, janitor, wheelchair assistant, fill-in hunting buddy and Dear Abby substitute."

As a lifelong urbanite, I was fascinated by the glimpse of life in a part of the U.S. of which I am completely unfamiliar. My library system is vast and gleaming, brick-and-mortar, with programs aplenty. This "great Culture Ferry" is literally a lifeline to the people it serves in this vast county. Imagine being one of those kids "in the middle of nowhere," for whom the bookmobile "can be as exciting as a circus coming to town!" Honestly, if someone wants to write a middle grade novel with kids who love a bookmobile, I will read it immediately.

And if Flagstaff ever needs another bookmobile driver, count me in!

You need to read the article in full--it is worth it while you drink your morning coffee.

What are the libraries like in your community? Have you ever experienced a Bookmobile? If so, where?

Happy July, Mayhemmers. Happy Independence Day tomorrow!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Book News by Paul Greci


Doing research for the Sequel to Surviving Bear Island.

I’m thrilled to announce that there will be a Sequel to Surviving Bear Island coming out in 2018, and another middle grade adventure to follow!!

From Publishers Marketplace: June 14, 2017 – Paul Greci

Children’s: Middle grade

JLG winner for Surviving Bear Island Paul Greci‘s untitled sequel, pitched as another Alaskan Hatchet and Far North-like adventure/wilderness/survival tale, to Eileen Robinson at Move Books, in a two-book deal, for publication in 2018, by Amy Tipton at Signature Literary Agency.

Thanks to my agent Amy Tipton for finding a home for more of my middle grade adventure stories!! We’ve been working together for six years now!

And, I’m looking forward to continuing to work with Eileen Robinson and all the other fine folks at Move Books!!

The Sequel is set in Interior Alaska where there are many free flowing rivers.


The sequel (title forthcoming) took about a year to write utilizing the early morning hours before my teaching day began, plus some of the previous summer.

The second book in the two-book deal is a yet-to-be-written middle grade adventure (which I’ll share more details about at a later date), so I read with interest Caroline’s post last Monday. This will be the first time I have a contract for a book I have not yet written.

I’ll have a little more news to share regarding my young adult fiction writing sometime soon.

Thanks for stopping by.


Paul Greci is the author of Surviving Bear Island, a 2015 Junior Library Guild Selection and a 2016 Scholastic Reading Club Selection.

 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora, by Pablo Cartaya

About Marvelous Middle Grade Mondays:
On his last post, Michael stated that he's been following author Shannon Messenger's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday for years, and following on in her tradition, he gave us a great review of POISON IS NOT POLITE. I recently read Pablo Cartaya's debut middle grade novel THE EPIC FAIL OF ARTURO ZAMORA. I've been talking nonstop about this wonderful title, and I wanted to share the love I have for this book with you Mayhemmers.

About THE EPIC FAIL OF ARTURO ZAMORA: 

Save the restaurant. Save the town. Get the girl. Make Abuela proud. Can thirteen-year-old Arturo Zamora do it all or is he in for a BIG, EPIC FAIL?

For Arturo, summertime in Miami means playing basketball until dark, sipping mango smoothies, and keeping cool under banyan trees. And maybe a few shifts as junior lunchtime dishwasher at Abuela’s restaurant. Maybe. But this summer also includes Carmen, a cute poetry enthusiast who moves into Arturo’s apartment complex and turns his stomach into a deep fryer. He almost doesn’t notice the smarmy land developer who rolls into town and threatens to change it. Arturo refuses to let his family and community go down without a fight, and as he schemes with Carmen, Arturo discovers the power of poetry and protest through untold family stories and the work of José Martí.

Praise for The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya:

"Irresistibly exquisite." —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"At turns funny, beautiful, and heartbreaking... engrossing." —Booklist, starred review

"A vibrant debut novel about family, friendship, and community." —Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Pablo Cartaya's sensational debut is a love letter to boyhood, poetry, and family. Quite simply, this is the book I've been waiting for." —Matt de la Peña, New York Times bestselling and Newbery Medal–winning author of The Last Stop on Market Street

"This story of hope will make you laugh, cry, sigh, and cheer for brave Arturo and his whole cool familia. Along the way, you'll end up hungry for Cuban food, ravenous for poetry, and determined to stand up to bullies who try to destroy communities. ¡Bravo!" —Margarita Engle, Newbery Honor–winning author of The Surrender Tree.

Why I liked it:

Arturo's voice and that of the story itself are spot-on middle grade. Full of hope and longing, full of wonder and possibility. Arturo has a strong support group in his family (all those people related to him by blood), but also those who are considered cousins and aunts and uncles but they're not blood cousins, aunts, and uncles. I immersed myself completely in this story which like the family recipes of Abuela's restaurant contains all the ingredients of my favorite reads: a full fledged character trying to find his place in the community and do his part to leave his mark in the family's legacy, believable family relationships (I love Arturo's relationship with his Abuela, especially. The way he speaks to her in English and she replies in Spanish because in matters of the heart, languages are secondary. Love is always first), strong friendships (including a friend who's such a Pitbull fan, he uses all of Mr. Worldwide's famous phrases like "Dale!"), and such a vivid setting that it reads like a character. I love Miami, and reading this book I could almost smell the sea and feel the balmy, humid breeze on my skin (I love the humidity, and as a Utah resident, I CRAVE it!).  When I was reading it I laughed so much and so hard, that my twelve-year-old son begged me to finish it quickly so he could read it next. He was hooked from the first paragraph. I mean, take a look for yourself:



And last but not least, did I mention the poetry? Arturo discovers the power of José Martí's words to resist against injustice and to understand his own family history.

About the author: 



Pablo Cartaya has always been a hopeless romantic. In middle school he secretly loved reading Shakespeare’s sonnets (don’t tell anyone), and he once spent his allowance on roses for a girl he liked. He also wrote her eight poems. Bad ones. He’s been writing ever since. Pablo has worked in Cuban restaurants and the entertainment industry, and he graduated with an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. All of these experiences have helped him write stories that reflect his family, culture, and love of words. Pablo lives in Miami with his wife and two kids, surrounded by tías, tíos, cousins, and people who he calls cousins (but aren’t really his cousins). Learn more about Pablo at pablocartaya.com.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Kill the villain? Or save them? by Joanna Roddy


For my last post, I talked about villains and the layering of roles often seen in kids lit: rivals, agents, and the true enemy. I want to continue that discussion and talk about what we as writers do with our villains in the end. 


Disney (and for that matter, most traditional story-telling) tells us that the villain needs to die. Especially the true enemy, especially if they are powerful through magic or supernatural ability. They're too dangerous to live. Lesser villains, like agents, need to be punished, and rivals and bullies need to be humiliated. It's often and eye-for-an-eye system in which just deserts are served up to satisfy the viewer's sense of fairness. In these narratives, good is good, though it may be flawed or misguided; and bad is intentionally bad. The hero must vanquish evil. Ultimately, these stories have a power struggles as the central conflict and the story ends when power ultimately resides with the protagonist. 

Other story-tellers, like Japanese animated fantasy film-maker Hayao Miyazaki, show us villains who are unquestionably bad and clearly set against the protagonist, but the hero's path to overcoming that villain isn't through violence or a show of definitive power. This is because the hero has a different skill-set altogether. Where traditional heroes need to harness their power in physical or magical battle, these alternative heroes are equipped with empathy, loyalty, and kindness. They will still need bravery and perseverance, but the result will be something far different than vanquishing the villain. Rather, the villain can be saved. 


Take for example Spirited Away, Miyazaki's 2003 Oscar-winning film in which the ten-year-old hero, Chihiro, defeats a monstrous spirit feeding on people's greed by simple indifference to its offers of gifts and gold. After returning it to its benign form, she befriends it, taking it as a traveling companion. Later, Chihiro is able to win her freedom from a witch, Yubaba, who is holding her and her parents prisoner, through her wits and monopolizing Yubaba's weak spot: her devotion to her bratty son. Does Chihiro hold the son hostage or threaten him? No. She earlier made friends with him, transforming his selfishness into compassion that then is leveraged in her favor. The story is left with the possibility that Yubaba's love for her ennobled son will lead to her own transformation.


Another example: Tomm Moore's Song of the Sea. Based on Irish folklore, the villain in this film is Macha, the owl witch. She steals people's emotions, keeping them in glass jars while the people themselves are turned to stone. We learn that she does this because her son's broken heart was too painful for her to witness, and, thinking she was giving him mercy, she turned him to stone. Now she is determined to do the same for everyone, including herself. The child protagonists break the jars and the emotions all come flooding out. Macha realizes that allowing oneself to feel things, even great emotional pain, is preferable to feeling nothing and being barely alive. In the end she becomes their ally and her relationship with her son is restored. 

The only irredeemable villains in these films are destructive forces. Miyazaki presents war and pollution again and again in his films as true evils that must be resisted. Moore's Song of the Sea offers only time and the rules of magic as the heroes' greatest enemies. 

I find myself torn. Evil is real. Just look at the news. Kid readers understand this in a pure and simple way, often overlooking the nuance and splitting the world into good guys and bad guys. I think the longing to see justice for wrongdoing is innate. But as writers, I feel we owe it to children to represent the world as it truly is: seemingly evil people have complicated motives, and no one is completely irredeemable. Our choices have power and the possibility to choose good is always there. Some villains will never choose good--that's the power of free will too. 

Typically our heroes destroy the villain in a final showdown in which good prevails against all odds. The hero seems ill-equipped and powerless until that last moment when what is needed to overcome impending doom finally arrives, and they win. But what if instead the thing that arrives against the odds is that elusive magic--the kind we all wish we had--that gives the hero the exact key to unlock the villain's heart and return them to a path of love? Everyone wins. What if we told stories like that, and instilled the belief in children that maybe there's something inside them that can transform the world through love instead of violence? Through peacemaking instead of division. 

Maybe that's idealistic, but doesn't our world need those kind of heroes now more than ever? 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Writing About the Writing by Caroline Starr Rose


I write historical fiction, so the idea of keeping a notebook to gather my research and questions about a new project isn’t a new one. But over the years my notebooks have expanded into something other than just a collection of historical tidbits. They’ve become an on-going private conversation where I can noncommittally explore the fragile beginnings of a new idea or work out troublesome knots once the story’s under way. 

In other words, my notebooks are teaching me the importance of writing about the writing.


My novel Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine didn’t yet exist when it sold as part of a two-book deal. For a few weeks I was thrilled with my good fortune, but then panic settled in. I pulled out my notebook and scribbled down my worries: I’m not very good at plotting and have never created with a deadline. There’s pressure knowing I’ve sold something I haven’t even begun. Then I made myself try and answer these worries, to the best of my ability. Plot comes, I wrote. It can be discovered in character development and drafting. My agent and editor believe I can do this. If I can’t see this in myself right now, I can borrow their belief. I returned to this page in my notebook throughout the drafting process any time I needed a little courage.

The word “writing” is sometimes a heavy load for me to carry. My mind fills with word counts and productivity — the opposite of how my projects often progress. I’ve allowed myself to replace “writing” with terms that don’t hold so many expectations. Now I explore. Create. Discover. Tinker. Wonder. Practice. 

This might mean figuring out what’s working with a premise and what isn’t. Or creating a list of historical details I need to further study. Some days it includes questions I have about a story’s timeline and plot or notes on characters — their secrets, their fears, the stories they tell themselves to make sense of the world — and their relationships with others. My notebook becomes a running commentary, an in-the-moment chance to reflect.

There was a particular scene in Jasper that I just couldn’t get right. Each time I’d turn it back in to my editor she’d point out what wasn’t working. One day I set aside the manuscript and returned to my notebook. I needed to hear from the characters in that scene — how their lives before this moment had influenced how they saw themselves, how their experiences had shaped their choices. Using first person, I wrote quick character sketches of both men. I realized one felt cheated, like he was owed something. The other was guarded and afraid. Knowing this opened up the scene in an entirely new way, allowing me to see how these two would interact and how they’d treat Jasper, the kid who’d stumbled in on their conversation.


In going back over my notes, I witness a book slowly taking shape. Each page records challenges that I eventually find my way through. Writing about the writing becomes a promise that someday my book will come together. Though it might be hard to believe in the moment, I hold the proof my story has made it this far, that it will reach the end. 



Thursday, June 15, 2017

Chris Eboch Asks: Does Plotting Take Away the Fun?

We talk a lot about writing process on this blog. (You’re welcome.) It’s always interesting to see how other authors work. In general terms, we are often broken into two groups – plotters who plan things out in advance, and pantsers who make things up as they go (writing “by the seat of the pants”).

One statement I’ve regularly heard from pantsers is that plotting would “take the fun out of writing.” Today I got wondering… Is this something people know from experience, or is it an assumption? Possibly a false one?

Let me give you an example from my current work in progress. This is a mystery novel for adults, but the process would apply to middle grade as well.

I started by developing a main character, some family members, and a mystery premise. I knew “whodunit” but not much else. At a recent small writing retreat, we sat around talking about our WIPs (works in progress) and people tossed out reactions and feedback. This gave me some great new ideas. I brainstormed additional ideas and wrote down everything on scraps of paper. (I hadn’t brought index cards, which I would normally use for this kind of thing.)

Then I shuffled the ideas around until I had a plot I thought worked well, alternating quieter investigation moments, such as interviewing people, with more dramatic action scenes, and weaving in subplots. Finally, I wrote this up as an outline.

Now that I know “everything” that happens, did I remove all chance for spontaneity and surprises in the writing?

No way!

Let’s look at my upcoming scene. First, some background: Kate is a conflict journalist who has returned to her childhood home to recover after a serious injury. Her mother is in an Alzheimer’s care unit, and the director there – an old acquaintance of Kate’s – asks Kate to quietly look into some suspicious deaths at the Home. Besides the two deaths, one woman had a mysterious illness but recovered. Here is the description of the scene I’m about to write, from my outline:

Visit woman who got sick while [the woman’s] family is there. Discuss the symptoms of her illness. A family member makes the comment that it would be better if she had died.

Does this look like there are no opportunities for creativity or surprises in the scene? Here are some of the things I don’t yet know:
  •         Where should the scene take place? In the patient’s room, or a common room? What is the room like? How can I describe it vividly with a few specific details?
  •         What is the elderly patient like? What’s her appearance? How does she behave? She’s in an Alzheimer’s care unit, so I may want to watch some videos of Alzheimer’s patients.
  •         What are the family members like? How many are there? What is their relationship to the patient? How do they behave?
  •         How does the scene play out? How does Kate asked questions without revealing that she’s investigating?
  •         Kate has a strained relationship with her sister, who is also present but doesn’t know about Kate’s investigation. How does the sister react to what’s happening? Can I create more conflict between the two of them?
  •         Kate’s father has recently learned what she’s doing and wants to help her. What can he do in this scene? What about Kate’s mother and other secondary characters?

As you can see, having an outline doesn’t mean you don’t have flexibility, creativity, or surprises. Besides the questions above, I may come up with a new twist or a way to drop in a clue that I hadn’t anticipated.

What Works for You?

I fully believe that when it comes to writing technique, there’s no one right answer for everyone. If you have a process that’s working for you, congratulations! Keep at it! If you feel there’s room for improvement, you might want to try some different things.

And if you’ve always assumed that brainstorming and outlining would ruin the creativity and fun, please don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

Here are some posts on plotting and process from other Project Mayhem authors:


Plus a few more plotting resources:


Also, my book Advanced Plotting offers a tool for outlining and analyzing your plot, along with articles on fast starts, developing middles, plot points, cliffhangers, and more advice on making your work stronger. Get the paperback or e-book on Amazon.

Get The Plot Arc Exercise as a free Word download you can edit at my website.

Chris Eboch is the author of over 40 books for young people, including The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. 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.

Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

As Kris Bock, Chris writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. The Mad Monk’s Treasure (FREE at all ebook retailers!) follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town.

Read excerpts at www.krisbock.com or visit her Amazon page. Sign up for the Kris Bock newsletter for announcements of new books, sales, and more.