Lessons Learned From Illustrators

Last weekend, as SCBWI Regional Advisor, I attended our illustrator conference. The tips on lighting and body proportions did’t really apply to writing, although I suppose if I tried, I could work out a complicated metaphor… But I won’t. Here’s what struck me:

Midway through her talk, Sherry Meidell said, “Deadlines and time constraints can stifle creativity. Relearn how to play like a child. You have to daydream–take the time to sit and think. Visualize, look at your sketches, and daydream some more.” She advised us to go for a walk or a run, letting our stories play through our heads, as we ask if we’ve approached the illustration from the best angle.

Stories need to be told through the right angles too. Are we putting our characters in the best situations to move the story forward? Could we find a more interesting setting for this scene? Would our characters really do that–or is it merely a quick way to move the story along (and maybe avoid working through a tricky scene)?

As writers, we value butt-in-chair time, often racing through scenes to meet daily word count goals. As a NaNoWriMo fan, I’m guilty of stacking up word count without taking time to pause. Go on that walk. Stare out the window with my cat. Think.

I know that my writing could benefit from taking the time to daydream some more. So move over Minnie, let’s hang out on the sofa & think through my plot together… Okay, I know you’re only thinking about snacking on birds.

Setting Aside a Work-in-Progress

I’ve decided to do something I’ve never done in my writing life. I’m setting aside my WIP to start something new. Why?

I scrubbed my refrigerator instead of writing on Tuesday.
Yesterday I spent my writing time filling my notebook with poorly-written poems.
Characters sparked by reading a newspaper article a few weeks ago won’t stop chattering at me.
I’ve been trying too hard to write a book with a BIG GIANT SKY HIGH concept. And it’s just not me.

Part of me feels like a quitter, putting aside something that I thoroughly researched & outlined with the fast-paced precision of the 4th sequel in an action movie franchise. I pounded out 50,000 words during NaNoWriMo. But I have to acknowledge that the story is not working. And I’m not working. Even my family is growing suspicious about the cleanliness of the house. Matched up socks? What?!?!?!

Maybe the marketplace wants novels that can be decorated with dark, doom and gloom covers with pessimistic views of the future. Someone else can write those books. I’ve got to stay true to myself & tell this new story about real people with real problems, not that having vampires in my backyard wouldn’t be a problem…

I’m excited!

The Outline Advantage

My task this week: plan and plot my new WIP. I know, I know, outlining is not cool, not artistic, it hampers inspiration… Tony Hillerman says, “Usually the book is finished long before the outline is. Go with the flow. Sometimes plots don’t make sense, but it avoids that awful problem of outlining.” Anne Lamott (Bird By Bird) is against outlining. So is Stephen King (On Writing).

But I still love it. I’m not talking about one of those big I, little i nightmares from school research papers, but rather creating a plan for the work I plan to write, or as Strunk and White say, “a suitable design.” Having an outline gives me an advantage as I draft a new novel.
Advantage #1: Plot. Outlining allows me to work out the structure of the novel. I like to see everything visually and puzzle out questions. If this happens, then what will happen next? I can see the pacing, story arc, etc. 
Advantage #2: Avoid Meandering, Wandering, Getting Lost. An outline helps me keep to the story I intended to tell. I won’t write hundreds of unnecessary words, or pages, that don’t actually contribute to my main character’s journey. Sometimes it’s hard to cut clever or pretty sentences that sound good–even if they don’t belong. 
A good outline also gives me a map through the middle. Knowing where I’m going prevents those panicky moments, “Eek! I’ve written 100 pages, but I don’t know what happens next, and, maybe the whole thing is bad, bad, bad.”
But–it is important to be flexible. I’m always adding and deleting things from my outline.
Advantage #3: Tracking Subplots, Minor Characters, Themes. To make outlining even more fun, I’ll use color for each aspect of the story. At a glance I can see if I’m ignoring a subplot for too long, or leaving out a minor character who will confuse my readers if she all of a sudden pops back into the story 75 pages later. 
Advantage #4: Remembering The Good Stuff. I do a lot of research before I write, and I’d probably forget about some of my most interesting tidbits if I simply dove into the story and started wandering about. Outlining forces me to really think about my story and figure out how to fit all of my ideas into my plot in an exciting, relevant manner.
Advantage #5: Fast, Smooth, Writing. I rarely sit and stare at my blank computer screen wondering what the &#*[email protected]  happens next. I’ve been letting my subconscious mind go to work. I always look at which scene I’m going to work on the next day, and think about it while I’m cooking dinner, driving carpool, walking the dogs, etc. I’m not worried about what will happen next, I’m focused on how to make it happen. 
Advantage #6: Cleaner First Draft. My outline serves as a first draft of sorts. And that makes revision easier. Oh, I still have things to fix, but I usually don’t need a bulldozer during revision.
So what if Stephen King thinks I’m a dork?

Things I’ve Learned So Far

I enjoyed the challenge of coming up with seven things I’ve learned about writing and publishing for Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog. Now if only life would stop teaching me SO many lessons! Here’s the first one:

It’s not always about you. When my first novel hit the shelves, I came across a surprisingly violent review: a blogger, upset with a particular passage, threw my book against her wall! Shocked and dismayed, I showed my mother, a psychologist, the review. She simply nodded and said, “Wow. That sure says a lot about her.” Oh, right. Readers filter stories through their own experiences, values, and expectations. Sometimes our work simply won’t connect—with anything other than a wall. 

To read the rest of my guest column, please go to the Guide To Literary Agents blog. Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of Jungle Crossing.

Riding The Bus With 5th Graders

Yesterday I squished onto a big yellow school bus with a few dozen 5th graders to chaperone a field trip. The bus smelled like wet socks. The girls across the aisle nibbled bits of neon green paper. The kid behind me kept jamming his knee into my back. One girl wore a cluster of key chains on her eye glasses–and my daughter informed me that the one that said “I *heart* Justin Bieber” was meant to be ironic.

I scribbled notes about all these potential characters in my little notebook.

But my biggest writing lesson happened during the play we went to see: Honest Abe Lincoln. The actors were fun to watch, but I couldn’t imagine anyone except a school group watching this message-driven play. Abe was honest. Abe loved to read. Abe was honest. Abe loved to read. Abe was honest. Oh, and he loved to read.

Bam. Bam. Bam. 

The writer hammered the message into almost every bit of dialogue, as well as dumping information into conversation, “As you know, Abe, [insert facts that no one really says in dialogue].”

I watched the sparkly-ballet flat-wearing girls, slumped in their seats, fuchsia-encased iphones resting on their laps. Earlier these girls showed off impressive dialogue skills as they flirted with the boys sitting behind them.

Kids are sophisticated these days. And smart. Even 5th graders deserve our best storytelling skills. Plus, they’re at an age when most people talk down to them. And they hate that!

If the play had focused on an interesting anecdote in Abe Lincoln’s life, it would’ve had more impact than constantly telling the audience that he loved to read and that he was *gasp* honest.

Tonight most of those 5th graders will be putting on a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The kids have embraced the challenge of learning new vocabulary, memorizing lines, puzzling out the meaning of each scene… Because they’re smart.

Remember that in your own writing. Your readers are intelligent and sophisticated, even the ones who chew neon green paper on the school bus.

Okay, now I miss Simon!

I love watching American Idol. I delight in watching the singers with promise juxtaposed with the delusional. I love watching underdogs overcome favorites. I hope to hear old songs sung new ways.

The process kind of reminds me of writing. Often you submit before you’re ready, but you keep trying, you grow, and sometimes you make your dream come true.

And I really like the new judges. Jennifer Lopez is kind and charming. Steven Tyler makes me smile. Who else but a bona fide rock star could wear a pink ruffled shirt with such aplomb? My whole family enjoys pooching out our lips and mimicking his little head-bob to the music. And Randy will always be my dawg.

But last night I found myself missing the industry/marketing perspective: Simon’s critical voice.

Last night Jennifer Lopez told one mediocre crooner that she’d do better next time. No! She sounded like a housewife, um, singing along to her ringtone at the grocery store past midnight… (I miss Simon’s analogies too.) As creative people, the judges want to encourage and nurture the contestants.

I get that.

That’s why I usually advise newer writers to seek out critiques from authors, not editors and agents, at conferences. An author will give a beginning writer a bit of cheerleading–yes, you can–along with concrete writing advice. Industry professionals often look at conference submissions in terms of marketability.

That’s what the top 13 on American Idol needs: criticism with marketability in mind. All of these contestants can sing, but not all of them have what it takes–right now–to sing radio hits.

Just like not all stories are ready to be books. My inner Simon: this manuscript should be lining the cage of a canary who sings like a pitchy American Idol wannabe…

I do miss Simon’s honest and colorful critiques. I wonder what he’d look like wearing pink ruffles?

Synopsis or Root Canal?

With SCBWI Work-In-Progress Grant applications due soon, my writing group has been preoccupied with synopsis writing. How to sum up 50,000+ words in fewer than 750? One member joked that she’d rather have a root canal than write her novel synopsis. 
Last year, I had a root canal. On my birthday. I’d rather write a synopsis. In fact, I usually begin the writing process by crafting a detailed synopsis. Things always change during the creative process of drafting a novel, but I like the security blanket my synopsis provides.
So I figured if I’m going to talk about *almost* enjoying synopsis writing, I better give you some hints to make the process less daunting:
The Basics:
  • Write in present tense.
  • Write in the 3rd person POV, even if your story is told in 1st person POV.
  • Give away the ending. 

To Begin:
  • Think of your synopsis like a sales pitch—like a book jacket blurb. Keep it short, fast & exciting.
  • Establish the hook right away (this can also be your 30 second elevator pitch, you know, to avoid those long-winded explanations: oh, and then this happens, but wait, I have to explain so-and-so, oh, and then there’s this other character who, but let me back up and say… Snooze!).
  • Introduce the main character and the main conflict.
  • What’s important about the main character? Include motivation, goals, conflict, but not physical description (unless vital to the plot).

The Middle:
  • Highlight the plot points (scenes) that move the story forward. Give the reader a clear idea of what the book is about.
  • Write your synopsis in chronological order. Do NOT make lists.
  • Weave everything together like you’re telling a story. Try to capture your main character’s voice, even if you’re writing in a different POV.
  • Focus on the main character and the main plot. Touch on the subplots and minor characters. Do not include every character or every subplot. A short synopsis shows things that reflect on the MC’s journey.
  • Show increasing tension, increasing conflict.
  • Think: action, reaction, decision.

The Ending:
  • Tell the reader how the main plot resolves.
  • Try to make the ending of your synopsis evoke the emotional response you hope a reader will feel upon finishing your story.

The Picky Stuff:
  • Does your synopsis reflect the style, tone, and voice of your story? If it’s funny, show humor in the synopsis. Writing something literary? Your synopsis should shine with gorgeous sentences.
  • Does the reader know which characters to care about? What’s at stake? How it will turn out?
  • Have you woven together your character’s external and internal journeys?
  • Did you select the best plot points–the ones that affect your MC’s emotional arc?
  • Did you make every word count? Use strong adjectives and verbs (avoid adverbs).
  • Did you select the most telling details to use? Don’t weigh down your synopsis with extraneous or confusing details.
  • Did you format your synopsis properly? Double-spaced, 12-point font, 1″ margins. 

Online resources:
http://misssnark.blogspot.com check out the “crapometer” archives
http://blog.nathanbransford.com great writing advice straight from an agent
http://kathycarmichael.com/articles-and-seminars  good advice about synopsis writing
If you’re still struggling to write an effective synopsis take a critical look at your story. Are you missing some key scenes? Does your main character lack internal motivation? Could you use an intriguing subplot to increase tension? 
Really, it isn’t that bad–you can still eat birthday cake after writing a synopsis. Not the case with root canals! 

Goofing Around is Good For the Brain–So Is Housework!

I’ve completely ignored my blog this week. Instead I’ve been lounging on my sofa, reading until the patch of morning sunshine moves. I de-cluttered my basement, giving boxes of unused stuff to charity. I’ve written, but it’s all silly stuff–like a poem in the shape of Justin Bieber’s hair. Let’s just say I have more appreciation for his hair-stylist, and less appreciation for my poetry skills.

And I’ve felt a wee bit guilty and more than a bit unproductive. But–

Then I went to my monthly SCBWI meeting and learned that all that goofing around is actually good for my brain!

Kim Justesen, author of My Brother The Dog, explained that our brains constantly form new neural pathways. Trying new things–like Bieber hair poems–creates new pathways! (Kim asked us to write something with our non-dominant hand as a brain-enhancing exercise.)

Following old pathways, well-worn roads that form with routine actions like housework, frees our brains to think of creative ideas. That’s why we often have great insights in the shower. So I guess I really should do more housework… I did spend my basement-cleaning time musing about my new WIP.

The bottom line: break out of your routine every now and then. Try new foods, go new places, write something wacky, or better yet write somewhere wacky… And then fold the laundry.

It’s good for your brain.

Developing A New Idea

My WIP is off with its first readers, so I’ve allowed myself a few lazy days of lounging. But now it’s time to think about developing my next idea.

My new idea came to me through random chance encounters…

Teen in bookstore cafe + a joke made during a dinner party = my cool new idea.

(I chose this idea because the challenge of pulling it off kind of scares me.)

But it’s just an idea–an unformed blob. How do I give it shape? The idea sparked on June 13th last summer, so since then I’ve been collecting more information.

An essay in Men’s Journal gave me a hint of voice, attitude… so I asked my hairdresser if I could keep the magazine. I’ve found a few more clippings–photos of the kinds of characters I plan to create, stuff that might interest my characters…

I’ve been gathering a stack of research books too. Some deal with my main topic, but others only relate to the themes a little bit. I plan to read a wide variety of stuff that will allow my mind to make unusual connections that will–hopefully–deepen my original spark of an idea. And add lots and lots of layers.

I won’t be ready to write for several weeks, but I’ll start playing with my characters’ voices during my writing exercises. Let them talk without the pressure of creating WIP word count.

I’m also asking myself lots of “What If” questions about plot–jotting them down in the notebook I’ve set aside just for this story. Once I finish the bulk of my research I’ll sit down with a thick yellow pad and list possible scenes, plot points, figure out each character’s motivation, etc. For me, plot works like a puzzle.

Now I just have to find all the pieces…

Suffering Is Good For One’s Writing…

Unless you’ve already written about that particular brand of suffering. Recently my mother invited us over for a pancake breakfast (I should’ve known better):

The “pancakes” tasted far worse than they look. It’s 2011 and my mother is currently avoiding carbs. Since she couldn’t find the special coconut flour required by the so-called pancake recipe, she ground her own coconut flakes into a gritty approximation of a flour-ish substance.


Usually, I’d be thinking, sure this is bad, but at least I’ll be able to write about it someday. Except I’ve already mocked my mother’s crazy diet fads in My Big Nose And Other Natural Disasters.

I suffered through that breakfast, knowing my only consolation would be an emailed photo to my brother stating simply: I miss tofu slabs with dill!

Oh, 1983…