Do Not Check Email (The Art of Putting You First)

This springs off my last post, but for the past few weeks, I’ve been switching up the order in which I tackle my daily list of tasks.

Before, I was hitting email first, then getting to my writing. That doesn’t sound like a bad idea, but when you factor in all that also needed to be done around the house, I wasn’t even getting started on my writing until eleven in the morning.

Lately, thanks to Gus’s newfound love of spending time in the front yard, I start the day with my work first. (I can’t get a decent Wi-Fi signal in that area, so it’s kind of like a few hours of forced digital detox.) It’s utterly peaceful. There are absolutely no distractions (other than the occasional squirrel), which means I get a couple of hours of uninterrupted brainstorming or drafting or copyediting time at the time of day when I’m the freshest and my mind is the sharpest.

It’s made all the difference in the world.

How so?

I start the day with a feeling of accomplishment, rather than frustration. That, too, sounds like a small thing. But it’s everything. I’m not constantly running to catch up. And the best part? Hitting emails late in the day works every bit as well as hitting them first thing. Turns out, writing first is truly win-win.

Long story short, don’t be afraid to put yourself (or, at least, your writing) first in your list of to-dos. I think you just may find that it helps you breathe a little deeper. And in times like these, breathing a little deeper is a truly beautiful thing.

Juggling Multiple Writing Projects #WritingTips #DraftYourNovel

Coronavirus has thrown the entirety of the publishing world into confusion. I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read lately trying to work out whether you should submit, whether agents are reading, whether editors are acquiring, what kind of reading landscape will exist when we come through the worst of the pandemic, etc.

One thing you can always do–no matter the state of publishing–is write. Easier said than done, of course, these last few weeks. We’ve been homeschooling, cooking, and let’s face it: worrying about our financial situations and the health of our families.

One thing I’ve done during home isolation is juggle multiple projects. In the past, that really got me into trouble. Mostly because “juggling” amounted to starting projects and abandoning them in the middle. This time around, I’ve been more successful with it.

A big part of that success is that I’m not pushing to meet a quick deadline. That’s really one of the most important aspects–or so I’ve found. You really can’t be concerned with finishing a project quickly if you would like to try juggling.

BUT: It’s been great for me lately. Here’s why:

Juggling Projects Allows for More Think Time

Basically, right now, I’m writing four different books. (Sounds nuts, I know.) I’ll admit that it requires a ton of outlining and planning–I draft a few chapters of one book, then outline or brainstorm the possibilities for the next few chapters before bouncing to another project (whichever project is calling to me at the moment). But I never forget about the first project. It’s always there, in the back of my mind. The extra think time gives me room to come up with additional possibilities for structure, events, conflicts, etc.

Ideas Become More Important than Sentences

This goes back to the whole quick deadline thing. When you’re on deadline, it’s all about meeting insane word counts. You don’t really have the time to brainstorm for a week and a half when you need to knock out 50K in a month.

With the juggling method, though, I feel like I’m far more concerned with the ideas. Like I said, I outline like crazy. When I come back to a project, I review my outlines. I may think they’re weak. I may decide I need to brainstorm all over again. I may do nothing but re-outline and brainstorm, then bounce to another book.

Don’t underestimate how important that is: As a reader, I feel concepts stick with me, and make a bigger impact, than pretty turns of phrases. Whether or not I enjoy a book is primarily about an author’s ideas, most times. And this strategy can really help with idea generation.

Juggling Creates a Sense of Play

This is the big one. I’m not alone in saying joy is essential for good writing. When I sit down to write, I go toward whichever project my heart wants to work on. I might switch projects mid-day, and I might stick with one for a week before bouncing. Because I’m writing the project I’m most excited about, I always feel like I’m playing rather than working.

I can’t tell you really how much fun this juggling is–of course, the true test will be in the finished products!

More to come…

It Came to Me in a Dream: An Unusual Plotting Technique (Guest Post with Darlene Beck Jacobson, author of Wishes, Dares, and How to Stand Up To a Bully

Hi Holly. Thanks so much for having me on your wonderful blog to talk about my new book WISHES, DARES, AND HOW TO STAND UP TO A BULLY and how it was plotted.

WoCCover01Usually, when it comes to plotting a novel, I struggle with getting it all to come out the way I envision. I have a strong beginning and knowledge of how I expect it to end. It’s what comes in between that throws me for a loop. I’ll write down possible scenes, things the character(s) need to do or potential conflicts that could arise. Most of the plot ideas that end up staying in the story are ones that I discovered after many revisions.

I expect there are many of us out there with this same kind of problem.

For my new novel in verse WISHES, DARES, AND HOW TO STAND UP TO A BULLY, plotting was a totally different animal. The main character Jack spoke to me in a voice so loud and clear. He was insistent that I tell his story the way he spoke it, which turned out to be free verse. So, instead of plotting what might happen, I began to compile a list of words that would spark a conversation between Jack and me. (The title for the story at this stage was Fish, Wish, and Other Four Letter Words…hence the list of four-letter words).

20180904_132049_resized

Each day I’d sit down with the list, choose a word and let Jack tell me his thoughts on it. The list expanded as we got further into the story and the final version that became the book veered from the strict four letter word format. But that list is the plot, sure and true. Every crossed out word is a poem in the story. I am so intrigued by this idea, that I am ruminating on another story in verse and have started compiling my list of words.

 

Book Cover Blurb:

Wishes, Dares and How to Stand Up to a Bully. The novel in verse crystallizes a boy’s worries about his father, who is MIA in Vietnam, and how his family, new best friend, and a bully unexpectedly help him find the courage to do the right thing, not just the easy thing.

 

Wishes, Dares, and How to Stand Up to a Bully(review from Forward Magazine)

Darlene Beck-Jacobson

Creston Books (Apr 7, 2020)

Hardcover $17.99 (275pp)

978-1-939547-62-0

In Darlene Beck-Jacobson’s poignant novel in verse, Wishes, Dares, and How to Stand Up to a Bully, a boy copes with the absence of his father, who is missing in action during the Vietnam War.

Eleven-year-old Jack, with his mother and his sister, Katy, spends the summer at his grandparents’ home. When he and Katy catch a one-eyed fish, they see it is as lucky; they make a wish on it to have pancakes for dinner. When the wish comes true, they wonder if the fish really is magical.

 

Jack relates the incident to his friend, Jill, who decides to catch the fish again. She wishes that her bully of a brother, Cody, would leave them alone, but her wish has different results. Meanwhile, Jack reads his father’s childhood diary, hoping that it contains clues about what makes a good wish so that he can make the perfect one and bring his father home. Discussions about wishes overlay the ways that the children work through their complicated situations. Its free verse lines crafted with care and concision, the book captures Jack’s emotions, and his 1960s small town setting, because of its sharp attention to detail. References to John F. Kennedy, John Glenn, and Joe DiMaggio round out the period, and the shadow of the war hangs over everything. Still, the children roam unsupervised—fishing, biking, and camping—in a world that is otherwise familiar and safe. They’re dealing with serious issues all the while, from Jill and Cody’s abusive stepfather to Jack and Katy missing their father. By the end, they have all developed the courage and strength to deal with their struggles.

 

A historical childhood fantasy in verse, Wishes, Dares, and How to Stand Up to a Bully blends light summer fun with deep emotional challenges.

 

CATHERINE THURESON (March / April 2020)

 

BIO:

author pic 1Darlene Beck Jacobson is a former teacher and speech therapist who has loved writing since she was a girl.  She is also a lover of history and can often be found mining dusty closets and drawers in search of skeletons from her past. She enjoys adding these bits of her ancestry to stories such as her award-winning middle grade historical novel WHEELS OF CHANGE (Creston 2014) and WISHES, DARES, AND HOW TO STAND UP TO A BULLY (Creston 2020).

Darlene lives and writes her stories in New Jersey with her family and a house full of dust bunnies. She’s caught many fish, but has never asked one to grant her a wish. She’s a firm believer in wishes coming true, so she tries to be careful what she wishes for.

Her blog features recipes, activities, crafts, articles on nature, book reviews, and interviews with children’s book authors and illustrators.
www.darlenebeckjacobson.com

Twitter: @DBeckJacobson

darlenejacobson13@gmail.com

 

ISBN: 978-1-939547-62-0

 

View the previous post in the tour (March 30):

http://www.robinnewmanbooks.wordpress.com

 

The next stop: https://viviankirkfield.com/

TO ORDER:

Amazon

B&N

 

Writing Through Distractions – Coronavirus Edition

Yesterday, I recorded a forthcoming podcast interview for the delightful Carrie Jones–among other things, we discussed how I got started writing full-time (it involved an incredible amount of family support).

There’s truly nothing more delicious than long, multi-hour writing sessions. Something I got to indulge in on a regular basis while I was drafting my earliest manuscripts. But what if you’ve got to balance writing and an outside job? Or two outside jobs? Or a family? How do you carve out writing time while everyone is home during the Coronavirus outbreak?

I’ve learned how to keep going in the busiest of times–maybe a book’s just released, and I’m doing a ton of virtual visits, or I’m traveling with my brother for his business, or I get a new puppy (like I did last fall). I’ve discovered several techniques that keep projects rolling:

Every Minute Counts

Sometimes, you have to write in bursts. Don’t discount ten minute writing sessions. Granted, this does tend to work best when you’re drafting. But I’ve thumbed a ton of chapters into my phone while waiting in line, or riding in a car’s backseat, or even during lunch.

Get Up an Hour Early, Stay Up an Hour Late

I do much better with staying up late (I’m becoming less and less of a morning person the older I get). But an hour of uninterrupted time can be carved out of the first or last hour of the day. In my house, these are the quietest hours. It’s a great time to draft or revise, either one. I know I usually do my best revising when it’s quiet. Those last-hour-of-the-day revision sessions have become some of my favorites.

Don’t Get Attached to One Device

To take advantage of tiny writing bursts in strange settings (you can wind up in the wackiest places in the house trying to get away from noisy family members!), you obviously can’t be glued to your desktop. I already mentioned writing on a phone. Notebooks work, too. And don’t discount dictation–I recently dictated an entire book in one-hour bursts. Dictation means being able to write while cooking or walking on the treadmill.

Plan, Plan, Plan

Revision or drafting in tiny chunks of time absolutely requires a plan. You need to know exactly what you want to write about beforehand. If you don’t, you spend your ten minute writing bursts just trying to figure out what you want to say. Outlines and notes are utterly essential. You’ll find yourself spending plenty of your ten minute bursts doing nothing but planning for future sessions!

Don’t Punish Yourself

Writing a book happens sentence by sentence. Don’t worry if you feel like you’re making minuscule progress–it’s progress.

Look, the thing is, I truly believe that all writers get there eventually, in their own ways. So keep at it. Even when it seems like there aren’t enough hours, even when you find yourself barely getting a single paragraph written in a day. Don’t stop. It can absolutely be done. And you can do it.

WRITING CRAFT RECOMMENDATION: MEANDER, SPIRAL, EXPLODE

I’m a total junkie for writing craft books. Lately, I’ve been fascinated with story shapes. Kurt Vonnegut wrote and lectured on some basic story shapes (his vids are on YouTube and always worth a watch), but Jane Alison’s recent release looks to patterns in nature in order to explore the idea of stories taking on shapes other than the tried-and-true arc.

spiral

From my Instagram: @hollyschindler

I’m fascinated by the idea–and absolutely agree that a story can be riveting and satisfying for the reader without being expected. In fact, it might be more satisfying if it does not employ the traditional arc structure.

Lately, I also feel that when my own manuscripts get stuck–when they just don’t seem to want to come together–it’s because the story doesn’t want to follow the rules. It doesn’t want to come together in that arc, or the POV doesn’t want to simply be limited 3rd-person.

The trick, of course, is to do something unexpected in a way that feels fresh and not confusing for the reader. The book also shouldn’t feel gimmicky, either–the narrative patterns that Alison explores aren’t to be used “just because.” They should have a purpose. Your story should be one that couldn’t be told without deviating from the old arc.

Alison’s work is definitely worth a read. Highly recommended for any author on the hunt for a fresh approach to their latest WIP.

HOW MUCH DESCRIPTION IS TOO MUCH?

I never thought I’d say this, but almost all of it.

I used to be huge on description. Writing it and reading it. I was one of the weirdos who loved long juicy paragraphs filled with artistic depictions and metaphors and…

Well. You get the picture.

Lately, though, I’ve been questioning how much is enjoyable for readers. For the most part, I’d say readers want to know what the story is. “Tell me a good yarn,” a reader will say. “Don’t bog down the story.”

It seems to me, then, that description should further the story. That’s it. That’s really description’s job. It’s not to pretty up the pages. It’s to help drive and shape the plot.

Internal / Emotional Description

Oh, man, this is where I could just spend days as a writer. The internal world of the characters. How they feel at any given moment. What they’re thinking. Again, though, if description’s job is to further the story, the internal world should really be focused on lines of thought that show a character’s motivation. Explain why a character is behaving a certain way. Or about to behave in a certain way. Then those descriptions will inevitably lead to action.

Physical Description

New writers often get lost in this one: describing every character’s outfit. The shape of noses. The way their hair is cut. And really, it’s the type of description you need the least of. You really don’t need much in the way of physical description to bring a character to life. Ask yourself: What kinds of characteristics help paint a picture of who a character is?

For example, a character with a repeatedly-broken nose might be a hothead who winds up ruffling feathers throughout, in ways that create tension and, of course, lead to moments of intense action in the book.

Setting

Nothing sets the tone of a piece quite like setting. But settings also shape what kinds of events can take place. Certainly, small towns offer different types of gatherings and chances for characters to meet up (I just recently discovered the Gilmore Girls, so of course I’m thinking here of Stars Hollow). Sometimes, though, characters can be confined–locked into buildings, or quarantined. They can be in jury duty. Or jail. They might be on a long airplane flight. How is action different in these settings as compared to characters who are in bigger cities, or have freedom to move about?

Where you set your book can have a real impact on the action that can logically take place. When you describe your setting, especially at the opening of a book, think about the plot points you have planned or outlined. And think about what details the reader needs to know in order to be prepared for those events.

Tying description to the action will help keep you from providing too much information, too many long paragraphs that seem (to the reader) to amount to nothing of substance. In this way, instead of bogging your book down, description can actually add propulsion, giving your work a new page-turning element.

 

PUNCHY WRITING

This is one of those areas that sounds simple and really isn’t. As Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damned hard writing.” (BTW: How can that quote be Hawthorne? Doesn’t it sound more like Twain? Coulda sworn it was Twain.)

Anyway. Punchy writing. Writing that’s lean. That doesn’t have a bunch of filler. That doesn’t get bogged down. Sounds like it’d be so easy. But it is often so hard to know what to cut. It’s far harder to kill your darlings than you’d think. (That darling bit was Faulkner. Sounds like Faulkner. Still hard to believe that easy reading quote wasn’t Twain.)

A few posts popped up recently about achieving leaner, punchier writing. This one from Jane Friedman’s blog offers tips on cutting the mundane. (Seriously–if you’re not regularly reading Friedman, you’re missing out.) And Lamar Giles stopped by my own MG blog to offer a few tips on writing action. (Hint: cut, cut, cut, short, short, short.)

A GREAT PLACE TO START INFUSING “PUNCHINESS” IN YOUR OWN MANUSCRIPT: DIALOGUE

One area I’ve been hitting in my own writing during the line-edit stage is dialogue. Dialogue tags (he said / she said) can add a ton of unnecessary words. As I draft, I also tend to add lots of completely unneeded direction in dialogue. Characters turn, tilt heads, push hair from faces, light cigarettes, cross legs, frown, etc. Dialogue moves quicker and carries more weight if you get rid of the extraneous description and tags surrounding it.

 

WRITING TIP: GETTING EXCITED ABOUT YOUR NOVEL-IN-PROGRESS AGAIN

We’ve all been there: that project that had lit such a fire in you, about 30k-words in, has become a real slog.

So how do you get it back?

A few simple tricks:

Give yourself permission to write a scene that feels juicy, but doesn’t have anything to do with the WIP as it is right now. Maybe it’s a pivotal scene that you know will take place toward the end, during the climax. Maybe it’s a scene you think is probably outside the current narrative, but that could show your MC in a new light. The idea here is to get away from just staring at the problems in your current WIP. Sometimes, the answer to what’s dragging your WIP down isn’t in the current WIP at all. You still have to discover it. So go exploring! If you write new scenes, play with character development, you can often figure a way out of the corner you’ve written yourself into.

Give yourself permission to write a different project one day a week. This one obviously works if you’re a write-every-day kind of author. The thing is, you can just get worn out looking at the same project day in and day out. Give yourself permission to play with something completely different one day a week. This could be a poem, a picture book, a chapter of a work outside your usual genre. Anything. Just take a break. You’ll often find yourself energized and ready to get back to your work the next day. (The beautiful part of this technique is, your “break project” can actually wind up being a book you publish as well!)

Find a beta reader. Or even an idea-bouncer. Sometimes, a sounding board can do wonders. Just talking through the problem might be all you need to do (here, you’re not asking someone for loads of reading time, you’re just talking through the overall story or plot points). You can find new ideas for your WIP, sure, but sometimes the most valuable part of working with another person can be getting confirmation that you’re on the right track, telling an interesting story or a story that needs to be told. Sometimes, just knowing that you’re not wasting your time can help give you fuel to really dig deep into your project.

Of these, my favorite and moist used is actually #3. We’re writers; we do a lot of solitary work. But sometimes, you just have to get out of your own head in order to move forward!

 

WRITE YOUR NOVEL OUT OF ORDER

I liked the idea but swore I’d never do it: write a book out of order.

Now? I think it might be one of the best ways to draft.

It’s much simpler than it sounds, actually. It’s basically a two-step process:

  1. Write the book’s most important scenes.
  2. Write the narrative thread that connects the scenes.

That’s it. You can start with an outline, or you can start with only the roughest of ideas. Using the latter scenario, you can write random scenes, then use a version of the shrunken manuscript method to look at everything you’ve done and brainstorm that connecting narrative thread.

If you start with an outline, you can write your scenes semi-chronologically. The thing to remember is to only write only the important scenes. Don’t worry about seamlessly connecting them. That comes at the end.

I find that writing this way has several benefits:

  1. You focus on the core of the story.
  2. You don’t have to cut fat during the revision process because you haven’t written a bunch of fat.
  3. You don’t spend days creating pages (and chapters) that feel exploratory in nature, and wind up getting deleted.

The funny thing is, writing out of order sounds haphazard, but I actually find that writing the essential scenes first and then knocking out the narrative thread might actually be the most streamlined drafting process I’ve found yet!

 

QUERY LETTER FORMAT FOR NOVELS

Seems I saw this subject pop up quite a bit on social media this past fall. Right now, we’re in kind of a recognized submission dead zone. (Submissions generally stop between now and the new year. Writers spend their holidays polishing up new books and queries. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this fun fact, though: I did sell my first novel during the holiday season, so there are certainly always exceptions to the rule.) Still, since this is generally the time of the year of pretty intense submission prep, I thought I’d tackle the subject head-on: How to squeeze all your tons of info on your novel into a single page query.

I know when you first start out it just seems completely impossible. You have SO MUCH TO SAY ABOUT YOUR BOOK.

The good news is, like everything else in life, that which seems impossible is actually not quite as complicated as you would make it out to be, first glance.

The queries I’ve written generally follow the same format:

  1. A third of the page devoted to the book itself—talking the storyline here. Think in terms of jacket copy.
  2. A third of the page devoted to the importance of the book—how it fits into the market, how you believe it fills a hole. If it’s children’s literature, how the book would be useful in a classroom, etc.
  3. A third of the page devoted to your credentials.

That’s it.

If this is your first book to query, #1 especially sounds easier than done, I’m sure. It’s always so hard to squeeze your book down to a paragraph or two. One tip is to boil the book down to ONE SENTENCE and then build the paragraph(s) up from there. You really should have a one-sentence pitch on hand, anyway, before you start approaching agents or editors. Also, my jacket copy has frequently been pulled from my initial queries, so I can’t stress how really important #1 is.

Don’t be too literal about the division into thirds. Of course each project is different. Each author is different, too—if you don’t have much of a publishing history, that’s fine. Everyone has to start somewhere. But if you don’t have it, you don’t need to dwell on it. Focus on the project instead. Your understanding of where your book fits into and stands out from an already crowded marketplace will be more valuable to a potential publishing house than your background, anyway. (Trust me on that one—I had a master’s in English, teaching experience, and previous publications, and they didn’t help me get in the door any faster. It was all about the project at hand.)

So there you have it: an easy, three-part query letter. Best of luck getting your submissions in order for ’19!