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!

GET TO KNOW YOUR CHARACTER – WITH A SECRET

We’ve been discussing how to find teen voices this month over at my YA authors blog, YA Outside the Lines. As we discussed the various techniques we all used to tap back into our younger selves (and younger voices), it became apparent to me that a character’s voice can be elusive, regardless of genre or age category. It can be elusive even if you’ve written several books before.

For the most part, when the voice is hard to find, I believe it’s because you don’t quite know who your character is yet.

And often, the best way to find out who they are is to get them to tell you a secret.

What is your character hiding? It could be anything–something they’ve done in the past, something they’re afraid might happen. They might have a secret plan or agenda. Do they have a relationship they’re trying to keep secret? That relationship might be romantic, but it might also be a familial one.  For example, in my first YA, A BLUE SO DARK, Aura is trying desperately to keep her mother’s deterioration (she’s schizophrenic) from the outside world.

The secret doesn’t have to be dark. Do they have a secret dream? A wish? A crush?

Do they have a secret passion? Or hobby? Do they have a secret friend?

The reason secrets work is that they’re the most private, personal parts of ourselves. When a character shares a secret, you know them in a new way. You’re instantly closer. And often, understanding them better means you’re well on your way to finding their voice.

INVENT YOUR OWN SUPERHERO: E-BOOK + CLASSROOM IDEAS

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Having been involved in the craft of storytelling since my own elementary days, and having visited classes as a professional author to discuss writing techniques, I’ve developed what I believe to be the perfect guide to creating innovative characters and dynamic action that will both tweak the imaginations of advanced writers AND jumpstart or encourage the most reluctant young writer. Now available in a lower-cost e-book format (simply use your own notebook to answer the prompts listed in the e-version).

INVENT YOUR OWN SUPERHERO: A BRAINSTORMING JOURNAL uses creating a new “superhero” as an enticement for young writers. This is more than just a fun exercise, though, as it introduces writers to the recognized elements of solid storytelling: conflict, character motivation, backstory, foreshadowing, etc.

The workbook also introduces young authors to the importance of crafting solid characters who grow and change throughout their stories. The journal also provides insight into how “heroes” and “arch-enemies” can even find common ground.

IDEAS FOR CLASSROOM USE

While journals and workbooks are often geared toward individual use, INVENT YOUR OWN SUPERHERO would also make a great ongoing classroom project. After reading each prompt aloud, teachers could instruct their students to brainstorm either on their own or collectively (in small groups or as a class). Individual brainstorming allows students to rely on their own creativity, of course, but less creatively-inclined students might benefit from group brainstorming—after the group brainstorming is complete, each student can then write his or her own stories. It’s much easier to write a story once you have a roadmap (it would be a fantastic confidence-builder), and it would also be a fascinating exercise for the students to see how each one of them takes the same basic characters and / or storyline and turns it into something different from the other young writers in their class!

SNAG YOUR OWN COPY

INVENT YOUR OWN SUPERHERO is available as an e-book here: http://bit.ly/HeroJournalEBook and as a print book here: http://bit.ly/HeroJournal

I would also love to hear how this workbook benefits your class or young writers’ group. You can contact me at any time at hollyschindlerbooks (at) gmail (dot) com.

Happy writing!

Holly

SUPER SUSAN! (INSPIRATION FOR INVENT YOUR OWN SUPERHERO)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: If you’re writing for young readers, your old stuff is just a goldmine. And by “old stuff,” I mean anything that allows you to connect with who you were as a teen or fifth grader or college freshman, etc.

When I wrote my first YA, A BLUE SO DARK, I dug through all the old spiral-bound notebooks I filled with poetry throughout high school. Not only did it help me get back into the right teen voice, a few of those poems actually worked their way into the finished book (tweaked a bit to fit the events of the novel).

Last year, I bumped into this gem–it appears to be an old school project (I’m thinking I was about 8 when I did this, since that’s when I learned cursive) in which I invented a superhero. My creation?

SUPER SUSAN!

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Check out that impressive glitter work–and that’s real yarn hair! Pretty super, if I do say so myself.

When Susan is not being super, she is mild-mannered Susan Crawford:

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I’m not sure what Susan Crawford does, exactly. Maybe librarian? I probably would have liked a librarian.

Here I am brainstorming Super Susan’s abilities:

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And here’s my short piece on Super Susan:

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Susan’s true superpower? According to that last paragraph, it’s kindness.

I got such a kick out of this, and I wanted to give other young writers an opportunity to invent a superhero of his or her own. The end result? A brainstorming journal:

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In this journal, young writers will not only create a new superhero, they’ll also learn the basics of crafting strong characters, building solid conflict, and finding an emotionally satisfying story conclusion.

The journal also asks writers to consider how their characters change. Taking a page from the Super Susan book, the journal encourages writers to give their heroes a chance to show kindness to their enemy. By showing kindness, writers can see how those heroes and enemies can actually find common ground, maybe even join forces.

I hope your young writers come up with something amazing. Well–actually, I don’t hope. I know they will. Snag your own copy here.