Book reviews & writing tips from a wannabe YA writer
Ever since I let a couple large projects at work disrupt my writing routine, I’ve been in a bit of a slump. For example—and it physically hurts me to admit this to the world—I am still working on revising my most recent novel so I can cash in on that agent referral I got in late January.
Yesterday, my husband offered to take care of our daughter one weekend so I can take off for a writing retreat.
Best. Husband. Ever.
But planning my writing retreat has proven to be yet another effective distraction from actually writing. So to get it out of my system, here’s a peek into my daydreams:
What would your most perfect writing retreat look like?
Photo by ChicagoGeek.
The Guardian posted a collection of rules for writing fiction from authors like Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, and Philip Pullman. I read these rules over the course of a day so the words of wisdom would have a better chance of sinking in. Here’s my eloquent summary of one rule that cropped up over and over on the authors’ lists: Read a lot.
After reading the Guardian article, I allowed myself to fantasize about one day being a published author and being asked to provide my own list of writing rules. Would I offer practical advice like Elmore Leonard? Be funny like Roddy Doyle—or a stick-in-the-mud like Philip Pullman?
I decided to find out.
1. First impressions count. This is the rule that trumps all others. If the reader doesn’t connect with your main character—if she doesn’t empathize with what your character’s going through—you’ve lost her. Some ways we push our readers away without realizing it:
2. Don’t be shy. In this world of instant gratification, readers want something to happen right away. So ditch the prologue and the first chapter full of backstory and jump right into the good stuff. You can sprinkle the backstory in later. Likewise, make sure your main character does something early on that involves more than just reacting to what others are doing.
3. Do be mysterious. Can you imagine if the first chapter of When You Reach Me explained who was sending the notes and what they meant? No fun in that. Our job is to create a sense of wonder in the reader. This goes for the main character’s thoughts and feelings, too. We don’t need to tell the reader every single thought that flits through the character’s head. Use their actions and dialogue to show how they’re feeling.
4. Keep the drama in check. Soap operas don’t work so well on paper, at least not for me. Cut the melodrama, or tone it down. Try reading an emotional scene out loud to find the parts that are over-the-top. Instead of having a character talk about their emotions, put them in a scene where their actions can reflect how they’re feeling. The character might still have to hint at their emotions, but at least they won’t come off like a drama queen.
5. Live in the present. Much like the person you’re dating won’t appreciate frequent trips down the memory lane of your previous relationships, the reader will get tired of frequent flashbacks. It can also quickly get confusing about what’s happening now versus then. If you do include a flashback, keep it short and make it clear when it’s over.
6. Listen to your heart. Your main character’s parents and teachers may very well have good advice. Even so, she’ll have to learn those lessons for herself the hard way. Not only does it make for a more interesting story, but a character empowered to solve her own problems is hella inspiring. Scrutinize every piece of dialogue coming out of an authority figure’s mouth to make sure they’re not giving all the answers.
7. Don’t forget to have fun. Play with language to keep your writing fresh and sharp. Do a crossword puzzle every day, or subscribe to a word-of-the-day newsletter. Pull out a writing book and use a prompt or an exercise. Stretching your brain to use language in new ways will pay off.
What would be on your list of writing rules? Do you disagree with anything on my list or in the Guardian article?
And if you’re looking for even more rules, check out:
On Sunday morning, my almost-2-year-old daughter and I bundled up in jackets and hats and mittens—because it was in the 50s, and we Texans are wusses about cold weather—and we walked to the end of our block to watch the Austin Marathon. We set up camp at about the 70% mark with some neighbors and friends, cheering runners on for three hours straight.
I just passed the 25% mark of my own personal marathon: my 8-week revision plan. As I yelled out the names of complete strangers yesterday, I fantasized about getting some hot pink puffy paint to write my name on a t-shirt and walking down the street with my laptop on a rolling cart, hordes of friends and fellow writers screaming my name out and encouraging me to keep going.
But then I remembered that I can’t even stand it when my husband reads over my shoulder while I write. So that would foster some serious performance anxiety. And who really wants to be picking at pink paint stains under their fingernails for days after?
I started a spreadsheet to track my progress, which I know will come as a shock. But the prospect of revising my first draft has been so overwhelming that I wanted to quantify the actual amount of effort it takes from me. Then next time, I’ll know about how long a full revision might take.
Some fun stats for you:
Short answer? A whole heck of a lot. Probably more than 75%, if I’m being honest with myself. My goal is to increase my daily effort to at least 1.5 hours to get back on track.
What project are you working on right now—writing, home improvement, or otherwise—and how’s it going?
Photo by djwhitebread.
On Saturday, I attended the annual conference put together by Austin’s chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. As with all the SCBWI conferences I’ve attended the last few years, this one gave me a much-needed jolt of inspiration.
But this time, something happened that’s never happened before.
I registered to get 6 critiques of my manuscript. That’s not the new part. I always try to snag a critique slot. But I should have submitted my NaNoWriMo 2008 manuscript—you know, the one that’s actually been edited. But I was still riding the high from my NaNoWriMo 2009 win and completely in love with it, even in its unedited rawness. So I chose the first 10 pages of that zero draft to submit for my critiques. All 6 of them.
Flash forward a month. I sat down across the reviewer for my first critique. And it quickly became clear that I made a grave mistake in submitting my newest manuscript. Duh, right? Lesson learned.
Still, the critiques—especially those from published authors—lit the foggy path of revision.
And then. I was in my last critique of the day with an author. An award-winning author. She showered me in encouragement. She had suggestions for improvement but also pointed out the parts she loved and the things I do well. She wanted to hear where the story was going.
Then she pulled out a sheet of paper and started writing on the back of it.
“I’m writing down my agent’s contact information,” she said. “I want you to do one revision and then submit this to her.”
It took all my strength to pry my jaw from the floor and force my mouth into a coherent “thank you.”
She saw enough goodness in my zero-draft writing to give me this gift. A gift of motivation, a gift of support, a gift of a DEADLINE. Because I know this opportunity will expire if I let it.
This is a small step, I know. But it’s the first glimmer of success I’ve had on my road to publication. So I’m going to bask a teensy bit before I get to work.
Do you have advice for how to revise a NaNoWriMo draft in, say, 8 weeks? Or for how to get my head out of the clouds and in the revision game?
On my kitchen counter, I have a stack of 14 books I’ve read but not yet written reviews for. They’re stacked in the order I read them because I always write reviews in the order I’ve read the books. But with 99% of my books coming from the library, that means I come up against library due dates.
Tomorrow, two of my unreviewed 14 are due back to the library. Those two happen to be my most recent reads. My brain is not happy right now.
I pulled the two books out from the bottom of the stack tonight. In the process, the book on the top launched itself right off the pile and onto the floor. I think the poor thing succumbed to the depression of being passed up for the latest hot young number.
Every time I pick up one of those two books with the intention of starting a review, I set it right back down again. And instead of writing the reviews so I can return the books due tomorrow, here I am pontificating about the odd habits of my brain.
Must. Write. Reviews. Now.
I think I’ll just pay the fine.
What does your brain insist you do in order? Or are you the type to jump around? And in your professional opinion, am I neurotic?
p.s. Would you change your answer if I told you that in the photo above, the fact that the bottom plate is pushed further in than the top plate bugs me to no end? And the utensils on the bottom plate aren’t exactly straight. And only one apple has its stem. And…
Photo by pinelife.