Friday, February 28, 2014

Teachers: Win One of My Favorite Cybils' Finalists!! by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin



This year marked my third venture as a Cybils (Children's and Young Adult Blogger's Literary Awards) panelist. In 2011 I was a first round panelist for middle grade fiction (everything except speculative fiction), which meant I got to speed-read 140 novels between October and December. In 2012 and 2013, I chose a more sedate position--that of a second round judge. A second-rounder has to read a mere five or six titles--those on the shortlist--and crown a winner.

This year, the finalists were: 




Here's a brief description of each one of them, starting with the winner:

Ultra by David Carroll: 
Quinn has been called a superhero and a freak of nature, and at age 13, takes on the challenge of his life when he enters his first ultramarathon: a grueling 100-mile, 24-hour-long race that pushes him to the limit.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein:
Twelve-year-old Kyle gets to stay overnight in the new town library, designed by his hero, the famous gamemaker Luigi Lemoncello, with other students but finds he must work with friends to solve puzzles in order to escape.


Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz:

Based on the true story of Jack and Ruth Gruener, this book shares a story of survival from the Nazi occupation of Krak√≥w through a series of concentration camps to the final liberation of Dachau. 

Serafina's Promise by Ann E. Burg:
In a poor village outside of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Serafina works hard to help her family, but when an earthquake hits, she must summon all her courage to find her father and get medicine for her brother.


The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. by Greg Pincus:
Eleven-year-old Gregory Korenstein-Jasperton likes to write stories and poems and is not excited by math, but he has a problem--he is the middle child in a family of math geniuses, and his father expects him to participate in the City Math contest.


I thought they were all worthy finalists. And I would dearly love to share the reading experience with middle grade readers. So, if you are a teacher or a librarian, or have middle grade kids of your own, leave a comment saying which one of these titles you would like to win for your classroom, your library, or your kids' bookshelf. Extra points for tweeting or sharing to Facebook--just leave me the links in the comments.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Let's Play





Re: Critique Partners/Beta Readers
The best critique is almost useless if it does not activate the writer's internal critic. This can be done by acknowledging the writer has not been wasting his time, that there is something good on the page, which cannot be denied...a good reader empathizes with the writer's vision, sees beyond the words to what the writer is trying to achieve with those words. Good readers ask questions and make writers see where they have succeeded and where they have failed. And most of all, good readers make you want to write.
~ Barry Lane (from Discovering the Writer Within)


Critiquing is a pretty common topic around the blogosphere, because we can approach it from so many different directions. In Discovering the Writer Within I came upon an interesting way to look at our work - a new way to play the beta reader game.

Barry Lane shares a strategy of Peter Elbow:
To be good critics, writers must learn to play both the believing game and the doubting game when they look at their work. The believing game has to do with basic faith that you have something to say. The doubting game is about questioning the effectiveness of your writing.

Cool, huh? But wait...there's more!

Barry adds that,
A big mistake young writers make is seeking out readers and critics before they are ready to stop playing the believing game. The best criticism from a skillful reader will only offend or discourage if you are not ready to distance yourself from a piece of writing and play the doubting game.
I like the simplicity, yet dead-on truth, of this philosophy. Too often, we aren't ready for real feedback; we still need the basic reassurance to keep going, the assurance it's going to be worth it. We have to be emotionally geared for the criticism BEFORE we ask for it, or it won't be as valuable to us.

Do you skillfully play both the Believing Game and the Doubting Game?

 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Faery Swap and Virtual Author School Visits - Guest Post by Susan Kaye Quinn

Today I would like to welcome my friend and critique partner Susan Kaye Quinn to the blog. Susan is an accomplished author, and a former rocket scientist! She's recently released her first Middle Grade novel, Faery Swap, and she is working on a very interesting virtual tour of school visits, so I invited her here, to talk about the novel and the "tour."

Take it away, Sue!

Warrior Faeries and Math Magick
by Susan Kaye Quinn

My new middle grade fantasy, Faery Swap, is about a fourteen-year-old boy who is tricked into swapping places with a warrior faery prince and has to find his way back home before the dimensional window between their worlds slams shut.

2 minute book trailer



In my prior life, I worked for NASA and got a lot of degrees in engineering. (Yes, I really am a rocket scientist and have the Ph.D. to prove it!) I used the logical-left-side of my brain a lot in my work designing aircraft engines and studying global warming. Now that I write fiction, I love using the creative-right side of my brain to create compelling characters and dramatic adventures and the logical-left side to weave in math, science, and technology into my stories. Math and science have always seemed wondrous to me, so it made sense to me to create a story (Faery Swap) where warrior faeries steal mathematical knowledge from humans in order to enhance their magickal faery powers. 

In my story, knowledge is literally power.

I'm passionate about this message - that knowledge is power and math is magick - and the ethical use of that knowledge (and those who possess it) is a key theme throughout the story. I wanted to share this message, so I created a Virtual Author Visit, Common-Core-based Teacher's Guide, and a card-based game, so any teacher, anywhere on the planet, could share this message with their students.

9 minute Virtual Author Visit



In this video, I share my background in science and engineering and talk about the book, then show how humans use math in the real world to do amazing things... even without magick to help them.

The Teacher's Guide, activities, card game, and videos are meant to be flexible - teachers and librarians can spend as little as 2 minutes sharing the trailer or they can use the materials to create a whole unit around the book and the Knowledge is Power When Math is Magick theme.

My hope is that some of my love for math and science will rub off on young readers, and kids will see they each have an inner warrior faery capable of seeking knowledge and performing great deeds with it!



Susan Kaye Quinn is the author of the bestselling Mindjack Trilogy, which is young adult science fiction, and Faery Swap is her foray into middle grade, which is her first writing love. Her business card says "Author and Rocket Scientist" and she always has more speculative fiction fun in the works. You can subscribe to her newsletter (hint: new subscribers get a free short story!) or stop by her blog to see what she's up to.


Faery Swap
Kindle | Nook | Print

Fourteen-year-old Finn is tricked into swapping places with a warrior faery prince and has to find his way back home before the dimensional window between their worlds slams shut. Faery Swap is on tour March 3rd - March 21st with a $25 gift card and magick wand giveaways! Sign up here.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Considering Common Themes in Middle-Grade Books

So there I was, reclining in my favorite recliner, kicked back, drinking coconut milk straight of the coconut while my rare albino lemur purred gently from her perch on my shoulder. 

My ten-year-old strode right up to me and he was like: Dad...
And I said: Yes? 
And he said: I finished that book you gave me.
And I was like: Well? Did you like it?
And he was like: I did. The characters rocked. I liked Benjamin Winklesauce the best. He was pretty funny.
I laughed. My rare albino lemur laughed. And then my son said: But I really enjoyed the theme of the story.
I sat right up, he had my attention.
"Go on," I said.
"Yeah," he said, "the characters never gave up, even when things were super hard."
"So what was the theme? What was that story about?" I took a nice long sip of coconut milk, right out my crazy straw. 
"Perseverance, Dad."
I spit coconut milk all over him. All over the wall. All over my rare albino lemur. He'd nailed it. He'd boiled down the story to one word, to the driving theme, to that question writers get asked all the time: what's your story about?

LOYALTY
And while our stories have more elaborate pitches, or layers, involved, they are often just components of the theme that sits at the heart of our story. Boil it down...WHAT is your story about?

Now, while my son is very smart (straight A student, EXCEL program...yes, I'm bragging), turns out he was cheating. Kind of. ;) In his reading/writing class, the students were learning about common themes in books. They were even given a handout. And, since we're in the business of writing FOR middle-grade readers, I thought I'd share with you those themes our audience is learning about and receptive to. While we should never resort to becoming didactic, it IS important to understand WHAT you are writing about.

In fact, author David G. Allen says it best: "For me, not knowing your theme until you're finished is like using a scalpel to turn a kangaroo into Miss Universe - there will be a lot of deep cuts, and there's a high chance it won't work."

So, here are the themes from the handout:

  • Acceptance  - "These books have characters who respect & accept others' differences and beliefs."
  • Courage - "These books have brave characters who have the strength to overcome a fear or accept a risk."
  • Perseverance - "These books have characters who never give up, even when facing difficult times."
  • Cooperation - "These books have characters who work together to solve a problem or achieve a goal."
  • Compassion - "These books have characters who want to make those who are suffering feel better."
  • Honesty - "These books have characters who find that it is best to always tell the truth."
  • Kindness - "These books have friendly characters who are generous and considerate of others."
  • Loyalty - "These books have characters who trust each other and never turn their backs on their friends."
COURAGE
So, what do you think? Are there any themes missing? Anything to add to this list? I think Love is missing (yes, even for middle-grade...maybe especially for middle-grade; discovering young love). What else? And what's YOUR story about? Can you boil it down to a theme? Can you think what that milk-sopped ten-year-old boy might say about YOUR book?

 Let's hear what you have to say. Don't be shy...I'm out of coconut milk. You're safe.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Tesla's Attic - An Interview with Authors Neal Shusterman and Eric Elfman


Project Mayhem is very happy to welcome authors Eric Elfman and Neal Shusterman, who kindly took time out of their busy promotional tour to answer a few questions for us about their new middle-grade release, TESLA'S ATTIC. In TESLA'S ATTIC, protagonist Nick discovers the junk in the attic of the old Victorian house his family has moved into has some very odd properties (like the toaster that hits him in the head). He and his new friends soon learn these items are the last inventions of the famed Nikola Tesla. Now they have to keep them out of the hands of a mysterious secret society in this exciting start to a new trilogy. 

You can read more about Neal and Eric at their websites (links at the end of this post). But without further ado, here's our interview:



Please tell us about your exciting new middle-grade release, TESLA'S ATTIC. What inspired you to write this book?

NEAL: Have you ever been to a garage sale where they have all this weird stuff and you don't know what any of it is? That happened to me a while back. A guy was selling all this electronic equipment, and I asked him what one thing did, and he said, "I don't know. But I'll sell it to you for five bucks."

ERIC: When Neal told me about that, we were developing projects for TV and film. We started to work on the idea, and it eventually became the novel, TESLA'S ATTIC. Our story begins when fourteen year old Nick moves into a house his family inherited, and he finds a bunch of antiques and rusty appliances in the attic. Nick wants to use the attic as his bedroom, so he sells all the rusted junk at a garage sale.

NEAL: Only after it's all gone, our kid discovers that they were the last inventions of Nikola Tesla, the greatest inventor of all time. Now, with the help of his friends, he has to get them all back. Except he didn't count on a secret society of physicists called the Accelerati, trying to beat him to the inventions.


The two of you co-wrote TESLA'S ATTIC. Is it challenging writing with another author? Did you ever butt heads (politely and respectfully, of course) regarding the direction you wanted the story to move in or any other aspect of the book?

ERIC: We love working together -- mainly because we have similar senses of humor and  sensibilities about story, so it's great fun for us to work as partners. Also, writing is usually such a solitary activity, so bouncing ideas off another person is a treat -- especially when that person is Neal.

NEAL: And we make it a point to never disagree about the direction of the story -- we both have to agree, or it doesn't go in the book. If one of us doesn't like something the other came up with, we have to come up with something we can both agree on. But that's easy, because we trust each other's instincts.

ERIC: On a technical level, we've started working in GoogleDocs, because it allows us to both be in the same document at the same time, even if we're hundreds of miles apart. We'll sometimes even be in a coffee house working together, with both our laptops open to GoogleDocs, so it looks like we're playing a game of Battleship.


Both of you have written for older audiences before. What do you think is unique about writing for middle grade? Do you have any tips for those interested in writing for a middle-grade audience?

NEAL: It’s like writing for adults who can’t drive. The writing still has to be the same quality, the story as strong and compelling, the characters and relationships as solid, the climax as powerful. The trick is telling the story from a middle grader's pov. You have to ask yourself 'how would a fourteen year old react to this obstacle?"


What is the best piece of writing advice anyone has ever given you?

ERIC: For me, I'll never forget an interview with a well-known author I heard on the radio when I was a teenager. He said, "I guarantee, if you keep writing, you will get published." And I took that to heart, and just kept at it. A lot of my friends, good writers, stopped writing and took other jobs, but I persisted. And that writer was right, I did get published.

NEAL: Write out of your comfort zone.  Different styles, different genres. It’s the only way to grow as a writer.


What are the links to your websites, and where is best place for readers of this blog to go to find out more about TESLA'S ATTIC?

NEAL: My website is www.storyman.com and my Facebook fan page is www.facebook.com/nealshusterman.

ERIC: My website is www.ElfmanWorld.com; for writers seeking advice, my coaching site is www.ericElfmanCoaching.com; and my Facebook fan page is www.facebook.com/EricElfmanAuthor.


Thanks again for stopping by Project Mayhem, Neal and Eric! We hope everyone will rush out and grab a copy of TESLA'S ATTIC. (I know I will.)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Dialogue Tags by Dianne K. Salerni

Whether you follow the advice or not, you’ve probably heard writers say that the only dialogue tag you should use is said – possibly with a few other plain ones sprinkled in, like asked or replied. The thinking is that the reader’s eye passes over those words without seeing them and thus remains fully engrossed in the story. I’ve heard it explained that dialogue tags should be like door hinges – functional, but you never look at them.

Of course, when I hear that, I always think: But door hinges can be so pretty!


Recently, I started reading aloud Wonder by R.J. Palacio to my class, and one of the first things that struck me was how often the word said was used. I was surprised – because I had already read this book (silently) on my Kindle, and I never noticed. Which, I suppose, goes to show that the door hinge thinking is correct: My eyes passed over the word without seeing it.

However, when I read the book aloud, I definitely heard it! Said. Said. Said. Said. Wonder is an amazing book – and my students are loving it – but I was bugged enough by the repetition of the word said to tally up the dialogue tags in one of the chapters.

Said – 30
Other tag – 19 (of those, 10 were answered)
No tag – 5

It could be that this overuse of said and answered was deliberate. It’s part of Auggie’s voice, and when I scanned ahead, I saw that other narrators in the book did not use said quite so often. Nevertheless, I rarely saw anything besides said or answered.

I decided to check out a chapter of my own forthcoming MG book to compare styles.

Said – 5
Other tag – 7
No tag – 30

Apparently, I prefer to avoid the dialogue tag altogether by using narration to make it plain who’s speaking. (Well, I was aware that I did that. I just didn’t know how often!)

Again, I want to reiterate that Wonder is an incredible book, very much worth reading. I’m not sure if I would choose to read it aloud again, though.

What do you think about dialogue tags? Since a MG book is more likely to be read aloud than a YA or adult book, do you think a variety of dialogue tags sounds better than the same ones repeated? Or do you prefer narration to take the place of tags? Have you checked the stats on one of your own works?

While we're at it, shall we debate dialogue vs dialog?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Slaying Dragons: Daily Adolescent Challenges and Middle Grade Literature by Braden Bell

I've been thinking about middle school students and why they like to read what they do. Since I write middle grade fantasy, I've been thinking about that genre specifically, but I think this applies to nearly any MG genre. I should make it clear that I don't claim that these thoughts are unique. Still, they've been in my mind a great deal lately as I watch my students struggle through the vicissitudes of day-to-day adolescent life.

After teaching for over twenty years, I have noticed some patterns that I think are useful when writing for middle grade readers.

I can't count the number of times I've heard a student say, "Mr. So-and-So hates me." If you trace that back, and talk to Mr. So-and-So, his version is usually something like, "Today Taylor was talking in class and I gave her a demerit." But to Taylor, Mr. So-and-So is a monster with tremendous destructive power, lurking in the darkness, ready to jump out and torment her at any moment.

It's no secret that adolescents experience the world in heightened emotional terms. Instead of having good friends, they have Best Friends for Life. Instead of having people they don't like, they have mortal enemies (and, I would note the people in these roles can switch over night). Teachers don't simply discipline them--teachers cherish unyielding, and irrational grudges and hate them.

From an adolescent's perspective, every day can be a battle, fraught with terrible pitfalls and dangers. For the most part, these are social, not physical dangers, but to a young teen, social problems can seem equal to, or even worse, than physical danger.

It's easy for adults to minimize, even idealize, the trials that adolescents face. But in the moment, these challenges appear very daunting.

I think this is part of the appeal of middle grade books. Whatever the genre, they show adolescents facing and surmounting tremendous challenges, winning battles, and vanquishing foes. Those fictional foes might represent real-life bullies, or strict teachers or any number of other people. Fictional battles and difficulties might represent the sometimes-overwhelming nature of adolescence.

In addition to all the other benefits that come with reading, I think that this is one of the great values of middle grade literature.










Monday, February 17, 2014

Questions to Ask When Plotting a Sequel


Since it’s President’s Day, I thought I’d post about one of my projects involving a follow-up story to WILDFIRE RUN, my book about a president’s son who gets trapped at Camp David after a natural disaster.

Basically, I feel as if I’ve been breaking my brain trying to plot out a sequel, so to help my poor struggling thought process, I finally made up a list of important elements. I hope this will help other plotters in the same situation.

I’ve discovered the character of a president’s son doesn’t lend himself to lots of adventures, because he’s surrounded by people protecting him all the time. I had to come up with plausible reasons he could be put in danger again and be the one to figure out how to get himself out of it. This is true of many ordinary kid characters. Your regular kid is not going to find treasure map after treasure map, or thwart jewel thieves multiple times, so this may be where the writer has to veer off in a bit of a different direction.
Some aspects of a sequel need to be familiar, because readers want that continuity, and they want a sense of feeling they know a character already. Other aspects need to be brand new, to give the readers a surprise, and to keep away from falling into predictability. Here’s what I’ve determined I absolutely have to keep in mind as I’m plotting:

What elements of a plot will readers expect to see repeated in a new book: (action, friendship, humor, etc.)
This is the most obvious part of a sequel, but it’s so important, it doesn’t hurt to keep it right out in front. In my case, this was easy to figure out. My new book has to include a lot of action and adventure.

What element/character is going to make the plot feel different from the earlier book?
I thought about doing another outdoor adventure, but decided it would be too predictable, so I’m moving into more of a thriller with bad guys mode. It will still have action and adventure, but I want to keep the reader guessing.

I’m also adding a new character. I think this is a great way to keep a sequel fresh. The reader knows how the original characters interact with each other, so putting a new character in their midst will add more interest, and maybe even shake up comfortable relationships.

Besides the main character, what other characters will readers want to see?
I knew I had to include my main character’s two best friends, so that made me plot it carefully to have them included in a realistic way. I also know many of my readers love the main character’s dog, Comet, but he’s a little harder to include. At the moment, he appears in the opening chapter to give that sense of familiarity, but he can’t take part in most of the rest of the story. I’m hoping it will be enough.

What traits of characters will readers expect to see? (This is so important. I’ve discovered in my own reading that I want to recognize character traits or interactions that remind me of previous books. It helps make me a part of that world.)

My main character, Luke, is prone to act before he thinks, so I wanted to put that in, but his real distinction lies in his ability to think up crazy solutions to solve seemingly impossible problems. It’s hard to think these up, but I know they have to be there, so I’m spending a lot of time thinking about this. Luke’s friends have their own important roles, and these have to be woven into the plot as well. Callie is the practical one, who solves problems the boys sometimes can’t, because they tend to get too elaborate in their ideas. Theo is the fact kid, who knows important details the others don’t.


So in writing all this down, it’s made the plotting seem a little less overwhelming. I’m not there yet, but I’m hoping that by spending all the time upfront planning, I will end up with a story that doesn’t need major rewriting. So I'm off for more plotting. Good luck to all those out there attempting the same.

~ Dee Garretson

Friday, February 14, 2014

♥ The Heartache (and Triumph) of Rejection ♥



As I've posted in the past, before my first novel was published I was rejected by many agents, many, many, many, many times. And when I say many (many, many) I mean over 200. And when I say I was rejected over 200 times, we aren't talking rejected for 3 or 4 or 5 different manuscripts. We are talking about one manuscript. One little ditty of a manuscript about an underground city of rats, who at the time were getting NO love...and I mean none, zero, zilch. 


So in the spirit (well, not the lovey-dovey kind of spirit) of Valentine's Day and all that love mush, I'd like to share with you some of my real rejections--that stinging heartache that nearly all writers have felt. Not only did they help me become stronger, some actually helped me with my writing and changed the story, made it better. I should mention, since it's been published, my first middle-grade novel, Nightshade City, has won awards, scored some awesome reviews from the big review houses, was blurbed by a super awesome bestselling middle-grade author, got me multiple jobs presenting to schools and groups around the country and has also sent me to the UAE (free of charge), which I'll be going to again later this year. It also won me 4 contracts with National Geographic School Publishing (the editor read my book and reached out), and two more book deals, with the final book in the Nightshade Chronicles series, Lords of Trillium, coming out next month. I'm genuinely not trying to toot my own horn, but after 14 months of hard-core, gut wrenching, don't-insult-my-baby-rejection, I think it's okay to toot just a little. And if I can get through it, why not you? ;) 

Now, some of these struck me as funny, some made me scratch my head, some I took to heart, but all of them made me work even harder. I rewrote the book two times, I cut characters, edited and edited, rinsed and repeated. I think in this business you have to be someone who dislikes the word "no" so much, you will work like a dog until it's changed to "yes"! 

Without further ado, the best of the worst! 

--With the economy the way it is, we have to be very careful about what we select. Rats just aren't in the cards.


--Though I enjoyed the writing, I really dislike rats...very much. I'm not right for this.


--This is above children's heads.


--We represent all genres of children's books, just not animal fantasy.


--I certainly liked the story, but I didn't connect with it. 


--While I think you have a great writing career ahead of you, it will not be with me. 


--I have too many children's writers in my stable right now. 


--Though you have two strong female central characters, we feel this book is mainly for boys. 


--This has as many characters as a Russian novel. 


--You take too many liberties as the writer.


--Sorry, I just don't believe in anthropomorphic animals.

The last one is my favorite--truly an agent I was never going to win over with talking rats! ;) Do you have any rejections you'd like to share? Anything funny, insightful, unexpected?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Chris Eboch on Surviving the Writing Life

In my post last month, I talked about starting the new year by Defining Success for yourself, with tips on how to do that. That came out of several SCBWI schmoozes in Albuquerque on issues in the writing life. I thought I’d share some additional notes here, based on questions people had or areas where people were struggling. Maybe you’ll recognize yourself in some of these questions and find guidance in the answers. These work even better as group discussion questions, so consider bringing them to your critique group or discussing them over coffee with writing friends.


Is there value in comparing your path to others? How do you keep from being frustrated and discouraged when others seem to be doing better?

– Keep in mind many people are happy to share their successes but may hide their disappointments. It doesn’t mean the disappointments aren’t there. At our meeting, every published author with more than 10 years since her first sale had had a gap of six or seven years between novel sales.

– Honor yourself for continuing to show up and try. Many people drop out and we never hear of them again. You are farther along the path to success than all those people!

– Try to put aside the concept of “failing” and instead focus on “learning.” So your manuscript was rejected by 50 agents. Are you a better writer now than you were before you wrote it? Do you know more about querying? Have you developed a new resistance to rejection? Then that process was a success.

– Understand that learning new skills takes time. How much time have you really put in – not in years, but in hours? You may have heard of the “10,000 hours” rule – that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something. You may have been writing for 10 years, but at five hours per week, that’s 2600 hours.

– Remember that not everybody has the same obligations (family, job), training, financial resources, or family support. All those things affect your career path. Do the best you can with what you have.

– You are more than just a writer. Honor and celebrate your whole self.

– It’s not us versus them (unpublished versus published, or debut author versus famous author.) We are all on the same path. You’re part of that continuum. Some people may be further along the path, or moving more quickly, but this isn’t a race with only one winner.

Fellow Mayhemer Joy McCullough-Carranza adds, “I’m in a position where critique partners I’ve had for years have all gotten agents and most have gotten deals with major publishers and I’ve done neither (despite their assurances that it’s my turn! Now!). It’s difficult not to compare, and even more difficult not to become discouraged sometimes. But I’m still able to take huge joy in their successes. Their successes don’t diminish mine – if anything, they increase my opportunities and knowledge. I have walked with my writing friends along their journeys and feel like I know the ups and downs of that path so well already. They’ve got a wealth of experience to share, and they do so generously.”

More help:

Chugging Through the (Early) Stages of a Writing Career by L.B. Shulman: common psychological pitfalls from beginning to first sale.

When Rules Aren’t, by author Alina Klein: “There are no absolutes when it comes to story, and what is acceptable or worth telling.”

Have you struggled with this issues? Do you have additional tips?

Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy, 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. In The Ghost Miner’s Treasure, a brother and sister help a ghostly miner find his long-lost mine. Her book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

START YOUR NOVEL: SIX WINNING STEPS TOWARD A COMPELLING OPENING LINE, SCENE, AND CHAPTER by Darcy Pattison

The one thing I can count on when starting a new manuscript is the feeling I’ve never written a book before. Because each of my stories has to find its own way, and I can always use a refresher course on this thing called writing, I decided to use writing guru Darcy Pattison’s latest book, START YOUR NOVEL, as my guide when drafting a new book during National Novel Writing Month last November.

Darcy opens her book by stating everything a first chapter must accomplish:

  • grab your reader’s attention
  • ground your reader in the setting
  • intrigue the reader with a character
  • give the reader a puzzle to solve
  • set the pace

The first chapter sets the stage for the rest of the book. The first sentence builds on the first page builds on the first chapter. And to grab an editor’s attention, all three must shine.

I consider myself a “plotser” (or “planster”, as Darcy would say) -- someone who doesn’t fully plot a story but also doesn’t fly by the seat of her pants. Darcy says her approach might feel overly rigid to pantsters or too loosey-goosey to plotters. For me, her system feels like the perfect fit.

So you have an idea for a story? Now’s the time to brainstorm possible scenes. Next Darcy suggests studying the “29 Plot Templates” to decide which structure might best tell your story. Will your book be a quest? A story of escape? One about an underdog or forbidden love? “Each plot pattern would require a different set of scenes, emotions, motivations.” The approach you take will affect how you let your possible scenes play out.

Darcy then briefly discusses exploring your protagonist with one key element in mind: your character’s pain. “What is the character most afraid of; what could make the character hurt the most? Of course, you must make your character face this very thing.”

Now you’ve got some possible scenes and a structure for these scenes to unfold. With your character’s pain pinpointed (and the things you know she must face to bring about change), you have the beginnings of your character’s arc.

scene ideas + plot pattern + character arc = the beginnings of your book

Because you’ve not yet committed hours and hours to writing at this point, there is plenty of freedom to play with your ideas: adding scenes, deleting them, changing a character’s motivation or the type of story you’d like to tell. As someone who’s written a few books and many more “trunk manuscripts,” I appreciated this experimental phase. It’s something I need to do more of before my drafting begins.

“The function of a first draft is to find your story. The function of the next few drafts is to find the best way to tell that story.”

To that end, Darcy spends much of her book showing authors how to experiment with different approaches. For example, what type of sentence structure might you use to start your book? Darcy identifies twelve types of opening sentences*, gives examples of each, and then tries each type for her own novel-in-progress. In pushing herself to study her opening from different angles, she’s able to find the best way to tell the story.

As I planned and then drafted my NaNo novel, this book was an invaluable guide. And once I've given it a few months to breathe, I’ll pull Darcy’s revision book, NOVEL METAMORPHOSIS, off my shelf.

What books do you recommend for starting a new piece of writing?

*Here are a few to consider:
  • It was... It is... This is...
  • viewpoint on life
  • mid-action
  • dialogue
  • landscape
  • misleading lines