Monthly Archives: March 2015

Writing Resource Roundup

Camp NaNoWriMo. Since Camp NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow, I thought now would be a good time to highlight a few of my favorite writing websites. This is far from an exhaustive list, so if you have any sites or resources you’d like to share, please do so in the comments!

  • Author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford’s blog. Bransford covers all the key components of craft – characters, plot, setting, voice – as well as crafting a good query letter. His posts on craft include examples from popular books that make it easy to understand the topic. Though he doesn’t post as often anymore, the archives offer a wealth of resources.
  • Janice Hardy’s Fiction University. Hardy covers just about every aspect of writing – outlining, character development, voice, editing, and even querying and marketing. She also runs a series of “Real Life Diagnostics” (currently closed to submissions), in which she offers feedback on an excerpt from a work in progress, and an “Indie Authors Series” for those who are considering self-publishing. And, for those of you (like me) who’ll be making April NaNoRevMo*, today’s post is the last in her month-long revision workshop that you can follow at your own pace. [Note: Hardy is a detailed plotter, and her posts on outlining can sometimes be overwhelming for a pantser like me. She has good advice, but keep in mind that there’s no single “right” way to write; the right way is the way that works best for you.]
  • Publishing Hub and Pub(lishing) Crawl​. Despite having “publishing” in the title, these blogs cover a lot more. Both discuss craft, business, and the writing life in general. Publishing Hub’s contributors also discuss current events in the reading/publishing world, with a focus on YA. (The blog was formerly YA Stands, but expanded to include more topics that are relevant to all writers.) If you write YA, Publishing Hub has some great posts on writing sex in YA, the obligations of YA writers, diversity, and more.
  • Query Shark. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but if you’re looking for an agent, read this blog! Reid picks apart queries that readers have submitted to show what works, what doesn’t, and why.
  • Literary agent Janet Reid’s blog. This has great insights on the publishing world, both in Reid’s posts and in the comments. Reid also hosts contests periodically, and her weekly roundups on Sundays are always good for a laugh.
  • Nelson Literary Agency’s Pub Rants, and the NLA monthly newsletter. These both offer great insights into the business side of writing. I’ve been following NLA’s series on “what makes a good agent” closely, and learned a lot of nitty-gritty things about contracts that I never would’ve known. (And I’m sure there are still plenty of things I don’t know, which is why I plan to have an agent in my corner when I pursue publication.)
  • Author and literary agent Sarah Negovetich’s blog. Negovetich describes herself partly as a “marketing lady,” and her blog offers a wealth of advice on marketing/publicity.

As a librarian and YA writer, I also find The Hub, YALSA’s book blog, and Teen Librarian Toolbox to be great resources to keep up with the latest in MG and YA fiction. I’ll use these both to find new books to read and to follow discussions in the YA lit world. TLT’s insightful reviews aren’t afraid to discuss the big issues, and their series on sexual violence (#SVYALit) and faith and spirituality (#FSYALit) in YA literature have made me more aware of these issues in my own writing.

So, those are my main go-to writing resources. Have I missed one of yours? Please share in the comments!

And good luck to all of you NaNo Campers!

*National Novel Revising Month

Genre Lessons: Memoir

Camera, pen, and diary. I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re reading memoirs. The biggest takeaway I have from the memoirs I read is to make sure you know the scope of your story. Some memoirs span much of a person’s life (Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved World); others focus on one’s childhood (Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming), or a single year (Rachel Bertsche’s MWF Seeking BFF), or a season (Cheryl Strayed’s Wild). Some choose a theme or topic and explore events surrounding that (Maya Angelou’s Mom & Me & Mom). What they don’t do is detail every event in the writer’s life. They have a focus.

Every character, whether real or invented, has a history. No matter what genre you’re writing, it’s important to know as much of your characters’ histories as possible. But if your story is about a twenty-year-old part-human cyborg trying to stop a terrorist attack, readers don’t need to know about his sixth-grade science fair project. (Unless that project will somehow stop the terrorists.) I write a lot of backstory when I’m drafting, including pages of characters’ journal entries and scenes that take place before the story starts. Sometimes I’ll try to work those scenes in as flashbacks, but I almost always end up cutting them or reducing them to a quick line or two. Because as much as I loved getting to know my characters better, readers aren’t going to care about things that aren’t relevant to the plot. Every scene needs to drive the story forward. That means you may skip weeks or even years in a single paragraph, if nothing relevant happens to your characters in that time frame. As long as you make it clear when everything takes place, your readers will follow.

Another thing I learned from reading memoirs is that good memoirs are good stories, not just lists of events. Even after you’ve polished your book so that only the relevant scenes are in it, those scenes have to connect to each other. Transitions are important; if you end a chapter with the hero running from the bad guys, don’t start the next chapter with her worrying about a different problem. (You can introduce that problem later in the scene, but make sure the focus is on her running at the outset.)

If you’re struggling with a character arc or a character-driven story, take a look at what some memoir writers have done. How did they portray their own changes and growth? How did they show their struggles? How did they move the story forward? And what details or events did they gloss over to keep the story moving?

Have you read any good memoirs recently? What writing lessons did you learn from them?

How to tell when you have a story

Lightbulb. Like most writers, I have a lot of ideas. I have ideas for quirky characters, interesting settings, crazy plot twists. Sometimes those ideas become stories that I and my critique partners get really excited about. And sometimes I’ll take those ideas and run with them for a whole novel-length draft (or seven), but at the end of the day I still can’t pin down the story behind the spark.

I’m getting better at spotting the difference between ideas and stories, but sometimes it can be hard to tell when I’m in the middle of a project. I don’t consider any writing wasted — even if I end up scrapping scenes or entire drafts, the time I spent writing them was time spent improving my craft — but for the sake of being more efficient, I’ve come up with a mental checklist before I get too far into a draft. If, like me, you’re quick to jump into every promising idea, you may find asking yourself the following questions helpful before you start writing.

1. Can I write a query letter for this book? You don’t have to have every scene planned out, or even know exactly how the story ends, to be able to discuss the heart of the story. What is this book about? What is the main character trying to accomplish, and why, and what will happen if s/he doesn’t accomplish that? What is standing in the main character’s way? What is the hook?

In my own experience, the ideas that work really well as books are ones I can draft a query letter for before I’ve even finished the first draft of the novel. If you can talk clearly and succinctly about your project, you know you’ve got a story. If you can’t, maybe you’ve got a great idea, but you haven’t quite figured out how to turn that idea into a story yet.

2. Do all my characters have realistic goals and motivations? An antagonist can’t just be an antagonist because your story needs one; s/he has to have her own reasons for opposing your hero. Likewise, your hero can’t just go on a quest for the sake of going on a quest; s/he has to have a larger goal in mind. Maybe she wants to save her kingdom, and defeating the antagonist is the only way to do that. Maybe he wants revenge because the antagonist killed his brother. If it feels like your characters do what they do just for the sake of moving the plot forward, you don’t have a story yet.

3. Am I constantly making big changes to my draft? For me, this is the biggest sign that my idea isn’t a story yet. I’ve had a couple ideas that I’ve been really excited about, and have written multiple novel-length drafts that I’ve tried to edit only to realize they just aren’t working. So I’ll change the main character, or the viewpoint, or the setting. I’ll add a subplot or make the original plot a subplot and come up with a new plot. I’ll re-work an idea until I make myself crazy and burn out on it, and have to set it aside for months before I can look at it again. If you find yourself making these kinds of major changes to your project, you may not have a story yet.

Note that in all of these cases, I say you don’t have a story yet. That doesn’t mean your great idea will never become a story. Sometimes you just have to find the right characters or setting to make that idea work. Sometimes letting that idea marinate in your subconscious for a while will help you figure out exactly how to turn it into a story.

Also, keep in mind that every writer’s process is different. I talk about what works for me on this blog, and hope it helps others along the way. If your process goes against anything I’ve said here or in other posts, and it works for you, keep doing it!

Have you gotten stuck on a project that turned out to be an idea, not a story? Did you find the story in that spark? Please share in the comments!

#BoysReadGirls, if we let them

The Forgotten Sisters. Recently, author Shannon Hale discussed a school visit to which older boys were not invited on her blog. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to take a look. The justification for excluding the boys was that the talk and/or Ms. Hale’s books (she was discussing her latest in the Princess Academy series, The Forgotten Sisters) would not appeal to them. However, when a male author presented at this same school, both boys and girls were invited.

And Ms. Hale is not the only author to have this experience. Her tweet about it prompted a response several other female authors who’ve had boys banished from their talks, with the principal or teacher or librarian giving similar reasons for their decisions.

I find stories like these problematic for a number of reasons. First, this is effectively telling young boys that women write “girl books,” but that men’s books should appeal to everyone. This is presenting women’s work as “less than,” and sets a dangerous precedent for these boys’ future perceptions of women. We’re essentially telling boys that they don’t have to understand or relate to women, while we’re still encouraging girls to empathize with boys. It’s attitudes like this that help perpetuate rape culture and discrimination in the workplace. And it’s just as offensive to the men and boys who don’t fit these educators’ stereotypes as it is to the women and girls they’re putting down.

Kicking the boys out of these talks also imposes the adult gatekeeper’s choices and prejudices on their students. Saying a book about a princess won’t appeal to a boy is just as bad as saying a book about an African-American boy won’t appeal to a white one — in both cases, we’re failing to give the reader enough credit. A good story is a good story, regardless of the gender, race, nationality, etc. of the main characters. And by telling young readers a certain book is “for girls” or “for black kids,” we’re telling them they can’t relate to girls or African-Americans unless they are girls or African-Americans. We’re telling them that that’s okay. And worst of all, by not letting these readers connect with these books, we’re not giving them the chance to grow and develop into culturally-competent individuals.

I was pleased to see the discussion on Twitter include tweets from boys who enjoy “girl” books using the #BoysReadGirls hashtag. If you’re interested, School Library Journal gives an overview of the conversation in their article, “When Boys Can’t Like ‘Girl Books.’” As a librarian, I’ve recommended plenty of books by female authors with female main characters to boys, and had them tell me they enjoyed my recommendations. I’d hate to think that someone out there was telling them these books weren’t for them. Everyone should be given the chance to enjoy a good book, regardless of who wrote it or what the characters’ backgrounds are, without being shamed or made to feel like that was weird.

I hope to see fewer stories like these in the future. For inspiration, I’ll leave you with this.

What makes you stop reading?

Stack of books. With social media, TV, streaming videos, and more, writers have a lot to compete with. But even without these distractions, there are still a few things that will make me abandon a book before I reach the final page. Here’s what makes me lose interest (or never become interested) in a story:

1. SPAG. If there are several spelling, punctuation, and/or grammar errors in a book, I’ll be too distracted by them to keep reading, and I know I’m not the only one. This is why if you choose to self-publish, I highly recommend hiring a copy editor. It’s easy to miss our own mistakes, especially when we’ve read the same manuscript 1,000+ times, but someone who’s new to the text will probably catch them.

2. I’m confused. If I have too many names or details thrown at me in the opening pages, with little context or reason to be invested in them, I’ll struggle to maintain interest in a book. Similarly, if there are too few details — I have no idea where or when a scene is taking place, or an important person or event is mentioned as though I should understand its significance — I won’t be able to enjoy the story. I’ll be too busy trying to figure out the context to pay attention to what’s actually happening.

Going along with that, unclear timelines will also make me put a book down. If a story jumps around a bit in time, that’s fine, as long as it’s clear when each scene is taking place. If we jump six months in one paragraph without so much as a line break, you’re going to lose me.

3. I don’t care about the characters. This is NOT the same thing as not liking the characters. I’ve enjoyed books where I disliked the main characters, but I was still invested in their story. I still wanted to know what happened to them, even if I personally didn’t agree with their decisions or their outlooks on life. I can hate a character and love the book; I just need to feel something for that character.

4. Implausible actions or events. If the protagonist does something that’s completely out of character, it’ll take a lot for the author to earn my trust back. If I feel like a major event or decision exists solely to move the plot forward, I’ll be that much more critical of everything else I read in that book — if I decide to keep reading. I don’t want stories to feel contrived; I don’t want to see the author’s hand manipulating the story. The characters and their (believable) actions must drive the story.

5. I don’t connect with the story. This isn’t anything a writer can fix, but I think it’s worth mentioning, because it reminds me that not everyone will love my books. I’ve read books that got multiple starred reviews, awards, accolades, etc. that I just didn’t like. And that’s okay. Not every story is right for every reader. If a great book just isn’t for me, I might not finish it, but I still might recommend it to someone else who’s looking for that kind of story. If the writing is good, I want the right readers to find it.

So, those are the five main reasons why I’ll put down a book. What are yours?