One of my closest friends from my time at Vermont College of Fine Arts is author Anne Bustard, so I’m especially thrilled that her debut novel ANYWHERE BUT PARADISE is out today. Even more especially since Anne’s novel was bought by Egmont, and she was one of the orphaned authors of their “Last List”. (Luckily, Lerner Group has acquired Egmont’s titles, including Anne’s.) I’m even more especially thrilled because I saw early drafts of this novel – and I can tell you it’s wonderful.
Anne agreed to come over and write a very wise guest post for me, so here she is.
Pressing DELETE may be the answer, by Anne Bustard
I love to watch outtakes of movies. I’m fascinated by what didn’t survive. Usually I agree with the cuts, but sometimes I like one so much, I wish the filmmaker had kept it anyway. Just because.
So, it may not surprise you that superfluous favorites have remained in draft after draft of stories of mine because of love. In my critique group, we call it “ice skating.” (More about why in a moment.) What I have come to realize is, the Delete key can be a writers’ best friend. Pressing it may, in fact, save your story.
Candidates for cuts are limitless—a single word, sentence, scene, chapter, character, story thread . . .
Twice, I hit Delete on an entire manuscript. And survived. It is now my debut novel.
Based on my experience, I have a few tips.
it’s a repeat. For instance, if your character responds the exact same way to a threat time after time, it’s predictable, potentially boring and will mark your character as stagnant. Cut and change the response to show growth.
something isn’t working. Rather than trying to fix it—cut it. That might solve the problem.
it no longer fits or makes sense. Even if you love it. Perhaps now you have figured out what your character really wants, and it sends the story in a new direction. Clinging to the past can be deadly. Be brave.
a scene, thread, etc. is not organic to the story. If it feels manipulated, it will read that way.
you need to add tension. Collapse a week into one chapter, or a year long novel into a month. Tension builds and transforms characters.
it doesn’t raise the stakes and make events worse.
it doesn’t add anything (but words) to the story. In fact, extra words unnecessarily complicate it.
Anne’s photo by Sam Bond
During a major revision to short chapters and fewer threads for Anywhere but Paradise, I came up with a sparkly new thread—I loved it so. It was all about Peggy Sue’s desire to be an Olympic ice skater. I showed how the move to Hawaii crushed her dream because there were no ice rinks in the islands. I concocted, through much research, a traveling ice show.
My critique group ever so tactfully suggested that I might think about thinking of ditching that thread because it didn’t add anything to the story.
After much angst, I nixed those chapters and scenes. But only the day before I queried agents. I did not want to cut them. I loved them. But cut I did, because, I thought—I can always add them back in.
I never did. And now I can’t imagine what I’d been thinking.
Okay, so there might be one teeny, tiny line related to that thread that remains. I promised myself if my wonderful editor questioned it—it was a goner. She didn’t.
The line occurs early in the story. Peggy Sue is at her first hula lesson. She realizes that dancing is harder than it looks.
Practice. All I need to do is practice.
All day every day.
Like an Olympian.
Like me, you may not need ice skating in your manuscript. Embrace the delete option. Many possibilities glitter and shine, but only choose those that best serve the novel.
You can find out more about Anne and her work here.
I love revision. My first drafts tend to be real ugly ducklings. If there’s a swan inside, it only emerges after multiple revisions.
In this post, I’m giving you two things: first, my ten-point global revision technique; and second, my detail checklist. The detail checklist is especially helpful for getting rid of those pesky errors introduced through laziness. I hope these help!
Ten-point revision checklist:
Reread entire manuscript in one sitting, making margin notes and keeping track of details (i.e., character eye color, dates, place names) for consistency.
Identify your characters’ arcs. Make sure you have a “story-worthy problem” (the true underlying problem your character must resolve – see HOOKED by Les Edgerton) and a resonant theme. Make sure that the story-worthy problem is discovered by both reader and protagonist late in the story, ideally around the climax.
As a lover of historical fiction, I’m always on the hunt for excellent reads, and I’m thrilled that BLUE BIRDS, Caroline Starr Rose’s second novel (following her highly acclaimed debut MAY B.), is available now!
Here’s a synopsis of BLUE BIRDS: “It’s 1587 and twelve-year-old Alis has made the long journey with her parents from England to help settle the New World, the land christened Virginia in honor of the Queen. And Alis couldn’t be happier. While the streets of London were crowded and dirty, this new land, with its trees and birds and sky, calls to Alis. Here she feels free. But the land, the island Roanoke, is also inhabited by the Roanoke tribe and tensions between them and the English are running high, soon turning deadly.
“Amid the strife, Alis meets and befriends Kimi, a Roanoke girl about her age. Though the two don’t even speak the same language, these girls form a special bond as close as sisters, willing to risk everything for the other. Finally, Alis must make an impossible choice when her family resolves to leave the island and bloodshed behind.”
Caroline has written a guest post on the crafting of BLUE BIRDS, and in particular, the alternating voices of the novel:
There are always a few things that lead me to a book, but I’m not fully aware of them at the beginning. I was drawn to the Lost Colony story while teaching fifth-grade social studies in 2008. I hadn’t thought about those 117 missing people and their mysterious last message, CROATOAN, since my own school days. Coincidentally, our Scholastic book order had several books about the Lost Colony available at the same time. I ordered them and shared what I was learning with my students. This is where the seeds of BLUE BIRDS story began.
But I can look further back and see that Alis and Kimi’s friendship came from my own girlhood relationships. I relied a lot on those feelings of belonging, the intensity and sincerity of those early bonds to tell the girls’ story.
When I first started drafting BLUE BIRDS, the story came from only Alis’s perspective. But the more I wrote, the more I realized the story hinged on Alis and Kimi’s forbidden friendship, and to most truthfully tell it, I needed both girls’ voices. This was kind of terrifying. I worried how others might feel about a non-Native author speaking for a Native girl. I wondered if I even had permission to try. But I kept returning to the things I had in common with both girls — feeling understood by another person, the way identity is often formed out of young friendship. This gave me enough courage to keep moving forward with the writing.
As strange as it sounds, verse has become my default. I find it a really in-the-moment way to write historical fiction. It’s immediate, spare, and lets us into a character’s inner life very quickly.
For this book in particular, verse also became a wonderful way to tell a story in two voices. Readers move quickly from Kimi to Alis and back again. And when the girls share a poem, I was able through line and stanza placement to “speak” their story visually, adding one more layer of communication. Verse is magical that way!
Caroline Starr Rose was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start Author for her debut novel, MAY B., which was an ALA-ALSC Notable Children’s Book and received two starred reviews. She spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico, camping by the Red Sea in one and eating red chile in the other. She has taught social studies and English, and worked to instill in her students a passion for books, an enthusiasm for experimenting with words, and a curiosity about the past. Visit her at www.carolinestarrrose.com
A year plus ago I had the good fortune to attend a conference featuring three greats: Christopher Vogler, James Scott Bell, and Donald Maass. I already had books by each one of them, and I carried my copies along for their signatures. One of these is my well-used copy of Maass’s WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK. He signed it, “Tension on every page!”
In my previous posts I’ve talked about tension and conflict at the most general levels of plot. Maass takes this position: there can’t be too much tension in a novel. As a result, he’s a firm believer in adding tension in every chapter, to every scene, on every page.
Donald says: tension!
To do this he suggests that you randomly turn to any page of your manuscript, select any line at random, and heighten the tension in that line.
Do this on every page of your manuscript until you’ve got the kind of tension that results in a can’t-put-down read. Hard work? You bet.
But let’s look at, first, how little one needs to do, and, second, how hugely it pays off.
I opened THE HUNGER GAMES to a random page, and here’s what I read: “My eyes squint as they try to penetrate the tree next to me, but I can’t make out Rue. Since she tipped me off, it seems only fair to warn her. Besides, if I’m going to die today, it’s Rue I want to win.”
What does Collins do, in this tiny snippet, that is immediately riveting? Let’s look at the verbs: squint, penetrate, tipped, warn, die, win. Each one calculated to be extreme, and to suggest that Katniss is on the edge, unable to fully view the outcome. In addition, Collins doesn’t let up on the physical death stakes: “…I’m going to die today…”
Just to round things out, this paragraph concludes: “Even if it means a little extra food for my family, the idea of Peeta being crowned victor is unbearable.”
Unbearable! Even if her family would get something out of it Katniss is utterly unwilling to tolerate the success of her friend turned ally turned enemy. With extreme internal thoughts and pointed external behaviors in every sentence, Collins does not let her readers off the hook for a second.
If you still doubt the importance of this, take any page of your manuscript right now, and change nothing but the vocabulary. If you have called someone “charming”, change him to “irresistible.” If your character “asks” for something, have them “demand” it. Heighten just the vocabulary and after one paragraph I guarantee you’ll finish the page and then the scene.
Do the same with internal emotional responses, and you’ll be on your way. Yes, it will take time, but you’ll be delighted – no, thrilled – with the results.
Last week I posted about tension and “death stakes”. This week I’ll broaden the conversation to discuss conflict, in the most general terms.
Once again, I’ll also invoke one of my favorite writers, James Scott Bell, and his craft book CONFLICT AND SUSPENSE. He states that a successful novel is “the emotionally satisfying account of how a character deals with imminent death.”
Even Dorothy suffered conflict and death stakes.
You’ve got a super idea for a story, and identified the death stakes (right?) Once you’ve taken this step, your job is to build the landscape in which you immerse your reader in conflict. How that character deals with the constant threat of death (whether physical, psychological, or professional) creates the emotional connection with your reader.
Bell identifies four basic components of conflict (you can remember it by the acronym LOCK) as…
a Lead worth following. That is, a protagonist who is, if not likable, at the very least relatable. Someone to root for, someone to care about, someone you want to spend a lot of time with. Even in plot-driven fiction, your protagonist must be dimensional and heroic (think Dirty Harry, or Katniss Everdeen).
an Objective. What does your protagonist care about most in the world? What is worth dying for – worth changing for? Because your protagonist must change. The arc of your novel is the arc of your character’s change and growth (Harry Potter from boy orphan to powerful wizard, from alone to part of a community). She must find some deep belief that drives her not only through the novel but through life, and she must be willing to give up her very soul to achieve it (Harry, willing to die in combat with Voldemort).
a Confrontation. Now, antagonists can take on many shades. Scarlett O’Hara faces the loss of her way of life. In THE BOOK THIEF, Liesel faces Nazism. In the movie Cast Away, Chuck Nolan faces nature. Katniss faces an entire society. But most of the time, an antagonist is another human, who must be as three-dimensional as your protagonist. Voldemort is a classic example – we know his backstory, and why he became such a horror, and even feel (a bit) sorry for him.
a Knockout ending. You have to resolve the main character’s arc, satisfy his objective, end right after your protagonist has suffered the highest stakes, you must be unpredictable – even surprising – in your outcome. Luke Skywalker’s father makes the ultimate sacrifice. Liesel finds Max and lives out her life after the war. Frodo makes for the west, right when he should be enjoying success. All heart-wrenching, satisfying, unexpected and yet totally believable endings.
In my forthcoming middle grade novel, CHATELAINE, my protagonist is Kat, a 12-year old girl caught in the early days of World War 2 (my Lead). She has to be both mother and father to her siblings when they’re sent to a creepy castle in Scotland, while their father goes missing on the Continent (my Objective). She faces a sinister series of events (my Confrontation) before discovering the twist that will give her power over her adversaries (my Knockout ending, and my resolved death stakes.)
This is conflict at the grandest strokes of craft. Coming up: conflict at the page and scene level.
Tension is essential in stories that will resonate with readers. As a reader, you know the feeling – staying up way past your bedtime because you can’t put that book down. This post is a short introduction to crafting tension that will have your readers hanging on every word.
Rule number 1: story is conflict.
This is the only rule.
Conflict pits your main character against any number of obstacles, whether human (classic antagonist), natural (think earthquake or tornado), emotional (boy loses girl), or other (society, science fiction element, etc.). Conflict is generated moment by moment, scene by scene.
Conflict creates tension, and results from the stakes. Your protagonist’s stakes must appear in your opening pages. High stakes create high tension.
Without tension in story your reader will yawn, put your book down, and watch some mind-numbing reality TV show instead of reading. Please don’t subject your readers to mind-numbing reality shows.
Bell – one of my favorite craft authors, by the way – takes this one step further, and suggests that in any emotionally satisfying novel the stakes have to be death. The genre doesn’t matter; whether it’s comedy or tragedy doesn’t matter. The stakes are death.
According to Bell, there are 3 kinds of death: physical, professional, and psychological.
Physical death. Win or die. The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones…thrillers, murder mysteries, much scifi and fantasy, etc. Those are the stories that explore physical death.
Professional death. The death of the dream. The death of future dreams. For teens this can also mean death of the young self to be replaced by…? Think Because of Winn-Dixie, and Holes. Think of novels in which the teen is a failure in school or with peers and turning a corner into adulthood. What kind of adult will this kid become?
Psychological death. Dying on the inside. Romances, angsty teen novels, comedies all contain psychological death. Catcher in the Rye, every teen romance are examples.
Obviously, you can also combine these: Twilight is some combination of all three (which may be one reason for its success?).
Exercise: take your favorite can’t-put-down novel and try to identify the death stakes. Check out the level of conflict on every page. Share here, if you like!
Today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome my friend and fellow EMLA author Anna Staniszewski. Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time teaching, reading, and eating far too much chocolate. She is the author of the My Very UnFairy Tale Life series, the Dirt Diary series, and the forthcoming Switched at First Kiss series, all published by Sourcebooks, as well as the picture book Power Down, Little Robot, coming from Henry Holt in March.
With all of her accumulated wisdom on series writing, she has some terrific thoughts on how to close out a book series without going crazy.
The phrase “wrapping up a series” makes me picture a neat little bundle of books all tied up with a bow. A series feels so pretty and orderly when it’s all finished, but getting it to that point usually takes a good bit of ugly chaos. Since The Gossip File, the final book in my second series, came out last month, I thought I’d share a few techniques that I’ve found helpful in taming the chaos.
I used to be a die-hard pantser, but writing by the seat of your pants doesn’t work very well when you have to write several books that all need to tie together and come to a satisfying conclusion. These days, I write a synopsis for each book that I’m working on, and when it comes to sequels, I make sure that the synopsis for each follow-up book builds on what came before. There’s still a lot of adjusting and rethinking that happens along the way, but at least having that plan in place early on helps keep me pointed in the right direction.
Give each book its own journey.
If each book in a series is about the character facing the same challenges, the series is going to feel boring. I make sure to send the character on a distinct emotional and physical journey in every book, each one bringing out a different part of her character so that she’s forced to change and grow in new ways. If she’s battling her fear of failure in every installment, for example, readers are going to start to get a little bored.
Have your characters evolve.
This is related to the previous point: If your character is the exact same person at the beginning of Book 1 as she is at the end of Book 3, that’s a problem (unless the point of the story is that your character doesn’t change). Readers want your characters to be flawed, but they probably don’t want to be yelling “don’t go into that closet!” over and over again. At some point, the character needs to start acting like a better version of herself so that we know she’ll be okay after the series is over.
Avoid bows that are too neat.
I started off by talking about wrapping series up in a pretty bow, but I must admit that I prefer stories that don’t tie up absolutely everything. Of course, all the big threads that have been introduced throughout the series should be addressed in some way by the end, but that doesn’t mean everything needs to be picture perfect. Throughout the Dirt Diary series, for example, Rachel struggles with her parents’ divorce. In the third book, I wanted to give that situation some closure, but I also wanted to keep it realistic. Ultimately, I created some hope for the future, but I also tried to make it clear to the reader that because Rachel has evolved as a character, she’ll be okay no matter what happens next.
I spent the past weekend at the New York SCBWI conference and, as always, it was enlightening and energizing. But what struck me was a message that I heard repeated a number of times from various speakers – editors, agents, and authors – and it was “write up!”
“Write up” means writing up for children, not down. It means writing complex stories with rich vocabulary. It means challenging readers to read and think critically. It means leaving plenty of room for the reader to interpret and interpolate.
The fact that so many people were using the same catchphrase intrigues me. I’m sure it wasn’t planned. I’m also struck that we’re being encouraged to “write up” at the same time that I’m hearing more and more stories in the general media about how children’s literature isn’t “real” literature, and adults who read young adult novels are in some fashion deficient and immature.
Clearly those in the publishing business don’t want us to dumb down our writing, and in fact they and readers won’t buy our work if we do. I find it insulting (to put it mildly) when I hear disparaging remarks about children’s and young adult literature because the authors who are finding an audience are “writing up” already. Take the example of Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, this year’s Newbery choice. Or Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun, this year’s Printz winner. Both highly complex, moving, and evocative stories.
So fellow authors, we are writing for an audience that needs all our smarts. This is an audience that must learn to think critically in a complex world. To heck with those who don’t want to read our challenging stories. Write up, my friends.
I’m about to head off to New York for SCBWI’s 2015 Winter Conference. I remember my early conference-attending years. My anticipation was keen, but I recall not knowing what to expect as I went about the business of mingling with editors, agents, and published authors – all of whom walked on water as far as I was concerned. Whether you’ll be in New York or plan on attending a regional conference, whether SCBWI or another, here are some “dos and don’ts” to keep in mind.
Sign up for critiques and/or pitches if at all possible. My first few were cringe-worthy, but they were learning experiences, and I grew a lot as I learned what worked and what didn’t.
Get to know your peers, whether you are starting out or have some experience. The people you meet at a conference could become your lifelong writing buddies.
Attend as many sessions as you can – especially craft sessions. Listen. Learn.
Be open. You’ll find inspiration in strange places. Some of my best ideas have grown out of margin notes (“what if…”) while listening to a great speaker.
Pay attention to “news”. The publishing industry is constantly changing, and those sessions on industry can help you navigate the tides. And social media is always in flux.
Wear comfortable but professional clothing. You only have one chance to make a first impression, and especially if you are being critiqued by a pro, you want them to remember you in a positive way.
Try to be trendy. Don’t change your writing focus to match what editors or agents say they want. What they really want is great writing.
Be pushy. Don’t fling yourself at editors, agents, or published authors. See my comments on this in my logline post. No handing out business cards (unless asked) or manuscripts. Be respectful.
See this as a sales meeting. Don’t even take your work with you unless you have signed up for a critique or a pitch. You’re there to learn.
Exhaust yourself. Try to eat sensibly and get some rest. Big conferences can be jam-packed.
Conferences are a terrific way to learn if you’re a newbie, and they are a wonderful place to grow your connections if you’re further along. I’ve never been to a conference I didn’t like and didn’t learn from, and always come away recharged and ready to get back to my work.
Today I’m delighted to introduce fellow Montana author Stephanie Pitman, and her debut YA novel HONORABLE DISGRACE, just out. It’s a deeply personal account of a traumatic experience, which I believe is important to discuss. Like Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK and Jay Asher’s THIRTEEN REASONS WHY, Pitman recounts the story of a girl experiencing rape and carrying the shadows of guilt and self-loathing. Here’s the synopsis:
“Angie Adams joins the powerlifting team her junior year, but she has more in mind than just toning up—like getting closer to her crush, football star Cory Jacob, who, as luck would have it, is assigned as her spotting partner. When Angie’s feelings are unexpectedly returned, her life is suddenly filled with the giddy electricity of first love. But why, then, does Angie get a little flutter when her older and very hot boss, Brad, looks at her?
Angie seems to have everything going her way, until her world is torn apart by her sister’s betrayal which leads to a brutal rape. Heartbroken and reeling in the aftermath, Angie has to find an internal strength to rival her record-breaking power lifts if she ever wants to feel worthy of love again.”
Congratulations, Stephanie, on the publication of your novel, HONORABLE DISGRACE. Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?
Thanks, Janet. I am very excited.
Well, I never intended to write Honorable Disgrace and that is mainly due to the fact it is based on an experience I had as a teen, one I felt very ashamed of. When I was sixteen, some poor choices from my older sister put me in a situation where I was raped. I personally felt it was my fault, that I had sent signals to my sister or to the guy, who was someone I had met before, to make them think I wanted that type of attention. The burden of that I kept to myself along with the deep feelings of betrayal. I never told my sister what had happened and only ever shared what happened with a couple friends and later my husband. As life moved on, I really felt I had gotten over the ordeal. But about six years ago I began having nightmares. I was already a writer, so I turned to writing for therapy and it evolved to what it is now. Angie, the main character in Honorable Disgrace, faced similar burdens but she faced them how I wished I’d had the courage to face them, and she realized much sooner than I did, that she was still of worth to others and in return worthy of receiving love.
Wow. Such a compelling story, and how brave of you to step forward and write it. I imagine that bringing this to the page was a huge leap. How long have you been writing for children/teens? Have you written other books or is this your first effort?
I began writing for children the year after my oldest son was born, so I’ve been at it about 12 years. After my first attempt at a picture book (which I still have plans to revise and get published) I found my true passion was writing for young adults. Like I mentioned, I do have a PB book completed, or so I thought it was at the time, and I have several other works in progress. But Honorable Disgrace is my first published work.
Can you describe your path to the publication of HONORABLE DISGRACE?
I touched on it in my earlier comment, but my path with Honorable Disgrace began when I realized my journal writing had the potential to be more than just therapy for me, that it could help others dealing with a similar tragedy, and that even if I only helped one person through my efforts, the time and struggle to get my book written and published would be worth it. It helped me to deal with my feelings and inspired me to forgive my sister for her part in my rape. She would have never knowingly put me in that situation.
It took me about 6 months to write, but there have been many revisions along the way. I’ve had a lot of wonderful ladies read it and give great critiques. Fantastic editing help by Jayne Pilimer. She’s awesome. Through SCBWI conferences I met many great agents and editors, Jayne was one, and though I did receive rejections from some of them, it only inspired me to make Honorable Disgrace better. Overall the whole process of writing and getting to publication took about 5 years. I do not plan on it taking that long for my next book.
Do you have any advice for beginning writers?
Most people have a story to tell, but only those willing to do the work will ever be published, so set goals for yourself, find ways to stay inspired and make the time to write. If you want to be a writer, write. The only thing that is second to that is to read.
That’s terrific advice. Can you tell us something about your personal life – inspirations, plans for the future, goals, etc.?
I am a mother of two boys and wife to a great man. They inspire me in so many ways. They make me want to be a better mom and a better wife, so that much said, I guess you could say one of my goals is to find ways to do that. Listen more, talk less, set my time aside for them more and make memories, instill in my boys a passion for life and pursuing their dreams. And I want to grow old with my husband.
I also love to challenge myself and have done a lot of running races, relays and a few triathlons in the past few years. My son, Patterson, and I made a resolution at the beginning of this year to run at least one race each month this year and one of those races we plan to do a half marathon. It will be my second, but his first and they are tough. I also plan to do another relay race which consists of 12 people on a team, running a 180 mile course in as little time as possible and once you start, you don’t stop. There is someone running all day and all night and well into the next day. It’s amazing. I could go on forever about my goals for challenging myself physically, but I’ll end with my crazy dream. So far all the triathlons I’ve done have been sprints for beginners. 1000 yard swim, 12 mile bike, and 5K run, but I’d really like to do a full Olympic distance, which is usually double the sprint and maybe someday, long down the road, I’d love to do the Kona Ironman.
For writing, I plan to have another book near completion in a few months and getting ready for publication by the end of this year. And to get at least one book published each year until I run out of ideas. I’d really love to be a full time writer, but that may have to wait until I get a few more books under my belt.
Do you have any new writing ventures underway?
I have quite a few. My current WIP is a standalone YA set in current day Paris. 17 year old Aubrey discovers a key which uncannily unlocks her past where she discovers her reincarnated self who she has to rescue to save her future. And of course along the way she finds intrigue, adventure, danger and love.
I also have a trilogy based on Mayan Gods in the mountains of Montana (I’m halfway through the first book), another fantasy about a fairy godmother with a completely new yet-to-be-done twist, my picture book revision and at least three more.
Wow! Such interesting projects! Do you have a website where readers can learn more about HONORABLE DISGRACE?