The holidays are here and first and foremost, I want to thank you all for being loyal readers and friends.
I love bringing craft knowledge to this blog. In fact, I love teaching so much that I’m putting more energy into creating content that I hope will help you fulfill your dreams. Whether you hope to one day see your work in print, or just need to get the manuscript of your dreams on the page, my goal is to help you make that happen.
In the Short Term
That’s one reason why I have opened this offer to you: what I (with a bit of a merry twinkle) call my Jolly Jumpstart. This a chance for you to gift yourself an editorial eye on your writing, plus a craft workbook that you can use again and again.
For half my usual fee (only $155.) you receive:
my Story Heart Workbook
my editorial response to your answers in the Workbook
my editorial response to your manuscript’s first 30 pages
a credit of the full amount toward any one of my in-planning craft classes
But this special offer expires on December 25, so please don’t wait! Click the button with no obligation:
This tailored, high-touch, high-value online course will lead you through the craft instruction you need to write your middle grade or young adult novel. Each module provides deep insight into all aspects of storytelling. Homework will be returned weekly with my comments, and once each month you’ll be invited to join a Zoom meeting featuring a live analysis of one or two students’ homework, plus an open Q&A. The final homework assignment, your first 50 manuscript pages, will receive line edits and an edit letter from me.
The course lasts a total of 24 weeks.
The modules include discovery, character, plot, world-building, revision, and querying. The last includes insights into the publishing industry and recommended next steps.
My masterclass will take your writing to the next level
You’ll finish this 6-month program with a foundation in the craft of novel-writing plus personalized feedback, and you’ll meet a cohort of colleagues with whom you can continue your creative journey.
I spent two years and tens of thousands of dollars receiving my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and while I deeply value that experience, not everyone can afford that kind of time and money. My course distills the knowledge I’ve amassed over my successful 20-year career.
You’ve probably heard that the way to improve your writing is to have partners who will read your work and give you feedback. Yes, that’s certainly true, and I’ve had excellent partners through the years.
But good critique partners can be hard to find, and matching up with the wrong partner or partners can actually be detrimental to your writing.
In this post, I’m going to discuss (a) what makes for a good critique group and (b) what other forms of feedback you might use.
…are not all equal. Writers who are inexperienced in critiquing may not be able to tell you, in a way that helps you, what’s working or not. Here are some tips.
Try to find critique partners at the same writing stage you are in, or a little above your stage.
Try to find critique partners who write what you write in terms of genre and audience age.
Try to find critique partners who understand that they are not rewriting your book for you, and that the most helpful feedback is specific. Example: “In your opening pages, I’m not sure what your character really wants, what their story goal is.” Or, “In this paragraph, you’ve changed points of view.”
Set up a regular time to meet, weekly, biweekly, monthly.
Share equally. Everyone gets a turn.
Limit the amount of time given to any one submission.
I’ve found it most effective to share only a small portion at a time. Ten pages is about anyone’s limit for good feedback.
Reading aloud is hard. Personally, I have to read the pages myself to give good feedback. In my groups, we’ve either brought work and all read silently, or sent work ahead for feedback when we meet.
And where do you find good critique partners? SCBWI meetings are a great place to start. If you meet someone and bond with them, and they fit the criteria above, that’s a sure winner.
Don’t be afraid to say when it isn’t working. There’s nothing more destructive than bad critiques – I’ve known writers to quit after brutal or insensitive feedback.
Other Types of Feedback
There are other ways to get feedback, and these are the paid options.
Developmental editors: if you Google that term, you’ll find dozens of people who do what’s called developmental editing. This is broad brush feedback, generally in the form of a long edit letter with no line edits.
Online courses: some are structured to group participants so that they can work through course exercises together. That may not lead to specific feedback, but it might lead to meeting someone who is a good match for a critique partner.
Book coaches: this is what I do. It’s longer term personalized feedback, with line edits and specific discussion, through either writing a novel from scratch or revising a full novel, all over the span of time that’s needed.
Copy editors: if you’re confident of your writing skills but not your grammar, it’s easy to hire a copy editor who will do everything from grammar check to internal consistency (i.e., did you get your timeline out of order? Are your strangely spelled names always spelled the same?)
My Upcoming Masterclass
After a lot of research, I’m finally in real planning for my masterclass in writing the middle grade or young adult novel. This will be a high touch, limited enrollment class, and here’s the good news: much of the course material will be at your fingertips, forever. And, bonus, I plan to create cohort groups of students, which may lead students to long-term critique partners.
I can’t wait to share the details – I’m hoping to launch the course in March 2023 at the latest. If you’d like to be kept informed with no obligation, click here (and though it says middle grade, I’m expanding to include young adult):
A couple of weeks ago I addressed plot, and how the Save The Cat template is useful for sketching out the bones of a story. But there’s more to this idea of creating a skeleton, for stories (with the exception of metafiction) share a common structure.
This structure is based upon the concept of turning points, which is, in turn, based upon that human experience called life.
What Are Turning Points?
Turning points are places in a plot where the action “turns” due to something the character does (or fails to do). That turn is sharp, and completely opposite what is expected. For example, when in The Hunger Games Katniss’s sister Prim is chosen for Tribute, and Katniss jumps in and volunteers in order to save Prim, that moment in chapter 1 is the first turning point in the story.
Two things happen at any turning point. First, tension increases due to the 180 degree change in direction of the plot. Second, the turning point exists because of what the main character does (or fails to do), and her action will lead to what happens next.
Naming the Points
The first turning point in any story is usually called the inciting incident. Each of the subsequent turning points in a plot have been given various names bestowed on those spots by various authors of story craft, names such as plot point one, midpoint, plot point two, and so on. Regardless of what they are named, these turning points do align, as you can see from my plot paradigm compilation here.
You can download this plot paradigm
Aristotle was the first writer to name the points of a story, and his simple 3-act structure forms the basis for all the rest. In 1863, Gustav Freytag created a paradigm that looks like a pyramid, with the climax forming the top of the pyramid. Christopher Vogler created the “hero’s journey” paradigm, which takes the shape of a circle. Martha Alderson created a paradigm that adds the value of rising tension to the linear changes of the three act structure. And Blake Snyder broke the structure down into finer turning points in Save The Cat.
The most interesting thing about turning points is that they reveal that story structure is ingrained in the human subconscious. Our lives are made up of turning points based on our personal choices in the moment. In story-telling, the author makes use of turning points to focus on how often a small decision, made in an instant, can change the course of a life or many lives.
The Importance of Turning Points
Why do we need to understand turning points? Because they define a moment of real change.
Stories do not bump along in “this happened and then this happened” fashion. When they do, we stop reading. If you want to use turning points consciously, find a paradigm that you like and use it. Not religiously – there’s no need for something to happen on page xx, exactly. But if, after your first draft, you can identify those moments when your character does something that changes everything that follows, see if those moments align more or less with the story structure defined in the pattern illustrated here.
And if your character is missing a turning point, you’ll add both tension and a causal trajectory to your story by creating that turning point scene.
I’ve used almost every paradigm I mentioned, but my current favorite is Save The Cat. What’s your favorite paradigm, or which would you like to try?
When I was a kid, Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. But it wasn’t a big deal. Stores didn’t stock massive numbers of spooky decorations; we had to make our own costumes; pumpkins were carved but also eaten. When we went trick-or-treating we stayed in our own neighborhood, walked with friends (parents in tow), and generally laughed our way through the experience of surprising someone with a good costume rather than caring about the treats.
Today Halloween decorations come out in August (and to my horror – seriously – I’ve already seen Christmas décor for sale). Consumption seems to rule, whether it’s candy or decorations. We Americans are really into Spooky Season. So much so that the town of Salem, MA, home of the famous Salem witch trials is inundated with tourists (100,000 a day at last count) who don’t realize that it’s an actual town, not a theme park.
Yes, and reading spooky stories can be an experience. I remember reading the original DRACULA by Bram Stoker, one winter night alone, sitting in a high-backed chair before the fireplace, and feeling like I didn’t want to leave that chair because it gave me protection from whatever might be behind me. Yet I kept reading, feeling the chills, savoring the masterful building of suspense.
When I listen to my fellow authors during our school visits, I nod in agreement with this: scary tales are useful. By reading about things that scare us, we can face down those fears. After all, we can put the book down and walk away; but we can also learn how to master fear, how to cope with “monsters”, how to even laugh at the things that seemed so terrible before we read about them.
I do believe in limits to spookiness for middle grade readers. I would never write true terror (I don’t read it, either), or bloody scenes, or violence. I happen to think the best horror, the scariest stuff, comes from inside and is psychological, and that, too, needs boundaries for middle grade.
Want To Write Spooky?
If you want to write spooky books for middle grade, here are a bunch of great books to read. Spooky is definitely having a day – kids love it, teachers and librarians are searching for it, and well-written spooky books last a long time on the bookshelves. Scare the kid inside of you silly and you’ll find your way into a fun book to read and write.
And Last Chance for This Spooky Giveaway!
My ARTIFACT HUNTERS companion booklet, SECRETS OF THE SAIU, will disappear at the stroke of midnight on Halloween. Don’t wait to get yours today!
That’s a question I get all the time. And the answer is…every time is different. I’ve written novels completely on the fly, I’ve written them using templates, I’ve written them through 35 revisions and through 5.
Years ago when it was first invented I discovered Scrivener, and because it was developed for Mac users mainly and that’s me, I adopted it early and learned to love it. I confess I’ve only scratched the surface of its cleverness (check out all the YouTube videos for instructions). But I do love the ability to write a book in a manner that then lets me move things around – chapters, scenes, etc. – and keep track of my world and characters.
Of course I have to transfer everything into Word at some point, because that’s how editors use track changes, but I like that step in the process, too. I use it as a revision/rewriting moment.
The best news? It’s really inexpensive. (I’m not getting any kickbacks for this promo – I just love the tool!)
How To Use the Tool
Jen gives clear instructions on uploading and using the template in Scrivener and she also provides support if you have issues. Note that I am a Mac user, which may help; those of you using Windows may need to jump through a few more hoops.
In my case, as someone who likes to write organically, I started with a five-page summary of the story I’m working on, trying to bring as much detail into the idea as possible and clearly outlining my main characters and theme, and listing comparable titles. When I was happy with that, I moved to the template.
I created a file for the novel and then for each beat in the template – really amounting to each scene – I wrote only a one-sentence description based on that summary. I found that as I added more scenes I ended up adding more details and fun twists, but I didn’t try to go deep with the outline.
Now I’m working through the beats/scenes and fleshing them out, and this way of working has made my writing much faster. Those of you going for NaNoWriMo https://nanowrimo.org/ may truly benefit from using this template.
A Spooky Reminder
I know you must want the Secrets of the SAIU! If you’ve read or will purchase The Artifact Hunters, click the button below to download this super fun booklet that features magical gifts and magical artifacts. This download vanishes into the ghostly mist at midnight on Halloween!
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov
What do we mean when we say, “show, don’t tell”? Lately I’ve had to help writers with this concept, so I thought I’d share here. I’ll attempt to give you some clear pointers, definitions, and concrete examples. Let’s start with definitions.
Scene and Summary
The building blocks of plot in a story are scenes and summaries.
Scene: A scene is any continuous moment, in the same setting and through a single point in time (lasting anywhere from seconds to minutes), in which characters act and interact. Internal emotions of the main character are clear but expressed in metaphor or with physical details. Internal emotions of the secondary character(s) are also clear but as seen through the main character. Scenes in modern fiction are much longer than summaries.
Example of scene:
Jim thrust the flowers at Carol.
“Daisies!” she said, stuffing her nose into the bunch. “How did you know?”
Jim shuffled. Now that his hands were empty, he didn’t know what to do with them. “Um, how’d I know what?”
“That they’re my favorites, silly.” Carol smiled.
“I didn’t. That is,” and he stuffed his fists into his pockets, “I mean, you look like a daisy. Or, er, they remind me of you.” Heat crept across his neck. Any minute now he’d burst into flames.
Summary: A summary is a short passage that summarizes thoughts and actions of a single character.
Example of summary:
Jim wished he could tell her how he felt. He wished he had more confidence. He wished, oh, for pity’s sake, he didn’t know really what he wished for, except to be with her. As he paid for the flowers, he gripped the bunch tight. Somehow, he knew that daisies were just the ticket.
In each scene, action is essential whether through dialogue or physical gesture. The reader feels fully present when reading a scene. In each summary, the character may think and feel and act but the moment is summarized, and the reader will often skim.
Showing, rather than telling, is active and engages the reader more deeply in your story and showing in scene is critical to writing good modern literature.
To create a plot, you will create a series of scenes, with perhaps a few summaries sprinkled in. Each scene should stand alone, and be visually separated either as its own chapter, or by an internal chapter break to cue the reader that the scene has ended and a new one is beginning.
Concrete Ways to Show
Get rid of basic sensory words.
Words/phrases like “I saw”, “I felt”, “I heard”, etc. filter the action and tell the reader what is happening rather than show the reader. Replace these filter words with strong verbs and nouns.
Telling: “I felt scared in the dark room as I heard the wind.”
Showing: “Branches scratched the glass as the wind moaned. Shadowscrept from the corners, and I shivered in the icy air.”
2. Don’t explain emotions
Using words like “happy”, “sad”, “excited” is a weak way to express your character’s inner life. Show your character’s feelings by understanding how the human mind and body react to situations. In particular, seek out physical manifestations of emotion.
Telling: “I was elated.”
Showing: “As I danced around the room I burst out in giggles. I thought I would sprout wings. He loved me!”
3. Do enlist verbs and nouns that evoke emotions
From this example “Shadowscrept from the corners, and I shivered in the icy air” you can see that the verbs “crept” and “shivered” evoke the emotion of fear, as does the word “shadows” Replace all weak verbs and nouns in your sentences with strong nouns and active verbs.
4. Don’t use passive voice
Passive voice is distancing and tends to lean toward telling rather than showing. In addition to passive, try to avoid using the helping verb “was” with a past participle (any verb plus “-ing”).
Example: “The dog was chasing the ball” is passive, telling, and distant. “The dog leapt at the ball” is active and showing.
Scenes should occupy 80% of your narrative; summaries no more than 20%. Print out 10 to 20 pages of your manuscript and use highlighters or colored markers to outline scenes in one color, summaries in another. If the balance is off, revise, and make note going forward.
Using the “find/replace” feature in Word, search for filter words like “feels/felt”, “hears/heard”, “sees/saw”, etc. Replace them with more active verbs and/or rephrase.
Using the same feature, search for “There is/was” and rephrase the sentence.
Reread your manuscript out loud, looking for the clear images that your mind creates when you enter a scene. If the image is vague, you may be summarizing/telling. Revise.
As you revise, act out scenes as if you are on stage. Literally get up out of your chair and move around in space, gesturing as if you are the character. Use those gestures in your writing.
When you write an emotional scene, sit back and imagine yourself in that scene. What are you feeling? Is your skin prickling? Is your mouth dry? Heart pounding? Breath short? Fists clenched? There are a million ways to physically react to an emotion. Show those in your scenes.
On each page of your manuscript, run a check to see how many specific sensory details you have mentioned. Smell is often overlooked yet is an important if subtle thing we experience every day. Check for things seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted.
If you are struggling with your writing career – whether you have imposter syndrome, or are getting tons of rejections, or have the feeling that you’ll never write anything as good as the last book you read – you are surely fighting fears. I know these fears so well.
In the “before times”, our local SCBWI chapter hosted Dan Gemeinhart as a speaker. At the time he had four books for young readers out and another on the way. He’s a sweet guy, a former teacher and librarian in a small school, and gave a series of short lectures on his process. But what I remember most clearly was his publishing journey.
Dan confessed that he had been writing for years and submitting to agents (in his website he says that this journey was 10 years long), and received 99 (yes! 99!) rejections before he landed his agent and then a publishing deal. That’s a lot of rejection, a lot of fear-facing, a huge heap of persistence.
Now, Dan writes wonderful books, popular, with starred reviews and well-received, but his most recent – just out – has hit the lists in a big way. It’s number one on the New York Times Bestseller List in Children’s. When I read his Tweet I thought back to that 100th submission over 10 years.
What if he’d caved into his fears and stopped submitting?
Keep Calm and Carry On
How do we fight those fears and keep writing and submitting when it feels hopeless? Here are my strategies for carrying on:
Analyze the rejection. If an agent or publisher says “it’s not right for me”, don’t take that as good feedback on your work. That’s a personal (or really impersonal) response. But if an agent or publisher has actual feedback, listen. It might not be spot on, but it may be flagging something that isn’t working, something that you can fix.
Be patient. The post-Covid publishing world is in turmoil. Between supply chain issues, remote work, publishing house consolidations, and many folks leaving the industry, response times are longer than ever.
Attend conferences and book critiques at those conferences. I met both of my agents at SCBWI conferences, and landed my first one after receiving a critique with her at a conference. I have always found inspiration and made friends at conferences. A connection with another writer may springboard you to success.
Write from your heart. The best stories are those that mean the most to you. Always write from deep in your heart. Write from a place of love.
Face Your Fears With Joy
Me at the top!
In the past few weeks I was on a demanding journey, a hiking tour of Scotland. I walked way more than I thought I could, averaging 5 to 7 miles a day. But the biggest moment for me was ascending a high peak, and standing as close as I could to the edge because I have crippling vertigo. It was a moment of triumph – a moment of joy.
Don’t cave into your fears, but face them. Keep going. Dan says this on his website: “I don’t believe in giving up and don’t think that you should, either.”
PS – A cool giveaway for you!
If you have read THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS, or would like to and you buy it now, I have a gift for you! It’s an awesome guide to magical artifacts and magical gifts, and I had a ton of fun writing it. Click the link to download it now!
As you writers know, that was a tough time to launch a book, even though people were reading a lot. Because, discoverability. That happens when you walk into your favorite bookseller and see something you didn’t know you wanted, and you walk away with a copy.
So I’m giving THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS a small push. I’ve made a really amazing giveaway book, and I’d like you to have it.
What Is It?
Well, if you’ve read the novel, you’ll know that the kids of Rookskill Academy have formed a school: the SAIU, or “Special Alternative Intelligence Unit” of MI 6, the British Intelligence. These kids are honing their superpowers in order to collect and guard potentially dangerous artifacts.
And I’ve made a small book about these kids and the artifacts, called
“Secrets of the Special Alternative Intelligence Unit: Magical Superpowers and Magical Artifacts”
Here’s a snapshot:
If you would like one of these booklets, all you need to do is to buy, or have bought, THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS in any format, from anywhere, and then, click this button:
Here we are, on this magical, mysterious day to celebrate the launch of…(drumroll)…DAYBREAK ON RAVEN ISLAND by Fleur Bradley! Look at all these guests! And all this glitter! Golly!
I’m making my way now to the talented Fleur for an interview. Fleur, oh, Fleur! Hi there! I hope you’ll let me ask you a few questions, starting with this one…
This party venue is perfect! Tell us why you chose it.
You know, there’s nothing like an abandoned prison and a flock of ravens to set the mood… Also, there are always plenty of ghosts—er, guests to make for a hoppin’ party without having to send out invitations. They just show up.
You look fantastic. Who are you wearing?
Thanks! I decided to wear my best cargo pants, so I have plenty of room for flashlights, skeleton keys to mysterious locked doors, and my phone of course.
Spectacular, and I love the feathers sticking out from the pockets! I see all the yummy goodies over there. What kinds of treats are you serving?
It’s been a challenge to get good food to Raven Island, but I made the best of it. There’s some canned soup and day-old bread for dinner, and I think there might be a random energy bar floating around. Of course I did bring cupcakes. It’s no party until there’s cake…
Now, of course, every party must have a theme. How would you describe yours?
I would say it’s Alfred Hitchcock meets the Twilight Zone… Watch out! The ravens come swooping down sometimes, especially when you’re trying to eat a cupcake. There’s a raven leader named Poe; watch out for her.
Ooo, Poe. The master of Ravenhood. Now for party favors! What are you giving away?
There’s a whole ring of old skeleton keys—Tori, Marvin and Noah tell me they unlock the secret to Raven Island. You can take one, if you think you can survive the night on Raven Island. There’s also an old diary that holds a lot of secrets to a prison break long ago, but I wouldn’t touch that if I were you.
And games! Let’s play!
Tori is all about playing soccer, but there’s no soccer ball to be found. She’s a little cranky about that. We’re playing ‘run from the ghosts,’ ‘duck from the ravens,’ and ‘what does that key unlock?’
Seriously, now, give us the skinny on your book. All the bells and whistles.
All kidding aside (that was pretty fun, though), here’s the book jacket description of Daybreak on Raven Island. It’s out on August 23rd, and I hope you’ll consider reading it!
From the critically acclaimed author of Midnight at the Barclay Hotel comes a thrilling new middle grade mystery novel inspired by Alcatraz Prison.
Tori, Marvin, and Noah would rather be anywhere else than on the seventh-grade class field trip to Raven Island prison. Tori would rather be on the soccer field, but her bad grades have benched her until further notice; Marvin would rather be at the first day of a film festival with his best friend, Kevin; and Noah isn’t looking forward to having to make small talk with his classmates at this new school.
But when the three of them stumble upon a dead body in the woods, miss the last ferry back home, and then have to spend the night on Raven Island, they find that they need each other now more than ever. They must work together to uncover a killer, outrun a motley ghost-hunting crew, and expose the age-old secrets of the island all before daybreak.
Fleur Bradley has loved puzzles and (scary) mysteries ever since she first discovered Agatha Christie novels. She’s the author of numerous mysteries for kids, including Midnight at the Barclay Hotel, which was on many award lists, including the Reading the West, Agatha and Anthony Awards, Sasquatch Award, and won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award, Sunshine State Young Readers Award and the Colorado Book Award.
A reluctant reader herself, Fleur regularly does librarian and educator conference talks on ways to reach reluctant readers. Originally from the Netherlands, she now lives in Colorado with her family and entirely too many rescue animals. Find out more about Fleur at http://www.ftbradley.com and follow her on Twitter @FTBradleyAuthor.