April 2010 Archives

Our admiration of fine writing

Our admiration of fine writing will always be in proportion to its real difficulty and its apparent ease.
Charles Caleb Colton

Book Plus - Invisible i - The Amanda Project

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Invisible i - The Amanda Project (HarperTeen, 2009) by Melissa Kantor is an intriguing book with a plus--it has a website, www.theamandaproject.com, where fans can interact. And, I'm happy to say, the book has a sequel in the works.

Here's a brief introduction to the story:
9th grader Callie has problems at home and keeps thinking about how Amanda knows what those problems are. When she gets called into the office, she expects to see her dad. Instead the principal has two other students, Nia Rivera and Hal Bennett, and he accuses the three of them of helping Amanda vandalize his car. They barely know each other. But they all know Amanda and now she is missing.

Check out the author's fun website at www.melissakantor.com. There you can read the first chapter of this book, sign up for Melissa's newsletter, read about her other books, friend her on facebook and more.




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The generous Melissa Kantor has offered some goodies for my first ever contest. You could win a bookmark and Amanda Project button and best of all an Invisible i book! In fact, I'll take pick three winners.

How to enter:
1) If you don't see the comment option, click on the title of this entry and you'll be taken to another page, where at the bottom you should see "leave a comment." Sign in.

After you click on sign in, you may want to choose open ID and enter yahoo.com or google.com to sign in with your email. Others you can use to sign in are: LiveJournal, Flickr, Myspace, Blogger, Wordpress.com, Mixi, AOL, or Orange. Sorry movable type is not easier for commenting!

2) Briefly tell me about a time you met someone you didn't think you'd be friends with, yet you became friends. (Just like in the book!)
3) Check back on May 1st to see if you won. (Or you can include your email address and I'll contact you if you are the winner.)
4) Deadline April 30th at 9:00 am Central Time. (That's one week!)

I'll pick my favorite stories. If I have difficulty deciding between entries, I'll go by entry date and time.



The Amanda Project has been sold to 9 countries! Is that cool, or what?! Read about it here!

Standard Manuscript Format

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I recently judged a contest for adult writers writing for children. Unfortunately, a significant number of those entries did not use standard manuscript format. It's not difficult to find out how a manuscript should be formatted--it's in market books, on the Internet, in books about writing--but some writers are ignorant of the basics.

I was paid to read all the submissions even if they were in too small a font and/or not double spaced, or if paragraphs weren't indented. I can tell you, though, if I'd been an editor, those would have hit the recycle bin without any hesitation. I'd probably be more patient with narrow margins, although as an instructor, I do get frustrated when the margins are too narrow for me to write in. Does that frustrate editors, too? I'm guessing yes.

Surprisingly many articles--good ones, too--did not provide word count at the top of the manuscript. Again, a standard format practice. Yes, I could guess how many words a manuscript is by the number of pages . . . at least if the font isn't unusual or too small . . . but if I was a magazine editor, the word count might give me an indication right away whether the writer looked at my guidelines or not.

Some writers were trying too hard to impress . . . with the type of paper they used. Don't use résumé paper, watermark paper, paper with borders for manuscript submissions. Pay attention to what's more important--the content.

Over and over again I've heard editors and agents say that too many typos and misspellings says to them that the writer didn't care enough about what they've written. If the first page or two has errors why would it get better later? I didn't have the luxury of not reading on, but I can say the finalists had much fewer errors, if any.

So, if you care about your writing (why send it out if you don't!), make sure you follow the simple rules of standard manuscript format. Triple check for typos, spelling, and grammar errors. Give your material a chance to be read just by following the basics.

P.S. And for those not familiar with standard manuscript format, I'm providing it here. The text of my sample first page includes more tips. manuscript format.pdf

P.P.S. Oh, and please don't staple your manuscripts!

A new idea is delicate.

A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a joke or worried to death by a frown on the right person's brow.
Charles Brower

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If it was up to me The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z (Walker, 2009) by Kate Messner would be a Newbery winner. I absolutely loved this book.

7th grader Gianna loves to run, but is on probation for the sectionals cross-country track meet unless she gets her leaf project turned in on time for science, and she's barely started. Throw in family problems, sabotage, a friend being teased, death, and a funny little brother for a great mix. The author juggled issues on many levels and created believable characters. (Warning to writers: it's so good it may make you despair over your own writing... However, you'll see Gianna didn't give up, so why should you?)

Read more about the book and the author at www.katemessner.com/books.html Fun to have the sound on, too. You'll need it to watch the trailer anyway where authors talk about what kind of tree they'd be.

You can also become a fan on facebook.


The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z has been shortlisted for the E.B. White Read Aloud Award. Crossing my fingers for a win!


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Too long, needed to more quickly get to the point, didn't add to the story, wasn't enough of a comeuppance for the bad girl... The comments by the director about the deleted scenes for the movie The Princess Diaries (2001) are valuable reminders for editing our own stories. (Watch them on the DVD.) As I did, you'll probably find yourself agreeing, yes, that scene wasn't necessary. Or, yes, it's a stronger story without this one. The director even cut some of his favorite scenes to make a better movie.

Enabling us to produce better manuscripts is why critique groups exist. Watching the director commentary was almost like getting a bird's eye view of a critique from start to finish: the pre-critiqued version and the tightened, more focused version. For me, it gave me additional tools for looking at scenes in my own fiction. I learned these questions*:

• Does this add to the story?
• Does this get the emotional reaction I want?
• Am I getting to the main point here?
• Will the reader care about this?
• How does this make my main character appear?
• Is my antagonist getting what he deserves?
• Is this the right time for this relationship/problem to be resolved?

I shouldn't just ask these questions of myself, but ask my critique group to respond, too.

Does this mean I might have to cut a scene I like? Yes. Does this mean I'll have to do rewriting and reordering? Yes. Will it be worth it? YES! If my story goes out to an editor stronger, clearer, better focused, my odds of acceptance are increased.

*Variants of these questions may also be useful when critiquing others.

• What is the emotional reaction you want from this scene?
• Your main character seems rather useless here, is that what you want me to think?
• Do you think your villain is getting what he deserves here?
• Should these characters be getting along so well in this scene?

In addition to being more thought provoking, critique questions can also make a nice variation from "too long," "need to get to the point more quickly," etc. statements.

Got any other movie examples that help remind us what to edit in our own stories? Feel free to share them here.

You are never too old

You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.
C.S. Lewis

Critique Methods


In this scenario, each writer brings a manuscript for critique. Depending on the size of the group, it may be limited to 5 or 6 pages, or other groups use a timer. Hard copies may be brought for each critiquer to make notes. Otherwise, blank paper is needed. The writer or reader (can be someone besides the author) reads the manuscript aloud. The critiquers take turns commenting on what they found.

THE READER needs to say:

• what the piece is: an article, a short story, the opening of a novel, an essay, etc
• who the audience is: adults, children (if so, what age), secular or religious market
• if a specific market is in mind, say so (i.e. Highlights Magazine)
• word length
• MAY say, this is a first draft, but NOT apologize

1. Listen and write down comments as the piece is read--a simple way to note what you think is by using, plusses, minuses, and question marks. i.e.

+ flapping gums - lifeless cadaver
? why did Matthew .... + Amy's character
+ smashed - was walking is passive

2. Give a verbal presentation of their critique, stating something positive first (i.e. I like your idea, how you showed your character, the title, etc.)

3. Share areas of the writing that were confusing, that could be phrased better, etc.

4. Make marketing suggestions, if something comes to mind.

5. Don't repeat every thing that everyone else has already said, though feel to add "agree with" and/or "disagree with or I got that" on written notes on manuscript. May say, after saying something positive, "the only thing I have to add is . . ." If you disagree with another's comments and feel it needs to be said aloud, say so nicely.

6. Give written comments to the reader when done.

The next READER passes out manuscripts and reads. Everyone gets an opportunity. Many leaders keep track of the order of readers presenting from meeting to meeting, so someone isn't always first or last.

Some groups send material ahead of time to each member to read so the time together is only spent sharing comments.

Groups often form long-lasting relationships. But sometimes a group is not a match. Try another group.


Online critique groups work similarly, but have special needs, especially the notating on the manuscript itself. There are several methods that make it easy to do however.

• If all members of group use Microsoft Word (and similar versions), the commenting option is a great way to put reader's comments in a manuscript. Each member will save the pages being critiqued with their own name added to the file name, so the writer knows who wrote which critique in case of questions.
• Other groups might use a combination of highlighting (i.e. green for what the critiquer likes and yellow for areas of concern) with comments typed in CAPS to separate them from the manuscript. Text boxes can be used as well for comments.

Usually with either of these methods, every member of the group sees general comments in email, but only the writer sees the line-by-line comments. In either case, both general comments and manuscript notations will include positive as well as negative.

Some groups use an online work space, such as google docs or pbworks, to upload documents and post comments so everyone in the group can see others' comments.


You may also find that a particular person in one of your groups is especially good at helping you in an area of weakness. Perhaps you can do one-on-one critique exchanges with each other.

In my case one critique group had been telling me that I needed to share more of my character's emotions. I'd look at my chapters and think, Where?! I met another gal who read a chapter and said, "I want to know what she is thinking/feeling here." She told me exactly where in the manuscript. The proverbial light bulb clicked on. She was willing to read the entire manuscript in exchange for the same from me. Her input was invaluable.

Some people find someone to do a critique exchange via an online writers group, or at a writers workshop or conference. If you don't know someone well, always agree to a trial of either a chapter or so many pages, instead of promising to exchange complete manuscript novels. Make sure you each find the other person's comments helpful before proceeding.

Don't use words too big

Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say "infinitely" when you mean "very"; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
C.S. Lewis