August 2015 Archives

The Last Child of Hamelin

lastchildhamelin.jpgThe Last Child of Hamelin (Spencer Hill, 2014) by Ray Ballantyne follows up on what happened after the Pied Piper took all the children.

It's 60 years later and twelve-year-old Pieter, sometimes just has to escape from Hamelin. Escape from his abusive father, from the other boys who pick on him, and from where he's forbidden to express the music that wells up inside of him. Up on the mountain he meets the old man Simon--the only child who didn't follow the piper--and Pieter hears the music of the piper himself.

I love how much the author has made me care about Pieter. I think you'll find yourself caring for him too in this intriguing fantasy.

I've met the author in person. You can visit Ray on his Facebook page and learn about him on his agent's website.


The Cabinet of Earths

CabinetofEarthsFront.jpgThe Cabinet of Earths (Harper 2012) by Anne Nesbet is a creepily good book. Here's the first line: "It was his own grandmother who fed Henri-Pierre to the Cabinet of Earths, long ago when he was only four." See what I mean about creepy? If you like fantasy, or spooky books, I think you'll like this one.

Chapter two takes off by introducing us to Maya Davidson, a 12-year-old from California who with her family is currently in France. She's interesting, smart and brave. Will she solve the mystery of the missing children and be able to protect her little brother from the danger facing him? Read it and find out.


Author Anne Nesbet's website is appropriately subtitled "curious books for curious people." There I found she has two other titles I need to check out!


BoxofGargoylesCover.png A Box of Gargoyles is a sequel to The Cabinet of Earths. Yea, more Maya!

wrinkledCrown_cvr.jpg The Wrinkled Crown is a stand alone coming out in November. Woo Hoo!


I also like this entry on Anne's blog: Shadows and Wonders: Or, Write Your Novel Like an Eclipse. It talks about seeing differently. Her comments are not just for writing, but for life!


The writing of a poem

The writing of a poem is like a child throwing stones into a mineshaft. You compose first, then you listen for the reverberation.
James Fenton

Write what should not be

Write what should not be forgotten.
Isabel Allende

Reducing Word Count

Reducing word count is especially important to magazine writers and to picture book writers since those types of writings have such low word counts. But, novelists have word limits, too. However, there are other reasons, besides the literal number, to cut words.

To my mind there are four areas to focus on for reducing word count.

First, cutting chaff.

photo courtesy of morguefile.com
grain & chaff.jpg

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Chaff from dictionary.com:
"the mass of husks, etc, separated from the seeds during threshing"
"something of little worth; rubbish (esp in the phrase separate the wheat from the chaff)"

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This applies to all types of writing. Pieces of chaff are those weasel words and overused words. Weasel words slip into our writing no matter what the topic. Some of my personal culprits are: so, then, that, just, really. Overused words I'm responsible for include: looked, turned, as. Here's authorculture's list of ten most overused words in fiction. This link includes overused phrases as well as words. I love this collection.

While searching for references, I found another meaning for weasel words in an article by Richard Nordquist: "A modifying word that undermines or contradicts the meaning of the word, phrase, or clause it accompanies, such as 'genuine replica.'" Or in other words, doublespeak, implying something that is not true or perhaps meaningless. Read the article here.

Adverbs are often chaff. If the verb is strong enough, is the right verb, you don't need a verb with a modifier. (e.g. dashed versus ran quickly.) But there's something else we do with adverbs and other phrases and that's water down our message. Again, turning to an article by Richard Nordquist, I like this definition of hedging: "In communication, a word or phrase that makes a statement less forceful or assertive." Read the examples, if not the whole article to spot hedge words and phrases.

Adjectives could be chaff, too. A specific noun is better than a nonspecific noun with an adjective. What creates a better picture in your mind? A big car or a Hummer? The big car ran into the small car versus The Hummer crashed into the Smart car--the latter makes me shudder.

Next area, passive writing.

Finding passive verbs and making them more active, not only cuts word count, but livens the reading. (e.g. was climbing versus climbed and started to pedal versus pedaled) I like what the University of Wisconsin says here about active versus passive. Be a Better Writer explains passive verbs and continuous verbs.

I'm going to add "seems" and "seemed" to this category, as well. "She seems to want the dog." "He seemed mad." You're the author. Does she want the dog or not? Was he mad or wasn't he? Are you wanting the reader to guess? It's also a form of telling. Let us hear what she thinks about the dog. Show us his anger. It may not actually cut words, but the writing will be stronger.

Third area, tightening.

Each time I reread what I've written, I find unnecessary words and/or phrases. (The original said: "I find words and/or phrases that are unnecessary." Two words cut.) Getting rid of unnecessary words does more than make sentences shorter. The meaning becomes clearer. The writing is less cluttered.

When I tighten, I might cut whole paragraphs or scenes. (First attempt, the sentence was: "When I tighten, I might also have whole paragraphs or scenes that aren't needed." Four words cut.) If a paragraph/scene doesn't "move the story forward," doesn't show character, or have important plot details, try reading the story without it and see if it leaves a hole or not.

Sometimes, we only need a simple transition instead of complete details. For example, "He jumped out of bed." versus "He yawned and rubbed his eyes. After scratching his armpit, the boy flipped back the covers, slid out of bed and landed on his feet." Yes, the latter is more interesting. But is it necessary to the scene? If every action is described in detail, then we'll also follow him to the dresser where he opens a drawer and pulls out underwear, a shirt and pants, and puts them on along with his socks and shoes. We could have a whole page before he gets downstairs to breakfast where there's conflict waiting. Repeat that every day of the story and the reader will be bored because nothing is happening.

In picture books, there's a special form of tightening. That's taking out what the illustrator will put in. We don't usually need to describe the character's outward appearance in the text--there will be a picture. Ditto, setting.

In picture books we also leave out things that are not important or slow down the story. I remember hearing Pat Zietlow Miller talking about her lovely book SOPHIE'S SQUASH. There's a marker in the book. Pat said she first had the marker being the marker that Sophie wasn't supposed to use. But the point of the marker is that it was used to draw a face on the squash. We don't need the marker's backstory. The drawn face on the squash is what is important.

We also don't explain in picture books. In MR. PUSSKINS: a love story by Sam Lloyd, the cat uses a phone and the little girl drives a car. Both work without any explanation or excuse.

The final area to cut is individual words in the next to final draft.

When you are almost done with the manuscript, look at each individual manuscript page and see if you can cut five words, or twenty words. I've heard this suggestion from a number of authors ranging from Peg Kehret to Linda Sue Park to Richard Peck. At a recent conference, Richard challenged us to make the first line of the story fit on one line. This tightening strengthens the punch of the words.

Hard work? Oh, yeah. But worth it.

People take different roads seeking

People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they're not on your road doesn't mean they've gotten lost.
H. Jackson Browne

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

Unusual-Chickens.jpgUnusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2015) written by Kelly Jones and illustrated by Katie Kath is a fun peek into Sophie Brown's experience with superpowered chickens. Written in letters, starting with one from twelve-year-old Sophie to Redwood Farm Supply requesting a catalog, which is way more fun than it sounds, to letters to her dead Abuelita and her dead Great Uncle Jim, whose farm the family is now living on, this story is a great read. You'll also find quizzes, to do lists, a correspondence course, and a bad typist. You'll meet a small white angry chicken, Agnes from Redwood Farm, a chicken thief, a mailman, a librarian, and even learn a bit about raising chickens yourself.

This story makes me smile every time I think about it. Debut author Kelly Jones makes me laugh on her website, too, with her witty comments about school visit experiences. Check it out: http://curiosityjones.net/. From there you can follow links to interviews with Kelly.

I think you'll also enjoy the delightful illustrations that add to this book. Illustrator Katie Kath is new to the field and already has a bunch of books lined up. Read about how her career got it's jump start and see what she's working on here: http://www.ktkath.com. Make sure you click on Kids and Middle Grade to see a variety of illustrations!


Castle Hangnail

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

castlehangnail.jpgIf you like fun fantasy, you'll like Castle Hangnail (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2015) by Ursula Vernon, who not only wrote the story, but did the illustrations.

The minions at Castle Hangnail are worried. If they don't get a master soon, the castle will be decommissioned. The ravens say someone is on the way, but no one expects it to be the twelve-year-old girl who shows up. Can she really be a wicked witch? Molly, the "evil" twin, has to convince them she is.

I loved the humor in this book. How can one not enjoy lines like these that open the story? "It was a marvelously dark and dour twilight at the castle. Clouds the color of bruises lay across the hills."

I also loved the characters from the nonhunchback guardian to the suit of armor and the minotaur cook to the doll made out of burlap, and, of course, Molly, the Wicked Witch, who is bad, er, good at being wicked.

Ursula Vernon is the author of the Dragonbreath books, too. Read more on her website: http://ursulavernon.com/.


Fairy tales are more than

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
G. K. Chesterton