Recently in The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing Category

Underwriting

absorbed-2409314_1280.pngI have a tendency to be an underwriter. I'll write brief summaries, or transitions, of things I shouldn't. My critique group will say they want to know the details of what happened. It's usually a "doh" moment for me. Of course I should write that out as a scene.

Also, I often don't go deeply enough into my characters or into my characters' emotions. What are they thinking, feeling, experiencing? What are their dreams and hopes and worries? What are their flaws and bad habits? How is he/she reacting to what the other characters do and say? Am I only showing the outward stuff? The obvious stuff? C.S. Lakin says, "Every emotion we wear on our skin is an outward manifestation of something deeper." And "By skipping the obvious feelings, you can catch your reader off guard."

I've made the mistake of trying to use flashbacks in the opening of a novel to show more emotion, but these simple words from a roundtable critique in October--stay in the scene--will definitely be a help to me. Once the editor said it, I knew she was right. In the beginning of a book especially I need to remember to stay in the scene. Now to go back and fix that novel opening and others.

Underwriting can be generic writing. The events aren't happening any specific place with its own quirks, with a unique cast of characters, with problems that will be solved only the way these characters can solve them. The reader also might not have any clues to the time period of the story.

Some underwriters might leave out taglines and beats making it difficult to know who is talking in a conversation. This also means the characters can appear to be standing in front of a white board. The reader doesn't know what the characters are doing while they talk or what's around them.

If a writer fails to give characters the tools or skills they need to solve the problem that's another form of underwriting. When the character pops out with the tool or skill, the reader isn't prepared and the scene doesn't ring true.

The same for decision making. Readers want and need to see the process the character goes through when making a decision. Rachel Starr Thomson says, "We feel in response to things we're thinking. So do our characters. If you can show what they are thinking, nine times out of ten you can make an emotional connection with your readers."

I read where Elizabeth Silvers said, "sketch out the skeletal" and that made sense to me too. Put some muscle and skin and hair on the skeleton of a story if you're an underwriter.

Any other underwriters out there? If so, what are your tricks and tips? I'd love to see them in the comments.


Overwriting - Take Two

chaos-227971_1280.jpgHave you ever read a piece that explains every detail down to the smallest minutia? Where you find yourself skimming or skipping ahead to the action? I've seen movies that spend too long on backstory or unimportant details, too. Both make me want to say, "get on with the story!" What you're reading/seeing is overwriting.

It can be like this picture which is so cluttered, you're not sure where to focus. Readers like white space on the page.

So how do you avoid overwriting? Watch out for the following:

Excessive adjectives and adverbs. Use stronger nouns and stronger verbs and many of these descriptive words become unnecessary.

Filler words usually don't add to the story and can become especially annoying. Sometimes this happens when a writer is trying to make dialogue "just like the real thing." No one wants to read a recording of a conversation with the falters, sidetracks, filler words, and repetition for enjoyment.

Explaining too much. Technical, historical, and political descriptions can bog down writing. In an effort to be accurate, we can over explain.

In dialogue, if it looks like a lecture versus a conversation, it's probably overwritten.

In an action scene, repeated details often slow down the action. If the description directly impacts the character, go for it. Otherwise, don't. Say we have a person in a boat in a storm. Repeatedly describing the clouds above them or the specifications of the boat doesn't take the reader far. However, we do want to know the wave flings them against the rail. The pain when a rib cracks. The gasping for air the moment the water recedes. The taste of salt. The roar of the wind.

Mary Kole says this about overwriting, "Basically, it's a sense that the prose (and the writer behind it) is trying too hard to get their point across or impress the reader." This can be telling the reader the same thing over and over and over, which makes me want to say, "I got it the first time." Or it can be lots of big words that are simply too fancy. It can also include convoluted sentence structure that gets the reader lost. This kind of writing is often called "purple prose."

In this post, "Avoid Overwriting - Subtle is More Sophisticated," Jodie Renner mentions "extreme reactions and over-the-top emotions" as overwriting. That makes me think of Anne of Green Gables and her teacher chewing her out for all her exclamation points. :-)

When I'm editing/critiquing a manuscript and see overwriting, I find myself writing "too much" or "tighten." A writer may be modeling their prose on older styles of writing, but we need to remember the modern audience usually wants something that moves more quickly.

Examples

The Literary Lab has some fun examples of overwriting on this blog post.


Recreating

idea-152213_1280.png
We see the word recreating and usually think "kicking back" or doing something for the enjoyment of it, as in recreation, and that's true.

But, what if we pronounce the word re-creating?

Re-creating could be a "big picture" look at a novel. Sometimes, we honestly know a manuscript we've written isn't working. Sometimes, it's our critique group, agent, or an editor who points out big problems. Either way, re-creating can include slashing scenes/chapters, or creating brand new ones. We might need to re-create our character, who is either too flawed or not flawed enough, or not likable enough. We might have to re-create plot, or fix the tension or chronology in the story. It might take starting the story in a different place or at a different time. We may be restoring the story to fit the bright shiny vision we first had. Re-creating might change the whole story into a different shape. It may feel like going backwards. But if the end result is a better story, it's worth it. I love this quote: "Don't hold onto a mistake just because it took a long time to make." -Lucy Ruth Cummins

Once the overall story is working well, then we can move on to scene by scene revisions. With this step, we might be strengthening our characters, going deeper into their emotions and motives. Perhaps we're adding in sensory details that ground the reader or removing unnecessary description. Is a conversation compelling or is there trite dialogue that needs to be cut? Is everything in a scene necessary? If not, take it out.

Next is revising individual paragraphs and line by line editing. We refresh tired words, overused phrases, and check the pacing of our sentences. It might include tightening. Our goal is to make the words stronger, clearer, and more compelling. Here's a great quote I found on twitter: "I keep going over a sentence. I nag it, gnaw it, pat and flatter it." -Janet Flanner

We may not do our revising in such separate steps, but however it's done, it's necessary. I like what Linda W. Jackson says, "First drafts are paper plates. After many revisions, they become fine china." Now that's quite the re-creation!

Recently I was recreating, as on vacation, where I got to add another state to my list of those visited. Which reminds me that sometimes it's time to visit a new project--not just return to those we've written before, or those in progress. In that case we are re-creating the story from our mind onto the page or screen. (At least if you're like me, they're always different in my imagination than what ends up in actual words.)

Sometimes, we're re-creating ourselves as we try something new. I remember hearing Kirby Larson talk about taking a poetry class while working on a novel. That something new helped her write her Newbery Honor book Hattie Big Sky.

And back to the usual definition of recreating. We do all need time away from our writing so that we can come back refreshed and ready to go.


Rejections

no-1532838_1920.jpegRejections are subjective. I know that. I only have to think about books I loved that a friend didn't like or one they loved that I didn't like. We all have our own tastes and even moods. But when our manuscript is rejected it often doesn't feel subjective. We often feel as if we've failed.

When those feelings strike me, I have to remember how many published books I read where the story didn't grab me. Or something turned me off. And these books were loved by an editor willing to spend a lot of time with the manuscript. They've been supported by a publishing company as a whole. So if published books can fail an individual, why I am I surprised when my own unpublished manuscript does?

At first page and roundtable critique sessions, I've seen how editors and agents just haven't connected with the writing of a specific piece. One person might "get it" and the others not. Or the panel is split on whether they'd read on.

Ever had rejections that said, "I just didn't love it enough."? I have. Some agents/editors have told me things to work on; others haven't. They are a reminder that I need to keep trying. If you're getting personal rejections, keep on.

But what if you aren't getting any personal rejections? That means it's time to step back and look at your writing.

Many years ago at the SCBWI LA Conference--2009 to be exact--Editor Wendy Loggia shared "seven 7 reasons why your manuscript is declined." They included:


  • nice writing, but no story

  • too similar to something else she'd edited or in the market place

  • unclear who the audience would be

  • can't connect to the voice

  • book submitted too early before it was ready

  • project would not stand out on the house list

  • the author is difficult to deal with (Yes, many editors and agents check your social media.)


What she concluded with was "If I can't give a book my heart and soul, I won't acquire it." But note how many of the reasons above are something we have control over: a good story, a clear audience, a professional manuscript, a good attitude.

Here are some tips garnered from a variety of agents and editors that deal with what we control:


  • put your best foot forward - fix those typos and grammar errors

  • have a good hook

  • show, don't tell

  • Editor Nick Thomas says, "Don't make the first chapter too long."

  • have an intimacy with your characters

  • remember cliffhangers make good chapter endings

  • don't write to trends

  • be passionate about your project

  • got voice? "Always it's the voice that gets me... The way it makes me feel," says Editor Christy Ottaviano.

  • make sure your plot is solid

  • share big truths

  • provide opportunity for emotional engagement

And for the querying itself:


  • research the agent(s) you are querying

  • follow submission instructions

  • get the agent or editor's name right

  • write a good query/cover letter

  • provide good comp titles - this is one of my weaknesses

  • keep your letter to one page

Also, don't forget that you aren't alone in getting rejections.

"At times the rejections did get to me, but the will to write always triumphed over the disappointment of rejection." - Karen Hesse

Shannon Hale said, "I've published 20+ books, the last 10 or so of which have all been best sellers, and I still get rejections. All the time."

"Rejection isn't a sign of failure. Rejection is a reminder that there's always room for improvement." - Ana Hart

Kathryn Stockett said, "I can't tell you how to succeed. But I can tell you how not to: Give in to the shame of being rejected."

Let's not be ashamed. Let's press on.


How Do I Scare My Readers?

scaredsilh.pngBruce Hale aka the Writer Guy was asked these questions:

"I would like to hear from you, what tips can you give me for horror stories, whether novel or short story? How do I bring that horror feel to life? How can I keep my readers from sleeping for a few nights? How do I achieve the fear factor?"

And is allowing me to share his answers here:

Having just finished a horror series for kids (The Monstertown Mysteries), this topic is fresh in my mind. Creating a sense of horror is all about the expectation of something awful happening. As Alfred Hitchcock said, "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it."

From early on in your story, you should plant the seed in the reader's mind that all is not well in this world, and then with each turn of the page, you bring that horror closer and closer. How? Here are four techniques:

1. Hide the monster
Take a tip from scary movies, and have the *effects* of the creature/ghost/whatever turn up much earlier than the creature itself does. You'll notice we don't see the shark in JAWS until well into the film. There's a reason for that. Spielberg knows that the longer we delay the actual monster sighting, the more punch it will pack.

2. Mislead the reader
Be sure to employ a few red herrings, spots where you make us think that the creature is about to appear but it turns out to be the cat, a neighbor, or whatever. This can also be used if your hero is trying to figure out what's behind the spooky happenings. Have them initially suspect the wrong people.

3. Hook 'em over and over
Horror is all about hooks. Your concept should hook your reader from the get-go. But that's not the only hook to employ. Rather than having chapter endings resolve an issue, have them hook as well. End each chapter on a cliffhanger note of suspense, the equivalent of "and then..." in a picture book. Try this technique and you'll have your readers flipping pages like mad.

4. Play on your fears
Have the source of horror in your story be something that particularly frightens your hero. If they're clown-phobic, have them face sadistic clowns. If they're kitten-phobic, have them encounter Evil Fluffy. Bonus points if you can draw from your own fears when building your hero. Because the more you feel it when you're writing, the more your readers will feel it when they read.


MantisCover4.jpghat-club-fedora.jpgBruce Hale is the author-illustrator of over 45 seriously funny books for young readers, including the Clark the Shark tales (one of which ended up in a Happy Meal -- not the way you think) and the award-winning Chet Gecko Mysteries. Find out about his newest series, the Monstertown Mysteries, online at: www.brucehale.com.


Underwriting

Overwriting - Take Two

Recreating

Rejections

How Do I Scare My Readers?

How Do You Choose?

Finding Comp Titles

Writing for Children's Religious Magazines

A Fresh Look at Our Writing

Resources for Writing for Children's Magazines

Save Me!

Run Away Words

Novel-sized Problem

Emotions and Feelings

Sensory Details

Taglines and Beats

Successful Cover Letters

Diverse Books

Online Resources for Children's Writers and Illustrators

Rhyming Picture Books

Preparation and Practice for Public Speaking

Public Speaking Phobia

Authors in the Classroom

Why Twitter?

What Should I Describe?

Magazine Story or Picture Book?

Nonfiction Writing

Do It Myself!

Swift Fiction - The Short Story in Focus

What Stops Me Reading!

Distancing Your Reader

Resizing Photos for Use on Websites

Overwriting

Are List Serves a Service or a Waste of Time?

Reducing Word Count

MS Wish List

How to Stand Out

NAMING CHARACTERS - FROM MARY'S NOTEBOOK

Kids Reading Books and Saying What They Think

Retreat!

Selling Photos to Magazines

Poor Man's Copyright, a Myth

Missing Students

The Right Number of Characters

What Do You Do When You're Stuck?

Naming Your Character

Considering Self-Publishing?

When Educational Publishers Ask for Your Résumé

Say What?

Write Well When the Muse Is Sleeping

Writing Process Blog Tour

Truth in Fiction

Plodding or Plotting

Raise the stakes, honey!

One Size Does NOT Fit All

BACK UP!

175 Proof

He Thought to Himself and Other Excesses

Confessions of a Writer Easily Distracted

Is That Right?

Writing Business Expenses

Subjective

The Hero's Journey for Magazine Writers

Altitude and Attitude - Adult or Child?

Slow Down, You Move too Fast

Kidz Only! Adults Keep Out!

A Dark Side of Social Media

Do you struggle with grammar?

Can children and teens get their work published?

Patience Required

I'm a Work-in-Progress

Illustrator Resources

Inspiration from Kate DiCamillo

Are Listserves a Service or a Waste of Time?

Writing and Life Balance

How To Start Querying an Agent

WEBSITE Q&A

Nancy I. Sanders on Writing Nonfiction

Heartbroken?

Perfecting Dialogue Punctuation

Ouch! Thin Skin!

Agents Telling What They Want

School Visits, the Extended Version

Going Back to School

One of 75 finalists

Make It Work for You

Down with Discouragement!

Do as I Say

Professional Problem Maker

4 Ways to Make Your Characters "Talk Different"

Picture Book Month

Work-for-Hire Resources

Work-for-Hire Wisdom

Work-for-Hire also known as WFH

Picture Perfect Picture Books

Picture Book Resources

Author Talks versus Workshops

My Favorite Online Resources

Technicalities - More Thoughts on Public Speaking

Do as I Say

Theme List Tactics

What Would Sue Do?

Attribution or Action?

Don't Throw in the Towel

Do You Remember?

Dragged to the Podium

Double Identity - Pen Names

Before You Sign: Contract Resources

Welcome, Diane Bailey, Work-for-hire Champion

Ready, Set, Goal

An Editor's Day

How'd You Get That Gig?

On the Hunt for Ideas

Bloggers Supporting Other Bloggers

Shadowing a Submission

Give up or press on?

Turning Ideas Into Stories - Workshop

After the Critique

Keeping Track

The Synopsis Shrink

Mind Your Cs and Qs - part three

Mind Your Cs and Qs - part two

Mind Your Cs and Qs - part one

Standard Manuscript Format

CUT IN THE CRITIQUE

Critique Methods

Market Research Resources - Agents

THE SANDWICH OF CRITIQUE

CRITIQUE GROUPS: GO FOR IT!

Organizations and Groups

Writing a Novel? Where Does It Fit?

Meeting Editors and Agents - In Person

Meet Editors and Agents - Online

Book It! - Recording What You Read

Theme and Premise

Self-Editing Tips

The Story Ladder or Novel Timeline

Showing Versus Telling

Read, Read, Read

The Power of a Good First Line

Hooking your Reader

Listen to the Voices

DIALOGUE TIPS

Viewpoint in Children's Fiction

Making Friends: Character Development

Glossary of Publishing Terms

Genre Resources

Children's Book Genres

Why Write?