Monthly Archives: April 2010

Go With the Flow

Recently, I’ve found myself listening to late evening radio shows that feature announcers who speak in foreign languages. I used to change the channel when these came on, but have discovered that I enjoy listening to the cadence and rhythm of a foreign tongue. There is a lyrical quality to the ebb and flow of pitch intertwined with the fluency of the spoken word. With meaning removed from the equation, I am free to appreciate the music of language.

I have always felt that it is important to incorporate this quality into one’s writing, and there are a few web resources that say it better than I probably would. Here are the links:

Common “pitfalls” of sentence structure and how to avoid them:

http://www.mycollegesuccessstory.com/academic-success-tools/superb-sentences.html

Helpful suggestions for avoiding choppy sentence structure:

http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/573/03/

This one is aimed at younger writers, but the content is excellent:

http://www.ttms.org/writing_quality/sentence_fluency.htm

On the qualities of good prose:

http://www.fictionfactor.com/articles/style.html

Sentence variation and the rhythm of writing:

http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/159621/how_you_can_write_strong_and_lively.html

Enjoy!

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To Critique or Not to Critique

It is common these days for writers to find other writers to swap manuscripts with, for the purpose of critique. I have two critique partners (or “critters,” as they are fondly referred to).  Like me, both have written YA manuscripts, but neither writes historical, and neither writes third person. Both are younger than I am. Nevertheless, I have found their comments to be valuable and thought provoking, and I’ve made several positive alterations to my manuscript as a result of their good insights.

Ty Roth, whom I interviewed for the blog two weeks ago, didn’t have any critique partners at all. Or even beta readers. His agent and editor (and people who work with them) are the only ones besides Ty to have ever read his manuscript.  He admitted that the work he submitted was rough, but emphasized that the story was the important thing.

I found this enlightening.

The downside of critique partners is that everyone has his/her own likes and dislikes, perspective and preferences. Each time someone recommends changing your manuscript, a little more of the essence is chopped away, and by the time an author is “done,” the end result might be an over-thought and pasteurized shadow of its former self. If it was terrible, that’s not a bad thing, but if it wasn’t, it might not be a good one.

This reminds me of an old story, that goes something like this:

There was once an old man who decided that the day had come to take his donkey to the market and sell it. He and the donkey had been together for a long time, but their traveling days were over, and the donkey was a hungry one. He harnessed the animal one last time, took hold of the rope and led the donkey down the road.

After a mile or so, someone going in the other direction jeered, “Why are you leading that donkey, when you could be riding him?” The old man hadn’t wanted to burden his four-legged friend before saying goodbye, but realized that the stranger had a point, so he climbed on top of the donkey and continued on his way.

After another mile or so, a different traveler came upon them and exclaimed, “Why are you riding that poor old donkey? He’s so pathetic that you should be carrying him!” The old man realized that this stranger also made sense, and so he dismounted. With an awkward heave, he hauled the donkey onto his shoulders and determinedly walked on.

A third person came upon them and stood in the road laughing. “You crazy old man, why are you carrying that donkey? He should be pulling a cart or something.” The old man stood with the donkey on his back until the stranger had passed, then slowly lowered his loyal friend to the ground. The donkey gazed at him, and the man felt badly that he had allowed other people’s opinions to sway what he really wanted to do. Reaching over, he grasped the animal’s halter and they walked side by side once again.

Having your manuscript read by critique partners can be a very positive experience, but everyone’s got their own opinion. You’ve got to go with your gut, and only make the changes that feel right. An agent might just love it the way it is.

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The Perils of Underestimating

The moral of the story is, don’t ever assume when your new Boy Scout has his first camping weekend in three days, that all you have to do is go to the store to buy a few things.

I am officially not blogging for the rest of the week. See you on Monday! 🙂

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Another Busy Day…

Will post tomorrow.

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Hooking a Good Query

When I first started to send out queries, I was ignorant of what constituted a good one. I wrote what I felt was an interesting summary of my manuscript, but there was no hook, and in the bio section I rambled on about having styled it after classic boy books of the 1950s and 1960s. I burned through about 25 agents before getting smart and posting my query on AQConnect for some feedback. After taking the advice of people who obviously knew more than I did, my new query has been averaging slightly better than one request per 10 queries.

The hardest thing about writing the new query was to think of a good hook. After several lackluster attempts, I was finally inspired. “When fourteen-year-old Brian Edwards finds a box in the attic filled with old newspaper clippings and a ring just like his grandfather’s, he realizes he’s stumbled across the family secret: Jack.” (This had been preceded by: “Brian Edwards moves with his dad to the family farm and discovers an 80-year-old secret,” and before that, “Jim and Jack is a contemporary boy book with a historical twist, realistic literary fiction.” Catchy!)

Since then, I have found myself thinking of hooks for fun. Whether it’s a new idea for a short story or just a pithy twist on a real-life situation, I am honing my hook skills so that the next time I need to write a query letter, I’ll be ready. For example, on my birthday, it occurred to me that it would be funny to write a short story called Happy Birthday to Me, with the hook, “Crazed mother/wife decides that she is going to get exactly what she wants for her birthday, or else!” For my recent contribution to Anne Riley’s murder scene blog-fest, it was, “An heiress suspects that her life is in danger, but no one listens until she is silenced for good.”

These may not be great, but the point is that it takes a certain mindset to hone a summary into a short but catchy phrase, and practice makes perfect.

What in your life can be summed into a hook?

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When the Time is Write

I am one of those people who is frequently late for things. Not terribly late, but not exactly on time, either. Sometimes, when it’s really important, I manage to get where I’m going when I should, but those occasions are rare, and don’t often happen without a struggle.

I have wondered where exactly I go wrong, that this happens so regularly. Is it because I don’t get up early enough? Do I not manage my time well? 

Several years ago, a similarly time challenged co-worker shared her theory that the inside of a shower is actually a time warp. Once one is enshrouded in its steamy confines, time passes unnoticed, and what seems like a five minute shower can be thirty minutes or longer.

While it might be an exaggeration to think of the shower as another dimension, I have realized that there is a grain of truth to it. When I am showering, my mind is not on soap and water, it is busy outlining stories, ironing out plot points, thinking up good names for my characters, and filling in backstory. Like a preoccupied driver, I end up at my destination (clean) but can’t remember how I got there.

I have spoken with other writers about this phenomenon, and they agree that it exists. Shower thoughts, running thoughts, car thoughts, those are the times that the really good writing takes place, the most creative, most machiavellian plot twists. When our bodies are busy but our minds are free.

When I do finally exit the shower, it usually takes me a few more minutes to write down my ideas before they evaporate.

Are those mini tape recorders waterproof?

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Taking the Evening Off

I was going to post something this evening, even though I belatedly posted yesterday’s this morning, but I decided to take the day off because it’s my birthday.

See you on Monday!

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Great Guy, Great Book, Great Advice: Part 2

When Ty Roth started to query his fourth manuscript, So Shelly, he wasn’t expecting instant success. He’d been writing for five years, and had queried three previous novels without securing an agent. The third had gotten close, generating requests for six fulls, but nothing had come of it. 

In August 2009, Ty joined AQConnect to utilize their agent database. Ten queries later, he had an agent. Only 2% of querying writers will actually land an agent, and only fifty percent of those writers will ever be published, but just a few weeks after getting repped, Ty beat the odds again. His agent contacted several publishers about the manuscript, and all but one wanted to look at it. There ended up being so much interest that his agent thought they would need to have an auction. Then Random House (Delacorte Press) made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and in September, Ty ended up with a two book deal and a healthy advance.

So Shelly will be available at bookstores in February, 2011. Although considered the ‘off season,’ (the holidays and summer being the peak times for blockbuster releases), late winter is actually a good time for an author to debut. There is only so much space devoted to reviews, and established authors are going to get the lion’s share. In February, the competition is lighter, and a book released at that time will get more attention.

Now that all of the editing has been completed, Ty is in the process of developing a webpage, has started a blog (tyroth.wordpress.com), and is working on a Facebook Fan Page. He has no plans to quit his day job as a high school literature teacher, which he loves. Being around students all day keeps him informed about the likes and dislikes of his target audience. He knows what teens are talking and thinking about, and it helps guide his writing.

Some things about Ty’s publishing journey surprised me, such as the fact that he has never met his agent or his editor in person. Other than email exchanges, he has only actually spoken with each of them three times. Also, he was able to keep his manuscript’s original title, and has had some say on the cover.

When I asked if he plans to devote any of his advance to marketing, he said that he doesn’t know yet what the publisher will provide, but he is more than willing to invest. He believed in the agenting system and the editorial system, and it served him well. He believes in the marketing system, too. “If it’s good, it will sell.” He also has confidence in word of mouth, which is highly influential in the reading choices of Young Adults.

Ty thinks that he was really lucky, but is happy to share what he may have done right. About writing a query, he says, “A good hook is crucial.” After that, “it’s all about the story.” It’s fine to briefly mention yourself, but that’s not what agents care most about. He has great faith in the querying process, generally believing that if a book is well written and interesting, an agent is going to respond. 

What Ty really wants people to know is, if it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone. He just followed protocol, and everything worked out. 

Sometimes, you just get lucky, but this time, I’d say that the system worked.

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Great Guy, Great Book, Great Advice: Part 1

Yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ty Roth, debut author of So Shelly, a novel for mature young adults, due to be released by Delacorte Press (a division of Random House) in February of 2011.

So Shelly is based on the actual lives and personalities of romantic poets Lord Byron, John Keats, Percy Shelley and his wife Mary (author of Frankenstein). The twist is that in So Shelly, they are all modern day teenagers, and the title character, Shelly, is a feminine compilation of Mary and Percy. Although the setting is completely different, the author has taken pains to bring facts to the fore, incorporating actual events from the lives of the poets into their modern day counterparts’. 

The action begins with Shelly’s death, and the theft by her friends of her ashes. The story goes “back and forth” between the present and the recent past, shedding light on what brought the characters to this point.

“Entertaining” and “sexy” are adjectives used by in-house readers to describe the story, and after some consideration, that’s okay with Ty. (See Ty’s blog post to read his perspective on including sex in YA novels.)

When asked about his writing process, Ty says that he always starts his books knowing the beginning and the end. Then he writes his way through, always keeping in mind where the plot is headed. He writes in short spurts, 45 minutes or so at a time, and likes to “layer” his themes.

I asked him what writing manuals he uses, if any. Ty said that he owns Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, which he likes a lot, but he was quick to mention that he doesn’t only use “said” for his dialogue tags. He refers to “The Rules” as a guideline, but he’s not afraid to go with whatever seems right at the time. How does he feel about adverbs? “I tell my students that adjectives and adverbs are like salt and pepper. If  you don’t use them, your story will be bland, but too much isn’t good, either.” 

As for developing a network from which to glean writerly advice, he didn’t. Although Ty joined AQConnect to get the benefit of the agent database, he never actually posted anything on the forum. He didn’t have any critique partners, either. In fact, he says that he has never even printed his manuscript out, and no one besides himself (other than people at the literary agency and the editors) has read it to this day, not even his wife.

Contrary to popular writing-forum wisdom, he doesn’t feel that having a perfectly polished manuscript is as important as some people seem to think. He describes his completed manuscript as “rough.” It’s important to make one’s work presentable, but “having a great hook” is really the key. “It’s the story.” Even the most flawless manuscript is going to go through several edits with the publisher, and Ty thinks that every author is going to have a better product by the end of it, no matter how perfect he/she thought it was.

When I asked if it was painful to go through editing, he told me that he did have to part with a few of his darlings, but he didn’t make the mistake of thinking that the manuscript was “his baby.” He had faith in the editing process, and heeded almost all of their “suggestions.” “They know what they’re doing,” he said.


Tomorrow: Great Guy, Great Story, Great Advice Part 2: How Ty got an agent and landed a healthy publishing contract for a two book deal.

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Young Advanced Readers: An Age Appropriate Book List for Puzzled Parents

Recently, a commenter mentioned that she was having trouble finding good books for her second grader, an advanced reader who enjoys Harry Potter, but is prone to having bad dreams from reading content that is developmentally inappropriate.

As usual, the answer lies largely in OLD BOOKS, which are comparatively more challenging than much of the modern fare aimed at younger readers. Most of these recommendations were written as series (I have marked these with an asterisk), so there are actually many more books on this list than first appears.

One great quality of advanced readers is that they are usually not book snobs. While they can comprehend and enjoy things written for older children, a book written for their peers can be fun, too, as long as the story is a good one. I have included both in this list.

Many of these titles can only be found at the library, but information about them is still available on Amazon.com. A few can also be found on Kindle, for free, from the Kindle Popular Classics list. To see summaries, reviews, and other books in each series, click on any title.

The Wizard of OzL. Frank Baum

The Story of Dr. Doolittle* Hugh Lofting

Rabbit Hill Robert Lawson

Aesop’s Fables

My Father’s Dragon* Ruth Stiles Gannett

The Adventures of Uncle Wiggley* Howard R. Garis

Harold and the Purple Crayon* Crocket Johnson

The X Bar X Boys* James Cody Ferris

Anything by E. Nesbit

Rikki Tikki Tavi Rudyard Kipling

The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase* Joan Aiken

Any children’s book by E.B. White

Encyclopedia Brown* Donald J. Sobol

The Happy Hollisters* Jerry West

Anything by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Mad Scientist’s Club* Bertrand R. Brinley

Brighty of the Grand Canyon  Marguerite Henry

Homer Price* Robert McCloskey

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet* Eleanor Cameron

Danny Dunn* Jay Williams

Swiss Family Robinson Johann David Wyss

Beautiful Joe Marshall Saunders

Black Beauty Anna Sewell

The Chronicles of Narnia* C.S. Lewis

Pippi Longstocking* Astrid Lindgren

The Borrowers* Mary Norton

The Mouse and the Motorcycle* Beverly Cleary

Dr. Seuss’s bigger books: Horton Hears a Who, Horton Hatches the Egg, Bartholomew and the Oobleck

The Children’s Hour 16 Volume Set Marjorie Barrows, editor
(Wonderful) 

The Fairy Books* Andrew Lang

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you have to stick with fiction. Books such as The Boy Who Invented the Trampoline, about the history of various inventions, can be a source of interesting reading, as can biographies. There are many written for juvenile readers, and helping your children select people whose lives they might want to learn more about can be a lot of fun.

For more on this topic, see my previous post,“Considering Asynchronous Development in Book Selection.” (1/11/10)

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