As a young reader, I was lucky. My parents were readers. My grandparents were readers. In short, the adults in my life supported my love of reading. I was lucky because I could see myself in a lot of the books that I read whether it was the Little House books or Meg Mysteries. But I also managed to get my hands on a lot of books that gave me a glimpse into other worlds. I still have my copy of High Elk’s Treasure by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve. I don’t remember these books being hard to find but I know myself well enough to know that I would have sought them out. That’s probably part of why I was reading exclusively adult books by about 8th grade.
Today I saw an amazing Ted Talk with author/illustrator Grace Lin. To watch it, scroll down the page.
In this talk, Lin discusses the important roles that children’s books play as mirrors (show us ourselves) and windows (showing us a glimpse of a bigger world). For each reader, means something slightly different. A caucasian middle class reader has no problem finding caucasian middle class characters (mirrors) but it is also important for this same reader to read about characters whose experiences are different (windows). The same is true no matter the background of the reader.
Mirrors help our readers respect themselves. Windows help our readers respect other people. Each book that you write can serve both functions depending on the reader. Mirror and window. I have to admit that I’m now looking at my bookshelf differently than I ever have before.
Lerner editor Amy Fitzgerald is accepting proposals for top-notch middle grade manuscripts through the month of May. She is looking for:
Manuscripts that are funny and/or heart wrenching. The best will be both.
Manuscripts that transcend time either because they are historic but relevent today or contemporary but with solid roots.
Manuscripts that represent underrepresented facets of American life. This doesn’t mean that she will turn down your middle class white character but this story will have to shine to impress her.
As always be sure to find out as much as you can before you submit. Good Amy’s name and see what else she likes. Read her books. Check out the company website. Educate yourself. If you have something that you still think is a good fit, check out the full blog post here for information on how to submit.
Tell me — am I the only writer who was unaware of the interrobang? That’s it over there on the right. It is a nonstandard punctuation mark (something else I didn’t know existed) that is used to mark an exclamatory interrogative. You know like “What the heck,” only my seventeen-year-old did not say heck.
It was created in 1962 by Martin Speckter, editor the magazine Type Talks. He dreamed it up for advertising copywriters who needed it for those rhetorical questions they like to write into ads (“What?! Whiter than White?!”). It is to be used in those instances when neither an exclamation point nor a question mark alone convey the full meaning.
Maybe it’s just because I’m a word nerd but I think this is pretty cool. I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of a Frindle moment. In Frindle by Andrew Clements, fifth grader Nick Allen decides to change the English language by getting everyone in his class to call an ink pen a Frindle. His teacher thinks it is nonsense but soon it has spread beyond his class and other people in their town are asking for frindle when they need to sign their name. I have to admit, this is my absolute favorite Clement book.
Now I can only participate in the interrobang revolution if I can figure out how to type one. Fortunately, I’m a researcher so I found out how. I use a Windows driven PC so I hold down ALT and type 8253 and up pops this — ‽.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go interrobang some unsuspecting soul…
“Not right for my list.” That’s one of those phrases that writers hate to see on a rejection letter. It just seems to subjective. What does it really mean? This week I read an interesting blog post on this by agent Janet Reid. She pointed out that we all have a list. Most of us just call it our reading list.
That made a lot of sense to me. I’m not a huge fan of adult contemporary fiction. Except for the Don Tillman series by Graeme Simsion. I love those books!
And I love, love, love action books especially if they’re espionage. Except for the one that I tried to listen to today. I’m not going to pan an author by name but I wasn’t thrilled with the book but decided to give it one more try. Ugh. Not a rape scene! And the rape of a teen yet. Back in the library bag it went. Maybe I should be more specific — I really like Suzanne Brockmann.
Urban fantasy? Love it! As long as it’s something like Jim Butcher’s Dresden files. Unless it starts with sex. Puh-lease. Give me story and characters. Not porn. (And, yes, this would be another book that went back into the library bag.)
No matter what broad categories we love — I’m all for mysteries, sf, fantasy, adventure, spies and historical fiction — there are things we just don’t want to see. You have to work really hard to hook me with anything about World War II because I’ve already read so much. I love fantasy but I’m not a huge fan of faeries. Never have been. Snark, dark humor and sass are all good. I don’t care what brand of shoes your character wears or where they play golf/yacht/summer. I just don’t care. Horse books — love ’em. Dog stories? Not as much.
I’m just a reader but if I was an editor or agent, this would be the literary baggage that I brought to my list. Thanks to Janet Reid for helping me get a handle on “Not Right for My List.”
“I have no idea what your character is feeling?” “Give me more of your character’s thoughts.”
Character emotion and thoughts are two things that I have trouble balancing. I’ll think I have it right and my critique group disagrees. So I rewrite it and then it looks, to me, like way too much. I think I may have stumbled on a solution when I read Mary Kate’s post on character stance.
Basically, what it boils down to is this, instead of giving straight up details on setting and other characters, let the reader know what your character thinks or feels. Its a great way to work in backstory, emotion and inner dialogue without it being quite so obvious. I decided to take a look at the page that I roughed out yesterday.
- Clem spotted an expanse of enormous, fuzzy leaves. She shifted a few to look beneath and finally found several round green fruit, one here, one there, not clustered. “Pumpkins. Not ripe. But this is the right area. Keep looking.”
What could I do with this? I could let the reader know whether or not Clem likes pumpkin, how she likes pumpkin or what she wishes they’d found. Any of these would give a bit more information about my character and help the reader feel that much closer to her.
- “It’s something but is it something we can eat?” asked Clem. “Pinch one of the leaves and tell me what it smells like.”
Gabe gave it a tweak and sniffed at his fingers, wrinkling up his nose. “Pee-ew. Onions.”
This one is a touch better. We know that Gabe doesn’t like onion but why? How does Clem feel about onion? Maybe the smell reminds him of someone or someplace else.
- Gabe nodded and they kept looking. In a clear, grassy patch where the sun shone, Clem fingered a lacy flower. “Queen Anne’s Lace. Mama’s favorite. If we’d caught ‘em before they flowered, we could eat ‘em.”
I can’t help but feel that I did a little bit better with this one because I worked in some backstory. This is Mom’s favorite. Hmm. Maybe I should have had each of the children pick a sprig.
Small details can tell us about the character’s past, what she loves and the things that are running through her mind.
I know people who won’t bring a manuscript to critique group until it is polished. Me? I’ll bring a much earlier draft. After all, I’m less interested in line edits than I am in knowing if the plot works.
Then I read a blog post from a writer who won’t even discuss a manuscript until she’s completed a fairly polished draft. She claimed that if she talks about her idea with other people, the need to actually write it down dissipates. Seriously? I just didn’t buy it.
But then I noticed something. I came up with an idea for a fiction novel. I immediately discussed it with the friend who inspired it. And I discussed it with my husband as I started doing the research — its historic fiction so there will be a lot of research. And I blogged about it. Before too long I realized that some of that enthusiasm had waned. Had talking about it consumed some of the energy that would have driven me to write it? I honestly don’t know.
But about the time the enthusiasm for one project was waning, I read a couple of tweets by agents. One wanted X. Another wanted Y. My imagination made a leap and combined X and Y to create my own idea. I’m not sure why but this time I decided to do something a bit different. I’ve blogged a bit about doing setting research but that’s been it. I haven’t told anyone what I’m working on beyond the fact that it is early middle grade science fiction. What inspired it? I’m keeping that to myself because I don’t want anyone to read it with those bits of inspiration in mind. They were there and if they come through great. If they don’t, they still sparked the story. What matters is whether or not it works.
I knew that finding time to work on this would be tricky, because I’m also writing a book for Red Line. In spite of the Red Line book and teaching a class, I’ve been working on this fiction project for about a month now. I can’t say that I’ve made an astonishing amount of progress. I have about 21 pages. But 21 pages on this story is a lot more than I’ve managed on the other.
Did talking about the project sap the energy? I really can’t say.
My new project was humming merrily along as, each evening, I added two new pages. They’d fled, evading capture, and headed off up the mountain. Then, as they approached the area where they would make camp, the story ground to a halt.
I dutifully kept my butt in my chair, adding a sentence, deleting a sentence and generally annoying myself. Why couldn’t I get them as far as the deserted mansion? Maybe, said the tart voice in my head, it’s because you can’t envision your setting?
Oh. I’d been trying to write about the wreckage of an old estate and although I’ve been through abandoned forts and deserted mining settlements, ramshackle mansions have not been a part of my past. I typed “deserted mansion” into a Google image search and found myself clicking through sprawling stone estates in Europe, ante-bellum disasters, and a towering urban structures standing shoulder-to-shoulder with equally deserted neighbors. Then I saw it. Red brick. Three stories. In the middle of a field. There were even interior shots. As soon as I had my setting in sight, the words flowed. You can find my r
When you find yourself unable to write your characters through a scene, give some thought to the setting. If you can’t see it in your mind’s eye, get online and do some looking around. Not that you should stop with the visuals. You need to know what it sounds like when a door screeches open, how a long empty house smells, and the feel of spongy half rotten wood underfoot.
Staring with photos and a picture in your mind allows you to write with the level of detail that is essential in creating realtic writing that draws your reader into the story. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to do some research on general stores. Check out my image research here on Pinterest.
Monument to Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Alton, Il. No changes made to original. Click to view.
Earlier this week I read a blog post about historical fiction. The blogger was encouraging us to keep our characters true to their time. Then he said something that set me free. He was discussing the British class sytem and how much the lower classes must have resented cruel masters. “But it never would have occurred to them to question the hierarchical system . . .”
Ugh! If no one ever questioned “the way things are,” they would still be the same. That goes for the class system, slavery, indentured servents, the Colonial system and whether or not only white men who owned land could be citizens.
I’m not saying that the this questioning/challenging attitude is common in history but it does happen. When it does, it is frequently very poorly received. That’s why a mob chunked Elijah Parish Lovejoy’s printing press off the bluff and into the river on November 7, 1837 in Alton, Illinois. (Google it!)
When you write historical fiction, do make your characters true to their time. People haven’t always known about viruses, DNA or finger prints. Yes, there have been times when certain groups of people were not considered fully human but if you listen carefully you will still hear those things today. I don’t agree with people who think and say things like that but I bet that I wouldn’t have agreed with everyone 100 years ago either. Or 200 years ago. Or even 498 years ago.
I’m not certain why some people want all historic characters to think X and only X. It isn’t realistic. But if your character is going to think Y, then you need to document Y. That way you can show your editor that, although your character is not engaging in group think, they are still true to their time.
Periodically I mention a post that I’ve written for The Muffin. That’s the blog over at WOW! Women on Writing. There are a team of us who blog there and we just got some great news. We won placement in the Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites award again for 2016! Woo-hoo!
Check it out and you’ll find a wide variety of posts on writing.
Margo Dill recently wrote about her path to becoming a children’s writer (here).
Guest blogger Karen Cioffi blogged about the tiny steps we can all take to promote our platforms.
Renee Roberson shared 4 Tips on using Instagram as a writer.
And we have a full range of writers. Some of us write novels. Some of us write nonfiction. We publish traditionally and self-publish. We write for children and adults. Because of this, we have a wide ranging audience.
Between the list of regular bloggers and guest bloggers, you’ll find a new post every day. The great things about blogging as part of a group is that the pressure isn’t all on one person to create a consistently amazing blog. And if you have an emergency, someone on the crew can step forward and post on your day so that you have the break you need to deal with whatever happened.
If you don’t want to maintain your own blog, look for a group blog. Find out how they select their writers. You could also team up with a friend or two and create a new group blog. Writing is such a solitary experience that it is especially rewarding when you find a group of like minded souls.