Where to Write: Finding the Right Place for You

Time to WriteThis summer, my son was on our municipal swim team.  It isn’t uncommon to see an adult sitting in the stands reading, waiting for their young swimmer to finish up.  One day, I noticed one of the father’s sitting right in the middle of the hoopla.  He wasn’t reading the newspaper.  He wasn’t reading Facebook posts on his I-phone.  Nope.  He was 100% focused on the great big text book sitting in his lap.  He was so focused that his son had to get within a couple of feet to get his attention.


I can’t read fluff with that much going on around me let alone read anything substantial.  But this dad is a nurse and he has several kids.  Just about anywhere he finds himself is a little loud.  “I’ve always been able to focus.”


Several times I tried to read in the university library when I was a student.  The comfy chairs didn’t work because they were on main traffic paths on the main two floors.  Every time someone walked by, I looked up.  I finally found a section in government docs or some such that was both well lit and isolated.  I could read and write there uninterrupted.

I’ve gotten loads better, I can actually work with people in the same room but they can’t talk to me.  Cannot.  Talk.  To.  Me.

I know other writers who have to have a perfectly clean desk.  Nothing can be out of place.  For my part, I get distracted if there’s a landslide and something hits my foot or knocks into my coffee but I’m pretty tolerant of clutter as long as I can move without creating an avalanche.

I’ve heard people tell new writers to just set up their laptop in the kitchen an write.  That’s well and good, if it will work for you.

And that’s my point.  Do what works for you.  Try one thing and if that doesn’t work, try another.  You have to find your optimal location, not mine.  You may need your very own space, or you may be able to work in the stands at swim practice.   Remember, it only has to work for you.



How to Start Writing Each Day, Part 2

Transiition 2Yesterday, in response to Garcinia question, I wrote about transitioning into writing when the problem is getting words to flow.  Today, I am writing about how to transition into writing when the problem is  needing to transition your mind from the busyness of life to the stillness of writing.  

  1. Walk It Off.  When my mind is especially busy or I am feeling, as my grandmother put it, antsy, I need to get out and move before I can sit down to write.  The solution?  A brisk walk.  Whether you need to walk a few blocks or a mile, do it and you will feel better and improve your focus.
  2. Stretch It Out.  Depending on where you live and what time of day you write, walking may not always be an option.  Take the time to do some stretches or run through some yoga poses.  Sitting at a desk for two long stiffens you up and you don’t want to go from your desk job to your writing desk without some movement.
  3. Make a Date.  For some people, routine is all important.  Write at the same time and/or in the same place every day and your body will get the point.  “Time to write!”  It may be a struggle at first, but eventually the writing will come easier when you keep this appointment.
  4. This Is It.  When I sit down at my desk with a cup of coffee, it signals that this is time to write.  Whether it is first thing in the morning or following lunch, that coffee cup and my butt in this chair signals that it is time for business.

How do you let yourself know that it is time to get to work?


How to Start Writing Each Day, Part 1

Transition 1Recently, Garcinia asked me a question in a comment.

“I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your thoughts prior to writing. I’ve had a tough time clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out. I truly do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are lost just trying to figure out how to begin.

“Any recommendations or tips? Appreciate it!”

Although I answered her, I’ve been thinking about her question as I go about a variety of household tasks.  There are numerous ways to transition into writing, but it depends.  Do you need to still your mind or do you need to get the words flowing?

Sometimes transitioning is a matter of figuring out what to write next.  Here are several ways to get the words started if this is the problem you are having.

  1. Stop in the Middle of a Scene.  Starting a new scene can be tricky especially if it is also the beginning of your writing day.  The words aren’t even flowing yet and here you are staring at the new beginning.  As a preventative measure, I sometimes stop writing in the middle of a scene.  Conflict is high and I know exactly what my hero needs to do next.  This means that I’ll know what to write next tomorrow.
  2. Check Your To-Dos.  This is something else that you have to set up the day before but sometimes when I am stopping for the day I WRITE MYSELF SEVERAL TO-DOS IN CAPS.  It might be a note to add this, expand that and move this from here to there, but it is enough to get me started.
  3. Reading Yesterday’s Work.  Sometimes I get started by reading the last few pages that I wrote yesterday.  I don’t let myself edit heavily, but I play with it a bit here and a bit there.  When I reach the end of that old passage, I just keep on writing.
  4. Type in Edits.  I like to do my final rewrite on paper.  Although I hope it will be a matter of simply cutting a word here and there, it often involves new transitions, moving chunks of text and more.   Not only do I see things I might have missed, it gets my work day started.
  5. Morning Pages.  Sometimes it isn’t a matter of knowing what to write next on a particular project but simply getting words in general started.  My friend Jeanie often writes morning pages, a form of journaling in which you do for a set amount of time each morning.

Hopefully, one of these methods will help you get started on your writing day.


Enslow, Viz Media and Quercus Adding Imprints

Quercus, a British publishing company, opened a New York office, to publish children’s and adult books for the North American market, in May of 2013.  This list will start with about 10 books, focusing on chapter books and books for older readers.  The list is expected to grow to 25-30 titles/year by 2016.

The fall list includes:

Unhooking the Moon by Gregory Hughes, a middle-grade novel about an orphaned brother and sister on a road trip from Canada to New York

Frightfully Friendly Ghosties by Daren King, illustrated by David Roberts, the first in an an early chapter-book trilogy

Sammy Feral’s Diaries of Weird, by Eleanor Hawken,  illustrated by John Kelly, the debut book of a middle-grade supernatural adventure series

Guinea Pigs Online by Jennifer Gray and Amanda Swift, illustrated by Sarah Horne, the first in a chapter-book series

The Snowmelt River by Frank P. Ryan, which opens The Three Powers, a YA adventure fantasy series.

Viz Media also launched a new children’s imprint, this one debuting at Comic Con.  Perfect Square will focus on Manga and other children’s formats that focus on imaginative story telling.  They plan to work up to 40 to 50 titles/year.

The star of the new list is Bravest Warriors which features a band of future warriors who use the power of their emotions to fight and defeat various alien threats.  First created as a YouTube series in November 2012, the show has won awards and  averaged more than a million views per episode.

Last but not least, Enslow is launching two new trade imprints.  Speeding Star is geared to young, male readers, 9 to 14.  These sports, disaster and somewhat yucky books aim to get boys to pick them up without being assigned reading.  This imprint will release 18 – 24 books/year beginning with Hall of Fame Sports Greats which reaches into various sports for those it profiles.

The other upcoming Enslow trade imprint is Scarlet Voyage, a young adult trade imprint that I wrote up earlier when they put out a call for manuscripts.

Fingers crossed that these imprints will require more books for their readers!



Reader Expectations

Readers have expectations, including that your first person narrator will tell them the truth. Lies and deceit are possible but not easy.
  • Telling Titles.  Sometimes these expectations come about because of your title.  The Secret Staircase speaks of sliding doors and hidden passages.   Aliens Ate My Homework sounds like a science fiction story.  Love Lost and Found suggests a romance.  Readers who pick up your book expect one thing and find something altogether different may or may not stick around.
  • Character Consistencies.  Whatever skill your main character needs to solve his or her problem needs to be planted from the start.   If he needs to speak French or she needs to know how to pick a lock, give them these skills, at least in passing, earlier on in the story.
  • Likable Lies.  It’s okay to mislead your reader.  That’s what you do when you plant red herrings in a mystery or toss in two love interests, one who seems sure to get away, in a romance.  But hiding information, and even lying to your reader, is really hard to do especially in a first person story.  If your narrator knows something, then you can’t lie to your reader, except in very special circumstances.

Read about how to break this contract for truth in today’s post at the Muffin.  David Levithan has created a top-notch unreliable narrator in Every You, Every Me.


Frances Foster retires

FSG for YR logoFarrar Straus Giroux recently announced that long time editor, Frances Foster, is retiring following an illness.  The publisher also says that they will continue to publish the books she acquired under her own imprint, Frances Foster Books.  Foster’s authors include Hyewon Yum, Philip Pullman, Emily Jenkins, Barbara O’Connor, and Barbara McClintock.  Read their accolades to her at Publisher’s Weekly.


Descriptions: Making Them Work in Your Novel

Novel SettingLast week, I wrote a post about setting details in your picture book.  With such a limited word count, every picture book detail has to count and the best way to do this is to leave visual details to the illustrator.

But you should be just as careful when planting setting details in a novel.  Yes, you have a much larger word count but you will also create a stronger story if every detail is there for a reason.

  • Employing All of Your Senses: We all know to use our various senses in our writing.  Many writers I know make sure that they have 3 sensory details on each page of their novel.  But make these details count by making sure they are something your narrator would notice.  An artist will notice things that a surgeon would overlook.  An athlete will notice something else entirely.  In this way, you can use your sensory details to tell us about your character.
  • Characterization: Details can reveal the setting while also telling us all about your character.  What kind of home does your character live in?  What props does she choose for herself?  What things are chosen by people who should know her but don’t?  This can all reveal character to the reader.
  • Mood: Setting details can also reveal mood. If you want to lend an ominous mood to your story, the sky could be steely vs. pearly grey, the scent of flowers cloying vs. fragrant, the wind chimes jarring vs. melodic. 
  • Red Herrings: If you are writing a mystery, the setting is also the place to work in some of your red herrings.  A carelessly forgotten book, a misplaced pair of sunglasses or a torn jacket can all seem to say something ominous even when they would be innocent in any story other than a mystery.

Because a novel has a much larger word count that a picture book, many writers throw in setting details willy nilly.  Carefully plant details with a purpose and you will have a richly layered story that takes your reader from one carefully plotted location to another, all under the control of you, the writer.


Possible Plagiarism: Another Story Just Like Mine

Underground cities. Walled villages. Fenced compounds. Even life underwater. Post-apocalyptic fiction has covered the bases.

It’s happened again.  Last week I opened a frantic e-mail from a fellow writer.  She’s been working on a novel for over 5 years.  Just as she’s taking it to final, another writing friend forwards her the description of an upcoming novel.  Sure, the summary is brief but it alarming similar to her own.

Not surprisingly, she was in a panic and even mentioned legal action.

My advice to her?  Take a deep breath.  Wait to read the published book and then see how similar the two truly are.

Not long after I started writing, another writer in my critique group ran a novel past all of us.  It was a post-apocalyptic tale in which people had taken shelter in an underground city.  It was amazing.  And then City of Ember came out.  There was no way on earth that Jeanne DuPrau had seen my friend’s summary or his manuscript but the similarities were there and they were strong.

What gives?

The reality is this — we all live on the same earth.  We are all being acted on by the same forces.  We all have very similar concerns.  Human brains work like human brains.  It’s how prehistoric people on each side of an ocean could invent remarkably similar types of pottery.  Nobody copied off anyone else but they both had access to similar materials.  Story works much the same way.

The world around us is an elaborate writing prompt.  Sometimes the stories that come about will be similar but more often than not your unique look at the world will shine through.




Descriptions: What To Include in a Picture Book

Picture book detailsJust how much description do you need to include in your writing?

When I create I new manuscript, my first draft generally focuses on plot.  What happens and why?  Obviously, this is also pulls in character since someone is making things happen. What tends to get slighted is setting which I add in later drafts.  Just how much I add depends on what I’m writing.

In picture books, I keep it super brief.  Visual details are best left to the illustrator.  That leaves me with:

Sound.  Sound details are my favorite when it comes to a picture book.  I often try to work in a bit of onomatapeia especially if it can be used as a specific verb — the plink plunk of water drops.

Motion.  Motion is a fun one to work in as your character interacts with their environment.  This also helps you avoid the talking head problem in which you give the illustrator nothing but talking heads to depict throughout the story.  When I set my character free, she can climb hills, leap streams and duck under branches.  Reader learn about the setting and the illustrator has plenty of variety.

Touch.  As my character gets things done, I look for touch-worthy details.   Changes in temperature, tactile descriptions as she works with her hands, even how food feels in her mouth can all become touch details in a picture book.

Taste and Smell.  These are often to two hardest details to include about a setting or story especially if it isn’t a story about food.  Face it — you really don’t want your character going around tasting certain environments.  But work them in as you can, focusing on scent where taste just won’t do.    I’m very in tune to the smells around me so this is one I can include without too much trouble.  Various out door settings, ranging from open fields to lakes, have their own unique scents.  Churches, stores and other indoor settings also come with unique scents.  I try to work in one or two in the course of a picture book manuscript.

Don’t let these setting details slow your story down but do add them where appropriate to enrich your manuscript.  Details in a novel is a different beast and I’ll write about that one day next week.


Rewriting: Cutting Excess Verbage

Excess WordsNo manuscript is perfect with the first draft.  Somehow, we never manage to get the story down the first time.  With each rewrite it gets better and better.  Often it also gets longer and longer.

I have to admit it — I tend to write short.  Too short.  When my critique buddies go over a manuscript they mark numerous places that require transitions, details and just a bit more.  By the time I’ve accomplished all of this the words have added up and I need to cut.  One writing buddy, Darcy Pattison, advocates cutting 30% of your total word count.  While I very seldom manage to cut almost 1/3 of my text, I do shorten things considerably.  Here are 5 tips on how to cut the “extra.”

  1. Give Yourself Space.  When I am too close to my writing, I have troubles spotting what needs to go.  Whenever possible I put things aside for at least a week.  A deadline may mean that I can only put it aside for a day.  This usually gives me enough space to spot what can go.
  2. Look for Info Dumps.  I spend so much time developing my characters and their back story and research pages and pages of facts for both fiction and nonfiction that I often find myself squeezing in extra details.  As I reread my work, I ask myself if this is something my reader needs to know.  I look especially hard at full paragraphs of back story or background detail.  I may not got it all, but I do tighten.
  3. Don’t Repeat Yourself.  A lot of what I cut are repeats.  I’ll show something in my character’s actions and then point it out again through dialogue or narrative.  If all three show the same thing in exactly the same way, it is time to snip away the excess.
  4. Read Out Loud.  This is something my husband and I first noticed when we were reading out loud to our son.  As we read some of the wordier stories, we would skip words.  It was probably just one here and another there but we trimmed as we read.  Now as I read something out loud, I quickly highlight the words I’ve skipped.  This also helps me spot the places that I’ve repeated myself.
  5. Search for Problem Words.  In early drafts, I have a tendency to tell you what my character is about to do.  My character starts this and begins that.  I also tend to use the word that more often than necessary.  A quick search helps me find each use of start, begin and that and I delete as needed.

I may not manage to cut Darcy’s 30%, but when I’m done, I’m confident that my editor doesn’t want to cut word after wordy of chatty text, because I’ve done the job for her.

What do you look for when you cut your own excess verbage?