Finally Fall: Writing in the Gray

ginkgo-1804045_1920Here in Missouri we had an unseasonably warm October.  Fall weather would bob into view and then bob away again.  It didn’t settle in until about a week before Thanksgiving.  But now the days are more gray than sunny and we’re getting those fall rains.  Personally, I love the sound of rain on the patio roof.

But I’ve also noticed that after a day or two, I’m not as productive.  I’m a little droopy and just don’t move as fast.  Part of the problem is that this is just a super busy time of year.  No matter how much I get done, there are dozens of things that I still need to do.  It can be overwhelming.  Here are a few tips to keep your spirits up and keep the words flowing.

Get outside.  As long as it isn’t a torrential downpour, spend a few minutes outside.  Weak sun is better than no sun.  And, as my grandmother would have pointed out, you aren’t going to melt.

Get moving.  Yes, you are super busy.  But be sure to take the time to move.  Twice a week, I go to yoga.  I am one of the most frugal people on the planet.  If I pay for yoga, I will go to yoga.  This is different from going to the gym because yoga meets twice a week.  There’s a schedule.  I also use my treadmill and my husband’s rowing machine.  I set a “calories burned goal” six days a week.  I am much more civil when I meet it because it means I’ve had to move.

Turn on the lights.  It gets dark earlier and cloudy days mean the house or office can be gloomy all day long.  Turn on an extra light.  Light a candle.  Put up a strand or two of holiday lights.  I’m not saying add holiday decorating to your to-do list, but make sure you have plenty of light.

As much as I love the sound of rain, too many gray days slow me down.  Fortunately I have a plan for how to deal with it.


Advice I Rarely Follow, or Write What You Know

guard-1816311_1920Last week, I got a message from a RedLine editorial assistant.  Would I be interested in working on a series about E-sports?

I happened to be on the treadmill when the message came through but I hopped off and ran upstairs.  “E-sports?” I asked my son who was playing CS:GO. (As was explained to me, that stands for Counter Strike: Global Offense.  “It’s an acronym, Mom.”)

Anyway, I bugged the boy.  “E-sports?”  He looked over his shoulder at me.  “What about them?”

“Does that mean FIFA-type games or professional gaming?”

“Professional gaming.  Why?”  I showed him the list of possible topics and he pointed to the first one on the list.  “That would be the best match for you.”  I quickly dashed off a reply and got back on the treadmill.

Write what I know?  I could follow that advice but it would be pretty lean around here.  Instead, I adapt it to write what I’m willing to research.  It doesn’t hurt that I have an enthusiastic gamer in the house.  And I do play a handful of games — mostly various versions of Call of Duty.

I know about gaming as a hobby but professional gaming?  There are tournaments.  You can win prize money.  You can gain sponsors.  I can name a handful of games but that’s about it.  Two days ago I didn’t even know that South Korea is the Hollywood of professional gaming.

How do you proceed when you aren’t writing what you know? With research of course. So far I have 3 sources and 5 pages of notes.  This isn’t a particularly long book — less than 4000 words — but I’m going to need a lot more information.  I have about 6 more online articles to read, 3 print articles from the library and two books to pick up.  Research is, not surprisingly, key.

But just in case I am taken in by a faulty bit of information, I’ve got a consultant lined up.  His grandfather asked if he was getting a consulting fee.  “Nah, but she’ll take me out to dinner.”  Giving birth to your consultant certainly has its benefits.


Creating Spot-on Characters

teens-629046_1920As I do the various bits of prewriting necessary before I start writing Iron Mountain, I’m spending a lot of time noodling over my characters. My story is science fiction but I want me characters to seem real to my young readers.  Here are some tips on how I plan to accomplish this.

Abandon Being Mom.  Most of us who write for teens are not teens ourselves.  I’m actually the Mom of a teen.  Ours is the house where anywhere from 3 to 13 kids may gather on a Saturday.  Suffice it to say that because I’m the Mom on duty, I get in a lot of Mom hours. “Don’t do that, do this and seriously? When did that seem like a good idea?” When I write for teens, I cannot be even a cool mom.  If I can’t put that aside, I’ll sound like a mom.  According to my son, we moms have a distinctive voice.  Hey, he’s the son of a writer.  He also comments on my motive and on subtext.  For my characters to sound like real teens, I have to give them free rein.

Listen In.  I also have to listen to how real teens talk.  Teens today sound different from teens sounded even ten years ago.  They use different phrases.  Not that I want to load my dialogue down with authentic jargon, but I want them to sound real.  The teens in my living room use terms that originated in texts.  I may know what they mean when I see them but hearing them sometimes throws me.

Know How They Differ.  Some things are very different from when I was a teen.  Where we worried about AIDS, that’s a non-issue today.  Yes, it still exists but it isn’t the death sentence it was way back when.  They grew up with high levels of technology.  A microwave oven and VCR were a huge deal when I was a teen.  I helped my father program our first computer.  Now everyone carries their own phones which are essentially mini-computers.  There are sports leagues that don’t involve any kind of ball but instead center on online gaming.

These are some of the things that I have to keep in mind as I create my teen characters.  I’m sure I’ll discover more, but this is where I am today.


Holiday Writing: Do You or Don’t You

pumpkin-pie-1041330_1280With Thanksgiving behind us we are heading hard and fast into the holiday season.  Decorating. Shopping. Events and more.  How does a writer find the time to write?

For some of us it isn’t entirely a choice.  This is how I keep the lights on.  I like electricity and water and all the other utilities and food is amazing too.  Since none of this is free, I have to work.  In the past three days I have agreed to write another series book for Red Line. It isn’t nearly as long as the majority of the books that I’ve written for them so I suspect that it will be due before Christmas.  I also just received a rewrite request from e-future in Korea for the early reader that I sent them.  I write to pay the bills and I also write because I have editors who want my work, but even if you are still trying to break in you should keep writing too.  Here are a few tips.

  1.  Decide to write.  I know it sounds goofy but step 1 really is making the decision to do it.  And thinking “I’ll write if I can find the time” is not what I mean.  Decide that you will write.  Set specific goals.
  2. Be realistic.  This is a busy time of year so be realistic about what you can get done.  You may not be able to draft a chapter but what about a page or two?
  3. Train your family.  It may not be easy but if someone interrupts you, send them on their merry way.  Seriously.  My son learned early on that he could come get me “if it is on fire, has stopped breathing or is bleeding.”  Of course that means he didn’t come get me when he knocked the mirror off the wall but no system is perfect.
  4. Do the holiday thing.  Don’t pass over the holiday fun.  After you’ve given yourself time to write, celebrate.  You need to recharge your creative batteries!

Now that I’ve met my writing goal, you’ll have to excuse me. There is Thanksgiving dessert with my name on it.


Happy Thanksgiving

thanksgiving-vintage-1772596_1280For those of you who celebrate, I’d like to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.  Take the time to recharge your creative battery.

I don’t know if this is just a MidWest thing but our Thanksgiving day tends to stretch into Thanksgiving Weekend.  Thursday, we have dessert with my Dad and dinner with my sister and her family.

Friday (don’t tell anyone), we have no plans.

Saturday we’ll be putting up Christmas decorations at church, going to lunch with the crew, and then cooking our own Thanksgiving dinner.  This is how you deal with it when you are the only people in the larger family who like the traditional dishes.

Sunday after church we will have dinner with my husband’s turkey-despising family.

I will eat.  I will knit. I will hang greenery.  And hopefully I will come back ready to write!  Writing is a career that I love but you definitely need to take a break every now and again so that you have the energy to create.



Developing a Story: Do you talk to others about your work or not?

space-and-freightI’ve been gathering the material for the story I’m calling Iron Mountain. It is a science fiction novel for teens. Since it hasn’t entirely come into being, I don’t know yet if it is middle grade or young adult. I think it may be young young adult but there is a “thank you but no” love interest.  
Anywho, I’ve been reading up on historic iron mining and noodling over the related ghost town that my character finds. What I had in my head was 100% Earth.  That’s a problem because the story isn’t set on Earth.  Yes, it is an earth-like planet and in fact it was colonized from Earth.  But it has to be different from Earth in notable ways.  Otherwise, I might as well set it ON Earth.
Because of this, I’m rethinking the building material used in the miner’s cabins.  It can’t just be wood or stone.  These people weren’t rich so I’m thinking they patch things with whatever is available.  Since the iron is shipped off planet, that might mean shipping containers.  I brought this up to my husband.
“You mean containers used for the ore?  Or the iron?  They would probably use magnetic containment not containers.  That’s what they’re talking about with asteroid mining.”  Um . . . what?  My husband and I both read science but clearly we read very different things and this is something I’m going to need to read.
But people would need supplies until they get farming and whatever up to speed.  Things from Earth or wherever.
“No one likes to dead head,” says he.  Okay, that might not have been exactly what he said.  Face it, I’m having to puzzle through the “shipping and freight” lingo in addition to asteroid mining.  Goods may be shipped onto the planet but if they use something other than containers for the ore, they aren’t going to want to bring back empty containers.  That means that whatever gets dropped planetside will be “disposable.”  
Normally I don’t discuss my writing with other people when it is at the prewriting stage.  But I’m starting to second guess that decision.  I think I need to pick this man’s brain.  Oh, honey!

Plot Planners: Making Writing Advice Your Own

As I write this, I’m still in Chapter 4 of Martha Alderson’s The Plot Whisperer.  One of the things that I was supposed to do way back in the beginning of Chapter 3 was make a plot planner.

A plot planner looks a lot like the graphic for acts and rising tension in a story.  Something like this (see below).


It isn’t really exciting at this point in it’s existence but once again I had to fiddle with what Alderson asked me to do.  If you know me, you probably realize that this is a major part of my personality.  “Do it like that? Why?  Because this would be better.”

Alderson’s instruction would ideally be great for a visual person like me.  Take a 6 foot long piece of paper and draw the line from bottom left to up near top right.  Include two peaks and one valley. Eventually you are going to be adding colored post-its with scene titles/brief descriptions.  Yes!  I could so get into this.

Easy peasy.  I even have a roll of paper I could use.  The problem comes with what to do with said planner.  I do actually have a six-foot stretch of wall in my house.  Actually I have closer to 15 feet of empty wall.  The problem is that it is in the hallway.

Leave a six-foot long piece of paper in the hallway for . . . weeks.  The thing is that I don’t even think the boys would argue with me.  It would just be another strange mom thing.  But broad shoulders would brush against it and away would fly my post it notes.  Then there are those times I get up in the middle of the night and don’t turn on a light because I don’t want to wake anyone up.  On the way to the kitchen and back, I tend to bump into a wall or two.  How long before I ripped the planner?  And I’m sure the cats, God Bless their pointy little heads, would consider it a challenge to grab if anything had the nerve to flutter.

Honestly, I would love to do this the way she describes but it would drive me nuts trying to keep everything in tact.  So once again I am doing it on Adobe Illustrator.

Writing advice is all well and good but don’t expect it all to be a perfect fit as is.  Be ready to mold and shape it to fit your own circumstances.  When you do, you’ll discover a variety of tools that you can use to shape and mold your writing.


Theme: Take some time to play

theme-clustersAsk me what the theme of a book is and I’m going to stare blankly for a moment.  It doesn’t matter if it is something I am reading or something I am writing, I am a do-er.  Generally the first thing that I identify is plot.  Or character.  Theme may come into play only after a full draft has been completed.

But The Plot Whisperer plays with theme in Chapter 4.  Heck, I don’t even have a plot outline.  It all feels a little odd.  Ah, well.  What could it hurt to give it a try.

Alderson instructs Plot Whisperer readers to get out a big piece of paper and draw an oval in the center.  Do you know the theme of your book?  She doesn’t mean Family or Honor.  She wants your well-developed, well-thought-out sentence.  Don’t have it yet?  No worries.  Just start writing thematic words and phrases that have to do with your book.

As you do this, says Alderson, you are going to identify groupings of ideas.  Can you use these to develop your specific theme?

Okay, I can do this.  Not that I can bring myself to write it on paper.  My common ideas wouldn’t be grouped together.  It would be . . . gasp . . . messy.  Anyone who has ever seen my desk is probably rolling on the floor.  But in my defense, I put myself through college creating graphics for archaeological reports.  Messy graphics, even brain storming, will distract me from actually brainstorming.  I have to know an easy clean up is in sight.  So I did it in Adobe Illustrator because I could just scoot things around as needed.  And boy oh boy did I need to clean up the graphic (see the final at right).

My OCD tendencies aside, I did discover something about my theme.  My theme is the idea that Family is more than people and estate/shared belongings.  It isn’t history although it is shaped by history. It is shared values and can change over time.  What I found playing with this is that there are both Positive and Negative aspects to this theme.  Moving my character from negative to positive will not only bring about a thematic arc in my story, it will also fuel the character’s emotional arc.  Woo-hoo!   Definitely a worthwhile exercise.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to see what Alderson wants me to do next.



Graphic Novels: Telling Nonfiction stories

comic-book-1393153_1280Oh, the vagueries of the internet.  Monday or Tuesday a story popped up in my blog feed.  It was extolling graphic novels that tell stories of science, nonfiction stories of science.  Awesome!   Then I took a closer look and realized that the original post was from 2013.  Okie-dokie, not sure why it decided I needed to know about a three year old post right now, but there you have it.

Still, my favorite graphic novel is science so I decided to look into this.  My all time favorite, until something surpasses it, is Clan Apis by Jay Hosler.  Yes, the bee talks but this is a graphic novel about bees.  Somehow Hosler makes it work.  He is a Ph.D. who studies bees which means that he knows his stuff.  He delivers tons of bee facts — life in the hive, how they defend the hive, bee predators, etc — along with a healthy dose of humor. As with many graphic novels, just because it is illustrated doesn’t mean it is a book for the picture book audience. The publisher recommends the book for 9 – 12 years old, and I wouldn’t go much younger. Hosler discusses the life cycle of the hive.  The whole life cycle.  Hint:  Bees do not live a long time eve if they are the main character.

Fortunately, I’ve also found a number of newer science graphic novels.  I’m really interested in how authors tell nonfiction stories in this format.  I found Science Comics by First Second books.  This seems to be a new line with books published in 2015 and 2016.  I’ve requested a whole selection from my library, Coral Reefs by Maris Wicks, Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers and Human Body Theater both by M.K. Wicks, and Volcanoes by Jon Chad.

Dominic Walliman also has a single author series, Professor Astro Cat, with Flying Eye Books.  I’ve requested both Atomic Adventure and Frontiers of Space.  

The format is consistently appealing to young readers, especially those who “don’t like to read.”  I know there are also history topics in graphic novel format, including March by John Lewis.  I have book 1 of that series on my desk.  I’ve never tried writing a graphic novel before but this is an interesting format to explore nonficiton topics.  Once I do a little research I may pitch an idea to some lucky publisher.



Our Audience: Listening to What Teens Have to Say

teen-boyOne of the best things about the internet is that it gives us a chance to connect with a wide variety of people.  Some of these people are even our target readers.  You can check out what teens post in chats or the videos that they post on Youtube.  Some of my favorites are the Ted videos by teens.  These are teens who were passionate enough about something that they managed to make adults sit up and take notice which is no small feat.

Maybe you’re writing a book about a young musician who makes it big.  How does a teen break into the music world?  Check out Tallia Storm’s Discovering the Storm. She was a 13 year-old musician when she opened for Elton John.  This is the story of how she managed to pull that off.

Or you could be writing a book about a young scientist.  How do you work when you don’t have access to a lab?  How do you acquire the things you need?  Angela Zhang, the 17-year-old creator of a nanoparticle, talks about Breaking Down the Unknown while Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao discuss how the mistakes they made, in discovering a bacteria that can break down plastic, led to future discoveries.

You can access other TedXTeen talks here.  Musicians, scientists, writers and more have recorded TED talks.  Teens who are into computers, who have survived war and who are great problem solvers have also made their voices heard.  You don’t have to chase down your own reluctant teen ager to find out what his or her contemporaries think.  Instead, check out these videos and let them both inform and inspire your writing.  You may find a story taking off in a whole new direction with a voice of its own.