5 Minutes a Day: Plot before the Outline

Before you try to outline it helps to have some idea where you are going.  You won’t immediately know every step in your plot but it helps to figure out some of the key moments.  These include the inciting incident, the climax and various turning points.  Since I’m currently working on a mystery, these have to do with things like Finding the Body, Jumping to Conclusions, Setting a Trap.

Once you know what these key moments are, you might also want to consider how to make them BAD.  One way to do this is with the setting itself.  If your character is afraid of heights, she ends up on a skywalk or in a tree.  If she’s afraid of snakes, you might force her to meet another character in the herpetarium at the zoo or perhaps beside a tank of baby boas at the pet store.

Other ways to complicate things is through characters.  Force her to confront her prejudices and they don’t have to be racial.  Maybe she has to deal with kids from the enemy school or someone who hangs with another clique.

Another way to increase her discomfort would be to increase the stakes.  I’ve done this to a point in that one of my character’s best friends is a suspect and the other friend is sure she’s done it.  You could also have your character accused of something and the only way to get out of it is to accuse someone else.

A fourth way to complicate things is to add constraints.  Set the scene in a small space such as a space craft or a boat.  You can also limit the time which the character has to solve things.

It sounds like a lot so you may be wondering what you can accomplish in 5 minutes. Here are some suggestions:

  • List your Key Moments.
  • Examine each key moment for ways to add complications.  Add at least 2 complications per key moment. Three is even better.
  • Re-examine your complications for variety.  Personal stakes may be the issue at one point with constraints coming into play later on.

Clearly you aren’t going to get this done in one sitting.  And that’s okay.  Once you’ve come up with both key moments and complications, think about them again.  Make changes to increase tension or stakes.  I altered who the first suspect is because I wanted to expand my cast of characters to make the mystery harder to solve.

The hope is that by improving things before you staring writing, before you even start outlining, the writing and rewriting will be a little bit smoother.  Fingers crossed!


Call for Manuscripts: Millbrook Looking for K-3 STEM

Sitting down to write this post, I realize that it has been quite a while since I posted a call for manuscripts.  Sorry!  I’ll try to keep my eyes open for more.

Carol Hinz, the editorial director for Millbrook Press, recently posted a call for manuscripts on their blog.  They are looking for STEM or STEAM (as long as STEM is involved) for K-3 readers.  Here are some of the parameters:

  • Playful approach
  • 1000 word max.  This includes sidebars but not back matter.
  • Back matter.  It doesn’t have to be completed but you should include a list of possible topics.
  • Photographs.  This should be a topic that can be illustrated with photos although the writer does not have to provide said photos.
  • Attachments.  Hinz does not want the text in the body of a the e-mail but as an attachment.
  • Multiple manuscripts.  It is okay to send more than one manuscript but Hinz wants each attached to a separate e-mail.

There were something like 45 comments and some of this information is from her responses to comments vs the original post.  She also recommended that authors check out some of their books to see what she means by playful.  The books are:

I’ve read Water Can Be and Plants Can’t Sit Still but it was some time ago.  That means that I’ll be rereading them before submitting my manuscripts.

If you have questions for Hinz, she says to ask in the comments and she will respond.   But please remember, this is a business relationship.  she didn’t suggest that you query in the comments.  If you want to find out more about her and about Millbrook, check the various SCBWI publications.  Go to Manuscript Wish List or Twitter.  Try Google.  Yes, it’s a hassle but if you find out something useful it will put you ahead of the people who didn’t bother.

Good luck to any of you who submit.  And if you get a nibble, let us know so we can celebrate with you!


Dialogue: Make it sing

Thanks to Joan Dempsey’s class on Writing Great Dialogue, I am super aware of the dialogue in what I’m reading.  One of the things that she emphasized was how fickle readers are about dialogue.  If it doesn’t ring true they won’t continue to read.  And, to a point, I agree. I am going to finish my current read because I’m studying cozies.  I can’t drop every single cozy with cheese ball dialogue because there are just too many of them.  Sadness.

What is it that makes dialogue cheeseball?  In this particular case it is purple.  It feels overwritten and puffed up like fake Shakespeare.  I suspect the author was trying to make people sound educated.  They sound like they need to have sticks removed if you know what I mean.  I have to point out that I very seldom run into this in children’s lit.  But in adult genre fiction?  Ugh.

So how do you make your dialogue sing?  Here are 4 tips.

Dialogue is not real speech.  First things first, dialogue should not read like real speech.  People say ummm and uhhh. They pause.  A lot.  They back up.  They restart.  It isn’t nearly as smooth as good dialogue.  Too see what I mean, record your family speaking at the dinner table and then try to transcribe it.

Keep your dialogue brief.  I’m not saying that you can never give a character more than a single line of dialogue at a time.  But do limit the soliloquy.  If there’s a lot that a single character has to say, and it really must be said, break it up with beats of action.

Different voices.  Each character in your story needs to sound unique.  Seriously.  Everyone in the book I’m reading sounds exactly alike.  Vary the vocabulary and the way the characters string words together.  But don’t get caught up in trying to write dialect.  Your dialogue has to be understandable.

Read it aloud.  I know I said it isn’t speech but speak it.  Your ear is going to hear what sounds wooden and fake, and you can rework as needed.

Writing great dialogue is tough but it is worth the effort.  Because fake dialogue will pull your reader out of the story even if only to write a blog post.


Dialogue: Using it to strengthen your theme

On Sunday I finished Joan Dempsey’s class on Writing Great Dialogue.  It is a free introduction to her Writing Great Dialogue Master Class and covers the five things that dialogue can do.

The must surprising one for me, and the one that will be most useful in my own work, involved using dialogue to reflect theme.  Short of having every other line of dialogue include the word “love” or the phrase “crime doesn’t pay,” I wasn’t really sure how to make it work.  Part of the problem, as Dempsey emphasized, is that the dialogue has to ring true.  If it sounds fake, like something I’ve slipped into the story because I needed it to do a certain job, I will lose my reader.

But Dempsey showed how to make it work for theme by having two characters argue about the theme.  Just think about it.  You have a book about trust.  Two characters can argue after one violates the other’s trust.  Or one character can pick an argument because the other character is placing their trust in someone the first person judges as unworthy.  Or one character tries to whine about getting cheated on or whatever yet again and the second character launches into a  lecture “because you always do this to yourself.”

You might have to play around to get this to work for you but that’s like anything else in writing.  Skills take a while to build and almost nothing comes together on the first attempt.  Just make sure that it doesn’t sound like your characters putting info out there just for the reader’s benefit — woo hoo!  Pay attention this is a book about trust.

If you’re interested in studying dialogue and how to make it really work for your story, Dempsey isn’t just interested in fiction but also uses examples from and discusses nonfiction.  I found the free class interesting and educational and not just a ploy to plug the paid class.  Definitely worth your time.



Trying Something New: Software, Hardware and Techniques

I have to admit that when it comes to updating computer hardware or trying out a new program, I am seldom in the vanguard.  Yet I am typing on a new ergonomic keyboard with a detached number pad and an ergonomic mouse.  Why?  After I meet a book deadline my sciatica and my hand sometimes bother me and this should help my hand.  But that wasn’t what made the final decision.  My backspace key was getting iffy.  Sometimes it would work. Sometimes it would make a cracking noise.

How am I doing with the new equipment? The mouse and I are fine.  The keyboard and I are, apparently, undergoing a period of adjustment. An exclamation point is practically impossible and every other “y” becomes “7” or “y7”. It does not help that the cat is so energetically head butting my hand across the board. Maybe I’ll take a sheet of stickers to MicroCenter to put on the keyboard boxes – Cat Not Included.

As reluctant as I am to try new hardware and software, I like to use the tools I know, when it comes to writing techniques I like to play around. That’s how I’ve found my way writing reader’s theater, humorous poetry for preschoolers, nonfiction for teens, a rebus, book reviews,  a picture book with two storylines, and classroom activities for teachers.

Sometimes I make one sale and then no more – reader’s theater and humorous preschool poetry.  Maybe even that first sale remains elusive such as with my picture book manuscripts.  But other areas have been very successful including my nonfiction for teens and activity writing.

But even the things I’ve not had great success in have impacted the rest of my writing.  I find myself using word play in my writing for adults. Yes, I have to watch where I do it because it isn’t always appropriate but where it is, it is always very well received.

Try something new this week.  Maybe you need a new mouse .  Perhaps you could try writing a poem.  Me? I’m going to spend some time in the world of my mystery.  I’ve got my victim all lined up and just need to ID the murderer.


5 Minutes a Day: Premise

One of the things that you need to know before you write your novel is your premise.  Simpley put, your premise is what your novel is about.  Think of it as a mini-outline. This can be a huge help when either you outline your lovel or get to work because you don’t d outlines. Either way , a premise can help you stay on track.

Some of what you might want to include in your premise:

  • Who is your POV character
  • What is the story about
  • What does you character have to do
  • What is at risk if she fails.

I have to admit that I froze up in trying to consider these items and work up my premise. Somehow it was just too much to pull together.  Then I read author K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel in which she suggests that you ask yourself a series of questions.  Each of these questions became a five minute task.

What if…?

This one is a chance to explore various ideas.  Noodle over your characters and in general what the story is about and jot down whatever comes to mind.  I came up with things like:

  • What if a former foster child is accused of a murder he didn’t commit?
  • What if a volatile figure in local politics is killed during the May Festival parade?
  • What if he put it around that he and Emmie had had an affair?
  • What if he had stolen money or somehow cheated the church?

Not everything that you come up with like this is going to make it into your story but as you play with these ideas some of them will strike you as doable.  I quickly eliminated the first one but decided that the other three could work if I reshaped them a bit.

What is expected?

What are the things that your readers will expect?  Some of this may be impacted by the type of story you are writing or who your characters are.  Again, in five minutes I came up with four ideas

  • It is expected that someone will die.  Because my story is a cozy mystery.
  • It is expected that the main character or people close to her will be suspects.
  • It is expected that she will follow false leads.
  • It is expected that people will mislead her although some may do it unintentionally.

This line of thinking lead to the main suspect for the mystery so it definitely paid off.

What is unexpected?

I have to admit that I didn’t do as well with this since I only came up with one – It is unexpected that Clara will be willing to lie to the police to cover for a suspect even if she thinks the person might be guilty.

After considering these three questions, like me, you may be ready to write your premise.  Surprisingly, after struggling with it for days, I git it done in from five to ten minutes.

Spend five minutes a day for a week brainstorming answers to the questions above and then give your premise a try.



Tighten Your Text: Cutting Excess Words

Yesterday my post on Writing Nonfiction that Sings appeared on the Muffin, the blog for Women on Writing! One tip involved cutting excess words.  I working on a hard copy.  One reader asked if this really makes a difference.

Yes, I really do.

Monday and Tuesday I rewrote a nonfiction title, working on a hard copy. My goal was a final word count of 15,000 words down from the 16,870 I had. I knew how many words I should have in each chapter. Some were fine. From others, I only needed to cut 40 words. That I could do on-screen without much trouble.

But another chapter had to be cut by about 400 words or approximately 25% of the the chapter’s length.  A word here and there wasn’t going to accomplish it.

As I read the hard copy, I spread it out on the dining room table and noticed that most chapter sections were about one page long.  One was closer to three making it easy to see which section needed the most radical tightening.  I reread, identified one topic that touched on each important point, then highlighted what I wanted to keep and x-ed out what needed to go.  I did the rewrite on-screen but it still wasn’t tight enough.  I printed it off and went back into the dining room.

When you are looking at a hard copy with only a couple of words crossed out, you can’t lie to yourself.  Not much has been cut. That’s vital when 25% of the total word count needs to go.

A word to the wise – cutting something in half often results in something that feels clunky and doesn’t flow.  When this happens, I open a brand new file and start from scratch. It may seem like a lot of work, but I know where I need to go and what I need to say.  The excess never makes it onto the page and writing it again helps it flow.

But once I’ve keyed it in?  I print it out and head back into the dining room to see what I can cut.


Picture Book Writing: Workshop a Mentor Text

Most of you probably already know that I tend gush about mentor texts.  In picture book writing, they are a great way to study pacing, giving the illustrator space to work and more.

But getting the most out of a mentor text can be tough.  Sitting there, flipping through the pages, I have a tendency to get distracted by the art, that really great page turn, and my favorite funny moments.  There is always something to distract me in a top-notch picture book.

One way to make a mentor text work for you is to “workshop” it.  What do I mean?  There are three steps.

Type out the text.

Once you’ve typed it out in standard manuscript format, here are a few things to study.

  • Just how long is it?  Compare it to your own manuscript.
  • How much of the story is in the text?  What does the author include?
  • What does the author leave out?
  • How did the illustrator expand on the text?

Create a story board.

You probably won’t want to use the actual text to do this.  Instead, describe each spread in just a few words. The story board will help you study pacing.  Take note of the following:

  • How many spreads introduce the main character?
  • On which spread do you learn the story problem?
  • How many attempts are made to solve it?
  • Is there a darkest moment?  On which spread?
  • How many spreads are spent on the anti-climax?

Dummy the picture book.

You can probably do this with a copy of what you typed out but you’ll need the book as published as well.  Once you’ve taped the text into your own dummy be sure to note:

  • How much text is in each spread.
  • How the author makes use of page turns.
  • How each spread differs from the one before and the one following. It might be different characters, action, setting, mood or emotion.
  • The difference between one page spreads and two page spreads.

Workshopping a mentor text will help you see how and why it works.  By comparing it to your own manuscript, you will also see how your work differs and what you still need to improve before sending your work to a potential editor or agent.

Don’t just love the mentor book. Make it work for you!


Back It Up: Save Your Bacon

A back up can save your bacon…mmm, bacon.

When was the last time you backed up your novel?  Your hard drive?  Your blog?

I used to be really good about this but lately?  Not so much.  But as soon as I post this, I’m running my back ups.  My son had a mechanical car due in one of his engineering classes.  In addition to the car, they have to turn in a write-up that includes various calculations and specs.

Apparently, he popped his flash drive in after class today only to discover that all his files were corrupted.  All of them.  Including the one due tomorrow afternoon.

Our conversation was brief.  He had a write-up to rewrite.

I’ve had this happen before way back when hard drives were small and diskettes were a big thing.  I’d pop a disk in to key in the changes I’d made on a hard copy only to discover that, no, that file was no longer accessible.  Let’s just say that when properly motivated, I can attain great speed at the keyboard.

I said something to my husband about our son’s issue.  He said that they buy “numerous” flash drives at a time. They simply are not as reliable as they used to be.  So if that’s how you are saving your novel, back it up.

And while you’re at it, back up your blog and your site and your hard drive.  It can, after all, save your bacon.


Facts: Get Them Right or Lose Your Reader

This past weekend, my family and I took a road trip.  Three and a half hours there.  Three and a half hours back.   Following the winding, hilly roads in the Missouri bootheel, it is impossible to maintain a radio signal so we listen to audio books.  If I loved this book, I’d tell you what we listened to but I have to say that the author lost us one at a time.

I was the first one to have a problem. In an attempt to write narrative nonfiction, he was writing about a wild herd.  No problem there.  But he didn’t just follow one animal.  He got in its head.  That would be okay if you were just taking me along in its POV.  I could see what it saw and hear what it heard.  But he went so far as to give it human emotions.  Maybe it was intentional.  Maybe he thought it would build empathy, but it backfired.  I kept thinking “that’s your emotion. You didn’t conduct an interview to find this out!”

Next was my husband’s turn. Later in the book, two of the young male characters are playing around with fireworks.  As a mom it bothered me.  My husband, having been a young male, was much less annoyed by this than I was.  But the author lost him when the character flicked open his Bic lighter. I should have caught that.  I grew up in a household with two chain smokers.  You flick open a Zippo, not a Bic.

Last but not least, he lost my son.  The author described the well-worn hilt of a hunters rifle.  Stock or butt would have been accurate for a rifle.  Hilt only works on a sword.

They all seem like picky things but one by one this author said something that someone in the car knew was wrong.  Granted, we have a bizarre range of knowledge.  My husband knows business, economics, cars, music and hunting.  My son is an engineering student who also hunts.  Me?  I have degrees in anthropology and history and I’m a PBS fan.  You probably won’t find this combination often but you have to expect your readers to know about your topic.  After all, that’s probably what drew them to the book.

I’ll be finishing the book because we are reading it for book club, but not the others.  They are done.

When you get a fact wrong, you risk loosing your reader.  You pull them out of the story.  Do it once and they’ll probably give you another try.  Do it more than once and you are much more likely to lose them.  Remember, your goal is to draw your reader in and make them want to turn the page.  Error after error won’t accomplish it.