Posted in Business Side of Writing, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

One Danger of Electronic Records

 I often learn things the hard way. And again did so when I closed an account.

We’d moved from one part of the state to another and I set up new writing accounts (checking and savings) at a new credit union. After several weeks, I closed the accounts at the old financial institution. Then a few days later, I realized I wanted to look at an e-statement on the old account. However, no more online access! I called customer service to see if there was a way to get those past statements. Yes, for $2.50 each statement. Ouch. And they only had 6 months’ worth. I took them.

That got me to thinking. When we long ago switched from receiving paper statements to e-statements, it never occurred to me that I should download copies. I looked at our family accounts—there were e-statements back to September 2017 (28 months—length of time varies at each financial institution), so I saved all those copies. (Printing to pdf is my favorite method if the site doesn’t offer downloading as a pdf.) I need to do the same with my Visa account.

Why does this matter to us creatives? It may never matter. Unless you get audited by the IRS. Those statements substantiate that meal you bought while at a conference, the hotel bill, airline tickets, webinar and writing event fees, etc. You may have receipts for all these which makes the bank statement less critical, but it seems I always have something where I didn’t get a receipt. Those statements are a nice backup.

I also find them useful when preparing my taxes. I keep a spreadsheet of writing expenses, but sometimes have entered something without the amount. It’s quicker to look at a past statement than going through the receipts.

And speaking of receipts, many are in my email. I don’t usually bother to print them out or save them as a pdf. I think I should begin to do the latter. Not sure how far back I will go, but definitely for 2019. Perhaps there are other options. I’ll address those in another post.

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Posted in Before You Begin, Inspiration, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Why Are YOU Doing This?

Why are you writing? (Or illustrating or both?) Do you have an answer?

I have so many students who sign up to take one of the writing courses I teach, then don’t turn in assignments. Two things happen. They either get tired of being nagged and send something in, or drop out. Some do several lessons, then drop the class. Some are almost done with the course, then quit. (And this is a course they’re paying for!)

I get it. I do. Some find this writing gig is much harder than they thought. Many think that writing for children is so simple. Especially picture books. They look simple. Others have life interfere—something has to give and the class is easy to cut.

Mem Fox said, “We need to be honest, right from the start, about why we want to write for children. If we intend to moralise, teach a lesson, patronise, categorise, marginalise, or show off our own brilliance, we are doing it for the wrong reasons and we’ll need to reassess our motives. We are not writing academically de-constructible literature. Nor are we writing as therapy to eradicate our guilt about the world and what we have done to it.”

Writing as therapy is fine, but it’s different than writing for publication.

Hobby or Business?

For me, putting the words on a page is something I do. Yet, I don’t do it only for my own pleasure. I want to affect others, whether it is via entertainment, words of wisdom, or helpful tips. The latter is one of the reasons I blog.

I treat writing like a business. Just like a “regular” job, I show up. I get to work. I write. I read for research purposes. I do other parts of the job, such as record keeping, social media, critiques, etc. Look what Nathan Bransford has said, “The only way to stay sane in the business is to enjoy every step as you’re actually experiencing it. Happiness is not around the bend. It’s found in the present. Because writing is pretty great — otherwise why are you doing it?” I will admit that writing for me is a part time job.

Patricia Wrede said, “Talent is way down on the list of things you need to write; it comes in a distant fourth, after persistence, motivation, and discipline. And the reason is that “talent” is as common as mud; what’s rare is the motivation to sit down and actually do something with it, the discipline to do it regularly, and the persistence to stick with it until it’s finished.”

“Being a writer and eventually a published author is no different than the pursuit of any profession. You have to pay your dues,” Pam Torres said. Treating your writing like a business is part of paying your dues.

I also agree with Vita Sackville-West: “It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone.“ I am most happy and satisfied with myself when I write.

SO, what about you?

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Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Stuck on Repeat

As writer’s it’s easy for us to get stuck in a groove or a track. Round and round we go. But unlike the view from a merry-go-round, we don’t want our readers seeing the same scenes or words over and over. If we repeat, it should be intentional.

So, what constitutes unnecessary repetition?

Repetitive Words

Reading the same word too close together or too often is boring. This doesn’t include really common words. “The more common the word, the more leeway you have in repeating it,” Brian Klems says. But for other words, it’s a danger. For example, there are many words to indicate eating. I might munch, crunch, gulp, slurp, etc. We bite, chew, swallow as part of the process. If every time my character eats, the word used is always the same, a reader may get annoyed. The more unusual the word, the more obvious overuse is. The shorter the piece, the more an overused word will stand out.

Overuse of Names

Be aware of how often you use a character’s name in dialogue.

“Bob, when you’re at the store…”
“Yes, Marge?”
“Will you pick up lettuce, Bob?”
“Yes, Marge.”
“And, Bob, don’t forget tomatoes.”
“Okay, Marge.”

Sounds unnatural, doesn’t it? And there’s no action.

Repetitive Information

“This is redundant” is a note I put on a student lesson when the information has already been given. I often find it with the same wording. It’s like the writer forgot she wrote it. This means she is probably not spending enough time revising.

“Trust the reader to get it” is often in response to the writer showing the reader, then telling the same thing. For example:

            Jordan pulled his cell phone out of his jeans pocket and tapped the screen. “Come on, come on. What time is it?” The phone lit up. “Four o’clock! Leo’s gonna kill me.” He shoved his feet into untied shoes, and laces flapping, raced out the door.

Jordan was late to work.

The first paragraph shows Jordan’s late for something. We don’t know what, but when he shows up at work, we’ll get it. “Jordan was late to work” is telling. Not as interesting, besides being unnecessary.

How do you find overused words or repetitive information in your own writing?

  • Check common overused words and see if they are culprits in your writing. Here’s a short list: about, actually, almost, like, appears, approximately, basically, close to, even, eventually, exactly, finally, just, kind of, nearly, next, practically, really, seems, simply, so, somehow, somewhat, sort of, suddenly, that, then, utterly, very, well.
  • Read your writing aloud. Or you can have your computer read it to you. You’ll probably hear a word or two that occurs too often, and hopefully information that you’ve already told the reader.
  • If your manuscript isn’t too long, use an online tool to catch words. You’ll copy the text and paste it in. I’ve found several options:
    • A word counter, such as https://wordcounter.com/ literally counts words and shows the results. You can ask it to exclude small words.
    • A word cloud maker. The larger the word shows in the resulting image, the more often it has been used. Here’s a generator I’ve tried: https://www.wordclouds.com/ Of course, you’ll probably see your main character’s name a lot as well as common words. But what else are you seeing?
  • Get feedback from others. Use a critique group or beta readers.

Fixing Overused Words

Some can simply be eliminated. A writer I knew called them “weasel words”—they slip their way into your writing. Removing them doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

Consider taking an adverb and weak verb and replacing both with one stronger verb. Did she slowly climb the tree or did she inch up the tree? Same idea for adjectives and nouns. Is that big dog a Labrador or a Great Dane? See how these latter examples give you a better picture?

Think about other words you could use—we all know a lot! Ask yourself if you are using the best word. “It’s cloudy” could refer to an overcast day, a storm about to cut lose with rain, or a hurricane, but each would be very different to experience. A thesaurus is a useful tool if you get stuck, but choose words you know. Or consider how to say the sentence differently.

It can be difficult to find out where you’re stuck on repeat—that’s why using different methods is helpful. But once you become aware of your common patterns, you can use find or search in your word processor to track down the sneaky words.

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Posted in Inspiration, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Inspired by Pictures

One fiction assignment at the Institute of Children’s Literature is to write something inspired by a picture in the manual. The pictures show people (or animals) doing something—each picture can inspire ideas for a story.

Many years ago I attended a workshop where the speaker, Peggy King Anderson, had laid out newspaper and magazine clippings of drawings and photos. Our instructions were to pick several images that appealed to us. Then, asking ourselves questions about who, where, what, and when, we wrote a paragraph triggered by the pictures and the questions. That exercise created a character for me who wouldn’t let me go.

 Once I was contacted by a publisher who had a project where books for English as a Foreign Language had been written and illustrated, but not published. There was a change in company staff and the new editors wanted to go a different direction. However, it was too expensive to start from scratch with new illustrations, so they wanted writers to take the existing spreads of illustrations and fix the text.

Here’s part of what my editor said, “It has the potential to be a fine story, it just needs a little work. The main thing is that it’s pretty humorless. And with a title like that, it needs humor! Also Jake’s moaning about how his summer is ruined . . . gets old fast. Really try to write it from the mind of a kid. You can change the whole story or just tweak it. Try to make it more entertaining! Don’t be afraid to be funny. And you can change the title.”

I read the original story and agreed that the main character was too whiny. I analyzed the story and found this main issue: the main character didn’t have a strong reason to solve the problem and he wasn’t in control. His mother made a lot of the decisions. That meant I didn’t care about him. There also was a lot of telling.

Brainstorming, I asked how I could make the problem a bigger deal for this kid. I asked how it could become more important to him. What could make it worse for him? I made the problem relational—it wasn’t just something ruined, but his friend’s possession that was ruined. His friend might get mad at him if he can’t fix it. That raised the stakes.

Next, I printed out the illustrations and ignored the existing text. I rewrote the story using showing instead of telling and made each set of words fit with the picture on a page. I rearranged some of the pictures. Changed a character where I could. Most every time there was a place for a decision or suggestion to be made, I had the main character make it—that put him in control, not his mom. Most importantly, his suggestion at the end of the story solves the problem.

When I submitted it to the editor, this is what I got back: “You’ve done a great job with this story! I think it works really well; it’s a lot of fun and now it makes a lot more sense why Jake was so worried . . . I really like what you’ve done. I have a few small changes to suggest . . .”

I revised again and the story (and new title) was approved. (The Smell of Trouble was published in 2012 by Compass Media.) Plus, they asked me to do more stories.

How does this apply to you? You can also be inspired by pictures. Here are some ideas:

Ask someone else to choose some story starter images for you.* Action pictures are good. Also, ones that make you asks questions. (Internet sites such as pixabay.com could be used. Challenge yourself to come up with a story for one picture and write the story.

*in case you don’t have anyone willing to do this for you, here are some images:

Start an image collection. Add anything that appeals to you, causes emotion, or reaction. This might be a character you’d like to write about, a setting that reminds you of something from your childhood, an interesting object. There’s no limit. I know one writer who pastes them into a journal and sometimes jots down a few words. When he needs an idea, he flips through the pages for inspiration. You can do the same whether your images are in a folder or a journal.

Take a picture book or easy reader that you don’t like. Only look at the images. What else could be happening in the story? Perhaps you’re more interested in a sidekick than the main character. Brainstorm about the sidekick and what he needs. Remember the images don’t have to stay in the same order. Nor do you have to use them all to get ideas flowing.

Or take characters from two different stories. What would it be like if you put them together? You aren’t limited by who they are in their stories. Consider changing their personalities. Create different conflicts. Put them in a new setting. Have fun with it and something extraordinary might happen.

And don’t forget your own cell phone photos. Some of them may prompt story ideas, too.

I’d love to hear from others who have been inspired by pictures. Feel free to share in comments.

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Posted in Craft, It's Not Just Books, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Short Story Revision

Years ago a magazine editor responded to my initial submission with a letter requesting me to make changes and to resubmit the story on spec. Excited about her interest, I made the changes, cutting the manuscript from over 700 words to less than 500.

The editor wrote again: “You’ve done a great job on this revision! However…” and she went on to say how part of the story wasn’t realistic. I politely wrote back expressing why I thought it was realistic, but also offering to revise it.

The editor’s next letter began: “Sometimes the simplest stories are the trickiest to get right! We like this a lot, but…” She then pointed out a problem that made me say “OUCH!—I should have seen that.” I fixed it and sent the story again. This time my reply was an acceptance!

Of course, the editor could have sent a letter saying, “No, it still doesn’t work for us.” If that had happened, I’d have been disappointed, but still would have sent the improved manuscript off to another market.

Here are ten tips to help you with your next revision:

  1. Refresh. Set your manuscript aside for several weeks.Don’t look at it or even think about it. When you return to the manuscript, your goal is to read it as if you’ve never seen it before.
  2. Reformat. Change the font size or style, before rereading. Even simply changing margins will help you see the manuscript differently.
  3. Have someone else read it aloud. It’s amazing the mistakes I hear in a manuscript despite having silently read it over and over again. I also hear where the reader stumbles or doesn’t give my desired emphasis—both hints that I need to work on those sections. I may even realize I can’t decide who is talking without the visual cues of new paragraphs.
  4. Get your writing reviewed by other writers and listen to their critique with an open mind. Don’t automatically shut out ideas and suggestions. Even if they don’t work for you, looking through another’s eyes can stimulate your mind. However, if several point out a problem, you know you haven’t reached your target yet.
  5. Don’t stifle your own reactions. I don’t know how many times my inner voice responds to someone else’s comment with, “You knew that wasn’t quite right, didn’t you!” I also like asking myself if my story came full circle. If I can’t give myself an honest yes, I have more work to do.
  6. Request help. Sometimes, I know something isn’t working, but don’t know where to go next. Another writer may make a simple suggestion that turns the light on for me.
  7. Re-examine. Ask others what they think the theme or premise is. If you’re writing is working, their answer should be close to what you envision. Tell them what emotion you’re hoping to evoke in a scene and ask if you accomplished it. Ask them to state your story problem. If your reaction is “Wow, they didn’t get it,” it probably means you didn’t give it clearly.
  8. Renovate with viewpoint. Not just from 3rd to 1st person, although that can make a difference, too, but change who is telling the story. Make that boy a girl. Or see it through her best friend’s eyes instead of her own.
  9. Reshape. Changing the form sometimes purges the dross. Try writing poetry instead of prose, diary entries, or a newspaper report of the events. You may discover the story takes off on its own in another format.
  10. Rewrite. All the thought stirring usually motivates me to get to rewriting. Sometimes it’s with excitement; sometimes with frustration at how I’ve fallen short.

Whenever I feel like giving up, I remember how revision took my manuscript to published short story in Highlights for Children (April 2000). That makes it much easier for me to revise.

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