10 things I learned about writing in 2016

I’ve just spent my first full year as an agented writer after years of learning how to write children’s fiction. In no particular order, here are my lightbulb moments of the last 12 months: things I’ve realized that have helped me most in my development as a writer this year.

  1. Beautiful writing abhors repetition, unless deliberate. There’s a fabulous, funny example of intentional repetition in BECAUSE YOU’LL NEVER MEET ME, one of my top reads of last year.
  2. Transcendent writing says something about the human condition. Frances Hardinge writes exquisite sentences I could happily live inside for a month, but it’s the insights that pepper her work that make feel wiser, and changed, after finishing one of her books.
  3. Revision always hurts and is always worth it. Wonderful pieces of writing may get cut during this process. Lin Manuel Miranda said this better than I can recently: “You don’t cut because it’s not good, you cut because it’s about serving the story and momentum. Editing would be EASY if just bad bits fell away.” Remove whatever’s needed and work hard to go deeper, closer, realer.
  4. Making up words is okay (viz. RIVERKEEP).
  5. Length doesn’t buy us depth as writers. LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET has 757 words and yet it’s heartbreakingly profound. I also learned that one of my favourite books of 2016 was given a last-minute edit just before press by its author, who pared back 3000 words at the 11th hour.
  6. To write something worth reading, the story must be in me and I in the story. The manuscript I’ve just given to my agent was ostensibly for my daughter when I first drafted it two years ago. But I realized during early edits that this wasn’t enough. I located the place inside myself that the story really sprang from, and that’s what brought it to another, stronger place. James Scott Bell talks about this in PLOT AND STRUCTURE: the need for a personal resonance in the stories we choose to write.
  7. Experimentation is good: challenging myself with new forms is worth the risk. I discovered that a story told from two points of view could work, but I had to let go of the metronome-like regularity (even back-and-forth between both characters, interspersed by an outside insert) of the first structure I tried; loosening up a bit helped the narrative function better.
  8. Beginnings matter. This fantastic blog from Jennie Nash talks about the need for confidence from the very first line. Some of my writing friends said they felt the need for hooky openers is overstated these days, but I disagree. If we can write, why not write something memorable, right from the starting gun? Maybe this is an impulse from my copywriting day job, where every syllable counts. A captivating first line is large part of my satisfaction as a reader, and I’ll do all I can to deliver the same experience for my readers. I’ve just finished listening to the audiobook of A CHRISTMAS CAROL and Dickens knew what he was on about in this regard. “Marley was dead: to begin with.”
  9. I need to read my drafts cold and be honest with myself. In my most recent story, character motivation wasn’t strong enough, stakes were too low and the goal unclear. I prioritized the changes I had to make, took my agent’s advice on which areas were dragging, and got to work. The new draft made us both a lot happier.
  10. If editing feels hardest as I near the end of the story, that’s because it is. And that’s okay. Writer Vikki King said (I’m paraphrasing) the work of writing a story is in three parts – the first 75%, the next 20% and the final 5% – and the secret of success is putting the same amount of effort into all three parts. Think on that.

What were your lightbulb moments as a writer this year? I am actively seeking tips – please let me know your insights below. 

 

Image from Sheng-Fa Lin on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/CeuUD

I pledged allegiance

The Pledge of Allegiance

I pledged allegiance to the flag

after the scuff of chairs and desks,

facing front, hand pressed to my heart;

The sagging stripes and folded stars

didn’t stand for the Republic,

but Happy Days and Hostess cakes,

sprinkler summers and autumn leaves,

tobogganing and snowball fights;

They’re throwing more than snowballs now,

and there’s no ducking it: it’s blame,

for their dead American dream.

My hand still presses to my heart.

O America, this rebirth

of indecency must not stand;

Remember justice?

It was supposed to be for all.

 

 

 

 

Words: Sheila M. Averbuch

Photo: Paul Sableman on Flickr

Why kill your darlings?

7527209_b26bbdcc57_b

Few writing tasks are harder for me than rewriting my opening chapter. I end up stuck to my opening lines like a suction cup, afraid to break the book by reimagining how it might open. It’s where I’m least willing to kill my darlings, but I’ve realized why my first chapter, of all places, can’t be a safe haven for favorite phrases, descriptive passages, or belches of backstory.

The story’s opening is like a cross-section of the book: it lets the reader glimpse elements that run right through the narrative, all the way to the climax. Anything in chapter one must earn its place through multiple rigorous edits.

I know this. Or, I thought I knew this. Still, I’ve found myself clinging to descriptive passages in particular, and to favorite bits of character background. The need to hold onto these things has felt almost superstitious, as if these elements are good luck charms that hold my book together. My chapter-one rewrites end up being hugely frustrating experiences as I leaf over earlier drafts, fretting over phrases I’ve left behind and thinking, wrongly, that reinserting them will reignite the magic.

For me, there’s only one way to find the magic: get right back inside the character’s head and be honest with myself about what they’re most preoccupied with, and what their deeper fears are (things that need only be hinted at, here in the early pages).

I’ve just finished a couple hours on my opening chapter, forcing myself to keep the character’s main preoccupation in focus, but it’s terribly hard. What a temptation there is to plonk in my good-luck-charm phrases and descriptions. I’ve known the phrase “kill your darlings” for years, but this morning was the first time I understood why it makes sense to do so. Holding onto those darlings can pull me away from the moment, out of the character’s genuine mindset as I strain to write towards a piece of imagery or backstory-memory that I’ve told myself I must include.

It’s like preparing spontaneous anecdotes in advance of an important social event, terrified of running out of things to say when the stakes are so high. But that never really works, does it? It’s much better to stay in the moment, react to stimuli, and allow pertinent facts to bubble to the surface in a natural way.

Last month I had a similar experience, realizing the need to stay in the moment later in the manuscript, where I introduce a second main character. This girl was truly starving, but spent an unnatural amount of time — and wordcount — resenting her father. When I looked hard at the scene, the hierarchy of needs dictated what I (if I were her) would be thinking, feeling and prioritizing in that moment. I went with the hunger, and her thoughts about her dad sort of leaked out later in the scene, in a much more natural and narratively helpful way.

How do you deal with darlings in your revisions? I’d love to hear any insights or challenges you experience, in the comments below.
Photo by victory of the people on Flickr

Unlocking a tough scene with a clean-slate rewrite

Pen and Paper by GuudmorningLast week’s revisions were the hardest I’ve faced in a while on my work in progress, a middle grade novel that’s my first full-length fantasy. The scene where the very real world meets the magical just wasn’t working, but thanks to some great reading recommendations from twitter (I especially loved Anne Ursu’s BREADCRUMBS), plus some back-to-the-drawing-board scene brainstorming, I’ve got past my roadblock in chapter 7.

I don’t know how I’d forgotten this golden rule of revising: when I am struggling to rewrite a scene, I cannot bring over any old material from the previous draft, and by that I mean not a sentence, not a phrase, not a word. I absolutely need to reimagine everything about the characters’ mindset, assumptions and fears in order to generate realistic interactions, and the realistic dialogue that flows from that.

This meant doing some improv acting, devising a new scene (and, yes, talking to myself out loud in my writing room while I did it), exploring what the characters would say to each other on first meeting.

If I forget, please remind me in future – no! copying! and pasting! I have to start with a completely clean slate, especially when a scene is tricky.

If you’ve had any epiphanies during your writing or revising process, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

 

 

Paper and pen image by Guudmorning on Flickr

Review: Emma Shevah’s MG comedy Dara Palmer’s Major Drama

dara palmer major drama

I’m a sucker for theatrical kids, and it was obvious from the start that Dara Palmer, star of Emma Shevah’s DARA PALMER’S MAJOR DRAMA, wouldn’t disappoint. Eleven-year-old Dara is a born star; it’s just that no one around her has recognised this yet. Passed over repeatedly for starring roles in the school play, Dara ever-so-reluctantly joins the director’s after-school acting class at the local theatre and ever-so-gradually learns that she has a lot to learn about this acting thing…which is not, evidently, based around how many faces she can pull.

If you loved Tim Federle’s BETTER NATE THAN EVER books, you’ll love the Dara story, not least because there’s a heavy dose of heart-warming self-discovery as Dara’s eyes open to other things beyond what makes a good actor. Dara’s one of two adopted daughters in the Palmer family but she’s never wondered (until an acting exercise by her teacher spurs her to do so) what it feels like to be her shyer, younger sister Georgia, who’s habitually outshone by Dara and her megawatt personality.

Dara is one of the most deliciously comic characters I’ve read in a long time, with a non-stop voice that explodes with personality. Her wonderful character is what lets her ruminate genuinely but never in a heavy-handed way about the Cambodian parents she never knew, about what it must have been like for her baby self to be whisked away to live in England, and about the everyday racism of a few boorish classmates. Dara’s dawning awareness that there are no faces like hers on the Hollywood posters that line her walls also feels real, as does her all-guns-blazing determination to be one of those faces, one day.

As a transplanted American living in the UK, I especially adored the view on America; I’ve seen in my own kids and others in our Scottish village the way that the US (in entertainment terms, at least) is like a giant pop-culture monolith to the west, obsessing British kids in a way that’s not altogether a good thing. Dara is irritated that she finds herself misusing US terms like “prom” and “vanity cases” — this is deftly, brilliantly done and is some of the funniest writing I’ve seen in ages.

As a NetGalley reader I didn’t get to see most of Helen Crawford-White’s illustrations, but the sparkling cover has the right glam to draw star-loving readers.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah, illus. by Helen Crawford-White.

Published 2015 UK: coming July 2016 in US.

More info at Chicken House

Your story can make a great story

The Mirror

I shouldn’t be blogging when this is my only clear morning to work on novel revisions, but yesterday’s twitter pitch contest aimed at increasing the diversity in children’s literature has me thinking thoughts that are crowding out everything else.

#DVpit, the brainchild of New York literary agent Beth Phelan, took over twitter yesterday, encouraging writers with polished, ready manuscripts to put a one-liner about their work onto twitter if theirs is a diverse book — especially if the writer him- or herself is from a diverse background. Of course that’s open to interpretation, but here’s how Beth described DVpit.

So for example, if you are a writer of colour and your book centres around characters of colour, or if you are a writer with a disability and so is your main character, #DVpit wanted to hear from you yesterday.

By the way, if you missed yesterday’s contest and you’re writing a diverse story that’s ready to be seen by agents, you haven’t missed the boat. It’s clear from yesterday’s huge industry interest in #DVpit that agents and publishers are keen to hear from you whenever your story is at its best.

That’s why I wanted to jot down some thoughts today – to encourage you, whoever you are, not to be afraid to put your own culture – or elements of it – into the story you’re writing for children. I’m a Caucasian, first-generation Irish-American now living in Scotland, so I don’t pretend to have first-hand experience of living in our society – which still tends to prioritise and reward white, male, heterosexual, middle-class Judeo-Christian backgrounds – as a person from a minority or marginalised background.

But I do know what it’s like to assume, at a gut level, that my own story isn’t as interesting as something I could invent. The first two manuscripts I wrote were set on a space station, centred around a boy struggling with self-confidence issues. The problem with skilled writers is that they can write just about anything and make it sound good, and I was indeed able to write a competent story that had very little of my own guts, fears or fantasies in it.

It was only when I wrote a story that I decided was going to be 100% for me – with deep roots in my own Irish-American Massachusetts upbringing – that I tapped into something special. That third story was the one that got me my amazing agent, Jennifer Laughran, and while a huge amount of writers-craft work and practice was needed to pound the story into shape, I do believe the story works because it’s plugged right into my guts, into who I am.

Don’t discount your own heritage, background, insights, inherited legends or cultural traditions if you’re looking for the stuff of your own stories. I’m not giving the pat advice to write what you know; I’m saying don’t forget who you are when you’re looking for ideas that resonate.

The best advice I remember hearing on this topic is “write what you fear.” (Who said that? If you can remember, stick it in the comments below.) All the way through my Massachusetts book, I had the palpable sense of exploring things that really, really scared me.

And those are the books I adore reading: books like YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS by Meg Medina or Brian F. Walker’s BLACK BOY WHITE SCHOOL, or Lindsay Eagar’s HOUR OF THE BEES, or Julie T. Lamana’s UPSIDE DOWN IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, where the main character struggles to find peace with where they came from and where they want to go. Not all those stories, by the way, are own-voice tales by and about authors from the same tradition. But they are the stories I love most, because they pack an unbeatable punch.

A lot of people in the publishing industry would agree that books on shelves don’t reflect the true diversity of the great wide world, and #DVpit looks like it’s a step in the right direction, encouraging more writers to tell stories that spring from their own backgrounds. I’ve looked at Twitter contests for some years – that’s what set me on the road to finding my amazing agent – and I’ve never seen such a high calibre of industry folks watching the one-line pitches as I saw yesterday with #DVpit.

Whatever your story is, write it, make it awesome, hone your pitch until it shines so much it hurts your eyes, then submit. What have you got to lose?

 

 

 

Mirror photo by Pellesten on Flickr

Plot, structure, death, death and more death

Edinburgh Central Library SCBWI workshop

I’m fixated on plot and structure at the moment – you may be, too, if you’re a writer tackling revisions on a work in progress or a NaNoWriMo draft from last year.

This year, for the first time, I’m editing a manuscript that I’ve left for a long, long rest. I wrote it more than a year ago. I haven’t let a first draft sit for so long before, but I’ve been tied up with revisions on my middle grade sci-fi which is on submission (gulp, choke) with publishers. I completely credit plot and structure thinkers like Darcy Pattison and James Scott Bell with helping me get that manuscript this far – it was their advice that helped me turn my earlier draft of the sci-fi story into something stronger.

If you haven’t read NOVEL METAMORPHOSIS (which was the one craft book that all four tutors at the BookBoundUK Retreat I attended in 2014 unanimously recommended) definitely get a hold of it. I’m also slightly addicted currently to James Scott Bell’s WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE.

Here in Edinburgh our SCBWI Southeast Scotland network hosted a workshop by Scottish YA author Christina Banach earlier this month, giving a quick tour of Bell’s plot and structure techniques. Places were limited and sold out quickly for that intensive, but I did a write up of the plot workshop here for Words and Pictures, the SCBWI British Isles magazine, if you want to read up.

What struck me most about the day was the renewed focus it gave me on plot stakes and character “death” – be that physical, emotional (“dying inside”) or professional death – as James Scott Bell discusses in his various structure books.

In fact, on reading THE LIE TREE recently by Frances Hardinge – it’s just won the overall Costa award here in the UK, deservedly so – it struck me that all three kinds of death are grappled with, both within the main character and within her father who she so admires. In fact the whole story could be described as “death by Victorianism;” wow, that era knew how to make folk suffer.

Reflect and snap

I’ve been trying to reflect more on my writing, as my SCBWI buddy Louise Kelly recommended; Snapchat has been useful for this, as it lets me scrapbook images and video clips that capture what I’m thinking about the revising process.

If you don’t know Snapchat, you’re probably not aged 18 to 24; neither am I. But it may be worth investigating, because it does make keeping a video diary quite easy. Although it first began as a straight messaging app, similar to Skype, Snapchat now lets anyone post pictures and videos to their “story,” a.k.a. public timeline, visible to anyone.

Snapchat poses huge challenges, though, for those of us trying to get a handle on it – and not just because all content vanishes after 24 hours. There are also no hashtags, no lists as on Twitter, and no way to search public timelines, although the user directory can be searched by user name. It’s like a treasure hunt, finding publishing peeps to follow, but some cool folks I’m following on Snapchat include mega-agent Suzie Townsend, plus Chronicle Books and Quirk Books (sztownsend81, ChronicleBooks and QuirkBooks).

I’m cobbling together my snaps in YouTube, but there’s not much there at the moment – could be useful, however, if you’re an author curious about how others are using Snapchat. I’M NO EXPERT, but I am rather enjoying what it’s doing for my vow to be more reflective.

Whatever you’re working on, I hope your writing’s going well. You can find me on Twitter here or add me on Snapchat at sheilamaverbuch.