Sunday, May 21, 2017

Does Your First Chapter Do its Job?

Who knew your first chapter had a job to do? Some of my examples are personal favorites, well known or current titles. The goals of your first chapter are listed below:

1. Grab the editor’s, agent’s or reader’s attention by your compelling first few lines, sentences and paragraphs

           In THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak, his sixth line reads “You are going to die.” What? Why?! You are immediately intrigued, curious, maybe even frightened, but you keep reading.

2. Introduce the main characters

In THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins, Rachel is a heavy drinker, divorced, and unhappy. She lives in Cathy’s flat, a former school friend, and frequently leaves drunken messes that Cathy cleans up. We learn about Rachel’s former life with Tom, her ex-husband, who she still loves. Rachel doesn’t respect boundaries and drunk calls and texts him which causes problems between him and his new wife, Anna. Rachel is obsessed with a couple that she watches through the train window at a signal stop. She calls them Jess and Jason and has invented a perfect, happy life for them.

       3. Hints at theme

In THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS, a Newbery Honor, by Katherine Paterson, we learn in the first chapter Miss Ellis, the social worker, has placed Gilly with multiple foster families desperately trying to find a home for her. The theme is about love and belonging.

       4. Sets the tone

Is your story humorous with silly plotlines line the CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS books by Dav Pilkey or is it a serious subject like gangs and police violence in THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas? 

       5. Lays down the foundation for conflicts or problems that will arise later

In THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas, Starr and her friend, Khalil, suspected of being a drug dealer, run out of a party after shots are fired by a gang member. They drive away, but see the flashing lights of a siren behind them. We have a shooting in a black neighborhood and a cop pulling over the main character and her friend, what could go wrong?

Once you’ve completed your novel, you may have to revise your first chapter to include or strengthen one or more of the elements listed above.

You can do it!

Saturday, April 22, 2017

National Autism Awareness

April is National Autism Awareness month.  Below are my thoughts on two books that supplement the understanding of autism.

I SEE THINGS DIFFERENTLY: A FIRST LOOK AT AUTISM, a picture book by Pat Thomas, a psychotherapist and counselor. The author explains some of the behaviors of autistic children including their rituals, fear of loud noises or crowds, repetition of words or phrases, avoiding eye contact and insistence on routines or habits. Some children are nonverbal and some are gifted in math, music or numbers.

She explains their brains work differently which means they see or interpret situations unlike me or you which may make them scared or nervous. The book is written in language that is kid friendly and would encourage a conversation between parent and child.

I feel the best part of this book is the last page. The aim of this book is to help children who have siblings or classmates understand what the perspective is from the child with autism. The last page also includes tips to help parents and teachers foster an understanding of what autism is and to promote interactions with children who have autism.

RAIN REIGN by Ann M. Martin is a middle grade novel. Rose Howard is a 12-year-old girl with Asperger’s, high functioning autism, in 5th grade and has an aide with her during school hours. Rose loves rules, numbers, especially prime numbers, and homonyms. When someone breaks the rules, she yells out and brings it to the attention of her teacher, dad or uncle. She recites prime number or homonyms when she is frustrated or scared and finds noises and crowds stressful.

One day, her dad brings home a stray dog. It is his gift to her. She names the dog Rain because the dog was found in the rain and rain (reign) is a homonym. Rain is lost during a hurricane and Rose decides she must find her dog. With the help of her uncle, who has more patience than her dad, they set out to find Rain using Rose’s plan.

The story has an unexpected twist ending which is heartbreaking and comforting at the same time.

I like this story because the reader not only sees Rose as a classmate, a one-sided view, the reader also experiences her home situation. Rose, like many children, does not get a pass on a troubled family life and lives in a single parent home where the parent is absent most of the time. The parent drinks too much, is easily frustrated and gets angry with Rose, who has learned to hide for protection.

My hope would be children reading these books would have more understanding and empathy and be kind to all children, especially those who are different or disabled.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Rules for Picture Book Writers

I had the pleasure of spending a few days with Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann in Honesdale. They were the instructors for the Highlights Foundation Founders Workshop that focused on picture books. We had lectures, assignments, sharing, manuscript critiques and enjoyed a writing camaraderie that is only found when you spend several days with like minded people. I left inspired with itchy writing muscles and couldn't wait to get home to attack my picture book manuscripts.

Below is a list of the basic dos and don’ts when writing picture books:

1. Your story starts on page 5 of a 32 page picture book.Your beginning tells your ending. Make a book dummy.

2. Does it sing? Do the words have a cadence, a rhythm? Do they flow out of your mouth? If not, revise until it sounds better. Use wonderful, rich language.

3. Read your story out loud. Cut unnecessary words, repetitive phrases or words, clich├ęs and adverbs.

4. Don’t overuse dialogue. Talking heads don’t make exciting pictures, unless your POV is two person conversational.

5. Do your scenes have action? Do they advance the plot? If not, cut or revise them.

6. The character needs to solve the problem. Keep the parents and adults in left field or better yet, leave them at home.

7. No predictable ending. In fact, throw out your first ending. Have a twist or nice surprise for the reader that is also satisfying.

8. Keep the story singularly focused. Write a one line summary to help you stay on point. Remove any loose ideas or tangents.

9. Does your story have a bigger message?  What is the take-away? But don’t be preachy.

10. Make the character someone that a child can relate to. Will the child want to listen to your story more than once? Is the story funny? Or does it have a sweet "Awww ending" ?

Of course, your best resource for writing picture books is not a top ten list, but a book on craft. Some of my favorite craft books are Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul and Second Sight by Cheryl B. Klein.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Ten Creative Exercises to Improve Your Writing

As writers, we're always trying to hone our craft. We take courses, we join critique groups, we form writing groups, we read books on craft, we read within and outside our genre, we write or "percolate" and revise.

Ten Creative Exercises That Will Help You Improve Your Writing is written by Leigh Anne Jasheway, a guest writer on The Writer’s Dig. She is a comedy writer, stand-up comic, author of 21 published books and teaches comedy writing.

Leigh has discovered that the concepts taught through improv can spark creativity, advance your storytelling, expand your dialogue expertise, help in problem solving and, best of all, restore the fun in writing.

These exercises can be done alone or with a partner. Pick your favorites, free yourself from the writing world of rules and have fun with it!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

100 Plus Query Tips

Once you have written, revised (using beta readers) and polished your manuscript as best you can, your next challenge is the submission process. Before you send that first query letter, double check that your query letter is giving the best first impression, is properly formatted and professional in tone and language. (Don't threaten, give ultimatums or swear.)

The following tips will help you navigate the intimidating world of submitting to agents (many tips also apply to editors), compiled and clarified by Chuck Sambuchio of The Writer’s Digest.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Ten Tips to Be a Better Writer

1. Give yourself permission to write. Don’t feel guilty for ignoring the housework, the laundry or turning down someone who is requesting more of your time.

2. Select or alter a location that is conducive for your writing and figure out your best writing time. Is it the splinter of daylight, the setting sun or a Sunday afternoon? Try to work everything else around your best writing time.

3. Join a writer’s community. Check your local library or bookstores for events or meetings. Or join online groups.

4. Find a critique group or partner. We become blind to our manuscript’s weaknesses, having a fresh set of eyes can give us insight and help problem solve. Be willing to revise again and again. But learn when to say no. If you’re not a part of a writer’s community, you can find online critique groups.

5. Write or percolate. For some writers, they are most productive if they write daily, but others prefer to percolate. Ruminating plot lines, character development or story lines until they are ready to write it out. There is no “right way” to write. Do what works for you.

6. Get inspired. Visit an art museum; listen to complex music; learn something new, sky diving, yoga, carpentry; read a different genre; if you write fiction, read nonfiction; exercise. Learning or doing something different gives you a new perspective and stimulates creativity. Exercise stimulates new thought patterns that foster inspiration.

7. Read books in your genre and age group. Read books on improving your craft.

8. Learn the difference between early readers and picture books, middle grade and young adult, young adult and adult fiction, literary and commercial fiction, mass market or trade publications. Knowing these differences will help you target agents and editors more effectively.

9. Polish your query and be professional. No gimmicks: scented paper, confetti, glitter, etc.

10. Acknowledge your progress, one page or one chapter is better than none. Celebrate your acceptances, be it a 4-line poem or a 250-page book!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Tips for Handling Disappointment

Disappointment is a human experience that is inevitable in everyone's life. Even for those that play it safe and limit themselves in what they think they can achieve, there will still be disappointments. Their biggest disappointment may be a deathbed regret “Why didn’t I try or I should have (fill in the blank)?”

As writers or artists, we face disappointment regularly, if not daily. 

When I was a kid, I saw this plaque with a picture of a sad puppy and the words “Those who don’t expect much are never disappointed.” Although this is partially true, one can’t avoid minor disappointments either (you wanted a chocolate milkshake and the machine was down for repairs). But avoiding our dreams or not following our passions, because we fear disappointment, could lead to a joyless life.

Below are several tips to help deal with disappointments.

1. Be empathic and mindful (claim your experience with kindness toward yourself)
2. Ask good questions (what has triggered this emotion)?
3. Reframe the situation and gain perspective
4. Wash sorrow out with joy
5. Change something you can: Doing something positive changes how we feel and helps lift us out of our sadness. (I organized my linen closet and, to my surprise, I did feel better.)

1. Do the opposite: Don’t indulge in bad habits, but take care of yourself.
2. What would X (someone you admire) do?
3. Use your strengths
4. What matters most to you? Your morals and what you value define you, not your achievements.
5. Reach out to family and friends for support
6. What can I learn from this?
7. Be your own voice of reason: Use your inner dialogue and engage in positive self-talk.
Samantha Boardman, M.D.

1. Face the truth of the situation
2. Allow yourself some time to mourn
3. Don’t feel like a victim, take action or make a plan
4. Check that your expectations are realistic
5. Be kind to yourself
6. Look for the positive
7. Be willing to try a different approach
8. Find your grit: Your determination and persistence.