Monday, July 29, 2013

Revision and Seeing the Big Picture- Part I and a Giveaway!

Some of you have already met Rebecca Petruck (either on-line or in person), my writing coach who is helping me shape, hone, and revise Half-Truths. In this blog and the next, Rebecca shares her own revision journey.  I am currently following Rebecca's advice on letting my manuscript rest while she reads my entire manuscript. 

When I posted a photo of my revision map on Facebook, Carol invited me to write a post for her blog. STEERING TOWARD NORMAL will be released by Abrams/Amulet Spring 2014. I received my editor’s letter and marked-up pages March 2013, with the final due by June. But let me back up a little.

I’m a big believer in the benefits of letting a manuscript “rest." I can’t say enough how important it is to take a real break from a story—the kind of break in which you write something else. Even if your deadline means you can only let the MS rest a few days, take those days to write a short story, fan fiction, even type chapters from a favored author’s book—anything truly separate from your novel. Your brain needs to be entirely turned to the off position re: your story in order to be able to see it new again. Critique partners are hugely helpful in this, too. Anyone who gives you fresh insight into your work is a keeper.

I didn’t let myself read STN again until I received Howard’s notes. I wanted to see it through his eyes. Afterwards, I didn’t let myself do any work on the actual manuscript until I had thought everything through and had a plan. (This is harder than it sounds—jumping in is easy.)

I’m not an outliner, but I am organized. I had a three-month window and broke it down into, you know, three’s. :) One month for planning, one month for writing, one month to tweak per notes from my critique partners. One month for planning may seem like a lot of time with a deadline fast approaching, but that time to think through what I wanted to do was ESSENTIAL. It saved me from being slowed down by a bunch of false starts and misdirections.

I had a list of sixteen questions from WIRED FOR STORY by Lisa Cron that I used as starting points. I journaled about the four major characters, and brainstormed a B-story that ended up being so exactly what the book needed I couldn’t believe it took me eleven drafts to figure it out. (Thank you, Howard, for asking about Diggy’s friends!) The questions that resonated most with me ended up being: “When and why was his worldview knocked out of alignment?” “What does he HOPE will happen (vs. what does)?” “What is his ‘aha’ moment?”

I tend to think of early drafts as heart-and-gut writing. If we’re lucky, and if we can stand it, this is the time we write something about the world we believe deeply, even (especially?) if we’re not aware of it. Later drafts are the terrain of the analytical brain. What IS the theme? What can I do to make it pop more? Do these scenes speak to it? Do these characters learn it, get hurt by it, care? WHY?

Theme is one of those things you can’t think about while you write, but you must think about between drafts. It’s that thing so important to you, you wrote a NOVEL. Yet is a classic Catch-22—if you think about theme too overtly while writing, your story is likely to be didactic or simply bad. But you can’t ignore it either. Every story has to have a POINT. Even so-called “light reading” or humor books—the ones that rise to the top anyway—have a clear theme, sometimes as simple as “Life is ridiculous and then we die.”

Next week, Rebecca will return with advice on what to do once the thinking is done.

Meanwhile, she is once again generously offering one of two giveaways. You can win either a 10-page critique from her, or a copy of WIRED FOR STORY. Here are the rules:

  • Post this blog on your social media site of choice OR become a new follower of this blog and I'll enter your name once. 
  • Post this blog on two different social media sites OR become a new follower of this blog AND post it on a social media site and I'll enter your name twice.
  • Either way, leave a comment with your email address (if you are new to my blog) with what you did. 
  • Winner will be drawn on Monday morning, August 5 - so get those entries in!

How many writing coaches agree to meet you at
Whole Foods Market in Wilmington, NC?
Rebecca did!

Rebecca Petruck is a Minnesota girl, though she also has lived in Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, England, Connecticut and, currently, North Carolina. A former member of 4-H, she was also a Girl Scout, a cheerleader, and competed in MathCounts. She reads National Geographic cover to cover. She is represented by Kate Testerman of kt literary, and her first novel, STEERING TOWARD NORMAL, will be released by Abrams/Amulet Spring 2014. Please visit her online

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Chicken Boy and a Giveaway!

I would like to think that I would have enjoyed Frances O'Roark Dowell's book, Chicken Boy, even if it wasn't set in North Carolina. 

But it sure helped to be able to picture the rural farm areas around the triangle region of North Carolina that are slowly being gobbled up by suburban development. Fifteen years ago I visited a goat farm in Durham that no longer exists. 

But I digress.

Like North Carolina itself, the author skillfully intertwines modern people and places with Southern folk and settings. 

Tobin Mccauley, the 12-year-old protagonist, is a lonely outcast in 7th grade. His mother has been dead five years and no one in his dysfunctional family ever talks about her. Tobin longs to live in a "normal" home--one where  his father talks to him and his family does more than eat together in front of the television. His best friend is his wacky Granny, who loves trucks, fishing, and her privacy; but who is also grieving the loss of her daughter.

Into this picture walks a new boy in school. Henry not only befriends Tobin, but encourages him to join him in his chicken-raising venture--despite the fact that Tobin hates chickens ever since watching Granny ring one's neck with her bare hands. 

Through Henry's friendly perseverance, Tobin sheds his skin of his old self, discovers he likes chickens, realizes that he has athletic and academic abilities, and begins to have friends at school. Henry is a powerful secondary character who comes alongside of Tobin, accepts him for who he was, and nudges him out of isolation.    

I also loved Granny. Since I listened to this book on CD, I can't quote any of her lines, but trust me, she is a Southern Toyota-truck-fixing character you won't forget. Other secondary characters including Tobin's foster parents, school teacher, social workers, and family therapist are also skillfully portrayed. 

O'Roark Dowell created original, quirky characters that stick in the reader's mind. Do you know a grandmother who drives up on the sidewalk in front of her grandson's middle school? Or a boy who wants to prove that chickens have souls? Or a 7th-grader who notices his teacher smells like lemons and likes to sniff the oil and grease on a tool? These people were real.

Vivid details bring Chicken Boy's characters to life.  As I move into my next round of revision of Half-Truths, I want to bring more depth to my characters. In order to do that, I've decided to use my daybook to start recording random characteristics of people I meet and know. 

Watch out. You know that quirky jerk of your head or the way you fling your hands out when you talk? You never know. I might just be watching...and taking notes about you. 

AND...Frances O'Roark Dowell is donating either a copy of this book or audio book to one lucky reader! Leave me a comment by the evening of July 27th (with your email address if you are new to this blog) and you might win!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

What I've Learned from Writing Contests

As promised, here is a guest post by Kim Van Sickler.   Kim is one of my fellow judges with the Center for Writing Excellence. After she had won several contests, Janie Sullivan asked her to join our team of judges. I thought her successful experiences with contests would inspire my blog readership, so without further ado, here is Kim!

        I started entering short story writing contests as a way to condense my storytelling. It was a few years after I'd gotten the "crazy" idea to try writing for children, and I knew my books were too long. I needed to make every word count.
       My first efforts weren't very good. My stories were shorter than the manuscripts I was working on, but they weren't fully developed. Sometimes I entered blog contests where the prize was a pat on the back, and other times I entered prestigious contests where I was up against the cream of the crop and my stories didn't measure up. But I quickly learned to focus on the creative process and only enter contests that excited me, and let the chips fall where they may.'s nice to win a contest every now and then to let you know you're on the right track. I have to credit the Center for Writing Excellence for giving me the confidence boost I sorely needed. I came across their Fiction in Five writing prompts, where you have five days to write a story based on an e-mailed prompt and five random words. It's a powerful way to jump-start the creative process
          Piecing together that first story, about a boy visiting a palm reader, was the most fun I'd ever had writing. It was a bonus to learn that it earned me second place. I'd come so close. Was a first place win possible? So the next time the contest was offered, I entered again. I was on vacation with my extended family, and bounced my ideas around, finding myself enjoying the creative process this time even more than before. And I won first place!
            Garnering recognition for my work gave me the confidence to call myself a writer. I finally went on Facebook and Twitter, and started a blog  I've entered and won more short story contests, published a short story, and even assisted with judging the Center for Writing Excellence's Fiction in Five contests. Hard as it was, I even set aside my first two manuscripts that weren't eliciting raves from agents, and created a promising new story that's out on submission, and started my fourth manuscript.
            The Fiction in Five contests are responsible for me sticking with this crazy craft. They let me dig deep and discover how much I like to write. Today, I can't imagine a world where I'm not intimately involved in the writing process. Those contests opened doors I'm determined to keep ajar.

Kim Van Sickler is a former prosecuting attorney and marketing director. She currently lives and writes in Willoughby Hills, Ohio, where she runs the Girl Scout program in her community. She's at work on her fourth manuscript: a young adult novel set in the sex trade industry. 


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