Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Outlining Update

I know you're all dying to know how I fared on my outlines this month. I suppose it's time for a status update.

Goal: Have three different outlines for three Shiny New Ideas ready to send off by Sept. 1. With each outline, include sample pages (about 50).

What I Actually Achieved: Two full outlines, with sample pages for both ideas. One with 93 pages, one with 57.

Grade: 2 out of 3 ain't bad, right? 66%? Okay, that's a D. Whatever.

So, how did I--self-proclaimed hater of outlines (and holy cow, are they hard!!)--do it?

So many of you provided links and whatnot to help. I'll admit that most of what I read made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. My brain just doesn't think that way. I loathe the Three Act Structure with every fiber in my heart and liver. Loathe.

But in the end, the explanations Alex Sokoloff's blog provided me with something that made a tiny bit of sense. I read her posts and took notes.

And then I started outlining. I learned several things from doing this:

1. My MC wasn't the most important character. I had to fix that up real fast.

2. Outlining is exactly like pantsing, except you make the crap up BEFORE you actually write it. Go figure.

And for the official record, outlining is MUCH harder. It's like concentrated thinking. With pantsing you can spread out the thinking over weeks or months. With outlining, it's like eating frozen orange juice concentrate straight from the can. It makes you cringe and pucker and salivate like a Great Dane. AND it's nasty. 

3. Outlining causes me to stare aimlessly more than anything else. Seriously, I wasted hours of my life just staring.

4. The thought of outlining keeps me off the computer. Good thing I have a stack of books three feet high. And I have now seen every Chopped and Office episode.

5. Never write "outline" on your to-do list. You'll never cross it off. Ev-er. You just keep doing it until the breath has been sucked out of your body. Don't believe me? Try it.

So are you an outliner or a pantser? A little of both? What have you learned from outlining?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Help A Sistah Out

Okay, so I'm preparing for a class I'm teaching at a conference in a few weeks. It's called "Building Your Blog Into An Online Platform" and I have a lot of ideas, but I'm wondering about a few things. Maybe you guys can help me out.

What questions do you have about blogging? I want to hear from beginning, intermediate, or advanced bloggers. (Let me know what you think your level is in your comment, okay?)

What's the hardest part for you?

What's the easiest part?

What do you wish someone had told you when you started?

What do you want to know now?

Basically, I want to hear your concerns/questions about blogging. I imagine a lot of the attendees will have the same ones.

Thanks, all!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Odds and Yeah, Odds

Okay, so I decided that maybe I should let you know if you won Paranormalcy earlier than September 10, then you can buy it if you don't win it. So I'll draw the winner on Monday night and announce in Tuesday's post, okay? Okay. You can still enter by clicking here.

I don't really have anything interesting to say today. I'm Mockingjay-ed out and I've taught the same lesson at school, like, 23 times, and my brain is uber-taxed to try to come up with something besides muhnnnhumm.

So today, I open the floor. What's interesting in your life?

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Okay, first off, I know I've been throwing a new book at you every week. Admit it, you like it. Anyway, today's book is PARANORMALCY by Kiersten White. It comes out on Tuesday next, so make sure you pre-order it or go out and buy it. You so won't be sorry.

But to sweeten the deal this time, I'm going to be giving away a copy. Dear Kiersten is coming to Salt Lake in early September (the 11th), and I'm going to her signing!! You can't see how my hands are shaking with excitement right now, but try to imagine it.

So if you leave a comment on this post, you'll be entered to win a signed copy of Paranormalcy!

1. Cover. Dude, if my cover is half as gorgeous as this one, I will cry with relief. And pure joy. I love this cover. Love isn't even a strong enough word for how I feel about this cover.

2. But books aren't all about covers. They're about people. Evie is a such a brilliantly written character. She has flaws. She has emotions. She has power. She has brains. She has it all. If you like compelling characters, you'll like Paranormalcy.

3. Plot. While this book has vampires and faeries and stuff, it's unlike anything else you've read. Trust me. The reason is because it's not about vampires and faeries and stuff. It's about a normal girl who can do something paranormal. And she's not a vampire. Or a faery. Or anything other than a girl who likes a boy. And who hasn't been that person? (Except for all you guys out there. But seriously.) If you like a plot that is fresh and well-paced, you'll like Paranormalcy.

So there. Buy it. Order it. Read it. Love it. I did.

Giveaway winners won't be posted until, IDK, say September 10, and then I'll go to the signing on the 11th. Leave a comment to enter!

And be sure to check out the other Bookanistas and what they've got going down!
Lisa and Laura Roecker spread the love for GRACE
Carolina Valdez-Miller shines a spotlight on PERSONAL DEMONS
Shannon Messenger gushes about MATCHED
Christine Fonseca highly recommends GUARDIAN OF THE GATE
Bethany Wiggins and Suzette Saxton dish about EXTRAORDINARY
Shelli Johannes Wells shares all the BOOKANISTA'S BOOK BUZZ
Myra McEntire shouts out some cover love for CLARITY

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Avoiding Annoyances

Okay, so everyone has things that annoy them. I do, trust me. A lot of things. For one, I can't stand it when people make fun of me for saying "front forward." I know it's wrong, okay? I just don't care!

So annoying.

But I've come up with a few tips that will hopefully save you some annoyance points. Then you can use them up on your kids and send them to bed early. *wink*

1. Work. Work is annoying. It gets in the way of what I want to do = write. I can't read blogs, I can't email or chat incessantly, and I can't sleep in until 9. You may say that giving up those things is actually good, that work is actually rewarding.

You would be wrong. And also now annoying me.

So I've got the solution: sell your book for millions! Foreign rights, movie rights, large print and/or audio rights! The sky's the limit, baby. I mean, you sold a book! Aren't you going to be like, uber-rich now??

Yes. Adios annoyance.

2. The Non-Getters. You know who these people are. They're not fans, or family members, or other writers. They're the people you barely know who ask you stuff and get close to you at parties and/or church because they think it's cool you're an author, but they clearly don't "get" anything about what it takes to A) write a book B) get an agent C) sell a book D) refine the book and/or E) actually publish a book.

They want a (free) signed copy at their earliest convenience.

I say: No problem! I've got just what you need to give them what they want.

A smile, a nod, a high-pitched laugh, and an early escape from the conversation by going, "Ca-caw! Ca-caw!" and having your friend rescue you when she hears the prearranged distress call (never leave home without it).

See ya later, alligator.

3. Good books. Yeah, they shouldn't annoy me. They do. I wish I'd written them. I wish other people weren't so dang talented. I wish, I wish, I wish.

So in my ultra-annoyed state over the fact that my creative genius is actually creative crap, I've devised a solution to this never-ending nightmare of annoyance.

I've started a little self-talk, and it goes something like this: "This is a very good book, Elana. You should learn from it instead of being so insanely jealous and/or depressed that you'll never write like this, and/or have such a vivid imagination, and/or tap into your emotions in the right way. Maybe consider taking some notes on what they do that you like so much, and hey, maybe you'll figure out where all the key points are so you can actually finish that outline you started three weeks ago and never finished, and oh my heck, your deadline is in like, less than a week, and you're not done yet, and why are you wasting time reading this annoyingly good book??"

So you can see what I've done here. I've actually distracted myself AWAY from the annoyance and into panic.

Works every time.

What annoys you, and what are your Annoyance Solutions?

**Disclaimer: this blog post may or may not contain situations that may or may not have occurred in my life. Or with this friend I know...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Truthful Tuesday Gets Personal

Okay, I'm going to admit something scary and wildly personal and something I hope I've been keeping deep inside (except from my CP's and others insane enough to encourage an email relationship with me).

But who am I kidding? You guys can see into my head, right?

Are you ready, though?

Okay, so I got my copy edits, and holy cow, you guys. It's the first time EVER that my book actually feels like a book. And it's still printed on 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of paper. But dude, it has all this writing on it from ACTUAL EDITORS, and it had the front pages of the book. You know the ones that we authorly people all read first. The ones that list the imprint, and the font the type is in and the date it was published. You read those right? Or is that only me...?

Ahem, anyway.

So those pages are in the copy edits. And it says "Copyright [insert little copyright symbol here] by Elana Johnson 2011."

I can feel the tears starting, but I'm blinking rapidly so I can keep reading what else is in those opening pages.

I look down, and there's an ISBN number for both the hardcover and the e-book.

My husband loses it.

I'm thisclose to sobbing, and I'm just sitting there holding this HUGE stack of paper, and it's not even a book but it's so a book, and not just any book, but MY BOOK.

And just as I'm about to let the tears out, I get hit with this giant wave of...


And that's my truth for today.

I'm terrified of my book being born.

More than dogs, more than ducks, more than running out of bacon, I'm scared of my book becoming real and the fact that other people are going to read it.


You decide.

What are you afraid of?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Motivational Monday

This summer, my fabu crit partner, Sara, spent a bunch of time in London researching Winston Churchill. (Yeah, your summer just got worse, didn't it? Don't worry, mine too.) She brought us (the crit groupies) a bunch of stuff from England that we totally don't deserve. This postcard was one such gift, and one of the most inspiring things I've read in a long time.

I think I'll let it speak for itself.

But go check out what my CP's have to say about this motto.
Jenn Wilks
Ali Cross
Stacy Henrie

And you knew it was coming... What's a motto?

I don't know. What's the motto with you?

Haha! But seriously, do you have a motto that inspires you? It's Motivational Monday - lay it on me!

Oh!! And don't forget that we WriteOnCon organizers are doing a live chat tonight to get your feedback about the conference so we can make next year's event beltacular (don't know what that means? It'll blow your mind). So join us on the WriteOnCon site at 9 PM EDT.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Things I Care About

I've been putting this post off for a couple of weeks now. Well, not this post exactly, but what this post used to be titled. I changed it and will probably just ramble today. But you know you like that, so whatever, whatever.

Today, I'm bringing you sort of a different post than I normally do. I don't know why, but it's the first day of school today (*SOBS*) and I'm actually at work for 8.5 hours today. I might die. If you don't see me on twitter or facebook later, send in the paramedics, okay? Okay.

So things I care about this week:
1. The YA contemps. I simply adore this idea, this blog, and this genre. I love love love reading (and writing) YA contemporary. I'm hoping one day I'll be able to be an author on their blog. *fingers crossed*

Go. Follow. Take the challenge. Read.

2. Charity Blogging Event for CJ Redwine. Again, I don't normally do stuff like this, but I'm feeling all nostalgic about adoption. My SIL adopted a baby in February, and I've witnessed the miracle first-hand. So basically CJ is trying to adopt a child from China, and to raise money, she's asked you to give up your morning coffee (or whatever) and donate the $5 for that.

Go. Do your good deed. Pay It Forward.

3. My garden. I live in a tiny townhome, with a tiny backyard. My grass is like, four feet long because I never mow it. But about a block away, there's some common ground where a bunch of us have garden plots. I *heart* mine. I harvested 15 cucumbers, 3 mini-pumpkins, a handful of cherry tomatoes and strawberries, and well, okay. I ripped out 4 pumpkin vines, and let me tell you, my arms are scratched up. But dude! Pumpkins can really spread out...

4. Time management. Like I said, school started up again today. I'm going to have to figure out how to fit my 6-hour-a-day job into my life. And let me tell you, dragging my sorry carcass out of bed at 9 AM has come to a screeching halt.

So there. Things I care about today. What do you care about?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bookanistas -- The Eternal Ones by Kirsten Miller

This week for Bookanistas, I'm recommending THE ETERNAL ONES by Kirsten Miller. The concept of having a soul mate that spans centuries isn't uncommon (I've read a couple of books like this just this year alone).

But this book is. The way it's done shows a true storyteller. Let's break it down.

1. Characters. Haven is a small-town girl who's spirit is yearning to find her soul mate, Ethan. She doesn't remember anything, but she knows she's inexplicably drawn to him. She's got spunk and a uniqueness about her that made me feel like I was reading about someone I've never read about before. And that takes some talent.

Beau is Haven's best friend, and he is carefully crafted to avoid the typical stereotype as well. Besides Haven, he was my favorite character.

There are many other people that shape Haven's story, and each one of them is drawn in the same unique light as she is.

And that's refreshing.

2. What else I loved: the reincarnation aspect. I truly appreciate stories that don't feel like variants of other stories I've read, so while the themes of love spanning centuries isn't new, The Eternal Ones felt like it was.

I know I've said that like, twice now, but I don't know how else to say it. You've just got to read this book. It came out last Tuesday, so get your copy today.

Check out what else is up for Bookanista review this week:
Myra McEntire - WHITE CAT
Shelli Johannes Wells - PARANORMALCY
Christine Fonseca - THE HEALING SPELL
Shannon Messenger - NIGHTSHADE CITY
Carolina Valdez Miller - THE MOCKINGBIRDS
Jamie Harrington - PARANORMALCY
Lisa and Laura Roecker -- PARANORMALCY

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Things We Don't Speak Of

Oooh, secrets today, my pretties.

Admit, you're still here because you think I'm gonna go all word vomit and spill a bunch of stuff you're dying to know. I don't know what that would be since pretty much everything about myself is already out there.

But here goes:

1. Yes, my title's been changed. I l-o-v-e it! My young adult dystopian novel is now called POSSESSION and is still slated to come out next summer. I *think* I've gone through to all the sites that I maintain and have changed it. If you have it on your site anywhere, could you make the switch? I'd be ever so grateful.

2. As an author, you should never discuss certain things on your blog. Someone spoke about this during WriteOnCon, but it bears repeating. These are the Things We Don't Speak Of: your advance, your relationship with your agent/editor, your neurosis. These things are private, and should be discussed privately with the appropriate parties. Side note: It's rude to ask someone how much their book sold for. Just sayin'.

3. I have officially cleared my plate of specific things. Namely the QueryTracker blog. I have loved every single minute at QT, but it's time for me to set sail. I've been hoping to announce what I've been doing besides blogging for QT, but that time has not yet ripened.

My friends and I have also discontinued blogging at What Writers Read. It's a good idea, and a fun blog idea, but none of us really has the time to devote what needs to be devoted to it at this time.

4. The best part of the movie Diary of a Wimpy Kid was when Rodrick wore guyliner. True that.

I think that's it for this round of Things We Don't Speak Of. What do you have to add to my list? What are some things (not like, Cold War secrets or anything, please!) that you just don't speak of? Did I go too far with the guyliner? Sigh. Probably. *wink*

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Those of you who saw into my notebook of secrets knew I was going to blog about this this week. The problem is, I can't remember what I was going to say, exactly. I'm going to blame it on my severe case of Outline Brain.. (BTW, I thank all of you who blogged about this or offered advice. Since that post, I have written a COMPLETE OUTLINE and half of another. Too bad that's only halfway through what I need to accomplish.)

But I wanted to talk about loyalty. I'm a very loyal person by nature. I get fiercely attached to people and if someone says something about them look out!! I want to go all ninja and start punching.

And I'm wondering: Is this good or bad?

I think my fierceness in defending people has burned me in the past, but I'm not sure if I should care enough to change that part of myself.

And since this isn't like, The Elana Show, how does this relate to writing? Well, I've been developing a character recently that realizes that something she fears is unfounded. She should probably change her belief. My question is: Does she have to?

Can I remain fiercely loyal, even to a fault?

Can my character hold on to her fear, even though she knows it's irrational?

So confess...what do you know about yourself that you should probably change, but don't? Why don't you? Is it hurting anybody? Is it hurting yourself?

Yeah, randomness today. But what do you think??

Monday, August 16, 2010

Dream Big, Work Hard

I know, I know. Surely you tire of hearing about WriteOnCon. But I just want to use it to illustrate a point today.

We've received many emails thanking us for the hard work we did on WOC, and how amazing it was. I want to share how it started.

A Big Dream by Casey McCormick

One day a blogger/author/mom/student/all-around-awesome-person is reading blogs. She reads one and leaves a comment, just like she does on lots of other blogs everyday.

The blog author where Casey left the comment sees the comment, and suddenly shares the Big Dream with Casey. She emails her.

Here's the blog comment that inspired the Dream: DUDE, I totally have an idea for June or another month that I could give you. It's something I've thought about doing but you'd pull it together way better than me. No idea if you'll like it/be up for it but feel free to e-mail me. :)

Here's the response (notice the lack of humility. Oops.): Dude! Email me! We should so do something together anyway. I mean, the two of us? We'd be unstoppable...

Those words were the Dream seeds. We planted them. We brought in other people to fertilize (uh, LiLa), water (Shannon) and prune (Jamie). We loved the Big Dream, and we worked hard to bring it up right. We poured countless hours into its well-being, and we never once thought about quitting (although we may or may not have thrown up a few times before going live with the Big Dream).

Our Big Dream might not be inspiring to you. But I'm here to tell you that if 6 people who have never met each other can share a Big Dream, then you can too. Whatever your Dream is, embrace it. And then work your freaking tail off to achieve it. Coming from someone who continues to Dream Big, I know that hard work is the only way to achieve your goals.

Got any Dream Big, Word Hard stories? Feel free to share.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Holy Mother of Pearl

WriteOnCon 2010 is over, which means I can now die. Or at least sleep for a really long time. So that's what I'm going to do. Hope you had a great week, found something to inspire you, or a technique to try in your writing.

Oh, and it's Friday the Thirteenth. All the more reason to crawl into bed and sleep the day away.

But before I do that, I want to scream a HUGE THANKS to Lisa and Laura Roecker, Casey McCormick, Jamie Harrington, Jen Stayrook, and Shannon Messenger for their amazing hard work in putting together WriteOnCon. They are all simply fabulous, and I've enjoyed the thousands of emails we've shared over the past three months. Hopefully, my inbox won't be too quiet now.

And this vlog sums up the past three days. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

WriteOnCon Day Three

All right. Day Three. Have you enjoyed the conference so far? Wait, I've turned off comments so you can't answer that. Hopefully you've found something to help propel you forward in your writing journey!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

6:00 AM: Writing With a Real Life by author Lindsey Leavitt

7:00 AM: Writing Advice from PJ Hoover and the Texas Sweethearts

8:00 AM: Writing Realistic, Captivating Dialog by author Tom Leveen

8:30 AM: Author Branding by author Shelli Johannes-Wells

9:00 AM: How to have a Successful Author Event at a Bookstore by Calondra McArthur

10:00 AM: Q&A by literary agent Steven Malk

10:30 AM: Writing a Complete Story Even Though it’s Part of a Trilogy by author Michelle Zink

11:00 AM: From Submission to Acquisition: An Editor’s Choose Your Own Adventure by editor Martha Mihalick

12:00 PM: Transitioning from Adult to YA by author Risa Green

1:00 PM: Rhyme in Picture Books by author Tiffany Strelitz

2:00 PM: The First Five Pages by Kathleen Ortiz (3 part series, part 2, part 3)

3:00 PM: Writing Thrillers for Young Adults by author Kimberly Derting

3:30 PM: Picture Books and Easy Readers by author Shelley Thomas

4:00 PM: Staying positive in the face of rejections by author Crystal Stranaghan

5:00 PM: Avoiding Character Stereotypes by literary agent Mary Kole

6:00 PM: Creating New Mythologies by author Aprilynne Pike

9:00 PM: Panel of Professionals chat LIVE (Michelle Andelman, Molly O’Neill, Kate Testerman)

10:30 PM: The Revision Process from Both Sides of the Desk, a live Workshop with literary agent/author Regina Brooks

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

WriteOnCon Day Two

Here's the amazingness of Day Two of WriteOnCon. Don't miss our many live events today!!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

6:00 AM: Romance in YA by author Lisa Schroeder

7:00 AM: Plot and Pacing by author/literary agent Weronika Janczuk (series of 3, posted every 20 minutes, part 2, part 3)

8:00 AM: Using an Independent Publicist by author Lauren Becker

9:00 AM: The Revision Process by author Cynthea Liu (series of 3, posted every 20 minutes, part 2, part 3)

10:00 AM: Transition From Self-Published to Traditional Publishing by author Jennifer Fosberry

10:30 AM: Joanna Volpe’s query critique

11:00 AM: Live blogging event: Queries with literary agent Natalie Fischer

12:00 PM: Creating Memorable Characters by literary agent/author Mandy Hubbard

1:00 PM: Reaching Out to Schools and Libraries Before You’re Published by author Stasia Ward Kehoe

2:00 PM: Sex in YA: The ABC’s of Hooking Up by author Suzanne Young

Live chat with literary agent Natalie Fischer

3:00 PM: Keynote Address by author Lindsay Eland

3:30 PM: Writing Genre Fiction by author Julia Karr

4:00 PM: Do’s and Don’t’s of Querying by literary agent Kate Testerman

5:00 PM: Authentic/Edgy YA by author Kody Keplinger

6:00 PM: How to Make a Character Collage by author Tera Lynn Childs

7:00 PM: Live chat with literary agent Jennifer Laughran

9:00 PM: Panel of Professionals chat LIVE (Anica Rissi, Joanna Volpe, Suzie Townsend, Mary Kole)

10:30 PM: Building an Online Presence, a live Workshop with author Daisy Whitney

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Pie in the Face (how characters react) by author Rosemary Clement-Moore

Please welcome author Rosemary Clement-Moore, the award winning author of supernatural mystery novels for young (and not so young) adults. Her books range from scary and funny (the Maggie Quinn: Girl versus Evil series) to spooky and romantic (The Splendor Falls). Today Rosemary will be discussing character reactions. Enjoy!

WriteOnCon Prize Drawing!

(Yes, another one!!!)

Dude, you guys!! So you know how you go to a live conference and there are door prizes? Well, guess what??

We have prizes too!

To enter to win, simply leave a comment on this post. We'll draw winners tonight and announce the winners at the tail end of the live panel (10 PM EDT). You have until 9:45 PM EDT to enter.

What can you win?

How about a query critique from a fabulous literary agent?

Your wish, granted.

Mandy Hubbard, literary agent at D4EO Literary will be giving feedback on your query letter! If you want to win this amazing prize, simply leave a comment on this post by 9:45 PM EDT.

Oh, and go tell your friends!!

Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Start a Revision by editor Kendra Levin

We all know that revising is really the hardest part of writing a book. And who better to help us than an editor at Viking? I mean, seriously. So that's exactly who we got. Welcome Kendra Levin, an associate editor at Viking, which is an imprint of Penguin, to the conference!

Five Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Start Revising

Today is the day.  You’re sitting at your desk, armed with a fresh cup of coffee, a brave face, and an open mind.  On the desk are your marching orders:  longhand scribbled notes you took at your critique group, or a detailed editorial letter from your agent or editor, or notes you have collected from your own mind over the past weeks or months.  It’s time to slash-and-burn, take no prisoners, and come, see, and conquer.  It’s time to revise your manuscript.

Before you do anything, take a deep breath and let it out.

Leaping into the fray and starting your revision can be a daunting task.  It’s the moment when you truly acknowledge that the unique, special, inspired piece of writing that flowed out of you is not actually perfect just the way it is—that, in fact, it may need quite a bit of work to get where it’s wanting to go.  Luckily, you’ve gotten some feedback that hopefully gels with what you’re trying to achieve.  But applying it isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

Here are five questions to ask yourself before you get started on your revision:

What does my main character want?

As I frequently tell writers in the workshops I run, nine out of ten plot problems come from not knowing what your main character wants.  Without motivation, you won’t have anything compelling to drive the story forward.  Before you begin revising, you need to make sure you are clear on what the main character wants and/or needs—these could be the same thing or two different things, and they might even be at odds with each other.  Even if what the character wants evolves over the course of the story, or if he/she doesn’t initially know what it is that he/she wants or needs, it’s vital that you know.

Over the course of writing your first draft, you may have found that what your main character wanted changed.  You might have started out writing a romance and discovered halfway through that your protagonist was really looking for a friend, not love.  You might have even discovered that the main character wasn’t the one you’d originally thought, and that one of your secondary characters was more compelling to you than the one you’d originally placed at center stage.  It’s fine for these elements to shift around during the first draft, but in the revision, you’ll want to nail them down.

Your protagonist’s goal can be a fantastic compass to guide you through challenging revisions.  If you’re trying to decide whether or not to take a suggestion about a plot change, you can always ask yourself if the change is in line with what the character wants.  Everything your protagonist does should be an outgrowth of what he/she wants, so if something falls out of line with this, it may need to be changed or cut.

For example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss’s goal is to survive the games.  Over the course of the story, other things become important to her, but what she continues to want, unflinchingly, is to survive the games and return home to take care of her family.  So her every action and choice, from smallest to largest, is tied to this primary desire.

If you go into your revision feeling clear about what your main character wants and needs, you’ll make everything easier for yourself.

How closely does my plot follow a traditional structure?

I imagine everyone attending this conference is familiar with what we in the U.S. think of as a traditional plot structure.  It’s got a vaguely triangular shape—some people compare it to a wave, others to an upside-down check mark.  Whatever you think it looks like, it’s a basic format for creating an effective plot.  Here’s a good rendition of it that I found on the internet:

Basically every narrative form—movies, novels, short stories, plays, picture books, and more—follows this structure in some way.  A great exercise is to think of a few of your favorite books or movies and map out their structures.  I can almost guarantee they will follow this model pretty closely.

Can you deviate from this structure?  Absolutely, and I encourage you to be creative and play around with it—otherwise, every story would feel formulaic.  But it’s important to be aware of how closely you’re sticking to it and in what areas you’ve chosen to deviate from it.

Before you start your revision, it might be helpful to map out your own plot following this structure.  What’s the inciting incident, the event that leads everything else to occur in the story?  Does it happen because of a choice the main character makes, or is it an external event that happens to the main character?  How do you make sure the action is continually building?  At what moments in the story will you surprise the reader with reversals by revealing that things were not exactly as they seemed?  How can you drive the action so it builds inexorably to a head, the climax?  And what happens after that climactic event?  How are you deviating from this structure, and why?

Asking yourself these questions will help guide you in revising the events of your story to either stick more closely to this structure or, where you’ve chosen to deviate, to forge a structure all your own.

How can I raise the stakes?

A common piece of feedback you might receive is “You need to raise the stakes.”  When I was studying screenwriting in college, I had a professor who’d always ask us, “What’s the worst possible thing that could happen to this character?  What’s the best possible thing that could happen to this character?”  In most stories, things either start out good for the protagonist and then get bad, or they start out bad and then get worse.  How can you push your character to his or her breaking point?

For example, what’s the worst thing that could happen to a boy in a two-man airplane?  The pilot dies and the plane crashes in a deserted wilderness.  Things get, by turns, worse and better for Brian in Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, but it all unspools from taking the character to his lowest ebb and gradually building him back up.

You want to push your character as far as he or she can go, because it makes better drama.  Imagine if Gary Paulsen had hedged his bets and set Brian down in an only semi-remote wilderness with a live pilot there to help him out and maybe a big bag of Power Bars and beef jerky.  With lower stakes, stories lose their ability to make excite readers’ emotions, and therefore their power.

Who is my ideal reader?

Kurt Vonnegut said that he wrote with just one reader in mind:  his sister.  Even after her death, she was always his “audience of one.”  He figured that if something he wrote would make her laugh, it was funny; if it would make her cry, it was touching.

You don’t need to have a single real-life person in mind when you’re writing, but it’s important, especially when writing for children or teens, to think about who you want to read this book.  What’s the age of your ideal reader?  Is the book geared toward boys or girls, or could it appeal equally to both?  How do you picture this kid finding your book—in the library, in a store, as a gift from an adult, passed from friend-to-friend, recommended online?  What kind of reading experience do you want this person to have?  What do you want him or her to walk away with?

Keep in mind that many people will be asking this question all the way down the line.  This includes the agent who takes you on as a client; the editor who acquires your manuscript; the design team who has to create a package for the book that will draw your ideal reader’s eye; the marketing and publicity teams who have to figure out where and how to promote your book so that ideal reader will find out about it; the sales team who has to figure out where the book should be sold so that ideal reader can find and buy it; the bookseller who needs to know how to recommend the book to your ideal reader when he/she walks in the door or logs onto the website; and, finally, the reader, who needs to feel when he or she opens the book that this character, this story, has found a direct line to his or her heart.

What is this story’s heart and soul?

Whoever your feedback is coming from, whether it’s an executive editor or your best friend, it serves the manuscript only if it brings you and your reader closer to the heart and soul of the book.  When a piece of advice doesn’t gel with you, when it strikes a sour note with your inner sense of the project, pay attention—it’s your intuition telling you that particular bit of feedback may not serve the manuscript.  Likewise, when someone’s advice feels dead-on and makes you say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” it’s a sure sign that this person understands what you’re working to achieve and can help you get there.

It’s easy to get lost in the revision process, especially if you are trying to please someone else.  And sometimes, when you feel attached to aspects of the story you’ve been told need to be changed or cut, it can feel like that’s exactly what you’re trying to do.  But don’t forget:  You’re the one in whom this story was born, and you’re the one who figured out how to tell it.  You know what’s at this story’s heart, because you’re the one who built the story around some important kernel of truth that you wanted to share.  As long as you keep your eye on the soul that lives in the heart of your story, you’ll be able to distinguish constructive feedback—that illuminates the story’s depths—from the feedback you can reject.

Here are a few practical tips to help you through the revision process:

1)      Create a blank document to sit open on your computer’s desktop next to the manuscript.  Anything you cut, you can copy and paste into this document.  It will make the separation less painful, and if you change your mind, you can always put anything back in.

2)      Do you still have the scrap of paper on which you wrote the first wisp of thought that led to this manuscript?  Or perhaps the article, e-mail, or image that originally inspired the story or the main character’s creation?  Keep this token nearby when revising.  When you’re feeling lost or worrying about whether the story is getting away from you, it can be a kind of talisman to remind you of the idea’s genesis and what about this story is most important to you.

3)      Take breaks!  If you can tell your brain is getting fried, and you’re having trouble distinguishing between what you truly want and what the feedback says, you may need to step away from the manuscript for a while.  Take a walk, call a writer friend, meditate—whatever helps you refocus and step out of the world of your story.  You may feel ready to return, refreshed, in an hour, or you may feel it’s better to just come back to the work tomorrow, with a cleared head.

4)      If you can, communicate with the person/people who gave you advice.  You may have questions about their comments, or find something they said ambiguous.  Don’t sit there parsing their words—just pick up the phone or shoot them an e-mail, if you’re in a position to do so, and ask what they meant.  It will save you a lot of time and energy, and whatever they say may generate some new ideas for you.

5)      Remember that no matter how much you revise your manuscript, it is never going to be perfect.  Perfection is not your goal.  Your goal is to tell this story as clearly, thrillingly, and beautifully as possible.  So let go of the idea that you must get everything perfect, and instead have fun playing in this elaborately detailed playground you’ve created for your brain.

So, take one more deep breath.  Take a sip of that coffee, which has probably gone cold by now.  And jump into your revision, not like you’re going off to war, but like you’re at the start of another scary but fun experiment.  Because that’s one of the best things about being a writer:  There are always more adventures waiting for you on the other side of this revision.

Kendra Levin is an associate editor at Viking Children’s Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), where she has spent the past five years working on a wide range of children’s literature from picture books to young adult novels.  Prior to that, she worked at Scholastic in several different capacities.  An award-winning playwright whose plays have been produced Off- and Off-Off Broadway, Kendra also helps writers as a teacher for Mediabistro and as a certified life coach. Authors she edits include David A. Adler (the Cam Jansenseries), Susane Colasanti, Sharon Robinson, Madaline Herlong, Mike Knudson , and others.

In Defense of a Less Than Huge Advance by literary agent Michelle Wolfson

Okay, I'm more than thrilled to announce that literary agent Michelle Wolfson is here to tell us all about how we can make the most of any advance that we get. *giddy* Welcome her to WriteOnCon!

In Defense of a Less Than Huge Advance

So there’s an expression I’ve become familiar with since I’ve rejoined the nursery school set (this time as a mom although I have to say the kid part looks like more fun), and it goes like this: You get what you get and you don’t get upset. When I was asked to do this post in defense of the Less Than Huge (LTH) advance, that expression popped into my head for what may or may not be obvious reasons.

There are posts that will walk you through fancy math calculations but this isn’t that post. And the truth is, everyone has their own definition of what constitutes a Huge or an LTH advance. What may seem like a lot of money to one person may be peanuts to another, and what may be a lot of money to that second person, may still be nothing to a large publishing company. So for the purposes of this post, I am not using numbers and will just say huge or LTH advance, and will talk about what that means for you, regardless of the actual dollar amounts.

So what does it mean for you, this LTH advance as a debut author? Well, the common school of thought is that it means that the publisher isn’t going to spend enough on marketing or publicity in order to support your book. Well I’m going to let you in on a secret here. The publisher is never going to spend enough on marketing or publicity to support your book.  That’s right, I’m saying that no matter how much a publisher spends, it is never enough, it could always be more, and someone else will always be getting something that you are not.

So should we all just meet at a bar and curse our bad luck? Well, we could, but that’s not going to do anything to change your luck and you are in charge of that. You can make a difference in your sales whether your advance was $1 or $1 million. Readers don’t care. They just want to find good books. So you can start by delivering a good book. And then by helping readers find it. And that means readers have to know you.

I can’t possibly be the first person to tell you that much more than ever before, readers want to know their authors, so it is important to build your audience now. Blog, Tweet, Facebook, etc. These are things you can and should do whether you received a huge advance or an LTH advance because this will help you increase sales. You can moan about this burden that has been placed on you or you can jump up and down at this opportunity that you have. And I know there are other posts and workshops on these topics at this conference and around the web—building a brand, etc.—so I’m not going to talk about how to do it, just that it is essential that you do it no matter what the size of your advance. We will call all you followers of the Brand Bandwagon, Smart Authors.

What I want to talk about now, are the advantages to an LTH advance. Because there really are some.

Is that a royalty check I see?

So Smart Author with an LTH advance, guess what? You probably earned out your advance! Congratulations! That makes you much beloved in the eyes of your editor, publisher, agent, and everyone else who comes into contact with you throughout the process. You have officially made money for everyone involved. Was it huge advance money? Maybe not. But it may get there soon at the royalty end of things. Which is a much happier place to be than the red ink side of the accounting books.


Once upon a time publishers invested in author careers. But they did it with small advances. They gave those authors time to build an audience and become a success, even if it took more than one book. I believe that some publishers, particularly ones that consistently pay low advances for genre titles, are still interested in building authors’ careers. And by that, I mean building a career with a Smart Author who does more self-promotion than they had to 30 years ago, maybe more than they should have to, but sucks it up and does it with a smile all the same. There is a place in publishing for authors who wade into the pool and when they get to the middle they jump around and make a big splash, versus only those who run and do a cannonball off the side. At least this way you don’t find out mid-cannonball that they drained the pool last week.

Oh, the pressure!

Let’s face it, a big advance comes with big pressure. Fine, maybe you have some extra cash to pay for a massage once in a while, but that’s still a lot of extra stress. When expectations are low, you have a great opportunity to wow people. Companies have made fortunes out of the underpromise, overdeliver motto, and that’s the opportunity you have before you. How many times have you seen a movie or read a book that was hyped to death and you’ve thought well, I might have enjoyed this if I’d read it before all the hype? Hype can be great, but hype can kill. Embrace your status as the dark horse and then stun everyone with your victory.

Take 2 or 3

So what about the expectations from your publisher? With a huge advance, there are two options: earn out or disappear. I suppose option 3 is undergo extensive plastic surgery to alter your appearance and change your name before you even think about writing another book. But basically, if you receive a huge advance for your first book and then it tanks, no one will want to come near you. If you have an LTH advance, the bar is set much lower. Yes, there are still expectations, but even if you don’t meet them, your career might not be over. First of all, not meeting them might still mean you came close to earning out. Or might mean you earned out but just didn’t sell as many copies as they would have liked. My point is, you aren’t quite the publishing pariah that you might otherwise be. You may still have a chance to write and publish another book. To build your career as an author.

Monkey in the middle or on my back?

So I actually think there’s a middle level which is in some ways the most difficult advance to overcome. This is the advance where the dollar amount is significant to an individual (the author), yet still not really significant to a corporation (the publisher). You could call this the Faux Big advance.  A book still has to sell reasonably well to earn out an advance at this level, yet authors are often under the illusion that they will receive more publisher support than they actually do. They are lulled into this false sense of importance that is not shared by the publisher, and it might lead them to do less self-promotion than they would have if they’d received a true LTH advance. On the other hand, a true Smart Author, as defined above, won’t fall into this trap since you will recall that Smart Authors always take on the responsibility for building their own brand. But this is another trap of a bigger than small advance.

So should you call your agent and ask her to negotiate the smallest advance possible? Is there a perfect size advance?? No and no. It is only natural to want the biggest advance you can get. And nothing I say here is going to change that, nor should it. There are definite advantages to a huge advance, but as stated above, there are some advantages to an LTH advance as well. So…

You get what you get and you don’t get upset.

Oh, and also, you put your head down and market the heck out of yourself and your book because no one wants this as much as you do.

Michelle Wolfson formed Wolfson Literary Agency in 2007 and is actively seeking authors of commercial fiction in the following categories: mainstream, mysteries, thrillers, suspense, chick-lit, romance, women’s fiction, and young adult. She is drawn to well written material with strong interesting characters. She is also interested in practical and narrative non-fiction projects, particularly those of interest to women. Michelle holds a BA from Dartmouth College and an MBA from New York University. Prior to forming her own agency, Michelle spent two years with Artists & Artisans, Inc. and two years with Ralph Vicinanza, Ltd. Before that, she spent several years working outside of publishing, in non-profit and then finance, and she brings the skills she learned there plus a lifetime love of reading to the table as an agent.

Writing a Query Letter by author Jodi Meadows

WriteOnCon welcomes author Jodi Meadows to the blog! Jodi has read many, many queries in her life. She really knows her stuff. She's going to give us some awesome advice for the single most important letter you might write in your publishing career.


I like queries. No, I love them. They're such short, humble things, but their importance is undeniable. Queries are the initial step to nabbing an agent. They're your first impression, and your best chance at getting an agent to pay attention to you.

Considering how drastically queries can affect careers, it always shocks me when writers carelessly throw something together, assuming it will be adequate. Which is not to say I think people should get worked up over things like margins and which paragraph your wordcount/genre should be in. There's also no point in trying to find magic offer-of-representation-words. They don't exist. No, you must query responsibly and realistically.

The purpose of a query is to make someone so interested in reading your manuscript they can't eat or sleep until they read it. And that's the tricky part.


If you don't already know how to format a query letter, get thee to Google. This post isn't about what font you use. This post is about how to show the extreme awesomeness of your story.

Beginning a query description can be really intimidating! To get started, answer the following questions:

1. Who is the protagonist and what is their goal? (Motivation.)

2. What is keeping the protag from achieving that goal? (Conflict.)

3. How will the protagonist overcome this problem? (Plot.)

4. What happens if the protagonist fails/what choice does the protagonist have to make? (Stakes, and why the reader should care.)

I can't give you these answers, but I can help you learn how to turn them into a clear, kick-butt query.


My favorite method of query-writing involves three paragraphs and modifying from there. Sometimes you may find you need four or two paragraphs for the best effect. Be open to change if necessary, but for the purpose of this example, I'm going to use my usual three paragraphs. While you're reading this, keep in mind the questions above.

Paragraph one: This sentence introduces the character and a goal/problem in a hooky way. This sentence expands on that and explains why it's so important. This one talks about the character's great idea to solve their problem. This sentence presents a new problem that complicates their original problem and renders their other solution useless.

Paragraph two: This paragraph is more fluid. It might explain worldbuilding, or tell the reader about interesting situations the character gets into. It will use specific details strong enough to influence the reader's perception of the story/character/world. It will keep the tension rising, and not veer from the problems introduced in paragraph one. It ends, perhaps, with the character deciding on yet another solution to their problems, or realizing something horrible. It will drag the reader into the final paragraph.

Paragraph three: This sentence introduces a big choice or complication that directly relates to the main problem. The final sentence makes the stakes clear and hooks the reader.

The most important thing is to make the reader care desperately about your character, their situation, and the choices the character will have to make.


1. Agents are reading lots of queries very quickly. Make this easy for them. Minimal character and place names. Don't list multiple plot twists and expect anyone to remember them; it's a hook, not a synopsis.

2. Focus. Your story may be filled with lots of subplots and secondary characters with their own agendas, and that's cool, but focus. Main character, main plot. Again, hook. Not a synopsis.

3. Action! Things move forward. Things get worse. Choices are difficult and emotional.

4. Snip. Chop out all extra phrases and scaffolding. Make it fast and easy to read. Stay around 150-200 words.


Writers are often shocked to find out how much agents can tell about a book based on the query, but if you read a couple dozen of them, then peek at the sample pages, you'd be surprised how much the queries reveal.

1. One of the biggest, most obvious things agents see is an author's writing skill. Not fair to judge an entire manuscript based on one 200-word description? Think about this: Would you want to read a manuscript if the query was filled with typos, scaffolding, and confusing sentences? I doubt it. But I bet you'd want to read something if the query had smart, snappy writing, or prose that made your heart melt.

And if the writing in your query doesn't reflect the actual manuscript -- see above about folks just whipping something together.

2. Plot -- whether you've got any, whether it's like everyone else's, or whether it has the potential to be awesome.

A query for a manuscript with plot shows conflicts and choices; it will answer the questions above. The query does not list every event and give away the end -- save that for the synopsis -- but it gives enough specific details to show the agent there's potential in this. A query without conflict and choices is most likely a query for a manuscript without plot.

As for a plot that's like someone else's, how would anyone know? Ah hah. But what is the first thing you think of when you see this: Mylight is about a teenage girl who's fascinated by the boy who sits next to her in class. Unfortunately, he seems to hate her no matter how hard she tries to be nice. But when he saves her life, she begins to unravel his mystery. He's a hot supernatural love interest and he's smitten with her. While he fights the urge to kill her because of his nature, she must convince him that true love is more powerful.

3. Characters and their development. Same thing as above. Great characters stand out in queries. So do Mary Sues. Dull characters will have no motivation, no drive to do anything. Who wants to read about boring characters?


My favorite thing about queries is that they force you to see what your book is really about. You must look at your manuscript like an outsider, paring it down to its most basic -- but biggest -- elements. Queries can change how you look at your story, sometimes inspiring amazing revisions. (What if the book your query talks about is way better than the one you wrote?)

You may also find query descriptions useful when beginning a new story. Often queries reveal the most interesting things about a manuscript, and they can help writers focus on those things. If you don't know where the story is heading, writing the query can help you figure out the stakes and choices your characters will face in the end, giving you somewhere to aim.

So there you have it. I know that's a lot to take in, but with enough practice, it will be second nature. Read other people's queries. Participate in different query critiques; there are lots available for free on the internet. Soon you'll be hooking agents right and left.

Questions? Comments? The floor is yours.

Jodi Meadows is represented by Lauren MacLeod of the Strothman Agency. Her debut series, THE NEWSOUL TRILOGY, beginning with ERIN INCARNATE, will be published by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Before that she spent a year and a half reading submissions and evaluating requested material for another well known agency. She can be found online at her personal blog and Twitter.

Voice by literary agent Elana Roth

Who needs helps with the ever-elusive voice in their novel? Go on, raise your hands. I know I do. It's something that everyone talks about, but that no one can seem to pin down. Well, look no further. We've got literary agent Elana Roth her to spill the secrets on voice.

On Voice

Let’s be honest. Trying to write a blog post about voice is a really ridiculous undertaking. It’s like asking someone what good chemistry is. You know it when you see it, and you know it when you don’t feel it, but if you had to analyze the components of it, you’d be hard-pressed to find adequate evidence to point to.

It’s not only just hard to pinpoint in the first place, but once you do, it’s also incredibly personal. You know, like when you’re best friend has fallen head-over-heels for someone, and you just see the way he says, “Dude” a lot, and crinkles his eyebrows at funny moments. But for some reason, she’s drawn to him.

So it kind of sucks to say, but voice is incredibly personality specific. There are projects I’ve fallen for wholeheartedly, felt the character’s voice was one of the best I’d seen, and still had editors turn it down saying, “I just didn’t like the voice.” There are projects where the character just irritated me so badly after 3 pages, I couldn’t handle it anymore. But someone else loved it, signed it and sold it.

I think the one thing that is in your control with voice is just making sure you have one in the first place. Don’t be the person your friends would describes as “vanilla” or “white bread.” (Or if you’re Jewish, “seedless rye.”)

What that personality is will be up to you as you write your main character. But things to think about are their attitude, their turns of phrase, their mentality, their passions, their fears….

Still stuck? Think about your best friends. Access their senses of humor. What they smile at. What they hate. What are your character’s most notable traits? What memories do they still remember the most vividly? Use details. Details keep us grounded, and make your character real.

And then here’s the trick: don’t use all your ammo at once. Spread it out. Keep that voice going, so your reader keeps learning more about your main character the longer they spend together. Like one of those three-hour conversations you have with someone that meanders and twists and turns and you learn new things, and venture onto unplanned topics, and revel in how much better you understand that person after talking to them.

Essentially, a voice is something to be listened to. The stronger the voice, the better it will be heard. And once you have it down, that’s all it takes for someone else to fall in love.

Elana Roth is a children’s book editor turned literary agent in New York City. She works for the Johnson Literary Agency, and specializes in children’s and young adult fiction. Once upon a time, she fell in love with children’s publishing by chance at Nickelodeon Magazine. Luck struck again when she began working at Parachute Publishing, where she spent nearly 5 years learning the ropes of the book world on series for kids of all ages (and that includes some adults). Educationally, Elana is a graduate of Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she earned degrees in English literature and Bible (which you could say is really the book that started it all). When she’s not reading, she’s web designing, or throwing pottery, both of which you can find out about if you dig around a little more.

Writing Middle Grade by author J.S. Lewis

We welcome J.S. Lewis to WriteOnCon! It's always great to have fabulous middle grade authors, and he's one of the best! Today he's divulging some tips for writing middle grade.


Warning! If your childhood is nothing but a distant memory, stop reading!

Seriously. You see, if you really want to write for the middle grade market, the passions of your childhood must be a vibrant part of your world today!

If you’re poisoned by the realities of the world, turn back. If you’ve been jaded by politics, financial scandal, and sensational news stories, it’s hopeless. And most importantly, if you find yourself using phrases like, “when I was your age . . .” you are, I’m afraid, terminal.

However, if you’re the kind of person who frequents eBay in search of that special My Little Pony your mother sold in a garage sale, or if you go to Target in search of bath towels, but end up in the toy section looking at Star Wars figures, you’re well on your way to becoming a beloved middle grade author.

Sound ridiculous? Maybe, but here’s the thing. Kids know. They know if you have a real passion for what you’re writing about, and if you’re trying to sell them a story that isn’t saturated with passion, they’re going to reject it. If you still live in Neverland though – if you have stories with young heroes and heroines that are screaming to be told, then you’ve found a home.

When I was approached to take part in this revolutionary writing conference, I asked the creators what subject matter would help most. They gave me a list, but instead of focusing on one, I think I’ll touch on a few. Like kids, I have a short attention span, so it’ll help me stay focused. In turn, hopefully it’ll give you a wider perspective on the subject as a whole.

Times Have Changed, And They’re Changing Fast
I was asked to lecture at a writing conference where I ended up reviewing two manuscripts. It’s something I never do, and I hated it. I rarely read books that friends of mine have written because I’m brutally honest. I don’t know how to fake enthusiasm, so I’d rather avoid the discomfort of telling someone that I don’t like what I read. The problem, though, is that if you don’t hear fair criticism, you’ll never grow.

Someone who looked to be in her sixties wrote one of the manuscripts. It was a touching story that would have been perfect for a Hallmark movie of the week, but (in my opinion) it wasn’t going to work as a story for kids. Why? The characters were right out of Leave It To Beaver or My Three Sons. They were the children from her youth, but not kids from today.

One thing I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter if you’re writing a script for a movie or television, or if you’re writing a book. Kids hate retro. I mean, how nostalgic could a twelve year old actually be?

To solve that problem, you have to inundate yourself with where your target market is at today. What are their language patterns? What music are they listening to? What television shows do they watch? Who are their heroes?

I’m lucky. I have three kids. But I’d watch Spongebob Squarepants, Ben 10, Fairly Odd Parents and Star Wars Clone Wars even if I didn’t. If you don’t have access to kids, volunteer at the children’s section of your library. You could teach Sunday school for the grade level(s) that you’re writing for. Offer to host your friend’s kids for the weekend. Watch the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon to study the humor and dialogue cadence. You’ll be amazed by what you learn!

You’re Not Alone . . . Even Four Year Olds Think Elmo and Dora are Lame
Kids are growing up faster than ever. Each one of my kids was done with Sesame Street and Dora by her third birthday. Say what? I watched Sesame Street until I was in kindergarten. What happened?

Whether or not we like it, kids are growing up faster than ever. You can fight it, or you can use that knowledge to your favor because it’s a small but critical point. Kids want to read stories about people who are older than they are. So if you’re writing for 10-12 year olds, consider making your heroes and heroines 14. There’s something alluring when it comes to gettng a glimpse of what the future holds, and aging your characters will make your stories more compelling to a middle grader.

How to Keep Kids Turning Those Pages
Kids don’t want to read. Sure, we can all come up with examples of a kid (maybe even five) who loves to read, but those numbers are dwindling. Librarians and educators are desperate for stories that attract those reluctant readers (i.e. boys). It’s a battle that the schools are losing.

Can you blame kids for not wanting to read, though? Books, by nature, require a serious investment of time. It can be intimidating – even for an adult – to look at a book and wonder if they will have time to finish it.

The competition for “free” time is unrelenting. There are video games where you can customize your characters to look exactly like you, or better yet, exactly like what you’d want to look like. The worlds inside those games are nearly photorealistic – it’s almost as though you’ve become a character in a movie.

Then there’s social media, texting, sports, homework, television, movies, and slew of other activities. With all of that available to them, when are kids supposed to read for leisure?

If you get lucky enough to have a kid pick up and open your book to the first page, you better start off with a bang! You have to grab them and never let go.

If your story starts to lull, your reader is going to put it down and he or she won’t come back – not just to that book, but most likely any book you write in the future.

Here are a few thoughts on how to keep that momentum going . . .

* Adjectives and adverbs are not your friends
My advice? Eliminate modifiers except where absolutely critical (which is rare). Logic would state that you’re helping create a rich environment when you add a lot of description. What adjectives and adverbs actually do is bring your story to a screeching halt.

* Keep ‘em guessing!
You need at least one character that will keep your readers guessing. Is that character friend or foe? Then, just when the reader is sure where that character stands, make them do the exact opposite of what would be expected. Use this character to keep your audience off-balance. Twists and turns in the plot will keep kids engaged – they love to be on the edge of their seats. We all do!

* Action
Kids – especially boys – love explosions, fights, monsters, aliens, robots, and all that jazz. Don’t be afraid to include it in your stories. There’s a trick though . . . it can’t come at the expense of story. If you haven’t created characters that your reader connects with on a deep, emotional level, they won’t care what happens when your characters get in trouble.

* Tension
Tension can be as important as action (and it’s probably more important). Look at any Alfred Hitchcock film. There weren’t a lot of explosions, but the tension in his stories keeps you on the edge of your seat. Apply that to your writing. Kids love suspense.

* Cliffhangers
Some people consider the use of cliffhangers a cheap trick. Maybe it is. However, you need to create a reason for the reader to keep going. What better way than to finish each chapter with a bang that’s going to lead into something even more exciting in the next chapter?

I remember sneaking under my covers with a flashlight, reading a book long passed my bedtime. Why did I risk getting grounded? Because every time I went to put the book down, the author compelled me to keep reading – it was as though I didn’t have a choice but to disobey my parents. You need to create that same sense of desire so kids won’t be able to put your book down. At the end of every chapter, the little voice inside their heads should say, “okay, just one more chapter . . .”

Tackling Delicate Subject Matter
Don’t be afraid to tackle real issues. One of the themes in the Grey Griffins series that I co-authored is divorce. It affected my main character in a deep way when his parents split up, just like it affected me and millions of other kids. I didn’t judge whether or not his parents should have gotten a divorce, but I wasn’t afraid to talk about his pain. That resonates with kids.

Why not touch on the struggles that your readers are going through? Peer pressure . . . fitting in . . . self-confidence . . . moving away from the town where you grew up . . . acne . . . rejection by the opposite sex . . . we all went through it, and so are kids today. Tapping into those universal struggles may help you create a deep emotional connection with the reader.

Just be careful that you don’t get too graphic when it comes to subjects like abuse and other violent or sexually explicit acts. Your editor will be a great barometer to help you when aren’t sure about something.

Wrapping It Up
I’ve already gone well passed my word count, so I’ll close with this. Writing for middle grade readers is exciting. You’ll never have a more enthusiastic group. And in truth, if I can do it, you can (and I’m not just saying that)! So if this is really your passion, stick with it and never give up.

Oh, and read a ton of middle grade books in a variety of styles. Check out beautiful prose like Laini Taylor, as well as the wonderful economy of words that writers like Kate DiCamillo use. I have a list of books and authors that I’ve enjoyed here -- listen to the cadence of their sentence structure and try and discover the “why” behind what you like and dislike.

And keep learning! I know that I’ll never stop reading books on writing. I feel my writing has grown exponentially over the last six months because of some excellent books, podcasts and audio series that I’ve discovered.

I have a list of great books that I try to read once a year. You can find that here.

Good luck! And if you have a question that I didn’t address here, you can always email me at jslewis@greygriffins.com. I’d love to help if I can.

J.S. Lewis is an American novelist and comic book writer. His novels include Invasion (coming December 2010), as well as The Brimstone Key (from the Grey Griffins Clockwork Chronicles), and the original Grey Griffins trilogy: The Revenge of the Shadow King, The Rise of the Black Wolf, and The Fall of the Templar (co-authored by Derek Benz). He also wrote a twelve book comic book series based on Sony’s virtual world phenomenon, Free Realms. A graduate of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Broadcasting, Lewis has explored a career that includes news reporting, radio production, animation, graphic design, web development, mural painting, speech writing, video game development, voice over work, and marketing. He currently resides in Arizona with his wife and children.

WriteOnCon Prize Drawing!

Dude, you guys!! So you know how you go to a live conference and there are door prizes? Well, guess what??

We have prizes too!

To enter to win, simply leave a comment on this post. We'll draw winners tonight and announce the winners at the tail end of the live panel (10 PM EDT). You have until 9:45 PM EDT to enter.

What can you win?

How about a 10-page manuscript critique from a wicked amazing author?

Your wish, granted.

Lindsey Leavitt, author of PRINCESS FOR HIRE, will crit your pages for you! If you want to win this amazing prize, simply leave a comment on this post by 9:45 PM EDT.

Oh, and go tell your friends!!

If you're an industry professional (published author, literary agent, or editor) and you'd like to donate a prize for WriteOnCon, it's not too late! Please email us at writeoncon(at)gmail.com and let us know!

Becoming a Career Author by literary agent Catherine Drayton

We offer a warm welcome to literary agent Catherine Drayton! She's stopped by to offer some valuable advice about becoming a career author. Take it away, Catherine!

Becoming a Career Author

It is every writer’s dream – a steady income, a grateful publisher and an audience impatient for your next book. We all know these are tough times in publishing: Many respected authors are struggling to secure deals for their next books and publishers are looking for authors who have the potential to break-out (by that I mean sell over 100,000 copies).  So how does the debut author approach the business of writing and give themselves the best shot at becoming a career author?

You need good people on your team.

Writing is no different from any other profession. A good mentor is essential to success. You need someone on your team who believes in your writing, wants you to succeed and has the experience to offer constructive advice. I don’t mean family and friends – I can’t tell you how many times writers tell me that their ‘students loved the manuscript’ or ‘friends say it’s great’ and have encouraged them to send it to agents and publishers  – they will never be able to offer you the honest, professional feedback that you need to improve as a writer.  In fact, when I hear these lines, I often only half-jokingly suggest that the writer consider sharing their manuscript with an enemy or two because if they admit they love it, the writer’s probably got something good.

Where do you find that person? Perhaps it is your creative writing teacher, a writing buddy, an online critique group, or a published author who sees potential in your writing. You need someone whose judgement you trust, who you can respond to on an intellectual rather than emotional level, who doesn’t say, ‘It’s great’ just to avoid hurting your feelings. Preferably it is someone who has experience in the craft of storytelling and is well read in your genre. Many authors these days are part of online writing groups and find a great deal of support and constructive criticism from their fellow writers. But don’t make the mistake of listening to everyone and trying to meet their concerns. Settle on a few that you trust.

Hopefully, you’ll be able to add a good agent to your team. Take your time to research the agents before you query them. Look at their track record in selling your genre and write to them personally.  Demonstrate that you’ve studied up on them and explain why, based on their current client list, you feel that you’d be a good fit.  You’re selling your work and yourself to busy strangers who will appreciate that you’ve reached out in a professional manner.  It’s a lot more work that knocking out a one-size-fits-all cover letter, but the chances of your reaping positive results will be much, much higher.

When your book is sold treat your editor well.  Their career is tied to your success so remember that they are on your side. If you have a delicate issue, ask your agent to raise it with the editor. Your agent is there to handle the potentially upsetting business issues and to help you preserve your goodwill with your editor.  People work harder for people they respect.  So, earn your editor’s respect.  Always look to make your encounters positive.  Meet deadlines, revise diligently, express appreciation.

Once you have chosen your mentors, listen to them. You chose them because you trust their judgement and at times what they have to say may not be easy to accept but remember they want you to succeed!

I want to tell you a funny story I recently heard about a woman who is today an internationally best-selling mystery writer.  She began her professional writing life as a political speech writer and freelance journalist for women’s magazines.  When her second child began nursery school she had three free hours each morning that she hadn’t had in years.  She was an avid mystery reader and thought she could write a good one herself, so she used those three hours to write what became her first manuscript.  When she was finished, the first person she asked to read it was her husband – a high-powered lawyer as well as a big mystery reader himself.  His response?  Not, “Honey, you’re brilliant…..this is the best novel I’ve read in years!!”  It was, “I’ve read worse.”   Better than brutal, but pretty tough.  Undaunted, she rewrote the manuscript based on his critique, managed to find an agent, a publisher and a place on the bestseller list.

Know what you’re good at.

When writers start out they often experiment with a number of genres, styles and narrative points of view. Ultimately – make that sooner rather than later –you’ll need to settle on what feels most natural. Don’t chase commercial success by trying to grab onto the latest fad (did anyone mention vampires?!) as what’s ‘hot’ is elusive. Success comes with great writing, strong plots and a vivid imagination. Once you’ve established your audience, keep delivering what they want. It is naive to think that your publisher will want to publish everything that you write, especially if you insist on changing genres. Publishers want to build brand recognition for their authors, so if you write commercial women’s fiction or literary YA keep delivering better books in that genre each time.

Keep learning.

Just because you’ve gotten a book published don’t stop learning. Take creative writing courses, read incessantly and practice your craft.

Don’t give up your day job.

Whatever you do don’t give up paid employment until you’re sure that you can have enough income from your writing to support yourself for three years. You have living expenses, health care and taxes to pay and there’s no guarantee that your publisher will keep publishing your books or pay ever- increasing advances. Knowing that you have an outside income allows you to enjoy your writing. I’m also a firm believer that if you stay involved in the outside world it will benefit your writing. There are new experiences and new people to meet and it’s a lot less stressful if writing is your passion. Even very successful authors involve themselves in the world by teaching, attending festivals and making school visits. Writer’s block is a real danger when all you have to do is stare at the computer and think about the bills you have to pay.

Promote your writing.

Increasingly, authors are expected to become heavily involved in promoting their writing. No longer can you sit in a garret and let your art speak for itself. The first thing an editor will ask when they’re interested in a manuscript is, “Does the author have a website and are they actively involved in social media? The well-prepared author is already part of at least one on-line community. The key is to expand your influence and exposure through expanding your network. Get involved in blogging and Tweeting, contribute to other author’s blogs and join critique groups. Be generous and supportive of your fellow authors and you’ll find that when the time comes that you need support you’ll have a community behind you.

Catherine Drayton graduated with a Bachelor of Arts/Law from the University of Sydney and a Masters of Law from University of New South Wales. She worked as a copyright and defamation litigator in Sydney for four years before moving to the United States in 1995. She had a brief stint as a literary scout and then joined Arthur Pine Associates in 1998. She currently works for Inkwell Management, where she represents both fiction and non-fiction writers and has had considerable success with books for children and young adults. Her clients include New York Times bestselling authors and a number of internationally successful writers. She represents Markus Zusak, John Flanagan, Becca Fitzpatrick and Beth Hoffman, amongst many others.

Bringing the Funny by author Rachel Hawkins

Wow. Can you believe we have the amazing Rachel Hawkins here? She's the author of HEX HALL, one of the best YA novels I've read this year. Yes, I might be a little biased. Whatever. She's frawesome! She's here to tell us how to bring the funny to our writing.

Bringing the Funny

I never set out to write funny books. When I first sat down and started on the book that became HEX HALL, I was convinced I was writing a dark mystery full of DEATH and BLOOD SACRIFICE and all sorts of other things that were IN NO WAY COMICAL.  Yes, my book would be like if Anne Rice and Flannery O’Conner had a baby (You know. Through science.) I would pose for moody author photos, wearing lots of eyeliner, and maybe some black velvet. Okay, so I hadn’t owned anything black velvet since an unfortunate flirtation with the Goth look in 9th grade, but whatever. The point is, I would write spoooooky books full of Angst and Danger.

Then I sat down to write. In my opening scene, I had a girl, Sophie Mercer, arriving at a creepy boarding school with her mom. It’s August, and the school is located on an island off the coast of Georgia, so the humidity is pretty intense. As they get out of the car, Sophie’s mom asks her what she thinks about the place. Sophie’s reply? “Awesome. I always wondered what it would be like to live in someone’s mouth.”

I stared at that line.

I deleted it.

I wrote it again.

I looked at it some more.

“Okay,” I thought . “So my Super Dark Book O’Death starts with a joke. Big deal. It’s kind of a smart-ass joke, so that’s acceptable. It’s not like The Funny is taking over or anything.”

So I kept writing, finally getting to the end of Chapter 1, where a werewolf attacks Sophie. “Yes!” I thought, fingers flying over the keys. “Werewolf attack! Nothing funny about that!” But as the werewolf charged Sophie, preparing to rip her throat out, did my intrepid heroine scream a four-letter word, or an awesome disemboweling spell? Nope. Sophie opened her mouth, and out came: “BAD DOG!”

This time, I didn’t even bother with the delete button. I closed the whole document and walked away from the computer. For the next few months, I tinkered with HEX HALL, the voice in my head going, “No one wants funny in their paranormal. It’s like the opposite of peanut butter and chocolate. How many funny books featuring the BRUTAL MURDERS OF TEENAGERS have you read, moron?”

But here’s the thing: When I was writing a dark, serious, angsty paranormal, I wasn’t having that much fun. When I was writing about Sophie doing pratfalls, or making an inadvertent dirty joke to her crush, I was grinning at the keyboard. So I gave in. I wrote a Funny Book (that yes, just happened to feature the brutal murders of teenagers.)

Luckily for me, it turned out that people did want funny in their paranormal, and I learned a very important lesson about why it’s so important to be true to your own voice. Of course, it meant I had to return that black velvet ball gown to the store, but that’s neither here nor there.

So if you’re thinking about Bringing The Funny, the best advice I have is: DO IT. I wasted too much time being scared of The Funny!

As for more specific advice:

1)      If ALL your test readers think a joke isn’t funny, it probably isn’t. If it’s just one or two, though, keep it in. The Funny is HIGHLY subjective, after all!

2)      Make sure The Funny is in keeping with the rest of the book. For example, HEX HALL originally had jokey, faux-fairy tale chapter titles, like, “Wherein Our Heroine Cries Like a Dork, Uncovers a Mystery, and Makes Lifelong Enemies.” Now, I thought this was HILARIOUS, but it didn’t take me long to realize that those chapter titles really, really clashed with the tone of the book.

3)      Have fun with all kinds of humor. I love a good witticism as much as the next gal, but then, a well-timed physical gag makes me crack up, too. Remember there are lots of types of funny, both big and small. Use all of ‘em!

Rachel Hawkins is a 30-year-old former teacher who left teaching to take a chance and get serious about finishing that book she’d always wanted to write. Her first book, HEX HALL, was the result of that leap of faith. She’s a graduate of Auburn University in Alabama and lives with her husband and four-year-old son. The second book in the HEX HALL series, DEMONGLASS, comes out March 1, 2011. Rachel is currently hard at work on the final book in the HEX HALL trilogy.

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