Friday, June 29, 2012

Turning an Idea into Story: Pump up the Drama

I talked last week about how I expanded The Ghost on the Stairs, to match Aladdin’s series guidelines. I added complications, and about 70 pages. 

The editor read those revisions, but found a new problem. Some scenes lacked drama. He wanted it spookier, with the ghost more active. 

I realized that some of my “detective” scenes didn’t directly involve the ghost at all. For example, I had the kids do research in the public library. They find information, and leave, with no drama. To keep the ghost involved, I moved their research session to the hotel’s business center and added this dramatic chapter ending. 

    [Tania] went out. I have to admit, I was glad to be alone for awhile…. It felt good to forget about ghosts and sisters and responsibilities, and just do regular stupid stuff.
    Then I heard the scream.

This gave me a cliffhanger, and also inspired some new and dramatic action for the next chapter.
When adding complications, make sure the complications make the plot more interesting, rather than slowing it down. Complications should be dramatic, scary or emotional. 

Avoid repetition in nonfiction as well. For Milton Hershey: Young Chocolatier (Childhood of Famous Americans series, written as M.M. Eboch), I portrayed his first bankruptcy in tragic, emotional detail. I knew the second one wouldn’t have as much impact, so I skimmed over it quickly and moved Milton on to new challenges.

Tip: Use variations on a theme. Don’t just repeat the same old argument between your hero and heroine or provide an identical example of your villain’s villainy. Add a twist, so it will feel fresh. 

If you have similar scenes, place them in order from the easiest to hardest challenge, or add increasing stakes, such as time running out. Save the biggest confrontation for the climax.

Example: In Haunted Book 1: The Ghost on the Stairs, the kids make three trips to the local cemetery. The first time, they are with their mother in daylight. The second time, it’s dark and stormy, and they are alone. The final time, Tania has been possessed by a ghost. Three cemetery scenes, but each different enough to feel fresh—and each scarier than the last. 

Tip: Give it a twist - new information that changes everything but still makes sense (such as Darth Vader revealing that he’s Luke’s father).

Next week: more tips on how to pack the plot full of action.

Advanced Plotting is packed full of articles on how to make your plot stronger. Get Advanced Plottingon Amazon or B&N in paperback or e-book.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Did I Really Write Eddie’s War?: Carol Fisher Saller guest post

Today we continue the series of guest authors published by namelos. Carol Fisher Saller talks about writing her historical verse novel Eddie’s War with a little help from her friends. Here’s Carol:

I once calculated that when I was writing Eddie’s War, I averaged eleven and a half words a day. I’ve written elsewhere about how hard it was for me, and how I wrote the scenes out of order as they occurred to me without having a plot or getting to know my characters. I’d just think of a scene—a “vignette”—and write it. Here’s a short one:

May 1939
Sarah Mulberry

In the first grade
she was Sam,
not even all that much
a girl.
Smile as wide as her feet were long,
feet made for puddle-jumping,
running from boys.
She could bat a ball and fling a cob
with the rest of us.
In junior high, though,
she became Sarah,
still flashing that smile,
but avoiding the cob fights.
Unless she was

Somehow all the little snippets did eventually coalesce, but not without help from friends, family, colleagues, my editor, and now and then—I’ll admit it—random strangers.

For a while I felt a little guilty using other peoples’ ideas, as though I were cheating. I’m guessing that’s normal for writers: First we resent the suggestion a little and resist it. Then we kick ourselves for not thinking of it ourselves. Finally, when we know that we really, really want to use that idea, we wonder whether it’s fair game.

But surely this is how most books get written. Even if a writer managed to seal herself up in a room and crank out a book with no contact with the outside world, she would still be drawing in some way on all the books and movies and conversations that are swirling in the soup of her subconscious.

So without shame, let me list some of the people who helped write Eddie’s War:

My father, who died in 1994. It’s no coincidence that my dad, like Eddie, was 12 when the war began and had an older brother who was a bomber pilot. Dad kept a little five-year diary during that time, and my book draws endlessly on the historical and farming details in the diary. I also took situations or incidents that Dad gave only a line or two in the diary and I expanded them into full-blown fictional events.

My writing group. Everyone in my writing group gave me excellent suggestions along the way—really too many to remember, let alone mention. One example: in an email response to an early draft, Beth Fama reminded me that before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Americans were not generally in favor of joining the war in Europe. I had forgotten that. Acknowledging my ignorance pushed me into doing a ton of reading and research that took the book up several notches in authenticity. 

My editor. When I took the half-written manuscript to a workshop at the Highlights Foundation, Stephen Roxburgh gave me an exercise of writing a vignette in as few words as possible about a new character who would tell us something important about the main character. I thought up Grampa Rob and wrote a 47-word scene of him duck hunting, with Eddie. From that one short exercise two things happened: (1) I learned that Eddie was my main character, and (2) I introduced a major thread of dramatic tension. Incidentally, Stephen took a pencil and in about 30 seconds reduced the scene to 28 words*:

September 1938
Duck Hunting

Hunkered in the duck blind,
trying to keep still,
broken reeds
poking through my jacket,
I squirmed.
Long fingers
like barn nails
gripped my neck:
Grampa Rob.

A colleague. When I thought the book was finished, I gave it to a friend at work who is also a novelist, Joe Peterson. He had a lot of suggestions and criticisms, many of which I ignored as being not quite right for middle-grade/YA literature. But one complaint resonated: “As a guy,” he said, “I was really disappointed that you didn’t describe Eddie and Sarah’s date.” He insisted that boy readers would want to go on that date. And then he told me what should happen on the date. Listening to him describe it, I was bowled over. It was so perfect, so important—without it the book suddenly seemed horribly incomplete. Without it, Eddie’s coming-of-age would be totally botched! I rushed home and wrote “The Date.” In the months since the book came out, three (3!) different adult men who have read Eddie’s War have told me that “The Date” was their favorite scene.

A Stranger. In a cab on my way to the airport after the Highlights workshop, we drove along a scenic river, and when I commented on how beautiful it was, the cab driver told me that when he was a kid they used to walk across the river underwater, as a dare. Having a life-long fear of water myself, I was gripped by that tale, and when I got home I wrote “Walking the Spoon,” one of my favorite vignettes. Later, it was a bonus (thanks to Joe) that Eddie was able to revisit the Spoon and resolve things so perfectly in “The Date.”

So did I really write Eddie’s War? Of course I did. There’s a little slip of paper I keep tacked up over my desk that says “Nobody but me can write my books.” I really believe that. For better or worse, nobody but me could take all that grist and mill it exactly the way I did. Your way might be better than mine, but mine is mine, no matter how many people helped me along the way.
*When I sent her the post, Chris wanted to see the original 47-word version of this vignette. You can see how Stephen tightened it by trimming unneeded words—and how much punch it gained when he moved the first two words to the end. (I hope everyone appreciates my willingness to show my draft, warts and all!)

September 1938
Duck Hunting

Grampa Rob. A voice in the other room spoke the name
and Eddie remembered.
Tall, silent. Eddie had been small,
crouching in the duck blind, broken reeds poking through his jacket.
When he squirmed,
a hand gripped his neck, the long fingers like barn nails,
a warning.

Carol Fisher Saller is a senior manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press and an editor of the Chicago Manual of Style. She has also worked as an editor of children’s books at Cricket Books. In addition to Eddie’s War, she is the author of The Subversive Copyeditor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself) and currently writes for the Lingua Franca blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

(See the earlier posts explaining namelos: Namelos Guest Authors and Namelos Guest Authors: A Different Kind of Publisher.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Heart, You’ve Got to Have Heart: Nancy Bo Flood from namelos

Nancy Bo Flood, one of the namelos authors we’ve met over the last two weeks, shares her insight into the craft of writing. Here she discusses Heart, You’ve Got to Have Heart:

But, you may argue, I am writing a nonfiction nature book…or a fantasy…or a picture-book biography. It doesn’t matter. If you want your reader to keep turning the pages, your manuscript must have heart. Emotion.

Emotion connects the information, the meaning and the reader. It is this emotional connection to a story unfolding or facts unfolding that enables us to remember what we experience. If your manuscript has heart, your reader will remember what you wrote.

How does a writer create heart or emotion? Through story. Through creating “intent,” the overall theme or meaning of a book. When someone asks you, what was that book about? Your reply, if your remember anything about the book, will be a description of the book’s theme. Charlotte’s Web is about letting go of someone we love. Yes, the book is about a girl, a pig and a spider. That sounds pretty hokey, doesn’t it? But what the book really is about, is love and death, which is what we remember.

How does an author develop intent, the emotional power of a book, fiction or nonfiction? First, you do your research. You learn what you must know in order to write an authentic, accurate setting and an interesting unfolding of events or facts. Next, discover the story line. Weave it through the entire manuscript. Create a story arc.

When I wrote a nonfiction picture book about sandstone, Sand to Stone and Back Again, sedimentary rock became my main character. First I did the research – indeed, I read dozens of geology books to write less than a thousand words about sandstone. The tough challenge was finding the “way in,” discovering the connection between my subject and the reader, in other words, discovering my “intent,” what I really wanted to say about sandstone.  I asked myself, how could I make sandstone relevant to a third-grader?

My hook, my way in, my connection to the reader, developed from my intent. What I really cared about was the mystery that stone is always changing, just like that third-grade child:

     “You began as one tiny cell, as small as a grain of sand. From one cell, you became two, then four. Now you are made of millions of connected cells. From one tiny cell, you became a person. From one grain of sand, I became a mountain.”
     Sandstone is always changing, just like you.

Writing memorable fiction or nonfiction requires research that allows the writer to thoroughly know the subject but most important, find the story, your intention, the real meaning. Intention is the emotional answer to “so what, why are these facts or this story important?” Within your work’s intention, whether fiction or nonfiction, is the real treasure, the heart, the emotional connection between the story and your reader.

Nancy Bo Flood is a counselor, teacher, and parent. She has conducted workshops on child abuse, learning disabilities, play therapy, and creative writing. Ms. Flood has lived in Malawi, Hawaii, Japan, and Saipan, where her first novel, Warriors in the Crossfire, is set. She lives on the Navajo Nation reservation, near Flagstaff, Arizona. Her namelos book, No-Name Baby, is an intimate portrait of a young girl as she discovers the truth about herself and her family during World War I. Read her post on “How I found the heart of No-Name.”

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Namelos Guest Authors: A Different Kind of Publisher

As I mentioned last Friday, I’m hosting a group of namelos authors for the next few weeks. Here they discuss how they got involved with namelos, a relatively new player in the publishing industry with some unusual practices.

1) How did your book come to the attention of Stephen Roxburgh and become a namelos title?

SHANNON: I met Stephen at a Highlights Workshop for editing picture books. I viewed myself as a picture book writer at that point although I’d written a few novels. Our personalities clicked. I liked his direct style and sense of humor and after the workshop ended we kept in touch. Namelos doesn’t publish picture books so he asked me to send a novel. THE SUMMER OF HAMMERS AND ANGELS became a namelos title about a year after that.

CAROL: When I was an editor at Front Street/Cricket Books in Chicago, Stephen was our consultant and mentor in Asheville, North Carolina, and he sat in on our editorial meetings by phone. Long before we met in person, I came to know him as this deep, calm voice of wisdom coming out of the speaker phone in the middle of the conference table. And as I got to know his Front Street list, I decided that if I ever wrote a children’s book, I wanted to write it for him.

SHANNON: You’re right. . . he does have a calming voice.

NANCY: NO-NAME BABY is also a Whole Novel Workshop at Highlights success story. I was shaking as I sat down across from Stephen Roxburgh ready to hear his response to my manuscript. I thought he might say something like “Just what makes you think you can write?” Instead he said something like this: “This story made me cry. It has heart.” So I cried. Stephen Roxburgh is amazing at taking a rough piece of “coal” and asking the questions that give one courage to dig in to find the diamond, then polish it.

ALINA: Aw, Nancy, what a lovely response he gave you! As for me, I met Stephen when he was a faculty member at the annual Indiana SCBWI conference in September of 2010. At the end of the event, we had an open mic where I read from my novel-in-progress, RAPE GIRL. Afterward Stephen found me and said something nearly as wonderful as what he said to Nancy: “That was really good! I’d like to see that when you’re finished.” Of course, that lit a fire under me to finally complete my book. I sent it to him that December and a week later he emailed to arrange a phone call—which ended very well.

SHEILA: I think I can claim to have “met” Stephen before any of the others. Way back in the early 1990s, maybe 1992, I saw him on a panel at an American Library Association conference. From then on, he was my top choice for editor. He became acquainted with my work when Front Street/Cricket Books published one of my books, so when I submitted WAITING TO FORGET to be critiqued at namelos, he was interested, and within a few weeks, I’d signed a contract.

2) If you’ve worked with other publishers, how has namelos been different?

SHANNON: Well, they didn’t send me a rejection letter.

ALINA: Ba-dum-bum-CHING! I like that. This is also the difference I enjoyed most.

SHANNON: Honestly, I think what I’ve appreciated most is the care and concern for the work itself. I’ve spent time with other publishers editing manuscripts that in the end didn’t get purchased because sales projections didn’t come in as expected. If namelos believes in the story, I don’t think anyone discusses sales projections.

CAROL: Exactly. I wrote EDDIE’S WAR for Front Street, but it took so long that when it was finished there was this namelos “thing” instead. When I was deciding whether to sign, Stephen asked me “What do you want most? If you want big advances and to have lunch with your editor in New York, that’s not what we’re about.” Namelos is about excellent literature and excellent editorial support; there’s no pulp in the list. (But I added a clause to my contract called “Alimentary Obligation”: i.e, if Stephen and I are ever in New York City at the same time, he has to buy me lunch.)

ALINA: Why did I not think of that clause? I need such a clause! You’re brilliant, Carol. My only book before my namelos title was a picture book for the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which was hardly traditional. But I can say that working with namelos has been entirely different from the experiences I’ve heard about from friends working with Big 6 publishers. When I was revising my novel and had a question, Stephen would usually email me an answer within minutes. I’m a mom with young kids and a limited amount of writing time. An open line of communication really helped me make the most of it.

NANCY: Working with Stephen as editor and namelos as publisher has been the dream experience that I think most writers yearn for. He cares about one’s manuscript and making it the best story possible. He is insightful and articulates his concerns without apologies but with a sense of “yes you can fix this.” He listens and remains patient with one’s revision process regardless how slow that might be. He cares, bottom line.

SHEILA: The big presses I’ve worked with have lacked the sense of family that namelos provides. The other small presses that have published my books haven’t had the kind of recognition that comes with Roxburgh’s name.

3) What are some of the best features of a small independent company such as namelos?

CAROL: I agree with Alina: I have friends who wait literally weeks, biting their nails, for a response from their editors and agents. Once—and only once—I waited a week for a reply from Stephen. I’m not proud of this, but I cried (“He doesn’t like me anymore! He thinks my book stinks!”). Then I wrote again and 10 minutes later he replied with apologies: he simply hadn’t read my first note as asking for a reply.

NANCY: Working with namelos has been like working with a family of perfectionistic, brilliant professionals. Of course I did have to promise rhubarb pie for “just desserts!”

ALINA: Mmm, desserts. I’d say that one of the best features is that there is no shroud of mystery surrounding namelos. Everything is straightforward. Even the contract is written in plain language. There are no bosses of bosses to rule us all enigmatically from on high. No committees to throw in monkey-wrenches just when you think you’ve almost made it. Everyone at namelos is a real, accessible, person invested in making each of our books the best they can be.

CAROL: Oh—and the contract? It’s maybe 4 pages and he emailed it the same day I said yes over the phone. My friend waited six months for a 30-page contract from FSG, which she had to sign and send back in triplicate: 120 pages of contract!

SHANNON: Everything feels so personal. As Sheila and Nancy have said, it does feel like family. Stephen was so quick to respond, to answer questions and to encourage when needed. I had wonderful email exchanges with my copyeditor as well as the cover designer. All were so complimentary about the book. It feels like a passion for everyone involved, to create great books, not simply a job.

SHEILA: I agree with everyone’s comments. I especially like having direct contact with the people in charge of design, copyediting, and publicity. Try that with Random House!

4) Did you all know each other before you signed books with namelos?

ALINA: No, but I immediately asked Stephen to introduce me to his other authors when I signed my contract. Carol and I spoke on the phone days later and then we started an email group with the others after that.

SHANNON: I’ve spent time with Nancy at a workshop, she’s terrific! I’m hoping for a namelos writing retreat one of these days so we can all share a glass of wine. For now, email will have to do.

CAROL: When I was at Cricket Books, we published Sheila’s THE SHADOWED UNICORN. I wasn’t her editor, and I didn’t meet her then, but I met her later at local author events. The others I didn’t know before.

SHANNON: We’ve become a great support for each other now. Talking at least once a week over email. We read each other’s work, encourage, answer questions, and share marketing tips.

SHEILA: Most of us have yet to chat face-to-face. I first met Carol as an editor, so it’s been fun getting to know her as an author. (Yes, there is a difference!) Our email group has grown sort of organically and is just one way namelos authors have to stay connected. Stephen has set up a Facebook page where everyone in the namelos family can exchange comments. Actually that page is open to anyone who’s interested, so join us on Facebook or check out all the namelos books at

NANCY: We “came together” as strangers with the common experience of being a namelos author. Working together to get the word out about each other’s books and about namelos has been better than terrific.

Chris says: Wow, can you feel the love? I’m sure some of you are going to want to run out and check namelos submissions guidelines. However, namelos works a bit differently in that way as well. You can sign up for a paid manuscript evaluation service, where they, according to the website, “provide a detailed critique in a written response.” (Info on their services here). And from the stories above, authors do connect through conferences. However, you won’t find an option for free direct queries or submissions.

Thanks to the namelos authors for sharing their stories. In the next few weeks, each one will post individually in more detail.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Namelos Guest Authors

As my blog followers know, I sometimes have guest authors post about their publishing journeys. When I got an e-mail asking if I'd like to hear about the experiences of five new namelos authors, I jumped on the chance. Here's the overview they put together on their publisher:

Namelos was founded in 2009 by Stephen Roxburgh. One of the foremost editors in children’s publishing (in his early career at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, he edited Roald Dahl, Madeleine L’Engle, and other great writers), Roxburgh left FSG to run his own Front Street Books. After building a stellar list there as well, with books that won many major awards in children’s literature, including nine National Book Award nominations, he left conventional publishing to start namelos, which he called an opening move in a new age of publishing.

Namelos uses current technology to the fullest for every phase of book production. The staff and authors communicate via e-mail and phone; books are printed on demand as hardcovers, paperbacks, and are also available in several e-formats; sales and publicity are predominately handled online. With this approach to making books, no offices or warehouses are necessary. The staff and authors work together with a sense of shared responsibility and reward.

The namelos model is not without controversy. It has come under fire from the Authors Guild, and it has been mistaken for vanity publishing (especially because it also offers critiquing services). But Roxburgh made adjustments in order to meet the criticism and has steadily gained industry-wide acceptance. Most recently the company was sanctioned by SCBWI, which has finally added it to their approved list of publishers, and namelos books are reviewed by all the top journals (Horn Book, School Library Journal, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, etc.) and considered for all the big awards.

Books published by namelos have received starred reviews in major publications and have made Kirkus Reviews’ best-of-the-year list. In 2010 a namelos title was an ALA’s Batchelder Award Honor Book for an outstanding children’s book translated into English. Three namelos titles were selected by Bank Street College for their Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2012 edition. Chicago Public Schools, Pennsylvania School Library Association, and Kansas NEA Reading Circle have included books from namelos on their most recent best books lists.

While Stephen Roxburgh sometimes describes his company as being on the “lunatic fringe,” it’s possible that namelos is actually on the “cutting edge” of publishing.

For the next six Wednesdays, five namelos authors will be guests here on “Write Like a Pro.”

 Alina Klein studied biology at Utah State University. Her first publications were science articles for young children and a picture book, Martimus at Midnight, published by the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Currently, she is an assistant regional advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Alina lives in Indiana with her husband and two sons. Rape Girl is her first novel.

Carol Fisher Saller is the author of Eddie's War, about an Illinois farm boy during WWII, and writes for the Lingua Franca blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education. At the University of Chicago Press she copyedits book manuscripts and is an editor of the Chicago Manual of Style. 

Nancy Bo Flood is a counselor, teacher, and parent. She has conducted workshops on child abuse, learning disabilities, play therapy, and creative writing. Ms. Flood has lived in Malawi, Hawaii, Japan, and Saipan, where her first novel, Warriors in theCrossfire, is set. She lives on the Navajo Nation reservation, near Flagstaff, Arizona.

Shannon Wiersbitzky wrote her first book in elementary school. Unfortunately she illustrated it too. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two sons. The Summer of Hammers and Angels, about a young girl who learns the power of love and community, is her first novel.

Sheila Kelly Welch writes for children of all ages. Her story, “The Holding-On Night,” based on her mother’s recollections of the 1918 pandemic, was published in Cricket and won the International Reading Association’s Short Story Award. Waiting to Forget was inspired by her children who were adopted at school age.

Stop by next Wednesday for a conversation between the authors. Then they'll each post individually during the following weeks. (I'll continue with craft posts on Fridays.)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Writer's Block? Take a Break

In the last two weeks, I've talked about ways to overcome writer's block. Many of these tricks require thinking first, before you start writing. You might find it easier to do that away from your desk. If the computer is starting to feel like an enemy, step away from it for awhile.

Try jotting your notes longhand on a piece of paper or think about your story while you fold laundry or ride your exercise bike. (Make sure you do keep thinking about the story though, and don't get distracted by other things. For me, this works best with mindless tasks such as a loading the dishwasher.) 

I find that taking a walk helps me sort out my thoughts. I often take a tape recorder along and dictate into it, but even just thinking about the problem can help. I give myself a couple of minutes to work through all the other garbage in my brain. Then I try to focus on the story. Sometimes I won't let myself turn around until I've gotten a good start. This means either I make progress on the story, or get lots of exercise!

You may need to experiment to find your own techniques for overcoming writer’s block. Some writers go to a library, cafĂ© or park to write. Some find that ideas come to them in the shower (pick up some kids' shower crayons so you can make notes on the walls). Or perhaps if you fall asleep thinking about a story problem, you’ll have the answer in the morning (though this has never happened to me). 

Maybe you need to talk about the problem with a friend. Even people who don’t write can have fun brainstorming story ideas. When my mystery heroes had to escape from their trap, I asked a dozen people - including an engineer and a former military commando - for ideas. They came up with an amazing variety of possibilities. I didn’t wind up using any of them, but they got my own mind thinking creatively and I did come up with a solution.

So is there a cure for writer’s block? Not a cure, perhaps, but a variety of treatments. Try these suggestions, and experiment to find new tricks that work for you. You may still get stuck, but hopefully you’ll get those fingers flying soon, and fill up that blank white page with nice black words.

You can find lots of advice on handling writing challenges in Advanced Plotting: