Monday, January 31, 2011

What It's All About

There's a poster in my third-grader's class: "Give a seed of a story, not the whole watermelon."

I teach this to my community college composition students.

And I try to do it in my own writing.

It's the very essence of a story: the content.

How do we cover it though, and how do we cover it well?

Author/editor Nancy Lamb shared this tip at the Big Sur Writing Workshop: "If it doesn't move the story forward, it goes."

Okay, relevance. We move the plot forward. But how?


How is one of the two (hard) questions that bring us deeper in content. The other is why. Both deal with character motivation, conflict, backstory,and meaning/significance.

We do it by showing character action/reaction to dialogue/scene.

We all have the who, what, where, when down, right? So taking these elements further, with why and how, is really the heart of the story.

It's tricky, yes. But that's what makes the story good. Because the things that happen to the character (the plot) and how they affect him is what the reader cares about.

At the end of the story, the reader has to be able to say, "So...the character lives happily ever after with his true love, because he deserves that." Instead of the reader thinking, "So... what?" Which is empty, unsettling.

Content is everything.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Between Wimpy and Catcher: A Motherlode!

Writing friends, there is an audience out there waiting for you to crank out some good reads. the Middle School Boy.

Who is he? Well, he likes video games, weapons, engineering, "doing stuff." He's way over Wimpy Kid, not quite ready for Catcher in the Rye. And--get this!--he has to--he has to!--read. His school makes him do it.

We feel for him, right? The kid who would rather be fishing, biking, building a tree fort, playing Halo, the kid would rather do anything than read?

I'm telling you, there's a goldmine here. Sitting right in the lap of the 13 year-old male.

Science fiction/fantasy/sports?


Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Order of Things

When I read high schoolers' senior research papers and college entrance essays, I usually find the biggest hiccup in organization.

Voice is high (high schoolers have no problem telling all about themselves), but the paragraphs, though generally cohesive within themselves, are wonkily ordered, with evasive intros and double, if any, conclusions.

Somehow, after graduation, the organization issue seems to straighten itself out. And while I can't help wondering if sequencing is a product of human development, I have come up with some tricks:

Does the essay really start at the beginning? Or is intro more compelling one sentence, maybe one paragraph in?

A trick for this is to ask how the intro starts--with setting, scene, imagery, question, statement...

Do you already know the conclusion? Because this will lend itself to a strong, focused body.

Is there something in the middle, even in/toward the end, that could be moved way up?

Are transitional phrases used to show the reader You Are Here?

What kind(s) of conclusion(s) are used: summary/revisitation, projection, question, quote, imagery, call-to-action/examination?

And how about title--which must be written last: is it clever, reflective of content?

Hmmm... Lots to think about.

Coming soon: Content.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

IS YA Getting Darker?

You HAVE to read this New York Times debate between Ship Breaker author Paolo Bacigalupi, who claims that teens seek and deserve truth; Shiver author Maggie Stiefvater, who writes that teens flock to darkness because they'll never actually experience it; and Uglies mastermind Scott Westerfeld, who argues that dark YA grants teens freedom, privacy, and independence.

What do you think?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Go Get Yourself a Writing Group!

I will spare you a post on how I hurt myself terribly watching a "Stellaluna" puppet show yesterday at the Craterian Theater.

I will spare you from knowing how I added insult to injury by dumping curry powder all over my stiff, 40 year-old self this morning.

Instead, I will plug Christy, who has to set aside writing this week to attend the Gun & Knife Trade Show in Las Vegas.

Christy met me yesterday morning (pre-puppet show accident) in pouring rain at the bottom of Lithia Park. We walked ourselves to the top, mulling over the very last part of my Drain revision.

The thing is, I was rehashing all the edits Christy had given me (that I didn't take) a while back when we'd met for tacos. Like a good writing partner, she asked me first what I was thinking, and somehow held back uproarious laughter as I spit out everything about making the conclusion exactly the way she'd suggested.

We walked and talked, then after I hurt myself at the puppet show, I came back and re-wrote the last two pages of my story.

A good writing partner is hard to find. I know it. And I have four of them.

Thank you, Christy. Bring me back a bayonet!

Thursday, January 13, 2011



Those Tumultuous 30's kicked to the curb!
A sister who did my hair and make-up.
18 amazing women between 11 and 62.
3 lasagnas.
2 boys in clean shirts serving 7up with lime.
A black and white cream cake.
5 1/2 hours of laughing.
Flowers, chocolate, scarves, jewelry, and notes for me.
Books for everyone else.

And 1 good man who pulled the whole thing off.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How The Story Changed

So I was sitting there at the SCBWI Western Washington Conference, scribbling out a query, when author Suzanne Young plopped beside me and said, "Let me see that." I didn't know Suzanne at all (everyone else at the conference did), but she had sparkly eyes and a ginormous smile, so I slid her the scribble.

It was magic, what happened next. Suzanne whipped out her Jedi Query-Sabers and slashed through my little paragraph: whoosh, wham, zoom. In five seconds flat, Suzanne passed the paper back to me.

And there it was: a much tighter, cleaner query that was way more reflective of my story's voice, character, and plot!

I had called my husband from the conference, lamenting that I didn't know the genre to query Drain as. I had already sent out a couple of letters: YA Paranormal, YA Paranormal Romance, YA Thriller, YA Suspense...

A few weeks later, Holly led me through an exciting revision. There were three big things that took two months. Although Holly didn't ask me to rewrite the end, it happened anyway.

After I signed with her, one more little revision added clarity, richness, and depth. There was more magic, more character motivation, more plot (thanks to my incredible writing group, which has NO SHORTAGE of plot ideas).

If that query were to be rewritten now, it would be entirely different. Instead of YA Paranormal, Drain is more literary, more superhero story than anything else. I still wouldn't know what to call it. Mmmm... How about "published???"

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Here's The Query

If it can help you at all, please take a peek at the query letter that led to the contract. There are two things I want you to know: that I got some help on this from a real author who knows how to kick some query bottom, and that there's a typo -- a typo! Thank you, Holly, for taking me anyway.

Up next: How the Story Has Changed Since

Dear Ms Root,

I've read on many website interviews that you're seeking YA Paranormal Romance. Thank you for considering my 51,000 word Drain.

This manuscript was solicited at a conference by an editor, who nominated it for SCBWI WW's "Outstanding Work in Progress."

Additionally, this summer, my fictional piece "Bakersfield Baptism" won first place at the Pacific Northwest Writer Association's Literary Contest/Conference.

Currently, two prominent editors are considering two of my YA manuscripts.

Thank you again for reading.

Someone is going to drown. There is definitely that.

When a school prank goes fatally wrong, sixteen year-old Kat Atkins sees it. Before it happens. A self-defined “accidental emo,” Kat has been shuffled through foster homes. But in The Middle of Nowhere, Oregon, Kat discovers that she has a “gift.” Right. Like being able to see a drowning is gift-worthy.

As Kat struggles between maintaining her independence and learning to trust adults, as she falls hard for local baseball hero Steven Scarpaci, and as she tries to save a bullied boy from the school beast, Kat begins to unravel a mystery from the banks of the Umpqua River, where despite her best efforts, a life will be washed away forever.

Drain delivers with voice and irony: a book about the curses that come with certain gifts, and about the gifts that can be found in those curses.

Per your the Waxman Agency's website, the first ten pages are pasted below. I am grateful for your time.

All Best,

Jennie Englund

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

2010: A Writing Year in Reflection

I've been thinking a lot lately about my writing journey.

First, there's how grateful I am to be a part of this writing/blogging community. There's how grateful I am for a husband who encourages my writing, and for the best writing group ever. And I'm also enormously thankful for my agent, Holly Root.

Like Elana Johnson, I've been shocked when a writing partner or Holly has suggested a tough change that I was somehow able to pull off.

Once in a while, things have moved fast. More often, though, it's been slow. I'm learning to be patient.

Here's how it all went: In October 2009, I queried Holly at the Waxman Agency. A week later, I was thrilled when she requested the first three chapters! But, while I sent them within seconds and checked my email every five minutes, it was February before I'd heard back from busy Holly, who'd requested the full.

Another agency was talking to me about revision and representation, and another was expressing interest, but I was hoping, hoping for Holly, whose Twitters are witty but clean, whose client list is chock full of talented writers who adore her, who is kind and bright and professional.

After two straight months of revising per Holly's brilliant suggestions and polishing every Wednesday night at writing group, I got an exciting email: Holly loved the changes; she wanted to call me, and at 6:12 the next morning, she did--with the loveliest, most cheerful voice--offering representation!

Long story short, I queried in October, signed in June.

And since then, I've completely revised the story again, which I've recently sent back. And every time, the story gets stronger and richer and deeper. I want to listen to what Holly tells me. I want to apply her wisdom, her creativity. To not let her down. To learn.

It's winter again--all white today in Ashland. And this is the time of year when I usually start writing something new. So while Holly reads my latest draft, while I send her thoughts of gratitude and hope from triangle pose in yoga, I might whip up some nice Ghiradelli hot chocolate for myself and plunk away at the keyboard about this wild new idea I have...

I hope this inspires you. To keep writing, to keep querying. To join a writing group. To know the process is long and hard but really rewarding.