Monday, May 18, 2015


I've been thinking a lot recently about the cliche, "To be a good writer, you have to be a good reader." I teach a workshop about writing cliches and have found this one particularly annoying because there is a LONG journey between identifying and enjoying good books and writing one of your own. In trying to break this down, one thing I have realized is that, as a reader and writer, I have maintained a personal bibliography of novels that do certain things well (such as great openings, great development of secondary characters, great happy (or sad) endings) and I turn to these works when I feel my own manuscript comes up short in one of these areas. I also use these books when I teach about various elements of writing craft.

Here's a short list of novels I've recently cited in workshops about honing the opening pages of your novel:

JUST LISTEN by Sarah Dessen
LEGEND by Marie Lu
I AM THE MESSENGER by Markus Zusak

And here are a few old favorites:
SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson
FEED by M. T. Anderson
A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens
MONSTER by Walter Dean Myers
DEFIANCE by C. J. Redwine
UGLIES by Scott Westerfeld

What inspires you when you're stuck revising that all-important CHAPTER 1?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


It's been awhile since I've written a post about writing craft which is funny because I've been teaching quite a few live writing classes and mentoring online at the awesome First Five Pages Workshop

Ironically, as I opine on craft to others, my current WIP is stumbling. So, I decided to take some of the proverbial medicine I often prescribe to students. I designed a writing exercise to examine the interplay between CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT & PLOT.

I began with Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT BEAT SHEET (Google it), a three-act plot breakdown schema that moves from OPENING IMAGE through establishment of THEME, plot SET-UP, CATALYST (INCITING INCIDENT), all the way to resolution and final images. I blended this with Tom Pawlick's tips on  THE 9 INGREDIENTS OF CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT, particularly #5: AMBITION ("What goal is she trying to accomplish throughout your story?").

Since I have several narrators in this WIP, I create chart, character names atop each row; beats and timeline running down two concurrent vertical columns. As I worked through the chart, I made myself answer (in my head), WHAT GOAL is driving each narrator toward his/her action?  Here's a peek at the top of my chart:

5 PM
Before Kickoff
Dressed up to go to game; excited she is invited to party; WANTS TO FIT IN
Has quit everything—no longer on team; restless; going to game b/c doesn’t want to be home
At dinner with family; given up on school and thus bailing on game—goes to work instead.
6 PM; #1, #2 get to field

B. tells NARR #1 how to be cool – who to avoid. She wonders how/why she has been chosen for the in crowd.
NARR #2 stops 4 fast food place en route to game, sees people who were hs cool last year but should be at college. Why in town? Wishes he cared about game-goes even tho he doesn't.
Fights w/ mom who criticizes her for not doing school things but she can't forgive parents 4 distancing themselves from her gay best friend - the reason she's disengaged
Invited to go back to B’s house for party; texts brother to say she’s sleeping over/doesn’t need a ride home
Team loses, agrees to drive NARR #1 & B to party; waits for V. (best friend, runningback) to join them, they drive around town
Decides to drive by school. Everyone looks down so knows the team lost. Can't make herself go home to face mom.
9:50 PM 


I'm 370 pages in, so this should have been a "fill in the blanks" deal. But there was a problem with NARRATOR #2. It wasn't that his plotline was confusing, or his timeline had gaps. What my labor-intensive worksheet/thought exercise showed me was that NARR #2 was missing AN EXTERNAL WANT. The WHY of his feelings I knew. But HOW did this why (his internal motivation) drive him from DAY to DAY, MOMENT to MOMENT? He seemed to just be moving through a cloud of despair. Translation: Boring and unrelatable. Not publishable.

I often ask my students QUESTIONS?
WHY does your MC want to save the city? 
WHY does your SC distrust your MC? Does he secretly love the MC?
WHY does your MC want revenge on the ANTAGONIST? 
HOW does the SC fit into this plot?
HOW does the MC decide to seek revenge? 
WHAT makes her choose this mode of revenge? 
WHERE should she be when she is secretly getting her revenge?

This kind of work is ugly. It's hard. It requires a delicate balance of imagination and logic. And lots of it often doesn't wind up on the page. BUT...It's also the kind of work that keeps you from stopping...from giving up...from creating something that, in the end, isn't rich enough, strong enough, powerful enough to sell.

I began this post thinking I'd write about the usefulness of this ACTION/WANT exercise. And, it is useful. But, I think the most important lesson I want to share today is that YOU NEED TO DO ALL OF THE WORK to create your novel. It might be my worksheet. It might be something else you devise, inspired by studying your craft and reading other good books in your genre. Sometimes this work doesn't add to the word count or get you moving faster today. But I truly believe that this kind of work can loosen a tight writing muscle, solve a plot problem, unlock something special, new, magical and get you, ultimately, to your best book.

Good luck!

Monday, May 4, 2015

It's Children's Book Week!

Children's Book Week has been celebrating literacy and book love for nearly a century with amazing programs, book awards and live events held nationwide. And, every year I look forward to the gorgeous posters designed by amazing picture book artists. This year's beauty is by Grace Lee.