Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Writing Clearer, Simpler, Cleaner

First of all, Happy Birthday to my mom, who turned 71 today! Rah! Yes, that's me in the pink satin dress. I'm standing with my brother and sister, who always made fun of me regarding this photo because my big toe is sticking up in the air. Ah, siblings.

If you're like me when you're writing, you find passages that need to be tightened (usually later). You find sentences and phrases that can be made clearer, simpler, and cleaner. Critique partners can help you find these muddy spots. Here are some things to watch out for while you're improving your prose.

Felt or feeling (and seem) can be Telling words--and are also unnecessary and distancing. In the first excerpt below, these words don't add a thing. Compare these examples:

Marie walked out into the field where the horses stood. As she felt the long blades of grass whip her bare legs, a breeze sprang up. She approached a white mare, feeling a surge of excitement shoot through her body.

Marie walked out into the field where the horses stood. As the long blades of grass whipped her bare legs, a breeze sprang up. She approached a white mare, a surge of excitement shooting through her body.

Sometimes we need to check to make sure we're really saying what we mean to say:

His eyes darted around the room. vs His gaze darted around the room.
--The case of the wandering, unattached eyeballs. I do this a lot. Trying to cut down.

Her hands placed the flowers in the vase. vs. She placed the flowers in the vase.

He pulled the keys out of his pocket. vs. He pulled the keys from his pocket.

Grandma's head jerked up to look me in the eye. (Really? Her head looked me in the eye?)

A sticky prickling washed through me like a raging fire.
--Mixed simile and not accurate; a sticky prickling wouldn't "wash" or be like a raging fire.

My father stuffed the hat into the box with a frown.
--Does the box have a frown? Better: With a frown, my father stuffed the hat into the box. Keep the action close to the noun it describes.

She didn't have time to contemplate her thoughts any further.
--Contemplation IS the act of thinking; you don't think about your thoughts. Yep, I really wrote this line in one of my novels. *headsmack*

Gayle left her mother, retreating to her desk. (Whose desk, Gayle's or her mother's?)

I approached the barn as the sun kissed the sky with a lovely red-orange at the horizon.
Simpler: I approached the barn as the sun kissed the horizon with a lovely red-orange.

Do you write unclear sentences like the ones here, especially in your first drafts?
Do you have a doozy of a sentence from your writing you'd like to share?
When you revise, are you able to clean up your writing well?
How much do you rely on eagle-eye critique partners to help you find confusing or unclear sentences?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Revision Update: First Person POV

Some of you may have already heard via Twitter or Facebook. For my latest revision, my agent Kelly Sonnack had me switch my entire SHAPERS novel from third to first person. Why? She wasn't connecting to the main character, feeling quite close enough. I had a rather deep third viewpoint going on, but the narrative was getting bumbled in with my MC's thoughts/inner dialogue. Maybe I'm a first person writer in a third person disguise?

Yes, I balked at first. Big, monstrous groan. I hate first person--or so I thought. At Kelly's request, I experimented with Chapter 1 in first person and sent it to her. Lo and behold, it sounded pretty decent. Like it was MEANT to be that way. Wow. We both agreed.

Not only that, I discovered that the story "wanted" to be in present tense.

Even though I hate present tense. Or at least I thought I did…

A lot of tedious work was involved with the POV (point of view) and verb tense changeover. All the "Morgans" had to be changed to "I" or "me." Some "she" words also had to be changed to "I"--but not all of them, since there were other female characters in the novel. Past tense verbs like "walked" had to be changed to "walk."

But I couldn't just do a simple Find/Replace All for the POV changes. No. That would've been too easy. I had to look at all the instances one by one and click Replace if it applied. Sigh. Still, it was faster than if I'd typed in the changes by hand.

In changing to first person, I realized there were places where Morgan had more to say, or where she needed to say it differently. It wasn't merely a matter of word swapping, since first person comes from a different angle, a closer scrutiny and experience. I also had to make the entire narrative in Morgan's voice and vocabulary. It was a really interesting process.

Kelly mentioned that there are editors out there who won't even look at a manuscript unless it's written in first person. I didn't know that. Did you?

Many popular and well-known books published today are written from a first person point of view. DIVERGENT. HUNGER GAMES. TWILIGHT. SHIVER (the latter with a dual 1st person point of view, even).

So now that I've changed SHAPERS over to first person, I'm eyeing my dystopian WIP…and I think that book "wants" to be in first person too. But past tense seems to be working for that book (whew, less work). It feels a bit odd for me to think like an "I" in some places, though, since that main character is male--i.e. the romantic scenes!

Is your current novel written in first or third POV? Which do you prefer?
Do you ever write in present tense?
Have you ever written a first person POV novel in past tense?
What are other well-known MG/YA books written in first person?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Hi everyone! I went to an Oregon SCBWI retreat over the weekend, and it was a blast! I met agent Karen Grencik, editor Emma Dryden, and--can you believe this?!--Ellen Hopkins, author of CRANK, BURNED, IMPULSE, (etc.) and the newly released PERFECT. All of these ladies were really approachable, and I actually ate dinner with Ellen Hopkins one evening. Woo!

When Ellen Hopkins began speaking, she asked, "How many people before this retreat had already heard of me?" and half the hands went up. She went on to say that if we write YA, we SHOULD have heard of her. All of us as writers should be keeping track of the bigger names in YA--and she's been on the bestseller list eight times for her books! Her novels, interestingly, are all written in verse. Most of them have been on banned lists, too.


Today I'm featuring a critique of the first page of Michael Di Gesu's YA contemporary novel, THE BLINDED GARDENER.


One moment I’m my Dad’s personal punching bag, and the next, well, I’m a pawn in his maniacal master plan. That is, until Danny stepped into the picture and discovered my secret.

Dad forced me to move across the country, and once again, I found myself at a new school, the third in two years. It sucked having a dad in the military.

The warning bell rang for first period. The halls cleared with the slamming of doors. As I wandered about searching for my classroom, I heard someone approach me from behind. I turned and saw a blonde guy walking up the center of the hallway. Long bangs fell over his eyes as he loped past me with a kind of natural ease.

How blind is this guy? Didn’t he see me standing here, fiddling with this useless map.

“Hey, dude. Could you tell me how to get to room 305?”

A slight curl formed on his lips as he faced me. He tossed his head. Platinum fringe shifted to the side and revealed freakish blue eyes that glanced toward me, unfocused.

Holy shit! Is he blind? Stoned is more like it.

“I’m heading that way.” His deep voice held a trace of a southern accent. He turned and continued his long strides.

I envied his height: well over six feet and me just an average dude.

“You better move. Connors loses it when you’re late.”

I rushed to catch up to him. His hand overshot the rickety metal banister. On the second swipe, he made contact and climbed the stairs.


Opening Lines
I certainly don't mind the opening, and I think it works well, but I'm a little torn. The first 2 paragraphs are a macro view introduced from a future vantage point. On one hand, I'd just like to get to know the main character and be shown those background facts as the story progresses rather than being told--that he's his dad's punching bag, that Danny discovers his secret, that the MC has just moved and his dad is in the military. On the other hand, the lines do set a mood, a tone, and a conflict right off the bat. We get a tidy and interesting set-up before we move on to the scene.

Picky Little Things
1. In the first line, it says "my Dad." Dad needs to be UNcapitalized, since it's used with the pronoun "my." Like my mother, my computer, my box of pencils. Since it's a relationship label, it's just a regular noun and thus isn't capped. If it's used as a proper noun--used like someone's name--then the word is capitalized. It's used correctly in the second paragraph.

2. Blonde vs. blond. Blonde with an "e" on the end is traditionally the spelling for a girl, and blond is the spelling for a guy. It's becoming more common to refer to a girl's hair color as blond, but I'm not sure of the reverse. The website states that blonde is just for females and blond is for males. I've seen it both ways in books.

This is a picky thing. Just be sure you are CONSISTENT within your manuscript. On another note, sometimes "blonde" is used when you're referring to a person (the blonde got out of the car) and blond is more often used when used as an adjective (he had blond hair).

3. I'm not sure about the phrase "loped past me with a kind of natural ease." I like the way it sounds, but really, "lope" in and of itself already means to take long easy strides, in a relaxed manner. Thus the second part of the phrase may be a bit redundant.

4. This phrase is a question and needs a question mark: Didn't he see me standing here, fiddling with this useless map.

5. I wasn't sure of the dialogue line about being stoned. It almost made me doubt that Danny was truly blind, and I thought that the MC was saying Danny actually was stoned instead, and that's why his eyes looked freakish. Later I verified that he was indeed blind, but then I wondered if perhaps he was stoned on top of that. (?)

6. Is there a reason the metal banister is rickety? Does this rickety banister play into the plot? Does it show that the school is run-down and short of funds? Is it foreshadowing something that will happen later involving this banister? If none of these things, if there isn't a purpose, it might be best to keep this as a simple banister without the added adjective, since school banisters aren't usually rickety; they're pretty sturdy.

Summary: Kudos
I like the voice and wording here in this excerpt, and I didn't find much to comment on except picky fiddley things. We get a good feel of the two characters' personalities, and the passage flows well. I like the line about the MC being "just an average dude." The excerpt is a nice casual type of inner dialogue, and sounds authentically teen boy. I also like the startling description of Danny's "freakish" blue eyes the first time we see them. It's almost seems like a kind of foreshadowing--on one hand this guy is loping, natural, and helpful…and on the other, perhaps there's something else going on with him? Maybe I just like to read foreshadowy details into things, but if it's there on purpose, it's a great subtle hint.

Have you heard of Ellen Hopkins--especially if you write YA?
Can you add any other helpful comments to the above critique?
Did you know brunet refers to males and brunette refers to females? (I didn't either.)
Do you think the first 2 paragraphs provide a necessary set-up, or would you rather be shown the details mentioned there?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

INTERVIEW with Jane Shapiro

Today I'm delighted to interview my friend Jane Shapiro, whom I initially met at an Oregon SCBWI conference. Visit Jane's bright website HERE.

Her new book MAGIC TRASH will be released this month. It is a picture book biography about the urban environmentalist artist Tyree Guyton, who transformed his decaying, crime-ridden neighborhood in Detroit into the world-famous Heidelberg Project, an interactive sculpture park. It is a story about the healing power of art. Read more on the Charlesbridge page HERE.

Thanks, Carol! So nice to be a guest on the blog of my buddy and web master!

How did you come to write MAGIC TRASH? What started it all?
Seven years ago when I was a docent at the art museum on the campus of Michigan State University, I noticed an American-flag-painted workman’s lunchbox locked in a birdcage. It seemed to capture the attention of adults who wrote poems about it and kids who reached out to touch it. After I learned about the amazing work of the artist, ideas for a children’s book began swirling in my head. Tyree Guyton’s true story formed an arc complete with antagonists, crashes, and a happy ending. I just needed to find a way to tell the story.

My editor at Charlesbridge “loved” the story, but not my rhyme that limited development of the setting and characters. So after many rewrites, the book finally rolled out in prose with rhyming refrains. And these “trippy triplets,” as one reviewer called them, sum up sections as the story progresses. An example: “Old houses talk. Some neighbors squawk. Crash, bash, and smash magic trash.”

Do you have writing advice that you'd like to share?
I think a lot about using the five senses. “When trouble still sizzled in one discarded home, Tyree coated it in dots and squares of pink, blue, yellow, and purple, then perched a magenta watchdog on the porch…” When I read this now, I still smell sizzling from a previous fire and the fresh paint. And I hear “barking trash.”

A recent post by Martha Brockenbrough about a Bruce Coville talk suggests that we engage three of the five senses in all major scenes. I may go overboard tasting, touching, hearing, seeing, and smelling.

What has your writing journey been like--long or short? Instant success or long perseverance?
Short in the beginning since I naively said to myself “I can do that,” then miraculously did with the aid of grants, the expertise of publishing professionals at a large university, and a tenor in my singing group who painted gorgeous green dinosaurs. I worked at the time as a social worker for the Department of Medicine at Michigan State University, and the first book was distributed internationally free of charge to families. But the moment I saw one my patients climb off the camp bus clutching his dino book, I was hooked on writing for kids.

Magic Trash was a seven-year ride, though, perhaps in part due to the recession that hit during its production.

What is your favorite part about writing? Least favorite?
Creating is fabulous! I gulp two glasses of iced tea and go to my quiet desk at a window with a view of Mount Hood in the distance. Then I dive into the heads of my characters.

Selling not so much. I’m a social worker by training; I’d rather give books away. Well, I’ll think of something to give away at my reading, signing, and art-making event at 2PM on October 29th at A Children’s Place Bookstore in Portland. Please stop by if near.

And I’ll have something to give away for sure in Detroit at Barnes & Noble from 1 to 3 PM on October 14th. Tyree Guyton will be signing with me from 2 to 3 that day.

What hobbies or other interests do you enjoy when you're not writing?
As a child I believed that my one talent was music because I could play the piano by ear and a few people liked to hear me sing. Perhaps if I’d practiced other activities as much, I might have been okay at them also. But music has been a fun avocation.

Now I sing to my first grandchild who likes my singing, especially "The Itsy, Bitsy Spider" with hand motions. I did write her a song that my son sings to soothe her when she gets vaccination pokes. She remains calm, but may be expecting a shot with her song now.

I also lead school tours around the Portland Art Museum. This is fun, challenging, and keeps me interacting with kids the ages of those in my works-in-progress. Currently I’m writing a novel with a ten-year-old protagonist, so I try to sign up for 5th grade tours.

And finally--do you prefer sweet or salty snacks?
I love Cool Moon ice cream, Trader Joe’s peanut butter pretzels, and all foods. But I usually snack on fresh fruit and unsalted, raw nuts as a test to see how long I can keep my circulation going. I did have one grandfather who stayed healthy until he reached one hundred, so I may have a few good genes to help in my quest.

Thank you, Jane, for your fun and inspiring answers. It's been great to interview you!


Have you ever written nonfiction for children or adults?
Have you ever heard of the Heidelberg Project or Tyree Guyton?
Do you prefer sweet or salty snacks, and what are YOUR favorites?