Wednesday, July 31, 2013

How to Keep Your Writing Focus: Tips from Six Middle Grade and YA Writers

It can be hard to keep your writing focus during the busy summer months! Today the MiG Writers offer some strategies and tips for keeping your writing on track:
Kate says:
My tip is that I have to write first before I jump into editing and critiquing. Because once I start other work, it will never stop. If I don't do my writing first, it will never get done. So I just write one scene a day. Also, Deena (a writing buddy from Author2Author) and I have 2 days this summer we reserved for homemade writing retreats, where we just go somewhere and write all day.

Kate Fall writes middle grade and young adult fiction and is an editor with Entangled Publishing. 

Carmella says:

To keep my writing on track, I write first thing in the morning. Well, okay, maybe not FIRST thing. I do like to check my emails and Facebook. But I find that if I turn on the TV or start a project or running errands, I never really get back to writing. I think my inner critic sleeps in late, too. So working before she's fully awake really helps the creative flow as well. 

Carmella Van Vleet writes MG fiction and "hands-on" non-fiction. Her debut MG novel, ELISA BING IS (NOT) A BIG FAT QUITTER, will be released in Spring 2014 from Holiday House.

Christina says:
I like to give myself mini-goals. I chart up my ideal writing goals for the week such as writing 1,000 words a day or revising 30 pages a day. Then if I make that goal, I'll give myself rewards such as reading or watching my favorite TV show.

I'm a pretty stubborn person so I won't stop for the day until I've reached my goal. Writer's block isn't allowed. If I'm having a complete block, I force myself to write jibberish and hope the next day is better. 99% of the time, the jibberish actually is not as bad as I thought, or I am able to break out of my block just by writing the jibberish.

Christina Farley is the author of the YA novel GILDED, which will be published by Skyscape in Spring 2014.


Susan says:

When the writing isn't coming easily, I need to stick to a routine. I'm a morning person, so I set aside a few mornings a week that begin with at least 2-3 hours of sitting at the computer. I do set daily targets but I don't always achieve them. Nonetheless, I put in the hours.

Once I'm into the story though, nothing can keep me away from it. I'll write in the evening and late into the night. I'll wake up early to start writing again. I revel in that moment when the passion takes hold and the writing consumes me, but I rely on the routine. At the end of the day that's what drives me to edit and re-edit, that's what gets me through the moments when my muse has fled. Passion is no more reliable in writing than it is most areas of life. It's great when you're feeling it but it's a fickle beast. The key to success is  dedication, commitment, a well-developed work ethic, and routine.
S.J. Laidlaw is the author of AN INFIDEL IN PARADISE (Tundra Books, 2013). Her second novel, THE VOICE IN MY HEAD is scheduled for publication in Spring, 2014.

Andrea says:
Other people in my family get up really early in the morning to go rowing, so I get up then too and start writing. I use my desktop computer for writing and I use my tablet for checking e-mails and social media (all the better if the battery is run down and I need to charge it during my writing time).

 One of the things that helps when I’m revising is to have an outline document where I write about how the characters are feeling in a chapter or scene. It helps keep me focused on what I need to do when I actually start writing the scene.

 Andrea Mack writes middle grade fiction, picture books and beginning readers.


Debbie says:

I try to have short-term goals with realistic deadlines as well as long-term. "Realistic" is the keyword, I find, because it's so easy and feels good to set ambitious goals. But then if you don't meet them and just feel bad, over and over, what's the point? I'm talking about NON-contract work here. My contracted picture book writing and illustration work comes first, but I am still working toward making time for my novel-writing as well.

Having long-term goals helps keep me on track with my short-term goals. And I'm reading the other suggestions from fellow MiG Writers for inspiration!
Debbie Ridpath Ohi illustrated I'M BORED, a picture book written by Michael Ian Black (Simon & Schuster BFYR) which was chosen by The New York Times for its Notable Children's Books Of 2012 list. She is currently illustrating a new book by the same author as well as writing & illustrating her own book for Simon & Schuster.

How are you keeping your writing on track this summer? We'd love to read your tips!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Developing an Idea

Every book begins with an idea. So often we talk about how to write a book, but we don’t look at the development of the actual idea.

Before you begin writing, it’s helpful to make sure your idea is fully developed and thought out. Is it marketable? Are there similar books out there already?  

Stage 1

I have a document I call ‘Possible Proposals’ where I put all my crazy and good ideas into one place.

For each idea, I write:

1.      The title, genre and category. Example: GILDED, fantasy, YA

2.      Tagline: One Girl. One Destiny. All Defiance.   

3.      Pitch: A girl with a black belt and a deadly proclivity with steel-tipped arrows discovers an ancient Korean god has been kidnapping the first-born daughters of her family for generations. And she’s next.

4.      Synopsis: Here I write about three paragraphs that explains the general idea of the story. It’s a lot like a query.

Now I have my ideas all laid out. I’m excited about them, but I can’t decide which one to write next. This is when I move to Stage 2:

Stage 2

1.      I go to Amazon and Publisher’s Marketplace to check if this idea has already been published. If it’s too similar to what is already out there, I know my idea will instantly be at a disadvantage. My idea must be fresh, new and enticing to an editor.

2.      Thankfully, I have awesome crit partners. I rely on them to tell me THE TRUTH. If you don’t have these kind of peeps, go find them. They’re hard to find, but they exist. I send them my ‘Possible Proposal’ document and they give me the low down. They tell me which ideas are good, which are crap and which have possibilities.

3.      They will also offer suggestions on how to refine and make my ideas better.

4.      I listen and make adjustments.

Stage 3

1.      I’m lucky I have a supportive agent who will read my crazy idea list and give me more input. He sees my ideas from a different perspective than my crit partners and I would.

2.      He looks at the market, takes my career into consideration and gives me advice accordingly. Once again, I listen and make adjustments.

3.      You may also have an editor who is willing to brainstorm ideas with you. This is huge because they know what their house is buying, what their editorial list needs, what kind of projects they are willing to read over and over again, as well as what’s selling.

At this point, I take the idea I feel is the strongest and the one I’m most excited to write. (Because essentially, your story will flop if you as the writer aren’t passionate about it.)

I plot out the story. Check out this video for ideas.
And then I WRITE.

What tips do you have for developing your ideas?


Christina Farley's debut YA, GILDED, releases spring 2014 by Skyscape/ Amazon Children's Publishing. She is represented by Jeff Ourvan of the Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency, LLC. She blogs and vlogs about writing and traveling, and is often found procrastinating on Twitter

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Awesomeness that is Writing Blurbs

Whether you're building the perfect query letter, getting your story straight in your head, or self-publishing your novel, eventually you're going to have to write a blurb. Nope, no avoiding it. Has to be done. And if you read a lot of advice for writers, you've probably heard these things:

1. Read a lot of jacket flaps.
2. Start with the protagonist. Tell us what he wants and then tell us why he can't have it.
3. Send it to your critique partners.

And that's all good advice, but you know, not quite enough. Here's the problem: step 2. It works for a plot-driven book, but it might not work for your character-driven novel. And then you get to step 3, and your critique partners are like "No. Just no." And then you're back at step one, pulling random books off your shelves and wondering if you can steal their blurbs. Or is that just me?

I'm an editor for Entangled Publishing, a romance house, and I write a lot of blurbs. And they're all hard to write. Here are some of the questions I ask myself:
--What makes this novel unique? Am I conveying that?
--Am I giving away too much of the plot? Will people read this blurb and assume they know how the book is going to end?

That last one is big. I do this all the time with blurbs and movie trailers. Show me a typical action movie trailer and I assume the entire plot of the movie. I don't need to see it now, thanks, I just imagined Bruce Willis blowing things up based on his previous movies.

So let's say your writing a novel about a boy in a quirky neighborhood with complicated relationships with his family and his neighbors. Every summer, the street holds a home run derby. So you follow step 2 and write:

Marco wants to win the annual neighborhood home run derby, but his neighbor Jake is a star on the school baseball team.

"It's a baseball book," people are thinking. And if they don't like baseball, you have a problem. The story is really about the neighborhood, and that's a little more complicated. "Marco wants to figure out if his father is a good person" doesn't really have a "but" conflict to follow. How do you hook people into your book? Here, I'd probably start with the setting, not the plot.

Marco lives around the corner from his godfather, who thinks he's a pirate, his cousins, who throw beer cans at him, and Jake Salvo, the Golden Boy who won't let Marco stand on his porch.

Well, this isn't a real novel, so it's still not exciting, but the point is, you may have to play around. Start with the character, if that's what works. Start with the setting. Start with the plot. Write three different versions of your blurb and see which you like best. (Oh yeah, Kate, write three blurbs, thanks. Well, just tell yourself you only have to revise one of them.)

Here's a great article from an editor who writes a lot of blurbs, Amy Wilkins. She addresses the problem of revealing too much of the plot: "I don’t go overboard on plot details, I pick a spot in the book, usually a quarter or a third of the way in, and don’t include anything that happens after that point."

Expect to revise your blurb several times. It's very difficult to do on your own, and it helps to bounce it back and forth with someone else. End the blurb with some suspense. Will you ever get this right? Does it ever get easier?

-- Kate

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Why Listen to Podcasts About Writing?

Every week, I listen to one or two writing podcasts. It started out as a way to stay connected to writing when I have to do other boring (aka non-writing) activities like cleaning, dog-walking, or driving. But it’s more like getting a free course on writing from more experienced writers who are interested in sharing what they know and giving back to the writing community. Some of the benefits:

·         tips on the craft of writing and the writing process itself, from general aspects such as how to structure a story to more specific ones such as how to write transitions, build suspense or write romantic scenes

·         strategies for using social media at different stages of your writing career, such as promoting your book, building a website, whether and how to self-publish your book

·         tips for coping with the stresses and ups and downs of the writing and publishing process

·         a feeling of connection to the writing community and other people who are experiencing some of the same challenges

·         a way to clarify your own opinions and thoughts about aspects of the writing process or different genres

Listening sometimes gives me a different take than I get from reading. I rarely write notes when I’m listening to a podcast, but I almost always end up with a bit of inspiration, a new story idea, a possible solution for a problem in my own writing, or even a recommendation for a book or author I’d like to check out. One of the great things about most of the podcasts I listen to is that they seem to apply to writers at any stage of the writing/publishing process.

The downside of listening to podcasts is that sometimes they can be too didactic (it depends what you’re looking for) or have too much advertising and promotion. You also have to like the voice of the people you’re listening to! The ones I like most usually have a more informal approach, with an interview or discussion format.

Some of my favourite writing podcasts:

Writing Excuses – I love the short length of this podcast from Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, Brandon Sanderson and Howard Tayler. It always leaves me wanting more! I really enjoy the discussion format. In some episodes they answer questions, while in others they will brainstorm the process of building a story.

The Creative Penn Podcasts – Author and motivational speaker Joanna Penn’s approach is very welcoming, because she comes from the perspective of not knowing and finding out what she wants to know as she interviews different guests about their views on publishing and promotion.

Authors' Think Tank – Another informal group discussion with special guests that talk about anything from agents and working with publishers to story openings and writer’s block. Hosts are Mikey Brooks, Michael Young, Jennifer J. Bennett, Chas Hathaway, Charles M. Pulsipher, and James Duckett.

This Creative Life – I just discovered this podcast where author Sara Zarr talks with people from different creative professions about their lives and some of the obstacles and highpoints they encounter. It’s on a summer break but there are lots of back episodes!

Other podcasts I listen to regularly include The Narrative Breakdown with editor Cheryl Klein and film-maker James Monohan, Katie Davis' Brain Burps About Books (especially informative if you write picture books), The Wordplay Podcast by K.M. Weiland, and Write the Book, a Burlington VT radio show.
For me, the key elements of a good writing-related podcast are 1) interesting discussion and content, 2) relaxed format, 3) inviting voices and 4) minimal or non-intrusive advertising.
Do you listen to any podcasts? Do you have any favourites?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Luck, Lightning Rods and the Publishing Industry: Tips On How To Make Your Own Luck - by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

I have mixed feelings about the word "luck" when it comes to publishing success because sometimes it's used in a context that doesn't give the writer enough credit for his or her own efforts or work.

At an SCBWI conference earlier this year, I overheard someone commenting to a friend of mine about how lucky she was in her publishing success. No reference to how hard she had worked or how much they enjoyed the book, etc. Just how very LUCKY my friend was.


I've also been on the receiving end of the "you're SO lucky" comment several times as well, so can sympathize. In case you're not familiar with my publication story, here's what happened in 2010.

Yet part of me can understand the other person's point of view as well, having had experienced many (many) years of collecting rejection letters myself, in both print and digital format. I still so strongly remember how frustrating and depressing it could get, working hard to improving my craft and seeing increasingly encouraging comments from editors, yet never getting a book contract offer.

"Just write," common writing advice told me. "Don't give up!" Easy for YOU to say, I remember thinking. You're already published.

Here's what I've learned:

Luck does play a factor, but you can help make your own luck.

My friend Maureen McGowan (author of The Dust Chronicles) compares this kind of luck to building lightning rods. You can't control when the lightning will strike but you CAN build better lightning rods.

So my advice is to stop angsting about what you can't control and do what you can to make your own luck. Build better lightning rods.

Internet addict
Don't go overboard while building that lightning rod!

Some suggestions on how to build a better lightning rod:

1. Meet others in the industry. I can't emphasize this enough. Networking online is great, but nothing can replace face-to-face interaction. If I could send a message back to myself before lightning struck, I would have told myself, "Start attending SCBWI conferences." I mention the SCBWI because that's how everything got started in my case. There are many other excellent conferences and events that might better suit your budget, geography and goals. In Canada, check out Packaging Your Imagination in Toronto; registration for this year's conference has just opened.

Registration will also soon be open for the SCBWI Canada East convention in Montreal (Oct.4-6, 2013); I'm going to be on the faculty along with Bonnie Bader (Penguin), Jill Santopolo (Philomel), Linda Pratt (Wernick and Pratt Agency), Laurent Linn (my art director at Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers!!) and David Diaz (Caldecott-winning illustrator and SCBWI Illustration Mentor rock star :-)).

Foxy writer

2. And when I say "others in the industry," I don't just mean agents and editors. Meet other writers, both published and unpublished. You can learn from all of them. What helped me: commiserating with others who were in the same situation, for mutual encouragement as well as helping to put things in context. This improved my overall attitude, which I'm sure showed in my public posts. I also became better acquainted with some of these contacts over the years we have helped each other from time to time, including sharing of info and helping promote new books.

The Rejection

3. Establish an engaging, active presence online. Learn how to improve your website and/or blog. Learn how to use social media. I have heard many agents and editors say that before they sign a client or offer a contract, they do research online to see what kind of online presence the author may have, what kind of person they are, etc.

Lemming Writers' Critique Group

All the above advice assumes that you already have a good mss with market potential. If your writing sucks or your story idea is lame/overdone, having the biggest and most technologically advanced lightning rod won't help. So...

4. Keep working on improving your craft. Write every day. Work on getting better. Find a good critique group like MiGWriters.

Do you agree or disagree? Any other advice to suggest for writers? Please do post it below.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi writes and illustrates for young people. For a list of her current and upcoming books with Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Random House, see her Books list. She blogs about kidlit/YA at and tweets from @inkyelbows.