When all else fails… Revise AGAIN!

Megan Hoyt received her first picture book contract this year.

I have been at this children’s writing thing for about seven years now. It’s a little shocking that it can take so long to get a feel for what the business is all about, that it can take that long to allow your work to simmer and stew, to read a hundred picture books to get a feel for what separates mediocre from fabulous and to leave unpublishable behind forever. I recently became an agented writer. That’s a milestone! But I still have a ways to go. Is it a long way? Do I have seven more years to go before anything I have written for kids makes it into print? I don’t have any idea! But I hope not. I hope one of the picture books my agent is shopping around will be picked up. I received some positive feedback from one editor who said the work was scandalously witty, but they still passed on it. I think to a certain extent it’s a guessing game.

Will mine be the story they are looking for?

Is it written in the style a particular editor likes?

Did they publish something just like it last year?

Will I finally be at the right place at the right time?

A friend of mine joined a critique group a few years ago and her first submission — a puzzle for Highlights — was accepted. Highlights bought her puzzle! Sometimes you get a home run your first time up to bat, and that’s absolutely amazing! She is a talented writer. Brilliant, even. And here I sit, second guessing myself and revising, revising, revising, seven years later.

Here are a few strategies I’ve found to be helpful when the road gets rocky and I’m tempted to give in to discouragement:

1) Reread “how to” materials —  from books to old SCBWI conference notes to helpful websites to blogs and emails I’ve signed up for from people who know the business and have already been successful as published authors. Here are a few to get you started: http://www.jacketflap.com/ , http://www.underdown.org , http://www.write4kids.com/ , http://www.verlakay.com/ .

2) Implement a few of the techniques you’ve just read or reread. Go back to your manuscripts and one by one, pick them apart using the newfound knowledge you just gained. Here are a few tips to get you started:

a) Make sure your main character is loveable. There’s nothing less memorable than a character you have no reason to care about. When he gets into a predicament, you really don’t care if he gets out of it unless you are rooting for him! Try to remember, he’s your “care-actor.” We MUST care about his actions!

b) Make sure that your main character is facing large enough obstacles and working out how to resolve them on his own. Don’t send in a magic fairy to save the day! Let your main character figure out what to do through interacting with others, being courageous, taking the high road when the low road would be easier, etc.

c) Use strong, lively words rather than weak, mushy ones. If your character is loveable and your plot is thick and juicy like a porterhouse steak freshly grilled to perfection, but your words, especially verbs and adjectives,  are weak (nice, pretty, kind, ugly, mean, good), no editor is going to publish your work!

3) Last, join a critique group, meet often, form great friendships, and laugh a lot! We are all in this together, and in order to survive the sometimes lengthy period before your manuscript reaches the publishable stage, you’re going to need one another like I need my fellow Mudskippers!

Keep writing!

Megan Hoyt

Emotions in Fiction

In her book Creating Characters Kids Will Love, Elaine Marie Alphin devotes at least three chapters to recalling and using our own childhood memories to create compelling characters in our works of fiction. She explains the process this way:

            Capture and record your childhood memories on paper or computer.

            Record in particular they way you felt during those incidences.

            Listen to family stories and record them.

            Observe today’s children and record their speech, actions, attitudes.

            Learn how to put yourself in today’s children’s places, with their thoughts and emotions.

            Blend all of these elements together to create incredible kid characters.

Jean Matthew Hall

Early on in the book Alphin details the process by which she recalls her childhood memories. She emphasizes capturing the emotions she experienced when those memories were originally created.

She says on page 53:

Writing fiction is completely different from writing your memoirs. Using your experiences in fiction is a way to show your readers the deeper truth of what memory has taught you…Do this by letting yourself make changes in what actually happened, while holding on to the reality of your emotions.

Episodes in real life can be unresolved, but your fiction should build to a climax that allows your main character to come to terms with the event still haunting your memory.

I experienced this first hand recently–not with writing fiction, but with memoirs I was writing to submit to an anthology. Like all anthologies this book has a narrow focus on the types of stories to be included. On top of that the guidelines specify what kind of take-away value to include in each story. In other words, these aren’t to be simply “feel good” stories, they are all to point to one thing–the true spirit of Christmas.

First, I had to identify the “true spirit of Christmas.” Sounds easy on the surface–but it took some time to refine and distill my thoughts.

For several days I racked my brain trying to remember the 61 Christmases of my life and trying to sift out incidences that would meet the criteria for this book. After three days of this I called in the heavy artillery–my husband, Jerry. He can’t remember where he lays his glasses today, but he can remember in vivid detail every incident that has occurred in our life over the past 42 years.

He talked, I listened. He reminded me of a couple of things that might fit. Then, like the wise man he is, he left me alone to “cogitate” as my Daddy always said. He left me alone to ramble through those memories.

As I rambled I began to feel those emotions that had locked the memories into my head. One memory led to another, and that one led me down the path to another. My fingers flew over the keys as the memories tumbled into view. I laughed when I typed certain people’s names. I cried as I typed the details of some  incidents. I cringed when I remembered certain places.

I wasn’t typing words–I was typing my emotions. And that made the telling of the STORY behind each incident flow like warm maple syrup. Having that clear focus in mind made the take-away value of each story rise to the top effortlessly. As I experienced those emotions again I was able to tap into details that I had long forgotten, or so I thought.

Brain research clearly indicates that it is emotion that creates strong connections in our brains, and those connections result in memories. It is also emotion that causes buried memories to come to the surface whether we want them to or not.

And all of us writers know that it is emotion that connects our readers to our characters and to our stories.

I do believe God really knew what He was doing when He created us to be emotional beings. Beings who feel, who respond, who connect to other human beings in real life, and in great fiction, too.

Emotion. It adds a whole new dimension to our stories.

Desert Writing

I came across this article today: http://www.startribune.com/nation/104120468.html 

A hiker got lost in the desert for 6 days and survived on NO food and NO water. He stayed still…and wrote on his hat. This is the last paragraph of the article:

Rosenthal is known around Los Angeles for writing short, humorous poems and reading them aloud at public events. So he naturally had a pen with him, Kaplan said. But he had no paper, so he used the hat. It got crowded and he used a lot of abbreviations, but it was legible, and the pen never ran out of ink, Kaplan said.

I wasn’t sure how deeply the article affected me until I started writing this post.

I haven’t been lost in a real desert, but when it comes to writing, it feels like I’ve been in death valley for the majority of the last few months. And I feel like I’ve been at a stand still, just waiting for rain.

Writing is a huge part of my life. But other parts  of my life have needed my attention even more. Marriage and family, homeschool, housework, church and Write2ignite…all important. All with different needs.

And since the other parts of my life needed so much of me, for a time, it felt like the “writing part” of me dried up.

But to to my joyful astonisment, I’m finding that I can survive…EVEN in the desert.

When I’m snuggling with my teenager and listening as she shares what’s on her heart, I’m reminded of why I write. When she asks me to help her with the story she’s writing, the seed of an idea starts to take root. 

When I’m listening to my first grader read her favorite new early reader book for the upteenth time, I can feel the seed breaking through the dirt.

And when I’m reading about undersea creatures with my third grader, the idea is being watered. And when I’m helping her learn how to write poetry, the idea is growing leaves.

The idea is now blossoming…even though I feel like I’m still standing still. I am pushing forward and putting it to paper. Digging deeper and deeper, I pull out weeds of doubt that are sucking life away from the new growth. 

There is life, even in a desert. And just like Mr. Rosenthal, I pray my pen never truly runs dry.

Are you in a desert? If so, where is your pen?

Donna Earnhardt is a wife, homeschooling mom and wordwrangler. You can see her ramblings on life, writing and relationships at http://www.wordwranglernc.wordpress.com