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

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NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and Other Failures I Have Known

I started the month of November with the noblest of intentions. I was going to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. Thousands of people were doing it, across the country, in coffee shops, home offices, tucked into their warm beds late at night with laptops on fire. I knew I could do this! And I started off really strong with almost 15,000 words right off the bat in the first few days. Then I staggered. I stumbled. I toppled and tumbled. It was week two and I still only had 15,000 words. To make matters worse, the website for NaNoWriMo allows you to keep track of your friends. My fellow Mudskipper, Kelly D., was kicking my proverbial hind quarters. She’d already written 35,000 words!

I gathered my family aside after dinner that night and informed them that I was writing a novel and I needed time alone, undisturbed, to get the job done. They tried. They really did. But when you have four children, there are always interruptions. “I need a ride to the playhouse. I have rehearsal in twenty minutes!” “What’s for dinner and can Austin eat over?” “Honey, I need to take your car to work tomorrow so I can get the oil changed at lunch.” Even my husband was in on the disturbance!

I decided to get up really early and try to write before anyone else was awake. Maybe that would stop the interruptions. I tiptoed into the kitchen, the living room, both sons’ rooms… Where was my laptop? Oh, they had used it to make an animation of some kind up in the loft. Found it. But the floor creaked as I went up the stairs and the dogs woke up. Now my husband’s alarm was going off. Things were spiraling out of control, and I hadn’t even written a word! I let the dogs out and in again, gave them doggie biscuits, made some coffee, woke the boys for school, and disappeared into my room.

This time I locked the door.

I made it through the next two weeks this way, writing feverishly, madly, at breakneck speed. The plot thickened, then stank. Speed does not produce lucidity. The rancid drivel had to be expunged! I purged and deleted and purged some more. I don’t think that’s what the NaNoWriMo police wanted, but I couldn’t write 50,000 words worth of cheesy crap, now could I? Back at it again at week three, I realized through the handy dandy NaNoWriMo stat application that I would not be able to complete 50,000 words at this pace until February 1. I was shooting for November 30. I redoubled my efforts and got back to the novel. It was a fairy tale of sorts. The Fairy Harp. Filled with mysterious goings on that affect a young teenaged girl whose mother has died tragically in a hit and run car accident that she herself caused by storming angrily across the street after arguing with her mother. Mom races after her and gets hit by a car. The girl retreats into the woods and into an imaginary world where she must retrieve a fairy harp or the entire fairy kingdom will be destroyed. In the end, we discover she’s retreating from reality into mental illness, but we don’t know this until the very last page. And how will it end?

The world may never know because a mother of four cannot finish a novel during the Thanksgiving holiday. Was NaNoWriMo created by a man?

The experience wasn’t a total loss. I learned how to get myself committed to writing every single day without fail, no matter what tries to get in the way. I learned that writing quickly is actually good for me. I tend to write slowly and methodically and my pacing is off when I do that. Yawn! The mere idea of writing fast enabled me to somehow write better. It makes no sense at all, but for me, it worked. I always second guess myself, go back, scratch through sentences, paragraphs, entire pages, and start over. When I forced myself to plunge ahead instead, waiting until later to edit, I wrote some pretty decent narrative and dialogue. Yes, there was drivel and nonsense and stuff I knew eventually would not make it into the final draft, but allowing myself to deal with it later was freeing. And frankly, I have yet to finish a novel. I write picture books in a flash, then edit them for years. How was I ever going to finish a full length manuscript of 50,000 words without some nudging and force from the NaNoWriMo authorities?

I’m glad I did it. And I’m glad I’m not so legalistic about it that I consider myself a failure for not finishing. I wrote 38,000 words or so. That’s not bad! Now maybe by April I’ll have a finished rough draft; by next November, a finished, polished manuscript ready to submit. That’s the plan for now. Wish me luck!

Megan Hoyt is a freelance writer and soon to be noticed (she hopes) children’s book author, working out the kinks in the children’s publishing biz on massive amounts of coffee and with healthy doses of encouragement from her zany family. She lives in Charlotte, NC, with her husband of 22 years, four children, three dogs, and a parrot.

The Specifics of Being Specific (or the details of details)

by Beth Miles

Say you’re a preschool teacher. You want to entertain four-year-olds with a story about a farm animal. Neal the chicken (close enough, anyway)You whip out some construction paper and crayons and draw a chicken. He’s a plain chicken, but you really persevere and draw a barn, a tractor, a scarecrow, and a cow, all to keep the kiddos entertained. Unfortunately, by the time you’ve drawn the generic black spots on the cow, three of the kids have run off to the block section and started using the blocks as guns. Five others are in the art center pretending the crayons are french fries and/or cigars. The rest are under the table, hiding from a dragon, which may or may not be you.

What did you do wrong?

You gave them the wrong details. The unimaginative ones.

Now, you’re back for another lesson. They watch as you draw a chicken. He’s a plain chicken, but you persevere and tell them his name is Neal and he lives on a farm where he’s afraid of the scarecrow. This time, you don’t draw the tractor and the barn. Maybe you just draw the scarecrow and he has scary teeth and only one arm made out of old pantyhose dangling by a safety pin. You ask them who Neal’s friends might be and what they’re going to do to help him. You ask them what they think happens next. They cry when their mothers come to pick them up. They want some more interesting details about Neal and the pantyhose-armed scarecrow.

What did you do right?

This time you didn’t insult their four-year-old intelligence. Everyone knows farms have tractors and barns and cows with black spots. Everyone does not know about chickens named Neal with scarecrow phobias.

So, how can a writer apply this preschool lesson to a novel?

“She walked into the teacher’s lounge. It was shabby and old. The couch was worn-out and the bulletin board was faded. She shook her head in disgust.” This tells your reader what the teacher’s lounge looks like, but you drew the details on non-specific paper. The environment is explained, but how real is it to the reader? How have you used details to make them care?

“She walked into the teacher’s lounge and carried her Tupperware container to the microwave. It was just like the one her grandmother had bought for her graduation present in 1988, with a dial instead of digital buttons. A thin layer of something yellow, mustard or maybe watery cheese sauce, smeared across the handle and black gunk filled the cracks in the control panel. She yanked at the door. The interior was stained orange and covered with splatters of tomato sauce along with the smell of years worth of burned popcorn. She wondered if she’d make it through eighteen more years of teaching until retirement.”

This time you didn’t mention the shabby couch or the boring bulletin board, but I’ll bet the reader knew it was there based on the details you gave about the microwave. Now you’ve allowed them to use their own imaginations to fill in the scene. It’s more real because they created it themselves. They own it. AND you used the details you gave them to create empathy for the poor teacher nuking three thousand more meals in the nasty microwave before she can retire.

Own your details and be specific with specifics. Readers will use their own imaginations. Hopefully they’ll care more about your characters. Maybe they’ll even cry when their mothers make them stop reading about your chicken named Neal.

Beth lives in Salisbury, NC with her husband and three children, where she tries to find time between loads of laundry and cooking to complete her middle grade suspense novel. She’s a member of the local children’s theater board, SCBWI, and proud to be a critiquing Mudskipper.