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

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.

That Discipline Thing Again

Posted by Jean Matthew Hall

On Cecil Murphey’s blog post for March 26, 2010, he said, “Write the first draft and allow no distractions. Afterward you can make improvements.”

I find that extremely difficult to do. To let the story pour out of my fingertips without stopping to correct grammar, punctuation and mechanics is a challenge for me. Virtually every piece of advice I read from every published author agrees with Cecil.

Just sit there and type the story. Let all the words come out as they will. Ignore everything except the story itself until you’ve drained your imagination’s artesian well completely dry. That’s what they say.

Will I ever learn how to do that? Will I ever have the discipline needed to ignore misplaced commas and apostrophes? Will I ever have the gutsy determination to let adjectives and adverbs fly loosely around the page and land where they will until I get to the finale? Will I ever be able to throw those plot points down on paper and forget about the logical order they should follow?

Once again I find that the craft of writing for publication goes totally against my natural tendencies. I hate to admit this–but I’m dangerously close to being a perfectionist! I find solace in calling myself a semi-perfectionist. (As if there were such an animal!) But we all know the naked truth:

If it walks like a perfectionist and talks like a perfectionist–more than likely it IS a perfectionist.

So, tell me, writing friends who are not plagued with this dreaded tendency, what kind of writing exercises can help a self-confessed perfectionist like me? How am I going to retrain my brain to forge past those inevitable mistakes as I vomit (as Cecil says) the story out onto my computer screen?

Seriously. I could use some advice here. Leave a comment. Share some words of wisdom with me, please.

 Maybe I need some silly writing prompts and a stop watch to force me to write 1000 words or so without correcting a thing. Ack! The thought makes my skin crawl.

But, then, the prompt itself can’t force me to type non-stop until the story ends.

No, I’m back to that discipline thing.

Maybe an accountability partner would do the trick.

“Hi, Jean, this is Madame X, your friendly accountability partner. How many words did you type today without stopping once to correct some minor grammatical error?”

 “Uh…27?”

 “Come now, you can do better than that! I’ll be ringing your cell phone again tomorrow and that number had better jump to something in the three or four digit category!”

 “Yes, ma’am. I’ll try.”

 “You’d better do more than try, Missy. I expect you to type at least 2700 words tomorrow without coming up for air!”

 Would such an arrangement actually motivate me to dump the first draft onto paper? Or would it tempt me instead to lie–I mean, fib?

 I think we’re back to that discipline thing again.

Discipline. Make my bottom rest on the chair. Easy.

Make my fingers click the keys non-stop. Almost easy.

Make my mind keep on keeping on with the story and the characters and the setting and the plot with no thought of syntax or spelling. Agony.

So, I keep starting each writing day with the best of intentions. I intend to get 2000 words slammed into a computer file. I remind myself that I can do this. Really, I can. I can make myself slide right past participles and gerunds. I can ignore two spaces after a period. I know I can. I KNOW I CAN!

Oooh! Chills just ran up and down my spine.[exhale slowly]

Maybe I should be dreaming of becoming a copy editor instead of an author. I could be like Lucille Ball in a chocolate factory and satisfy my lust for literary errors with guiltless abandon.

 Or, like Lucy, get sick, actually vomit vomit instead of words, and never want to lay eyes on an adverb again.

No. God called me to be a writer and a writer I shall be. Even if it means giving that discipline thing one more “one-more-try”.

But I could still use a few good tips in your comments here.

BTW if you ARE loooking for some terrific writing exercises and prompts try these two books: Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That grips Readers From Start to Finish by James Scott Bell, and Creating Characters Kids Will Love by Elaine Marie Alphin.