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.

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.