Tag Archives: Writing

Want to Know a Secret?

little girl with finger to lipsIf you follow James Scott Bell on Twitter (and if you’re interested in writing tips, it’s a good idea), you might have seen this last week:

Give characters secrets. One of the keys to Downton Abbey. #writing #writetip

We all have secrets, don’t we? They change the way we do things, and the way we see people. Think about the secrets in your life and how they colour your view.

You don’t have to tell me your secrets; I’m not going to tell you mine.

Here’s something I will admit to. I’m a Downton Abbey fan. My husband and I started watching it because of the time period (I’m playing around with a novel set in 1910) and were hooked by the end of the first episode. And as the series unfolds, there are a lot of secrets. They hit all the doozies: A dead body, affairs, a secret identity, passions… it’s a minefield. And it keeps us watching.

There’s this middle-grade novel I’ve been revising for a while. I’m at a scene now where one of my secondary characters, a ten-year-old girl named Marissa, could find something out. Something important. What do you think? Should she learn it now? Or later?

Probably later. Because right now my main character Tyler knows the secret, and the reader knows it, and nobody else does. There’s tension in that.

Tyler has to navigate his way around Marissa and keep his secret safe without screwing up their friendship. It makes his life difficult. And let’s face it, any opportunity to make the main character’s life difficult is a bonus.

Besides, the reader likes being in on a secret. Who wouldn’t?

I used to see it in the classroom. Offer to give kids a writing tip and their eyes glaze over. But offer to tell them a secret about writing, something their regular teacher probably doesn’t know? They lean forward.

Think about ways you can use secrets in your writing:

  • The reader knows something the character doesn’t
  • One character knows something another doesn’t… about himself, or maybe about a third character
  • Your character knows something the reader doesn’t (be careful with this one–if you’re in first person point of view, or even a close third, it has to be handled well or it feels like a cheat)
  • There’s a secret out there that no one knows the answer to–none of your point of view characters, not the reader, no one. Except you. Hopefully. Because the secret should be revealed before the end of the novel.

Here’s another thought. Has anyone ever told you a secret you wished you didn’t know? There’s no going back, is there? Not once you’ve learned the truth. How can you use that in your writing?

Or… what if the secret isn’t true at all? What if it’s a lie? How does that change things?

I’m going to let my character keep his secret for a little while longer. I’ll play with it and see what kind of tension it adds to the current scene, and then to the one after that. I’ll to wait until he’s boiling over with it, until he has to tell someone or explode — and then I’ll come up with a good reason why he can’t tell. Because writers are mean like that.

Is there a secret that can add tension to your current scene?

100 Hours

This post has a bonus link. These book covers are the best thing I found online this week. They’re brilliant. You need to see them. Okay, down to business.

Last term, there was a documentary filmmaker in my writing course. She gave me one of my new favourite pieces of writing advice. I’m calling it the 100 hours rule, but I don’t really remember how the numbers played out.

According to this woman, when she puts together a film, she goes through hours and hours of raw footage to find the 90 minutes she’ll use. The right bits of film, put together, tell a story. The extra bits are, well, extra. But they have to film it all in order to find the 90 minutes that were going to end up in the finished product.

I had a similar experience with a short story. It wasn’t working at 2500 words, so I blew it up to 10,000. It was too puffy, but at least then I knew the whole story. From there, I cut it back to 6000 words, and that was the version that sold. The 6000-word story was, I have to admit, a lot stronger than the 10,000 word version. But it still hurt to make those cuts.

So the 100-hours rule makes sense to me. You film more than you need, and you write more than you need, in order to find the bits that tell the story in the best way.

But I don’t like to think about it when I’m writing a first draft. After all, I don’t set out to write extra scenes. (Well, not after the pre-writing stage, anyhow, but that’s for another post.) I work hard at my first drafts, and I want to believe that the effort isn’t wasted.

But maybe I’m looking at it wrong. I don’t think the filmmakers view those 100 hours as wasted. They’re just part of the process. Necessary.

One writing teacher advocated writing the first draft, then throwing it out and starting again. And I understand that — I do. After all, sometimes it’s only once I’ve finished a draft or two of the book that I really know what it’s about. But on the other hand, sometimes there’s an energy in that first draft that it seems a shame to lose.

Of course, by the time I’m finished editing, most of that original material is gone or changed anyhow.

I’m not sure I have a process for writing. I’m a planner, except when I’m not. And I do my outlines in a certain way, except when I don’t. The outlines only serve as an entry point, anyhow; once I start writing, things diverge from the plan.

At some point in every project, I have to accept that I’m winging it — that this book is different from others I’ve written, and that I’m a different writer than I was a year ago, and that what worked before might not work this time. That’s fine. It’s good — it means I’m learning.

But one thing I know is true. I will write scenes that don’t make it into the final version. Sometimes I mentally move them offstage — the action happened, but doesn’t need to be shown in the book. Sometimes I decide they represent another part of the character’s life, outside the scope of my story. And sometimes they’re just wrong.

But they always move me closer to knowing the character, and the story, that I want to explore. So from that point of view, I’m okay with putting in an extra 100 hours.

Or so.

Per chapter. (Gulp)

It’s not efficient, but writing isn’t an assembly line. This week, I’m working on an old project. I’ve written many drafts of it, and never felt that I was telling the story I wanted to tell. My edit, this round, is really more of a rewrite. Lots of old material is disappearing, and lots of new material is being added. Some characters are different now. There are key scenes that I know I want, and those will stay, but the way they all fit together might change.

I hope that this is all going to result in “footage” I can use. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. It’s worth trying. And if it results in a few more scenes on the keep pile, I’ll view my 100 hours as time well spent.

If all else fails, I’ll have material for some weird, ebook equivalent of DVD extras. Love those deleted scenes…

Thank You, Mrs. Granger

Typewriter, photo credit to Kriss Szkurlatowski on Stock ExchangeMrs. Granger was my grade nine typing (we called it “keyboarding”) teacher. She had perfect grey curls, a voice that could rap like a ruler, and a spine as straight as a steel girder. She was never less than immaculately dressed. And when I saw her at a reunion last spring, she looked exactly the same as she had twenty-five years before.

And she gave me a wonderful gift. She taught me to type.

We had electronic typewriters then, no computers. And the keys were covered over in pink and orange nail polish, so we couldn’t cheat by looking at the letters. For the first couple of weeks, there was a chart at the front of the classroom. Then there wasn’t.

It wasn’t the most exciting class on offer. F-F-F. J-J-J. F-F-F. J-J-J. But boy, did I learn my way around a keyboard. Useful skill for a novelist.

And now I’ve discovered a new way to use it.

I’m taking a writing course online, and the first assignment was to retype an action scene by a writer you admire. I groaned when I read that. Who has time for retyping?

I tried to think of a nice, short scene, but really, I knew all along what scene I would choose. The opening of Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn. I hadn’t read it in a while, but I remember thinking at the time that the James Bond movie folks had nothing on Mr. Oppel.

Eager to get the assignment over with, I started typing from the beginning. And I discovered something strange.

Retyping his words forced me to read them differently. To feel them. I noticed things like punctuation, and how many lines were spent on description compared to action. I didn’t think about these things, or stop to analyze. I just… noticed.

And when I got the rhythm of it, when I could hold a sentence in my mind and type it into my Word document without having to glance back again, something even stranger happened. The scene started building itself in my mind, line by line. I saw what was happening with more detail and depth and real-ness than I’ve ever experienced while just reading. The scene was soaking up into my fingers, or coming down through them. It was hard to tell the difference.

Retyping Kenneth Oppel’s words forced me to slow down my reading and experience the text in a way that I don’t usually manage when I’m just reading. I read too quickly, maybe — skimming over the words to get at the story. Typing forced me to give the words a chance to be noticed. And instead of getting in the way of the story, that enriched it.

I’d heard before that typing out passages from your favourite books was a good idea — a way to absorb craft at a physical level. Now, if I were to start writing like Kenneth Oppel that would be lovely, but I’m not going to hold my breath. I don’t really think it works that way, and besides, I need to find and use my own voice. But I do have a new appreciation for his work at a line-by-line level, and that can’t be a bad thing.

I’m not sure I’ll make a habit of this. It took me a good long while to retype that chapter, and I have manuscripts of my own that are crying out for some keyboard time. But every now and then, when I’m reading a book and I love the language, or a scene really grabs me, maybe I’ll try this again. Retyping someone else’s work to experience it differently and, if I’m really lucky, start to notice how the magic is being made.

Sounds weird, I know. But trust me. Give it a try.

Even if you get nothing else out of it, you’ll be making your typing teacher proud.

Only the Good Parts, Please

Pink Cupcake photo by Richard Dudley on Stock ExchangeMy daughter likes to lick the icing off cupcakes. A few swipes of the tongue, food colouring on her cheeks. Then she’s finished with it. “I can’t eat any more,” she’ll say, handing it to me.

It’s slick and shiny on top. Dampish. Not terribly appetizing.

We need a new cupcake strategy. But yummy treats aside, I want to look at her reading habits. She licks the icing off books, too. That is, she looks for the good parts. And if there are too many pages between those good parts, she loses interest.

Even Rick Riordan, who is something of a legend in this household at present (she zoomed through the Percy Jackson books and then delved into Greek mythology; now we’re in the beginning of an Egyptian phase), is susceptible to this harsh editorial doctrine. She devoured The Lost Hero, but her bookmark has been on page 152 of The Son of Neptune for a few weeks now.

I asked her why. She shrugged. “Not enough monsters.”

It’s something I try to be aware of in my own editing. Are there enough monsters, mythological or otherwise? Is the dialogue moving fast enough? Is it moving at all? Is there a point to the gosh-darned scene?

Each scene. Yup, every one.

And there’s no cheating allowed — you can’t start the scene too far ahead of where things move to that point, or let it linger on after the point has been made. And by point, I mean event or decision or goal-and-failure that moves the story forward.

If you were only allowed one sentence to describe what happens in your scene, what would it be? Give the scene a title like a Friends episode: the one where my character accidentally poisons his girlfriend.

I’ve heard the same good advice from two excellent teachers now: start the scene at the last possible moment, end it as soon as you can. Draft the scene and then start cutting from both ends. Cut until the scene no longer makes sense, then undo that last cut. That’s it. That’s all you get to include: only the necessary stuff. The good stuff.

I’m rewriting a juvenile novel now, and trying to be aware of the “only the good parts” rule. As I revisit each scene, I ask myself what it contributes to the story. I figure out what the point is, and tighten the scene around that. It’s something I struggle with. My characters talk too much. I like to know what they had for breakfast, and where every person is coming from and going to… but that doesn’t all need to be in the book.

I know a scene is getting close when I can read it aloud and not want to skip over any bits. And then, after some work, when I can read it aloud to my critique group, and not have their eyes glaze over. And then, maybe then, it will be ready for the toughest critic of all — the cupcake licker.

Who will, of course, tell me it needs more monsters.

Tackling the Tough Stuff

Football Tackle: photo credit Adam Klepsteen on Stock ExchangeLast night my writing group critiqued one member’s middle-grade novel-in-progress. J’s novel is about a thirteen-year-old boy dealing with a truckload of difficult things–bullying at school, friendship conflicts, and a mother who struggles with clinical depression. In the current draft, near the beginning of the story, the mother attempts suicide. The boy is the one who finds her.

The scene has already been workshopped a few times. It’s gut-wrenchingly well written. There were a few tweaks suggested, but that wasn’t what dominated the discussion. The thing that bothers me, the reason the critique session sticks in my head, is that we spent a lot of time talking about whether the scene belongs in a middle-grade novel at all.

On one level, it’s simple. My knee-jerk reaction: “What do you mean? Of course it belongs!”

I like to see books that tackle difficult topics. Especially if, as is the case here, the writer is approaching them from a place of respect and understanding. Cheryl Rainfield, author of Scars (which has both won awards and been banned from libraries) is a good friend of mine. I admire her for the risks she takes in her storytelling.

But another group member brought up a valid point: would a middle-grade boy want to read about this? In a way, this points to an issue of balance. J is writing the boy’s story, not the mom’s. It’s a novel for kids. And so the trick is to avoid letting the mom’s depression take centre stage. The book needs to be about the boy dealing with his mom’s depression. And that shouldn’t be the only thing he’s dealing with, because as important as that is, it could very easily get a bit, well, lesson-y. That might be an issue book. There needs to be a story.

Another point was brought up: would a parent want their child reading this? And that’s where I get my back up. Very hypocritical of me, because I’m about as overprotective a mom as you’ll ever meet… but I tend not to hold Sarah back much when it comes to books. I think the right book can be a discussion starter.

I don’t think we can write the books that the parents want. Yes, easy for me to say — I’m about as edgy as a crumpled sock. None of my story ideas would likely even register on the librarian/teacher/parent alarm scale. (Although I did recently have my childhood piano teacher “slap my wrist” over some of the language in Boarder Patrol. I think the character says “crap” once or twice. Ah, Miss Breckenridge, I love and respect you, but you are not my target audience.)

I’m one of the lucky ones. I had a relatively happy, albeit nerdy, childhood. But a lot of kids are dealing with a lot of stuff, and to downplay these issues in books does them a disservice. I think that for a child who lives with a parent who deals with depression or another condition, seeing his world reflected in J’s book might help. It might help him feel less alone, might help him see that there’s hope. And maybe for another child, the book might offer a glimpse into a world that they don’t know. And maybe that’s part of where empathy comes from.

Anyhow, J, if you want my two cents’ worth, don’t downplay the scene. And don’t age the character. Not yet. Write the book and see where it takes you, and see what feels right. Your mind wanted the scene to run that way for a reason. Write the book now, and revisit it later, and change it only if it feels like that improves the story.

Be brave.

Notes from Packaging Your Imagination 2011

This past Saturday, hordes of children’s writers and illustrators converged on Victoria College for CANSCAIP’s annual Packaging Your Imagination conference. I was part of the Durham contingent, a massive wagon train (okay, two cars’ worth) of creative types from the east end.

We all do our best to empty our brains in advance, so we can cram as much knowledge as possible into our cranial cavities during the actual event. Here are a few of the things I learned.

From Sarah Ellis (The Nitty-Gritty About Style):

Style can be a nebulous idea, but not when Sarah Ellis teaches it. She showed us how to look at some of the tiny Lego bricks that combine to create a way of writing — sentence types, word choice, adjectives (or the lack thereof), dialogue attribution (or the lack thereof), punctuation, figurative language. What is used, what isn’t. What is conspicuous by its absence.

We looked at the choices some writers had made and discussed the reasons for those choices — I’d never taken a comma under a magnifying glass before, or discussed why it was a comma when it might have been an em-dash or something else. I’d never taken a sentence and written it out with different types of punctuation, to see which one best caught the meaning and tone.

Style is a funny thing. It’s fine to play with it and break rules, so long as you do so deliberately. From Sarah Ellis, I learned a much more deliberate way to look at and play with language. I look forward to giving it a try.

From Caroline Pignat (Writing Hearty Historical Fiction):

Caroline introduced the concept of historical fiction as stew: you find the right ingredients and let it simmer. She also reminded us of one of my favourite pieces of writing advice, in the face of increasingly crowded bookshelves: it doesn’t matter if it’s been done before. Nobody else can write the story that only you can write.

Writing historical fiction takes a lot of work, both on the research end and the writing end, and sometimes both at once. You have to choose the time period that speaks to you, the one that you want to write about — not the one that you think will sell. I seem to keep wanting to set stories within a fairly narrow slip of time, so that was good to hear.

She reminded us to read widely (something I’m always happy to do), and suggested some good primary sources including the Illustrated London News, the Cork Examiner, and other period papers. Civil records, ship lists, diaries… they all reveal things about a time and the people who lived in it. Caroline also underlined the importance of double-checking your sources. Find out who wrote the book, who is funding the website, and what their motivations and prejudices might be.

Caroline keeps a research notebook when she’s working on a project, and jots down bits of information that feel important, along with where those bits of information came from. I like that idea.

I also loved that she talked about knowledge, creativity and commitment as overlapping circles. The centre point, where all three meet, is the place to write from.

From Kelley Armstrong (Young at Heart: Writing for Teens):

Kelley’s talk touched on some things that seemed fairly basic to me (age of readers, age of characters), but are important for anyone who’s new to YA. She also gave us an extensive list of the different genres within YA. I always like to see how those evolve, as different genres come into public awareness. For example, where once nearly all “not-realistic” writing was lumped under science fiction or fantasy,  now we have paranormal, steampunk and dystopian.

Kelley suggested subscribing to Publisher’s Weekly, or at least to some of their free “deal memos,” to see what is happening in the marketplace. YA as a whole, she said, is dropping off right now, but given the giant boom of recent years, that had to happen.

She talked about some of the tricky areas such as profanity, drugs/alcohol, sex and violence — how far is too far? How much is too much? The answer depends on the book you want to write and who you are writing it for, really, but there are some guidelines. Milder swearing is often okay, the harsher words can scare off publishers and librarians.

Most importantly, Kelley talked about getting the voice right. Listen to teens. Hang out at the mall if you have to. If possible, have a teen reader look at your work. And if you’re going to write for teens, you should like and respect teens.

Sounds to me like good advice for any children’s writer.

Finally, Kathy Stinson gave a wonderful keynote speech titled “An Intimate Examination of Sock Fluff.” I’ll never be able to do it justice here. She shared poems with us, and shared herself with us, and made us laugh and cry. Karen Krossing had told her to inspire us, and she did just that.

It was a good day. For me, one of the best parts is always seeing old friends at the conference. I always hope to come back charged and excited about writing, ready to get to work and try new things. And I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference.

This Side of Morning

Three weeks ago, I tried something new. So far, it has stuck.

During the day, I’m editing a juvenile novel that I’ve been working on for some time. Okay, years. But I wanted to draft something new as well, so I decided to try morning writing.

I started off with a bang. At 5:00 a.m. each day, I would get up and write. I usually lasted until about 6:30, then I’d run out of steam and collapse back into bed until the alarm went off at 7:00.

That turned out not to be such a great plan. In order to function at that hour, I needed to be in bed by 9:00 or 10:00 at night. But late evening is usually the time that my husband and I have together, to talk or watch television without The Critter running around. Plus, my husband is a night owl. There’s no way on Earth he could shift his hours. So with my 5:00 a.m. start looming, I would traipse off to bed just after Daughter did, and he would be left behind looking forlorn.

I seem to be settling into a more modified routine now. I set the alarm for 5:45. When it goes off, I get up and go straight to my desk and write longhand until 7:00. So far, this seems to be working. I might even try backing it up to 5:30 and see how it goes.

I also came across a book called “The 90-Day Novelist.” Usually I ignore books with titles like that. I’ve worked on enough novels to know that imposing a time frame like that doesn’t pay off in the long run. Not for me, at least. Some stories take more time, some take less time. Most stories, for me, take quite a few drafts before I’m happy with them. Okay, years. So I’m not going to hold myself to the 90 days.

What I do like, however, is that there are writing exercises for each day. I do those each morning. And sometimes I add in something I picked up from Donald Maass or another resource, or sometimes I just take a stab at a scene or write about a character I’m trying to understand better.

I’m still in the pre-writing stage. That’s something new for me, too, and I think it’s going to turn out to be a good thing. I would usually think about a story for a long time, figure out who the characters were, and then start planning out a plot. Once I had that all set out on index cards, I’d start writing. By about halfway through, of course, things would have diverged so much from the original plan that my index cards were useless, but at least they’d gotten me into the story.

So far, though, I’ve spent three weeks not-writing the story. It’s weird. Instead, I’m writing every day about the story. Answering questions from the point of view of characters, developing the world, writing about whatever I want to explore. I’ve never done that ahead of time before. It all just happened alongside or in the messy first draft.

I’m impatient. I admit, I’ve taken a stab at the opening scene. I had to. There are also some little scenes and bits of dialogue that emerged out of the writing exercises, and I’ve tucked those away in case I need them.

I hope that, when I do start writing, I’m going to have a better first draft for having spent the time. For one thing, I realized that my main character isn’t who I thought it was going to be. That’s a good thing for the story, and will save me a rather large rewrite. For another, I have a much better feel for who all my characters are and what they want, and how those wants will bring them into conflict with each other and with themselves.

I’ve also taken some time to do things like drawing a map of my main setting, and studying floor plans from the late Victorian period (my story is set in 1910) to come up with a house layout. Setting details tended to shift around somewhat randomly in the first drafts of my previous novels. Distances varied according to how long I needed my characters to take to get places. Rooms could appear and disappear. I have a fairly nebulous relation to setting (and directions) in real life, so that shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me. But I digress.

With this pre-writing, I’m not expecting a usable first draft. That’s not how I write. But I think that, because of having done this work first, I’ll end up with a first draft that has different problems than the ones I usually encounter. I have an idea of my beginning, and an idea of my end, and I know some things that happen in the middle. I haven’t got everything sorted out yet, but I’ve got different things sorted out from what I usually do. Writing from this starting point should be interesting.

So, as it turns out, this whole pre-writing thing has potential. I’ll know more once I start into the actual draft a week or so from now. I suspect that once I start writing the story, I’ll want to switch to typing rather than writing longhand (but maybe not — that might be an interesting experiment as well), and I’ll want to spend more time at it each day, so my schedule will need adjusting.

But I know now that I like working in the mornings. I like taking some time for writing when no one else is awake, and my brain isn’t full yet of all the things I have to do. And I like knowing that even if my day gets busy and everything goes down the drain, at least I did some writing before breakfast. I can hold onto that.

It’s a new routine, but it’s working.

When do you write?


I love the fact that my daughter is an avid reader. She devours books. I think she’s reading above grade level; I don’t really know, and I don’t really care. What matters to me is that she picks up books on her own and enjoy them for hours on end. She has a cosy little reading corner, complete with beanbag chair, and it’s her favourite spot in the house. She knows the joy of getting lost in a good story. It’s one of the things I wished most for her.

But the other morning, before school, she finished the book she was reading. And she was in tears. Inconsolable. The writer had left things off at a very bad place.

She got cliffhangered.

Now, I know this is a common occurrence in series books. I was a big fantasy reader in early high school… Terry Goodkind, David Eddings and the like. I know that sometimes you have to wait a year or so to find out what happens next. But there are cliffhangers, and then there are cliffhangers.

Take the Harry Potter books. Each of them leaves questions unresolved. In each, we see an increase or a change in Voldemort’s power, and we’re left wondering what that change will mean for Harry and for the wizarding world. It’s a seven-book story arc, and it’s beautifully constructed. And since I was reading them as they were being written, I’ll always remember the agony of waiting for the next book. But never once did I feel that Rowling had cheated. Each story wrapped up, each delivered on its promise.

The series my daughter was reading is called The Familiars. It’s about animals, and magic, and all the things she loves. It’s funny and full of adventure. We read the first book together; by the time the second one came out, she was able and excited to tackle it on her own. At the end of the first book, there were threads left hanging, but the adventure that we had started on with the characters — the promise of the story — had been fulfilled. It was a good book.

Now, I haven’t read the second one in its entirety, but I snuck a peek at the ending to see what upset my daughter.

* Spoiler Alert *

Just as she said, the book ends with the main characters witnessing the uprising of the enemy (undead, I believe) army, about to be attacked.

* / Spoiler Alert *

To me, that’s a cheat. That’s not the end of a book; that’s getting to the climax and typing “the end.” And I suppose the original cliffhangers were cheats, weren’t they? I think that’s where the term comes from. Back in the days of those old Perils Of Pauline movies, or whatever they were called, the weekly serial would end with Pauline hanging off a cliff, about to fall. Or tied across a railroad track with the train bearing down on her, or whatever the peril of the week was.

It’s different when you can tune in next week, or even (as in the case of serialized television between seasons) after a couple of months, to find out what happens next. Books take longer. It’s usually  a year, or close to it, between releases. Books also require a greater commitment from the reader, and that commitment should be paid off.

* Spoiler Alert *

Take this with a grain of salt; as I said, I haven’t read the book in its entirety. But as a writer, I’d think that ending with the certainty of an uprising would do the trick. Or ending with word of the army on its way. Is it necessary to bring the enemy face-to-face with the characters, and then end the book before the first strike?

In fact, the second-to-last chapter ends with a rather nice moment, where the bad guy escapes in full cackle. That could have made a nice ending. Wrap up the action, get the good guys where they need to be, give them (and the reader) a chance to regroup with the inevitable threat hanging over their heads. Closure, but a reason to read on.

But when citizens are screaming and the good guys are huddled, looking across city walls at a giant army… that’s not a scene to end a book on. That’s not closure. That’s tacky. That’s a buy-my-next-book-or-you-won’t-know-if-they-live-or-die desperate.

* / Spoiler Alert *

I’ll probably read the book. It seems only fair, having voiced my opinion about it. And if I change my mind, I’ll blog about that too. But right now, my daughter’s experience has left something of a bad taste in my mouth.

The thing is, The Familiars is a children’s book series. And any series written for children faces a unique challenge in that its audience is growing up, even while the books are being written. (The Harry Potter books handled this in an unusual way, by having the characters grow up with the readers.)

When book one of The Familiars came out, my daughter needed to have it read to her. Book two, she was able to read on her own. By the time book three is published, who knows what she’ll be reading or where her interests will lie? A year is a long time for a seven-year-old reader to wait.

I admit to feeling a bit of mommy-rage. Making my daughter cry is a pretty quick way to get my dander up. But I do believe, as a writer, that there is such a thing as playing fair with readers. And typing “the end” right before a climax is not playing fair. End a chapter there. Don’t end the book.

Like I said, my daughter is a reader. One bad experience will not change that. But what about the kids who aren’t? What about the ones who struggle with reading, the ones who undertake a series book with trepidation? If they reach the end and feel cheated, how likely are they to make the effort with another novel?

I admit to not having given a lot of thought to writing books in a series before this. The DragonSpeaker books were something of an anomaly, with three of us working together on them, and besides, they were all released at the same time. But as it turns out, I do have opinions on series books. I think that each book needs to have its own beginning, middle and end. I don’t believe in cheating. And if I ever write a series, please hold me to that.

What’s in a Name?

I recently read a book that featured two characters who had distractingly similar names. Harold and Howard, I think they were. They might as well have been Michael and Mitchell, or Jane and Jen. The point is, it’s confusing. And not just for the obvious reasons.

This is something I cover when I talk to people about writing for reluctant readers. It’s one of those areas of overlap between teaching-related nerdery and writing-related nerdery, and I love it, so please bear with me.

As we learn to read, we tend to look to the first letter of any given word as an important reading clue. I saw this when my daughter was learning to read. Faced with a TH word (the, then, that, those, thing, thistle…), she would nearly always guess “the.” With time, her guesses grew more sophisticated, meaning she would pick a TH word that more or less fit with the way the sentence had been heading. Still, she was ignoring the word endings and clinging to that first letter or letter sound as the best clue to inform her choice.

That’s why it’s a good idea to avoid character names that start with the same letter. Do you really need Kashif and Karyn to be in the same book? You might. Maybe the meaning of each name is important. Maybe you want confusion caused by the name similarity to be a plot point. Or maybe those are the names that speak to you and make the characters come alive, and no other names will do. Do what you have to, but there are lots of great names to choose from. If you can, why not give the reader a break?

As we become more proficient readers, we start to look at all the letters in a word, one by one. This is the sounding-out-the-words stage, even if the sounding-out happens only in our mind. Reading this way is slow but accurate, once you get the hang of it. Still, words that contain too many similar letters can be confusing.

Faster reading happens when we start to recognize words by their shapes. Try drawing a loose outline around Sally and another loose outline around Betty. Up, down, over two tall letters, down around the Y and straight across the bottom. The shapes are similar, aren’t they? Not only would I avoid Michael and Mitchell in the same book (based on first letter, letter similarity and word shape), I would also avoid Sally and Betty.

Again, there are so many great names to pick from. Put some thought into the way the name looks on the page, as well as to its meaning and sound. Do this for names, places, and any other words that you have a choice about.

(For reluctant and young readers, I tend to favour names with phonetically correct spellings as well, but that’s another blog topic.)

I recently rejected Bridget as a name for a character. It’s a great name. I love it. It has Irish roots, which I needed, and a meaning related to fire and light, which I liked. If I’d been planning to write my story in first person, I might have gone with it. But because I needed to use third person narration, Bridget was going to appear several times on any given page. And… it’s a bulky name, isn’t it? Lots of loops and up-bits and down-bits. Wide letters. In the end, I went with Kate. Faster to read, faster to say.

The Bridget/Kate book isn’t for reluctant readers, by the way. I try to take name appearance into account for most books I write.

Kate has formed herself into a different person in my head than Bridget was going to be, I think. It’s hard to know. I’m still playing with the character at this point, so she’s going to evolve no matter what I call her. I’m not too bothered by it; I liked the name Bridget, but I like the name Kate too, and I’m happy with the person she’s shaping up to be. It’s a lot tougher to change a character name once you’ve started writing the book properly and gotten attached to it.

The point I’m trying to make in this post is that books are, generally speaking, a visual medium. They’re oral, too, which is why reading your work aloud is such an important part of editing process. But we don’t tend to hear a lot about the way things look on the page, and that’s part of the reader experience, too.

These naming guidelines are especially important when writing for young children, reluctant readers, readers for whom English is a second language, or anyone who might struggle with reading. We all have off days–days when we’re tired, or when we’ve been away from the book too long and are struggling to remember who the characters are. I’m a pretty good reader, but I have to admit, the Harold/Howard thing stymied me when I’d been away from the book for a few days.

If there’s something you can do to make the reader’s life easier, to reward the process that they’re making in learning to read, to make reading more enjoyable, or to make it easier for them to keep flipping pages… why not do it?

Plotting and Pantsing

Today’s blog post is inspired by K.M. Weiland’s post on plotting. Worth a look, if you haven’t come across it already. I’m looking forward to her new book!

Jeans drying on laundry line: photo credit Lunario on Stock ExchangeI’m an outliner. A “plotter,” as writer-types tend to call it. (As opposed to a “pantser,” who is more likely to start off with a character or image or talking graham cracker crumb and just start writing and see what happens.)

The thing is, my outline is nearly always wrong. It starts off well enough, but as I start writing, things change. It’s a tiny change at first. Just a little “oh, we’ll go around the block, but we’ll get there anyhow.”

But then the character who made that decision or had that experience comes to the next branching-off point, and he’s different. Characters are informed by experiences, just as we are. So maybe the character saw something that wasn’t in my original outline, and that something changed him. Or, as his personality emerges and is firmed up through dialogue and actions, I realize that he would never say or do what I had planned for him to say or do. The character I’ve written so far in the book would handle the problem in a completely different way.

MazeOne small branching-off leads to another, and usually by the time I’m nearing the end of the first draft, my map is useless. That’s always a major frustration point, when I’m ready to ball the whole thing up and feed it to the dog (she likes paper). But I get the dog a milk bone instead, and then muscle through it, or rethink it, or do whatever I have to do. Often I build a new map, sometimes I try to wing it. It’s different with each project.

In some writing circles, I keep quiet about my outlines and plot points. Being a plotter is a flaw, an embarrassment, a secret shame. Real writers rely on intuition. It’s art, not science. They follow their characters around all day and wait for the characters to make the decisions.

Well yes, that sometimes happens. In a way. At least, I suspect that something like that is happening when my outlines go awry. I get a skin-crawly feeling talking about characters coming alive inside my head, though, so I prefer not to look at that side of things too closely.

And I can’t even start writing without some kind of an outline, even knowing that it’s likely to be wrong. I think I’ve finally figured out why.

We all have different ways of incubating. I call it “back-burnering,” but incubating is probably more scientific. When I’m outlining, the characters and the situation and all the possibilities are rolling around in my mind. I’m spending time with them. I’m getting to know the story, and if I start writing too soon, it’s useless. Some people might incubate by researching a historical period, some by daydreaming, and some, maybe, by writing. My “pantser” friends tend to write many, many drafts. Maybe some of those early drafts are just another form of incubating.

Control freak that I am, I incubate by planning and making story maps and playing with ideas. I’ll write a couple of scenes from this character’s viewpoint or that one’s, try first and third person, see what works. Most of those early scribblings get chucked, but sometimes they help me firm up my outline.

I devour books on story structure and hang different methods on different story ideas as if I’m dressing them up in coats. Sooner or later, something will look right.

So this is me coming clean. I’m a plotter. I make maps and outlines and gosh-darned charts before I tackle a manuscript, and then do it all over again when I’m editing. I use giant sheets of paper and even a ruler. I colour-code things and I have an ongoing love affair with sticky notes. I use writing software that incorporates electronic index cards. And that’s okay.

You incubate in your way, I’ll incubate in mine. Can’t we just all be friends?

(Roll call: any other plotters out there? Drop me a line. We’ll start a support group or something.)