Tuesday, November 29, 2011


I recently participated in an author’s panel at a conference sponsored by the New Mexico branch of the National Council of Teacher’s of English. One of the questions posed to us was whether or not we plotted our stories or used a more organic process. I was the only one on the panel who said I plotted my books. The other authors reported that they avoided plotting for three main reasons:

1) They didn’t want to know the end of the story before they began.
2) They were afraid they would be putting themselves into a box if they planned out the entire
3) They were afraid that writing would lose its fun and excitement.

To plot or not to plot is an age-old debate among writers. I think that some authors who claim NOT to plot, actually have an intrinsic sense of story and may be internally planning out their story without even knowing it. The plot may not appear on paper, but the story is well-formed in the mind of the writer. I think that whether you choose to plot or not boils down to your personal temperament and your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I have used both approaches and I know my writing tendencies well enough to realize that when I don’t plot, I end up with too many subplots that I then have difficulty weeding out.

If you are wondering whether you are a plotter or a not, here are some questions that might help you decide which approach is best for you:

When you go on a vacation what are you most likely to do?

a. Do you plan out everything in advance? Do you buy your airlines tickets so early that you are
always able to find a cheap rate, type a list of the places you will be staying, and then send a
copy of your itinerary to loved ones so that if you go missing they will be able to establish
your last known whereabouts? Does this structure, which may seem anal to others, actually
gives you the freedom to forget about the details and enjoy the journey?

You may be a plotter.

b. Do you hop in the car and let the road take you where it may. Do you love the adventure of
not knowing what the next stop will be, and relish new and unexpected experiences? Are your
senses and all your powers of observation on high alert when you are in novel situations? If
you end up without a place to stay, are you willing to couch surf with strangers because it’s all
part of the experience?

You may not be a plotter.

c. Do you often forget where you have left the car? Would you like to be going on adventures but
never quite get moving, and if you do you end up going nowhere or running in circles? Do you
claim to be spontaneous, but that’s only because you don’t like to make plans?

You are the least likely to plot, but the most likely to benefit from it if you
gave it a try.

Are you a dog person, a cat person, or a plant person?

Dogs require planning. If you go out of town you’ll need a good kennel or a dog sitter. Even their daily poop excursions require forethought. Most dogs require some degree of training. If you are into this level of commitment with your pet, you may feel the same about your fictional characters. Plotting may be a natural process for you. Unless, of course, your dog is an untamed beast that you don’t mind throwing in the back of the car for a last minute road trip.

Cats come and go as they please. If you are gone all day, they can fend for themselves. A self-cleaning cat box and food/water dispenser are all they need if you are gone for any length of time. If you are a cat person, you may enjoy stories that take on a life of their own.

If you are neither a dog nor a cat person, and are struggling just to keep a few houseplants alive, you may find that starting with a short outline is less of a commitment than tackling an entire book. Though you say you don’t like the structure of an outline, you may actually take comfort in the process when you actually try it. It’s a heck of a lot shorter than writing a novel.

Whether you are a plotter or not, a couch surfer or a dog lover, the important thing is to figure out a process that works for you. Every story is unique, and so is every writer.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Christine: A Happy Dance on the Heels of Multiple Missteps

I’m in the midst of a publicity high, so I hope you’ll indulge my happy dance.

I had a book-signing yesterday at my hometown library, Hawkes Library in West Point, Georgia, and it was the stuff dreams are made of . . . surprise sightings of old friends, reconnections with former teachers, introductions to amazing people . . . the works. The librarian had even taken the time to find books I checked out as a child, showing me check-out cards containing my scrawled signature.

I’m clinging tightly to the memories because, frankly, some of my publicity opportunities have left me feeling like the Jeopardy contestant who finishes the second round in the hole and will not be joining his competitors for Final Jeopardy. (“Ooooohhh, you just couldn’t quite get the hang of that buzzer. . . .”)

Don’t get me wrong; I still have to pinch myself to grasp that my books are getting published, and I’m grateful for every publicity opportunity. But I’m not exactly a born salesman (my Girl Scout pitch was, “You don’t want to buy any of these cookies, do you? No, really, you don’t have to. . . .”) and my inner introvert is sometimes loath to loosen its death grip on my personality. It doesn’t help, of course, that many book-publicity opportunities are awkward under the best of circumstances (“No, I don’t want a copy of your book, but can you watch my purse while I run to the restroom?”) or that the economy is in the tank (“No, I don’t want a copy of your book, but I was wondering if you could chip in toward my utility bill.”)

In the spirit of keeping my ego in check after the chorus of atta-boys I heard yesterday, here are some past experiences that keep me humble:

* The time the bookstore manager suggested I help him set up a Twilight display since I wasn’t exactly contracting writers’ cramp at the book-signing table.

* The time the school media specialist decided my author visit qualified me as a sub while she slipped away for “lunch” and emerged three hours later with a new hair color.

* The time I opened the floor for questions after an elementary-school presentation and was asked, “What’s that thing on your face?”

* The time the snarky senior in the AP English class asked if I wouldn’t mind discussing “real” literature.

* The time the host of a live radio show asked me to read an excerpt from my book which, um, I didn’t exactly, um, have handy. (Okay, that one was my fault entirely.)

* The time the television show host asked if I could minimize the head-bobbing so my chin would stop knocking the microphone.

You get the idea. But I’ve got to say, for everyone who’s ever averted their gaze at a book-signing or asked me to point them toward Snooki Polizzi’s latest tome, there’s that sixth-grade teacher walking in with a huge smile, a big hug and an “I knew you could it!” affirmation that leaves you floating on a cloud. Thanks, Mrs. Scott.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Coert: The Legend of the Storm Wrangler

I had always wanted to publish a children’s book. Before Storm Wrangler, which came out from Bright Sky Press in October, I had written many, but they were mostly awful. I think part of my difficulty came from the fact that I was trying to write a children’s book, not actually trying to tell a story. When I write YA, I don’t try to write YA; when I write regular old adult fiction, I’m not trying to do that either. It took me until writing Storm Wrangler to realize that I’d been falling into the trap of not giving the reader enough credit. Don’t write a genre; write a story.

Story should come first. Always. Before genre, age group, market, anything. Story always comes first. (Duh, I know. But it’s hard to remember when you have a “goal” in mind.) This post will talk about both the origin of the story and the process of turning that into words on the page.

My son, Dayton, was two years old when Hurricane Ike passed directly over Houston in 2008. The week before the storm hit, our lives were thrown into preparation mode and all he heard was, “There’s a storm coming.”The night of the storm, the wind shook the house so that none of us slept. And the following morning we went outside to find branches strewn everywhere, a massive oak tree blocking access to the street, huge limbs on cars, etc.

In addition to the post-storm destruction, our house (which, aside from a roof leak and the loss of a couple trees, managed to escape relatively unscathed) was without power for two weeks. We spent most of those nights as a family at my in-laws' house, sleeping in my wife's childhood bedroom.

Needless to say, this had a profound impact on little Dayton, and for the next two years, he was not afraid of monsters; he was afraid of storms. He would wake up in the middle of the night saying, “There’s a storm in my bed,” or “There’s a storm in my closet.” He would hide under his covers, waiting for me to get rid of the storm by whatever means I could think of.

Two years later, I finally figured out what to do with the idea of storms and monsters being the same thing. That’s where the Storm Wrangler came from. He’s someone Dayton would have been able to count on during Hurricane Ike: a mythical, Paul Bunyan-esque figure who is unafraid of any weather, who wrestles with hurricanes and tornadoes, who has braved sleet and snow and gale force winds.

But how to put that all on the page? One of the most exciting things about children's books--and in this particular case, one of the most paralyzing--is the writer's complete freedom to tell the story in any way he wants. I thought of my favorite books as a kid, and I went back to my son's bookshelf to try to figure out how his favorite books were written. The visual nature of something like Shark vs. Train (one of Dayton's current favorites) for example, is completely different from the more text-centric Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (one of my favorites). Dayton and I both love Where the Wild Things Are, how the visuals overtake the text on the page until the point where, during the three pages of wild rumpus, there is no text at all.

Because anything seemed to be on the table, I clearly needed to come up with some sort of plan. One of my favorite parts of writing is doing the pre-writing research, so that’s where I went. Eventually, even though I didn't know the form the story would take, I had a good idea about the language and the basic framework I was going for:
  • I wanted to use a lot of storm terminology. There's so much fun to be had with the language itself: drizzle, deluge, sprinkle, etc. just for rain. (I'm a big fan of the anthology Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape.)
  • Also, Because Dayton had equated storms with monsters after the hurricane, I wanted to have the storms personified. The storms, therefore, would be beasts and fiends and ogres. A hurricane would be a cyclops with one massive eye, etc.
As far as the framework went, I broke it into three parts:
  • An intro into the character of the Storm Wrangler. Who is he? Where is he from? What kinds of storms has he vanquished?
  • A section in which the Storm Wrangler shows off his storm wranglin' equipment and arms the reader with his own protective gear so that the reader and the Storm Wrangler will be able to fight together.
  • A description of an oncoming storm/monster that the two wranglers will go off to fight together. The idea was that the Storm Wrangler would show us that there's nothing to fear.
When I finally started writing, the story came out in verse, told from the Storm Wrangler's first person point of view. I hadn't planned it that way, but it seemed appropriate. As I wrote about storms and monsters, lightning and hurricanes--scary things that I knew would be accompanied by visuals--the metered, rhyming verse was almost soothing, like a lullaby. The form was working against the content in such a way that it allowed me to get scary stuff in there without it seeming too scary.

So, I was pleased with the form of the story, and I was able to get at all the meteorological terms and use personified monsters. I told the story in three parts the way I had planned, and I thought the book would end with the two wranglers going off to fight the oncoming ogre because, as the Storm Wrangler himself tells us at the end of the first draft, “ropin’ a twister’s one heck of a ride!”

I liked the idea of ending that way, with a nod to the action ahead, but there seemed to be something missing. In subsequent drafts, I tried to add more. I wanted to add something about the calm after the storm, when the air smells crisp and the sun comes out and everyone is safe and dry again, but I couldn't make it work. After the energy of the twister-ropin' line, anything I put afterward felt tacked on, not actually part of the story. Then my fantastic editor, Lucy, suggested we feature some pages with illustrations only. I loved that idea, as Dayton and I had recently spent a few nights with David Wiesner's marvelous Flotsam.

Once we envisioned an illustration-only page after the twister-ropin' line, everything seemed to come together. The images were going to do something that the writing couldn't. We would be allowed to go with the two wranglers as they roped that twister. It turned out to be our own version of the wild rumpus. (And it also increased my appreciation for the role Maurice Sendak's rumpus played in the structure of the story--not just in the content). The after-the-storm stuff came naturally once we actually got to see the storm itself. Even better, because we've already seen them in action, we can end the book with the two wranglers looking forward to an oncoming storm, and we already know they'll be able to handle it.

Plus, this change led to one of my favorite moments in the book, when the Storm Wrangler and the small child are sitting on the porch, sipping tea, watching the sun break through the clouds--the Storm Wrangler in his boots and the child in his footed pajamas.

There was so much more that went into the book, starting with the brilliant illustrations by Houston-based artist Mike Guillory, but I’ll stop there. If there’s anything I took away from this process, it’s that no matter what or for whom I’m writing, I have to respect the reader. Just because it’s a children’s book doesn’t mean I can’t use big and interesting words, or don’t have to do research, or should neglect structure. Little readers don’t deserve to be patronized; they deserve our full attention to every element of craft we can muster.


Monday, November 7, 2011

Michael: NaNoWriCrowe

Just click on the arrow to advance to the next frame:

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Dianne: Writing Historical YA

When beta-readers told me the main character of my WIP seemed older than his 17 years, I was worried. “What gave you that impression?” I asked, hoping it was fixable. “Is it his voice, his behavior, his attitude?”

None of those things, they said. He acted like a 17 year-old, but: “He has a job.”

And I didn’t know what to say to that. In 1908, it would have been strange if my 17 year-old protagonist didn’t have a job.

For me, the most challenging aspect of writing historical YA is that the target audience doesn’t exist in my settings. Modern teenagers, whose days revolve around high school and their social lives, evolved only in the last half of the 20th century. Before that, Young Adults were … well, young adults. They had jobs and adult worries. They married young—and girls often married older men. (Not 100 year-old vampires who look like teens, but twenty-something frontiersmen and thirty-something explorers!)

How quickly we forget the way it was! Only one of my grandparents graduated from high school. The others had to work in their family businesses or raise their younger siblings. The one who graduated did so because she was the youngest in her family and her older siblings had already quit school to run the farm. Their sacrifices allowed their little sister the luxury of an education – and that’s what education was in those days, a luxury.

Of course, entering the workforce was often the cusp of a grand adventure. Harry Houdini quit school at 12 to get a job; so did Thomas Edison.

And they weren’t alone. Boys built the transcontinental railroad and the Empire State Building. Girls fought off wild animals with a rifle, defended the homestead, and one really talented gal became the most famous sharpshooter in the world! If you want to go back a little further in time, teenagers led armies (think Joan and Alexander) and ruled empires (Nefertiti and Amenhotep).

I keep hearing that historical fiction is a hard sell with teens. Yet the growing popularity of science fiction and dystopian fiction tells me YA readers are looking to break out of a world defined by school and social cliques. They want to expand their horizons, explore their destinies, lead revolutions -- and save the world.

As a YA historical writer, I hope to prove they can look backward as well as forward for their inspiration.