Book Review: The ABCs of Writing for Children

Review by Betty Winslow

The ABCs of Writing for Children.
Compiled by Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff
Quill Driver Books
November 2002
258 pgs.
Writing-related

The title of this book implies a linear, nuts-and-bolts approach to the subject of writing for children, but in reality it’s almost a stream of consciousness on the subject, collected by Koehler-Pentacoff from the minds of 114 authors and illustrators and loosely arranged into 46 chapters with titles like “First Times,” “What Is the Best Writing Advice You Ever Received?,” “Rejection,” and “Picture Books.” Each chapter is full of highly personal stories, tips, and anecdotes, which are fun to read (although the way some are repeated in several places had a slightly disconcerting “deja vu” effect on me: wait, haven’t I read this already?).

Although I found the book’s arrangement a bit hard to navigate and the introductory italicized titles for each small anecdote seemed to me unnecessary and often confusing, I knew I would enjoy reading what Koehler-Pentacoff had to offer, since I love children’s books and I find the people who write and illustrate them interesting. Reading what Jane Yolen, Doug Cushman, Patricia McKissack, Ruth Heller, David Adler, and R. L. Stine (among others) had to say about writing children’s books, inspiration, rejection, censorship, book signings, and a host of other topics was bound to be good! It was, too, and I also picked up some practical tips on writing, learned more about the stories behind the stories kids love, and discovered a bit about what makes these people tick.

I think that last bit is important. Children’s authors and illustrators may not be movers and shakers in the eyes of the world, but their work affects the children of the world and thus the future of mankind. Therefore, I for one like to keep abreast of what’s going on in children’s literature. And this book tells you some of that.

Unfortunately, I had to get beyond a few more problems to get to the good stuff, including misplaced or missing punctuation and words (and a few extra or misused ones) and a wonky index that led me to the wrong Cushman several times as well as to a few pages that didn’t contain what I thought they were going to.

On the plus side, I also found some helpful back-of-the-book features, including a glossary, a resource list, a writer-related bibliography, and the aforementioned (and somewhat less helpful) index.

All in all, if the world of children’s literature interests you, I think you’ll find the extra effort it takes to get through this book is worthwhile and you’ll come away with a lot to think about. You’re also liable to come away with a list of books you somehow missed along the way and want to read now. Go for it! We may be grown-ups, but no one is too old for well-written and wonderfully illustrated children’s books!

How to Write Your Novel and Still Have Time for Sex

By Rob Loughran

Not time for only sex; but for all those things we are obligated to do on a regular basis: job, family, exercise, finances, changing the catbox. I just used “sex” in the title to get your attention.

The first step in writing your novel is to realize no one but you can write it. A writing teacher friend of mine begins each of her seminars by placing a pencil on 300 sheets of paper and saying, “Novels never write themselves.”

The second step is realizing that a novel isn’t written all at once. Let’s dust off some math skills. Say your book will be 80,000 words. At 250 words per page, that’s 320 pages or a page per day for 10.66 months. Allowing five weeks for research and outlining, writing up some character background, etc., that’s a novel in a year. If you started writing today, one year from today you could be printing out your novel while scouring your market guide for publishers.

That’s simplified, of course: you must rewrite.

But you’ll also have days when you write 500, 750, or 1,000 words. Jack London wrote 40 books by adhering to this simple principle: A daily writing stint of 1,500 words, every day, before breakfast. Ralph McInerny, author of the Father Dowling mystery series, mainstream novels, and books on religion and philosophy recommends getting a give-away-calendar from the auto parts store and hanging it in a prominent place. Then start writing your prescribed-daily-quota (PDQ) and don’t go back to rewrite until your first draft is complete. Every day you reach your quota, you X out that day on the calendar. That Xed out calendar will provide a visual, daily reminder to yourself of your novel’s progress. And a blank week or two will goad you out of procrastination.

Adhere to your daily stint and you’ll have a novel PDQ.

To Outline or Not to Outline?

There’s the story about the backyard inventor who worked for years on this machine that featured electrical and gas engines; wires, screws, bolts, and buckets of every size. One day his neighbor popped his head over the fence and said: “That’s a magnificent creation. What’s it do?”

The inventor smiled and said, “I don’t really know.”

Obviously, this anecdote dictates the need for an outline, but, conversely, Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

Who’s right? Should writers depend on creativity and spontaneity or plan as meticulously as an engineer? The answer (as to most of life’s dilemmas) is somewhere in the middle ground. If not a strict outline you should at least have a plan that includes genre, length, historical era, basic character sketches, and a short plot summary. All of which you can follow strictly or abandon when those all-too-rare moments of inspiration dictate that the story must take this direction.

But again, the most meticulous of outlines or the most profound artistic inspiration are squat if you don’t plop your butt in that chair and write.

How to Plop Your Butt in That Chair and Write

Okay, let’s take out pencils and a piece of paper.

Seriously, this is the hands-on part. I want you to make a list of the activities that you perform on a daily basis. Try to come up with 20 items. Include job, commuting, chores, school, leisure activities, etc.

Now give each activity a 1 if it’s CRUCIAL, a 2 if it’s IMPORTANT, or a 3 if it’s something that can be put on a BACK BURNER. (Example: 1=writing stint, 2=clean office, 3=watch “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Don’t just read this– try it.)

Okay, you’ve got 20 or so items ranked in value. Go back through your list and circle all the items you awarded a 2. Now, take these items and make them either a 1 (CRUCIAL) or 3 (BACK BURNER.) From my example above, I would take “clean office” and either do it now, or put it off until tomorrow, not on whimsy, but with good reason! If my office were so filthy I couldn’t write or perform another CRUCIAL item (i.e., make the car payment to avoid a late charge) it becomes a 1. If my office were merely in its normal state of dusty disrepair, but I could pound out a writing stint I’d make it a BACK BURNER item and attend my daughter’s soccer game.

Now, here’s the true impact of this exercise: Did you do it? If not, what does it say about your determination to finish that novel? Please go back and do it. And remember, the circumstances of life are constantly changing. Use this tool as often as you need.

Simple timesavers can add to your productivity. Wake up twenty minutes earlier or go to bed twenty minutes later. Twenty minutes! Not even half-an-hour! Use that extra time to write or do chores or bookkeeping which will free up time to write. That translates into more than two hours a week, more than one hundred hours in a year.

The television is a thief. Don’t blow it up; but do turn it off for an evening and see what you accomplish. Try watching just the second half of football and basketball games. Stop watching reruns. They’re reruns.

While commuting, use a tape recorder to plan chapters or polish dialogue. Listen to books on tape to learn from other writers.

Utilize “aggravation time.” Instead of fuming while waiting to pay for groceries, mentally compose a story about the person in front of you with thirteen items in the ten-items-or-less line. What color trailer does she live in? How many cats does she own? Which brand of canned cheese is her favorite?

If you’re blocked or stuck write a letter or a limerick. Just get to writing anything and it’ll get you back on that yellow brick road.

Mum’s the Word

Don’t show anybody your novel until it is finished, rewritten, and polished! The only result of “What do you think of my opening chapter?” will be doubt, second-guessing, and insecurity. Maybe it’s too wordy or sketchy. People will point this out to you. But you would have discovered and fixed that on a subsequent rewrite, right? Or worse, the person you’ve appointed Ebert will say she really liked it; it was nice.

Trust your judgment.

But there is a huge difference in hearing advice from a fellow writer and from Auntie Sarah. If there is someone whose opinion you value and honesty you can count on, then please avail yourself of his or her input. My wife (who is a voracious reader, but breaks into a sweat when writing anything longer than a Christmas card) and I have worked out a system. She sits sipping tea or wine while I read in a flat monotonous voice (you want your words, not your inflection, to have the impact) from my stuff. At any point where I lose her—for whatever reason—she starts snoring and I mark that spot in the manuscript. I trust her and don’t take offense. And she’s usually right.

Okay, she’s always right.

Remember what Gene Perret said, “Nothing is written until it’s rewritten.” Don’t pass an uncooked book around indiscriminately. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Cover of Bill Henderson's Rotten Reviews ReduxOne essential book to keep by your keyboard is Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews & Rejections. Here’s a sampling: an 1844 review of Huckleberry Finn: “A gross trifling with every fine feeling—Mr. Clemens has no reliable sense of propriety.”

An 1814 review of Gulliver’s Travels: “Evidence of a diseased mind and lacerated heart.” From a rejection letter of James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice: “I think it is only a matter of time before you reach out into more substantial efforts that will be capable of making some real money as books.”

There will always be hope for your novel; get it written.

Novelist R.K. Narayan stated, simply: “You become a writer by writing.”

Pep Talk

I hate pep talks.

I was always mystified and confused when coaches demanded 110%, so this isn’t a RAH RAH, YOU CAN DO IT! snappy pep talk.

Just the opposite.

How would you feel, one year from now, if your novel were still a misty someday-dream with not a single word written? Project ahead five years. You still haven’t finished (have you even started?). How does that make you feel?

Ten years?

Now, think how you’ll feel, if when you finish this article, you put a calendar on the wall, and by this time next week see five or six X’s?

Then a month’s worth?

A year’s worth?

Writing instructor Lew Hunter wrote:

We all have talent. How we use it and don’t use it is what the game is all about in writing and in life itself. We must not get beaten down by those who choose to simply take up space on this planet, by those whose lives risk counting for nothing.

Rob Loughran’s mystery novel High Steaks won the 2002 New Mystery Award. He blogs at The Foul Mouthed Bard.

Ten Common Submission Package Errors

By Rudy Shur
Excerpted from the book How To Publish Your Nonfiction Book

Over the years, I’ve seen literally hundreds of submission packages. Some of them inspired me to immediately request more information from the author. In other cases, however, I could not send the package to the kill pile quickly enough. Throughout this chapter, I’ve mentioned several submission package don’ts, but these warnings bear repeating as long as authors keep making the same mistakes. If you avoid the following errors, you will, at the very least, avoid raising a red flag. Here are ten errors that commonly occur in submission packages.

  1. The author claims that his book is unique . This statement is the kiss of death, because editors don’t want a unique book. They want a book that fits into an existing category and meets the needs of an existing audience. At the very best, this statement implies that the author doesn’t understand the market for his book. At the very worst, it indicates that the book is, indeed, unique– and therefore either has no audience, or has an audience that is difficult to reach.
  2. The author claims that his book is for everyone — professionals, teachers, students, and general readers. Again, book should be written with a specific audience in mind, be it a trade (general) audience, an educational audience, a professional audience, or a scholarly audience. This is true for a number of reasons. First, educational, professional, and scholarly books all have certain characteristics that are off-putting to the general reader. Professional books, for instance, are written in the jargon of the appropriate profession—a jargon that is unfamiliar to the general reader. Educational books may include review questions and other features that are not usually included in trade books. And scholarly books are often heavily footnoted and referenced. Second, as you learned in chapter 2, different types of books are marketed in different ways, and are placed in different areas of bookstores. That’s why publishing companies demand that every book be designed to suit the needs of a specific audience.
  3. The author states that the book has already been finished. Few editors want to help an author rework an existing book so that it fits the needs of their particular publishing house. They want to begin guiding the author’s work at an early stage, and set it on the right course. Therefore, even if your book is complete right down to the index, tell the editor that you are in the process of writing a book.
  4. The author fails to include his address and phone number. Believe it or not, this silly mistake is made all the time. If the editor doesn’t know how to reach you, you can’t expect a timely response—or, for that matter, any response at all!
  5. The submission package is sent to the wrong type of publishing house. Authors have been known to submit their novels to houses that publish only nonfiction; to send their poetry to houses that publish only cookbooks; to send their cookbooks to houses that specialize in romance novels; to send their ideas for coffee-table art books to houses that print mass-market paperbacks. To avoid wasting your time and theirs, do your homework, and send your submission package to the appropriate editor at the appropriate publishing house.
  6. The submission package is the size of War and Peace. This returns me to one of my original points: Editors are busy. They simply don’t have time to wade through a stack of paper, no matter how riveting the material may be. By submitting a package that provides the desired information in a concise manner, you will optimize the chance that your package will, at the very least, be read.
  7. The submission package is triple-wrapped and sealed with packing tape. As my opening vignette showed, editors usually don’t keep power tools in their offices. Unless you are dropping your package out of a helicopter, place it in an easy-to-open envelope.
  8. Out of fear that the editor will steal the author’s idea, the author only hints at the contents of the book. This may sound incredible, but it does happen. Authors have told me that they have found the cure for a terrible disease, that they have found a foolproof weight loss technique, and that they have discovered an amazing secret about the Kennedys– but that they cannot tell me what it is unless I agree to publish their book. I think you can guess what my response was.
  9. The author wrongly implies that he has spoken to the editor, and that the editor asked for a copy of his manuscript proposal. Over the years, I have received countless cover letters that began, “Thank you so much for your interest in my project,” or, “Per your request, I am enclosing a manuscript proposal . . .” These opening lines would be perfectly appropriate—if I had ever spoken to the author and actually requested the material. Some authors feel that because editors are so busy, they can be tricked into thinking that they asked for the submission. Don’t fool yourself. We’re busy but we’re not that busy, and, in the absence of any prior contact, an opening statement like this is almost guaranteed to put a negative spin on your proposal.
  10. The manuscript is filled with spelling errors, grammatical errors, and awkward sentences.Happens all the time. Keep in mind that, in addition to selling your expertise in a particular field, you are selling yourself as a writer. Therefore, it pays to read over your submission several times, to use the spell-check feature of your computer, and to have others read the material over carefully, looking for problems. The material you are about to send is relatively short, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to polish it up. The time you take to make this package the best it can be will definitely pay off.

 

Rudy Shur is the publisher of Square One Publishers, and the author of the book How To Publish Your Nonfiction Book, part of the “Square One Writers Guide” series. Rudy Shur began his work in publishing as a field representative for Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company and William C. Brown Publishing Company. He later founded Avery Publishing Group, where he was responsible for the acquisition of over 1,000 titles, many of which became bestsellers. Currently, Mr. Shur is the publisher at Square One in Garden City Park, New York. He was interviewed by Absolute Write.

Creative Nonfiction

By Phyllis Hanlon

At the mention of “nonfiction” you may cringe and think of wordy, boring essays by long-winded speech writers, technical manuals bursting with legalese that no one except the creators can understand, or dry newspaper stories. Well, let’s place the word “creative” before nonfiction and see what a difference it makes. A new picture comes to mind, one that is colorful and engaging, sure to grab and hold your attention.

The proliferation of nonfiction writing is evident by the numbers of nonfiction articles being published in some major magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Atlantic Monthly. Years ago fiction filled the pages of these publications. Many of the magazines and journals on the newsstand today, due to changing times and technology, provide their readership with more nonfiction articles than fiction.

In the early 1920s American readers generally sought fiction in their magazines, but after World War II the climate of the world changed. Instead of looking for escape, readers were now interested in real-life issues told in an interesting manner. The New Yorker is a case in point. Glance through the index and you will find just a few fiction pieces; nonfiction articles predominate. Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly follow the same format, printing principally nonfiction pieces.

The nonfiction that is found in these major publications is so well-written that even a subject that you might never have considered reading about will hold your interest. Obviously the writer must show a keen fascination for the topic, do extensive research, and finally choose his or her words carefully to craft an exciting tale. Otherwise, the reader may never get past the first sentence.

“CoverAccording to William Zinsser in the fifth edition of his popular book On Writing Well (HarperCollins, 1994), many writers began their careers as journalists. H.L. Mencken, E.B. White, Lewis Thomas, Ring Lardner, Ellen Goodman and many other major writers were working journalists before publishing literary works. These writers concentrated on subjects that they were familiar with and wrote ”for themselves,” never worrying about slanting a story to meet requirements for a certain audience. In this way they were able to produce works that were successful. Most readers enjoy a story that is well written and displays obvious interest and enthusiasm on the part of the writer.

Journalism per se tends to be very factual and straightforward. The adage “The facts, just the facts,” rules most journalistic writing. However, there are many columnists nowadays who write interesting articles about common occurrences in daily life. Jacqueline Mitchard, Kathleen Parker, Maureen Dowd, Bob Greene, and Sid McKean are just a few names that spring to mind. These writers have a knack for taking the ordinary and injecting just the right touch of humor, outrage, empathy, or sarcasm to keep their readers interested. Of course, reporting straight news stories does require “just the facts” without emotion or commentary. However, the types of articles that these writers produce are personal opinion, responses to events both national and local, and criticisms or explications of an issue.

The above-mentioned authors have tackled a variety of subjects — children in their various stages of growth and development, spouses, teenage pregnancy, politics, touch tone telephones, feminism, sports, gun control, current news stories, personal anecdotes and a litany of other issues ranging from the serious to the silly. Some of these topics may seem inconsequential at first glance, but by writing from the heart they breathe life into the content, whatever the theme.

To cite Zinsser once again: “Beginning with nonfiction is the first step on the path to all writing.” After all, what writing teacher hasn’t told the class to “write what you know”? A nonfiction article is the perfect vehicle for doing just that. Take a subject you know and run with it. Your personal knowledge of the topic as well as your enthusiasm and interest will help to mold a well-written, well-rounded story.

Writing creative nonfiction gives the author license to express emotions and reactions to a situation as well. In addition to stating the facts, the heartache, joy, or anger that resulted can be recorded. In a prize-winning story that I wrote, my subject was the demise of my iron.  Sounds silly, right? The judges must have found my humor and honesty endearing, for the story won third place.  I took an incident that had just occurred and profoundly affected me in a negative way and then expounded on my distress at the loss of this “friend.” I am sure that there are occasions in your life when a trivial problem or event, either good or bad, can trigger feelings worthy of note. What has recently made you upset or nervous or angry or scared? You get the idea.

Each year Houghton Mifflin publishes The Best American Essays, a collection of nonfiction pieces written by well-known authors. A different guest editor, who also happens to be a published author, edits the book every year. Tracy Kidder, editor of the 1994 edition, explains that the traditional definition of the essay is personal reflection, sometimes referred to as literary journalism. Kidder looks for articles that “catch the reflection of human character on the page — [The authors] deal with the big themes, and sculpt the reader’s ruminations.” These tomes cover a broad scope of subjects, just at the journalists listed above do, ranging from airplane flight, orangutans, the plight of Salman Rushdie, and the history of punctuation, to a variety of others.

Following the guidelines that Kidder sets down, concentrate on a topic that offers you the chance to ponder the “big picture” of an issue. Once your subject matter is decided, contemplate these words of William Zinsser:

Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Proceed with confidence, generating it by willpower. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.

The emotion and passion that you feel toward your subject will help carry the story from your head to the paper. Nothing is stopping you from retelling an event in a creative and exciting manner. Follow the example of the contributors to the literary magazines and the commentary pages of national newspapers. Your life is every bit as exciting and eventful as theirs; use those prosaic episodes to spawn your best creative nonfiction masterpiece.

Freelancer Phyllis Hanlon has had hundreds of articles published in nearly 40 magazines and newspapers. She beats burnout by hitting the gym as often as possible. 

Five Do-able Tips for Remembering and Writing Great Lifestories

By Denis Ledoux
Is your family one of the many whose history is lost to future generations because no one has written it down?

Writing your stories—even just a few—is a great way to memorialize your family and to prevent the experience of your life and theirs being forgotten. The details you take for granted or consider obvious may be lost to the next generation unless you make the effort to record them in writing.

Writing down a memory and sharing it with others is a way to celebrate your life and your family. It is not as hard as some people think. Anyone who is willing to follow the few simple steps I will outline below can succeed at writing their autobiography or family history. More and more people—in fact, many who at first think they can’t—are successfully exploring and honoring their pasts in this way.

Follow these five tips for remembering and writing a pleasing and meaningful lifestory that will honor both your family and yourself and create a legacy for your children.

These five suggestions are among the most powerful– and easiest– to implement in your personal and family history writing.

And remember: practice makes perfect. If you want to preserve your personal and family history, you must write, write, write. Set yourself a time to write and honor your commitment. Your great grandchildren will be so glad you did.

Good luck!

  1. Make a memory list. This is a list of everything you can remember about the people, places, and actions of a particular memory, era, or “character” in your life. Anything you recall is important enough to include. Jot down 3-5 words for each item on your list (“royal blue suit” “scent of eucalyptus”). Your list will eventually be hundreds of items long. Creating this list will stimulate you to remember more than you can now think possible. It will provide you with the details to make your story full and memorable. Once you have a memory list, you just pick an item and begin to write!
  2. Show your story; don’t tell it. Good stories engage us actively. Do this by recording action like a movie camera: show your “characters” (your family and friends) moving, talking and interacting rather than simply describing them. Write “She paced back and forth to the window, looking up and down the street for Jason,” rather than “she was impatient for Jason to get back.” Now really, which do you find more interesting to read!
  3. Use all five senses. Instead of writing that the room was “lovely,” give the reader details: color, style of furniture and curtains, lighting and decorations. Now, they can “see” the details for themselves. Use the other senses, too: smell, sound, taste and touch.
  4. Use dialogue. When you express thoughts and feelings in the “character’s” own voices, you make them jump right off the page. It’s okay to approximate or recreate a conversation especially if you take the time to remember unique phrases or pronunciations. Keep it short (it will be more believable and easier to write). Do not, however, make us read long dialogue. It will sound like you’ve put words in other’s mouths.
  5. Many adjectives are imprecise and simply do not convey the same meaning to one reader as they do to another. Use dialog, action, and setting to show what you mean.You’ll gain vividness and immediacy as a result. Change “she was protective” to dialogue: “she said ‘Don’t you ever, ever say that to my son again’.” Turn “she was angry” into an action: “she grabbed the plate and flung it against the wall.” Replace “we were poor” with details of setting: “The torn green and black linoleum barely covered the center of the room.”

The idea of remembering, reviewing and recording definitive versions of our family histories and our own lifestories, like many tasks we undertake in life, can be overwhelming. Reflect on parenting as an example.

Parenting is a creative project that would have daunted a lot of us if it had to be done all at once. Think of all those dirty diapers and sleepless nights, teacher conferences, recitals, ball games, dental appointments, and insurance payments— if they came all together, who could approach parenting at all let alone with eager delight? Thankfully, as parents, we only had to meet each day’s challenges as they come.

Approach lifewriting in the same way: write each memory or family story, each character or event one step at a time.

You’ll find the rewards are there waiting for you and your family—understanding and appreciation of who you are and where you’ve come from, affirmation and celebration of what you’ve achieved and where you’re headed—rewards that take you far beyond the names and dates.

Web Site for Memoir Writers & Teachers

Denis Ledoux is the Founder and Editor of Thememoirenetwork.com, which offers information, inspiration, exercises to jazz up your lifewriting project plus support for lifewriters and teachers through workshops, teleclasses, books, materials.

10 Steps to Being Published

By Joyce Lavene

1. Read what you want to write.

I can’t stress this enough. If you don’t know what the market is doing, you can’t expect to get published. Have a feeling for what you’re doing, write from the heart, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you love your baby, everyone else will. Get an idea of what’s going on before you start sending your work out. It will save you time, money and heartache.

2. Revise your work at least three times.

Once is not enough in this case. It would be even better if you have someone you can depend on to be honest who could look it over for you. If not, learn to be objective. Put it aside for a few days then take it out again. Slash extra words that repeat. Don’t be so in love with an idea that you can’t chop it out even if it ruins the rest of the story and you have to rewrite. If it doesn’t work, you won’t be the only one to see it.

3. Make sure you know the editor’s name and how to spell it.

There’s nothing that will get your work shuffled from one envelope to the next like not knowing the editor’s name or sending something “Dear Editor.” If your work is important to you, act like it. Know who you’re sending it to. And know how to spell his or her name. Not doing so is a frequent way to get rejected. It may not be fair but editors are only human.

4. Be sure that what you’re sending is right for the publisher.

Know your market intimately. Don’t send genre fiction to a nonfiction publisher, then be surprised because they send it back. If you write fiction, be sure you know the different genres and sub-genres. Check out the publisher beforehand and make sure they publish what you’re sending to them. If they ask for 300 words, don’t think you can send 500. The rules are there for a reason. That’s what the publisher wants to see. Don’t think your work is so good they won’t be able to resist.

5. Don’t compare your work to others.

This can be difficult because you want to have some idea of how you’re doing. But there are no two writers just alike. Have some confidence in your work. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn new things or you have to be resistant to change. Join a critique group only if you’re comfortable with the people who will be reading your work. Don’t change everything or put your work aside because one reader says he or she doesn’t like what you’re doing. Remember that you’re developing your voice.

6. Be willing to edit.

I’m making a subtle distinction here between editing and revision. I’m classifying editing as what an editor wants you to change in your work. Out of all the books I’ve had accepted for publication, only a handful haven’t had edits. Sometimes big and sometimes small.

Bear in mind that when editors contact you about changes, even without a contract, they’re trying to find out if they can work with you. Show them that they can by being professional. Always listen to their suggestions carefully, write them down and think about them before you say you will or won’t do them. Be ready to have good explanations for why you don’t think their ideas make the story better. Editors want to feel they have a hand in the books they work on. Smile if they ask you to make some changes and sign the contract.

7. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or get rejected.

Fear of rejection or of looking silly stops more manuscripts from being published than bad writing. You’re going to make mistakes and get your work rejected. It’s the only way to get where you want to be. Plan for it. Know what you’re going to do with your rejections. Then move on. If you do make a mistake, get over it. No one knows everything. Try not to make it again. Keep sending your work out.

8. Use a font and print size that can be easily read.

Every editor I’ve met has complained about getting too many manuscripts that are in tiny or strange fonts. Find out what the standard is and use it. Don’t think you can impress someone because you know what Gothic font 5 is. They don’t care. They just want to save their eyesight.

9. Always send a cover letter.

A cover letter is important because it says who you are. It says if you’re impatient or easy to get along with. It says that you think of an editor as a person and not just a name in a book. Your writing should be excellent and speak for itself. But your cover letter is your only intimate point of contact with a stranger who you’d like to publish your work. Act like you’re trying to begin a relationship, in a professional manner.

10. Have fun.

If you’re not having fun, find something else to do. This business is hard and competitive. If you don’t have chills when you finish a manuscript and cry with your characters, there’s something out there that’s easier and less stressful.

Joyce Lavene and her husband and writing partner Jim have written and sold more than forty romance and mystery novels together since 1999 (including the award winning Sharyn Howard mystery series). They also write non-fiction articles and short stories. They are active in local and national writer’s groups and live in North Carolina with their family. They welcome readers to their websites at www.joyceandjimlavene.com and www.sharynhowardmysteries.com.

Book Review: The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction by Michael Seidman

Book review by Alex Shapiro

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction

By Michael Seidman

Writer’s Digest Books

2000

264 pages

In this easy-to-follow book, experienced editor and writer Michael Seidman explains how to approach fiction editing, using his own short story as example.

The author compares the writer’s job with that of a sculptor—both start with a block of words (or stone). They both chip and cut into the shapeless form until they getto the finished work.

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction takes writers through the tedious process of chipping and editing the first draft until it becomes a final manuscript ready for submission.

The book is a must-have. It is, especially for the beginner writer, a trip into the world of fiction editing. Using examples from his own work, Michael Seidman describes the elements of a story, explains what makes a good, realistic character and talks about the stuff good scenes are made of.

The author gives his own tips on writing a realistic dialogue, one that is part of the story and pushes the plot forward. He also discusses the point-of-view, a topic that can get pretty confusing, even for more advanced writers.

What is a story without a plot? There are always changes to the plot, to “what’s happening in the story.” And the reader has the privilege of seeing the author in action, molding and remodeling his own plot, deleting and adding, shaping it into the final form.

Cover of Michael Seidman's Complete Guide to Editing FictionSomewhere into the fiction-editing trip, Michael Seidman stops to emphasize the importance of the story opening and to give examples of good (and not-so-good) openings. Revision after revision, the readers see the story transforming, taking shape, in front of their eyes. They become part of the process and learn to apply the lessons learned to their own work.

Once finding the shape of the story, does it mean it’s indeed the final shape? The author teaches the tips and tricks of fine-tune editing—such as pace, genre, choice of words and language, imagery and style, spelling and grammar.

The most important part of the book may just be the checklist; several pages offering a full, easy-to-use review of the dos and don’ts of fiction editing.

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction teaches as much as it entertains. Readers have not only the opportunity to learn the insights of editing from a professional, but they also have the chance to enjoy a good story and be part of its shaping, from the beginning to the end.

This is a book to hold on to for when you are ready for revising and editing your writing.

Alex Shapiro is a freelance writer and photographer with works published online and in print. She lives in New Jersey.

Copyright 2003 Alex Shapiro.

Write Tight — or It’s Gonna Cost You!

By Diane Sonntag

Our good friends at Strunk and White are always advising us to do away with those nasty adjectives and adverbs that clutter up our writing. This has always been a tough one for me. As someone who really likes to talk — and unfortunately, as someone who writes like I talk — removing those adjectives and adverbs has been a real challenge for me.

Personally, I have always rather enjoyed those cute little adjectives and those good old adverbs. They make my dry, boring sentences more pleasant, interesting, and fun for the intelligent, yet discerning reader. Cutting them out seems like cruel and unusual punishment. For a good long time, I just plain refused to leave out my favorite descriptive words.

See what I mean? Adjectives and adverbs are bad? What blasphemy!

Several years ago, I had to consult an attorney regarding a legal matter. In one of our first conversations, I explained the situation in great detail. I explained that I had been utterly and completely taken advantage of by this rotten person. I described how I had been naïve and trusting and this terrible, awful individual had seen that, and had milked it for every last blessed cent I was worth. I told him how this other party was just the most vindictive, cold, and heartless person to have ever walked the face of this great earth. (OK, I admit it — I might be ever so slightly dramatic!) The attorney just nodded and smiled throughout my monologue. He seemed perfectly content to sit and listen to me talk all day long. But he did glance at his watch every so often and smirk.

Three weeks later, I received an invoice for his services. And then I knew what the smirk was about. That one conversation had cost me nearly $500! At his rates, I was paying like $28 per adjective! I was both shocked and appalled at this bill, and I knew that something had to change. I simply couldn’t afford to carry on like I had during our next conversation. I had to be brief, or it would cost me dearly.

In an effort to cut down on my legal fees, I began to plan out what I was going to say to the attorney. I would write down what I needed to tell him, and then look for ways to pare it down. I reminded myself that unnecessary words were like money down the drain, and I took them out. I couldn’t afford to use two or three words when one would suffice.

No longer had I been utterly and completely taken advantage of by this no good so-and-so. Now I was simply “treated unfairly.” See how many words that saved? And in legal terms, that small cut also saved me like ten bucks!

Overnight, this other party changed from being “a vindictive, cold, and heartless beast who would sell his own poor mother for two nickels” to simply “an opportunist.” Did this person actually change their character? Certainly not! But when I changed how I described that person, it cut down on the words I used, which, in turn, saved me another $32.50. (But let’s be honest here — it did cut down on the drama of the story as well!)

Every time I prepared something to say to my attorney, I pared it down until it was as short as it could possibly be and still get my meaning across. And then one day, I was typing a query letter and I realized that unconsciously, I was doing the same thing. I was taking out all unnecessary words. The bank robber didn’t run quickly. He sprinted. The baby didn’t cry loudly. She howled.

I was condensing my writing down to the bare essentials. I was making it as tight as it could be. And yes, I was sacrificing my beloved adverbs and adjectives. It hurt the Drama Queen in me, but it did make my writing better.

And all of this because I wanted to save a few bucks. But when you think about it, being too wordy had probably been costing me money all along, and I was too dense to realize it. Editors were rejecting my work because it was too cluttered with adjectives, adverbs, and clichés. My writing wasn’t as good as it could have been, and I was paying for it without even knowing it.

My legal situation resolved itself a long time ago, but it certainly wasn’t a cheap fix. I paid a significant amount in legal fees. But when I think about what I learned about writing tightly and I realize how much more I’ve been published, I think I just about broke even.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the “cold, heartless, vindictive beast” got what he had coming to him.

 

Diane Sonntag is an elementary school teacher and freelance writer. Her work has been published in Woman’s World, MOMsense, and Chicken Soup for the Girl’s Soul. She hopes to remain on the right side of the law from now on.

C.L.E.A.R. the Comfort Clutter

By Michelle Gardner

Maybe it’s because the writing life is a lonely one that we surround ourselves with comfort clutter. Or maybe it’s because we always have a story or stories in various forms of completion that causes the research notes to spill into each other. Or maybe it’s because we want to have everything at hand should an editor need an article ASAP on the very topics consuming the carpet and credenza. Whatever the case, a writer needs to be organized enough to be efficient in the day-to-day. Daunting as it can be to attack the stacks of books, magazines, folders, papers, office supplies, coffee cups, and anything else that has made its way into your writing domain– you can overcome the clutter.

As an acronym aficionado, I have devised the C.L.E.A.R. method to help me with overcoming office space clutter. It’s an easy way to take things in small doses to avoid organizational overload. Remember, it took more than a day for your workspace to achieve its current look. It will take more than a day to bring it back to a model of efficiency.

  • Clear everything off your desk, bookcases, credenza, filing cabinets, and floor.
  • List everything you need to do your job.
  • Evaluate your workspace needs and wants using your list.
  • Assemble essential tools and supplies in your cleared workspace.
  • Remove and Return daily (if possible) any items, such as files and books, brought out for use on current projects.

The first step is easiest if you just throw everything into a box, but it will be harder and more time consuming when you get to the Assemble step. I have found that a three-box approach is best. One box for gotta have items, one for gotta file items, and one for gotta toss items. Once you’ve divvied up your collection, it’s time to use that vast expanse of clear desk space to write out on a sheet of paper what you need to do your job.

Listing is useful in two ways: It gives you an opportunity to think about those tools essential to your work, and it is the document you can refer to when things clutter up — and they will — in the future.

With list in hand, you now can evaluate how all of the puzzle pieces will fit together. You’ve already determined your needs, now you can open up to the wants aspect of designing your personal workspace. When I did this, I needed to have my computer, a work light, space for pad of paper and pencil, and a copy easel on my desk. My wants list included a framed poem from a friend, an anniversary clock from my previous employer, a paperweight that reads, “A deadline is the ultimate inspiration,” and my kitschy hula dancer statue that shimmies when I print documents. I know I can make this scene more efficient by hanging the poem on the wall, putting the clock on a shelf, and losing the paperweight as no great winds blow through my office, but the hula girl stays!

Assembling everything should be straightforward by this point. You have already cleared the way for the gotta have items on your list and have evaluated what needs to be where for efficiency’s sake. So, working from the gotta have box first, you can remove only those items that made the workspace cut. Anything else will be reassessed for placement elsewhere. The gotta file box, in my case, is always a work in progress. I take it in small bites by filing only a few items at a time. Some days I go crazy and file the whole thing when I’m procrastinating on an assignment.

All assembled; now the real work begins. Keeping your workspace clutter-free is like adopting any habit — it usually takes about a month to get into the routine. The last step is the one that will be the most difficult, but is the key to success with this process. Remove and Return any items to their respective homes at the end of the workday. My office is in the basement so my R and R mostly involves the collection of teacups and water glasses that need to be taken to the dishwasher. I’m also a recovering stacker of mail and magazines and have purchased a bill sorter and several magazine file stands from the office supply store to help me stay on track.

Admittedly, my journey to clutter-free writing is only beginning but now that my path is C.L.E.A.R., I don’t trip over unnecessary and unimportant items along the way.

Michelle Gardner is a former aviation publication editor who currently writes for trade publications specific to the construction, transportation, and wine industries. She was a regular columnist for The Brentwood Recorder, of Brentwood, England, as well as an editor of a monthly newsletter for expatriates living in the United Kingdom, and has been featured on BBC radio for her articles. You can find Michelle Gardner on LinkedIn.

20 Ways to Keep Your Writing Inspiration and Creativity High

By Catherine Franz

When we are stressed or blocked, it is wise to make a change so that we don’t stay in that place. Yet many times we forget some of the simple things that we can do for ourselves, quickly and easily, to bring our inspiration back and increase our creativity.

  1. If you usually type your first drafts, hand write them. Nothing compares to the feeling of the ink melting into the paper and the surge of that creative flow.
  2. If you spend too much time at the computer, take a break every hour. Go for a walk or just sit outside in the sun. Even five minutes in a winter sun does wonders for a mood and creativity.
  3. Flip through magazines or books. Their colors and ideas will give you sparks and switch your attitude. Blue and green can reduce your stress levels by 30% or more.
  4. Add strong smells to the room. Light scented candles around you, visit the fruit aisle at the grocery store, or go to a store that is heavily scented. Find an orange or strawberries and smell it. Both will change a mood or create inspiration. Smells awaken your creativity. Smells trigger memories and are a great method to rekindle stories from the past.
  5. Go see or rent an inspirational movie. Relaxation time is important. You can even take your notebook and record inspirational phases. Afterwards, free write what those phrases bring up from your subconscious.
  6. Read a book that stirs you or sparks your creativity. If you prefer, read poetry.
  7. Look at bold and bright colors for a few minutes. These change your mood.
  8. Talk with a friend about your topic to flesh out ideas and creativity. Record the conversation, with his or her permission of course, and play it back to hear the little nuances that you might have missed.
  9. Write an e-mail to a friend to tell him or her what you want to accomplish. If you are stuck, say so and ask for help.
  10. Check in with your vibrational energy and do something to switch it into high gear. Take a shower. Go for a walk. Turn on some music and dance naked for a few minutes.
  11. Hire a virtual assistant to do some typing so that you can stay focused on writing. You can fax your writing or dictate it into the computer and send her a voice file for transcription.
  12. Go to church for the noon service or whisper a prayer or two. This reconnects your energy with the universe and replenishes what might be missing.
  13. Complete an appreciation exercise. Pick something around you, like the telephone, lamp, or pen. Talk to it and tell it how much you appreciate having the electricity to turn it on, the opportunity to write with a tool that has the ink inside (not like a quill), or the softness of the paper you write on. Be grateful for that you have and not what you are missing. Or make a list of “count your blessing” items.
  14. Write a personal note to friends or family and tell them how much you love them, appreciate their thoughtfulness, or kindness.
  15. Authentic, flat-out, raw laughter frees the psyche and opens the creativity process.
  16. Find a setting with lots of trees and flowers and feel nature. If the weather permits, take off your shoes and socks and feel the grass between your toes. Nature has a way of freeing our spirit and renewing our soul.
  17. If guilt or a past incident has captured your mind, write a “Dear Me” letter and ask yourself for forgiveness to to loosen its grip and expand your freedom.
  18. Are you used to writing in a quiet place? Find a noisy place to write, like McDonald’s or the mall. When your space is noisy, you will have to focus harder in order to write with clarity.
  19. Go for a quiet leisurely drive, listen to a favorite CD. You can sing out of tune and no one will notice (laughter allowed).
  20. Do something nice for someone else that you wouldn’t normally do and be a gracious receiver of a hug.

That was exciting, wasn’t it? Post this list in a conspicuous place so that it is readily available when you need it. Do one or two of these daily and keep on writing. Your readers are waiting to read your words.

Catherine Franz is a marketing industry veteran, a Certified Business Coach, Certified Teleclass Leader and Trainer, speaker, author, and Master Attraction Practitioner. Business clients include professional firms, restaurants, retail stores, coaches, writers, the marketing challenged, and independent professionals across the globe from Japan to New Zealand.