Thursday, September 30, 2010

Leading Readers to Turn the Page

How important are chapter endings? Really, really, really, really important. As I work through my first round of revision on my YA, the round where I focus on plot, I pay particular attention to how I end each chapter. My goal is to make the reader want to -- scratch that -- need to -- turn the page.

Not every chapter ending needs a traditional cliffhanger (but having a few of those helps). But every chapter needs tension, and every chapter ending should somehow deepen the tension. A chapter could end with a character experiencing true love for the first time, but the reader knows from prior chapters that the love will be short-lived. Or a character could make a decision and accept that it will lead her into grave danger. If the reader is hooked, the page is turned.

So, as I write, and I look for ways to keep that forward momentum, I keep in mind the big "what if?" When I get to the end of the chapter, I ask, what if she slams the door in his face instead of inviting him in? What if he sucker punches him instead of shaking his hand? What if the dog drags a body part out of the woods (gruesome, I know) rather than hovering by his master's side?

I may not change the action of the scene, but by shaking up my initial impulse, I come up with chapter endings that ratchet up the tension. Sometimes these new directions lead me to completely rewrite the scene, or add another plot line, or introduce another character. That's all good. That's revision. And I love revision.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Books Alive !

We, as writers, slog away at the keyboard, writing and researching our books for children in a somewhat solitary way, so what a wonder it is to see your own book come alive with an audience of several hundred children.

Early this month, at the end of the first week of school, I visited the Milltown School in Bridgewater, NJ to see the unveiling of a huge mural depicting a page, the "J is for Jersey" page of my book, G IS FOR THE GARDEN STATE (Sleeping Bear Press). The dedicated staff at the school had transformed their large lunch room into an internet cafe with computer stations in several of the corners and decorated the room with the grand new mural.

When we arrived for the unveiling of the 12 x 10 foot mural, a depiction of the map of the state of New Jersey complete with pictures painted on it of some of the important people, places (T - Trenton, the capital), parks, historical events (W-General Washington in Morristown in the Revolution), inventions (E -Edison, light bulb), industries and farms, resorts (Atlantic City), outdoor sports, environmental aspects and foods (T -Jersey Tomatoes!) and more, the mural was covered by a large panel. I was anxious to see the mural since the talented illustrator of my book, Doris Ettlinger, (, and two muralists had worked in the heat of the summer to produce this great work of art so the unveiling could kick off the year for the children in the new internet cafe.

Well, the children poured into the room with the babble of high energy and curiosity. The principal held up his hand for quiet and silence descended. The curtain panel was pulled off the mural with ceremony and there was great applause. The children will see this bigger than life map of their state every day as they munch their lunch and work on the computers.They were excited to see the size and story of New Jersey before them in detailed living color.

What a reward for me as the writer, and I'm sure even more so for Doris as illustrator after such back breaking work, to see the reaction of the students and to know that this work will remain here for quite a while. Often a book that took a year to write is read once but here we are thrilled to see that this page will be open for a long time to come.

So, I came home pumped to get back to the keyboard to write again. It was such inspiration to see all these wired and excited kids using my work, so now I'm hard at work on several projects. What have your experiences been with school or library visits with children and how have they reacted to and used your work? How has that helped you in your writing?

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Friday, September 24, 2010

What's in a Name?

Someone I know from VCFA is about to have her second book published. (She gave me her permission to blog about this as long as names were omitted). Her first book, which I loved, is a YA with a male protagonist. This second is a middle grade, again, with a male protagonist. The publisher/sales department of the second book (different from the first) asked if she would consider using her initials instead of her full name on the cover for marketing reason. They assumed/thought/suspected that "impulse" buyers would be more inclined to pick up a book about a boy if the gender of the author were not blatantly female.

My gut reaction was "Heck, yeah!" But when you stop and think about this, the ramifications are huge.

So, was the publisher thinking that boys won't read books written by women? Or that girls won't read books written by men? I think someone needs to stop and explain that boys are certainly reading books by Kathryn Lasky, Lowis Lowry, and Cornelia Funke. And girls are certainly reading books by Rick Riordan and Eoin Colfer. (But, oh, never mind, we shouldn't worry about girls because girls read everything . . .?) And are they assuming that young male readers or "impulse" buyers can't figure out that sometimes "J.K." is code for - "I'm really a woman, but am using my initials so you boy readers out there don't know it"? And what does it say about female writers - that we should hide our identity? That we should encourage boys to only read books they suspect are written by men? And what should a writer do - Stand on their ego and refuse to change at the risk of not selling as many books? Or be a team player despite the ugliness of the situation and the idea of it making their guts roil?

Personally, I still think I would use my initials if asked, or write under my middle and maiden names, which sound fairly androgynous. (With a last name like mine, it would be pretty hard to think if I suddenly started using M.B.T. Wiviott instead of Meg Wiviott that someone wouldn't it figure out). I think it's a personal decision. Some people just like their initials! And other's don't.

I could go on, but I won't. I'd like to hear from you all. What do you think? I'd especially like to hear from people who write under their initials? (J.A. and J.L.???) Why do you choose to use your initials?

Oh, yeah, and my friend . . . she's going with her full name and her editor backed her up 100%.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

First Page Critique - My Achilles Heel

This weekend I’ll be attending my first SCBWI writer’s conference since I moved to North Carolina. It’s been far too long and I’m really looking forward to some serious writer chat, attending workshops and snagging something sweet to counter the inevitable three o’clock downslide in between breakout sessions. What I’m not looking forward to, what I’m really quite indecisive about is if I’m going to plunk down a first page for critique.

I might schedule a Brazilian bikini wax for that time frame instead.

I know what you’re thinking…Critique WUSS!


Let me tell you a little something about myself…I don’t have a p-p-p-poker face. More like heart on my sleeve. I break out in welts. Bite my lip. Do that toe tapping/knee jumping thing that can make objects near me shake uncontrollably. In short, I’m a mess – and this is while I’m waiting! All of that worry just in case my page gets picked to be read, and then oh, the horror – if it does? It is not a learning experience for me it’s more like taking a shot of espresso with a Red Bull chaser and then sprinting around the block three times. Yes, seriously folks, it’s that much of a physical discomfort for me. And I stay flushed for hours.

Not pretty.

Which is why I don’t do them – even though, yes, I know it’s the coward’s way out. And yes, once upon a time when I was a fresh faced noob – I did participate.

When I first joined SCBWI at the turn of the century, I aspired to write picture books. I had quite a few manuscripts and one pretty close to my heart – about the Man in the Moon. (I bet you’re shaking your head and getting that “oh, ick! I see where this is going” feeling right about now)

There were no talking moon animals. I did not try to tackle this in rhyme. I thought I was completely clever. Fresh. Original. Enter the firing squad of the first page critique session. Dun, dun, DUUUUN. After it was read out loud, the editors sat there stony faced for a very, long, uncomfortable second. The editor who was unlucky enough to be holding the microphone had the expression of someone who was left holding the hot potato as the music stopped. No one wanted to take this one. Murmurs and quiet laughter through the crowd ensued. It was awful – even though it was anonymous. I think someone finally did take the mike, made a comment that was mercifully tactful and the next first page was read.

The few people from my writer’s group who did know the page was mine, rallied around me and said nasty things about the naysayers as any good friends would but the damage had been done. The Man in the Moon and I parted ways, never to see each other again. And yes, the world is probably a better place for it. But still…

A writer’s conference should be a place where we leave inspired not defeated. That first page session happened to be at the end of the day, and wow, I wanted to quit. Truth is the editor was right in her comment. The story, at least at that point, was plot less but after that not so warm reception – I had no desire to see it through and went on to work on something new. So maybe I did learn something, albeit the hard, humiliating way – not all ideas are going to fly and sometimes you just have to move on.

Years later, I’m concentrating on longer fiction. My heart feels right in YA and I keep looking at the first page of my new WIP and wondering…should I? Or am I just once bitten, twice shy? What would you do? And how do you feel about infamous “first page sessions”?

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Picture That! Writing a Rebus

Ever try to write a rebus for a magazine? You need to tell a story with a defined beginning and middle, plus a delightful surprise, or twist, at the end. You have roughly 100 words to do all this. It helps to include some suspense, and you must make sure every line has a few words that can be represented as pictures. Some of the pictures, often nouns, need to be repeated throughout the story, but the repetition can't make the story as dull as "See Spot run." Here is a sample rebus story by Mike Carter from Highlights.

Have I tried to crack the rebus?

You bet. I have a folder full of rejected rebus stories. The rebus has the charm of a puzzle easily solved - for the reader, that is, not the writer. My weak spot is plotting that surprise ending and writing it with punch, but I persevered because I loved these stories as a child and they're still favorites with beginning readers.

My most recent rebus tells the story of a girl putting a favorite book in a special place so she'll remember to take it on vacation and then -you guessed it- she forgets where, and searches for the book when it's time to leave.

Highlights is buying it for their rebus page! Smile.

Maybe you've never tried to write a rebus, but what do you struggle with? Plot? Dialogue? Description? Backstory?

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Lost in Cyberspace?

Here’s a question for those of you who are familiar with the, um, challenging process of querying agents: What do you think about agents’ “no-response rejections,” which seem to have grown in popularity over the years?

Do you think they’re a necessary evil, given how bogged down agents can get with unsolicited queries? Or do you think this don’t-sell-don’t-tell policy is unfair to writers, who, after hearing only crickets for weeks or months, may be left wondering if agents even received and/or read their e-queries to begin with? Who knows? Maybe they got lost in cyberspace or the spamosphere (the queries, that is, not the agents)?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with this particular type of rejection (lucky you), here’s the gist. According to some agents’ submissions guidelines, if you haven’t heard back within a certain period of time after querying them, say eight weeks, you should take it to mean they’re not interested in seeing a submission from you. Once that amount of time passes, you should go straight to your agent query list, maybe on, and select the “query closed/no response” box. Done. Grr.

But here’s what troubles me. Recently, I caught a few posts from agents, some of whom follow the no-response/rejection policy, which gave me pause. In one post, an on-line interview with an agent, the agent invited anyone who’d e-queried him but never heard back during a certain time period the prior year to resubmit. He bravely admitted he’d been so bogged down, he’d fallen hopelessly behind, and had been unable to get to all the e-queries he’d received during that time. Now that he was finally caught up, he wanted to give those queriers a second chance. I just hope they caught this interview, or read it elsewhere, so they knew about it.

Another agent recently blogged that he’d been having computer problems so if writers hadn’t heard back within two weeks of querying to feel free to re-query. I hope his queriers caught his post, too.

Because electronic and human blips like these happen from time to time, does anyone wish that agents would ban the non-response policy, and respond to every query with at least a form rejection, if only to make the rejection official? Or is this simply asking too much of them?

Now, before anyone jumps down my throat, let me clarify: I’m not taking a particular side. Frankly, I’m torn about this issue. I would, however, love to hear what our Paper Wait readers think.

Before I close, a little anecdote. A few years ago, I attended an NJ-SCBWI conference. During the agent panel portion of the morning, after giving their submission wish lists, most agents added that they would only respond to queries if they were interested. The last agent, however, gave her list then added, “Oh, and we respond to every query we receive.”

The entire room broke into applause.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How I Read

Ever since I got serious about my writing, I have found myself reading differently. At first, I made a conscious effort to read like a writer, but now I can't help it. I just do.

I recently realized though that there are two main ways that I do this.

The first way is really purposeful "writer reading". This type of reading happens when I'm faced with a challenge and I don't know how to solve it.

My favorite example of this type of reading was when I was first starting to write rhyming poetry and all my poetry fell into an ABAB rhyming pattern. I knew my poetry needed more variety, but I didn't know how to do anything other than what I was doing.

So I scoured the pages of Cricket and Spider and Highlights for wonderful poems. Then I figured out how they varied their rhyme, and I imitated their rhyming patterns.

After a few of these, I must have internalized how to vary my rhyme. After that intense reading and purposeful writing, my rhyming poetry no longer felt so similar. Hurray!

But not all my reading like a writer is quite so focused. A lot of times I'm just reading. Often something that has seemingly nothing to do with the kind of writing I tend to do.

For example, right now I'm immersed in "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society". It is pretty far from the wacky picture books and sweet easy readers I tend to write. But I still read it like a writer.

As I read, I can't help thinking that I want to write a book in letters someday. That I love a book that plants clues so slowly in the beginning that I have to really work to figure out what's happening. I wonder how much I could challenge my much younger readers like this before they would give up reading in frustration. (After all, I went through several false starts before I could get past page 5.)

Maybe these ideas are just that, ideas. Maybe they'll never become part of my writing. But maybe they will.

After all, for years, I read all sorts of poetry-- rhyming and non-rhyming. I loved how subtle some of it felt and wished I could write that way. But I didn't know how. Then one day, I started a poetry collection that had a very different feel. I'll never know exactly where my new voice came from, but I was very excited to find it in me. Somehow, it must have come from all that wonderful "purposeless" reading.

So, I read like a writer no matter how I read. Please share, how do you read like a writer?

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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Bring Them In

In these busy days before school starts, it is common to see shopping moms with two or three kids in tow. Inevitably, if there's a rack of books nearby, one of the children grabs a book and for minutes, despite the forest of adult legs around him, sits cross legged, flipping the pages. He or she is lost in another world.

How many of us remember as children, creeping off into a corner out of anyone's line of vision and opening a book...for an hour or three. Maybe it's not as frequent in these days of electronic entertainment, but my "survey" shows it's still happening. Writers, you're still needed.

So my task this month is to write and rewrite...and rewrite the first chapter of my manuscript to create the world in which my reader wants to step, and a main character he or she wants to befriend. Like the wardrobe in Lewis' beloved book, I have to make the first paragraph the door (why open it?) and the second paragraph the wardrobe (what's it like in here and do I want to push these coats aside?) and finally make the third paragraph the clincher (I think I'll just step into this cold world for a few minutes...)

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I'm deep in revisions for my WIP and OMG, reach for the red pen -- how it has changed. While the basic premise remains, and it has the same cast of characters and settings, almost everything else is different. And, hopefully, richer and much deeper on every emotional level.

I drafted this novel in fits and starts. Some days I thought I would zoom along and finish the darn thing in a week. Some days I couldn't open the file. And it wasn't until I began revising that I understood why. I was not connected to my main character emotionally. I liked him. A lot. But I wasn't letting him hurt. He was so strong initially. So sure of himself. I had to remind myself that it's okay if he shows the rest of the world strength, but my most important job is to let my characters speak the truth to themselves and to let the readers listen.

My favorite books are ones that put a knot in my stomach or a lump in my throat. Preferably both. And my goal as a writer is to deliver lots of knots and lumps. Because if writing doesn't ring true emotionally, can it succeed?

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