Revision Tip #19

Beware of echoes and doppelgängers!

Maybe I am the only writer in the world who suffers from this bad habit. It makes me crazy. I do it in every blasted book, no matter how hard I try to be aware of it early in the process and avoid it.

I always create characters that are identical, both in their core characteristics and the purpose they serve in the book.

(I may have mentioned this earlier this month, but it is such a big pain in my writing butt, I must rant about it again.)

I spent all day yesterday and the wee hours of this morning extracting one of those characters from my book, and turning over many of his scenes to a different fellow who – I can now see with the blazing clarity of humiliating hindsight – should have been driving those scenes in the first place.

It was a bloodbath, I tell you.

How can you perform this radical surgery in your manuscript?

1. List all the characters.

2. Define – using only a few words – that character’s relationship to the main character.

Examples: comic foil, trusted friend, villain, complication, love interest.

3. If (like me) you have two or more characters that serve the same purpose, get out a magnifying glass and sharpen your scythe. Is it possible to have one of the characters take over scenes from the others?

Example: in the early draft of SPEAK, the character who is now called Heather was two separate girls. Each girl was a “sort of” friend of Melinda for a few months. Each friendship died. Their personalities were a bit different, but not in a strong enough way to affect Melinda’s interactions with them. By melding them together, the story was cleaner.

I am crossing my fingers that the work I am doing this weekend will have the same effect.

Christmas Memories & Revision Tip #18

Sometimes people forget that I wrote PROM because it is not exactly a depressing book. In fact, it’s pretty funny, if I do say so myself. (If I had dread, depression and death in all of my books, I would not be a healthy person!)

So it is with great joy that I announce that PROM has been nominated to the 2010 Popular Paperbacks List, in the "Change Your World or Live to Regret It" category!!

School Library Journal has posted their annual collection of Christmas Memories written by children’s authors and illustrators. This year’s essays were written by me, my buddy Deb Heiligman, Barbara McClintock, Lauren Myracle, and our National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Jon Scieszka. Enjoy!

Revision Tip #18

Are you stuck?

Have you tried all my plotting tips and dialog wisdom and adverb scorn and still you are stuck?

Try this.

1. Make yourself some comfort food.

2. Put on music that relaxes you.

3. Snuggle up in a warm, cozy place with a pen and a pad of paper.

4. Write a letter to your main character. Tell her everything that is worrying you about the story in general.

5. Pause to eat a bit. Make some tea or hot chocolate.

6. Pick up pen and paper again. Tell your character why you are specifically worried about her. Ask her what is going on in her life, in her relationships that you don’t understand. Ask her advice about how to help her move forward.

7. Write down what she tells you.

8. If you can’t hear her voice, then it is time to put that manuscript away for a while and work on a different story. But I am pretty sure you will hear the voice, so be chill and write.

ThinkB4YouSpeak & Revision Tip #17 – consider the reader

Wonderful news of positive change from GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network)! After one year of their hard-hitting "Think Before You Speak" campaign, teens attitudes about anti-gay language have significantly shifted.

From the GLSEN website: "For instance, findings from a recent survey conducted by the Ad Council in 2008 and 2009 of teens aged 13-16 suggest that a higher percentage of teens in 2009 think that people should not say "that’s so gay" for any reason (38% in 2009 vs. 28% in 2008) and a higher percentage also report "never" saying "that’s so gay" when something is stupid or uncool (28% in 2009 vs. 18% in 2008).

"In the Ad Council’s nearly 70-year history of creating campaigns to raise awareness and change public opinion and attitudes, we don’t often see shifts of this magnitude in just over a year," said Peggy Conlon, president and CEO of the Ad Council. "We’re looking forward to building on this success with a new series of PSAs and online tools that will help to further raise awareness and engage teens online."

Here is one of the videos that made the huge impact:

I adore Wanda Sykes. Just saying.

GLSEN is now started their second-year of education and awareness about the devastating effects of anti-gay hatred and language. Their website has information for parents and educators, along with all kinds of stuff you can put on your blog or website, plus polls, videos and lots more. Please take the time to check it out nd pass the word. (Thanks to School Library Journal’s Extra Helping for the heads-up!)

Revision Tip #17

I keep thinking about the slightly different approaches Barry Lyga and I have to writing dialog.

I forgot to mention one part of that.

Your audience might affect your decision about how you structure dialog.

Many people are not sure who their audience is when working on the early drafts of their novel. Nothing wrong with that. But as you revise, you need to know who your reader is. The way you tell a story to olders teens will be different than the way you tell it to middle grade students. At least, I hope it would be.

My theory is that teen readers (ninth grade and above) have enough reading and life experience under their belts that they do not need as much visual action details accompanying dialog as younger readers do.

(This could also account for part of the difference between the Lyga and the Halse Anderson Schools Of Proper Dialog; Barry only writes for teens.)

The danger, of course, is that your middle grade (or younger) reader will get bored if you layer on the descriptive action with a heavy trowel.

Try this: Pull out only the action words from your dialog scene. Here’s an example from a page I am working on now:

Character A speaks.
Character B gives reader visual description of Character A.
B speaks.
A reaches into sack and speaks. Hands apple to B.
B grabs apple, bites and speaks (note: he hasn’t eaten for more than a day). Apple juice runs down his chin.
A removes hat, nods and speaks (introducing self)
B swallows, wipes faces on sleeve, speaks
A speaks
B speaks
A speaks
B chews and thinks
A speaks

I know – it’s kind of boring to look at it that way, but by putting it under the microscope, I can make sure that the action details are an integral part of the story. They reinforce the fact that Character B is hungry, that he needs help, and that Character A might be a person he can turn to. It also balances a debt, because B helped A out of a bind in an earlier scene.

Bonus tip: since action in dialog scenes needs to be minimal and precise, it is a great opportunity to hone in on that perfect tiny detail that says volumes about the characters, setting, or conflicts at hand.

Skipped one, sorry about that, Revision Tip # 16

Yesterday was…. let’s not go into it.

Today is here and that is all that matters.

If you are still shopping for a winter holiday, read "Cheese and Crackers Never Changed Anyone’s Life" and then finish your shopping at Indiebound.

There now – wasn’t that simple?

Congratulations to Melissa on this WINTERGIRLS video – the project earned her a 100 in her class.

Revision Tip #16 (yes, I know it should be 15, but yesterday really was something of a mess and it’s easier this way. Do you remember the "Bruce" sketch of Monty Python? Remember how there was no Rule #6? This is the same thing.)

Where was I?

Right, Revision Tip #16

Revision is the perfect time to brainstorm.


Brainstorming is not a one-and-done part of the writing process. Not the way I see it. After that messy first draft, I usually have chapters that feel empty or out-of-place. I mentioned the way I use huge sheets of paper to organize my chapters. Here is another technique.

1. Identify the critical chapters in your novel. Which are the ones that contain The Really Big Stuff?

The Really Big Stuff chapters will usually be separated by chapters in which the action unfolds in a slightly less intense way. Think of your novel as a wide river that your reader needs to cross. The RBS (Really Big Stuff) chapters are small islands in the river. The other chapters are either stepping stones or bridges that get the reader from one island to the next.

2. List the Stones & Bridges chapters, then prioritize them by how alive they feel. What is the chapter that feels the most flat – the chapter (or chapters!) you are secretly wondering if you should cut?

3. Don’t cut them yet.

4. There is no Four.

5. Brainstorm as if you were starting from scratch. For each of the flat chapters, dream up ten different ways the action could unfold. Go ahead – be outrageous. I dare you. Sometimes thinking way outside the box is what you need to jolt your writer brain into clearer storytelling.

6. (Please note; there IS a Rule Six, Bruce!) Pick one of the ten and just freewrite the chapter over again. How does it help the reader understand the characters better? How does it move the story forward?

7. Rinse. Repeat. Send me questions.

Monday Madness & Revision Tip #14

My local paper ran an article yesterday about my reaction to the recent book challenges. The photographer who came up here to the Forest got a great shot of the magic window. (For the record, I just turned 48 years old, not 49. Geesh.)

It is rare that the part of my brain that writes for teens has a collision with the part of my brain that writes historical fiction, but the book I’m working on now, FORGE (yes, Virginia, it is the next book after CHAINS…… and you heard correct, it should be out next fall) is causing that to happen more and more. It’s rather fascinating.

Take the quote I stumbled upon yesterday, from the journal of Continental Army Surgeon Albigence Waldo:

"Provisions and Whiskey very scarce. Were Soldiers to have plenty of Food and Rum, I believe they would Storm Tophet."

Monday morning quiz: which one of my YA novels does Dr. Waldo’s quote connect to? (answer is at the end of today’s post)

Revision Tip #14

Ever run into one of those chapters that just won’t jump through the right hoops? You try cutting it out, but that doesn’t work. You change the setting, the dialog, the plot points, and the character focus. You change the color of the sun. Nothing works.

Try this.

Back up three or four chapters. Read them very carefully. Where is the set-up to the action in your Problem Chapter?

What do you mean there is no set-up? Does the action of your Problem Chapter happen like a bolt of lightning? Probably not. It needs to come inevitably from the flow of your story. Something happened earlier to trigger the Problem Chapter. The key to fixing it lies in those earlier chapters.

That is what I spent the weekend doing. Chapter 18 needed to become two chapters. That was the easy part. But Chapter 19 was a big headache. I played a lot of loud music, went back to my primary sources, looked at the want ads again to see if I am qualified for any other job besides being an author, and then studied the earlier chapters.

All I had to do was this:
1. Add some descriptions to the introduction of a few secondary characters in Chapter 11.
2. Pick up on those descriptions for one new paragraph in Chapter 14.
(Those two changes made a bit of dialog in Chapter 17 much richer, btw. Unanticipated bonus!)
3. Now that I had planted the seeds, I could properly craft the set-up in Chapter 18.
4. And, ta-da, write the action that was so sorely needed in Chapter 19!
5. Take the stuff that Chapter 19 sets up and make sure it is dealt with in Chapters 20 – 23.

Does this make sense?

Today I will chase the windmill that calls itself Chapter 24. Wish me luck.

ANSWER TO TODAY’S QUIZ: Dr. Waldo references Tophet in his journal entry, which means the place where children were sacrificed in ancient cultures. It is also the name of the video game that Tyler Miller plays in TWISTED. (Yes, that was deliberate on my part.)