Skype visits & Revision Tip #8 & Washington Post column

Sorry for posting so late today. I just finished a fun Skype visit with 5th graders from Upton Elementary School in Upton, Wyoming. The kids had all read CHAINS and had oodles of questions about the book and about FORGE (which comes out in September, 2010, BTW.)

This is what the kids looked like to me.

And this is what I looked like to them! The kids each came up to the computer camera and microphone to ask me their questions, which was nice because I was able to see them so clearly.

I wish the Skype technology were a little better; the three visits I’ve done have had annoying bursts of pixelation issues. It has to improve soon, right?

Pixelation issues aside, I love Skype visits. Why? My publishers don’t want me visiting schools right now. They want me to stay home and write. But I really miss connecting with my readers. Skyping allows me to have the best of both worlds.

Are you interested in having me Skype with your students? Email Queen Louise to set it up: We are really interested in doing more of these, so pass the word!

In other news, Professor Jim Blasingame of Arizona State University brings up the TWISTED censorship In Kentucky in his Washington Post blog. I am not thrilled with the headline (which Jim did not write) because it vastly overstates the issue, But the column is great, especially when he references the wise words of (United States Library of Congress Living Legend Award winner) Katherine Paterson.

Revision Tip #8

Read each scene and highlight each mention of a sense other than sight. Any scenes that only have visual details need to be revised to sneak in one or more of the other senses. If you are having a hard time with this, picture the scene in your mind. Now imagine you are the character, and close your (the character’s eyes) what other sensory information is still available?

Revision Tip #7 – fully developed characters

Characters who are important enough to interact with your main character regularly need to be multi-dimensional, not flat.

What is a flat character?

One that only has one set of attributes, who always has the same kind of emotional response to situation. Check the words you use to attribute a character’s speech; if s/he is always sneering or whining or laughing, then you might have a problem. Multi-dimensional characters have different facets to their character. Even the bad guys have good moments, and the good guys can be jerks sometimes. What is interesting are the circumstances that make a person act slightly out of character.

Unreliable teen narrators (like Melinda in SPEAK) make this harder on the author, especially when writing in the 1st person POV. The narrator is still maturing and has a limited scope and understanding of the world. It is helpful to craft a few scenes where the reader can assess more about the situation than the narrator does.

If your character is a chord instead of a single note, your story becomes richer.

Revision Tip #6

Today we have a guest blogger, our own near and dear Bookavore. She manages a bookstore now, and has had some kind of bookselling job ever since she turned 16. Bookavore reads twice as many books in one year as I do in 10, so I consider her my in-house book expert.

She recently wrote a post about two things she is sick of seeing in books, particularly YA novels: sloppy writing in regards to race and two-dimensional characters. It’s called "In which I get frustrated and plead with authors." You need to read it right now. But brace yourself. She doesn’t pull any punches.

What do you think about her ideas?

Revision Tip #5 & love from Missouri

This one might seem obvious on the surface, but writers are very good at rationalizing and can come up with all kinds of logical-sounding reasons why they should ignore it.

Three words.

What. Happens. Next.

Stories are supposed to flow like a river, not remain still while your character treads water neck-deep in a pool of exposition. One of the fun things about revising is figuring out how to make the story move forward while slipping in those little bits of backstory that contribute to the reader’s understanding of the character.

For me this often winds up being a pacing issue.

Yesterday I was working on a chapter that had three scenes in it. Scene #1 transitioned from the previous chapter. Scene #2 was rather lengthy, but interesting, I thought, even though the main character was mostly observing the action around him, and that action (while based on fascinating historical evidence) only had a little to do with the larger Story of my character. Scene #3 was short short, because I blathered on so long in Scene #2.

The first option was to break off Scene #3 into its own chapter. I tried that, but it didn’t work. The chapter that was weighed down with Scene #2 was a big snore. I tried cutting out Scene #2 completely. Nope, that didn’t work either – the reader and character need to see what happens in it.

Just before I went to bed I figured out how to fix it. I’m going to trim back Scene #2 and add one element that has an emotional connection to my character. That will make the first half of this chapter move swiftly (I hope) and build the tension leading up to Scene #3. In that last scene, I’ll have the room to craft both the external and internal conflicts, and lay the groundwork for the transition to the next chapter.

Does that make any sense? Neil Gaiman mentioned this concept in a more elegant style (sigh) on his blog yesterday. (Scroll down to his response to the first reader’s question.)

Emily wrote asking when I was going to publish a book about the writing process.

Answer: As soon as my publisher asks me to. That’s why all these revision tips are wrapped up in fifty layers of copyright protection and guarded by my dog. (But if you are a teacher, feel free to use them in your classroom.)

In other news. TWISTED is a nominee for the Missouri Gateway Reader’s Award (along with two other books that Superintendent Daniel Freeman of Montgomery County School District in KY feels are not suitable in his high school: DEADLINE, by Chris Crutcher, and UNWIND, by Neal Shusterman). The Gateway Award is aimed at high school readers.

Missouri extended even more love my way by nominating CHAINS to Truman Award list (sorry, don’t have a link yet). This one is for middle school/junior high readers.

Thank you, Missouri!

Revision Tip #4

Never ask loved ones or blood relatives to critique your manuscript. They can read it, but only with the understanding that their job is to cheer you on. Their only responses shall be "That’s great, honey!" or "Wow! Now I know why you’re so excited!" or "I am so proud of you!"

If they say "You spent all that time locked in the closet and this is what you produced?" you are allowed to burst into tears. (I do not encourage full-blown temper tantrums complete with banging head against floor, but I understand that sometimes they are necessary.)

You need peers – people who are also writing and who read a lot – to give you a decent critique of your work.

Rule of thumb: don’t ask loved ones to read your manuscript and don’t ask critique buddies to pick up their socks.

EDITED TO ADD: Several of you commented that if your loved one is a writer, s/he can offer extremely helpful critiques. I agree. That works in my family, too. But I think it is rare. My tips this month are written with new NaNoWriMo participants in mind and I am guessing that few of them have a loving, in-house, qualified critiquer.