Author Archives: Coral Jenrette

Push your characters off a cliff

You’ve heard people say that you need to be mean to your characters – you may have heard the recommendation to have your protagonist climb up a tree only to steal their ladder, and then throw rocks at them.

This idea of being mean can also be thought about as keeping the flame burning – if you set up a problem for your character, and then resolve it too quickly, then you release all the tension in your chapter (or maybe in your book, depending on what it is). And tension is what keeps us reading.

Imagine your main character wants to go to Harvard. It’s all they want. She rushes home and the letter is waiting right on top of the stack. She takes a deep breath, and opens the envelope. She reads it – and she got in. Hooray! But she didn’t worry that long (on the page) so neither did we, as readers.

Imagine instead she rushes home. She takes a deep breath. She paws through the mail. The last letter on the bottom of the stack – is her letter from Harvard. She takes a deep breath. Should she open it? It’s not thin, but it’s not fat either. She tosses it into the air, and her beloved dog, a Great Pyrenees, grabs the letter out of the air and races right out the doggy door. She struggles to open the backdoor – where is he? Where is he? She finds him behind a tree, slobbering all over it and chewing on it. She grabs it from him – but tearing it out of his teeth rips off a chunk. She opens it. “We are writing to inform you –“ and that’s the chunk that is missing. She doesn’t know if she got in! Will she call the school? Ask her guidance counselor? How will she find out???

These extra moments of stress and strain amp up the emotion. If you put your character on the hook, and then immediately take them off the hook, you lose all these opportunities to keep your reader furiously engaged to find out oh my goodness what is going to happen next?

You can keep tension both by lengthening the amount of time it takes for resolution (in this instance, I added in a dog and ripped letter) or by putting the resolution of one chapter into the next chapter. My father used to read me Tros of Samothrace by Talbot Mundy as a child – and I don’t know if the chapter always ended with Tros hanging off a cliff or if my father, with his understanding of story, would just stop reading at that moment. But I do know that I couldn’t wait for the next night when we’d pick up where we left off and find out what happened. Give those moments of wonder and breathless anticipation to your reader – by using the content within your chapters and in your chapter breaks.

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Panning for Gold

I’m a huge fan of any kind of professional development, and now that I’m focused on writing, I love finding all different kinds of ways to help expand my craft. I find real pleasure in looking through course catalogues (in particular the one for Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop for those in the Denver area) to see what class sounds like it will be just the right key to unlock some question I have. I can’t wait for the conference schedule to come out each year for the SCBWI Letters & Lines conference. I browse the 800 section in my local library. I listen to a slew of podcasts. I love learning and hearing and thinking about writing.

Whenever I walk into some type of professional development, and that classification can be broad, I try to consider them along two layers – the understood benefit and the underlying nugget of gold. Everything has an immediate impact– I took a class on book mapping to bring another level and nuance to my ability to edit full-length novels. I learned just what I thought I would – how to choose the elements to map out a book, mapping it out, and subsequently using that map to develop an editorial letter. It was a great online class that gave me a new tool that is aligned really well to my analytical left-brained side that is a part of my revision and editorial process.

But a class almost always has more to offer than what is listed in the course description. This second layer is the underlying nugget of gold. Some of the gold from this class was that I am now connected to an experienced children’s book editor, and it got me thinking about how I might expand some of my own editorial services.

The nugget of gold can be obvious, or subtle, singular, or numerous. I received a critique where one of the comments was that my protagonist was coming off as a little quiet. A few days later someone called to ask if I was interested in a class on voice. Yes! Yes, absolutely! So the immediate benefit I expected from that class was obvious. But the class was also full of nuggets of gold. It got me thinking about my writing practice, and how I was incorporating it into my daily life. In hearing others read their work in class, I learned from what they were doing. And, the best nugget of all, I got a burst of motivation to continue on my own draft.

Not every class, or course, or podcast, or book feels worth the time or expense. Sometimes it repeats information you already have, sometimes it isn’t as applicable as you thought it would be. These are the times when it’s especially critical to pan for that gold. If you take the ownership to search deeply for the underlying value, not matter how big or how small, then it will increase the benefits of every way in which you engage with your craft. It will ensure that you have spent your precious time wisely.

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Finding the Positive – Conference Edition

I was recently asked what piece of advice I might give for new conference goers. Lots of things came to mind but the most personal experience I had could be boiled down to, “It is to your benefit to find the positive.” The fact is, you are likely to sit in a session where you think, “I know this.” You may end up in a session where you think, despite the fact that you read the conference description, “This just isn’t for me.” But I highly recommend that when you are in those situations, you do the best you can to find the thing that is relevant, that you didn’t know, that will make it a good connection and a good use of your time.

At one conference, I straight up messed it up.

What I heard: “Everyone clear out of the room while we set up lunch tables. We will reopen the doors when we are ready.”

What I didn’t hear: “And when we do, each agent, editor, and author in attendance will be sitting at their own table and you can choose to sit with whoever you want, first come, first serve, no adding chairs to tables.”

So I wondered why everyone was rushing back into the lunch room, but I had decided that what I needed was a little bit of sun and a stretch of my legs, so I went for a quick walk outside around the hotel parking lot, called a friend, and relaxed before coming back in.

And then I realized my mistake. The only seat that I saw that was left was for an author who wrote historical middle grade fiction. I was at the conference focusing on picture books, and while I had contemplated writing fiction, my genre would be fantasy. No clear connection here.

But there are no lemons at conference! I sat at the table with the intention of talking to my fellow creators (authors and illustrators) and having a nice lunch. And then I dug a little deeper. There are connections between historical fiction and fantasy. For example, world building is key in both, as you seek to introduce readers to a place they have never experienced. We had a great conversation that I found to be valuable.

My determination to make everything I experienced something positive immediately paid off – at that table I met a woman, we hit it off, and she invited me to join her critique group. THIS very critique group, in fact. My missing out on being able to choose a table, and having a table chosen for me, gave me new insight and a critical piece to my writing journey.

So when at conference (and I hope to see you at this year’s Letters and Lines!), don’t leave it to the presenters and lecturers – I encourage you to find the relevance, the connection, the link to your own work and process even if it isn’t immediately obvious, to make it the best experience it can be.

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My Kind of NaNoWriMo

As I’ve shared before, I’ve tried NaNoWriMo. And I’ve not succeeded at NaNoWriMo.

And then the most amazing thing happened.

NaNoWriMo gave me something new to do. Camp!


Whereas traditional NaNo is well defined (50,000 words, win or fail), Camp NaNo is a choose your own adventure.

  • Don’t think of your manuscript as being x number of words? Set a goal by pages.
  • Are you a poet? Set a goal by lines.
  • Do you want to capture all the time you spend on writing – drafting, reading about craft, revising etc.? Set a goal by hours, or even minutes.
  • Are you ready to draft your book but you know 50k is too much? Set a unique goal by words.

You also get cabins – you can join a cabin of people you don’t know, or create your own private cabin. Both come with a clear view of your cabin mate’s stats and private message boards to cheer each other on.

The first time I did Camp, I set a goal for 30 hours, with the hope of working on writing an hour a day. Even though I knew I was ready to write something, a word goal just didn’t feel right, because I didn’t know what it would be – was I going to start my middle grade magic story (likely to be around 40k) or my YA fantasy (likely to be 65k)? Also, I wasn’t really ready to start drafting – I knew this time around I wanted to spend more time ‘in development.’

The goal was actually a lot more ambitious then it even sounds – I was going away for a week long work trip so I already knew there would be at least 5 hours I would have to make up. Along with the job, I have young children – a little more than an hour a day on average would be tough. But my cabin mates were there, ready to cheer my on (and I was ready to give them the pep talks they needed).

And so I started. Slowly. Truthfully it was hard at first. I still wasn’t sure what I was working on so I felt stuck – stuck on what to pick, because I needed to get started. Camp NaNo also includes project stats and tracking, and they show you how you’re doing compared to the daily average you’d need to hit your goal. I was looking at an empty page and a graph that showed me clearly just how far behind I was.

But then things started to open up. I decided that reading and watching videos about craft counted as part of my hourly goal – it was helping me improve as a writer and I finally got to see that bar graph crawl upward in the right direction.

That movement improved my mood, and with some of the new tools I was gaining I started drafting out my two books to see which was more inspiring. I drafted a query letter to see if I was gripped by how I thought the book would flow. I picked which book I would work on. I watched Brandon Sanderson’s  course videos while I pedaled on my stationary bike. That last week I spent hours at the local coffee shop, writing and craft learning (my mother-in-law was in town, and she watched the kids).

And I did it. I did it! I hit that 30 hours, was declared a winner, and earned my badge.

And I’m still going. I know what book I’m working on, and I’m making strides. And now it’s time for another camp! This time I’m much more in the generation and writing phase of my novel, but I’m still going for a 30 hour goal because I love the flexibility of knowing that sitting and writing notes and noodling about my characters counts toward my goals.

See you around the campfire!

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NaNoWriMo – 2016

nano_logo-830912ef5e38104709bcc38f44d20a0dNaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, and it happens every November. One novel, one month, fifty thousand words. For all of you who completed NaNoWriMo this year, including one of our very own Story Spinners, congratulations!

This was the year I was going to do NaNo. I had a genre, and a working title. A concept for a story. A beat outline I had shared with other writers for feedback. I had set up my story in three acts, knew my main characters and knew the major plot actions. The turning point! The climax! The resolution! An inciting incident, a problem with stakes, and everything. A setting that I really liked and was going to have fun exploring. NaNo, here I come!

And then I started. So far, so good. Slight derail due to a stomach bug that whipped its way around the house, taking down my kids and my husband consecutively. I was still writing, still working my way through. But then I realized that my outline wasn’t as complete as I wanted it to be, that I actually needed some more things to happen before I hit my inciting incident (or what I thought was my inciting incident). But I still needed to write – write something. Write anything. NaNo!

As I kept going, I started to realize that I was just writing for speed, and while my word count was increasing, I wasn’t really sure that my book was developing the way I wanted it to be. I was afraid that if I kept writing what I had, I would look back and need to change an awful, awful lot.

So I stopped, and reassessed. Did I want to succeed at NaNo? Yes, I did. But what I really wanted was a strong, well-written, first draft that made sense logically. I realized that the planning I had done wasn’t actually enough. I didn’t know enough about some of characters, and while I had plot goals and motivations, I didn’t have enough of the emotional arc figured out to go along side it.

So I didn’t finish NaNo this year. But I did get three great things out of it. The first is that some of my free form writing was really helpful. I journaled as one of my characters, and getting their voice and having them talk about the other characters actually brought out some nice mannerisms and physical descriptions. And it was fun! I will look to do that more as I work on this next project. The second is a much stronger understanding of how much I want to plan in advance before I start writing. While I want room for discovery writing, I also want the major threads to be determined and available to me, to give me focus and a path. Even if I then choose to veer from it. And the third is that if something doesn’t feel right, I can figure out what is better for me and move on in that new direction.

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Multiple Tools for Revision


I started my current novel with an idea, a scene, and a sense of an ending, and then began writing. I finished that draft and while technically I could label sections as beginning/middle/end, I knew it wasn’t strong enough structurally. It didn’t feel done. So I outlined what I had, and then worked to devise new plot points, scenes, characters, motivations, to bring it into a more classic three-act structure.

And then I did it again.

And then I did it again.

But I finally got to the point where I felt like the big moves were all there and it was time to tighten, refine, and revise. My novel was created and lives electronically (I heart Scrivener), but I printed it out for this last stage.

Because I felt like I wrote the drafts of my novel in a slightly haphazard fashion, I wanted to be very methodical in the revision process itself. I used, will use again, and advocate for, a dual process – one on paper and one on computer. Because while there are many things you can do on either platform, there are some things I believe you can do so much better on one vs. the other.

I began on paper with a small pile of highlighters and a pen. I decided there were certain things I wanted to look for, and by highlighting I could see at a glance how often various things were occurring.

  • Orange = adverbs, because I had too many
  • Green = sounds and smells, to make sure I had different senses included in description
  • Pink = related to the world-building (my novel is a fantasy)
  • Blue = use of figurative language

After reading a section, I flipped back through the pages. This gave me a strong visual as to how often things were appearing, how much white space appeared between repeat highlights, and what I needed to change based on what I was literally seeing. For example, I often saw instances of orange tightly grouped. I would reread that section, determine which adverbs were most important to the reader understanding how people were moving, talking, or feeling, and replace or cut the others.

When I found something I wanted to revise electronically, I didn’t pause and turn on my laptop. I didn’t want to disturb the flow of my reading, and I didn’t want to get too ahead of myself – changing things that appeared later in the book and therefore having my paper copy already be out of date. So this is where another form of paper came in handy – my notebook, to jot down items on my ‘to do’ list.

The main tool I used on my computer was word search, not only to find where I was in the text but also how many times a given word or phrase appeared. A simple Find (crtl-F in Word, the search bar or Text Statistics in Scrivener) can tell you how often you use a word, or phrase, and where it appears in the text. I used this function a few times.

Sometimes I used it when a word or phrasing jumped out at me. As I read through, I realized that more than once, something in my novel was ‘perfectly still.’ The phrasing stuck with me, so I decided I could use it only one time. I used search to quickly find where it appeared and zipped out the extra occurrences. I also used search to distinguish character voice. For example, I decided one character would be the only one to say “just” or “practically.” Rather than keep that in my head as I read on paper, at the end I found every instance and replaced it if had hopped into other characters’ speech.

I also used it to look for instances of “I look,” “I see,” etc. This novel is in first person, so I don’t need to write “I see an apple tree.” That type of writing is distancing, and the readers knows the character saw it (or else how can they tell them about it). Rather than trying to find it as I went, I used the find function to locate those places in the text and then decided what edits to make.

I may have gone a little overboard. Although it is satisfying (to me) to create a list and check things off one by one, looking at pages and pages of things you still need to do is overwhelming. Revising via highlighter is not for the faint of heart. It is a slow process (cap/uncap, cap/uncap) and, surrounded by colors, at times I needed a cheat sheet (what was green for again)? But I will always plan to review my novel in both mediums, paper and electronic, to create new ways of looking at and revising my work. And I should be done soon…

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Writing Goals

Ready, Set, Goal!

It was my second flight solo-parenting my four-year-old twins. <Bear with me, this will be about my writing process.> We got to the airport in plenty of time – one and a half hours before our domestic flight. But it took a long time to check bags. And make a trip to the bathroom. And get through security. And ride the airport train to the last stop. And walk all the way to the farthest gate (the moving walkway was under construction). And they had started to board early. So for the first time in my adult life, I was the last person on the plane. Not necessarily a problem, but it was a Southwest flight. Which means open seating. Which meant there was no row available for me and my little boys.


The flight attendant made an announcement, offering drinks and such. Nobody moved. I walked to the middle of the plane, saw rows with empty middle seats, and no way for me and my four-year-old kids to sit together. I promptly burst in to tears.


Back to writing. My goal for 2016: “Get an agent who reps and sells in my genre.” Now, I’ve done a lot of goal-setting in my personal and professional life. Make that goal a SMART goal (specific, measurable, achievable/action-oriented, realistic/relevant, time bound). Make it aggressive, but attainable. Make it within your sphere of control.


My goal is fairly SMART – “Get an agent who reps and sells in my genre in 2016.” It’s specific. Measurable. Action-oriented. Relevant. Time board. Achievable? Realistic? Up for debate. And that’s the crux.


Other writers have suggested I adjust my goal to “Query ten agents in 2016.” Because querying is within my control. I can finish and revise my manuscript and then submit a tight query letter to the right agents. I could definitely achieve this goal.


But back to my traumatic flight. My goal was to make it to the airport at least an hour before my flight. But as I stood crying in the aisle, I realized my *real* goal – be ready to board when it was my turn so I could sit with my kids. Similarly, querying ten agents isn’t my goal. It’s a milestone. It’s a step to make my true goal. But it’s not the goal itself. The goal itself is get an agent. If I met a kick-ass agent at a bar who had an amazing track record in my genre who asked to see my manuscript and offered me representation without my ‘technically’ querying  her – I would take it. I wouldn’t say, “Wait – let me send you (and nine other agents) my query letter.”


It’s scary to set a goal I can’t control. But there are things I can control. I can revise my manuscript multiple times, getting feedback from other writers and readers in my genre. I can research agents to make sure I’m not sending my query out to people who don’t rep what I have to sell. I can polish and polish. And I can cross my fingers.


But I have to be honest with myself. While sending out x number of query letters will definitely make me feel like I’ve accomplished something, it won’t be accomplishing “the” thing. So I’m putting it out there. Even if it means I won’t make it, I’m shooting for the stars.


And I’ll get to the airport earlier next time, too.

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Dropping Anchor – Details That Support Your Story


“Lizzie sat in her Algebra II class, trying to pay attention to what her teacher was saying. But she could see Brad sitting right there. She tapped her pencil. Focus, focus, focus. She saw Monica waving to her out of the corner of her eye. Monica mimicked writing in midair with her empty hand. Lizzie sighed, reached into her pencil bag, and tossed Monica a pencil.”

Ok, so that’s a quick little moment that could appear in a manuscript. In these 66 words, we have three characters who we likely place in high school (Algebra II) and we have an idea that we’re going to explore some relationships between the three people introduced.

But what this scene lacks is anchors: specific details that more accurately place you, the reader, in the scene that I’m starting to unfold. Weaving in those details, yes, at the expense of beloved brevity, gives your reader so much more about the scene. Let’s see how.

I told you nothing about the classroom. You could have easily assumed a large urban high school with at least thirty kids sitting in rows of desks, or maybe a small private school with fifteen kids in a u-shape. Even a lecture hall with stadium seating and a hundred kids. Does it matter? Well, it can if the action of the scene is going to reveal information to you about the characters (and it should!).

I told you nothing about where anyone is sitting. How does it change your opinion of Lizzie if Monica is sitting at the desk next to Lizzie… but Lizzie tosses the pencil to her anyway? Is Lizzie maybe making Monica pay a little bit for being forgetful? What if Lizzie is sitting across from Monica in the u-shape, so she had to toss it all the way across the room to get it to her. Is Lizzie just doing what she can to get a friend a pencil? In both instances perhaps “Monica fumbled to catch the pencil” starts off our next sentence, but what’s our impression of Lizzie (or Monica)?

Let’s raise the stakes even higher. What if in my writer’s mind, Monica is two rows away from Lizzie – and the person sitting between them is Brad. That’s possible, because given my explanation you have no idea where anybody is. Now Lizzie is tossing the pencil to avoid contact with Brad. But why? This could have hooked you in as a reader, made you curious about their relationships, but instead it’s an opportunity lost.

It’s important to find the perfect word, or to leave out unimportant details. Does it add richness to know that the pencil was a #2 Ticonderoga vs. a blue mechanical pencil? Unlikely, unless I have a theme about using natural elements, or Lizzie’s favorite color is blue. We do need to be on the lookout for extraneous information that can bog down a story and slow the pacing. But when the writer leaves some information out – the setup of the room, the placement and subsequent movement of the characters – the reader is missing out. And as a writer who wants to bring you into my story and have you get all cozy and comfortable, so am I.

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