Author Archives: Rondi Frieder

Leaving a Paper Trail

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States in mid-March, our lives changed dramatically. For me, it meant hunkering down with my husband and visiting son, Noah, who had come to Colorado to ski and attend his cousin’s wedding. But after only three days, the ski resorts closed and our niece’s wedding was postponed. Noah, who normally lives in Montreal, was now here for the duration. Canada had closed its borders.

One night, during our second week of family dinners, I suggested digging out the old family videos. Noah was particularly interested in viewing the recording of his 2005 Bar Mitzvah. We all headed into the family room and began hauling out boxes of DVDs, CDs, and VHS tapes from an overstuffed cabinet. What a treasure trove of memories! Our boys’ first steps and birthday parties, family camping trips, even our wedding. Only for some reason, Noah’s DVD, and the outdated VHS tape from his older brother’s Bar Mitzvah in 2002, were nowhere to be found. Were they were behind the photo albums on the  bookshelf in the living room? I went to check. Nope. As a last resort, I went downstairs to my office/writing studio to look in my drawers, bookshelves, and cabinets. Nothing. But the reality of an even bigger problem was suddenly apparent to me. I knew it was there, lurking behind-the-scenes, but I  had ignored it for years. My work space – the creative sanctuary where I write, read, and tutor elementary school students, was a paper disaster!

Let me explain. If you walked into this lovely room (my favorite room in the entire world), you would find shelves of alphabetized books on one wall and an expansive desk on another, complete with an array of pencils, pens, and notebooks alongside my computer. Framed photographs line the windowsill and colorful artwork (many of my own pieces) dot the walls. There are some boxes filled with papers and folders on the floor, but they’re mostly in the corners and out of the way. The  problem, the one that hit me like a brick on this particular night, was hidden inside the drawers and cabinets. Crammed into these closed-up storage areas were notebooks from college and graduate school, years of lesson-plan books, thank-you letters from my former students and their parents, and an overflowing file of homemade cards from my husband and sons. I also had plastic tubs of teaching materials and lots of art supplies.

But the main source of my over-accumulation of paper had nothing to do with my collection of memorabilia, or my life as a teacher. It was my writing!  I had multiple drafts of ALL MY manuscripts, including picture books, chapter books, middle grade novels, plays, songs, poems, blogs, and articles. Many had notes attached to them from editors, agents, authors, and critique partners. I had stacks of notebooks filled with revision ideas. There were conference and class handouts, bins of research, hard copies of rejection letters from agents and editors dating back to 2005, and piles of handouts from the SCBWI workshops I’ve organized.

I know what you’re thinking. “How did this get so out-of-control? And haven’t you gone digital?” All I can say is that for me, “out of sight is out of mind.” After I put something in a drawer, it turns into “storage.” I’ve gone digital, but I also print out hard copies of my work when I revise.

I knew my “paper-saving” was out of control. I just never seemed to have the time or energy to deal with it. But life had changed. I was in the middle of a pandemic. What if I died of the corona-virus in the not-so-distant future? Would my loved-ones be willing to sort through the piles in my office or the files on my computer? No way! In fact, they’d probably throw it all out. If I wanted them to keep any of it (so future generations would know how I spent my working life), I needed to leave  a more organized paper trail. And, since I had just given my writing group four weeks to read the latest version of my MG novel, I had a month to do it.

I continued with my established writing schedule – Get up, walk the dog, eat breakfast, and head to the studio. But instead of writing, I gathered my supplies: 3-ring binders in various widths and colors, plastic bins, new file folders, post-it notes, sticky white labels, and a pile of large garbage bags for the mountains of paper I was about to recycle.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. Man, oh man, did I like to write! I had a huge body of work. While some of it was really, really bad, much of it was good. And doing all this writing had made me a better writer. But I did not need multiple copies of every draft of every manuscript.
  2. Many editors, agents, and published authors had responded positively to my work and had encouraged me to revise and keep going. I needed to put these tidbits of light and hope in a binder and read through them now and again.
  3. I had attended A LOT of writing conferences and taken A TON of classes. I needed to look through my notes, save the worthwhile strategies, and get rid of the rest.
  4. I did not need to keep all those conference folders. I put the lists of agents and editors in a binder for future submissions and tossed everything else.
  5. Many of my early picture books had potential. And since I am now a better writer, I could rework them.
  6. My plays, songs, and poems needed to be in 3-ring binders for easier access. Especially my fifteen years of original Passover haggadahs and my fifty-plus songs!
  7. It was time to get rid of the lesson-plan books. One per grade level was enough to represent what I had done in my thirty years of being a teacher and tutor. And the student writing and scholarship contests I’ve judged, along with multiple copies of handouts from the teaching workshops I’ve led – gone. Same with the college and grad school notebooks. I saved two, from classes I loved the most.
  8. Although this started out as a paper trail to showcase my life, having my work organized in an accessible way has made me feel way more professional and extremely productive. Yay, me!

And if you’re wondering about those Bar Mitzvah videos, my husband found them three weeks later. They were in a box in a cabinet in our basement on top of some old sheets and blankets. Go figure.

 

 

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Be A Word Nerd!

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

You’ve heard it all before. Show don’t tell. Limit your use of adverbs. Create gorgeous metaphors. And the most important writing rule of all – Use strong verbs!!! But this is often difficult to do when you are working on an early draft. When you are further along in the revision process and ready to edit your work for “word choice,” try using some of the following strategies:

Mentor texts

Study outstanding books in your genre. Then, along with paying attention to the development of the main character’s arc and the twists and turns of plot, take note of the author’s exceptional use of language. This might mean underlining or highlighting words as you read. I keep a list of “words I love” on the Notes App on my phone, especially when I am listening to an audio book. I later transfer this list to my manuscript file in Scrivener and keep a second list in Word. Some of these words seep into my subconscious and suddenly appear in my writing. Others do not. That’s when I go back and read through the list again until I find a word that perfectly captures my character’s mood and motive.

Here are verbs from my latest list, taken from Gillian McDunn’s CATERPILLAR SUMMER and Melanie Crowder’s LIGHTHOUSE BETWEEN WORLDS: bristled, buzzed, carved, coasted, hooted, jabbed, jostled, looped, lumbered, lurched, quirked, rasped, rummaged, scowled, scuffled, shuddered, skittered, sloshed, snarled, stumbled, thrashed, threaded, throbbed, thrumbed, trudged, twinkled, whooshed, and withered.

Thesaurus and Websites

A thesaurus can give you a wide variety of words to use in place of your usual fare. But there’s also a website that puts your run-of-the-mill thesaurus to shame. It’s an extraordinary tool recommended by Jessica Brody, author of SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL, called OneLook.com. When I first discovered this site, and put the verb “jumped” into the search box and checked related words, 338 synonyms came up! My favorites were: plunged, soared, bounded, leapfrogged, lunged, rocketed, and zoomed. Another website to check out is https://7esl.com/verbs/#Types_of_Verbs_Verb_Examples. It’s slightly more difficult to navigate, but is a valuable resource for writers in any genre.

If you would like some craft books on this topic, try the seven book thesaurus collection by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (including The Emotional Thesaurus and The Urban Setting Thesaurus) and Strong Verbs Strong Voice: A quick reference to improve your writing and impress readers by Ann Everett.

Be Creative!

I am a sucker for exquisite descriptions. In the MG novel, CATERPILLAR SUMMER, the main character, Cat, spends the summer at her grandparents’ beach house on Gingerbread Island off the coast of North Carolina. Take a look at these gems that connect us with Cat’s personality as well as the setting of the book: A rainbow of candy, an ocean of worries, freckles polka-dotting his skin, a sky puffed with clouds, a breath of strings, a blizzard of birds, a whisper of voices, fingers of fog, a look that was all sunbeams, a wave of people crushed onto the sidewalk, the world swirled green and gray as tears popped in her eyes. Now come up with your own descriptions, relating them to the characters, themes, and settings in your story.

 

Don’t Rush!

Revising a book is hard work. After you’ve made your unique characters flounder and grow in an interesting setting with an action-packed plot that keeps your reader turning the page, it’s time to polish your writing until it sparkles and shines. The first thing to do is a search for words you overuse. For me, those are often: that, just, really, I think, and very. The technique here is simple: slash or replace. Another strategy is to edit the pages of your manuscript out of order. Create a number grid and randomly choose a page to edit for word choice only. Then color in that number in and move on to another, jumping around on the grid.

If you are a writer, you MUST BE a word nerd. There’s just no avoiding it! Are there techniques and resources you’ve found helpful in your writing practice?

 

 

 

 

 

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REVISING TEDIOUSLY, ONE TINY TWIG AT TIME

by Karen Deger McChesney

I’m still pinching myself! I recently witnessed a bird building its nest. A dream come true! I was enjoying my morning ritual of sipping coffee and bird watching…and, there he was! A brownish finch with a one-inch twig in its cone-shaped beak, standing outside a birdhouse. I watched my fine-feathered friend retrieve twigs from the tall course grass and turn them this way and that to get them through the birdhouse hole. Incredibly tedious. Impossible. But, he did it. Magical! The most amazing moment was when he hopped out of the birdhouse with a different twig in his bill, laid it on the railing, flew off and retrieved a new one.

Re-decorating? I pictured him inside re-arranging twigs, over and over again. Good heaven, it’s like revising! One tiny twig at a time. Ironically, I arrived late to my revising that morning, because I was so enamored with the finch. I have been revising my first YA for what feels like forever. It’s one huge over-and-over-again. I don’t know what revision I am on. I don’t count anymore. I only countdown to my next self-imposed deadline, psych myself up, and mark the calendar with my next deadline, again and again.

Oh, it’s a grind. Some days, it’s the thickest, darkest molasses and feels like I am merely mucking around. Currently, I am deep in re-arranging – moving entire chapters from end to beginning and all over. It’s a messy experiment! But, alas, I am cutting paragraphs and entire pages that no longer move the story forward – and probably never did. I discovered that I was just in love with the words. Geesh!

Occasionally, I long for the adrenalin rush of writing, especially my first draft. But then, I am caught off guard. Suddenly, something jumps out and looks completely different or new, as if someone else wrote it. Odd. Exciting! I dive into re-building an entire scene, layer by layer, and uncover pieces that need a good polish. It’s fun, but very different than writing; it’s hard to explain. Lately, I think it’s me that is different. I come to the page differently. Maybe, maybe, I am learning the patience of the finch and finally, letting my characters spread their wings and fly higher. I hope. But, of course, I want to be done, already. Fiddlesticks! Enough of this nesting!

I keep wondering why the finch removed twigs. I suppose they didn’t fit the shape of his nest anymore. Hmmm… all I know is, thank you, little bird, for inspiring me to keep on building and re-shaping my story. I want to revise like a finch – slowly, relentlessly, routinely – and be okay with all the unraveling.

It’s work. It’s my job. And, as Elizabeth Gilbert says in The Big Magic, “…90 percent of the work is quite tedious…”

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Writing While Traveling

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

Did you know there’s a direct flight from Denver to Tokyo? Okay, so it’s twelve hours. But rather than imagining this experience as an unending nightmare of neck cramps and bad food, I reframed it in my mind as a mini-writing retreat.

In preparation for my trip, I splurged for the extra leg room and filled my backpack with healthy snacks, compelling books, and my lightweight laptop. I’d have plenty of time for reading and writing since I was flying solo and meeting my family in Japan. When I boarded the plane, I was delighted to discover that there was an empty seat between me (by the window) and the person on the aisle. We introduced ourselves, chatted , then pulled down our tray tables and got to work.

I wrote for two hours. Then I took a break, ate my salad, and headed to the bathroom. But when I settled back into the cozy nook of my seat, the lights on the plane suddenly dimmed. The plane now had a nighttime vibe, even though it was only 5:00 pm Denver-time. My eyelids drooped. My mind was a ball of fuzz. I put the laptop back in my pack and clipped the tray table into place. Then I snuggled under the soft airplane blanket, my squishy pillow wedged against the window, and fell asleep. When I woke up a few hours later, I did not feel at all like writing. Instead, I watched a movie… or two… or three! I never even took the laptop out of my pack. So much for the writing retreat.

When I arrived in Tokyo the following day, I met up with my family, went to the hotel, and crawled into bed at a somewhat normal hour. But at 5:00 a.m., bazinga, I was wide awake. Jet lag! It wasn’t the best way to adjust to my new time zone, but it was a wonderful time to get some writing done. I tiptoed out of bed, unpacked my laptop, and began working on a new chapter. Again, I wrote for two hours.

But as the days went on, the jet lag began to fade. The 5:00 a.m. wake-up time turned into 7:00 or 7:30. I barely had enough time to shower and eat breakfast before starting the day. On other trips, I have often take some time off to write in a chic café or a charming apartment. But here in Japan, it was hard to rationalize hanging out in a coffee shop when everyone else was eating noodles, visiting Shinto shrines, and strolling through tranquil Japanese gardens. Plus, this was a family trip. Our two sons do not live in Denver and I treasure the time I can spend with them.

You may be thinking, “Give it up, sister. Take a break from writing and just enjoy yourself. Geez, you’re in Japan. It’s a once in a lifetime trip.” And on some level, I’d agree with you. But in my regular life, I had finally developed a daily writing habit. I was not eager to give it up. Plus, this was a three-week trip. That’s a long time for any dedicated writer to go without writing.

Here’s what I decided to do:

 

  1. On most days, I forced myself to get up early. That gave me an hour of writing time, which was enough to give me a sense of accomplishment and keep my novel moving forward.
  2. I jotted ideas down throughout the day on the “Notes” app on my phone. I also took tons of inspirational photos.
  3. In the evenings, when I was too bleary-eyed to write, I spent thirty minutes reading books, blogs, and articles related to my writing.
  4. I wrote on the train as we traveled the country. In Japan, the supersonic bullet trains are quiet and smooth. And most have tray tables!
  5. I spent a lot of time thinking about my book, especially at museums, memorials, and gardens. Ideas would spark as I watched a fish swim in a pond or a child run in a park.
  6. I gathered information. This often meant asking questions or taking extra time in a museum. The book I’m working on takes place in 1942. And although the events of WWII in my story mostly occur in Europe and America, Japan’s involvement is also relevant. After visiting the memorial park in Hiroshima and viewing the statue of Sadako Sasaki and the overwhelming display of origami paper cranes, I realized that Sadako was the Japanese counterpart of Anne Frank. This inspired me more than I could have imagined and made me think hard about my main character. She would have been about the same age as both these girls.
  7. I got new ideas for future stories: A child is lost and living in a bamboo forest; a carp spends its days swimming in a town full of mountain spring water canals; toilets open, flush, and close on their own; vanilla ice cream is best with hot sweet potatoes; colorful umbrella boutiques; and all those cute little animal socks. Who knows what tidbit will show up in my next story?!

.

In researching this topic, I found Sarah Rhea Werner’s podcast and blogpost “Tips for Writing While Traveling” very helpful.

 https://www.sarahwerner.com/tips-for-writing-while-traveling-wn-063/

I particularly love her last comment.

You don’t have to spend every second of free time taking notes or committing everything to paper. Simply experiencing the world and looking at your surroundings through a different lens will benefit your writing. I am a firm believer that even the most mundane travel has the potential to broaden a writer’s mind. With a little forward thinking, I’m confident you can find inspiration in any situation!”

 

 

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Getting Rid of an Attention-Grabbing Secondary Character

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

Over the years, my MG historical novel has been critiqued, revised, submitted, requested, and rejected. It is a grueling process. In fact, there is only one reason why I have not abandoned this project all together – I love this story. I really do.

It was time to take some drastic action. Try something “out-of-the-box.” After thinking about it for weeks, I decided to hire a well-respected private editor to do an in-depth critique. I had recently attended her workshop and felt she would be a good fit for the story.

The editor agreed to do the work and asked me to email the book. I was elated, thrilled, and proud of myself for taking this step. Unfortunately, months went by without a word from her. I began to worry. I became convinced  the manuscript was beyond repair which was why it was taking her so long  to getback to me.  Finally, her response  arrived. I opened the attachment and braced myself for the  news. And there it was,  twenty-four, single-spaced, pages of notes.

I took a deep breath and began scrolling. There was good news and bad news. The good news was that the writing was strong. Yay! I had done a wonderful job of building my world. The setting was  authentic and believable. Double yay! She also loved my lively cast of characters. Jumping up and down!

But there was bad news. Well, let’s not call it that. After all, I had hired this editor to find out what wasn’t working. Bottom line – My main character’s story-worthy problem was not story-worthy. The stakes were too low. The outcome was unsatisfying. I needed to amp it up – make my protagonist’s dilemma more urgent and emotional. I read on, hoping  the editor had provided ideas on how to fix this. She had. She identified two meaty subplots that could  be “mined” and turned into story-worthy problems. Great! I could do that. I loved those subplots.

Except for one more problem. My main character  was being overshadowed by some of the more interesting secondary characters. Ugh!  I had done that on purpose. This particular protagonist was supposed to start out naïve and meek and evolve into a dynamic, action-taking person as the story unfolded. Only it wasn’t happening fast enough. This girl was a wishy-washy pushover who was being too influenced by those around her. Especially her rebellious older sister and her spunky best friend.

The editor assured me that this was a common mistake. Main characters needed to grow and change over the course of the novel. They had to stretch themselves and become risk-takers as they jumped over hurdles and surmounted obstacles. But this girl needed more pizazz, more flaws.  Readers were not going to care enough about her to follow her to the end of the journey.  She had to drive the action more, make larger mistakes, recover, flounder, and keep going until her new story-worthy problem was solved.

My head began to spin as I read through those twenty-four pages. This was going to be a ton of work. A total rewrite! Then, suddenly, a plot-twisting possibility popped into my brain. It was like an annoying mosquito buzzing in my ear.

Get rid of the rebellious sister,” it hissed.

“What?” I said, swatting at the invisible bug. “I can’t. I love that sister. And she’s critical to the plot.”

The buzzing continued. “She needs to gooooo.”

“No,” I said, more emphatically. “She’s too important.”

She’s not,” the insect hummed, flying around to the other ear. “She’s stealing the thunder. Grabbing the attention away from your main character. Delete her! NOW!”

I didn’t want to admit it, but the editing mosquito was right.

I opened my computer and took a deep breath. It was time to re-plot. I began by eliminating the snarky older sister. Then I focused on transplanting her “attention-getting” traits into my main character. I made a new plot-map and merged it with a SAVE THE CAT – Beat Sheet. It was only a preliminary plan, but I could already see my protagonist morphing into someone who was more impulsive and action-oriented. She would have good intentions, but would make a lot of mistakes as she went along. Readers would root for this girl. They would cheer her on as she ran amok before solving her brand new story-worthy problem.

I miss the sister. But deep down, I know my story will be stronger without her.

Have you ever had to get rid of a lovable secondary character? Let me know how it turned out.

 

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Ski Accidents and Read-Alouds

I was off in the wilds of Park City, Utah, making epic turns in piles of powder, when the unexpected happened. I was halfway down a groomed, intermediate run, when I realized the slope had turned icy. I immediately made a snap decision to move over to what I thought was softer powder on the side. But this snow had melted in the previous day’s sun and had turned crusty overnight. Unfortunately, I was in the thick of it, turning at a high speed. My right ski got caught in the crud, while the rest of me kept going. Down I went, landing hard on my right shoulder. This was no routine spill. When I tried to get up, I was hit with an unusually sharp pain. I lay there in disbelief, gazing up at the pale blue sky.

Suddenly, a friendly skier appeared at my side. “Are you okay?” he quipped.

“Hmm,” I said. “I don’t think so.”

“Need help getting up?” He reached out his hand.

“Maybe I’ll just lie here for a while,” I answered, still peering at the sky.

“I think we should call Ski Patrol,” he said, more seriously.

“Ski Patrol?” I said, suddenly looking his way. “I’ve never had to call Ski Patrol. And I’ve been skiing for over fifty years!”

This kind angel in goggles smiled, but proceeded to take out his phone. I said okay, and before I knew it, the first Ski Patroller had arrived. After a routine exam, he calmly announced that he was pretty sure my collarbone was broken. Then, he called for a sled, and after a surprisingly smooth and enjoyable ride down to the medical clinic, it was confirmed. I had a distal fracture to my right clavicle and would be wearing a sling for the next 6-8 weeks.

Back at our condo, my concerned cousins gathered around me. One suggested I put on lavender oil. Another said I should sit by the fire and prop myself up with pillows. But a third offered something completely different. “You should listen to an audio book,” she said. “It’s the best way to relax.” Hmm, I thought. I hadn’t listened to a book in years. Not since my own children were young and we were on a family car trip. I prefer holding a book, rereading pages as I go, and marking interesting passages with post-it notes. But with limited movement in my right arm, and an impending flight home the next day, I decided to try it. I downloaded the Audible app and began listening to Michelle Obama read her best-selling memoir, BECOMING.

Once home, a friend called to see how I was doing. I said I was on the couch, listening to a book. She told me she loved audio books. She found them comforting and they reminded her of being read to as a child. I thought about my own childhood experiences with books. My earliest recollection was of my mother reading to us from a thick volume of poetry and fairy tales. I still have that book on my shelf and each time I open it, memories of listening to her read LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD or Over in the Meadow, come flooding back. My mother also took us to the library each week for Story Time, and read us books from the Dr. Seuss Book-of-the-Month club. Additionally, my brother and I watched and listened to Captain Kangaroo read picture book classics like MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS, CURIOUS GEORGE, and MADELEINE on our black and white Zenith.

But my strongest memories of being read to were from elementary school. Our teachers read to us after lunch or at the end of the day. I can vividly remember being whisked off to Wilbur’s farm in CHARLOTTE’S WEB or out to the ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS where Karana foraged for crabs and hid from wild dogs. I traveled back to the Revolutionary War with JOHNNY TREMAIN and onto the high seas in CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS. And nothing compared to the magic of Middle Earth in THE HOBBIT or the fantastical world of A WRINKLE IN TIME. These books pushed my imagination to places it had never been before. And the cadence of my teachers’ voices, appropriately calm and dramatic, allowed me the luxury of conjuring up these adventures in a strikingly visual way. It was different than reading the books myself. It was soothing and transporting.

As writers of books for children, we must always consider how our books sound when read aloud. Stories that allow our voices to be compelling, humorous, or lyrical draw the listener in. And when children are read to, it motivates them to improve their reading skills, so they can someday read these books on their own.

When I’m working on a challenging passage in my own work, I often record myself, then listen back to check on the authenticity of a character’s voice or the pacing of a scene. I’ve even recorded chapters of mentor texts so I can hear why the writing works so well. It’s also beneficial to have critique partners read your work aloud so you will know how others might interpret your words.

And although I still prefer reading a hard copy of a book – holding it in my hands and going through it at my own pace –I now have headphones nearby. Michelle is waiting to read to me. And I can’t wait to snuggle under a blanket and listen to her.

Do you prefer hard copies of books, reading on an e-reader, or listening to audio books?

 

 

 

 

 

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FROM NANO TO SAVE THE CAT

Today is November 1, and if you are a writer, you might be sitting at your computer right this very second wondering if you should start pounding out a new novel. Because November is “National Novel Writing Month” or “NaNoWriMo.” For those of you don’t know what I’m talking about, NANO is an international phenomenon that challenges writers around the world to write a 50,000-word novel in one month. That’s right, 30 days (not 31) with Thanksgiving and all its trimmings- traveling, shopping and cooking – thrown in at the end along with your deadline. And despite this daunting description, hundreds of thousands of people do it every year. They gather in coffee shops, hole up in libraries, and sit together at dining room tables (mine) and get that novel written. Personally, I’ve done it twice. And I have to say – the excitement of creating a new work of fiction in 30 short days has its appeal.

 

To start with, there’s the adrenaline rush of sitting down every morning (or night), not knowing what will happen. There are characters to flesh out, new worlds to build, plot twists to create. And the folks at NANO headquarters have created graphs to plot your progress. You build your word count, read inspirational Pep Talks, and attend Write-Ins in your neighborhood. It’s an amped up world of writing that has a beginning, a middle, and an end – something writers often find elusive in their weeks, months, and years of revising. So if this is something you want to try, go for it. All you have to do is log on to the Nanowrimo.org website and sign up. It’s definitely worth doing at least once.

 

Only this year, I’m opting out. As much as I’d love to dive in and create something completely new, I have three middle grade novels in various stages of revision. Two of these manuscripts were actually created during previous NaNoWriMos. And I love these stories. Seriously love them and the casts of characters that inhabit their unique worlds. But recently, a dear writing friend (fellow Story Spinner Coral Jenrette) told me about Jessica Brody’s book (and online class) – SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL – https://www.jessicabrody.com/for-writers/online-writing-courses/. It is a companion book to Blake Snyder’s super popular SAVE THE CAT book for screen writing. And although this method is designed to help you create a compelling plot, something you may want to do before attempting NaNoWriMo, I also think it is the perfect post-NANO tool.

 

SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL analyzes the plots of many highly successful books and movies by breaking down the elements of the story into a 15-step Beat Sheet or Novel Road Map. The beats take you from the (1.) Opening Image all the way to the (15.) Final Image. Not only are the various components explained, you are also given the approximate amount of time you should spend on each beat (percentages), and exercises to help you work on your own story.

 

Even though I wish I had done this type of outline before I attempted NaNoWriMo, it is not too late. The Beat Sheet is also the perfect tool for revising a first draft. And in fact, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m pulling out my contemporary middle grade novel that I Nano’d in 2014 and digging in. This book began with a loose outline that changed as I wrote. (All first drafts do this, right?) The good news is, I really got to know my cast of characters during NANO. But now, as I craft my Beat Sheet, I realize that many of them have to go. There are way too many people in this story! And my protagonist (hero) has too many problems. She needs one major “flaw” and a focused need. When reading over my first draft, I also realized that the arc of the story is draggy in the middle and rushed at the end. But with the Beat Sheet, I’m ready to begin draft #2 with a much tighter story. My characters (the ones that survive) are more interesting and directed, my obstacles are more devastating, and my ending is more satisfying. I still have A LOT OF WORK TO DO, but I’m pumped and raring to go. I’ll still devote November to writing a draft, but I’ll be doing it at my own pace.

 

Now if only I could master Scrivener. Coral sent me a webinar on that, too. I’ve had it on my computer for years and keep planning to learn how to use it. Maybe in December…

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Create Tension on Every Page

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

I don’t know about you, but I have an entire shelf in my writing studio packed with “half-read” books on craft. I buy them with the best intentions, but here’s what actually happens: I start the book, read four or five or six chapters, do many of the suggested exercises, feel inspired, and go back to revising my novel. I tell myself I’ll revisit the “craft book,” but rarely do. Until now. A few weeks ago, I took Donald Maass’s WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK back off the shelf and flipped it open. And believe it or not,  I read every single page and completed every single exercise. No joke.

But why this book? And why now?” Here’s what I think happened. 1. My novel was ready for this level of revision. It had been edited and revised many times, but was missing the icing on the cake – the extra pizzazz and sparkle needed to draw my readers in. 2. WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK is a workbook and invites you to write inside it. It has tons of blank spaces and lines. The book speaks to you and says, “Hey, let’s think more deeply about your characters, your plot, your setting. Go ahead – do it. Right now. And I did.

I sat at my desk, pen in hand, and poured through the exercises. I changed the motivations of secondary characters, made my protagonist go to her “third” level of emotion, and amped up the action wherever I could. But the most valuable suggestion came at the end of the workbook where I was challenged to create emotional tension on every page. This was the most elaborate exercise of all and could not be done in the workbook. I had to work with the actual manuscript and do the editing, one page at a time, out of order. One writing friend said she printed her manuscript, threw the pages on the floor, and gathered them up in a mishmash. This seemed a bit messy to me, so I switched on the teacher part of my brain and came up with a plan. I would make a make a graph! I went online, printed out a rectangular chart of squares numbered 1-200, and got to work.

Next, I took my yellow highlighter and colored in a square at random – 104. Then I opened my computer, pulled up my novel, and scrolled down to that exact page. I read slowly and critically, editing specifically for micro-tension. When I was happy with the revision, I grabbed my marker and found another square­ – 185- and repeated the process. Then I picked 36 and went to a totally different place in the book. It was like playing bingo or doing a jigsaw puzzle.

And here’s the exciting part. Along with editing for tension, I was able to accomplish a number of other editing tasks. I shortened sentences, got rid of unnecessary dialogue, found (and deleted) repetitive words, increased my use of metaphors and corrected punctuation. I also found a number of typos – ugh! It was exhilarating, despite a few snafus. The main one was page changes. After editing out complete paragraphs, or even a sentence or two, my page numbers were no longer accurate. I would go to page 32 and discover that it now contained the content from page 33, which had already been edited. Another issue was stopping myself from going on to the next page. It was so tempting to finish a chapter! But jumping around in your story is key with this exercise. It makes you hone in on a scene and make it the best it can be.

Do you have books on craft collecting dust on your shelves? Take one off the shelf and get reading. Do it. Right now!

Have you edited for tension on every page? If so, what were your strategies, pitfalls, and takeaways?

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Child-Testing Your Work

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

 

During my revision process, I try to read my works-in-progress to actual children. These willing guinea pigs have mostly been my loving sons and adoring first graders. Unfortunately, their reactions are often overly positive. “What’s wrong with those editors, Mom? Your story is awesome!” or “I loved it, Ms. Rondi. It was so funny!” And although these comments make me feel great about my writing, they rarely help me improve my books.

But this year, I had two “constructive” experiences. The first one happened when I asked a writer friend if she’d be willing to critique my middle-grade novel. She said yes, and then wanted to know if she could share the book with her eleven-year-old daughter who was extremely interested in my novel’s time period –World War II. I said yes, but knew better than to expect a great deal of useful feedback. Still, I printed out a hard copy of the manuscript, came up with a page of questions for her to answer, and dropped the binder off at their house.

In a little less than a week, I received an email from my young reader. “Hi Rondi! Is it okay if I write on the manuscript?” This was encouraging. It sounded like she was really digging in and taking the critique process seriously. I wrote back and told her I welcomed her comments and to write away. But deep down, I was a little worried. She was only at the beginning of my book and already making notes. Was it in worse shape than I thought?

In a few weeks, I got an email from my friend saying that although she still needed more time with my pages, her daughter had completed her critique. “She couldn’t put the book down!” were the exact words. This was good news, right? You didn’t zip through a boring book. But I could be wrong. She could have gotten all caught up in the editing process and ripped my words to shreds. All I knew was that the manuscript was ready to be picked up so I dashed to the store, bought a thank-you gift card, and drove to their house.

When we sat down in the family room together, I opened the black binder, not knowing what to expect. Here’s a sample of what I found:

        1.The names of these two characters confused me. You should think about changing them.

       2. How is this person related to the main character? You should tell us right away.

       3. We met this character in chapter 1 so you should change the name of chapter 2.

       4. You should explain this earlier in the story.

       5. You use some big words here that readers may not understand.

I was blown away. Her comments were sophisticated, specific, and helpful. She had taken the time to think about the nitty gritty details of my story and give me suggestions on how to make the book stronger.

There were also thoughtful compliments:

  1. I like how you added an author’s note so I knew the story was based on your mom’s life.
  2. Thanks for adding a glossary so people will know what the Yiddish and Italian words mean.

And last, but not least, the accolades:

  1. This book rocks!
  2. Great job!
  3. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read!

This young reader had turned out to be a fabulous editor! She was well-read in my genre,  the same age as my protagonist, and didn’t know me well enough to worry about pleasing me. But more importantly, she had taken her job seriously and given me an honest critique with positive overtones. It was a winning combination.

The next opportunity to “child-test” my work came when I was invited to do a lesson on “Creating Interesting Characters” in a second grade classroom. Before I read my first chapter to the students, I had their teacher (my former first grader!) interview me as my main character. I had modified the list of questions I often use myself. This immediately drew the children into the life of my protagonist, especially when I tried to sound like an eleven-year-old! And although they were an attentive and engaged audience, I instantly became aware of some glaring problems in the manuscript. There were places where the dialogue was too long and sections with excessive narration and not enough action. I made notes, immediately. But here’s the best part… when I finished reading, their hands shot up and the questions flew. “What happens next? Does Shirley get to sing on the record? Is the new boy a bad guy?” They were hooked. I knew I still had work to do, but the foundation of my story was undeniably solid. “Well,” I said, smiling. “When the book is published, you’ll just have to read it and find out!”

Have you had similar experiences when sharing your work with children? If so, we’d love to hear about them!

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Teachers and Librarians and Authors, Oh My!

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

This past weekend, I had the privilege of running three incredible events for the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. My position on our board of directors is called, “PAL Liaison,” which means I connect traditionally published authors and illustrators with teachers, librarians, booksellers, parents, and of course, children.

The first, and most elaborate event, was hosting a table in the Exhibits Hall at the annual Colorado Council of the International Reading Association (CCIRA) Conference at the Marriott DTC, on the outskirts of Denver, Colorado. With over 1500 teachers and librarians in attendance, you can imagine the buzz and excitement surrounding us. I arranged for twenty different authors and illustrators to join me in two-hour shifts where they showcased their books, met teachers and librarians, and gave away swag. Here are a few creative displays:        

It was a joy to see our SCBWI PAL (published and listed) members share their passion with the people who love their books. For many years, I attended this conference as one of those teachers. I met Kate DiCamillo, Will Hobbs, and Lois Lowry at this very same venue. I was totally star struck when I had the opportunity to be in the company of these literary rock stars! This weekend, I am happy to report that we had our own share of squeals and howls as teachers won door prizes, took photos with our authors and illustrators, and went away with pencils, hand-painted rocks, and gobs of stickers. Yippee!

My next program was leading a “Speed Dating” session with authors, illustrators, and educators. There were eleven stations set up around the room which enabled our authors and illustrators to spend quality “one-on-one” time with teachers and librarians. Some attendees wanted to know how to  write for children. Others were interested in learning more about using specific books in their classrooms. No two conversations were alike. This went on for eight minutes until it was time for the next date. The only problem I had was moving the participants on to the next chair. Everyone was so engaged and animated! At one point, the chatting became so loud, other conference attendees began poking their heads into our room to see what was going on. They smiled and nodded when they saw our rollicking book party! It was so much fun that one teacher asked if we could do this next year as an exclusive luncheon. It certainly is something to consider.

    

For my third act, I hosted a happy hour “meet and greet” in downtown Denver for authors and librarians. As luck would have it, the American Library Association (ALA) was holding its mid-winter conference at the Colorado Convention Center this same weekend. Despite frigid weather and blowing snow, a dozen of us made our way down to the Greedy Hamster on Saturday night for appetizers and drinks with a group of friendly YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) librarians from around the country. Many of our debut authors got to experience the thrill of giving away pre-released books to these lucky book lovers. Huzzah!

    

Connecting authors and illustrators with their adoring fans is definitely the best job in the world. I can’t wait for our next event!

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