Category Archives: Coral Jenrette

Making Steady Progress

I love Scrivener – I think it’s an absolute game changer when you’re working on a novel. It allows you to plot things out, move sections easily around, see how many words you have in a given chapter – I could go on and on. And I’m sure I will in another post.

But one of my favorite things it does is allow me to track how much I’m writing each day. Word will tell me how many words are in my document, but Scrivener will tell me how many words I’ve typed that day at a glance. See the picture at the top of this blog post.

And that really helps a goal-oriented person such as myself. It also helps if you are doing a NaNoWriMo style challenge – it makes it crystal clear if you’re staying on target and helps you fill in your stats as you go.

For my current work in progress, I’ve been trying to be more aggressive, striving to hit a thousand words each time I write, and trying to write every day. I start each day knowing this is my goal, but one of the things that keeps me going is this little box.

It’s the way you run for the lamppost. When you’re running, and you need to inspire yourself to go farther, and you think to yourself, “I just need to get to the lamppost.” And you set that target for yourself into the distance, something challenging to keep you going, yet that you know you can achieve.

I try not to obsess as I work, and happily toggle the box off and on as I go.  ([ctrl-comma], for PC users who like keyboard shortcuts, as I do.) I do get a happy little boost as I toggle it back on – okay, two hundred more words down! And then I toggle it off again and get back to work.

Sometimes it’s the desire to hit the thousand-word mark that keeps my laptop open. Sometimes it’s looking at the length of my overall novel, and seeing that if I just write another sixty-seven words, I can make it to another milestone round number. But all of these things push me to get more on the page. And the more I get on the page, the further along I am, the closer I am to getting out of drafting and into the revision stage.

Setting a goal, and seeing my visual progress toward it, inspires me to keep going, keep writing, keep typing, keep trying. And anything that keeps me moving forward is a winner in my book.

What inspires you to get one more word on the page?

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Revising those first ten pages

Edited page from thebookdesigner.com

I keep revising my first ten pages. Over and over again. And for good reason – it’s the first time you interact with a reader, it’s the time when they really decide if they’re going to be invested enough in your story that they’re going to keep reading. You need to establish your voice as an author, establish your main character as someone they will care about, create conflict to keep driving them forward, and on and on.

So much work to do. So much weight that the first ten pages carry – that the first page itself, that the first sentence has to carry.

You work and rework and rework it again. Share it with your crit group, share it with them again.

The right time to shine and polish and edit those first pages can vary for you in your process, and here are two right times to consider.

At the beginning. You basically write and write and rewrite and rewrite the opening until you feel that voice, that excitement, that opening, and then BOOM you rush through and write the whole rest of the book. It’s like a little toy race car that you rev and rev and rev and then whoosh you let it go and you cross the finish line.

This isn’t me. It’s not how I work. And I recommend that, if you take this approach, you make sure that you will eventually let that car go. That eventually you will leave those first pages and that you will finish the rest of your book and that your car has enough gas to get you there.

The second way is – at the very end. This is what I’m doing right now. I planned and plotted out my novel. I drafted my novel, revised it. I gave it to various readers, got their feedback, and revised it again. Now I’m majorly reworking the beginning. Cutting away, slicing away, melding chapters together, cutting chapter two completely, saving just a few lines of important information. Trimming again and again, literally thousands of words. If you’d asked I would have said, no way can my story stay intact if I cut that much. And yet it can. And it’s better. I’m also adding in more voice, making the beginning sound more like the middle where I was really hitting my stride.

There are surely other times to do it, but I think the key is that, if you perfect chapter one at the start of your process, don’t forget to finish your story. And once the book is finished, regardless of how much work you put in, be prepared for how much work you may still need to do on the beginning to get it right.

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Dreaming of Audio Book Narrators

Many authors dream of seeing their book published, on shelves, in a library, or just in their hands. Others dream about which of their favorite publishers might take on their projects and make them a part of their publishing families.

I have now started dreaming of who would narrate my audio book.

For many years, I never really listened to audio books, and if I did, they were adult non-fiction. I remember going into the audio book section and deciding that I would pick out a fiction book. I don’t read romance, and yet I chose Black Hills (a romantic suspense) by Nora Roberts and pulled it off the shelf.

I was immediately swept away by the narrator, Nick Podehl. And I’m not the only one – he has narrated The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and a little book called Wonder by R.J. Palacio.

And in that moment, suddenly I thought to myself that I would listen to books he narrated, even ones I might not necessarily pick to read, because he was just that good. Imagine if he narrated one of mine!

The next narrator I vocally fell in love with? David Tennant, as I listened to him narrate How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell, taking on myriad voices, including dragons. I had a total fangirl moment while at the movie Ferdinand when I thought he was voicing Angus, and couldn’t wait for the credits to see if I was right (I was). My dreams got more specific. Tennant is Scottish, and I started to wonder – could I set any of my books in Scotland to up my chances of scoring him as a narrator?

Soon after that, I was totally entranced with Katherine Kellgren and her amazing voicework in The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood. I loved her narration so much that I became immediately attached to her and to the way she voiced these beautiful and charming characters, complete with howls. Sadly, Kellgren passed away in 2018, and I experienced such a feeling of loss for her, for the rest of the Incorrigible Children’s series, and for my own future hypothetical stories.

My most recent dream narrator is Jim Dale (join the club!). One of my son’s was delighted to find Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling in the audio book section of the library one day, and of course we checked it out. With so many characters, it was amazing to hear the way Dale made each one come alive, each character recognizable before we even get to the dialogue tag. It inspired me to work harder to make my characters unique. And Dale himself is recognizable to me, now, as well – I had such joy when I realized that he is also the narrator on the version of Peter and the Wolf by Sergey Prokofiev we listened to last month.

Audio books are not just a wonderful way to experience a new story, but fodder for you to dream as a writer – who would you love to hear read one of your books?

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Whole Novel Critique

There are lots of opportunities to get a page, a set of pages, scenes, or even chapters critiqued – and then to sit down and polish those sections until they shine. Each of these are helpful and important steps to creating the best possible manuscript. I do encourage you, early in the process, however, to do what it takes to get a full novel critique.

Why?

The key thing in a novel is how your main character changes and transforms. Unless you’re writing something more episodic (and I would argue that even in those types of stories, your main characters do have an internal shift over time), a key factor to whether your story will resonate with readers is what happens to the main character – not their external plot. You can’t get that valuable feedback on how well that shift is working unless someone reads the whole piece.

Plot holes? Can’t find them unless you’re reading extended sections of your novel.

Each of your scenes (even each of your pages!) could be filled with tension and conflict. They could have beautiful description, and zippy dialogue. But maybe your pages don’t have much description at all – and your critique group doesn’t say anything because hey, you just submitted chapter 5, and they’re assuming that the description is there in Chapter 4 (spoiler alert – it wasn’t).

How?

PURCHASE IT: One way to get a whole novel critique is to pay for one – the one you want at the early stage of your novel is a developmental edit. There’s no point in a copy edit (where grammar and typos are fixed) if the story needs to change. If you take classes, some of the teachers also do developmental edits on the side. There are many folks online who do as well (including some folks who are or work with literary agents!) – most will offer a sample of their work, and most are pricey, so really talk through what you want to accomplish and what they plan to deliver to make sure you’re paying for something that will be valuable. Ask questions around depth of edit, whether it’s a letter or inline comments (or both!) and how fast they will deliver. Developmental edits take time (typically weeks).

Here are a couple of ways to get your novel critiqued using the barter system.

NOVEL SWAP: One option is to ask someone to read your novel and give feedback, knowing that you’ll do the same for them in return. Keep in mind that this is a big ask, and that you’ll have to put out the work on the flip side as well. Make sure you’re ready to be grateful, regardless of their feedback, and that you are ready to be gracious in turn. Also be forthright with your word count, for both your sake’s. Think about how to make it feel equitable. Not all books are the same: if one of you wrote a 35,000 word middle grade novel and the other just finished a 155,000 epic fantasy (and you still want to swap!), be prepared for how you can make that work and feel good for everyone involved.

If you’ve met someone who is at a similar level to you at a conference or workshop, you could approach and ask them if they’d be open to reading and giving feedback on your novel and you would do the same for them. Classes (like Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop here in Colorado), especially those that involve getting feedback on pages, can be a great place to meet people and see if there’s someone you want to approach.

If you’re not an active participant of an in-person community, or you’re an introvert who can’t imagine asking someone to do this in real life, you can turn to online writing message boards. I’ve actually read someone’s whole novel and provided feedback when I was active on Absolute Water Cooler. If you’re a member of SCBWI, you could look to get feedback by posting on the Blueboard. I HIGHLY recommend that you engage with the community first before you start asking for folks to read your whole novel.

ADJUST THE FOCUS OF YOUR CRITIQUE GROUP: Already in a critique group? You could totally ask a member of your group if, on the side, they’d be willing to read your full. But you can also shift the focus of the group. In our critique group, we decided that each member could submit a full-length piece one time per year to get feedback from the group. And if you didn’t finish a book that year, you could opt to submit whatever you had – your choice. It kept the flexibility for folks who didn’t finish a book to still have plenty of opportunities to submit shorter works each month, and for others who did finish to get that critical whole novel feedback.

 

Whatever your method, make sure that you’re looking at your novel both in parts and as a whole so that you create the best piece of work that you can.

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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

Highlighters

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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