Category Archives: Revision process

WRITING IS A STICKY BUSINESS!

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

In the “About” section of this blog, In the Writer’s Web, we end our mission statement with the following sentence: “We want to provide insight, information, and inspiration to writers everywhere. Because… writing is a sticky business.” I love that last line. But what exactly does sticky mean? The Merriam-Webster online dictionary provides these synonyms: gluey, gummy, tacky, difficult, problematic, sensitive, tough, tricky, complex, complicated, hard, intricate, involved, serious, demanding, exacting, exhausting, stressful, and problematic. Yikes! On the other hand, here are some antonyms from the same site: easy, effortless, manageable, painless, simple, straightforward. So, if writing is a such a tricky-sticky business, why do we do it? Because we love it!

Most of you will agree that the past fourteen months have been extremely “sticky.” It was the epitome of so many of those adjectives I listed above. But the writer in me actually got a lot done. I became unstuck in many ways. I used my new stay-at-home lifestyle to develop a more serious writing practice. I hunkered down in my studio each morning to write and read. I revised a novel, got feedback from trusted critique partners, and revised again. I also dusted off another novel that had been sitting in a virtual drawer and began making some important changes. I attended online classes, webinars, conferences, and book launches. My critique group, The Story Spinners, began meeting on Zoom, twice a month, rather than once, in-person. And my Tuesday writing group, The Nanos, got together for Zoom writing sessions and lunch every week! I can honestly say that my writing, and my writing community, became my biggest comfort during this time of isolation.

But don’t get me wrong. I had many sticky writer moments during the pandemic. At one point, I had to put my novel aside. The events happening in our world today were very similar to what was going on in my historical MG novel. I was disheartened to see how hatred and bigotry still ragee in our communities. On the flip side, I’m even more motivated to get my book out there, not matter how sticky the process might be.

When YOUR writing life becomes sticky, try some of these strategies:

  1. Write something new. A first draft written with abandon, or an early morning writing prompt might just be what you need to get those juices flowing. Journal, draw, make lists!
  2. Try writing in a different genre. If you’re writing picture books, take a stab at a middle grade or a novel in verse.
  3. Interview your characters, both primary and secondary, at various times. They may have changed during the course of your revision. (http://www.rondibooks.com/getting-to-know-my-characters-again/)
  4. Make a map – seriously – draw out where your story takes place with colored pencils or markers. It will help you navigate the details as your characters move through your setting.
  5. Chart out how many times each character appears in your book. Are they all necessary? If the answer is yes, you may need to have them do more so the reader will remember them.
  6. Color-code dialogue, narrative, and description, and see if you have a balance. You can print the pages out and use markers, or highlight with different colors on your computer.
  7. Take classes! I particularly enjoyed workshops with Emma Dryden, Kate Messner, Linda Sue Park, Julie Berry, and Grace Burrowes. I also worked one-on-one with Sarah Aronson and am looking forward to my next class with Susan Campbell Bartoletti. The pandemic has isolated us, but also brought us together. These classes were all available on Zoom along with handouts and recordings.
  8. Have others read your work and take time to digest the feedback. Emma Dryden says that 80% of the feedback will not resonate, 15% will make you think, and 5% will be so on point, you’ll go running to your computer to put in the changes!
  9. Make a list of strong verbs and inspirational metaphors from mentor texts. Then find ways to strengthen your own writing.
  10. Get rid of unnecessary words. I totally overuse: just, that, I think, begin. Also, trim tag lines.
  11. When you’re in the thick of revision, Sarah Aronson suggests writing down what your main character is like at the beginning and end of your book. Have they changed? How? Julie Berry had us write a love letter to our novel. So great! I go back and read this from time to time. It reminds me why I am working so hard to make this book the best it can be.
  12. Have the computer read your manuscript out loud to you. In Word, go to Review and click on Read Aloud. It’s a computery voice, but it still helps you pick up on repetitive sentences and awkward dialogue.
  13. Read books on craft. Even just a chapter or two. And do the exercises suggested.
  14. Read inspirational books about being a writer/illustrator. Here’s one of my favorites:
  15. Read  a wide variety of books, but be current on what’s being published in your genre. With picture books, you can also find read-alouds on Pinterest.
  16. Subscribe to writing blogs (like this one!), join groups on Facebook (especially SCBWI, Sub It Club, and Kidlit411) and connect with other writers/illustrators on Twitter and Instagram.
  17. Take classes and attend workshops. Places to look online: SCBWI regional and national webinars and conferences, local SCBWI regional Connects, Free Expressions, Highlights, Writers Barn, Lighthouse Writers, Writer’s Digest, StoryStorm, ReFoReMo, NANOWRIMO, etc.
  18. THINK about your book. Go for walks, ride your bike, or hang out in the shower. When an idea occurs to you, send yourself a text (or you may forget this little inspirational nugget) and transfer it to your notebook or actual ms when you get a chance.

No matter what – Stick with it, stick to it, and stick it out, because although writing is a sticky business, it is also very, very sweet!

Note: This was the blog I wrote in January before I left my laptop toooooo close to a humidifier. It got… misplaced for a while.

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Filed under craft advice, critique, Main character, Revision process, RMC-SCBWI, Rondi Frieder, WORD NERD, Writing during the pandemic

Deep Dive into Your Target Word Count

As you develop your story, there are so many components to consider and perfect: a strong character arc, varied pacing, stellar dialogue, beautiful descriptions… the list goes on and on. But one factor you must always consider is word count.

If your novel is too short, it might not be considered ‘meaty’ enough for the age group. If your novel is too long, agents and publishers might worry that it has a ‘saggy middle’ or is filled with fluff. And for picture books, the current trend is definitely shorter over longer, but that can look very different depending on the age of the targeted audience and whether the book is fiction or non-fiction.

So what do you do?

First, because this can change over time, research the current trends for word length for the type of book you are writing (type something like “word length for picture books” in the search engine and see what you get). Here’s an article from Writer’s Digest to get you started.

Second, find comparison (comps) and/or mentor texts. Story Spinner Susan Wroble wrote a great post on how to do this.

Third, use a fantastic resource like Accelerated Reader Bookfinder (www.arbookfind.com) to see how those comp and mentor texts measure up when it comes to word count.

When you search for a book, AR Bookfinder will give you a lot of information (short blurb, ATOS book level, interest level, rating, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, subtopics, etc.), but most importantly (for this post) it will give you the specific word count for the book.

This is critical because page length can vary – just think about the difference between a story submitted in 11 point font, single spaced, with ½ inch margins vs. a double spaced, 14 point font, with 2-inch margins. This is why the industry is so specific about the formatting that you use when submitting materials – it gives some consistency about what ‘5 pages’ really means. But when you’re publishing a book, you have no such limitations. The pages can differ in size of the book itself, in margins, in fonts and font size… the list goes on and on. While, in general, more pages means more words, two books that are 250 physical pages can have very different word lengths. Nowhere can you see that more than in picture books.

Here are four examples:

** If you have trouble seeing the table, the information is written at the end of the blog post

 

These are four wonderful books, all targeted to the K-3 reader, but they couldn’t be more different. And that is reflected not only in the way the books are written (prose vs. dialogue, for example) but in the word length. For these four books, the book with the most pages has the smallest number of words. Seeing how your book stacks up in word length to a book similar to yours can give you a good sense as to whether you are hitting the mark.

 

If your picture book is 700 words, and your comp titles all range from 400-500, your book may be too long for your target audience.  If your mentor texts are 45,000  – 50,000 words, and your novel is 17,000 words, again — potential problem. Your book lengths don’t need to be an exact match, but hitting market expectations is important in securing an agent and/or a publisher, or in getting readers if you decide to indie publish.

 

And … don’t use a single text to decide if you are hitting this mark because, just like rules for ‘i before e’ there are exceptions out there. Could your book be double (or half) the expected length and still sell? Of course it could! But make sure when you decide that your final manuscript is really final, you know how your book measures up.

***

If you couldn’t read the table, here is the information on the four picture books:

Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal

Fiction, 32 pages, 341 words

Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora

Fiction, 36 pages, 822 words

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie  Levy, Illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley

Nonfiction, 40 pages, 1802 words

 Waiting Is Not Easy! by Mo Willems

Fiction, 58 pages, 197 words

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Filed under Coral Jenrette, craft advice, Revision process

Mentor Texts and Comp Titles

By Susan Wroble

The Story Spinners critique group has a long tradition of having retreats. In 2020, when Covid-19 made meeting in person impossible, we weren’t willing to abandon the tradition. We each picked a topic to present to the others in our first (and perhaps only) virtual format. I choose a topic I needed to learn more about—mentor texts and comp titles.

Author Tara Luebbe defined the difference between mentor text and comp titles in her blogpost for SCBWI Southern California’s Kite Tails last January. The same book might be both a mentor text and a comp—the difference is in how you use it.

 

MENTOR TEXTS COMP TITLES
Are all about… Craft Sales
Can be in… Any genre Same genre as your work
Published… At any time Within the past five years
Serves as a… Template A way to “get” your story

 

Mentor texts are the books that you use to learn how to do something. Perhaps you need help on POV, or pacing, or story arc. Mentor texts are the books you use as guides to learn a writing skill. In contrast, comp titles are books that show where your story belongs in the market. They help identify the target audience and where your book will fit on the shelves.

How to Find Them: So now that you know the difference, how do you find mentor texts and comp titles? Hint: the answer is not to start by broadcasting for help on social media!

To start, spend some type analyzing what you need before you begin the search. For mentor texts, are you looking for help with the humor, with rhymes, with a character arc…? For comp titles, what are the identifying features of your manuscript—its genre, subject matter, formats, type of writing, and tone?

Now that you know what you are looking for, you can begin finding the books. While the way you use mentor texts and comp titles is very different, the process of finding them is similar. Some of the common ways to search include:

  • Children’s Librarians
  • Booksellers
  • Goodreads
  • Amazon, especially the features
    • “Customers who viewed this also viewed”
    • “Sponsored products related to this item”
  • Pinterest lists (these are surprisingly helpful), and
  • ReFoReMo lists (my favorite for picture book comps!)

Using the ReFoReMo Lists:

If you are writing picture books, I highly recommend the free “Reading for Research Month” held each year in March. This month-long picture book study was founded to help PB writers understand the form, market and craft of writing through the reading and study of current picture books. Registration for ReFoReMo typically opens in mid-to-late February, and one of the many benefits of ReFoReMo is their private Facebook group. Searchable lists—perfect for finding mentor texts and comp titles—are in the lists section of the ReFoReMo Facebook files.

Here’s an example of how to use the files: My work-in-progress WHAT’S IN YOUR CAULDRON? is a rhyming and lyrical nonfiction picture book with transformational change (witches to healers). Sometimes, the categories in mentor texts and comp titles will overlap. I might want to look at rhyming books for both mentor texts and comp titles.

I start by going to Facebook, and the ReFoReMo Page:

On the left, near the bottom of the list, you will see “Files.” Click on that. You get a (searchable!) long list, that includes things like:

  • How-to
  • Rule Breakers
  • Cumulative Structure
  • Unexpected Twists
  • Longer PBs
  • Universal Themes
  • Tough Topics
  • Wordless
  • Contradictions in Text vs Illustrations
  • Free Verse
  • Grief and Loss

From here, I will search for rhyming texts. “Rhyming” gets me nothing, but “Rhyme” leads me to this file: Rhymers

From this list, I might look at Elli Woollard’s THE DRAGON AND THE NIBBLESOME KNIGHT. The copyright date of 2016 means I could use this as a comp title, as it has been published within the past five years. Heading over to Amazon, I can use the “Look Inside” feature (it’s not on all books, but if it is there, it is just above the picture of the book cover). Like my work-in-progress, I can see that THE DRAGON AND THE NIBBLESOME KNIGHT is written in rhyming couplets. But the tone, the meter, and the arc are very too different; it is not a good mentor text in any of those areas. However, it might be a good comp.

A further search on THE DRAGON AND THE NIBBLESOME KNIGHT gets me a full reading via YouTube, and I can see that the dragon and knight go from being enemies to being friends. The combination of both a structural match (rhyming) and a thematic match (transformational change) makes this a potential comp title for my manuscript.

Success! And I hope that this post brings you some understanding and success in your search for mentor texts and comp titles as well.

 

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Filed under Revision process, Susan Wroble, Uncategorized

I WRITE, BECAUSE…

I write because it’s my

rock,

church,

wrinkles,

pain,

loudest laugh,

amid deep doubt

on mornings when I’m convinced the birds are singing,

“scrap it, stick with vacuuming.”

Second chance,

even when revision and I aren’t getting along.

Need for risks,

such fun to throw terrible twists at my characters.

Addiction to curiousity

and what, where, when, why,

by the way, how the heck did my research lead to the story of the chef who made the world’s largest dumpling,

and then on to 10 synonyms for said

that I’ll delight in using way too many times.

Decisions,

as complex as Colorado weather

and a one word sentence.

Seeing through lotsa lenses,

each a chance to make metaphors,

as like

and like as.

One what if after what if,

navigating the creative mess I’ve made.

Commitment to writing The End.

Reminder to trust

and hope,

oh, please, may my 10 years of revising

90,000 words make some sense!

I admit, it’s often my desperate attempt to whittle, whittle away at a chunk of wood

seeking the perfect knot

that I want to sand, buff, stain,

repeat;

and often, it’s a return to my rebellious teen,

sneaking up the stairs after curfew

with secrets of my doings deep in my Levi’s pocket;

and often, it’s my science lab,

experimenting with wit,

but, ending up with the same result,

me laughing at my same corny ideas.

Raw truth,

much, much better than any mirror.

Every wee fear,

including those I haven’t met.

Pillow and blanket,

especially when I want to hide from characters that I can’t bear to inform:

“I don’t know if you would laugh or cry over this matter.”

Giddy childhood,

when my four brothers and I wrapped towels around our necks

and raced our bikes two miles to the public pool,

competing all day for the biggest cannon ball splash

and finding enough coins on the concrete to buy Baby Ruth’s and lemon drops.

Freedom,

flying down a mountain on my bicycle at 40 mph,

hearing only air,

only!

Tuner,

honing in on how-to’s,

like my character’s nervous habit,

or, whether she should whine, sigh or snicker.

Adrenaline rush,

when rarely, oh so rarely,

six sentences in a row,

flow,

flow,

as if my character is in charge.

Admission

to the humbling fact,

yes, my characters will lead,

if you would listen,

they’d love to whisper:

“Get your ego out of the way, god damnit!”

Shower,

making sure I scrub deep, bid farewell to the filth and start all over.

Challenge

that wakes, sparks and jests me,

like when I hide dark chocolate in the freezer,

yet, keep avoiding, avoiding

till I must have a bite,

and then, you know what happens next,

I eat the whole bar!

Shovel,

reminding me: dig up, dig up, dig up the muck,

more,

more,

because, beneath is the real stuff, THE story,

arriving at an unexpected reality sign:

“welcome to the story you never knew you were telling!”

My rescue crew,

always ready with a

hug,

wisdom,

feedback,

nudge,

prayer,

a plethora of ideas,

edits,

commas,

periods.

Fresh baked paper

just out of the oven,

ready for my pen to

dabble,

let go,

forgive,

say hello,

how are ya,

goodbye

to mom, dad, brothers, best buds.

Stories

I write,

because,

I always have.

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Filed under Karen McChesney, Main character, Revision process, Uncategorized, WORD NERD

ACCOUNTABILITY: A WRITER’S BEST FRIEND

“I have to get back to work. Goodbye.”

That’s what I say if I’m talking to someone, and it’s time to show up in my studio and write. The time is blocked out on my calendar, like any meeting or appointment. I got the idea from a writer friend while sharing our routines – and how we show up to our writer job.

Oh, the tricks I play on myself! But, they work. Well, okay, not always – especially during this pandemic, when my teaching and personal schedule are topsy-turvy, and my self-motivation is wavering. But, I keep trying. While sipping morning coffee, I turn on my studio light and open the curtains, so my office shouts, “I’m ready and waiting”. I set my alarm for writing sessions. I put my cell phone in another room, so I can’t hear the buzz of incoming texts or calls (which are perfect distractions when I’m stuck on a scene that I’ve re-written a dozen times!).

Unfortunately, the demons of distraction and procrastination still like to hang out in my office. Ugh! Good news is, I know my own worst enemies really well. Gradually, I’m learning to negotiate with them, so, my favorite co-worker, accountability, can kick them out and pull up a chair!

Here’s what accountability and I have been up to – and what’s really working:

Setting a timer. I try to follow a rigid routine during my scheduled writing time: For writing, I set a timer for one hour, take a 10-15 minute break, repeat. For research, I set a timer for a maximum of 30 minutes.

Monday accountability group. Every Monday, I do an email check-in with a group of kid-lit writers. We submit our goals for the week and report briefly on progress made the previous week. Wow! Keeps me honest and realistic! In our brief format, we manage to celebrate, challenge, and remind each other to keep plugging away, and that it’s okay to take a break.

Text-writing. Once a week, I have a writing “date” with another children’s writer. We text a few minutes before our start time to share what we’re working on or what we want to accomplish. Usually, we do two 45-minute rounds. Then, we briefly check in. We’re always amazed at how much we get accomplished in such a short time.

SCBWI Rocky Mountain Chapter critique group. Once a month, my SCBWI critique group meets in person. We’re the Story Spinners and we’ve been meeting monthly for 20 years. We email our work in advance, then, when we meet, each writer has 20 minutes for their work to be critiqued. When members don’t submit work, they can use their time to update the group on projects, invite brainstorming or advice on a project, share notes from workshops/classes, or etc. They’ve helped me think through SO many critical bits and pieces, such as how to end a pb or write a hook for a YA synopsis, a book title, an angle for a nonfiction article, and the list goes on. We hold separate meetings, as needed, to critique a member’s full manuscript.

Story Spinners are my rocks! Without their passion, drive, support, professionalism, desire to learn, confidence, nudges, wisdom and wit, I would have given up on my projects a long time ago.

SCBWI British Isles North East critique group. While living short term in England (twice), I met weekly with the same critique group. Through email, we continue to: exchange same genre manuscripts for overall feedback, check in bimonthly on current projects. We’re considering holding FaceTime meetings, as needed. They, too, are my rocks, my support group!

Oops! My alarm is going off. I have to get back to work on revising my YA. Goodbye!

 

Writing is hard, hard, messy work. Going out and doing talks and signing books is all wonderful, but a writer has to return home and go back to work.   

Julia Alvarez, author of AFTERLIFE, BEFORE WE WERE FREE, ALREADY A BUTTERFLY

 

 

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Filed under critique, Karen McChesney, Revision process, Uncategorized

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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Filed under craft advice, Revision process, Rondi Frieder, WORD NERD

The thing about “The thing about jellyfish”

By Susan Wroble

Ali Benjamin’s book The thing about Jellyfish has rightly won well over a dozen awards, from National Book Award Finalist to National Public Radio’s “Great Read of the Year” list. I loved the story, with its themes of friendship and grief, and its sections neatly divided by the parts of the scientific method. However, it’s not the story that startled, then amazed and finally inspired me. That came from the acknowledgements section at the back of the book.

“This story,” Benjamin wrote, “was born from a failure.” A few years earlier, she had become captivated by jellyfish. She dove into their world, learning everything she could about jellyfish and poured it all into a story. She submitted to a magazine. The magazine was interested, and kept it.

Then Benjamin waited… for a year. A year of waiting to hear. A year of waiting for her story to be published. And after a year, she did hear. The magazine no longer wanted it. The story was rejected.

I know what I would have done. I would have cried, then forwarded the rejection on to my writing group, The Story Spinners, knowing that they would give me the encouragement and support to keep going. Getting things published is tough, and a support group of people going through the same long process of rejection collecting makes the journey much easier to bear.

I’m not sure if Ali Benjamin did any of that. What she did do was keep going. Despite the wait, despite the rejection, she wasn’t willing to give up on jellyfish. She just delved deeper, moving beyond researching jellyfish to researching jellyfish experts. She took notes and continued to learn.

This incredible, award-winning story was what emerged. Had Benjamin’s original article been published, I am sure that it would have been fascinating. But it wouldn’t have been this. To have this book materialize out of failure served, for me, as a type of buoy – showing that what springs from the ashes of failure may be beyond our wildest dreams.

 

 

 

 

 

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