All posts by AmericanClare

Writer, traveler, mom, recovering MG teacher, photographer, the usual.

The Seeds of Greatness

from Paul Simon’s ‘Late in the Evening’

Then I learned to play some lead guitar
I was underage in this funky bar
And I stepped outside to smoke myself a “J”
And when I came back to the room
Everybody just seemed to move
And I turned my amp up loud and I began to play
And it was late in the evening
And I blew that room away

When you listen to this, do you ever hear that line, ‘And I blew that room away’ and think, ‘nah, probably not’? Because he’s talking about just starting out and he’s high and I think probably he was good, but not great. I imagine he had some friends in the front row who said, ‘awesome.’ But I find it hard to believe that in his early days of being a performer, he got up and truly knocked the socks off everyone in the room.

There are however, many people who believe that type of mythology. They see it in movies, read it in books, and hear stories from artists who might possibly be romanticizing their start. I’m not saying geniuses don’t pop up, but even David Bowie reported that his early stuff was awful as have Joni Mitchell and Steven King.

When I was in film school many years ago, I watched the original ’39 Steps’ by Alfred Hitchcock and was deeply relieved to find it unbearably awful. If we try to create from a place of believing that talent is only rooted in some natural place, then we will only ever fail. I think it’s a relief to understand that the mythology around genius is often false. Because it means that better and best are achievable things, rather than unknowable genetic secrets.

So here’s to improving your skills at whatever task you’ve set yourself, though I am here to particularly cheer on your words. Write that terrible first draft and edit it into a shape that you can share with others who will help you fashion it into an ‘over-night’ success. Because the seeds of greatness are there, no matter how murky the water may seem now. Come on, blow us away.

Joanne Harris’ #TenThingsAboutKidsBooks

Joanne’s tweets came about post World Book Day rants (not just by her) regarding celebrity helmed books. I didn’t say celebrity ‘written’ very much on purpose. Tweets are hers, italics are mine. 

1. You wouldn’t think of feeding rubbish to a child because ” it’s just kid food.”

Well, actually I know a few parents who do just that. Feed their kids not great food because it’s easy. That’s what some grownups do with kids books too. They look for the easy, which is sadly often mass-market fiction aimed only at sales with little to no regard for story or message or literacy. 

2. And yet people so often assume that kids’ books are less important than books for adults. They’re not.

Preach, sister friend. 

3. Children’s fiction is a specialist area, requiring a great deal of expertise.

In order to write great kid lit, you have to be aware of things like stages of learning, vocabulary growth, scaffolding of new skills, and you have to have a sense of humor that relies on wit not cruelty or bias. 

4. It is not a shortcut, or an easy option, or a vehicle for your vanity project. It carries a RESPONSIBILITY.

A responsibility not to indulge in your baser instincts or knee-jerk reactions, amongst other things. 

5. Its purpose is to awaken young minds; to encourage imagination and empathy and promote a love of reading.

So you have tell a great story, but not tell it so hard there’s no room for imagination. You have create characters that are flawed, just as kids see themselves, and are still lovable, just as kids need to know they are. 

6. That’s why the writers and illustrators of kids’ books have to be professionals of the highest calibre.

Insert clapping emojis here and repeat. 

7. Children are very good at knowing when they’re being patronised.

They will literally stop reading and throw your book in a corner. 

8. They are also great at calling bullshit on things that are overhyped. If they don’t like it, they won’t read it.

See that corner. 

9. Children’s fiction needs to be as diverse as our society, and a lot more inclusive.

Stories are how young people learn about their society. Once upon a time, around a fire, stories were used to bring children into the tribe. Now that our tribe is so much wider, books have to do that job. The old stories aren’t enough because that group of people didn’t know what we know, they didn’t have neighbors, and they didn’t need to be able to do more than find food and shelter. Today’s children will have to get along in a world that is shrinking the distances between cultures and experiences.

10. That’s why there’s no such thing as “just a kid’s book.” That’s why children’s authors matter.

Bolding is mine because it’s true!

Where have you been?

Since I last and too long ago posted on this site, I have been:

  • To Scotland with my family for two weeks.
  • To America, to my hometown, with my kids to say goodbye to my dying grandmother.
  • Through the first week of school in Reception (that’s British for pre-school but it’s IN an elementary school) with my youngest.
  • Too many school committee meetings because I volunteered to help. Big mistake.
  • To see a play about death. Aren’t they all about death?
  • Walked 13 plus miles with two lovely writer friends. We talked about writing. And boys. Also babies, food, mud, and other great feats of physical activity we’d performed. What we didn’t talk enough about was staying on our route, which made for extra sore feet. I’d do it again tomorrow.
  • Back to America for my grandmother’s funeral, on my own. I spoke on behalf of all the grandchildren and it was possibly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
  • To a workshop on plot wherein I got feedback on my WIP synopsis. Conclusion? It’s not good. But I already knew that!
  • To my writing group and then to the pub, where we talked about perseverance.

And now I’m home. Again. Trying to get back into the swing of writing life. Be patient dear reader. More to come.

What You Thought You Wrote

In a recent workshop I attended with Sara Grant and Karen Ball called “Ruthless Revision.” Sara said these wise words: You read the book you think you wrote.

If you’ve had a single person unfamiliar with your WIP read it, you probably already know this. You give it to them, excited for their response, and they like it but have questions. Then they ask you things that make you instantly, hopefully only internally, defensive. Your reader doesn’t know what genre you’ve written. They’re uncertain of the setting or the protagonist. They can’t see what you see when you reread your opening for the fifty-fifth time because what you ‘see’ isn’t actually present in the text.

A number of people at the workshop asked how one finds these things in our novels. How do spot these flaws? How do we fix them? There was some quiet bemoaning of the effort involved to perform many of the fine, though labor intensive if carried out over hundreds of pages, suggestions Sara gave our group. To me though, if you’ve spent the time and the brain juice on 60,000 words, why not spend some more on making those words good? The answer of course is usually because we’re scared. If you start going through with a fine-toothed comb, you’ll soon find the whole thing was a house cards from the start and your impostor syndrome fears will all turn out to be true.

Another answer is sometimes that we are too smug. Oh come on, you’ve been smug about something at least once in your life! Sometimes we just think that our story or characters are so good that people won’t care if they words are tight and glowing. Because that happens, to be sure. But it doesn’t happen often and, be honest, what are the odds it’s going to happen to you?

So we have to do the work. We have to examine our chapters, plot points, character motivations, world building, and pacing. One short cut for finding where your writing is weakest is to share it. Wait? Did I just suggest exposing oneself to criticism? Yes. I did. Of all the exercises we conducted at the workshop, the most helpful one was having feedback from two strangers on the first three pages of my current WIP. The questions they had told me everything about what was missing – what was not present in the text for a reader to experience the book I think I wrote. It was not fun. Going back to the opening of a book I’d tucked away a month ago thinking that, as first drafts go, this one wasn’t total shit. But once I started, it was electrifying! And now, well, I feel a little smug if I’m honest.* My opening is pretty cracking!**

If you’re still reading and don’t believe me, find me on twitter and message me. I’ll read your first five pages and I’ll answer five questions about your MS. For *cough* free *cough*. Offer expires on August 17th and I make zero promises on how quickly I’ll get back to you – but I will get back to you.

*all smugness left me five minutes later, but it was nice while it lasted.

** is it? i’m not sure now!

Joanne Harris’ #TenThingsAboutEditing

Somehow the Lady Harris knew that I was starting to edit the first draft of my current WIP today and decided to grace/terrify me with some advice for editing ones own writing. As usual, I’ve add my own little opinions and ideas because, hey, this is my blog and I’m mostly talking to myself here anyway. 

1. However much self-editing you do, at some point you’re going to need a competent editor. But before that…

Yes. You can’t keep it forever and you can’t depended solely on self-editing if you want to be published. 

2. Allow time – at least 3 months if you can – before editing your work. You need to be as objective as possible.

Wow. Three months? Um … well .. I’m going to say a minimum of one month because time passes for us working mums like dog years. A month is a long time. I can’t remember what I ate yesterday … ok that’s not true because it was cake and sausage rolls, but I can’t remember what I ate day two days ago let alone what I wrote a week ago. I’ve read my own writing from three years ago and it’s like someone else wrote it. 

3. Read your work aloud as you go. It’s the most valuable editing tool there is.

This works for a lot of people, including me. I can also suggest having someone else read it to you if you’ve really gotten stuck or find a scene particularly sticky. Someone you trust.

4. Change the font when starting a final edit – you’ll be amazed at how much more detail you’ll notice.

Oh, go on, change the font, change the line spacing, change the layout. MSW0rd has a cool thing called “read mode” that makes it look like a little novel page/spacing wise that can help you spot over-long paragraphs fast. 

5. Your dialogue will be improved immeasurably if you remove all or most of the adverbs

Yes. Also a fair few tags as well. 

“You can’t be serious?”
“I am.” 
“Well, that’s a bit radical.”
“Try it; you might like.” 

Would you be confused as to who might be saying the above if you’re reading a scene with only two people? No? Me either. Keeps it punchy. 

6. Editing is hard work. You only have so much attention-span. Don’t exhaust it by doing too much.

I don’t know what you’re tal…zzzzz.

7. Listen to your instincts. You know when something doesn’t feel right. And if you notice, so will your readers.

Yes. Do give it time though. This is where that waiting time comes in. If you finish a draft and immediately set to work again, a lot might not feel right because you’re not really able to see it properly. 

8. Editing isn’t an afterthought. It’s an essential part of the process. And yes, EVERYONE needs it. Even you.

For the love of God, please listen to Joanne! And every agent ever. No one is so good they don’t need to edit. If you’re self-publishing, you don’t get to skip this either. Nor do you get to try to have it done as cheaply as possible. It will show. It will hurt your story. 

9. Most books will need editing a number of times. That’s life. Live with it.

Anywhere from three to fifteen. I’ve heard of higher, but those were usually epics that just got completely away from the writer. 

10. Identify your bad habits and the words or phrases you tend to overuse. Deal with them before someone else does.

Just. So. That. Saying the same thing twice. Repetition of descriptive words for bodily noises/functions like burble, gurgle, bubble. – these are just some of mine. What are yours? 

The Dreaded Synopsis

First, let’s address the obvious question AKA the one I hear often at agent panels, see in #askanagent , and comes up a lot when people talk to me about looking at their query package – how important is the synopsis?

Short answer – it’s not that important. If an agent likes your sample writing enough, it isn’t a deal breaker.

Long answer – a synopsis, for an agent reading your submission, isn’t really about your writing. You include some of your book to demonstrate your kick ass writer skills. Your synopsis is there to demonstrate your ability to plot; to carry a story from beginning to likely sagging middle to hopefully satisfying ending. So in that sense, it is actually fairly important. That said, plots are far more “easily”, read as less-time-intensive to manage, than really crap writing. A good agent and editor can sit down with you over a cuppa tea and sort out your plot in a half hour, assuming you’re willing to collaborate (and here let me note writers unwilling to collaborate rarely have a career in this business)

Top Synopsis Tips:

  • it won’t be beautifully written, it can’t be, it shouldn’t be – aim for succinct.
  • you must reveal all the important plot points; yes even the ending.
  • try making a list of the all the key events, then string them together into paragraphs
  • write a really lean and punchy 250-300 word synopsis, then lengthen it if an agent calls for a full page, as it’s easier to expand than contract.

A few links I’ve found helpful:

How to write a 1-Page Synopsis from Susan Dennard on pubcrawl is top rec to every one. It has a nifty example using Star Wars that helps you visualize the things you need to cover.

A longer guide from the Literary Consultancy with good tips. They recommend a blurb type intro to your synopsis, which I would include only if you haven’t put it in your cover letter.

I like this one from The Writers’ Workshop as it has do’s and don’t’s as well as an example.

Scroll down past the page of banter (and here appreciate that in my post, I got straight to doling out the info!) this guy has for a basic description of creating The Synopsis of Power if you’re struggling to even get started. There are links to examples as well.

Drafts and other piles of poop

I’ve just finish the fastest first draft I’ve ever completed. A little less than four months from putting my nose to the grindstone, then taking it off, then putting it on again, and – well you get the drift. Unlike some first drafts, I was not actually ready for this one to end. I had to stop because I was nearing the word limit for my genre and also because I knew, given no real deadline, I could just carry on with these characters. That’s both a joy and a curse because unless you’re GRRM, that ain’t allowed. How did I do it so quickly (for me)? Motivation, baby!! Not like #motivationmonday or the very real incentive of a story I think needs telling; an agent wants to read it when it’s done so I had to do it before she forgets I exist and my face, my story bleed together with the million others she’ll be looking over.

Some people think that because I’ve said I’m done with this first draft that they can ask to read it. Um, no. Not unless you’re in my inner circle AKA people who’ve seen me in my pajamas and lived OR in my writing group. There are writers out there who never share early drafts, not even with their agents. Why? Well, because all first drafts are kind of shit. The first time I heard this I felt very defensive. My first drafts aren’t crap! Now that I’ve written three books, dozens of short stories, edited a few more books and stories, and heard various numbers of drafts from other writers – I get it. True fact = the shitty first draft.

What I want you to know though is that I don’t mean that the first version of any work-in-progress is only a pile of poop. They are not. They are piles of poop with jewels and gems and gold pieces plus a few red herrings jutting out at odd angles from the stinking mound. If I’ve lost you with my vulgarity, think of it more how Stephen King puts it (though he’s not the only one and by the way he thinks first drafts should take no more than three months, but I think that’s for pros who live in Maine) in his book On Writing:

“Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”

So, the first draft is a pile of dirt and you have to excavate. Does that sound nicer? Forgive my 13-yea-old’s sense of humor, it’s why I made a good middle school teacher and what makes me a fun parent of two boys.

I am now the proud owner of a 52 thousand word pile of dirt that I am currently trying to avoid. It’s sitting in the middle of my head and I have to walk around it a lot but I also have to not touch it. Right now, it needs time to rest. The good stuff needs to ripen and the bad stuff, like repetition and missing links, need time to come into the light so I can see them. Right now, looking at my pile, it’s just one big mass. With time, I’ll be able to judge more dispassionately what’s good, what sings, and what needs to be axed or at the very least given a stylish make-over. It also needs to dry out get less stinky 😉 What I always find amazing about the breaks I take from a WIP is that secret brain cells keep working on it and when I sit down in a few weeks to look at it afresh, they’ll leap out of the shadows and yell “Surprise! We figured all this out while you were asleep!” Unless they don’t. Then I’ll have to get out the big chisel.

For now though. I have to check the bottoms of my shoes and leave the pile of poop behind. Get it. Behind? Ahahaha. (see also that writing intensively for months on end makes you loopy)