Monday, September 20, 2010

To outline or not to outline, that is the question

My stories always start out in my head, but I do need to outline before I write. It's the map to my story. Without it, I don't really know where I'm going, and I find that not knowing wastes too much time. My outlines are flexible, not written in stone. If I see where something can be made better, I'll, adjust the outline accordingly. That, in the end, is what it's all about, right? Doing everything you can to make the story the best that it can be?

You don't need a physical outline--many writers don't use them--but there are several advantages all writers might want to consider:

1. With an outline, you know where  you're going and why. This makes writer's block pretty much impossible. If you have a map and a destination, you know what roads will get you there. No map and no direction leads to indecision, and that leads to writer's block.

2. The outline can be your sh**** first draft, which means you can feel free to write whatever you want in it, no matter how ridiculous. Think of it as backstage on a Broadway show. The audience doesn't know what's going on back there, so actors and crew members can goof around as much as they like. If it helps make a better show, great. If not,  no problem. The only one who's going to see it is you, so the pressure is off.

3. Having an  outline means you can start with dessert, as in start with whatever scene you feel most inspired to write at any given time. Usually, I'll start with the beginning, the climax, and the ending. I might also work in some scenes that particularly capture my fancy, maybe because they're funny or dramatic. How fun is that?

3. Starting with dessert means I can connect the dots later, and usually this means I don't waste too much time on boring, connecting scenes. I mean, if they bore me, they're going to bore the reader. Writers who don't outline usually can't start with dessert, and they don't always know what the boring connecting scenes are, so they tend to waste too much time on them. I think this was less of a problem in the past, but writing tends to be a lot tighter nowadays. TV and the Internet has led to shorter attention spans. We're used to storytelling that moves along quickly. Outlining can help your writing keep pace with the times.

4. In the same vein, write-as-you-go writers are more likely to go off on a tangent, which can be fun, but it can also mean scenes that will later have to be cut, cut, cut. Not only have you wasted time on these scenes, but you might have poured your heart and soul into them. You might think, "But that scene with the falling cherry blossoms was so beautiful, and I described it so perfectly!" Sure, but does it advance your story in any way? If not, cut it! As the writing advice goes, "kill your darlings." Outlining means fewer darlings you'll feel pained to cut. And it's not just scenes.  Knowing exactly what your story needs in advance means knowing what it doesn't need in all areas. No wasting time on anything that will need to be cut later, whether it's a scene, a description, or a character. This lets you write and edit faster and with less effort.

5. You know that feeling you get at the start of a writing day? That feeling of excitement filled with a bit of dread, because you don't know what you're going to write? Well, here's the way I like to end each writing day: I start the beginning of the next scene I'm going to work on, and I outline the rest of that scene. Yes, I outline individual scenes. This way I know exactly where I'm going the next time I sit down to write. At the start of every writing session, I have in front of me the beginning of that scene, and a kind of "to-do" list for that scene. For example, "X and Y are walking along Broadway at night. It's cold. Y is pensive. X is suspicious. They enter a pizza place. X eats a slice, but Y just sits there at the counter, the slice in her hands. Finally Y confesses to X about Z. X seems to take it well at first, but then he walks off in a huff, leaving Y scared and alone, wondering if she was wrong to tell X the truth." It's not much, but now all I have to do is follow that check list to get that chapter written. I might also have a more detailed outline, with snippets of dialogue or some point I want to get across. It might say, for example, "Remember, this scene is all about X breaking up with Y, forcing Y go to back to Z, which will eventually lead to X having to rescue Y from Z." Now I know exactly where I was planning on going today, and how to get there.

6. Outlining means you know in advance what your story is ABOUT. This helps you focus. After all, you're story isn't about this character and that character and how this and that happens to them. It's about SOMETHING much bigger, like undying love, or sacrifice, or sibling rivalry. You can't really connect with the reader unless you know what your story is about. A well outlined story will usually be focused and mostly be about one thing, which makes it easier for the reader to follow. If you're focused, your story will be focused, and so will the reader. If you're not, the end result is a reader who isn't focused, who might just put your book down and move onto something else, maybe another book that's clearly ABOUT something.

7. And finally, sooner or later, you're going to need an outline to sell your story. You're going to need to be able to communicate to an agent or editor what your story is about. If you created the story based on an outline, that job is going to be a lot easier.It'll make it easier to sell your story at every stage, from the agent and editor, to the bookstore and the reader.What's a book blurb, after all, if not the hook of a really good, tight, focused outline?

Again, outlining isn't for every writer. Give it a try. If you find that it makes thing easier, faster, more focused and more fun, do it! But if you discover you just don't like that sense of knowing where you're going--if you write because you love that feeling you get when your characters surprise you, and you just can't get that with an outline--don't do it. In the end, each writer has to do what works best for him or her. What works for me, might not be right for you.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

SPOILERS: Explaining the movie "Inception"


People have been asking questions about the movie Inception. What's real in the movie and what's a dream? Who is manipulating whom? Was the top at the end going to fall or wasn't it? What's it all about? Here is my interpretation.

Inception is a brilliant movie about a dream manipulator, who ends up manipulating himself. How do I know this?

1. Inception works like a virus, so in Incepting Mal with the idea that the dream world is the real world, Cobb Incepted himself with the same idea, and that idea became a part of who he was.

2. Cobb has the power to create exactly the dream world he needs to convince himself of his own Inception, so that everything that happens that seems to be real is that way because Cobb’s mind needs to be convinced that it’s real, whether or not it is.

3. There are several hints that show that the Inception has successfully deluded Cobb into thinking the dream world is real, and that he is in denial about this:

A. Cobb has replaced his real totem (his wedding ring) with Mal’s totem (the spinning top), which means he’s deliberately chosen not to know the difference between the real and dream worlds.The scene where he loses his wedding ring in the bathroom is probably his subconscious trying to remind him that he lost it, but the Inception wins out, and he can't even remember that it was his totem. The Inception has created a replica of his ring to convince Cobb's subconscious that he is or isn't dreaming, according to what best suits the Inception's purpose of getting him to believe the dream world is the real one.

B. Fisher and Saito’s characters are sometimes projections of Mal (saying and doing things that reflect Mal’s point of view, most notably Saito’s words about growing old together and Fisher’s discussion with his father about how his father was disappointed with him for trying to follow in his footsteps, which reflect Mal's relationship with her father, Michael Caine's character). Whether they come from Cobb or what Cobb has internalized of Mal is irrelevant: the Inception is still deluding him into believing these projections are real.

C. At the end of the movie--when the Inception is complete and Cobb is fully convinced the dream world is the real world--he walks away from the spinning top, choosing not to know if it will fall down. Whether or not it does is irrelevant. First, it's not his totem (it's Mal's), so it doesn't really show him if he's in the dream world or not. Second, it's not about whether it's real or a dream (although it is a dream, because the Inception wouldn't be complete unless Cobb is completely convinced the dream world is the real world, and vice versa). It's about Cobb's CHOICE not to know. 

So you see, Inception is a brilliant movie about a dream manipulator, who ends up manipulating himself. What's real and what's a dream isn't relevant; only what Cobb chooses to believe is or isn't real. The Inception Cobb created is manipulating the entire thing. And the movie deliberately cuts where it cuts to make it clear to the audience that Cobb has chosen not to know that he's been manipulated by his own Inception into believing that the dream world is real.

One last thing, some have asked what's the audience's totem. A totem is whatever tells you you're in the dream world. For you it can be just reaching down into your bag of popcorn, or (in our case, because it is a very long movie) a trip during the movie to go to the bathroom. While you're watching the movie, you accept that the dream world--the one created by the dream (movie) architects--is real. And like Cobb, that's you're choice. And, like Cobb, that's your choice because you want, for those two plus hours, to believe in the dream.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Wish List

A few years ago, I started compiling wish lists. I don't mean the kind of wish list. I mean writing down everything I want: from big things, like a publishing contract, to little things, like a sunset walk on the beach. Some of the things that go on my wish list are concrete things that can be purchased, but most aren't.
I created my first wish list because my husband is terrible at buying presents. One year he bought me a basketball hoop. I don't play basketball, but he does. Another year he gave me a Nintendo DS with a copy of Brain Age. This, of course, sends the message that he thinks I'm going senile. Or that I might like to play any of the games that were available for the DS at the time, which I did not. (The first DS game I actually liked was Professor Layton.) The Nintendo DS went the same way at the basketball hoop, meaning my husband played with it and eventually gave it to our son. And then there was the year we vacationed in Boston on my birthday . . . with his mother. When we wanted to take a water taxi, she insisted on taking the train. She ordered food she didn't like just so she could refuse to eat and then complained for hours about it. Who wouldn't want that for their birthday?
So I wrote my first wish list and stuck it up on the fridge with magnets. My husband liked the idea. He says I never tell him what I want, but the truth is I tell him all the time--I just about hammer him with what I want--but he doesn't listen. He tried to give me a few of the things on that list, the best one being some time alone to write, go shopping, take baths, and so on without being disturbed by the kids. It was a few weeks after my birthday, but it was the best birthday present he ever gave me. I stood in Kohl's and started to panic. Didn't I have to be at home to meet the kids when they got off their school buses? Then I realized I didn't. I could actually buy myself some clothes without someone telling me, "I'm so bored. This is torture. Can we go now?" I could spend as much time as I wanted picking outfits, trying them on, and buying only the ones I liked that fit. Wow! 
When you wish upon a wish list, your dreams really do come true. Well, maybe not all of them. I'm still wishing for that ever-elusive book contract. It keeps going from wish list to wish list, but hopefully someday soon that wish will also be answered.  
So at the beginning of this summer, we sat down as a family and wrote a wish list together: "Our Summer of Wishes, 2010." Every wish we could think of was put down on it, from the mundane (4. Get passports renewed) to the altruistic (28. Teach a class at the library--Shevi) to the highly unlikely (3. Win lottery) to the downright impossible (48. Get super powers). There were 88 things on the original list we made that day, but my husband has since added 89 (Driving license--Shevi) and 90 (Become an American--Gidon). We've already made a few of our wishes come true, and we're crossing them off the list with a highlighter marker. This way we'll have something to aim for every day, and at the end of the summer we'll be able to look back at all the great wishes we made come true.
Psychologists once conducted a study that showed you're more likely to accomplish a goal if you write it down. That's the power of the wish list. Go ahead, and use it! Put "Wish list" at the top of a page and then write down all your wishes, from the most mundane to the impossible. Then put that wish list somewhere you'll see it every day. Then start making your dreams come true.
What would be the first three things on your wish list?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Neil Simon on writer's block

"Some people misinterpret what writer's block is. They assume you can't think of a single thing. Not true. You can think of hundreds of things. You just don't like any of them. And what you like, you don't trust."

~from Rewrites by Neil Simon.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

What's in a Name?

Here is something about writing titles that I posted on the SCBWI boards a few years back. This helped Jennifer J. Stewart find the title of her book, Close Encounters of a Third-World Kind, which is why it has specific examples. The general "rules," though, should help you come up with a title for any book.

I hope this helps you too.


Eye grabbing titles tend to follow these rules (although there are many exceptions):
1. Brief (five words and under)
2. Clear (title tells the reader what the book is about)
3. Mood (title makes the mood of the book clear -- humorous or otherwise)
4. Paints a picture in the reader's mind
5. Appeals to the reader's interests

One good way to come up with a title is to sum up a scene, the theme, the conflict, or the main character of your book.

Is there a scene you can describe in very few words? ELEPHANT ATE MY PEANUT BUTTER? HERSHEY KISSES BEAT GOAT KISSES, ANY DAY?

Another thing you can do is free associate. Take some of the elements of your story, and ask yourself what they sound like or make you think of. Nepal, for example, sounds like apple to me, which makes me think of these titles:

Third world country makes me think of:

So that's my two cents on titles. I hope it helps you, and if I'm too late, I hope I've helped someone else.

(Who really ought to put these things on her own site so they're easier to find.)

And now I have. :-)

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Passing along info on weekend workshop for YA writers (Santa Cruz, CA)

I've been asked to pass along this information, so here it is:

Eighth annual event, held August 20-22, 2010 at Pajaro Dunes’ private beachfront facility near Santa Cruz, CA. Intensive, team-taught seminar for 30 savvy and/or published writers of character-driven youth novels, "active observers," and teen readers and writers.
FACULTY: KATE HARRISON (senior editor, Dial Books/Penguin); TED MALAWER (agent, Upstart Crow Literary); and author-consultant LAURA BACKES, publisher of Children’s Book Insider. Teen enrollees led by LIZ GALLAGHER (educator; author of Wendy Lamb/Random House YA novel, The Opposite of Invisible). WEEKEND THEME is "A Novelist’s Toolkit: Architecture, Archetypes, and Arcs." Focus on craft as a marketing tool; 90 percent hands-on. Open critique clinics, aka master classes, are enhanced by interactive pre-workshop assignments. .
For the most critique options and lowest fees, apply ASAP! (Preferably by May 15, though limited adult and teen enrollment may be open through July.) For details, or to contact Director Nancy Sondel, visit
(Teen pages:

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Why I am grateful for Twilight

Dear Stephenie Meyer,

Thank you. As a writer of novels for teens, I owe you a debt of gratitude. Thank you for showing the world that adults can enjoy books written for teens. Thank you for showing that YA literature can make it to the top of the bestseller lists. Thank you for showing publishers it's a good investment. Thank you for opening the doors of literary agencies to writers like me. So many agencies before Twilight didn't represent children's books at all, and now they are looking for YA novels, because they all want to represent the next Stephenie Meyer. Thanks to you, I and many other YA writers have a better chance of finding representation and getting our books published. Thank you.



Saturday, April 17, 2010

Lia Keyes compiled a list of agents' blogs. Here's the link: 

Thursday, April 8, 2010

When is a writer ready to start submitting a manuscript?

A friend asked me how a writer knows when he or she is ready to start submitting a manuscript. The following is my response:

There's no magic formula that will tell you when your manuscript is ready to send. The only thing you need to know is if you're ready to send it. That won't be until you're ready to accept rejection, which is inevitable. Your chance of success is only something like .01%. Stephen King could wallpaper his office with rejection letters before he sold his first novel, and it wasn't the first novel he wrote. Even Jane Yolen still gets rejection letters. When you know down deep inside that rejection happens to the best and isn't a reflection on you as a writer or on your manuscript, you'll be ready to start submitting.

According to a survey conducted by F/SF writer Jim C. Hines, it takes a writer on average 10-11 years of hard work to get his first novel published--and it's most often the author's 3rd or 4th manuscript. If it takes one year to write the first and two years between the time a book is purchased and published, that means 7-8 years of rejection letters.

If you're ready to start the ball rolling, then you're definitely ready to start submitting. You might luck out with your first try, but if not, you'll be on your way. I've been submitting for about 7 years now, and I think my 5th manuscript will finally get me in the door. My first is my magnum opus, but I think my 6th will be my bestselling. I have a hunch it's my most marketable work yet.

I hope this helps and isn't too depressing. Do check out that survey. There are definitely things you can do to help. Go to conferences and workshops. Join a critique group or two. Read a lot in your chosen genre and really study it, analyze what it is you like and don't like in a particular book and why. Read books on writing and editing. Write and edit, write and edit, and write and edit some more. Don't settle for writing just one book. Write another and another. Submit to agents, publishers and contests. And always remember that slow and steady wins the race.

All the best,


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Living without a Net

I'm going to go off my usual topics of writing and humor to talk about something a little different. I hope you will bear with me, and if you do, I hope you'll find it worth your while.

Today I would like to talk to you about life-altering decisions. Many of us go through life without ever truly making one. We let others choose the schools we go to, let fate decide our professions, marry people when it seems like we should, live where we've always lived or where our jobs or schools or other obligations send us, and so on. Many of us take, as Robert Frost might have put it, the well-trodden path, never once considering the road less traveled.

For the first 30-some years of my life, I was one of those people. It wasn't that I did things that everyone was doing, but I was mostly letting fate do with me as it wanted and without question. I didn't have a choice when it came to the schools I went to. My parents chose my university, too, but I was allowed to choose my majors. I wanted to study film, but the university I went didn't offer a degree in that. The closest to it was an MA in communications, so I decided to take English Literature and Theater Studies. By the time I completed my BAs, I had learned that the communications department was mostly theoretical, which I didn't want, so I earned a teacher's certificate instead. It was the easy way, the expected way, the well-trodden path. What else could you do with a BA in English? But then I tried teaching for a while, and I discovered something rather surprising: the well-trodden path was clearly meant for me. Teaching might have been what was expected of me, but it was scary. I couldn't control a classroom, and trying to made me feel like I was about to have a nervous breakdown. So I stopped, stepped back and said, "Okay, that's not working. What else would I like to do?" I took some courses in fine art and graphic art, and got a job in a newspaper. From there I worked my way up to political cartoonist, and I continued on to various jobs in various magazines and newspaper. To some it might seem like I was taking the road less traveled, but I wasn't. I'd already shown talent in art, and my family had already been in the newspaper business for four generations. It couldn't have been less of a leap into the unknown.

No, the first time I decided to live without a net didn't come until my husband and I reached an impasse when it came to our autistic son's eduction. We were living in Jerusalem, and we had tried every option we found there, even trying to put together a new school with other parents of autistic kids in the Jerusalem area. Everything fell through. We were told that there was only one school for autistic kids, and that our son could only go there. He would be placed in a building with children ranging from age 6 to 18, most of them with severe autism and much worse off than he was. We knew that meant he was likely to get less attention than the kids whose needs were greater. We felt trapped.

There is an expression in Israel: they call it an "Eretz Ein Brerah," "A Land of No Choice." But did we really have no choice? We did if we stayed in Jerusalem--the city where we met, and married, and owned an apartment, the city we loved--but did we need to stay in Jerusalem? We asked ourselves what our primary goal was, and it wasn't to stay in Jerusalem. It was to give our son the best education he could get. So I got on the Internet and asked other mothers of autistic kids where that was. They told us New Jersey, so we packed up our things, quit our jobs, and rented out our apartment. We decided to live without a net.

Other people might look at our decision and think it very brave or very stupid or both. They could be right. But sometimes you have to decide whether you're willing to give in to what fate seems to be telling you is the only path or forge a new one, whether you're willing to take, as Robert Frost said, the road less traveled. Sometimes you have to decide what it is you truly want, and to get it you have to be willing to live without a net.

I've been thinking about this lately, because once again I've come to a point where fate seems to be telling me I have no choice. We've been living in this same town for almost ten years, and my daughter is ready for high school. We want to send her to a good Jewish school. There's one nearby. But the principal of the school misunderstood something my daughter said, and although my daughter has explained herself, apologized, and has told the principal how much she wants to go to that school, the school has decided she cannot go there. My daughter was crushed, but it seemed there was another option. There's another school, which isn't as close by, but it seems nicer and better in every way. The only way my daughter can do there is if at least two kids from our town goes there to justify the transportation costs. My daughter hoped that her best friend might go to the other school with her, but the school that rejected my daughter has persuaded her best friends parents to send her there. So now not only can't the school willing to accept my daughter provide the necessary transportation, my daughter will be separated from her best friend next year.

It hurts to see your child trapped and know there isn't anything you can do about it. This isn't fair. My daughter deserves to go to go to the same school as her best friend. It isn't fair that the first school won't accept her because of a misunderstanding and a refusal on their part to accept an apology (something that, in my opinion, contradicts Jewish ethics and reflects poorly on the school). It's also unfair that my daughter's ability to attend the second school is dependent on her friend going there, when that isn't something within our control. So what do we do?

Do we take the road the world seems to have chosen for us, or do we once again leave everything behind and forge a new path? Do we once again choose to live without a net? Sure, if we live in this town we're stuck, but do we need to live in this town? We're very pleased with what our town has arranged for our autistic son's education. We don't want to lose that, and that's what might happen if we leave. But what if we keep one apartment here and get an additional one next to that better school? It would be a huge additional expense, and right now my husband is getting very little work, and I've yet to earn anything on the books I've written. But that's the wonderful thing about living without a net: everything becomes an option. The possibilities are endless.

Look at J.K. Rowling. Before she found a publisher for Harry Potter, she was a divorced woman with no real job, a young daughter to take care of, and a dream to become a published author. She didn't ask how she would support herself and her daughter while she wrote. She just wrote. She decided what she wanted, and if she had to live without a net for a while to get it, she would. And she did. And by living without a net, she made that dream come true.

We should all be a little more like J.K. Rowling. We should ask ourselves what we want, what's holding us back, and if we're willing to let it go. Living without a net can be scary, but sometimes living with a net isn't living at all.

All the best,


Friday, February 26, 2010

Made it through to second round of Amazon's ABNA contest!

The header says it all: I made it through!

I'm psyched, but I also don't hold much hope for making it to the third round. The first round was based on story pitches, but the second is based on the first 5,000 words of the manuscript, and I submitted a rough second draft of a NaNoWriMo manuscript I wrote just this November. I thought there would be time to edit the manuscript before it was judged, but it turns out everything is locked in even before the pitch round begins, even the finished manuscript that won't be judged until the third or fourth round. This is the first time the contest has had a YA category, so this is my first year submitting, and I didn't know.

Oh, well, I'm happy I made it this far. And next year, if I haven't published yet, I'll know the way the contest works a little better.  

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Why My Love Life Sucks preview

I've uploaded the first 25,000 characters of Why My Love Life Sucks to Amazon where you can download and read them on your computer or your Kindle. You can find them here:

Monday, February 15, 2010

Twitter chats for writers & illustrators

Debbie Ohi, otherwise known as InkyGirl, has put together a list of Twitter chats for writers and illustrators:
There's a schedule at the end of the blog post.

#writechat: Sundays

Topic or topics are usually announced at the beginning of the chat.
Moderated by @WritingSpirit
EST: 3-6 PM

#scriptchat: Sundays
For seasoned and aspiring screenwriters as well as anyone who is curious about screenwriting. The goal: learning and sharing.
Moderator: @jeannevb

#journchat: Mondays
EST: 8-11 PM

#writersroad  Mondays
formerly #ScribeChat, mostly for writers of MG/YA fiction
EST: 9-10 PM

#kidlitchat: Tuesdays
Craft & business of writing for young people, board books up through YA. Topic or topics announced at the beginning of the chat.
Moderators: @gregpincus, @bonnieadamson

#poettues: Tuesdays
Discussion of poetry with @robertleebrewer

#FaithLitChat: Tuesdays
A weekly faith-based discussion of Christian books, writing & CBA market. Follow @FaithLitChat for more info.

EST: 9-10PM
#litchat: Monday, Wednesday, Friday
Mission is to connect readers with books and authors.
Moderator: @litchat.
Transcripts on blog.
EST: 4-5 PM

#WNW: Wednesdays
Wednesday Night Writer. Fantasy/Fiction discussion group on Twitter.
Moderator: @_decode_ .
EST: 8-11 pm

#YALitChat: Wednesdays
Young Adult (teen) books
Moderator:  @Georgia_McBride.

#memoirchat: Wednesdays
Moderator: @alexisgrant
Writers of memoir
#poetry: Thursdays
We talk poetry. Readers, writers, and all others encouraged to join. Moderator: @gregpincus.
EST: 9-10 PM

#kidlitart: Thursdays
Weekly chat for illustrators, pb authors & author/illustrators. Topics announced in advance via @kidlitart. Hosted by Bonnie Adamson and ( @BonnieAdamson) Wendy Martin (@lyonmartin).
EST: 9-10 PM

#dnchat: Thursdays
For those who write fiction for online publication. “DN stands for, which is the platform most of us in the group publish on, but all web fiction writers and fans of web novelists are welcome.”
EST: 11 pm-12 PM

#fridayflash: Every Friday.
Writers write/post flash fiction. Readers comment and RT.

#scifichat: Fridays
Moderated by: @DavidRozansky. Follow @scifichat for schedule changes and announcements.
EST: 2-4 pm

#platformchat: Fridays.
Moderator: @thewritermama
EST: 2-3 pm

#scifichat: Fridays
Hosted by: @WritersDigest. Collab fun.

#StoryFriday: Fridays
Moderated by: @DavidRozansky
EST: 2-4 pm

#followreader: Fridays

#FollowReader is a weekly discussion on Twitter for the bookish community, lightly moderated by @KatMeyer and @CharAbbott, who provide a new topic each week. Kat and Charlotte alternate moderating duties on Fridays from 4 – 5pm EDT, Kat is moderating from 4 – 5 pm on Fridays, but the #FollowReader hashtag is used all week long to bring excellent ideas and discussions to the table.
EST: 4-5 pm

#ThrillerChat: Saturdays. #thrillerchat is a Twitter chat for anyone interested in writing Thrillers, although you don’t have to be a writer to join in. 1-2 hours. Moderated by: @Selorian. More info here.
EST: 8 pm

#ScreenwritingSaturday: Saturdays
Moderator: @UncompletedWork.
Time: all day

The following are more motivational groups rather than scheduled Twitterchats, but are still a great way of meeting other writers on Twitter. They're open any day, any time:

#amwriting:  @johannaharness
#amwritingparty: @saramcclung.
#mommyswriting: @quirkywriter: It’s official. If you’re trying to balance raising kids and writing for them, meet us on #mommyswriting for support.
#writegoal: @annadestefano.

Other hashtags of interest to writers: #AgentPeeves, #allaboutagents, #askagent (at least every 2 wks, around 11 am EST Mondays or Tuesdays?), #authors, #cdnkidlit, #editing,#fictionfriday, #nanowrimo (during November), #pubtip, #RomChat (see info), #storystarters, #tuesbooktalk, #wip, #wordcount, #writetip, #novelists, #wordathon, #WriteRomance (see info), #writers, #writing, #writingparty, #agentsday #agentinternday. (I'm not sure of the times for most of these, but if someone can give me that information I would be happy to update it.)

The best way to follow a TwitterChat is with

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

I give you permission to...

So many times I've heard writers say, "You can't..."

You can't write a novel that crosses genres. For example, you can't write a fantasy novel that later turns out to be a science fiction novel. Gene Wolfe could do it in his Book of the New Sun because he's Gene Wolfe, but you aren't Gene Wolf.

You can't write in more than one genre. For example, you can't write realistic poetry and prose fantasy. Maybe Jane Yolen can write in more than one genre, but you aren't Jane Yolen.

You can't write for different age groups. For example, you can't write picture books and novels for teens. Neil Gaiman can do it because he's Neil Gaiman, but you aren't Neil Gaiman.

You can't have a novel with different points of view. Stephen King did it in The Stand, but you aren't Stephen King.

You can't. You can't. You can't.

But you can.

Gene Wolfe was a writer just like you before he wrote the Book of the New Sun. Jane Yolen had to start out in one genre before she tried another. Neil Gaiman used to write comic books for adults--and won awards for them--before he started winning awards for his children's books. Stephen King apparently never got the "You can't" memo. Either that, or he didn't listen. None of them did, and neither should you.

Don't listen to "You can't."

I give you permission to write a novel that goes across genres. I give you permission to write in more than one genre. I give you permission to write for different age groups. I give you permission to write stories with different points of view. I give you permission to use repetition. And incomplete sentences. I give you permission to break all the rules, to draw outside all the lines.

What I don't give you permission to do is to tell yourself, "You can't."

You'll never know what you can do until you try, so try. You have everything to gain, and nothing to lose.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Tone versus Voice: But what’s “voice” and whose voice?

These are my comments in a discussion on the SCBWI boards on tone versus voice. I’m of the position that the voice of a story is the narrator or POV character’s, while someone else said it is the unique voice of the author. What do you think?

Tone is simple. Tone can be humorous, melodramatic, etc.. It's mood. It's style. Books by different writers with different characters can still have the same tone.

Voice, however, is complex. It's a world view. It's a unique way of seeing and expressing everything in the story. It can be of a certain tone--humorous, for example--but it goes beyond that. How is the humorous tone created? How does the MC or narrator see the world?

For example, in the Georgia Nicolson series by Louise Rennison, the tone is humorous. And yet Georgia's voice isn't intentionally funny. She sees herself "on the rack of love," suffering because of her crazy family and her dither spaz best friend, and all tragic. The humorous tone is created in only the way Georgia's unique voice can create it, her unique way of seeing and describing her world.

I guess one way to put it is the style might tell you it's abstract, but the way it's done tells you it's a Kandinsky.

Yes, to me the tone of a piece of writing is the mood. I think others were saying something similar when comparing it to the tone of voice you use when you say something. You can have an angry tone or a humorous one. Those are moods.

Also, I'd like to point out that in many works of fiction today, the voice is the character's, not the writer's. I know that's the case in my writing. Although some things pop up in different stories of mine, I like to think that is more a matter of my style, that it doesn't prevent the character's voice from shining through.

I think it's important for voice to remain consistent in a story--at least when the POV character is the same--but I don't like it when writers are incapable of changing the voice from story to story. It makes all their stories and all their characters sound the same, and that's boring. Some of us aspire to be Woody Allen; some of us aspire to be Meryl Streep. I'd much rather be Meryl Streep. I know I'm not there yet, but that is the dream.

I would take lack of authorial voice as a huge compliment! To me that would mean the ability to get out of the way and let the story just be itself. That ability would be an amazing thing--if I could achieve it. But, alas, I can't. That would take the rarest talent indeed.

I read stories because they immerse me, not in the writer's skin and world, but in the character's skin and world. When I read Lord of the Rings, I'm a hobbit on a desperate mission to save Middle Earth. I'm not Tolkien. Indeed, I'd find that boring. I'm sure even Tolkien found that boring. If he didn't, he probably wouldn't have written the darn thing!

You say it's the writer's voice that makes one story different from another. I say it's the voice of the narrator or POV character that makes one story different from another. How could anyone else's story sound like mine with different characters' unique voices? I created my characters, and another writer will create his characters, and those characters will give each of our stories a unique voice. Not only will my characters' voices make my work completely different from another writer's, but they'll make each of my stories completely different from one another, or at least they will if I've done my job properly.

Although I love being a hobbit in Middle Earth, I don't want to just be a hobbit. Not when there are an infinite number of stories out there, an infinite number of worlds I can visit and see through a unique set of eyes belonging to a character with a unique voice with every book I pick up. And this is the way I want to write.

You say there would be no reason for anyone to prefer my stories over that of an equally skilled writer. On the contrary! The question isn't about which writer you would prefer to read but whose characters you would prefer to spend time with, which world you'd like to visit for a while.

If you want to hear Meryl Streep in her own voice, watch an interview with her. But if you want to enter the world of Julia Child and hear Julia in her unique voice wax poetic about French cuisine, watch her in "Julie & Julia." And if all you hear is Meryl's New Jersey accent when you're watching the movie, I'm sure even Ms. Streep would admit she'd failed miserably in what she was trying to accomplish. When the audience can't separate the actor from the role, it's a sign of a less than stellar performance.

This is how I see my voice versus the voices of my characters. If the reader can't tell the difference, then I've failed to truly bring my characters to life, which means I've failed the reader. Because how can the reader truly immerse himself in the character's world if the only voice the reader hears—and the only POV the reader can experience that world through--is mine?


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Query done? Check. List of agents to submit to? Check...

I've accomplished the next three things on my "How to Get a Literary Agent" checklist:

1. Used to research agents and put together a list of agents who are interested in YA and open to submissions.

2. Further researched the agents who seem like they might be a good fit for what I do and selected my top twelve (couldn't narrow it down to less than that).

3. Wrote a dynamite query letter and had my critique group, SCBWI friends, and Facebook friends help me polish it until it shines!

Here's the finished query:

Dear (agent’s name goes here),

Seventeen-year-old Tracy Miller found the love of her life . . . thirty years after her own death.

Thirty years ago, Tracy was working in the House of Horrors at the Amazing Lands Theme Park when a fire broke out and quickly spread through the building. While others fled, Tracy lost her life trying in vain to save eleven-year-old Mack. Now the House of Horrors is gone, the six other ghosts who died there are gone, and only Tracy and Mack remain.

As ghosts in the park, Tracy and Mack can ride all the rides, see all the shows, smell and even taste all the food. For Mack every day is a new adventure. Tracy, however, hates the park, but unlike the other people who died in the fire with her and Mack, she can’t bring herself to go to the Light. She claims she’s sticking around for his sake, but deep down she knows it’s not true.

Then everything changes when seventeen-year-old Josh also dies in the park. At first Tracy wonders why Josh chooses to stay with them, but she soon discovers that he is in love with her. And despite her apprehensions, she finds herself falling for him too. Is their love strong enough to help Tracy overcome something that happened when she was alive, the one thing that still haunts her and stops her from going to the Light?

RIDE OF YOUR LIFE (78,000 words) won third-place in SmartWriters W.I.N. (Write It Now) Competition in 2006, which was judged by author Alex Flinn. It is a YA ghost story, similar in tone to Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.

Editorial cartoonist, comic-strip magazine editor, arts-and-entertainment writer, and consumer columnist: I’ve been writing professionally in one form or another since 1987. My last full-time job was as the consumer columnist for The Jerusalem Post ( Most recently I wrote and edited the SCBWI Illustrator’s Market Guide. You can read more about me on my website:

As per your submission requirements, I’ve included (whatever is required for this agent and my reason for choosing this particular agent). I look forward to hearing from you!


Shevi Arnold

I have now started to print up the things I need to send, which will be personalized to explain why I've chosen to submit my novel to these agents.
Wish me luck!
PS: Someone suggested that I post my query letter on the YA Lit Chat Ning group to get help editing it. I did that, and my query received only one reply. It told me the writer would reject my query outright (without any explanation as to why), the agents on the site might be interested in it (again without any explanation as to why), and that if I wanted real advice, I should ask to be put on the "Query Kick-Around" schedule, the nearest opening for which is about a month off. In other words, the whole thing was a waste of time and an exercise in futility. I wrote a well-thought out and fair post there about my experience with the YA Lit Chat Ning group, and the moderator deleted it because they "try to keep things positive." It reminds me of that poster of the Mafia boss saying, "When I want your opinion, I'll give it to you." It's sad, really, when you consider some writers might not have the resources or the confidence I have to seek advice elsewhere. At least the YALitChats on Twitter are often interesting and informative. All this is to say, thank goodness for critique groups, the SCBWI, and Facebook friends! You've been a tremendous help. You rock!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Steps to getting a literary agent

Here's where I am on my search for a literary agent.

Steps already accomplished:
1. Wrote a dynamite outline and first few chapters of a novel
2. Got chapters critiqued by my critique group and revised accordingly
3. Took outline and chapters to conferences and got positive feedback from editors and agents
4. Submitted to a contest and won third place in the YA category--Yes!
5. Got one-on-one feedback and encouragement from an agent at a SCBWI NJ Mentoring Workshop (Those workshops are awesome!)
6. Finished writing the novel
7. Put it in the drawer for a month so I could edit it with fresh eyes one more time before sending it off (Also wrote the first draft of another dynamite book during NaNoWriMo!)
8. Gave it one last edit and made sure it's now ready to go out

Steps to accomplish now:
1. On, go through list of agents who are open to submissions and are interested in YA. Rate agents from 6-10 based on the following: how close a match their interests are to this manuscript, how open they are to other manuscripts I have, whether they've had good sales to good publishers recently (Add points to agents I like who I've met at conferences and elsewhere, as well as agents who work with writers I know.)
2. Select top 5-10 agents from my list (That's tricky with so many great agents to choose from.)
3. Write a dynamite query letter and get my critique group to help me polish it until it shines!
4. Adapt query letter for each agent on my list
5. Print up query letters, cover letters, synopses, chapters, full manuscripts--whatever each agent requests
6. Mail or email (according to each agent's guidelines) a personalized query letter or submission to each one
7. Pray!
8. Work on something else so I don't drive myself bonkers while waiting for replies
9. With each rejection letter (everyone gets rejection letters), submit to the next agent on my list and try not to sweat it
10. Don't jump on the first offer of representation. Make sure this is really the person I want to work with first
11. Read contract carefully and make sure I understand it
12. Sign contract
13. Give agent what he/she needs to get the right deal at the right house with the right editor

I'll get there one step at a time.

Wish me luck!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Agent Mary Kole is running a contest. Send the first 500 words of your MG or YA, and you could win a critique! Here's the link: