Lesson From an Aspiring Author: ONE Question

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You may be wondering where I’ve run off to. My posting schedule has been on hiatus and it’s been weeks since I last talked writing with you. Don’t fear–I haven’t given up on my blog and its readers, however, it has been a struggle to balance blogging with intensive personal projects. Since the last time I provided a lesson I have started a new  manuscript, been accepted to write published book reviews, met non-fiction picture book writer Linda Stanek, and had the first two chapters of my first book critiqued by a free-lance editor.

The writing life is a busy life.

One thing I strive to do despite the high demands for my time is to continue to educate myself on craft. Before plot and characters can impact readers I have to be sure that my craft is on-point. I love running into great books on craft at the bookstore. While some of you may think books about writing sound about as dry as the Sahara, I find joy and passion in studying writing.

Lately, I’ve been reading through the Gotham Writer’s Workshop: Writing Fiction. It is a practical guide from New York’s acclaimed writing school. As I read through the book it helps with my character descriptions and plot development. One thing that I’ve focused on in my second manuscript is the idea of one major dramatic question.

Each work of fiction should be written to answer ONE pressing question. The answer to that question is what drives your reader through the pages of the book. Their hunt to know how the question will be resolved should guide the author’s writing. Stepping outside of the information pertinent the question bores readers, and concluding your story without answering the question reader’s asked throughout will leave them confused by what the book was really about.

I started to think about some of my favorite books and how the one question is revealed and answered in each work.

In The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, the question is: Will Liesel survive the war in Molching? This question arises early on as the narrator for the novel is Death and from its onset, the reader knows someone is about to die. Each page turn is a step closer to the impending Death promised in the first pages.

In The Selection by Kiera Cass, the question is: Will America be the next Queen of Illea? This question transcends the first three books of the series. At times, it seems the answer is clear, but other times the unpredictable nature of the protagonist leaves the reader wondering.

In Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis, the question is: Can Lynn survive on her own in a world without water? From its earliest pages this book describes life in a post-apocalyptic world where people are dying in a war for water. Lynn’s mother has been her rock and helped her to defend their pond from the thirsty. When Lynn’s mother is killed Lynn is faced with the challenge of survival on her own. This conflict-packed story finds its roots in the major dramatic question and all of the plot returns back to the essence of that question.

What are you writing? What’s your ONE question?

The Ameri Brit Mom

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Lesson From an Aspiring Author: Pantser

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In the writing world there are two types of people. There are the Planners and there are the Pantsers. In most areas of my life I consider myself a planner. Schedules are my best friends and I do very little without first consulting them. Routines help keep me sane and the healthiest rhythms of my life are born from my desire to maintain control.

Knowing all this you may think that as a writer I might be just as organized. You may picture me with folders on my computer that keep all my files cataloged. You may envision a giant notebook where I plan out my character’s next move and how that might be felt at various points throughout the story. You think I am a detail-oriented writer (as I often dream about too.) The reality of my writing is I’m opposite of all those things.

Every fiber of my Type-A being hates to admit I’m a Pantser.

The only thing I’m good at planning ahead when it comes to writing is when I will get my sessions. Over time I’ve learned that I’m no good at planning plot. Pre-planned drafts have proven a waste of time. My Googledrive is a conglomeration of random files. Some are manuscripts and some are ideas. I even have a few files that are just one sentence in length (something that felt prolific at the time and I hope to one day use.) There is no giant notebook where I plan out my chapters–I’ve tried it, but it doesn’t work. And details–what are those?

Throughout the past two years, I’ve really focused on finding my voice and style as an author. I’ve found that my best writing comes from organic sessions. I sit down with a cup of coffee and I let the characters lead me. I listen as they talk. I watch as they interact. And I record all of these things as they happen.

I usually start the story with a sentence that seems catchy. I have no idea where that sentence will take me, but I give myself permission to have no clue. My best work has come from this strategy.

If you were to ask me about my current manuscript and how it ends I would tell you, “I have no idea. I’m not even sure what the conflict is at that point.” If that makes you cringe do not fear–I used to cringe too. I have chosen, however, to write in this manner because it is how my best work is produced.

First drafts are always a little silly and require a ton of makeover no matter how well planned they happen to be. That’s why I enjoy the journey of being a Pantser. I let the first draft happen. I don’t stifle it with plans of my own or inject my personal agenda into the scenes. I know I will have to edit and revise regardless if I have a plan or not. So why not enjoy the suspense of exploration?

I accept my style as a Pantser because I know that in the end, stories always come together. It’s exciting to start something new and to be led on adventures as opposed to dictating the process. As a Pantser, I can say that my writing speaks for itself and I am truly the vessel it uses to tell it to the world.

As a mother so much of my life requires a plan. I need to know who needs to be where and when. I have to schedule my own writing time around everyone else’s schedule. That is another reason I enjoy being a Pantser–it’s something I can do on a whim. I allow myself to write whatever comes and I accept that it’s okay.

Any other Pantsers out there?

The Ameri Brit Mom

Lesson From An Aspiring Author: Always Write

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This week at my SCBWI meeting in the Central South Ohio Regional Chapter we had an author visit from Jennifer Maschari, author of The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price.

Throughout her presentation, Jen focused a lot on publishing. It was really helpful to hear from someone who has gone through the process before and who is actively working through the publishing of another book. There is so much about the industry that I have yet to learn.

The photo from above is from her presentation and discusses the process of traditional publishing. As you can see, it is a daunting process, but her advice is to always be writing something new. Publishing takes a really long time and if you are only working on that piece you may go years without writing something new. Exercise your mind and creativity and always always always work on that next big story. It will also help pass the time between stages in the publishing process.

I’ve found that setting routines for writing have helped me to always write. I have several projects I’m working on. I have revisions of my first book, short stories, a book I am beta reading for a fellow SCBWI member, articles for my church magazine, and I’m plowing my way through the first draft of a new story. I have to plan out how to get all these things done. If it seems like I’m blogging a little less than usual it is because I have been progressing in some of my projects. I’ve rearranged routines to fit the needs of my project list.

I can’t say I’ve mastered the routine yet. Right now I have days set aside for new writing, days for revision, and days for blogging. I am looking for new routine ideas to use my time efficiently. The writing life is a busy life especially when you tack on the fact that I also teach full-time and I have a family and friends that need my attention as well.

The most important thing, though, is that I’m writing. To be a writer isn’t to finish draft 1 and call it “done.” In fact, all of my first drafts have been pretty terrible. The journey is in revision and rewriting. We should always be working on the next big story.

The Ameri Brit Mom

Photos from: jenmaschari.com

Lesson From an Aspiring Author: YA Seminar

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Last weekend my chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) hosted authors Kelly Barson and Mindy McGinnis. The topic for the day was characterization in YA and Middle Grade fiction. It was such a fun time at the Upper Arlington Library surrounded by writers and illustrators from all points in their professions. I love any chance to absorb the wisdom of other writers. Here is a break down of the top 3 things I learned about writing characters from Mindy and Kelly:

1. Create Likable Characters

At the meeting Kelly Barson provided us a list of character traits sorted by their degree of likability. One thing you want to be sure of is the fact that your main character is liked by most. Giving them only likable traits will create a perfect character and everyone hates perfect people. The trick to creating a likable character is to balance positive traits with negative traits to create a person who is relatable for the reader. Unfortunately, the chart was copyrighted so I cannot provide that for you, but if you are wondering if you have likable characters a quick google search on character traits can be helpful. Just remember: Every character should be balanced.

2. When it Comes to Backstory, Use Caution!

I did an entire post last weekend about the importance of leaving the backstory out of the first chapter. I had no idea it would be a topic touched on in depth during the meeting. The reason that backstory isn’t always necessary is because it stalls the plot. If you find that background is needed for your particular story be sure to feather it in. You shouldn’t have full pages of backstory. Sometimes a single sentence can be extremely telling about something that happened in the past.

An example from a short story I’m currently crafting: “The last time she was this upset was before Wilson’s accident.”

This sentence explains that the upset woman has been upset before. We know that something happened to Wilson, and if you read my entire short story that would all make a lot more sense. This single sentence reveals a lot about the characters without going back and explaining that Wilson was the main character’s older brother who died from a drug overdose a few years ago. I didn’t have to relay the scene. I trust my reader will make the connections using the rest of the story. A good acronym I heard at the meeting was RUE. It should serve as a reminder to you as an author: RESIST THE URGE TO EXPLAIN.

3. Young Adult is About Children NOT For Children

When I started to cross over to Young Adult Fiction I struggled with it for a few weeks. I have an adult manuscript, but I found myself drawn to YA books and YA plots in my own writing. My struggle was a selfish one. I wondered, “Will people think I am less of a writer if I choose to write for a young adult audience?” Those musings didn’t last long because after my first workshopped piece I had my answer.

All of these years searching for my author voice culminated in my first YA piece.

It was an age group I understood and plots I could really explain. I’m a high school teacher and I live five days of the week in a YA world. I see young people who feel alone. I see young people struggling with pain. I see young people eager for new experiences. That is what helped me in my decision to focus more on YA. I don’t consider my writing to be exclusively for children. I just know that we were all at our rawest in our young adult years and those emotions and those scenarios we faced make for some of the best stories. YA isn’t for children. It is about children. And I am glad to say that the next manuscript I am working on is a YA piece.

 

Both Mindy McGinnis and Kelly A. Barson are phenomenal writers. I have interacted with Mindy on several occasions. My students read her first book Not a Drop to Drink in my English class. She was a guest speaker at our school last year as a result of the class reading. Also, for Christmas my husband sent her portions of my manuscript and I received her direct feedback. She is actually the person who suggested the SCBWI and I am so thankful she did.

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The Ameri Brit Mom

Lesson From an Aspiring Author: Chapter One

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I am two years into my amateur writing career. It’s been that amount of time since I began to publish this blog. Since then I have written a completed manuscript, started on several new stories, had two short stories and a poem published in small publications, joined an online critique group, become a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and received critical feedback from two published authors on Works-in-Progress.

My aspiration is to become a published author. Ideally I want to be published via the traditional route, but I am not completely opposed to self publishing (after I’ve given the traditional publishing industry a try.)

Two years into this writing gig I can look back and see how much I’ve grown. When I sat down to craft my first post I had no idea the road that would lie ahead and the people that would become a part of my story. I’ve learned so much about writing and I’ve gained wisdom beyond measure from successful authors.

That’s why I’ve decided to start this new writing series.

In the past, I’ve gone through a book with you on Saturday mornings. I’ve delved into chapters of books written by professionals and established my own writing voice as a result.

In this new series, Lessons from an Aspiring Author,  I want to start to share parts of my journey with you as I reflect on where I’ve been on this great charge to write books.

Today I’m starting with some HUGE advice when it comes to starting a new book.

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Chapter One

I was surrounded by strangers. I stuck out like a sore thumb as everyone else in the room seemed to be well acquainted. There were people with published books surrounding me. I couldn’t recall ever feeling more out of place than in this moment.

Then it was my turn.

All the eyes shifted my way as I was asked to join a group of others in a small circle. I joined them and handed them copies of my first chapter. One by one they started to read. The silence was deafening as I tried to interpret their facial expressions for any signs of approval.

Once they had all read the chapter, the published author within the group started off the critique, “This is a good first chapter, BUT…”

I took out a pen and soaked up her wisdom like a sponge.

Of all the things I’ve learned about the first chapter of a book one of the most important is that the first chapter should leave your reader with questions. Don’t try to give them all the answers they will need from chapter one. Make them curious. Make them intrigued. Give them enough of a glimpse into the life of your character without telling them the whole story outright.

Example excerpt from my critiqued piece: “They say that the day I was born was a tragedy. Not because I took my first breath, but because so many took their last. Fourteen years ago a group of angry men stormed into Times Square armed with their faulty religion and began to open fire on the tourists. Amongst the innocents was my Uncle Mark.”

Now, although when I sat down to start a new story it was necessary for me to know this information about my setting, it is not important for the reader to be given this knowledge on the first page. Think about The Hunger Games. Chapter One of this book opens with Katniss waking up on the morning when the tributes would be selected. Suzanne Collins doesn’t spoil the story in the first chapter telling you the history behind the thirteen districts. She tells you enough so that as a reader you can understand that Katniss’ world is different from ours, but she waits to reveal the details until you have already forged a connection to Katniss as a reader.

The focus of the first chapter is to introduce your character in a way that intrigues your reader. Introduce clues to the larger problem they will face, but refrain from giving the big conflicts away too soon. Let your reader get to know your character and focus on that as you venture through the first portion of the book.

The Ameri Brit Mom

Five Minute Friday: Safe

This week the topic for the Five Minute Friday link-up post is Safe. What is a link-up? Essentially a link-up is when you join other bloggers and write on a similar topic. You share your blog posts with one another and begin conversations via a host site. You can head over to Kate Motaung’s page to check out other entries from inspired bloggers. Here’s my five minutes of uninterrupted, unedited writing on this week’s topic:

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I’m running on a delayed schedule this week as I’ve fallen victim to an intense sinus infection. The weather has been so up and down in Ohio. Two days ago my yard was buried in a blanket of snow and now my sleeves are rolled up and my windows are open and I’m enjoying this springlike day. It’s no wonder my body feels attacked–it’s confused by all this mayhem.

As I’m beginning to feel human again and remember what it is to breathe through my nose, I’m getting back on track.

At the start of the year my husband sent me out of my safe place.

He went behind my back and signed me up for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and forced me to interact with other writers. He sent my manuscript to a highly respected author (without my permission.) As nervous as I was when I found out he had done it I knew it was an act of love that I will be forever grateful for.

If left up to me I would have continued to make excuses as to why I wasn’t ready to let successful authors read my work. But he had confidence that if he gave me a little push that I would make it in the world of professional writers. He kicked me out of my safe place of writing for the few who read my blog or my closest friends and family.

I know that he is always going to be my biggest fan. He reads everything I write and he still cheers me along. He pushes me to do uncomfortable things so that one day my dream will be realized. I’m starting to recognize that stepping out doesn’t mean forgetting about safety. It is necessary. And as long as I have my husband there giving me the confidence to take the next step I will always be safe.

The Ameri Brit Mom

The Smoke We Shared

This winter I took part in a writing contest through my online critique group. The prompt for the story was “Two Worlds” and the word limit was 1500 words. This is the story I entered in that contest.

The Smoke We Shared

By Lauren Sisley

The day we buried Archie was gray.

I had only known him for a few months, but I would never forget him.

“Almost there, Connor.” Bridget turned to me as she drove. She tried hard to be motherly during this time. After my own mother was caught with heroin twelve years ago Bridget became the woman assigned by the state to keep watch over me. “It was a lovely ceremony.” She tried to soothe my anxiety as we entered the grounds lined with tombstones.

I had no words with which to draw up a reply. Bridget gave up and continued the short drive to Archie’s plot without a word.

I watched as the hearse parked beside a red tent. I couldn’t take my eyes off of its cab. Something about the fact that Archie’s body was in the back of that car kept my attention.

Out of the row of chairs under the tent only two were occupied. Bridget sat beside me and grasped my hand as the men dressed in tailored suits brought the casket and set it above a six foot hole. The priest took his spot in front of the casket.

“Please join me in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.” He opened. My eyes did not divert from the oak casket as Bridget joined the priest in repeating a prayer. The words were foreign to me.

“Our Father who art in heaven…”

My mind went back to the first day I met Archie.

It was cold and I had just flunked my Algebra exam. I knew that bringing home the test score would mean undergoing house arrest with Bridget again. I was walking home along my usual route trembling from the frigid temperatures. I reached into the pocket of my coat and felt a small paper tube. I took it out of my pocket and lit it.

Three kids from school approached me from behind. I tried to keep my eyes down as they called after me.

“There’s that freak from school!”

“Yeah, that weird kid that doesn’t talk to anyone.”

There wasn’t enough time to run away. Before I knew it they had caught up.

I didn’t put up much of a fight when one of them punched me across the face. My vision went blurry as I was knocked around a bit more.

“What are you kids doing? Get lost!” I heard a voice from the house behind me shouting. “I’m calling the cops. Get off my property!” I took a few more hits to the face and the boys ran. They made off with my coat and cigarettes.

I laid on the pavement for a few more minutes aching from the beating.

“You alright, kid?” The man asked me. He didn’t touch me or try to help me off the ground. I took a closer look at him and saw that he was in rough shape himself. His face was leathery and scarred. His eyes were sad. Several teeth had fallen out.

“Who are you?” I questioned this stranger.

“Nevermind that. Let’s get you inside. We can call your parents in there.” The weak old man attempted to help me off the sidewalk, but in the end I had to muster the strength myself. We used each other’s bodies as crutches as we made our way up the path into his small home.

Entering his home was like stepping back into the 1940s. It smelled of molasses and his living room had wood paneled walls that were barren except for a crooked wedding photo.

“The telephone is in the bedroom. I’ll fetch it. Take a seat on the sofa.” I lowered myself gently onto his old fashioned sofa. The room was dark and there was no television. Instead, an old radio was standing in the corner of the room. From his bedroom down the hall I could hear him coughing loudly. It sounded painful. At the time I didn’t know that it was caused by the cells metastasizing on his lungs.

A few seconds after his cough I saw his silhouette emerge from the bedroom carrying something that resembled a house phone.

“What’s your house number? I’ll dial for you.”

“Bridget won’t be home. You will have to call her at work.” I answered still a little weak.

He returned ten seconds later brandishing a large book with yellow pages.

“Where she work?” He asked adjusting his bifocals on his nose.

“She cleans offices at Barrel and Dumm’s.” I replied noticing that my lip was bleeding.

The man thumbed through the book struggling to read the small print. Just as he located the number he turned and released another loud bark from his throat.

“You okay?” I questioned.

“I’m fine.” He said as though my question was the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard.

“Who am I to ask for?”

“Bridget Morris.”

“Yes, may I please speak to a Ms. Morris?” I let myself relax a little into the sofa as I imagined Bridget’s reaction to these recent events. I listened as he assessed my state to Bridget and imagined she was quite frantic on the other end. The man provided Bridget his address and then hung up. “She’ll be here within the hour.” He assured me as he walked the telephone back to his room.

He returned with a pack of cigarettes and turned on the radio as he took a seat in the recliner beside me.

“Want a light?” He offered, but I turned him down. I wasn’t about to smoke if Bridget was on her way. That would add another month to the grounding. We waited for her arrival without speaking. He read the newspaper and I stretched out on the sofa.

I felt at home in the silence.

The doorbell rang thirty minutes after their call. I know this because I watched the arm of the clock on the wall make half a revolution around the dial as I listened to the grossly outdated music on the radio. The man removed his glasses and folded up his paper before opening the door.

“Can I help you?” He asked roughly.

“Yes, I’m Bridget, I believe you have my foster son.” I could hear the fear in her voice.

“Come in. He’s on the sofa. Not much of a talker that one.” He opened the door and pointed toward me.

“Connor!” She gasped as she saw my face.

“Thank you so much, Sir.” She turned toward the man. “Where’s your coat?” She questioned me.

“They got it.”

“Let’s get you home. You’re freezing.” Before we could leave the man went to a closet in the hallway. He brought out an old coat and offered it to me. I tried to decline, but Bridget thanked him and wrapped it around me as we made our way home.

A week later I was wearing a new coat from the thrift shop and decided I would return the old man’s coat on my way home from school. I rang the doorbell and could hear coughing and cursing from within his house.

“Can I help you?” He acted as though he had never met me before.

“Yes, Sir. You let me borrow your coat last week. I just wanted to return it and say thank you.” I stood freezing as we spoke in the doorway.

“Come in.” He ordered. I entered and was met with the familiar smell of molasses. “You don’t look like that same sorry sod was here last week.” He coughed.

“I’m doing much better.” I smiled. He coughed again as he reached into his pocket and brought out a pack of cigarettes.

“Want a light?” He offered the pack to me. This time, I accepted. I reached in and took a paper tube and pulled my own lighter from my pocket. I inhaled and felt myself relax. I took a seat on the sofa where I had laid last week.

“Was that your wife?” I asked motioning my cigarette toward the wedding photo on the wall.

“Ah, yes. Beautiful right until the end.” He took a long puff and let his mind wander back to her. Another loud bark interrupted his memories.

“Are you okay?” I asked again.

He shook his head this time opening up to me about the cancer.

I would stop there six more times over the next two months. Some days he would tell me about his wife or about the war. Other days we would sit in the smoke of silence that we shared.

A few days ago I stood on his porch with my lighter ready. I knocked. No one answered.

“Ambulance left a couple hours ago. Took Archie with ‘em.” An old lady called from across the street. I knew in that moment that he was gone. I turned to walk home and smoked a cigarette in his memory.

“For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.”

I watched as they lowered Archie into the ground.

 

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