Writing by Hand

Readers of The Rosemary Spell will recall that Rosemary draws frequently on the books she’s read, and most of these are books from the real world, such as Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. However, Rosemary’s favorite book is a fictional … Continue reading

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Crutch Words

I like to nod, then look at that, or so it seems.

Anyone who reads drafts of my writing–my agent, my editor, my critique partners–may know already the significance of that strange sentence. Even readers of this post who have never picked up one of my novels may detect the dull drag of filler. They may realize, as my go-to readers know with certainty, what the words ‘like,’ ‘nod,’ ‘look,’ ‘seem,’ ‘then,’ and ‘that’ have in common. These are the six words that I overuse.

We all have words we lean on when we write. The reasons we think we need them are varied, but most of the time, we don’t need them at all. Still, we lean on them so heavily they cause a metaphoric limp in our sentences. I think of them as crutch words.

My six words slow my writing down. They take up space and get between my reader and the story. Your crutch words likely do the same.

One of the final stages of revision for me is getting rid of as many instances of my crutch words as I can. To do this, I follow a four-step process:

1. I copy and paste my whole novel into a word frequency counter, like this one. This results in a count of all the words in the document, so I can see exactly how many times I use each word.

2. I review the list, making sure the most frequent words (aside from articles, pronouns, and conjunctions) are character names or key concepts. I make a sub-list of any words that I already know I have a habit of overusing, and I keep an eye out for any new crutch words.

3. I open my document in Word and use the ‘find’ command to search for each occurrence of each of those words.

4. I assess each use of each crutch word. I make the careful decision to leave some of them as is, but I take most of them out.

Taking them out is often a simple matter of deleting. Sometimes I can replace the overused word with one that does a better job of conveying my meaning. Sometimes I need to rewrite the sentence.

As I go through this process, I try to figure out why I overuse these particular words. If I can understand what leads me to lean on certain words, I can work to repair those weaknesses and eliminate the need to lean at all.

For instance, I use ‘like,’ as many of us do in speech, to hold whatever follows at arm’s length. I’m reluctant to say boldly, ‘This is the most beautiful snowfall I’ve ever seen,’ so I soften the statement with the addition of a filler word, ‘This is like the most beautiful snowfall…’ I’m sure you recognize the construction. Very occasionally, there is a place for this sort of syntactic hedging-of-bets in fiction, but in nearly every case, I remove ‘like’ and often revise to do a better job of owning whatever I’m saying.

I’ve also come to understand why I lean on ‘look’ and ‘seem.’ Both of these words articulate elements of a character’s viewpoint that should be implicit. I don’t need to say, ‘Adam looks at Shelby and sees she is worried.’ I can just say, ‘Adam sees Shelby is worried.’ Obviously, he’s looking at her.

Many of the words I overuse are essentially notes to myself that I failed to take out of the text. They are like illustrator notes. Maurice Sendak might have included the bracketed instruction [Max romps with the Wild Things,] but he didn’t need to keep that sentence in his text because the illustration successfully depicts what the sentence says. The same thing is true in a novel. [Adam looks] is me telling myself what’s happening, but if I’ve written what follows well, I will have successfully illustrated the action and don’t need to include the comment.

In the manuscript I most recently revised, I found that, though I still lean too heavily on ‘nod,’ a word that rarely does any good, I have significantly reduced my reliance on it. This small victory comes from being mindful of my crutch words and eliminating them as I go.

It may never be possible to discard the crutches altogether, but the four steps described above strengthen the gait of my sentences, making them strong enough to carry my readers along.

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A Tale of Two Agents

A very specialized sub-genre of blog post is the author’s story of how she got her agent. I never told my story, and then it turned out my story was still in process, so it’s a good thing I waited.

Let me say at the start that I desperately wanted to get an agent via the slush pile. I wanted this because I was disheartened by the many stories I read that included phrases like “my cousin’s friend” or “I was seated next to X at a wedding” or “after ten years at such-and-such publisher.” It seemed that nearly every account I read described an author finding an agent through a contact or a special circumstance. I wanted my story to offer hope to aspiring authors who don’t have contacts or special circumstances.

I queried and queried. I met agents at my regional SCBWI conference and had great conversations with them. I queried them afterwards. I was rejected and rejected and rejected. Or, rather, because so many agencies follow a no-response protocol, most of my queries were met with deafening silence. Sometimes I got requests for partials or fulls. Some of those requests were followed by encouraging rejections. Some languished with no response. This should all sound familiar to anyone who has ever entered into the query fray.

The unique part of my experience was that I had an offer from a foreign publisher, and I needed an agent to negotiate the contract. This was great, of course, but it was also highly unusual. Foreign rights are supposed to come after domestic publication, not before. In any case, I didn’t just want an agent; I needed an agent in order to negotiate this foreign contract. I grew increasingly desperate.

I decided that if most people got their agents through contacts, I needed to be creative in activating my networks. I attended Carleton College, a liberal arts college in Minnesota with fiercely loyal alumni, and I thought, “Surely, someone who went to Carleton is a literary agent.” I searched the alumni directory, and discovered George Nicholson, one of the most respected children’s agents in the business, graduated from Carleton.

I emailed him. It wasn’t exactly a query. It was more a request for guidance about the peculiar situation of the foreign contract. He responded within five minutes, inviting me to send him my manuscript. A couple of months later, I met George for lunch. It was the first of several conversations that would deepen my knowledge of the history and current state of children’s publishing. It ended with an offer of representation.

George negotiated the contract for La Finestra del Temps (Barcelona: Cruïlla 2012) and sought an American home for the book. Meanwhile, I wrote The Rosemary Spell. When it was ready, I sent it to George, and he immediately suggested setting the Catalan book aside and shifting our efforts to my new book. He sent it to Dinah Stevenson at Clarion Books. She loved it. We signed a contract.

And that’s the story I would have told if I’d gotten around to telling my agent story, but it turned out to be only the first part of the story.

In February 2015, just before I got to see the beautiful cover Clarion designed for The Rosemary Spell, George unexpectedly passed away. He touched so many lives and so many stories, and his death was a terrible loss for children’s publishing. My relationship with him was brief compared to those who had worked with him for thirty or forty years, and I feel privileged to have been taken under his wing even for a short time. It is an extra sadness to me that he never got to see The Rosemary Spell in its beautiful, finished form.

After George died, I held off on looking for a new agent, largely because I didn’t yet have a new manuscript that was ready to share. Time passed. I wrote. I revised. When the time was right, I began to send out queries.

I thought it would be different this time around. I am a published author. My debut novel has been well received—it got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. I have contacts in the industry.

Though my query letter was somewhat different, the process turned out to be much the same. My contacts were kind and generous with their time, but they did not lead me to offers of representation. It turns out there is no secret hand shake that allows published authors to bypass the query quagmire. I sent out queries. I got some requests for material, some rejections, and, as before, lots of silence. I was wrong to presume that my network and my special circumstances would lead me to an agent.

In the end, I rose up from the slush pile, just as I’d hoped to do at the start. A friend suggested Bridget Smith at Dunham Literary might be a good match for me, and when I looked her up, I agreed. But I didn’t have any special in. I just sent a query, following the agency guidelines. And I waited. She asked to see the full manuscript. I allowed myself to feel hopeful. Even before we spoke, the relationship felt promising.

And then we arranged a time to talk. The conversation was comfortable, productive, and inspiring, and it ended with her offering to represent me. I followed the protocol of contacting the other agents who were considering the manuscript, but I knew Bridget was the right match for me. It gave me great joy to accept her offer, and as I work with her comments on my manuscript, I can already see how she will help me to be a better writer.

So that’s my story.

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Marble House Project

I have spent the past two-and-a-half weeks at an artist’s residency in Dorset, Vermont. The Marble House Project is a truly amazing residency that offers eight artists of various kinds unlimited time to make art. Here with me are two other writers, two filmmakers, a visual artist, a singer-songwriter, and a dancer-choreographer. Being in this place with these people has honestly been a life-changing experience. I will reflect more deeply in a future post (coming soon, I promise), but for now, I’ll let a few pictures tell the story.

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Finding my David

It seems to me there are two ways to liken writing a story to making a sculpture: the story can be molded from a shapeless mass of clay or it can be hewn from a solid block of stone. Both similes are useful. Both reveal truths about the art of fiction. Perhaps one writer makes stories in both ways, any given story requiring a different craft.

I have spent some months picking my way through the early stages of a new book. This involves free writing and false starts, note taking and self-directed writing exercises, and lots and lots of thinking. Most writers move through these stages in one way or another.

For me, an important part of developing a story is paring away the bits that don’t belong. I often begin with an idea that’s too complicated, and I must peel layers away, until I arrive at the kernel of the story. I must find the sculpture in the block of stone.

I choose a rock. I see potential in it. I have lots of ideas about it, and I apply my chisel. Soon, a shape emerges. I’m excited. “Look!” I cry to my friends and family. “Look, it’s a story!” And it is, but it’s rough hewn and unbeautiful.

I sit and stare at the story-to-be, and I decide which bits of rock to polish, which to cut away. Again, I apply my chisel. The shape of the story grows more definite as I remove elements. I pare away a sub-plot. I carve off a character. “Ah, there it is,” I say.

But inevitably more work must be done. More rock must fall away before I find the true story, a small gem of a thing.

I like to think I will know the story when I see it. Like Michelangelo recognized David when he found him in the marble, I will recognize my story when it becomes a solid and well-wrought thing.

Yet, the truth is, I drafted this post two months ago. I thought then that I had found the David in my rock, yet here I am, still chipping away at the marble. I’ve learned that I must never put the chisel away.

 

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What Parents Need to Know about the Magical Power of Re-Reading Books

It’s been a good month for me in terms of getting my thoughts on reading and writing out to a larger audience via popular media. Here is an opinion piece on re-reading that appeared on Fox News Online:

“…the Magical Power of Re-Reading Books”

Regular readers of this blog will recognize some of the themes: books help us work out who we are, and re-reading is a way of checking in with the best parts of ourselves.

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3 Lessons I Learned About Realism from Mentor Texts

I was delighted to be invited to write a guest post for Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog over at Writer’s Digest. This blog has been a great resource for me, and it is such a pleasure to get to contribute to it.

You can read the post by clicking here.

 

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Breathing Shakespeare Like Air

One of my favorite parts of The Rosemary Spell is the classroom scene in chapter 3. Mr. Cates reads Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55 out loud, and Rosemary and Adam, along with their classmates, work to figure out what it means. At the end of the lesson, Mr. Cates says, Shakespeare “inhabits the English language like oxygen inhabits air. We breathe him in even when we don’t know it.”

I believe this to be true all day, every day, but these days, our consciousness of Shakespeare in our air and in our imaginations is heightened — April 23, 2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. This quadricentennial has prompted a slew of Shakespeare events, including performances, talks, exhibitions, and many, many other commemorations of the Bard’s life and work. At my university, there will be a Shakespeare open mic: people can read or recite their favorite verses, lines, and speeches. I’m already signed up to read Sonnet 55, and I’ll do my best to channel Mr. Cates. Of course, I will also read Ophelia’s speech from Hamlet: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance…”

In anticipation of this 400th anniversary, I was interviewed by fellow author Pamela Brunskill for an article that is available now at News-o-Matic, a great news resource for children ages 7-10. [Check out Pam’s outstanding teacher’s guide to The Rosemary Spell!] I am posting the interview here as a way to celebrate Shakespeare’s life and his contributions to all of our lives. I’ll keep celebrating over the next few days and hope you will, too.

-How do you see Shakespeare as relevant for kids who haven’t read Shakespeare yet? Why should they read him when they get older?

Shakespeare wrote plays and poems about some of the most important parts of being a person, like love and family and memory, so anyone of any age can find meaning in Shakespeare’s words. Also, he was extraordinarily gifted in how he put words together to make meaning, and all readers can appreciate the beauty and magic of his writing.

-What is your favorite Shakespeare work and why?

Part of what I love about Shakespeare is that he writes so many different types of texts–comedies, tragedies, histories, and poems–so it’s hard to pick just one, but I do think Hamlet is my favorite of all. It’s about memory and loss and moving on, themes that are really timeless.

-What influences does he have on modern day life that kids (and adults) may not be aware of?

In my novel THE ROSEMARY SPELL, a character says that we breathe Shakespeare like air, and I believe this is true. Shakespeare invented so many of the words and phrases that we use in English (like “zany”!). You could really say he created the English language as we know it. So, if our ideas are in some ways shaped by the language we use, then it’s fair to say that we build our lives on a foundation Shakespeare laid 400 years ago.

-Why should we celebrate his death with a holiday now even though he died 400 years ago?

Just like we celebrate the lives of other people who made important contributions to life as we know it, we should celebrate Shakespeare. A poet and wordsmith is an explorer and a leader and a role model all in one person. Plus, I can’t think of anything more worth celebrating than the lasting impact of books and words!

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Essentials III — The Writing Community

I haven’t written an “essentials” post in a while. These are posts in which I reflect on a wide range of things that are essential to my writing life. So far, I’ve tackled the double asterisk and my wonderful critique group – a wide range indeed. Today, I turn to the rich community of fellow writers who offer wisdom and support and steady shoulders to stand on.

Writing can be a lonesome task. I spend hours alone with my computer and my writing journal and my imagination. I happen to have a job that puts me in almost daily contact with people who love books and writing, but many writers aren’t so lucky–some have jobs that give them little creative sustenance; some spend all their time writing and thus nearly all their time alone.

Perhaps because of this isolation, writers are often eager participants in formal and makeshift communities. These might be critique groups that meet regularly or casual gatherings of fellow writers who happen to live near one another; regional or national associations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators that host online communities as well as conferences; workshops or classes or residencies; or any number of virtual communities, support and friendship offered via listserv, guest post, and tweet. I have benefited from all these types of communities, and I could devote a post, or several, to each one, but for now, I will highlight three.

I cannot say enough good things about the workshops and space offered by the Highlights Foundation. I attended a week-long whole novel workshop there in 2014 with faculty mentors Laura Ruby and Anne Ursu. The workshop advanced my understanding of the writing craft, offered invaluable feedback on my work-in-progress, and provided me with friendships that continue to sustain me. When I have felt overwhelmed by unexpected turns in my writing life, I have called upon the community I found at Highlights and I’ve been grateful to discover that community is with me still. So grateful, in fact, that I returned to Highlights a year ago for an “UnWorkshop,” a time to write in the peaceful environment they provide, fed by their fabulous chef, and free from the distractions of my regular life. A most delightful and unexpected bonus was that a small group of women I happened to have met years before at the Eastern PA SCBWI Pocono Retreat was UnWorkshopping at the same time, and I had the chance to reconnect with this wonderfully supportive community of writers. I am hopeful I can get to Boyds Mill for another UnWorkshop soon, and even if I can’t make it back there for awhile, Highlights and the people I met there will always be a vital part of my writing community.

Fearless Fifteeners is an online group of YA and MG authors whose works debuted in 2015. I came to the group fairly late in the year–I learned of its existence while at the Highlights UnWorkshop, actually–but they welcomed me, and I have found the group incredibly supportive. This community provided publicity when my book came out, and it has been a great resource. On our private proboards, we post questions and share problems, garnering the advice of writers who also have recently negotiated contracts, are trying to figure out how to approach booksellers, struggle to digest reviews, have great tips for school visits, etc. Sometimes the person you most need to talk to is the person who just moments ago was exactly where you are now. Fearless Fifteeners has been that community for me.

At the other end of the spectrum are people who I knew before any of us were writers. I happen to have two good friends who have become children’s authors, but I knew them back when they were just regular people doing other things. Both of these people are veteran authors now, and both have been extraordinarily valuable resources for me, generous with their time and wisdom, offering advice about the craft, business, and pleasure of writing. The guidance and friendship of these people who know me as me yet readily accept me as writer has been a bedrock as I’ve built books.

It remains true that I mostly write alone, but, as you see, being a writer is not at all lonesome. I am buoyed by the kindness and wisdom of many author-friends, and I take pleasure and strength from my conversations with them. Whether we are talking about books we love or figuring out how to write books other people will love or trying to find the best ways to reach the readers who already love our books, we love talking with each other, sustaining each other, and building together a community that loves and makes and celebrates books.

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Book Launch Photos

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It’s been one month since the wonderful launch event for The Rosemary Spell, held December 4th at my local Barnes & Noble. I’m so grateful to all the people who came–there was standing room only! Here are just a few pictures. Enjoy!

 

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If you’d like me to speak at your school, library, or bookstore, please contact me at vzauthor@gmail.com.

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