Five Long Years

Image of clock face
Time

It took me a long five years to write BURNED, the Pony Club-based middle grade equestrian mystery now available from ShopPonyClub.org and Amazon.com (Be sure to use the SMILE program and designate Pony Club as the recipient!) Even during the first draft of the book, I knew that capturing Sophie’s voice was going to take a lot of effort.

I have been a twelve-year-old girl, but that was a long time ago. Fortunately, there are a lot of Pony Club members I could use as example of how that age thinks and speaks. Many people think that writing a children’s book is easier than writing for adults. I’ve done both. I can say definitively that writing a child’s point of view is much harder to capture once you’ve gotten to full adulthood. It was discouraging, to write that first draft and find that I had to toss the entire thing. Despite my best effort at the time, Sophie sounded too old for the audience, and not at all like someone I would have liked as a friend. Then there was the story itself.

The original problem I set for Sophie was one that I thought all horse kids would relate to: the possibility of losing her horse, Cricket. She was supposed to figure out how to raise the money for her partial lease, something I know in my heart a Pony Club kid could do. (For one thing, Pony Club families support one another, and I suspect her Club or Center would help her through that financial spot in her life.) But when I pitched that story to editors, many of them said they didn’t believe a 12 year old could raise that kind of cash. Little did they know the support of the horse community, or the resourcefulness of a horse-crazy young woman.

After a Big House editor told me that the problem needed to be world-changing, I faced a choice: toss yet another draft of the book and quit, or try a third time.

Sketch of two children flanking a horse bursting out of a burning barn/
Fire!

I went home and burned down the barn. Not literally of course. I’m rather attached to my barn. But one of the barns in the book caught fire. As much as it hurts me to admit it, that pesky editor was right. It made my pulse race to write that scene. Hard work to write the book from the beginning again, but worth it. BURNED is a much more exciting read with that kind of danger added.

Once I made that change in the plot, instead of raising money being the sole problem, Sophie must also grapple with the question of adults behaving badly. When her mother is accused of wrongdoing, the very real threat to Sophie’s relationship with Cricket becomes secondary to her anxiety about her mom. Fortunately, Sophie has great friends, and the full support of her Uncle Charlie, and her father, even though he lives all the way across the country from Sophie’s home in Maryland.

Sophie is smart, and strong, both outside and in, just like the Pony Club members I work with as a Chief Horse Management Judge. Horsemanship teaches all kinds of mad skills, and I gave Sophie many of the ones I see most: ability to put together facts and come out with a logical answer, resourcefulness, and I also added the loyalty to friends that serves so many of our barn families so very well.

As part of the story, I had to test Sophie. I did that by leaving enough clues about several possible bad guys so that she had to work for the solution to her mom’s problem. When I got to the end of the book, it was a relief to find that she was up for the job.

Young riders reading BURNED.At my recent signing at Championships in Kentucky, several young riders came up to tell me how much they enjoyed the book. They liked Sophie’s resilience and her ability to pick herself up and get back on the horse no matter what happened to her. Just like writing this book three times before I got it right, Pony Club kids try, try, and try again until they succeed.

Julie Herman
MysteryGarden.com

This Blog post originally ran on the Pony Club Pizza, where Pony Club piles on the knowledge.

Chopping off the Fish Head

Fish Heads

I have been waiting for several months for the latest revision to perk a bit on the back burner before jumping back in.

Just before I turned in my manuscript for the SCBWI conference critiques, it hit me. I had it all wrong.

When my husband goes fishing, he has the presence of mind to gut the fish and chop off the head before he tosses the fish into the cooler. He knows how I feel about fish. I like them fried, broiled, sautéed, but never ever with the head on.

Readers like their books the same way. Appetizing, without a stinky dried up piece of inedible flesh hanging about on their plate.

Writers often have to know so much more than readers need  or want to know about what is going on in the background. Writers need that background noise to give us insight into characters motivations and history. When I write my initial drafts, there is so much extra information on the page that the book is often twice as long as it needs to be. (Still trying to figure out a more efficient way of figuring it all out!) Thus, writers often need to prune their manuscripts before it goes to agent, editor, and reader.

I was fortunate enough to get into a novel revision workshop a month before the deadline for my seven minutes of fame with a hot agent. I took my recently completed middle grade novel featuring a young girl who lives for horses. (Sound like anyone you know?) The workshop went like this. We were teamed up with three other writers. We sent out manucripts to each of the other three writers and they did a detailed critique. My results? All three people who read my manuscript picked the eighth chapter as the first strong chapter. That meant the opening of the book contained seven weak chapters in a row. Ouch!

Not all that many readers are going to stick it through to the eighth chapter just on the off chance that the book will get interesting . . . eventually. So I started reading the book at the first strong chapter, Chapter Eight. The story still made sense and moved quickly…yes there were some key things missing, but it was clear what had to be done.

Fish Head. Whack. First six chapters hit the NotUsedMaterial.doc file. Voila.

I reworked the first page of the Chapter Seven, aka new Chapter One, smoothed the rest of it a bit, then sent it in and began to work on another project. After all it would be another two months before I got to sit down and listen to the notes the agent had for me on the piece.

Of course I spent some of that time worrying. Had I cut it too close to the action? Six chapter off the front of a manuscript is an awful lot of material to cut. Would the characters and their relationships still be understandable?

Evidently yes, because when I sat down with my critiquer, she said it read well. Not well enough that she wanted to rep it, but she did give me loads of great notes to work from, but all in all a much more positive outlook from this than I got last year.

So now all I have to do is rewrite the rest of the story so that it 1) fills enough pages to actually be a book and 2) keep it exciting and satisfying enough that someone will want to read it all the way through.

 

Prompt me?

Last night’s SCBWI meeting was great fun. Pat Miller brought writing exercises from her favorite writing books. She sure can pick ’em – both the books and the exercises were terrific.

Her handout featured a neat quote:

Being a real writer means being able to do the work on a bad day.
– Norman Mailer

Her choices of Books for Writers?

30 Steps to Becoming a Writer by Scott Edelstein, Running Press, 2005

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark, Little, Brown, 2006

The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises by James Scott Bell. Writers Digest Books, 2009

The Write-Brain Workhook: 366 Exercises to Liberate Your Writing by Bonnie Neubauer. Writer’s Digest Books, 2006

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. Harper Collins, 1990

Pat started her talk by sharing her favorite tip from book number one: keep a writing journal.

I carry a slim one in my purse at all times. Useful for longer pieces of writing, notes at meetings, musings, and stray ideas knocking at the door of my imagination. I also use 750words.com to do my Morning Pages. (Anyone who knows Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way knows all about these.)

Then we carried on with a writing exercise: Write a scene totally in dialogue:

“It must have been really hot in here for that to melt. I know, hand me that spatula.”
“You can’t use that.”
“What would you use?”
“A knife?”
“That would scratch the paint.”
“A spatula will scrape it too.”
“Not if you hand me the plastic one.”
“It’s a bookshelf, not a non-stick pan.”
“Fine, give me the knife. To hell with the paint.”

What does this sound like to you? (I meant it to be two people bickering about how to get a melted candle off a bookshelf.)

Book Two brought the exercise:

Take a character and outline three expected outcomes from the scene in question. Now outline three unexpected outcomes.

Pat suggested taking a groundhog and having him fall ill the day before Groundhog’s Day, and then the doctor tells him he has to stay in bed for two days.

Expected: stands up and falls down
Gives clothes to friend to have him imitate him
Goes under the covers and won’t come out.
Unexpected:
Dies (Okay, so I am a mystery writer. Deal.) As a ghost no shadow so winter goes on.
Pops up and is promptly sick all over the place. “Groundhogs aren’t green. Impostor!”
Hires a Honey Badger to take his place.

The room was really into it by this time, so exercise three was warmly received. (Frankly, this may be exercise four, but think of me kindly as I sit here typing madly away when the doc says I ought to be in bed resting my neck.)

Write the worst paragraph you possibly can.

We met by the tamborine band so I know you couldn’t have heard me when I told you about my book so I thought I’s write it all down and mail it to you cause this is the best idea I’ve ever had and I’ve had a few. I want you to be the one to discover me. The groundhog dies. Really. Dead as a doornail. So they can’t see him. Or his shadow. Get it? Anyway, read the book.

Pat showed us her No Thank You book, a wonderful compilation of Rejection or “No Thank You” letters received over the years. She filed them immediately into a folder (With page protectors no less!) That way when she got rejections she could feel like she was building a future prop to share with classrooms when she did school visits. Great hint: She files the version of the story with the rejection so that she can keep track of the changes as it goes along.

Fourth – or third, remember I was working on scratch paper because I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been and left my slim little book at home. Plus, see previous note about neck.

Write about a sunny May morning…..merged with slinky. Begin with: When I

When I hit the floor that morning, I found ricocheting back into bed. That had never happened to me before, but then I’d never turned 13 before either. Later, when I went to slapsh my face in the bathroom, the water bounced off my skin onto the mirror.
“Oh no,” Mom said when she saw me bounce my way across the kitchen to clutch at the chair by the table. “that spell must have ricocheted when I shot it at your father last night. Hold on,” she said, rummaging in the spice drawer. “Aha. Now hold still” and she blew ginger….

The last exercise was about putting a familiar character in an unfamiliar place:

The prompt she gave us was Goldilocks

Goldilocks stared in the mirror, green eyes stared back at her, a little white showing all around. Her gaze darted upward and another moan escaped her throat. Snow White would sure crow when she saw this. Who went to the Prince’s Ball with green hair?

 

It was hard to come down from the high of all those exercises to the mundane business of the chapter, but that has its place in the order of things and there was plenty of great news. Lots of new folks in attendance, so that was a nice thing to see as well. Welcome!

 

 

Pay Dirt

Picture of CheckI did an interview today. Don’t get me wrong, this is not my first rodeo. I’ve done loads of interviews, but this time, I’m getting paid.

Reminds me of when royalty statements came with a check.

It feels good to have income coming in. It is amazing how many writers I know who write for pennies per grueling hour upon hour creating and then revising their prose just so someone can come up to them at a conference and say, “Gee, I downloaded your book from ElRippoffSite.com and loved it.” Notice they did not say they paid for it. Many readers think that writers write simply for the satisfaction of having someone they don’t know read their work. Don’t get me wrong, that’s kinda cool, but the whole work for getting paid thing works for me too. Especially when I get my electric bill.

So how do you go about paying for someone’s work? You can do it the old fashioned way and go into a bookstore and look for the books that leap off the shelf into your hands and beg you to read them. Or you could ask for my books specifically, and, when they don’t carry them, you could – gasp – order them. I know. Delayed gratification doesn’t play well in my house either. The truth is that most authors’ hard work is not carried in all bookstores. Even when the author works hard, play by the industry’s rules and rewrite until their eyeballs bleed, submit to agent after agent and collect enough rejection slips to paper their garret – learning a little about what works on the page and what doesn’t over a period of years – and then, finally, get that contract promising a tiny check upon submission of the completely revised novel. You get paid more if and only if you earn our your advance. Which is what the pittance is called. Don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to pay my electric bill for the year with $2000. (Notice I didn’t even mention rent or water or gas or…you get the idea.)

Back to how to pay for a writer’s work. You can order the book online from any number of places, my favorite being Murder by the Book in Houston. Yeah, you’ll have to pay shipping, but if you order it from your local bookstore, then you don’t. (Plus, then the bookseller in your town will have heard of my books and might, just might, order more than one.)

Then there’s the e-version. Mine are not quite out in that format yet, but machinations have begun to make it so. Once it is accomplished, here’s what you do: Go to Indiebound.com , search for Murder by the Book in Houston, then look me up. (Again, not yet, cause hey, I’m not quite there.) But once I am, then you’d download the book through Indiebound.com and read it on your e-reader. (Yes, even KindleFire can read books from Indiebound.org and you can even set this device to order from stores other than Amazon.

So pick an author, say Miranda James, whose excellent new book just came out. Click on over to Indiebound.org and take a gander through Murder by the Book’s stock. Chances are you’ll find James’ latest book there – plus a whole lot more.

Happy Reading.