For Writers

Placeholders in the First Draft

When I was in my early twenties a psychologist told me that I had dysthymia, which is low-grade depression occurring for at least two years. Kind of like a low-grade cold all of the time. Not big enough to really stop me, but never abating either. It was a relief to hear this because before that point I didn’t have a name for how I felt.

Finding the right word to describe something is important when it comes to your health. Ditto with writing.

At the same time you don’t want to get so perfectionistic that you lose your flow, especially during a first draft.  After all, you likely are going to cut your first few chapters anyway. At least if you are me. My plots never really get going until chapter three or four or even five or six. With my current WIP, I just chopped off sixty pages! Ouch and also—so satisfying.

Anyway, if you get too attached to your word-smithing during the first draft, it can be especially daunting to cut your “darlings” later, even when it doesn’t serve your story.

During a first draft, my advice would be to plow on, but if you’d like to mark words or phrases that appear tired or generic as placeholders, you can go back and change them later. Here are some examples of typical placeholders verbs:

Nod—sure sometimes people nod but not all of the time. Sometimes when I read my WIP my characters are acting like those little bobble headed dolls people stick on their dashboards. Try to find other physical actions that are more specific and reveal more about motivation.

Smile—yes, characters need to smile. But usually you’re just trying to show that they’re happy. What are other ways that a character can reveal their happiness? But if you absolutely must have your character smile, just what kind of smile? A smirk? Are they beaming? Grinning? Leering? Try to be specific and add some details. I bet you can!

Frown–this is the flip side to smile. And everything I would say about smile, I would say about frowning.

Laugh–this is obviously related to the smile issue. And my advice is the same. And whatever you do, don’t use laugh as a dialogue tag.  For example, avoid this: “Do you really mean that,” laughed Hillary. Instead: “Yes, I do.” She laughed.

Walk—okay, it’s true. Your characters need to move from one room to another, but how do they walk? Do they shuffle? lollygag? Slink? Lope? Bounce? Clonk? There is so much you can say about a subject via the verb you select.

During the writing process of a first draft, you might feel agitated seeing all those spots that you have circled. But don’t despair. If you put the manuscript down for a few weeks or more, you’ll forget about some of the sweat and toil.

And you’ll also be able to appreciate all of those wonderful sentences.

Meanwhile, keep writing!

Yours,

Hillary

Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House). And her nonfiction picture book, If You Were a Princess: True Stories of Brave Leaders From Around the World is a look at historical and current princesses from many diverse lands who have made their mark (Simon & Schuster, August 2022). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University. In the summer, she teaches in the graduate program in children’s literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy.

She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

 

Under the Mike-roscope: Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith

If I were a book reviewer, I’d be the world’s worst book reviewer. Honestly, I stink at it. That said, I’m not a book reviewer; I’m a microbiologist. A scientist. I like to read and write middle-grade books not only for enjoyment but study them and learn from them as well. 

  • What techniques and skills do the author incorporate into their work?
  • What kept me turning pages?
  • Why did I forget to do my chores when reading this book?

And any additional questions as to why a book takes over my brain.

Today, I’m sharing Sisters of the Neverseas by Cynthia Leitich Smith, a book that has taken over my brain.

I’ll spare you my version of a summary of the book because it’ll sound a lot like my almost 4-year-old grandson describing the fireworks display on the Fourth of July. All over the place and delivered with terrific, over-the-top, and breathless enthusiasm. Instead, I’ll sum up my take on Sisters of the Neversea in three words.  

READ THIS BOOK!

As a fan of Cynthia Leitich Smith’s work, I admit I had high expectations for Sisters of the Neversea. It was on my reader radar for quite a while before its release. When I finally got my hands on a copy and read it, it did not disappoint. If fact, I’m currently listening to the audiobook immediately following a listen of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. 

One of the many things that blew my socks off with Sisters of the Neversea is in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. Being a middle-grade writer with an interest in how authors put together their books, I’ll often read the author’s notes or acknowledgments before I read the book. This time I was so stoked to start reading, that the thought to read anything but the book itself never crossed my mind. When I finished and read the Author’s Note, here’s that bit that caught my eye and hooked my storyteller radar.

“One of the most interesting and powerful things about Story is that it invites future storytellers to build on it, to reinvent, and to talk back. Like any other kind of magic, stories can harm or offer hope, even healing.”  

                                             – Cynthia Leitich Smith, Sisters of the Neversea Author’s Note

That’s money. Bulletin board material to post above the writing desk. I’m still bouncing it around in my brain.

Sisters of the Neversea is a masterclass on reinventing a classic story, especially a classic wrought with questionable representation. Cynthia Leitich Smith tells a better story than the traditional Peter Pan story. She expands the story world, and its characters, adding depth to both. The setting of Neverland itself becomes a player in the tale. Best of all, she “talks back” to the original work in a way that’s believable and imaginative.

She doesn’t hide, bury, or run from the questionable representation of the original. She addressed it and attacks it head-on. Her answer to the “redskins” and “injuns” and to the role of girls and women in Barrie’s creation, is to create fully-fleshed Native characters from different Nations and backgrounds and strong female characters throughout. 

She seamlessly weaves the reinvented narrative into the existing framework of Barrie’s work. It has this amazing way of feeling like Barrie’s original Peter Pan yet tells its own unique and contemporary story.  

One of the parts of Sisters of the Neversea I particularly enjoyed was the family dynamic. The weight and burden of the blended Roberts-Darling family’s problems seem insurmountable to Lily and Wendy. This leads to a lot of anger between them and a growing rift. Their home in Oklahoma, their parent’s marriage, and their future as sisters are all on the line. 

However, when they get separated and enter Neverland, Lily and Wendy begin to see each other and their family’s problems in a new light. By taking a step back from the day-to-day struggles at home, the step-sisters realize their problems, no matter how large, can be dealt with as a family. Talk about story magic bringing hope and healing!

Good literature makes the world a little brighter. Great literature transforms it. With Sisters of the Neversea, Cynthia Leitich Smith completely transforms the world we’ve come to associate with Peter Pan and Neverland with luminosity and truth. Under her skilled hand, the Neverland story becomes something entirely different. Something better. Much, much better.

I hope the Sister of the Neversea finds its way into the hands of young readers. I also hope it sparks them to read Barrie’s original and realize the attitudes and mindsets of yesteryear don’t have to be the attitudes and mindsets of today. Things can, and should, change as knowledge changes.

Finally, I can’t wind up this look at Sisters of the Neversea without admitting there’s a wide smile on my face. No, it’s not the amazing cover art by the late Floyd Cooper.* The smile is because I ran across a recent social media post from Cynthia about how she’s drafting a new middle-grade novel. This makes me happy for young readers. The potential for a new, transformative Cynthia Leitich Smith book has this reader on Cloud Nine.

*Judge a book by its cover, please! Floyd Cooper’s artwork captures the characters and the story in perfect fashion. No need for Peter Pan here! Lily, Wendy, and Michael beckon you to the adventure. Come on in for the ride, my friends! We are going to miss Floyd Cooper.

Note: In case you can’t tell,  I am a fan of Cynthia Leitich Smith. In the work she does on the page. In the work she does with and for the Native writing community. In the work she does for the We Need Diverse Books community and leading the Heartdrum Imprint at Harper Collins. She is a force in the kidlit industry while being one of the nicest people in the business. (Perhaps the most remarkable example of how skilled she is as a writer is the fact she had me riveted to her Tantalize YA vampire series back before I was even aware of her other work. Me! Reading YA vampire fantasy! Now that’s writing talent!)

Writing Books Takes a Crowd: Here’s How


We can write alone but we can’t get published alone.

I have found that while writing is a solitary job, to truly succeed you need to be in a room alone—and surrounded by a crowd.

The author John Green wrote, “Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.”

This is true in your creative space, but today authors are called on to live uncomfortable public lives which can be hard for introverts. We must get out of our comfort zone. It IS hard to put yourself out there as a writer when mostly we just want to hideaway in our fiction dream worlds.

But we are also SO lucky to be writers in an age where the writing community is wonderfully accessible. We can meet authors in person and online and get to know them as mentors. We can engage with our peers and share resources. Yes, it takes away from writing time, but it also opens up so many more doors for opportunities to improve our writing and get published.


I’ve found no other job like writing that involves constant change…and constant rejection. You need a positive support buoy to keep swimming in this career or you will sink. Wherever you are in the writing journey, look to elevate yourself now with people that can help you finish that first book (or second or third…) and get it to market.

Where to start? Here’s the crowd that filled my space when I was working toward getting published (and still fills my space)–and could fill yours.

Hundreds of people
I was surrounded by writers of all levels at multiple writer’s conferences. Scared stiff, I went to my first writer’s conference eleven years ago and met other writers for the first time. From this one event my entire life changed, and my network of peers expanded into an amazing circle today. Spring forward, and I was back at that conference—as a presenter. I grew into my role as an author, and putting myself ‘out there’ enabled me to do this.

Dozens of people
I surrounded myself with dozens of people as an attendee of local writer coffeehouses, author readings, and book signings. As writers we need to do this! Get out there on a regular basis in small groups and mingle with writers and readers. Online or in person. It’s the human contact we need to keep our spirits up. Sometimes I didn’t always want to leave the house, but I never regretted it. Every time I did, I met a new person or learned something new. I still am.

The same goes for connecting with dozens of folks by joining writer organizations like SCBWI, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, or International Thriller Writers (ITW). Volunteering with these organizations can play a significant role in meeting influencing people who can help your career path. In past years, I’ve volunteered for ITW doing social media for debut authors and as a contributing editor to their magazine the Big Thrill. I’ve also been an author member for the middle grade blog, Project Middle Grade Mayhem and grateful now to be part of From the Mixed-Up Files. Having mentors and peers to boost you up within your genre is gold. Many authors I’ve met this way have endorsed my books. Authors like to pay-it-forward, and someday you will too. I’ve been honored to have given three book endorsements over the years.

A Dozen People
I fell in love with writing for children with a challenge to myself. I heard of a class called How To Write A Children’s Novel in 9 Months and thought, “Wouldn’t that be different from my writing thrillers for adults?” I signed up right away. It was hard. I knew nothing about writing for kids. I hadn’t read children’s books in years. So I read and I wrote, and I learned from my teachers and my peers. And along the way I fell in love with writing for kids. You never know what road you will go down in thinking outside the box, and taking a risk. I’m glad I did.

A Handful of People
For nearly a decade (until the pandemic!) I met weekly at Wegmans Café with a wonderful group of women writers. We are slowly meeting up again. We call ourselves the Weggie Writers (sounds like Peggy not wedgie!). This informal group grew over time to be eight of us. Writing across diverse audiences and genres. We didn’t all come each week, but when we did we sat and wrote side-by-side. We gave advice, shared resources, and offered shoulders to cry on. We were a giant brain collective that elevated each other! Since getting together, we’ve celebrated getting agents and book deals and MFA graduations. We are awesome. I hope you have your awesome handful.

One-on-One
I’m so lucky to have a critique partner, Erica George, who also writes for kids. We get together for a writing day once a month, go on retreats several times a year, and critique each other’s work. Our friendship and feedback have been critical in getting our books published—and keeping each other going through rejection. I’ve learned in this publishing industry that no matter how many books you’ve published, you will continue to experience rejections and may need to move on to new projects if one doesn’t sell. OR revise the manuscript that isn’t selling OR wait to go on submission again when the market is hot once more for that particular story. My critique partner and I now even share the same literary agent (my second agent—for if one doesn’t work out, don’t be afraid to seek a new champion for your work). Finding that one special person you connect with on the same level can be key to elevating your success.

Once you get a book deal, it’s more people in your room of course! An agent, a publisher, a publicist, and more editors—and editing. Check out my article on the 8 steps to an agent, a publisher, and a two-book deal.

And once your book comes out, you can chuckle over the multiple ways folks butcher the title. Because they will—and it can be funny!

Here are the funniest Blooper Titles of my first middle grade book, Joshua and the Lightning Road:

Joshua and the Lightning Tree
Joshua and the Lightning Rod
Joshua and the Lightening Road
Joshua and the Lightening Rod
The Joshua Tree (one of my fave U2 albums!)

I’d like to see the cover design for these. Wouldn’t you?

Getting published is not all challenging work, of course. There are fun rewards like the week your book releases, doing school visits, talking with readers, getting great reviews, and book trailers. Check out my new one for Secret Beneath the Sand. The crowd in my room helped this book come to life 😊.

 

Do you surround yourself with people as a writer? Do you recommend any other ways to surround yourself with a strong writer network? How have you benefited from a writer network?