For Writers

For Those Who Write Short: How to Lengthen Your Manuscript

In online and in-person writing circles, I often hear fellow writers bemoan having to cut down their lengthy manuscripts. “Oh no!,” they wail. “I have to cut 30,000 words!” My problem is a different one. I write short. My first drafts tend to be one-half to two-thirds the suggested word counts. I used to feel insecure about this, but now I think this is my process. I feel a little like a painter—I do the broadbrush outline first, then with each draft add more detail and depth. I’ve come up with a few ways to add, so in case you are my fellow traveler on this narrow road, I share them with you.

Add Physical Descriptions

I’ll can get all the way to the end of my first draft and realize I have never given my main character a physical description. Not a hair color, eye color, even a race. Part of me thinks, it shouldn’t matter! The reader can fill in whoever they want! But it can be distancing for the reader if they can’t picture your character. Not only should you include a physical description, but you probably need to mention that physical description more times than seem appropriate. Do you know how many times JK Rowling told us that Ron has red hair? A lot, my friends. A whole lot. Even in book seven. When reading, I didn’t even notice it, but when I started looking for it, it seemed absurd. All of those reminders, though, make Ron seem like a living, breathing person, whom I might run into at the Leaky Cauldron.

Describe Places

Your main character’s home, school, soccer field, favorite spot in the woods—all of the important places where he or she experiences events–should be described. This is a great opportunity to use the setting to show us more about the character. Does the soccer field feel like freedom or dread? The description should show us that.

Check the Calendar

It is likely that some holiday happens during the timeline of your book. Have you included it? If it’s the start of the school year, you’ve got the major Jewish holidays, and then Halloween. Summer includes Fourth of July. Your character has a birthday, right? Or his or her friends or family members do? Think about writing those up. They might be interesting scenes to play around with.

Give Your Main Character Friends

I heard an editor mention that one of the consistent issues she sees in middle grade and young adult manuscripts is that the main character doesn’t have friends. “You guys, it’s really weird if they don’t have friends,” she said. “If they don’t, there needs to be some explanation for that.” Even if your character is alone on a spaceship, he or she should remember friends from back home, and if you can find a pet or at least a pet rock, that would be good. Side characters in general are a great opportunity to flesh out your character and introduce new conflicts.

Figure Out Where You’re Cheating

Sometimes, the reason my book is short is because I’m gliding over the hard parts. I want to get from A to B, but I’m not entirely sure how it would happen, so I just skip that part. This type of thing drives readers crazy. You have to do the work. But you don’t have to do it alone. This is a great spot to phone a friend. Ask a fellow writer (or anyone, really) to brainstorm with you. “Here’s what’s happening and where I need to go,” you’ll say. “What do you think might get them there?” It’s amazing what people who haven’t been living in the book like you have will come up with. Even if they don’t have the magic bullet solution, their fresh ideas may spark something in you that will get you to the answer you need.

Fix a Problem

There is likely some issue with your manuscript that you’ve identified, or that beta readers point out consistently. Maybe people aren’t connecting with your main character, or the conflict doesn’t seem intense enough, or the pacing is too slow. It may be possible to address that problem through a subplot, or adding another character. Brainstorm solutions; try to come up with at least twenty possibilities. Talk them over with other writers, and get their ideas, too. You’ve got the space! Consider yourself lucky, and use it to your advantage.

 

Finally, maybe writing short isn’t all bad. The book that made me cry most recently (Kate DiCamillo’s Lousiana’s Way Home) comes in at a slim 40k. One of my all-time favorite books, David Almond’s Skellig, is just shy of 34k. You can pack an emotional wallop–and plenty of laughs–without oodles of words. Don’t add text just to lengthen. Say what you need, and trust that it’s enough.

 

Query Cowbells, Yard Art, and Other Ways Authors Celebrate (and Why)

I’ve been reminded lately that celebration is something we should do more often. In the writing world, we are happy when we get to make big announcements – book deals, releases, signing with an agent. Those announcements almost always lead to a celebratory dinner, a launch party, a champagne toast, or a hearty round of “Huzzah!” on social media.

But those BIG announcements can be a long time coming. Some writers are still waiting and working toward them.

That’s why I was so excited when critique partner and illustrator Jane Dippold presented our critique group members with Query Cowbells.

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According to Jane’s detailed instructions for use, one should:

  • Ring the Query Cowbell once with extreme exuberance upon hitting “send” on any email query. Twirl in a circle like a puppy and settle into your favorite spot. You did it!
  • Shake the Query Cowbell vigorously two times upon receiving any form rejection: once for perseverance and once for your amazing, but not yet accepted, manuscript.
  • Upon receiving a personal rejection with vague but important revision suggestions, put the Query Cowbell down and REVISE!  Ring the Query Cowbell softly, once, when you finally go to bed at 3 A.M.
  • There are many more Query Cowbell instructions, but you get the idea. If you are submitting, you have reasons to celebrate! 

soup

Author Sarah Aronson has one of my favorite reasons for celebrating. “Every time I get to page 100 of a draft, I make this soup,” she says.  100-Page Party Soup. Why not? Click here for her recipe and you can make it yourself.

Author/Illustrator Lita Judge celebrates in really BIG way. She explains, “I have always felt a strong connection to Stonehenge and other ancient rock circles. I fell upon the idea that I would erect my own stones, adding a pillar each time I finish a book. When I step into the yard or look out my windows the pillars remind me of all the projects I have been fortunate enough to create. Each one is hard won and will stand for my lifetime. They are my special way of celebrating this rich life of creating.” 

Lita’s husband Dave sets an 800-pound stone in their yard.

Lita poses with three of her celebratory monuments.

Author Nancy Roe Pimm also celebrates each book with an addition to her garden.  “I always loved concrete lawn ornaments, even before the well-dressed geese began making appearances on lawns throughout the country. I would never buy a lawn statue for myself, because let’s face it- it’s not a real “need.” When I found the winged fairy reading a book, it suddenly felt like a need. I had two books out that year, Colo’s Story and the Daytona 500 book. I decided to celebrate and treat myself to the book reading fairy.”
There are so many reasons to celebrate.
You finished a draft.
You started a draft!
You conquered that revision.
You found a critique partner.
You’ve signed up for your first writing conference.
Don’t wait for the big stuff. Celebrate every step along the way.
This has me thinking. I’ve just completed a blog post!
Champagne, anyone?

Lessons Learned From a Debut Year

Samantha M Clark sees her debut MG novel, THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, on a bookstore shelf for the first time.

Samantha M Clark sees her debut MG novel, THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, on a bookstore shelf for the first time.

One year ago today, I became a published author. And it has been an AMAZING year!

But it has also been terrifying, nerve-racking, confusing, overwhelming, filled with doubt, and many more.

As a debut author, I wanted the year to be perfect. I wanted to do all the right things, make the most of every opportunity, and was so afraid I’d do something wrong. I did a lot of research and made lots of plans and goals.

But all the information and planning could not have prepared me for the whirlwind of my debut year.

During all the fun times and hard times, I learned a lot. So on my book’s one-year anniversary, I wanted to share a few of those things, and I recruited some of my fellow 2018 debut authors to give their own thoughts too, because more heads are better than one. 🙂

There’s only so much you can control

The night before my book was in bookstores, I panicked. It suddenly dawned on me the reality of what was going to happen the next day. My book, my story, which I had worked on privately for the past eight years, was going to be out in the world. It had already been distributed to reviewers and librarians as an advanced reader copy, but this was different. Readers would be able to buy the book and check it out of libraries, and my publisher expected both of those things to happen. But what if it didn’t? What if no one cared? What if… I went pretty far done that rabbit hole.

The truth, I realized with a lot of help from my wonderful husband, is that I didn’t actually have control over anything that happened to my book after it came out. That’s scary on the one hand, but also quite freeing. If I can’t control the outcome, I can only do what I can control and hope for the best. I breathed, told myself to focus on what I can control, and repeated that often throughout the year.

No two publishing journeys are the same

I was very lucky to have an incredible group of fellow debut authors, the Electric Eighteens. We supported each other and shared our ups and downs. I couldn’t be more in awe of these people. But while I loved having all of them with me, it was hard not to compare my journey with theirs. Some seemed so far ahead of me, and it brought up all the bad thoughts: I should be doing more marketing. I should be doing more writing. I should be doing more…

But the truth is, every publishing house works differently and everyone has a different publishing journey. In our group, some people sold two-book deals, some people sold audiobooks, some people sold foreign rights. Some people were writing away while I was busy preparing for conferences. It’s human to compare—that’s how we judge where we are—but there’s no rule in publishing that says one particular path is the right or best one. Research your favorite authors, and you’ll see that some publish a book a year, others don’t publish a new book for years. Some are busy on social media, and others stay very private. In this industry, the best lesson we can learn is to not pressure ourselves to be anything other than us.

Remember why you wanted this

There’s a lot of pressure to be a marketer, social media guru, bestseller, but here we go back to my first lesson: There’s very little you can actually control. What you can control is writing the best book you can write. And that’s why you’re here and reading this blog post anyway. Sure, it helps to get the word out about your book and to do events, but we don’t spend hours and hours typing into a computer so we can post about it on Twitter.

Our love of story makes us writers, and no matter where the ups and downs of publishing takes us, we have to keep our focus on that—on story. On our stories, the many stories we will tell over our career. Because that’s what it’s all about.

And you never know who you’re going to touch with your book, someone you’ve never met before, thousands of miles away from you. Here’s a great Twitter thread about how THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST connected with a girl in Canada. So despite all the ups and downs, keep writing.

Here are some other thoughts from my fellow MG debut authors:

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org“Your debut year can be one of the most exciting times in your life, but it’s also a good litmus test for your patience and determination.” ~ Brad McLelland, co-author of the LEGENDS OF THE LOST CAUSES series (Buy this book at your local indie bookstore)

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org“You don’t have to do EVERYthing to market your book. No matter what you have time for (and $$$) in terms of marketing, try to build in direct contact with kids who have read your book. It will remind you why we do this. That doesn’t mean you have to do a bunch of school visits. One kid at one book fair/signing is a wonderful boost.” ~ Anne O’Brien Carelli, author of SKYLARK AND WALLCREEPER (Buy this book at your local indie bookstore)

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org“A debut year is a time of incredible exhilaration, a bit like hiking a mountain, especially when you reach the summit. But once you do, you’ll see many other peaks, and realize that you’ve just started the journey. That’s all right. Celebrate every accomplishment. Notice beauty wherever it arises. Then prepare to bring your dedication and spirit to the next peak, and the next. Remember always who your audience is, and how much your journey matters to them. Every time you stumble, remember that there are kids you don’t know and will never see bent over your book, unable to put it down, finding escape and meaning in your words. They will always be there.” ~ Diane Magras, author of the THE MAD WOLF’S DAUGHTER series (Buy this book at your local indie bookstore)

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org“Remember that you didn’t write a book for everyone, you wrote a book for the right ones. Not everyone will like your book, and that has no bearing on your book’s worth–or your worth, for that matter.” ~ R.L. Toalson, author of THE COLORS OF THE RAIN (Buy this book at your local indie bookstore)

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org“Be kind to yourself.” ~ Saadia Faruqi, author of the MEET YASMIN series (Buy this book at your local indie bookstore)

I couldn’t agree with all of these more.

When it’s your debut year, be yourself, breathe, and enjoy yourself.