Posts Tagged plotting

Interview & Two Giveaways with Joyce Sweeney

I’m thrilled to interview super-mentor, Joyce Sweeney today. Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Joyce! It’s great to have you here.

It’s great to be here, Mindy!

As a writing coach, what are the most frequent mistakes you see, and do you have any tips for fixing them? 

The most common mistake I see in beginners is over narrating, not putting everything into scenes and intruding on the scenes with too much narration. Summarizing dialog, telling the reader what to think and of course, warning them that the main character has no idea what is about to happen.  Narrators should be invisible if writers want to grab readers.  The most common mistake in intermediate writers is not being thoughtful about POV and choosing it intentionally or not being deep enough in the POV.  Most common mistake in advanced writers is not studying the structure carefully and making sure all threads are woven in tightly and things promised are paid off. 

Thanks for sharing that—it’s nice to know what pitfalls to watch out for.

Some people seem to find inspiration everywhere while others struggle to find ideas. Do you have any helpful ways for writers to come up with ideas for future books?

Writers should look into their own passions, obsessions and struggles.  Keeping a journal is one way to stay in touch with one’s own emotional struggles.  The keyword is, choose your subjects from your feelings, not from your intellect.  Your mind will always pick a topic that’s safe, or seems like it will sell or might please someone else.  If you ask your heart, you get a powerful story every time. 

Thank you! My mind is already reeling with possibilities—and I have a feeling your advice will help our readers come up with powerful new ideas, too.

What are the plotting issues you see most often? Do you have any tips for pantsers who don’t like to plan their entire novel in advance?

I think everyone should be true to their own nature.  If pantsers plot too much, they just waste their own time.  If plotters try to be spontaneous, they have trouble investing in the story.  So for process, do whatever you like.  Once you have a draft, then look at your plot and make sure you have a main character who is really actively pushing their way through the obstacles you’ve created for them and growing with each one. Make sure there is a range of emotion for the reader. Most people are weak in the act where there’s an emotion they don’t like to feel.  For instance I don’t like to feel sad, so I tend to rush through and gloss over Act 2. The Plot Clock is a great tool if you get lost and don’t know what’s missing in your plot. 

Is there a point when writers need to move on from a manuscript they love?

That’s a difficult question.  I think the thing to say to yourself is, I have to move on for now.  If you are getting no queries on a concept, you have to try a new project.  If you know you haven’t nailed a book, you have to put it aside until you can fix it.  But I, and lots of writers I know, have put books away for as much as ten years and then suddenly you take it out and you know exactly what to do.  As long as you still feel the emotions that moved you to write a book, it’s not dead. But it often takes years to see a book clearly enough to fix it. 

How did you become a writing coach?

Joyce’s bookshelf is overflowing with books from the authors she’s mentored.

I started all this back in the late 80’s, when the Florida Center for the Book asked me to teach five-week classes.  I found out I loved teaching craft and was good at it.  But I also saw that after the five weeks, people lost a lot of momentum, so that led to my ongoing workshops and that eventually led to online classes.  And now 57 people with traditional publishing contracts, so I know my mission is working! 

Wow, that’s an impressive amount of books. Congratulations!

It’s so hard to write the perfect beginning to a novel. What can writers do to make sure their books are off to a great start?

Funny you should ask.  Sweeney Writing Coach’s next webinar is today…Wednesday, February 8th at 7pm and the topic is Beginnings!  In many ways, there is nothing more important than a good beginning because this is how readers, agents and editors decide if a book is worth reading.  And for the writer, being on a good track from the start is helpful.  A lot of people think they should begin a book in a place of very high action.  Often they’ve been critiqued and told that.  But something exciting happening to a stranger is meaningless.  Job one is to bond the reader to the main character.  You can create enormous tension in the ordinary world if you know how to do it.

Joyce is giving away one spot in tonight’s live webinar: February 8, 2017 at 7pm – Beginnings. How to start, where to start, how to get all those important details in without a big info dump. There are huge pitfalls to writing a great beginning and the webinar will help you find those and avoid them This is useful for those revising or beginning something new.

Thanks so much for your generous giveaway, Joyce! One winner will be selected and contacted between 5 and 5:30 EST tonight. Hopefully the winner will be able to attend the webinar live, but if the timing doesn’t work, he or she will receive access to the on demand version. Enter using the Rafflecopter widget below. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Guess what? Joyce decided to offer all of you the chance to win one more generous giveaway—an on demand viewing of one of her webinars! The winner can choose from:

*Beginnings!

*POV (Point of View)

*Flashbacks

*Dialogue

*Endings

*Marketing

*Emotions

One winner will be selected randomly by the above Rafflecopter on Sunday, February 12. 

The winner of the Beginnings! webinar on February 8th is…

Poppy Wrote

Huge congrats, Poppy! Enjoy your prize.

I can’t wait to announce the on-demand webinar winner on Sunday. The Rafflecopter will be updated to display Poppy’s name and the second winner’s name, too. Good luck!

Thank you so much for joining us at the Mixed-Up Files, Joyce! Find out more about Joyce Sweeney on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Joyce Sweeney has been a writing teacher and coach for 25 years, beginning with teaching five week classes for the Florida Center for the Book, moving to ongoing invitation only workshops and finally to online classes which reach students nationally and internationally. Developing strong bonds with the students she critiques and instructs is her hallmark. She believes that writers need emotional support as well as strong, craft-based teaching if they are to make the long, arduous, but very worthwhile journey to traditional publication.

Joyce Sweeney is also the author of fourteen novels for young adults and two chapbooks of poetry. Her first novel, Center Line, won the First Annual Delacorte Press Prize for an Outstanding Young Adult Novel. Many of her books appear on the American Library Association’s Best Books List and Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers. Her first chapbook of poems, IMPERMANENCE , was published in 2008 by Finishing Line Press, her second, entitled WAKE UP will be released this spring. She has had numerous poems, short stories, articles and interviews published; and her play, FIRST PAGE CRITIQUES was produced in 2011. She lives in Coral Springs, Florida with her husband, Jay and caffeine-addicted cat, Nitro.

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle grade novels with heart and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her two daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s TwitterFacebook, or blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.

How Do Writers Get Ideas?

question-mark Every time I do an author visit, I get asked this question, and I always stumble as I try to answer it. Most writers I know dread this question. How do we explain what happens in our brains? How do we describe the way everything we see, read, hear, and do generates story ideas?

Interesting ideas are all around us and seem to hop into our heads all day long. As John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them and pretty soon you have a dozen.” Maybe the key is not how we get ideas, but what we do with them. Perhaps taking a peek into an author’s brain might clarify this process.

Say we walk into the grocery store and see a scruffy-looking girl with a backpack struggling to reach for a box of cereal. Nonwriters might think, “Poor girl, she looks a mess. I’m surprised her parents let her out of the house looking like that.” Or maybe, “I wonder where her parents are.” Some might judge her choice: “I can’t believe she’s picking that sugary cereal. Kids her age should have healthy breakfasts.” Caring souls might ask, “Do you need help reaching that cereal box, honey?” Suspicious people might wonder: “She doesn’t look like she can afford that. I hope she’s not planning to shoplift.”

dogWriters may think those thoughts too, but then their brains start racing. Hmm…what if she’s a mess because her family’s homeless, and this is their only food for the day? Where might they be living? In a homeless shelter? In their car? What would it be like to live there, and how did they end up there? What would a little girl like that want or need if she were living in a car? And the writer is off, plotting a new story or maybe even two. Perhaps all those questions might lead to a story like Barbara O’Connor’s How to Steal a Dog, where a girl living in a car is lonely and wants a pet so badly she decides to steal one.

Or the writer might think: That girl looks sad. What if her mom left, and her dad doesn’t pay much attention to her? Maybe she’s lonely and needs a friend. What if a stray dog wandered into the grocery store, and the girl tried to save it? Maybe similar thoughts ran through Kate DiCamillo’s head as she plotted Because of Winn Dixie, the story of a girl who misses her mother and adopts a stray dog.winn-dixie

Perhaps the writer notices the girl looks neglected. Her next thought might be: What if she looks so scruffy because her parents are dead. Maybe she lives with mean relatives who don’t take good care of her. But what if the relatives don’t realize she has secret powers? Hmm… what if she goes to a magical school and… Oh, I wonder if it would be better if it were a boy, and he goes to wizard school. The plot could easily turn into Harry Potter.harry

Another writer might think, That girl’s all alone. What if that older lady choosing a carton of oatmeal befriends her? Maybe the two of them could form an unusual friendship. Or wait… What if the old lady is a kidnapper, and when she sees the girl alone, she pretends to help her and she invites the girl back to her house and…

Or maybe the girl’s only pretending to look at cereal, but she’s really been stalking the older lady… Why would she do that? What if she thinks the lady is the grandmother she’s never met? Is it really her relative? If so, why wouldn’t she have met her grandmother? Maybe her mother ran away from home as a teen? So how did the girl discover the grandmother’s whereabouts? Will the grandmother be overjoyed to discover she has a grandchild? How will the mother react when she finds out?

And once again, several story ideas have formed in the writer’s mind. He can’t wait to get home and jot them down. Or if he carries a small notebook, as most writers do, he’ll scribble some notes in it. The whole way home, his brain will be whirling with what-if questions.

A fantasy writer might look at the girl and think: What if she took that box of cereal home, and a fairy popped out when she was having breakfast? Maybe the fairy could grant her one wish. I wonder what she’d wish for. It looks like her family needs help. Oh, but what if she has a brother who’s deathly ill? Would she give up her wish to save him?

Or the writer’s thoughts might run in other directions. What if the fairy was bad at spells and messed up the wishes? Wouldn’t it be funny if… Or What if that isn’t a backpack, but a jet pack? She could fly off with that cereal. But where would she go? And how did she get that jetpack in the first place? Once again, the writer has the seeds of plot or two.

We could keep going with story ideas just from seeing one girl in a grocery store. Now imagine living inside a writer’s head. Everything sparks ideas for stories. We’re always asking questions about what could happen. Or wondering why people do things. And everyone we see or meet becomes a potential story. Yes, even you. So beware when you’re around a writer. You never know when they might make up a story about you.

But what about you? Can you think like a writer? As you go through your day, ask yourself: Who is this person really? Why is she doing what she’s doing? What would he be like if he lived in another country or on another planet? What if that person is only pretending to be a teacher? What if she’s a superhero in disguise or a kid (or animal) who switched bodies with an adult? What if something magical or unusual happened to her? What if this person got into trouble? Who would save him? What does that person dream of? How could I make her wish come true in a story? What does that person need? What’s the scariest idea I can come with about this person? The most unusual idea?

Ideas are all around us. You don’t need magic to create a story, only a little imagination, a lot of curiosity, and many, many questions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A former teacher and librarian, Laurie J. Edwards is now an author who has written more than 2300 articles and 30 books under several pen names, including Erin Johnson and Rachel J. Good. To come up with ideas for her books, she people-watches and eavesdrops on conversations in public places, which starts her brain racing with questions. To find out more about Laurie, visit her website and blog.

Strengths and Weaknesses

I’ve loved writing ever since I can remember—I wrote poems and stories at home, and it was my favorite part of school (and not just because I usually received A+ on my writing assignments). When I started writing middle grade novels, I was surprised that my talents weren’t enough. I think I do a great job of coming up with ideas, and creating fun, vivid characters, but I didn’t realize that most writers have at least one area they have to work on way harder than the rest. For me, that was plot. I kind of masked my problem, because I was able to add tension to my manuscripts by always considering the worst thing that could happen to my characters…but that wasn’t enough to create a full, exciting arc that could propel readers through an entire novel. I’m always working on finding ways to improve my writing, and am thrilled to see how much stronger my plotting is now.

I’ve never been a fan of outlines, but I realized that just knowing the beginning, ending and some possibilities for the middle, plus character sketches, wasn’t enough. After studying plotting, I found a method that works great for me. It’s a Plot Clock, created by writing coach and mentor, Joyce Sweeney, and breaks the novel up into four acts, starting in the normal world, which prevents me from jumping into the middle of a situation before readers care about my characters.

Joyce Sweeney Plot Clock

When I first started writing children’s books, I had no idea how deeply I’d have to dive into revisions. I love seeing characters come alive and watching all the wonderful layers evolve through revision after revision. I don’t remember having to revise my stories when I was in school. We’d get an assignment, hand it in, get a grade…end of story. I’ve really been impressed with the way I see writing taught now—with children as young as elementary school receiving feedback and being asked to revise their writing. I can’t even imagine writing children’s books without receiving critiques—feedback from peers and professionals really can help your writing grow!

Here are some things I’ve learned that I hope will help you, too:

  • Take a good look at your strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to know what they are, so you can really focus on them! If you’ve had writing critiqued, what types of comments are there? I used to hear that some of my earlier manuscripts seemed episodic…it took me a while to realize it was because my plotting wasn’t strong enough to propel readers through the entire story.
  • Try to swap critiques with people whose strengths are your weaknesses.
  • Critique often—it helps the person who wrote the manuscript or story, but it also helps you a lot, too. It’s easier to spot areas that can be strengthened when you critique the work of others…and in time, you become better at finding those areas in your own manuscripts.
  • Read as many books as you can, and stretch past your favorite genre to explore other types of books, too. Once you know your weaknesses, you can search for books that master those aspects.
  • Read your story out loud. It’s easier to find places that need streamlining, dialogue that doesn’t feel natural, and where you can improve the pacing. Reading out loud often feels different with an audience, so even if you’re alone, you can record yourself, or read to your pets.

Teachers and parents—I’d love to know what you’ve noticed about the strengths and weaknesses of your students or children, and what you do to help them become stronger writers. And to all the writers out there—what are your strengths and weaknesses, and how have you overcome your weaknesses?

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle-grade novels and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her twelve and fifteen year-old daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer pup who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s blog or Twitter to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.