Teachers Write 8.2.17 Q&A Wednesday

Today is our final Q&A Wednesday for Teachers Write 2017 – one more chance to ask our guest authors all of your questions about writing craft. Today’s guest authors are J. Anderson Coats, Dana Alison Levy, and Karen Romano Young.

As always, if you have questions, post in the comments, and our guest authors will be checking in throughout the day to respond. Ask away!

35 Replies on “Teachers Write 8.2.17 Q&A Wednesday

  1. Good morning and thank you all for taking your time to do this. I am wondering how you space out the information. For example, you’re trying to create suspense by revealing bits of information. Do you have a type of “formula” you follow , like each chapter you put something in. Sometimes it’s hard to know if you’re revealing too much or not enough. Also how do you use your beta readers? When your book is done or sooner? Thank you and best wishes in your writing.

    1. Hi Martha,
      Suspense is a tricky beast, and I’m probably not the best one to answer, since my books are pretty light. But no matter if it’s a mystery thriller or an everyday story, the goal is to keep the reader engaged and wanting to know what happens next. So I usually try to end chapters, scenes, or sections with more questions than answers. That doesn’t mean I literally end each chapter with a question, of course, but just that I introduce or deepen an element of the story and don’t resolve it.
      Moving on to beta readers! That’s a term that can mean different things to different writers. Some use beta readers and critique partners interchangeably, while others consider them different readers for different stages of the process. For me, my beloved and much-abused critique partners read anything from a hideously rough draft of a synopsis to an almost final draft. We are each others’ sounding boards all the way through. In the later stages, however, I usually try to corral one or two new beta readers, who haven’t read every draft already, to get a fresh perspective. I ask them to look at the big picture, and help me find any inconsistencies, weak plot areas, and so on. Hope that’s helpful! D

      1. I actually do have to map things out in order to space them appropriately — and by appropriately I mean so that both the main character and the reader are processing information — and getting new information and having new things sprung on them — gradually. I’m in the midst of a snarly revision that requires me to do just this. But it’s interesting, because even as I’m adding and taking away and moving and changing pieces, there’s a gut call to make things more urgent. Raising the stakes is key, and often if it means inventing crossroads or holdups or twists. I’m trying to have fun doing it and not tear out my hair!

    2. Hi Martha –

      What a great question! That’s a hard one to answer because a lot depends on your story. Obviously if you have an action-adventure plot, a lot’s going to happen at a lot quicker pace. If you have a quieter, more introspective story, the pacing will be different and your reveals will reflect that.

      You might have some luck writing simple descriptive paragraphs that indicate what needs to happen, and when. (“The girls get off the camp bus, and Keya needs to discover that swimming will be required, and she’s afraid of water.”) If you write out your whole story in this informal, conversational way, you can then start to figure out how you might organize both what the reveals should be and plan them out a little, possibly into a formal outline so you can begin to plan exactly how to write the reveals. This way, you can keep raising the stakes and building toward your Big Crisis.

      Beta readers – I usually wait till I’m completely done before I hand something over to beta readers, but this is because I go through a *lot* of drafts before I have a story I’m ready to show other humans. I know people who hand chapters over to beta readers as they finish them so they can get feedback as they work. Mostly it depends on you, what kind of feedback is the most helpful to you and when it’s helpful for you to hear it. Just communicate with your betas so they know what to expect and how they can help.

  2. Good Morning and thank you for being here today! This summer I’ve asked all the Q and A authors to share their writing process. I’m collecting responses to show my students that there is no writing process, just the writer’s process. I’d love to hear and share your responses!

    1. Hi Jen! I love that idea…there are as many different writing processes as there are writers, and it’s wonderful to help student writers realize there is no right way.
      For me, the process usually starts with a “What If.” That’s how every good story starts, right? But I’ve learned the hard way that What If is a great beginning, but it doesn’t get me over the finish line. I find it easy to come up with ideas, characters, and settings…the hard part for me is PLOT, and making something happen. If I don’t outline my books I end up with 200 pages of witty conversation in a cool place. Not exactly riveting! So I usually write up a 1-2 page synopsis that is as ugly as can be, but gives a basic framework for the story. Then I do a chapter-by-chapter outline. For each chapter I’ll write a few sentence of what happens, what the emotional mood of the chapter is, what questions get asked (see Martha’s question above on this), and what funny things will happen.This might sound like overkill, but if I do this I find the drafting process goes really quickly.
      And of course I don’t always get it right. Even with my 2-pager and my excellent outline, sometimes as I’m writing it’s clear that I’m veering off in a different direction. Occasionally this works beautifully and I can follow my characters home. Other times I write myself into a tangle and have to go back and re-outline.
      I realized after typing all this that this is a description of how I draft a first draft, rather than how I get from idea to finished book. Hopefully that’s helpful! (Maybe I should have made an outline before I started this!)

      1. I love this idea, Dana. This is actually what I have done with my novel revision as I had to move some of the scenes. But it would be really helpful to do it at the beginning!

    2. UGH, great question that involves revealing my messy process. Some people divide writing processes between outliners (people who outline) and pantsers (people who go by the seat of their pants). I’m a messy pantser. Not only do I just plow in, but I plow in a nonlinear fashion. I write scenes, usually 3 to 5 pages, not necessarily sequentially. I keep going until I have a pile of these and start to want more structure. That’s when I lay them out all over the floor (or try to put them in line in a word processing document, though that’s harder — I’m visual and I need to SEE my line). At that point I recognize islands or land masses, and the next task is to create bridges between them. What a disaster — but it works for me.

    3. Hi Jen –

      I’ve found that each book needs its *own* process. I’ve written books that absolutely needed to happen in rigid order, each scene building on the last and informing the next. For another, I had to reorder the scenes by hand a few times before they made a story I was happy with. Another one I must have rewritten from the ground up at least twice. I’ve written outlines. I’ve written outlines that I never looked at again. I’ve written just the scenes kicking around in my head that I loved and couldn’t wait to write, only to have them hanging around in a file waiting to be slotted in. I’m sure there are more, but this is already getting long. 🙂

      The writing process for me is a lot like a toolbox. As you work, you learn to use new tools, and those help you get sharper dialogue, better worldbuilding, deeper characterization. These all require different skills to make them work, and as you get better, you have more strategies at your disposal for your writing as a whole. You won’t need every tool for every story, but the more tools you have, the more vivid and organic your writing becomes.

  3. Thank you for answering our questions today! I am wondering about non-fiction writing. Do you need to have qualifications in the non-fiction topics you write about (e.g. have a science degree to write about science) or is thorough research on a topic enough for a publisher? Also does it differ for science versus historical non-fiction.

    1. Hi Diana, I’ve done history, but mostly science, so I can address that. I feel that at this point I’ve earned a couple of degrees, but not in class — on my feet. I learn all that I can about a topic, through research, from following scientists around in the field, and through visiting them in their labs and interviewing them. I make sure to read scientists’ publications, not only articles about them, and with all this, my goal is to express their work and contribution to the field in a clear, age-appropriate way. I’ll often run my copy past my sources to assure them and myself that I’ve covered their work accurately. I footnote like crazy. The publishers I work with check all the sources and they’ll query me if they feel that something is fuzzy. Thanks for a question about something I don’t often get to talk about!

    2. I love this question – and Karen’s response. There are some amazing writer like Loree Griffin Burns, who are also scientists (Loree holds a phd in biochemistry!) and that’s a truly special combination, but it’s not a requirement. What’s really essential in any kind of science or history writing is curiosity, intense research, and a commitment to double check that research with people who know more.

  4. Hello,

    I was wondering if any of you happen to have an craft books on developing voice that you would recommend? I’d also be interested in hearing about any craft books that you may have found helpful to you with regard to a particular part of writing that you were struggling with, eg. dialogue, character development, etc. I’m always on the look out for good texts that will help me improve my writing and take it to the next level. Thanks for taking the time to share with us.

    1. Can I recommend Gail Carson Levine’s books and blogs on writing? Some are written for kids, some for adults, but they are all respectful, charming, solid, and insightful. The books are Writer to Writer and Writing Magic.

    2. Hi Angela! I can’t think of craft books that focus specifically on voice, but below are some that I really think are terrific for one reason or another.
      SECOND SIGHT by Cheryl Klein — great book on revision by a children’s lit editor
      SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder — actually written for screenwriters, but it has a step-by-step process around plotting that is HUGELY helpful.
      BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott — a classic on big picture creativity and letting go
      WONDERBOOK by Jeff Vandermeer — a weird and wonderful illustrated guide to writing speculative or fantasy
      TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS by Libby Hawker — I don’t remember who gave this gem to me, but it’s a really great guide to outlining your novel.

    3. Hi Angela –

      This is a toughie for me because I don’t read a lot of craft books. I find they make me second-guess my instincts and overanalyze my choices. However, since I do my best learning by picking apart books I like that do something particularly well (voice, setting, dialogue), it’s likely I’m absorbing some of the craft books secondhand. Sorry that’s not more helpful! 🙂

      I do like books on creativity, though. My current favorite is Elizabeth Gilbert’s BIG MAGIC.

  5. Good morning! I’m Dana, writer of books and doer of laundry. I write humorous middle grade and am working on a book for teens. I’ll be back and forth today but look forward to answering questions and talking writing! For a little more information about me, before I started writing fiction I worked freelance on a number of exceedingly random corporate, nonprofit, and academic writing projects, so am happy to answer questions there too. Happy writing!

  6. Thank you for being here to answer our questions!

    As I revise my MG novel, one of the challenges I’m finding is that my transitions are starting to be repetitive. I find I end up using the same phrases all the time, e.g. “When she got home…” or “The next day….”

    Do you have any strategies or suggestions for how to smoothly move from one scene to another?

    1. Hi Andrea. Barbara Dee here. I suspect you’re more aware of the transitions than the reader, who does appreciate cues about chronology, context, etc. Transitions can get repetitive if they’re always about time, though– so perhaps consider if you’ ve already established the timeframe sufficiently for a different type of transition, one that focuses on mood, for example. And sometimes you don’t need any transition at all–it can be dramatic to just plunge right into a scene, establishing context within the scene itself.

    2. This is so hard for me! I often end up solving it in really obvious ways, i.e. putting the date at the beginning of the chapter, or naming chapters things like Monday or July. At least it helps me keep my head on straight (see earlier response about writing all over the book; I really need timeline help) but also more often that not it winds up in the book.
      But no, as Barbara said, you don’t necessarily have to say “a bit later” or “On Tuesday morning” or whatever. Sometimes it really does come through in the writing. You could always cut it later.

    3. Hi Andrea –

      I agree with my colleagues. Often it’s possible to work in a more subtle reference to get the sense that time has passed. Maybe the characters are eating breakfast and the reader gets the idea it’s morning. If it’s a specific moment you’re going for, that’s when it’s helpful to orient the reader with a “that weekend” or a “at school the next day.”

  7. Good morning! Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions today! Dana, I read through your process for writing so this might not happen to you because that process could avoid my problem. But here goes! I have been working on a MG novel and about 1/3 of the way through I made a character change. My character’s best friend switched from being a boy to a girl. As soon as I realized I had been writing that character all wrong, and made the switch in my head, the story felt much more cohesive. I have been reading advice from a lot of writers here on Teachers Write that you should just power through a first draft and then go back and revise. Is that the true if you make a big change like this part way through? Should I keep going and go back and change the character in the first third later? Or should I pause and go back to make those changes now?


    1. Hi Megan! Barbara Dee crashing this page again! I think if changing the gender alters the way you think about the character, you might want to pause and retrace your steps. If it doesn’t, it’s fine to power through that first draft. I do find sometimes that changing one minor detail such as a name affects my conception of the character in ways I don’t expect, so if you do continue, you might want to keep some notes about this character as you write.

    2. Who made these rules? I think you should follow your gut and write what needs to be written. Your change sounds dramatic and galvanizing, so why not respond to the new energy it creates?

    3. Hi Megan –

      When writing a draft, it’s all about momentum, and that’s where the advice to power through comes from. Even with a change this big. *You* know the character has changed in a significant way, and you’ll be going back to revise later anyway, so when you do this shouldn’t matter.

      However, if it’s going to distract you, knowing those changes remain unmade, or if you think it’s going to inspire some important turns in the plot, there’s nothing wrong with taking some time to go back and make those changes now. If that’s what this book needs, you should do what feels right.

    4. Hi Megan! First of all, even with my shiny outlines, I have had versions of this happen sometimes I keep writing from the outline because I’m too stubborn/lazy to stop and figure out the shift. While it is great to power through a first draft, mostly that advice is to keep writers from getting terribly bogged down and never getting past page 50 for ten painful years. But by all means, if this shift brings the story together, and it just feels WRONG to to try and continue with the new character, knowing that the beginning is totally incongruent, then by all means go back. Just…you know, don’t get bogged down for ten years perfecting the first chapter!

  8. This online opportunity to share and talk about writing has been great. Any suggestions for a movie who hasn’t completed a book how best to develop a writing group- seek out others who are just starting of find a local group (which can be intimidating).

    1. Hi Barb –

      If you’re writing for kids of any age, I’d recommend starting with your local Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) group. The members are creative types at all different stages of their careers, so you’ll hopefully find people who you click with. Here’s their website: https://www.scbwi.org/

      You might also try taking a class at your local community college or arts center. Some of your classmates might want to form a group. That way, everyone is new to the group and has something in common. Good luck and happy writing!

    2. Hi Barb! I’m definitely second finding a local SCBWI chapter, and checking out the online forums there. Also the website Absolute Write forums, while overwhelming, are a great resource. (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?11-Writing-For-Kids). There are tons of threaded conversations on everything from novels-in-verse to picture books to how to revise to finding critique partners and so on. Also, depending on your community, the local library can be a great gathering spot…ask the children’s librarians if they know other kid lit folks, or put up a sign and see who’s around. Often people come out of hiding when they know there are kindred spirits around!

  9. Hi Barb, I’ve found that one or two readers is best. If you can find just one other person who wants to exchange work, it can be really useful. I do know people who’ve been in the same writing group for many years and find it immensely supportive. Yes, the writing community is terrifically generous and the hive mind is a great resource — but don’t feel it’s a requirement to workshop your work with half a dozen people if one is most helpful to you. My thought is to start with one or two and see if you need more. SCBWI but also just Facebook might be a source of like-minded people, with no requirement that you’re in the same geographic area. Good luck!