Theme Vs. Plot

The theme is the thing.
Not that plot is not important–without plot, your novel is a jellyfish, no bones, no skeleton, no internal structure to give it shape and structure and hold it erect. Character-driven novels can be wonderful, but those totally devoid of plot are very difficult to pull off. At the risk of sounding contradictory, I think well developed characters are likely the most important element in a good novel–but that’s another blog.
Plot is what happens in a novel, and it’s much to do with the novel’s conflict, how the main character and others go about struggling with and resolving the conflict/problem: coming to a –we hope–victorious, or at least, bitter-sweet conclusion. (I hold with the late, great Madeleine L’Engle who said, if I may paraphrase, that a writer should always leave at least a glimmer of hope at the end of a YA novel. Adult readers can deal with a totally tragic ending, younger readers don’t have the experience as yet to cope–they need some optimism in a book’s conclusion to carry into their own life challenges.)
I’m sure you know the basics of plot and conflict: the main character must resolve the problem him or herself instead of an adult or an act of blind fate coming in at the last moment to make all things right, and so forth.
But that’s still not theme. Theme is the basic and overall idea that hangs behind the whole novel, that guides the momentum behind the character’s growth and change, his/her struggle with conflict, reaction to the setting, reaction to other characters, and more. Other writers have commented that theme comes from the characters’ issues–or perhaps, I might add, their issues develop partly from the theme.–and the theme grows from the writer’s heart. It’s possible you might write using a theme you don’t believe in, but I don’t really see how.

In the YA manuscript I’m working on now, working title: An Ounce of Courage, the protagonist has been relocated, after the death of his military father and much against his will, into a small isolated village from a much more cosmopolitan setting. His immediate conflict is being beset by the local high school bully. His bigger conflict is that he’s afraid he’ll never live up to his hero dad.

(My dad always said,’ Stick up for the little guy.’

My dad wasn’t on the bus.)

The theme, though, has to do with the nature of courage and the process of becoming a man, a journey every male teen has to make.  You might wonder why a woman is writing this book? The short answer, the story wouldn’t leave me alone until I started to write it.  Longer one: My writing has never been restricted to characters of one gender. : ) I do have a younger brother and a son, and now three grandsons, two growing old enough to begin this process. And perhaps sometimes a little distance is a good thing. . . And I am an army brat, so the backdrop of the story is one I’m very familiar with. There is a girl in the book, too, who is an important character, and she also has challenges to face and decisions to make. Courage is not just a question for boys–or men.

I feel every word and every page of this manuscript deeply, whatever the gender of the protagonist, because the theme matters. . . now my job as a writer is to make sure the reader does, too.

images-4Cheryl Zach is the author of Hearts Divided, Book 1 of the 4 book Civil War YA series, Southern Angels, and many other YA and MG novels.

THANKFUL VS. AWFUL VS. GRATEFUL AND MORE

by Judy Enderle

thanksgivingturkey

Tick tock, tick tock. Turkey time is closing in which makes one pause to count blessings. It’s a time to give thanks or Thanksgiving.

I am thankful for family, friends, the beauty of the world out my window, the energy to dig in my garden, the ability to write, the patience of my critique group and my agent, the joy of living to see another birthday. (I am a turkey baby!)

I am thankful, full of thanks. And that word got me thinking (which can sometimes be a dangerous thing).

If thankful always means full of thanks, why doesn’t awful always mean full of awe? It can mean that, but not always. Then there’s grateful, which doesn’t mean full of grates, but is derived from the Latin gratus. Another word tied to gratus is the word graceful, which means pleasing form or movement and not full of God’s grace. The word grace has a nice paragraph in my Webster with eight definitions and several sub definitions.

It was fun perusing the —ful words. Check out baleful, which has nothing to do with hay. There’s more than one kind of bale. Gleeful, woeful, helpful, sorrowful, eyeful and earful, tearful and cheerful and more.

So, here’s a blogful for this month. Have a turkeyful, pieful Thanksgiving.

P.S. For those of you making Christmas lists, check out Twelve Days of Christmas Starring Chickens, by Janet Lee Carey and illustrated by Molly Blaisdell. Lots of zany chicken fun starting with a penguin in a pine tree.

7 Reasons for Belonging to a Writing Community

by Laurie Lazzaro Knowlton

Buddies

Writers are a unique group of people. We live in our heads, surrounded by characters that tell us their stories and expect us to record them on paper. Sometimes those characters keep us up at night, interrupt our daily chores, and become more real to us than our everyday lives. To outsiders we are loners, a wee-bit crazy, and not always understandable.

1. That brings me to the first reason for the importance of a writing community:
UNDERSTANDING Who else is going to understand you missing a meal, staying up all night, or holeing yourself up in a locked room? Only other writers. They understand that writing is a consuming, demanding job. They understand that if you don’t get the ideas down on paper NOW, that later, when time allows, you may find yourself staring at a blank screen. They are the only ones who get where you are coming from, so join a group! (Check out SCBWI.org, and local writers groups that meet at libraries. If you can’t find a group, start one!)

2. ENCOURAGEMENT: When you hit a glitch, and your characters have taken a long weekend in Neverland. only another writer understands those dry spells. We need encouragement. The great thing is that not only do other writers encourage each other, but when they are gathered together, an energizing ripple effect begins to roll. As each writer discusses their latest project, your own brain’s ideas begin to flow and the next thing you know you are excusing yourself to rush home to your computer to write.

3. Every manuscript requires many sets of eyes. CRITIQUE groups are a must. Every time I finish a manuscript, I just know it is an award-winning book. But the reality is that good writing begins with rewriting. Even though the story is clear in your head, the reader isn’t always able to see things the way you pictured them. That’s where many sets of eyes are helpful. Your peers can tell you the manuscript’s strengths and where it needs some work. Fellow writers are your first readers and helpful editors.

4. A good writing community is needed for NETWORKING. I attend as many conferences, workshops, and critique meets as possible. Writers know what is happening out there in the big world of publishing. You hear things about editors who are wonderful to work with, publishing houses that have recently opened their doors to unsolicited manuscripts, and houses that are now requiring a query letter. Go, listen, and grow!

5. Who are you ACCOUNTABLE to? Unless you are under deadline with a publisher, writing requires you to be your own boss. Some writers are diligent, setting aside a set amount of time to write daily, but many writers are so creatively wired that they get off task easily. I am one of those people. I am a crafter, a nature lover, a thrift store hunter, and a five-year-old at heart. Unless I have someone to answer to, I find it is unbelievably easy to get distracted. My writing community helps me to be accountable.

6. A writing community is vital because they will CHALLENGE you. Many times when brainstorming together, I have challenged my peers by saying, “If you don’t write it, I will!” Two friends that I challenged this way ended up with contracts! A challenge can be as simple as setting an amount of words to be written by the next meeting, or getting a manuscript out by a set time, or review a manuscript you put aside. But whatever the challenge, you will better off as a writer.

7. Last but not least, a writing community is valuable is for CELEBRATION. When you get that first publication, who else is going to understand your journey? No one besides another writer realizes the hours you’ve poured over your creation. No one else understands the angst felt before you turn your manuscript over to the U.S. postal service, or the daily walks to the mailbox wondering…”Will there be another rejection? Did I get an acceptance?”

Other writers get it. They value the days, months, and often years it takes to get from idea to publication. So when it is time to celebrate, your writing community will be full of high fives, balloons, and maybe even a glass of Champagne.

So don’t hide yourself off in a room by yourself. Get out there. Find a group of like- minded creative writers. They will understand and encourage you. They will critique your work and they will help inform you through networking. Your community will challenge you and make you accountable. But the best part is, they will celebrate with you every step of your journey from idea to publication.

 

One Simple Truth About Self Publishing

D. E. Knobbe

Unknown   You’ve heard this before “Publishing is currently undergoing rapid and monumental changes.” That makes it an exciting time to be a writer because there are so many more publishing avenues. From ebooks to POD’s (print on demand) the world is your publishing oyster.
     You can create an ebook and have it up for sale on Amazon within a few hours. You can contract with a POD company and pay minimal set up fees, which means you no longer have to print several thousand copies to keep your price per book within reason. Yes, even children’s full color books can be printed on demand now. Sounds wonderful, rosy, extraordinarily easy. Where do you sign up?
     Whoa! Best to put the breaks on that runaway best seller, you’ll need to acknowledge one simple truth first: Each POD book is “printed AFTER it sells.” Yes sells. That is the one simple truth that hasn’t changed in publishing. For your book to be read in any form, it still needs to be sold. No matter how brilliant your pages read, or how glossily the cover calls, it is not going to sell itself. And neither Amazon, Lulu or any other publishing platform is going to sell it for you. They’ll put it out there, but, alas, it could end up just gathering dust on a cyber bookstore shelf.
If you decide to self publish you must switch your point of view and see it as a product. Then you must educate yourself in online book marketing. Be prepared to devote countless hours to this process. Blogs, tweets and instagrams, won’t increase sales if there are no interested parties on the receiving end.
     I am not trying to discourage self-publishing. I am saying educate yourself first.           Before your publishing date arrives, have a marketing plan ready to launch along with your book. Know who your readers are and who buys for them. Target you audience directly.
     In the past there were many “Vanity Presses” who preyed on naive authors looking for self-publishing help, now, there are “Book Marketers” who sell hundreds of general packages that probably won’t increase your sales. If you want to hit your target market aim your efforts directly at it and keep shooting. You’re a lot more likely to get hits, than shooting (read dollars) aimlessly into cyberspace. You may not have piles of books unopened in your garage, but it will still take an average of 300 sales to break even, so spend your marketing dollars wisely.

I have to admit, that it took more than one failure for me to learn this lesson, and I am still learning from my successes and mistakes. I would love to hear what has worked for you and what hasn’t.

Do take the publishing leap. Do go forward. You can do it.

In the words of Norman Vincent Peale:

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.

turtleMania_cover-2     P.S. My name is Dawne Knobbe. I run a small press called The Nature Kid along with my two awesome partners Molly Peckels and Svett Bycovec. We specialize in fun Color and Learn books about ocean creatures. We found a marketing niche for our products within the National Parks and we work it. To date we have sold over 45,000 books which can be found in 12 states, and thankfully, they are still swimming out the door:)

                       lol—Be sure to check us out online at thenaturekid.com

The Ups and Downs of the Current Children’s Book Market

I’ve just returned from the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, where the annual summer conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators had to be relocated after our ‘old’ and usual hotel site in Century City broke its contract with the group. The Biltmore is an old and elegant building and the staff was friendly and helpful. However, it’s not really big enough for the conference turnout. Around 250 would-be attendees had to be turned away, so the search for a new site will likely continue.
As usual, the state of the industry was discussed with interest, first by Justin Chandra, VP and Publisher of 4 children’s imprints at Simon and Schuster, and later at the Market Report given by Deborah Halverson, author and former editor, and creator of advice site: DearEditor.com.
News is mixed. Children’s book sales are up by only 2%. Sales of teen books are falling, and there is a sharp decline in ebook sales. Chandra said the YA market has been saturated. He says right now fantasy and action/adventure are selling, but since by the time you write and sell a book and get it to market, no one knows what will be hot, he advises you to forget about trends and write what is closest to your heart.
He said that last year there were more sales of fewer titles, big sales of movie tie ins, and it is hard to get attention to midlist. (My note, when was it not?)
The good news, we’re seeing the return of independent children’s book stores, new stores opening, where children books can be hand sold by dedicated staff.
Middle grade sales are pretty solid, and picture book sales are picking up again. Diversity is not a trend, simply real life.
Halverson also talked about the drop in sales, hardcover fiction and YA. Nonfiction sales numbers rose sharply, but that was partly because adult coloring books were counted among juvenile nonfiction. She noted that paperbacks were up, picture books doing well, and ebooks flat for the third year in a row. Someone’s survey noted that 49% of consumers bought both print and ebook formats. She also noted new children’s bookstores opening, and also school book clubs bouncing back.  Middle Grade is a good place to be, open to literary and genres, buying contemporary and historical fiction but with a contemporary voice. Nonfiction is wanted, but with a fresh approach.

Some new imprints: Quinera, (not sure of the spelling–we did not get a handout), wants contemporary and historical, American history and social justice themes; Peeko, picture books for the very young; Her Universal Press, sci-fi and fantasy with strong female roles by female writers, and a few more. SCBWI members can find these in “The Book”‘ on the SCBWI website.

So, you can still sell, but not easily. But authors have heard this for years, right? So don’t give up, keep writing, learning and revising, keep on keeping on! And good luck to everyone.

Cheryl Zach

Tea at the Biltmore

Tea at the Biltmore

MY OCTOBER BLOG

by Stephanie Jacob Gordon

file000910989872I belong to an online poetry group, we call ourselves The Cottage Poets (you know who you are). As usual we had taken this last summer off…until the end of October. It was a long hot summer! Each month, one of us takes a turn coming up with our prompt, and then everyone writes about the same prompt. I mention this because the last prompt was perfect since we didn’t begin our after summer return to The Cottage until nearly November. That prompt was…WHY I HAVEN’T WRITTEN. I do not make this stuff up.
My poem was terse and a little funny and a lot true. But it didn’t make me want to write. Thus, my October blog in November. I am writing this now because I am feeling overwhelming guilt. Not for not writing. I have really great excuses for that, and some are true. I have seen more doctors in 2015 that I ever saw from 1940 till December 2014. While the good news is that I have absolutely nothing fatal (except aging), I am not, nor will I be, getting any younger. My guilt is knowing that someone else has to pick up my slack. My fellow bloggers and I are aware of who that will be. Judy, of course. So here I am…writing.
I guess what I am trying to say here that whatever you are feeling, gung-ho or gummed-up, you are never alone. When you are writing, you have other writers who are there for you in so many places. Critique groups are a good place to start. You will become friends, fellow suffers, writing confidants, and shoulders to cry on. You will share insights, information, accomplishments, and successes. There are workshops, classes, conferences, retreats, and more. And when you are not writing, who understands why not? Those same fellow writers, your writer friends, your buddy non-writers in a slump with terminal writer’s block. Writers like me.
So, do we give up? No, of course not. We write blogs about why we don’t write. We write poems to say why we may never write again. We write emails begging for a kind word from a dear writer we know and love and who loves us enough to forgive us for not writing. And then they email back all the reasons they can’t write. What do we do when we have nothing, absolutely nothing to write about? We write about it.
Happy Writing!

REDISCOVERED WRITING

by Judith Ross Enderle

cropped-Bigstock_24054800.jpg
MAGIC can happen when you clean your office or your desk or your garage files, or when you go through your computer documents.

The magic is in rediscovered manuscripts that you abandoned or that were rejected. (Even happens to famous authors.)

You may be surprised at how good the manuscript was and still is. Perhaps it was rejected because the timing wasn’t right (YA wasn’t selling; yes, there was that time) or there were too many books about . . . or no one was interested in American History (and now there’s a children’s book award for this very thing). Whatever the reason, you abandoned the manuscript.

But another look, fresh eyes, more experience as a writer can make a difference. Old manuscripts can be revived, reborn, become new and better.

As you sort, start a possibility file. And, when you are ready, analyze one or more of these abandoned manuscripts. Ask yourself:

Would the title tempt me to take this off the shelf?
Does the story need to start in a different place or time?
Did I pick the right main character? Did I choose strong names?
What if I changed past tense to present tense or vice-versa? Same with first or third person.
How much do I read before my mind wanders? Why?
Is the pacing off with too much time getting started, a slow middle, an ending that happens too quickly?
Do all the characters sound alike?
Does the main character solve the problem? Is there a problem?
Do I even care about the main character? Why or why not? Is there a reason for every secondary character to be in this story?
Are there sensory details? Is the story grounded?
Will today’s kids want to read this story if I revise it?

While much of this applies to novels, take another look at picture books and nonfiction manuscripts and all of the writing you’ve tucked away in boxes, bins, drawers, and on your computer. Maybe you didn’t have enough for an illustrator to work with in those picture books, but they might be magazine stories. Maybe you need to update your research for that nonfiction project and find out how it fits in the school curriculum. Perhaps it can be made more reader friendly.

Whether you are moving to a new home or doing spring cleaning or just procrastinating about your current writing project, dig deep. You never know what magic might be waiting.

No Butts About it!

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I have no New Years resolutions, but that’s because I was not very successful in fulfilling last years. The problem, I find, with writing is that it is so easy to get distracted. I can find a zillion other things to drop my writing down my daily list of “to do’s,” until it slides right off the end of the page. So this year, I plan to go back to the basics—

 

1) Butt in chair equals writing.Unknown

2) Create first, edit later.

3) If there’s no flow, just write any way,(Butt in chair still

equals writing, even if it’s Gobble-de-gook.)

 4) I hereby promise to finish one manuscript before I begin another. (just have to choose which unfinished one I should start with.)

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5) I have decided that “slow but steady (writing) wins the race, not creative spurts here and there, that I think are pure genius until I look back later with an editor’s eye. (As I am working on a Sea Turtle book, I think that is quite apropos. )

I love motivating sayings. If you have a favorite, please post it. We all need help to get over the bumps and through the potholes in our New Year writing journey!

I wish everyone a brand new start, and great success. Reach for your goals. You can do it in 2015!Unknown-2

What Writers Are Thankful For

Cheryl Zach

It’s November, and in the U.S., that means an annual holiday: Thanksgiving. Like everyone else, writers are thankful for loved ones: family and friends and pets; for good health; a reasonable prosperity, and a place to call home.

Writers are also thankful when the computer doesn’t eat your last and best chapter for no apparent reason. . . there’s never an apparent reason!

Writers are thankful for notebooks and pens of just the right size and color: variable according to individual. I have a friend who swears that lavender pens produce the best ideas–I wouldn’t dare argue.

Writers are thankful for odd minutes when ideas come from the strangest places.  Maybe in overcrowded waiting rooms when you’ve quietly made up life stories for every stranger coughing along side you, and suddenly the plot problem of your latest WIP seems ready to untangle itself because a character in your book has become easier to decipher.

Writers are thankful for hours when they actually get to write. Somewhere between baking the pies and marinating the green beans and wrestling with the turkey, somewhere among the blessed days of left-overs, when you sneak back to the sneakier computer, there will time to write!  And the annoying relative or dear but trying friend has surely jarred loose another promising idea. . .

Happy Thanksgiving.  Happy writing.

Cheryl

 

Time and the Writer

Some writers I know have been discussing how unfair it is that more and more editors and agents are not responding to queries or manuscript submissions. That is, if the writer doesn’t hear back, you are to assume that the publisher or agent is not interested in your submission. If the editor does want to read more or make an offer, or if the agent is interested in representing you, of course, they do contact you, although there might be a long wait first.

The writers feel this is unprofessional and, as I noted, unfair. The editors and agents usually note that they regret this necessity, but they are receiving more and more submissions and simply do not have the time and perhaps lack the staff to send out rejections for each one.

I can see both sides of this. I can’t help remembering my husband telling the kids when they were younger, “Who said life is fair?” when they made the same complaint over some household rule. And goodness knows the old form rejections were not satisfying. “Tell me what you don’t like,” we wanted to scream, when we got the meaningless: “This does not meet our needs at the current time.” Most published writers remember the immense relief when we finally graduated to a “good” rejection when the editor scrawled something specific on the rejection letter.

I know most editors are hard-working people who wish they could do more for hopeful writers. They often read queries or ms. on the subway home or while they eat a hurried lunch at their desks. And I’ve seen their desks–overflowing with paper, even in these computer driven days! They’re not out there plotting to make us miserable.

And yet, it’s more than frustrating for us writers. Time is what writers also don’t have, what writers snatch out of hours and minutes of their days and nights.  I remember well trying to write after a full day at work, after coming home to throw together dinner, get kids through homework and baths and bedtimes.  I remember going to sleep with a pad of paper in my lap–the original laptop! So what can we do? No magic answers, I’m afraid. Keep writing, keep sharpening skills, most of all, just keep on keeping on. Go to conferences for greater access to editors and agents, and as Winston Churchill famously said, never, never give up! Talent, hard work, determination, the same answers as always, are the ones that will- sooner or later–and sadly, it’s most often later than we wish–carry us through. Mostly, don’t give up!

And of course, there are more avenues today than traditional publishing, but that’s a whole other column. : )