Saturday, January 30, 2010

Why pitches?

As folks are getting ready for the Polish Your Pitch contest, I thought I'd share my experience with them.

A while ago, Janet Reid did a very brief query review through her blog. (It turned out to be a precursor to Query Shark.) I wasn't quite finished my MS, but I knew enough to write a query. So I spent lunch break writing the pitch part of the query. It was a great distillation of the story, but it wasn't a great pitch.

That's when I realized my story needed work. Lots of it.

So, I thought about what would make the pitch good- what would make the story even more engaging. It meant taking what had been the slimmest of threads in the plot and weaving it through half the story. So I wrote the query with the new and improved pitch. Then I started on my MS so that it would match the query.

It meant research. It meant cutting a third of what I had, and writing nearly 40,000 new words.

Yet my story has grown into something I'm proud of. And all because of the pitch part of a query.

Working on your pitch can be helpful for a variety of reasons. As I'm working on mine, I'm thinking about whether:
  • It communicates the conflict.
  • It communicates the stakes. (What happens if things don't work out?)
  • Does it make someone want to read the story?
I'm also thinking about how I'd better go outside and shovel the snow, but that's an entirely different issue.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Polish Your Pitch

In the past few weeks, several folks asked what my work in progress is about. So I told them:

"Uh, well, it's about this girl."

"It's like a fairy tale."


(The last was my favorite.) As you can tell, I couldn't describe my story to save my soul. That really irritated me. Here I am, a writer! Why couldn't I give a deft overview of my story?

I could give you a boatload of reasons about why I couldn't, but that's beside the point. We should all be able to pitch our stories in a few sentences because:

  • It shows friends and family that we've actually been, you know, writing a story.
  • We need it for our query letters.
  • We need it in case we bump into an agent or editor at a conference. Everyone knows it's bad form to slide a manuscript underneath the bathroom stall to an otherwise engaged professional.* But if you have 30 seconds in an elevator, well then...
  • Writing a pitch is a great way to get a handle on our WIP's. You can learn a lot about your story by distilling it down to its pitch. Sometimes a pitch reveals flaws in your story; it won't work because your story doesn't work. .
  • We shouldn't be afraid of pitches. We learned to write through practice and feedback. We can do the same with pitches.

So, here's what I propose:

Take some time, check out the resources at the bottom of the post, and write a pitch. It should be no longer than three sentences. E-mail that pitch to polishyourpitch at gmail dot com by midnight Tuesday, February 2nd.

Within a day or two, depending on how many entries there are, we'll post each pitch anonymously on the blog. For the next few days, folks will be able to comment on your pitch and give you pointers about what's working and what isn't.

You'll have a chance to submit a new and polished pitch if you so desire.

And then readers will be able to vote on their favorites. Slushies will probably throw in a few special awards as well.

This is the first blog-wide critique that we've done, so I'm sure we'll be working out kinks as we go. We'll need your patience as we get this contest off the ground. In the meantime, work on those pitches, and please spread the word. We'd love to have lots of good feedback for all our pitches.

Here are a few rules off the top of my head. (They're probably unnecessary, but I'll throw them out there anyway.)

1. You may submit up to two pitches, no longer than four sentences.** (Pitches for adult books are welcome as well!) E-mail them to polishyourpitch at gmail dot com by midnight Tuesday, February 2nd.

2. If you submit a pitch, you need to comment on at least three other pitches. If you submit two pitches, you need to comment on six, etc.

3. Play fair. Be honest, but not vicious. If things get ugly, we'll delete comments. Our Grammar Nazi has a collection of dangling modifiers she's collected over the years, and she knows how to use them. (Think nunchuks.)

4. Please don't worry about someone stealing your idea. It's not going to happen. (See Grammar Nazi, above.)

I think that's it. I'm really looking forward to this contest. We've got great writers reading this blog. Let's benefit from each other's feedback and whip some pitches into shape!


This one from the ever-crabbit Nicola Morgan:

These posts from edittorrent:

These posts from Rachelle Gardner:

This bit from Janet Reid's Query Shark. She's talking about a query, but every pitch should have those three elements:

*Yes, it's happened.
** We said three sentences earlier, but Nicola herself mentioned she needed a bit more room- and called us lovely. Kinda melted us a little.

Monday, January 25, 2010

More author interviews

Just a quick post to let you know that just as the Slushbusters interviewed several members of the Class of 2K9, we plan to do the same this year with the Class of 2K10. We love this idea of new authors working together to help one another promote their books. Meanwhile, check out their website. Early as it is in the year, several class members' books have already been released.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Go Anne Allen!

Imagine my surprise when I got in from work, caught up on my blog reading, and discovered that:

One of our followers, Anne Allen, is one of Nathan Bransford's guest bloggers!!!!

You can read her fabulous guest post here. Please be sure to swing by and say hi.

Monday, January 18, 2010


I was in Barnes and Noble today and picked up what looked like a really interesting book: The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes- and Why.

The book looks great. Although I can't afford to buy books for a while after my most recent spree, I'm going to see if my library has it.



I almost groaned aloud as I read the back cover. They wrote something about escaping a "raging fire".

I am not picking on this (excellent!) book, but really ... raging? I can't think of the last time I've read or heard an account of wind, fires, or floods that didn't have them raging. I blogged about this last year.

Wasn't anybody listening?

That does it. I'm going to write a best selling novel with sales figures that make J. K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyers, and Dan Brown bite their lips in envy. Blogger will have to set up special servers to handle the Slushbusters traffic.

And just before I unveil my new literacy program during coast to coast media coverage, I will ask ... beg ... demand! ... that rage only apply to really bad reality TV stars. I will provide alternative descriptions for violent weather, fire, or flood, and encourage all media outlets to use them.

So. I should get back to my revisions. That best selling novel won't write itself.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear about language blunders that set your teeth on edge. I'm perfectly prepared to discuss using commas to make a word plural, its/it's, or anything else you care to mention.

The full list

From the ALA website:

The Newbery Awards:

2010 Winner(s)

When You Reach Me
by Rebecca Stead and published by Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House Children's Books
Twelve-year-old Miranda encounters shifting friendships, a sudden punch, a strange homeless man and mysterious notes that hint at knowledge of the future. These and other seemingly random events converge in a brilliantly constructed plot.

2010 Honor(s)

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
written by Phillip Hoose, and published by Melanie Kroupa Books/Farrar Straus Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan Children's Publishing Group

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
written by Jacqueline Kelly and published by Henry Holt and Company

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg
written by Rodman Philbrick, and published by The Blue Sky Press, and imprint of Scholastic, Inc.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
written by Grace Lin and published by Little, Brown and Company Books for Young Readers

The Caldecott Award:

2010 Winner(s)

The Lion & the Mouse
illustrated and written by Jerry Pinkney, published by Little, Brown and Company Books for Young Readers
The screech of an owl, the squeak of a mouse and the roar of a lion transport readers to the Serengeti plains for this virtually wordless retelling of Aesop's classic fable. In glowing colors, Pinkney's textured watercolor illustrations masterfully portray the relationship between two unlikely friends.

2010 Honor(s)

All the World
illustrated by Marla Frazee, written by Liz Garton Scanlon and published by Beach Lane Books

Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors
illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, written by Joyce Sidman, and published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The Printz Award:

2010 Winner(s)

Going Bovine
by Libba Bray
Sixteen year old slacker, Cameron, sets off on a madcap road trip along with a punk angel, a dwarf sidekick, a yard gnome and a mad scientist, to save the world and perhaps his own life. This wildly imaginative modern day take on Don Quixote is complex, hilarious and stunning. The hero’s journey will never be the same after “Going Bovine.”

2010 Honor(s)

Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith
by Deborah Heiligman, published by Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group

The Monstrumologist
by Rick Yancey, published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing

by Adam Rapp and published by Candlewick Press

Tales from the Madman Underground: An Historical Romance, 1973
by John Barnes and published by Viking Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Young Reader’s Group

Congratulations to all the winners and honorees!

Who cares about the Golden Globes?

The American Library Association announced The Youth Media Awards this morning. I was able to watch the webcast once, but can't seem to get it to play again. I'm guessing the server is a bit overloaded.

Congratulations to Jerry Pinkney, who won the Caldecott for The Lion and the Mouse. This is a stunning book. As soon as I saw it back in the fall, I began recommending it to any teachers who were doing folk tales with their classes.

Congratulations also to Rebecca Stead, who won the Newbery Award for When You Reach Me. I haven't read it yet, but I immediately put a hold on it at the library.

I'll post a link or a complete list of honorees later in the day.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

How Slushbusters critique

All the posts about critiques have made me think about the art of evaluating another's work. My fellow Slushbusters possess superhuman manuscript analysis skills. I'm going to brag on them* a bit, and I hope you'll leave a comment about the kind of critiques you give and receive.

There are several types of Slushbuster critiques:

Wording. A Slushie (normally Michelle) will point out that I've used a word umpteen times in two paragraphs. Or perhaps I've only used one sort of sentence structure, or have sentences of only one length rather than a mixture of long and short sentences. All the Slushies will point out awkwardly worded parts. If they had to reread a section to figure out its meaning, they let me know. I'll stick grammar and spelling in this part as well. Every critique group needs a grammar Nazi specialist. Nothing says amateur to an editor or agent like someone who cant put they're sentences together rite.

Practical stuff. Alison and Joan are the queens of finding spacial or physical oddities. For instance, if my character is in the middle of the room in one sentence, she cannot be at a doorway a few sentences later- especially if I didn't mention her walking there. It's so important to have people who can visualize what you're writing and discover inconsistencies. These critiques ensure that the world you've created makes sense.

Characterization. Steph makes a lot of comments about whether a character's actions/emotions are consistent or believable. Everyone points out when a character seems unclear or when a character has become a caricature. Sometimes, I can imagine a character so clearly that I can't separate what's in my mind from what a reader would glean from the text. Yay for Slushies who report what the text communicates!

Structure and pacing. Lisa often helps with the bigger picture. She once pointed out that the character arc I'd created over 6 - 7 chapters just wasn't working. Other Slushies will highlight portions of the story that move too quickly or have become bogged down. Other Slushies (Steph!) might ask if you should change your POV. After you've written the entire MS. (We've discovered that once you recover from your head exploding, the question can be a good one.)

Some of my favorite miscellaneous critiques:

I stopped caring here. Critique members have to read my entire submission, so they do. However, a reader will put the story down when it stops working. So it's really helpful to know when a Slushie became confused, or stopped caring- or just didn't care to begin with. It's not the easiest critique to get, but it's one of the most helpful.

Have you thought about...? This is a hard critique to do well, because it's far too easy to interpose your own vision for the story. In it's best form though, (I'm thinking of Steph, Alison and Bridget) it's a way of prompting the writer to explore new avenues for her story. We've had lots of good conversations spring from this line of questioning.

And finally, the good stuff!

I liked this part. This is hugely helpful, because it lets me know what worked. And if I know what worked, I can do it again. The more specific the praise, the more helpful it is.

I loved it! This one happens rarely, but, boy is it nice when I get it. It's what keeps you writing- to get to that point where the story sings.

You can do this. The truth is, we all need to hear this every time, especially when we're in a slump. If you're in a critique group, you're not coasting through your writing. You need to have others cheering you on through the hard parts.

So there you have it! A not-so-brief guide to Slushie critiques. I'd love to hear what sort of critiques have helped you in the past.

Also, thanks to all of you who read or follow or comment on our blog! You add so much to our writing experience. It's lovely to have you join us on this adventure.

*I should point out that all the Slushies have given each sort of critique. I simply wanted to highlight areas that each member is especially good at.

More on critique

If you enjoyed Tuesday's post, you might like this one as well. It was written by Ann Haywood Leal, who we interviewed back in July.

Ann, author of Also Known as Harper, talks about finding balance in your critique group, and also learning not to be defensive when others comment on your work. I love what she had to say about the balance of a critique group.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

An hour (maybe two) in the life

First of all, thank you to everyone who has already left comments for the Comment Challenge. You people rock! I may not be at five a day, but I've already visited many new blogs and left comments where appropriate.

It occurred to me that it's been a while since we've posted anything specific about critique and how the Slushbusters work at a meeting. We have a meeting this Tuesday, with a possible guest, so I thought it might be a good time to review our process. It certainly isn't the only way to run a critique meeting, but it works for us.

We generally meet on Tuesday evenings. Sometime around Thursday or Friday before we meet, anyone with a submission sends it to the group in an email attachment. This gives us the weekend to look at it. We decided a while ago that we'd limit to five submissions per meeting. We just don't have time to review more than that. We did an "opt out" for a while, rotating who submitted when, but lately we aren't all ready to submit at the same time, so we usually have about three or four people's work to look at. The length of a submission can be a chapter ranging from 3-12 pages, or a complete picture book manuscript.

I'm not sure how everyone else works on their critiques once they have them, but I have a folder for each Slushie in a larger Critiques folder on my desktop. I "track changes" and make comments and notes, and "save as" an edited version of the original. I tend to copy edit because I'm a grammar geek, and I'll also make comments along the lines of "Love this sentence! Great sensory information" or "I'm confused she still in the carriage?"or, "Is this too big a word for a nine-year-old character to use?" I also like to highlight words that are used a lot. I don't think anyone else in the group does that.

If it's a short submission, I print out a draft copy to bring to the meeting. If it's a longer one, I copy all my notes into a one or two page document named for the writer, like "Sarah comments." Then I print that. In Lisa's case, since she is not physically present, I email my comments back to her.

When we meet, we set up the laptop and open Skype and get Lisa online. Usually this time is mixed with us catching up on the past couple of weeks and getting something to eat or drink. We meet at Panera, and I always come straight from work, so I'm juggling notes, laptop and dinner. If someone has news, a rejection letter they need to vent about, or anything like that, we share it.

When we critique, we focus on one person's work at a time, often starting with Lisa in case the Skype acts up or she needs to go, as she's in a different time zone. Each Slushbuster comments about the work. Sometimes we disagree, but more often someone will comment and someone else will say "I noticed that too." Our favorite times are when we see a revision that really shows improvement over the last draft we saw. We try to be specific and to be honest with both positive and negative feedback. It's no fun hearing all bad things about your work, but hearing only good things doesn't help anyone improve. Whoever wrote the piece being discussed is usually quiet while the others talk, unless someone asks her to clarify. If someone is having trouble with a particular aspect of her story, we might brainstorm solutions.

When all the critique is finished, sometimes we talk about you. :) Not you personally, but you, our blog readers and the blog. We may talk about interviews that are coming up on the blog and who is doing them. We may also plan for events like conferences. If we're really ahead of schedule and no one is threatening to kick us out of Panera, we might even do a writing exercise. That happened a lot more often when our group was only three or four people.

That's it. Not magic, exactly, but something much better than always working in a vacuum inside our own heads. It does wonders for a work in progress.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

What our readers feel

First of all, hello to everyone who is visiting from Comment Challenge and from Nicola Morgan's blog birthday party. (Yay, Nicola!!! What a great first year!)

edittorrent had a fabulous post about emotion in writing. Alicia pointed out that we often think want our readers to feel what our character is feeling. Authors will pour energy into accurately and creatively describing a character's internal state. We think nailing that moment in our character's life will guarantee that a reader will join the character in that emotion. We also think that having our readers feel what our characters do is the major goal.

However, Alicia wrote that, as writers, we should want readers to feel more that our characters do. A reader can empathize with our characters, but is also capable of feeling all sorts of emotions layered above and below what our character is experiencing.

I'm going to pull this quote from her blog because she says it wonderfully (and to convince you to visit the blog and read the entire post):

"There will be times when you want the reader to feel something-- humiliation, dread, pity-- that the character is not feeling in the scene. So it's not just about making the reader feel what the character is feeling. (And, in fact, some characters are not going to feel anything-- but the reader still can.) Sometimes you want the reader to know (if not feel) what the character is feeling, but feel something else or in addition. That's when you have to go beyond mere replication of the character's feelings. Something else has to be added to inspire the reader to feel the additional emotion. The totality of the scene, all the elements that go into making the scene, can inspire emotion in the reader."

Good stuff, don't you think? I love reading a post that opens up another facet of writing. It's yet another issue to keep in mind as I wade through all the revision I'm doing.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Comment Challenge

In an effort to grow the kidlit blogging community, MotherReader and Lee Wind are organizing Comment Challenge 2010. The idea is that we all connect with one another by commenting on each other's blogs. The goal is to comment on at least five kidlit blogs per day. You can sign up to be officially entered. They're offering a prize package.

I know from Google Analytics that there are far more of you reading than commenting here, and I'm sure you're doing the same at other blogs. I'm guilty of it myself. But here's an opportunity to reach out and say hello to all those other lovers of children's literature out here in the blogosphere. To those of you who have already signed up, we'll see you in the Comments section!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Tackling the beast

Now that it's January, it's time to break out the red pen and edit my NaNoWriMo. Or to be more accurate, paste the whole thing into a new document and rewrite it. I'm overwhelmed by the thought of 181 raw pages.

I wrote my last MG novel one chapter at a time. I rewrote each chapter as I completed it, took that five to seven pages to the Slushbusters, got their feedback, made more revisions, got more feedback, and then moved on. Five to seven pages at a time was manageable. Occasionally I made a change that required going several chapters back and revising, but once I had all the characters and story in place, I didn't have to do that too often. By the time I went back and read it as a whole, it didn't need much revision.

My NaNo piece is different. I've been paralyzed by a fear of how to proceed. The last forty pages especially are confusing. As I ran out of steam toward the end of the month, I wrote a whole bunch of scenes that took place in various other parts of the story. Now I have to figure out where they go. I also want to do a complete rewrite as I read it. I kind of have to, as I changed from third person to first and back again. I want to print out a copy to read, make notes, and then rewrite it. That seemed like a lot of printing all at one time. So I've made a plan.

I started a new notebook to keep track of my ideas. (Don't you just love a brand-new notebook at the beginning of the year? Whether it's a journal at the beginning of the calendar year, or a spiral at the start of the school year, there's something magical in writing those first few sentences in a new blank book.) I've listed all the scenes that are hanging out at the end of the document. This will, I hope, remind me to insert them when I come to the appropriate place. I had intended to reorder them before I began editing, but finding where each of them goes by scrolling up and down 181 pages would be very time consuming.

I am printing out ten pages at a time to work on. Ten pages isn't so bad, right? Lisa sends us ten page chapters all the time. I didn't write in chapter breaks, so I'm hoping to figure those out as I go. Ten pages is the most I feel I can look at and keep track of simultaneously, at least until I know the story better.

So, here I am with my first ten pages and a pencil. I remind myself that I like editing. And now, finally, I'm ready to go to it.

Friday, January 1, 2010

In Lieu of Resolutions

Happy New Year everyone!

If I were one for making resolutions, I would resolve to write more in the New Year. Instead, I prefer to complain about what keeps me from writing.

So, I’m pregnant…not that that, in itself is a good excuse. In the first trimester it was morning sickness. It’s hard to sit down and write when you’re throwing up all the time (or eating so that you won’t throw up, or crashed out on the couch so you won’t have to be awake to feel like you’re going to throw up.)

Now I’m in the third trimester, and mostly I feel great. Hey wait, that’s not a good excuse. Um, I have a two year old who has decided that he doesn’t need to nap anymore. Poof! There goes my writing time. I still make him have “quiet time” (ha ha) in his room, but something about that rhythmic thump thump of his foot against the wall hinders the creative flow.

Also, for those of you who’ve been pregnant, you may remember that your brain is a different organ than it used to be. Seriously, the chemistry changes and you find that you can’t even think in the same way. It’s like you have to get used to thinking with someone else’s brain. Someone very unlike you. Take a moment to imagine that. Now imagine trying to continue writing the novel that you started with your normal brain. See what I mean?

Okay, what else keeps me from writing? My shrinking bladder. Really, if you have to get up every 15 minutes to pee, it’s going to disrupt your flow. And then of course there’s that diaper I forgot to rinse out, and oh, I should start a load of laundry while I’m at it. Now where was I? Oh yes, writing.

Good books keep me from writing. I like to tell myself that I’m doing research. And of course I do learn things from reading—new techniques, inspiration, etc. But really, it shouldn’t take the place of writing.

Of course, writing blog entries and reading other blogs—that keeps me from writing.

Oh, and the aliens too.

So what are your excuses? See if you can beat mine.

Okay, now that we’ve got that off our chests, let’s rise above it and write. Deal?