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The Rich Writer

The Rich Writer: August 2009

The Rich Writer

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road

Monday, August 31, 2009

Where to Begin?

I had a great conversation with the members of my critique group last Friday about where my new novel should begin. One member, a multi-published fantasy author, said I was beginning the story too soon, basically giving backstory. A fantasy/sci-fi novel, she said, needs to have a "Call to Action" by the end of the first chapter. We brainstormed and came up with a couple compelling and exciting twists that would bring action in the opening.

But once home, I began to question whether action DOES belong in my opening chapter. So I decided to do a little survey, to see where the “call to action” occurs in a number of current YA novels. Here’s what I found:


Shrinking Violet, by Danielle Joseph is a contemporary YA novel. By the end of chapter 1, the reader knows that Teresa is painfully shy, that she fantasizes about being the DJ “Sweet T,” and that a DJ spot just opened at her stepdad’s radio station—but she’s too scared to volunteer.

Call to Action? I’d say no. The groundwork has been laid, but Teresa is not FORCED to act. And she doesn’t—yet.


M.E. Breen’s Darkwood is a YA fantasy. By the end of chapter 1, the main character (Annie) has overheard her aunt and uncle planning to sell her to the Drop, where she fully expects to die.

Call to Action? Yep. Stay and get sent to certain death versus flee into the dangerous darkness and face unknown dangers.  Annie has to make a choice.


Need, by Carrie Jones is another YA fantasy, but this is one of those “real world” fantasies that starts in the here-and-now. For the first few chapters, the readers gets hints of other, but no clear portrayal of the paranormal or fantastical.

Call to Action? Not so much. By the end of chapter one, the reader knows about Zara’s troubled past and that she’s crushed by her father’s recent death. We also know that her mother is worried about her and has sent her to Maine to stay with her grandmother. We get one hint of the supernatural: a weird-looking guy who might or might not be stalking her.


In R.A. Nelson’s contemporary YA Breathe My Name, the first chapter sets the stage for the story ahead: Frances lives with nightmares, sleeplessness, and stress because deep down she fears the return of her real mother.

Call to Action? Nope, this takes place a few chapters down the road, when the lawyer arrives with a letter from her biological mother.

So…what have I learned from all this?

  1. That a book’s opening—as we all know—is VERY important. It has to hook the reader and set the stage for the rest of the story.
  2. BUT—that doesn’t mean that the first chapter HAS to include the actual “call to action.” Especially when plot and character are closely intertwined, it makes sense to introduce the main character and her underlying problem in the opening chapter.
  3. In straight fantasy, it seems more common to introduce the call to action in chapter 1; in contemporary fiction, not as much.
  4. Some books cross genres—like Need and Twilight. These books seem more likely to break the “rule” about introducing the call to action in chapter 1.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The First Draft! (or, climbing the mountain)

Yes, I’m still mulling over the weird process of how we write first drafts. Everyone seems to do this differently: some people wake up in the night hearing their characters’ voices. Others have a general concept of plot and characters and just start writing, planning to go back later and iron out any wrinkles in structure. I like to outline first—outline in such detail that one editor said I was really creating a storyboard for an entire novel. My chapter outline can run 20 single spaced pages. It includes scene sketches, snatches of dialog, notes on character emotions and motivations…it’s almost like taking notes on the story’s play-by-play as I imagine it in my mind.

And yet, even with all that advance planning, I find that the story frequently doesn’t pan out exactly as I plan.

I figured out why.

Let me explain: my sweetheart just returned from climbing Long’s Peak last weekend. For those of you who don’t know, Long’s Peak is one of the toughest non-technical climbs in the Rocky Mountains. It’s also an exceptionally long hike, where you have to circle a number of ridges, pick your way through an immense boulder field, and then traverse a skinny bit of trail aptly called the Narrows.

If you take a wrong turn along the way, you’ll find yourself at an impassable cliff, sheer rock face, or some other insurmountable obstacle. Luckily, today’s hikers have cairns marking the way for them—but even so, only about 3 out of every 10 people who attempt the climb actually reach the summit. It’s a really tough hike.
Imagine what it was like for the first people who tried to climb Long’s Peak. With no cairns or trail markers, they must have had to backtrack and try new directions again…and again…and again…and again.

I think that’s what writing is like. At least, for me :). Maybe I’ll get more of a bird’s-eye view of my stories with experience—but for now, writing involves a bit of trial and error!

Happy writing!

:) Cheryl
[“W of Long’s Peak” courtesy of eggheadsherpa at Flickr Commons]

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Twitter? Me?


Well, I’m finally convinced. If the Shrinking Violets say that Twitter can be a good thing, well, I figured I’d better give it a try. (See their post “If At First You Don’t Succeed, Tweet, Tweet Again”.)

I've been signed up on Twitter for a while, to follow a few others; now, I'm actually going to--don't keel over here--POST. Sorry. I mean I'm going to TWEET. I've actually posted one already!

Starting this weekend, I’ll be posting a series on how to bypass your creative blocks, inner editor, outer distractions, etc., and actually Write The Story (WTS). If you’re interested, you can follow me at: @CherylRWrites.

Come find me so I don’t get lonely in cyber-twitter-land!


Thanks to the Shrinking Violets (@shrinkngviolets) for pointing me to this great guide for Twitter newbies: RT@mitaliperkins: Getting Started on Twitter: A Quick Guide for Kid/YA Writers: Newbie to Twitter


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Finding the Right Trail

It’s been a while since I was writing the first draft of a book—about eight months—and, as I wrote yesterday, the experience can be a bit unsettling. I’m big on outlining, so when I sit down to write a chapter, I kind of expect that the words will just roll out. After all, the plot made perfect sense when I put it together a few months ago.

Yeah. Have I ever mentioned that I’m occasionally optimistic to the point of being delusional?

Every time I write the first draft of a novel, it’s much harder to bring the pages to life than I expect. And every time, I’m surprised by this.

It took me a while yesterday to put my finger on what was wrong. I’d written a perfectly fine scene in which the main character’s father surprises her with a new bicycle. She hugs him, it’s touching, happy-happy joy-joy. My head said I should just keep on writing.

Luckily, I’m (slowly) learning to listen to my gut when it comes to writing, so instead of plowing onward (and wasting a lot of time) I kept poking at the story (well, and procrastinating, which is kind of like wasting time, except different. Sort of.) And eventually I made a breakthrough. I backed up the story, rewrote the previous scene to put Cass (the mc) in a much less pleasant situation, which naturally leads to tension when her father shows up, which naturally lets me explore her fears about their situation on this island….

To put it another way, the best way to tell the story is not always obvious. Sometimes you stumble onto the wrong path, and even though you’re pouring out the words, the writing loses its life and urgency. The trick is to trust the process—trust those hours when you don’t seem to be accomplishing anything—because if you just keep hacking at the problem, eventually you’ll have a breakthrough.

And meantime, you might even resort to desperate measures, like doing the laundry. Your family will be so astonished, they’ll probably take you out to dinner….

:) Cheryl

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

RMC-SCBWI Fall Conference Manuscript Critiques


For those of you anxiously awaiting news of your critique appointments for this year's RMC-SCBWI Fall Conference--postcards went in the mail yesterday. Did I mention that we had a ton of great submissions this year? I can't post who-received-which-assignment here, but if you entered and DON'T receive a postcard in the next day or so, please email me. A few entries arrived sans postcards (yes, I double-checked the envelopes) so I have a few assignments still sitting on my desk.

Meanwhile, here are a few stats:

Total Submissions: 68

Total Picture Book Submissions: 33

Total Novel Submissions: 38

Total Subs from SCBWI* members: 63

Total Subs from non-SCBWI members: 5

Total sent to literary agent Michael Stearns (Upstart Crow Literary): 9

Total sent to editor Allyn Johnson (VP & Publisher of Beach Lane Books, a small imprint of Simon & Schuster): 10

Total sent to editor Christy Webster (assistant editor at Random House): 9

Total sent to editor Kate Sullivan (assistant editor at Little, Brown): 11

Total people who screened manuscripts: 8

Total hours spent screening, assembling schedule, and putting together postcards: you don’t really want to know :P

If you didn’t get a chance to enter this year’s MS Critique, make sure to put it on your calendar for next year. The critiques are great, the fee minimal (just enough to cover expenses,) and it provides a rare opportunity to meet one-on-one with the person who critiques your manuscript.

Deadline for the 2010 RMC-SCBWI MS Critiques will be late July, 2010. I hope we have another record-breaking number of submissions!

:) Cheryl

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Losing the Muse!! (or, it’s all part of the process….)


Today, after weeks when I was busy with various other projects, I decided to spend a few hours digging back into my new novel. I have the whole thing plotted out—have characters I believe—and an awesome setting. It should’ve been easy, right?

Right. Here’s what my day looked like:

8:00 Check and answer emails. Realize the sudden urgency of going through everything stuck in my SPAM filter.

8:30 Wonder if I’m procrastinating

8:40 Boot up laptop (which has no email program) to work on novel. Stare at screen. Reread previous ten pages. Stare at screen. Reread outline, synopsis, character notes, and entire beginning of book.

9:30 Notice coffee cup is empty. Refill. Notice sofa is messy. Straighten. Notice that laundry needs to be done.

No, I draw the line at laundry.

9:40 Notice that I haven’t written anything in the past hour and wonder if I’ve lost the muse. Have severe crisis of faith: can I still write? What if the other books were flukes? What if this is a stupid story idea?

10:30 Realize that the ENTIRE problem is that I need to do more research. In fact, I probably need to fly to the book’s location so I can take notes on the setting, people, and small-town culture. Research lodging and travel costs. Look for blogs written by locals in the San Juan Islands (the book’s location.)

11:30 Realize that I’m getting sidetracked again and stare at the screen some more.

The weird thing is—I’m a very focused writer. This doesn’t usually happen to me. In fact, I could have kept writing, kept slogging down the plot road laid out in my outline—but I knew in my gut it was the wrong road. In my roundabout way, all the above was my way of trying out half a dozen different approaches until finally—when I had only half an hour until the kids would claim my time and attention—I found the right trail. But more on that tomorrow. Right now, I have to go write!

:) Cheryl

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Putting on my story-filter

There’s this thing I do, now that I’m a “real writer.”* I do it without even noticing, most of the time. I do it when listening to the news, while watching kids joke around at the bus stop, even when I’m on a romantic date (sorry, sweetie….it’s the danger of dating a writer.)

What is this thing of which I speak?

Here it is: I put on my story filter. 


A story filter is a mindset, a pair of mental glasses through which I view everything around me. It’s the filter that takes a snatch of conversation and directs it to the part of my brain that’s working on a YA novel; it sends the image of a kid with straight blond hair, sunburned cheeks and a gap-toothed grin and files it as a possible picture book character. It takes the NPR news story heard in the car and slots it in with possible article ideas, and it analyzes the heartsickness of losing a treasured necklace so I’ll know how to describe that emotion later, when it’s felt by my character.

I feel as if the world is my textbook and I’m constantly studying. These tidbits, recorded in my memory or, if I’m lucky, in a journal or on a scrap of paper, give me a rich source of ideas when I sit down at the page.

So is this story-filter automatic? For me, yes, it is now something I do automatically—but it hasn’t always been. At the beginning, it was something I had to cultivate. Something I had to practice. But if you do…well, it does cause rather odd thoughts to slip through your head at random moments, but it also helps you to notice all those little details that will bring your writing to life.

So go ahead: start developing your own story filter! If nothing else, it gives you a great answer for the next person who asks you what you’re thinking!

:) Cheryl

*By “real writer,” I mean a writer who’s convinced herself that that is what she is, who actually admits that’s what she does for a living, and who devotes regular, consistent time to the practices of writing, marketing, and continuing education. Publication is nice, too, but not essential. Just in case you were wondering….

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Writing Obsessions

I've discovered that many, many, many creative people have their little...oddities. Obsessions. Weirdnesses, superstitions, rituals, whatever you like to call them. Igor Stravinsky, pinned medals to his underwear for luck; and Chopin had the obsessive-compulsive habit of lining up all his shoes before retiring to bed.

I tell ya, it makes me feel downright normal! My ritual consists of stepping past the lattice-work "wall" into my office space, situating a dog on either side of me, and setting to work on the day's project or three. If I'm feeling really quirky, I'll don my sparkly pink crochet writing scarf and light a scented candle.

My real obsessions, tho, have to do with pens, paper, notebooks, binders...letting me loose in an office supply store is kind of like freeing my dogs in a butcher shop. I don't know where to turn first!

As my kids get a bit older, I'm starting to see signs of similar obsessions with pens and notebooks. Pilot G2's are the only acceptable writing implement for one kid; the other has strong feelers about binders, paper quality, and graph paper. Signs of creative genius? Or signs that my oddities are rubbing off on them?

I'm going with creative genius. Not that I'm biased or anything....

-- Cheryl :-)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mental traffic jam

Indulge the science geek in me for a moment:

Recent research from Northwestern University provided a major breakthrough in the understanding of schizophrenia. It turns out that a person with schizophrenia has a lower number of neural pathways in the front portion of her brain than normal. This person also has lower amounts of a protein that now appears to be important to formation of the usually dense web of neuron connections. The disease's symptoms seem to be the result of a mental traffic jam--the brain forms too few pathways to handle all the info it has to process.

It's a very cool discovery, because it suggests possibilities for someday developing a cure for this disease.

It's also cool because of what it suggests about how the brain works. In scizophrenia, thoughts jam up because there aren't enough "roads" to handle all the thoughts. Could it work the other way? Could your brain "jam" because you're trying to process too many thoughts--too much info--at once? Because this is one of the delightful dangers of the creative process: idea overload.
Well, if your ears start smoking next time you write, don't say I didn't warn you!

-- Cheryl :-)

(Photo Credit: Peter Penzes, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine)

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Writing Life

On a fairly regular basis, I face a writing conundrum: the busier my life, the more I have to write about--and the less time I have to write it. Does this happen to anyone else? Maybe it's because "busy" in my world usually means getting out of the house more. I suppose I wouldn't get inspired by more hours at my desk!

Busy right now means helping kids register for school, starting Rush Hour (a program with church,) and taking care of sick kids (bummer--and just as school is about to start!)

It also means observing high school students in their natural habitat; jotting down funny phrases (like when my sick kiddo said, "I feel so awful I'm tempted to swear, and I don't even know what those words mean!"); and foregoing housework in order to catch a bit of writing time... Oh wait. I do that anyways :-).

What do busy days mean for you? Do they inspire or hinder your writing, or a little bit of both?

-- Cheryl :-)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Return to Real Life

After several weeks traveling, visiting family, and learning to ride horses (who says grownups can't go to summer camp?) I returned home to Colorado...and an impressive pile of envelopes. I'm coordinating manuscript critiques for my local SCBWI chapter and, as luck would have it, the deadline for submissions arrived just before my return.

Are you impressed? It definitely made life a bit crazy, but this job is so rewarding, it's worth a few crazy days! This year we had a record 68 submissions and all of them were good. A lot of them were excellent, making it tough to choose which would go on to editors or agents (faculty for the 2009 Rocky Mountain SCBWI Fall Conference) for critique. Lucky for me, I didn't have to make those decisions alone--each ms was screened by two or more writers.

It's exciting to get to see so many folks' writing. I can't wait for the conference!

Cheryl :-)