Monday, October 31, 2011

Writers, How Do You Find the Diamond In the Rough Draft?

As I'm working on editing Toren the Teller’s Tale, I’m reminded of an old joke:

How do you become a millionaire?

Step one: get a million dollars. . . .

Becoming a great author is a little like that. Step one: write a great book. But it’s also a little different, because that really is just the first step. After that comes editing, usually lots and lots of editing. 

Some writers hate editing, but I actually love it. I love fixing stuff, and that’s what editing is all about: fixing your current draft to make it so much better. 

A recent Twitter chat for writers asked, “How do you know when your manuscript is ready?” My answer is that it’s never ready, because you never stop growing as a writer. Tomorrow you’ll probably learn something you didn’t know today. But at some point you have to say, “This is the best I can do right now,” and that’s when you send it out into the world. 

You could always hire a good freelance editor or book doctor: someone with a better understanding of what sells and years of experience at a traditional publishing house. But you can’t really learn from your own mistakes if you have someone else fix them for you. And you do want to learn. You want to be able to see the things an editor would fix, so you can fix them yourself or avoid them altogether. Here are some tips to get you started:

12 Tips for Polishing Your Novel

1. Learn to read analytically. Read a lot of books in your chosen genre. Ask yourself what you like and what you don’t like, where your attention is grabbed and where it lags, and what the author is doing to make you feel these things. It’s okay not to like something popular or even a classic. The only thing you need to figure out is why you feel this way. Then you can apply what you’ve learned to your own writing. Because if you don’t like that it took the writer three chapters to get his story started, why would another reader like that in your book? You can also analyze other forms of storytelling, like movies or TV shows. Ask yourself why something was done and how it affects you, the audience. Then ask how you can apply that to your writing. 

2. Read books on writing, style, and self-editing. The two I think every novelist should have are Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Browne and King, and The Elements of Style (4th Edition) by Strunk and White. The Elements of Style is the simplest, cheapest, and shortest book on things like punctuation and syntax; but if you find it too dry, some writers prefer Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Truss, which is longer but more entertaining. The Chicago Manual of Style is considered the best style book, but it’s expensive. The Associated Press Stylebook is cheaper and a good alternative. Some rules differ from book to book, so whichever style choice you make, be consistent. I also recommend The Comic Toolbox by Vorhaus and by Maass for tips on how to write a compelling story.

3. Join a critique group. Once you’ve internalized all you’ve learned from analyzing stories and reading books on writing--and you’ve applied that to your work--your manuscript should be ready for a critique group. Of course, that doesn’t mean you are. It can be hard to hear what others think of your precious baby. But you do need to develop an emotional distance from your own writing. Remember that you didn’t write your book for you; you wrote it for your potential readers. A critique group is your chance to see it from a reader’s perspective. Don’t respond to a critique, except to say thank you, and do ask questions in a non-confrontational way if the critique isn’t clear. Never forget that it’s your story, and only you can make changes to it. Use the advice that resonates with you, and forget the rest. Another great thing about joining a critique group is that it lets you hone your analytical skills. I think I’ve learned more in critiquing the works of others than I have in getting my own work critiqued. If you can’t find a spot in a good critique group, you can always create your own. That’s what I did. I advertised online on the SCBWI boards, and my critique group, the Fantasyweavers, was born. Most writers’ conferences also offer professional critiques for a fee. If you’re lucky, it could be the best thing about going to a conference.

4. Aim for clarity above all else. Writing is a form of communication. If you aren’t clear, you haven’t successfully communicated what it is you wanted to say. Rewrite it. Don’t write in an effort to impress the reader with your literary prowess. Keep it clear, simple and focused, and your reader will get what it is you’re trying to say.

5. Establish visuals early on and keep them consistent. As a reader, I hate to have to erase the image I’ve already painted in my mind because the writer failed to tell me something twenty pages earlier. I once read a book where I thought one character was white, only to discover in the next book in the series (yes, an entire book later!) that he was Chinese. This is true for characters and settings. Think of it like a movie, and start with an establishing shot. Let the reader ground himself in your story. It doesn’t have to be detailed, but if you let the reader fill in the blanks early on, don’t fill them in for him later in the story.

6. Make sure you have a beginning, middle, and end. Is there a hook on the first page, something the reader needs to know and won’t find out unless he reads the book? Do you raise the stakes in the proceeding chapters by giving the main character more obstacles to what he or she wants to get, obstacles that are related to whatever the hook or central conflict is, not just random obstacles that have nothing to do with them? Is the resolution of the story’s central conflict satisfying, and does that resolution come from the main character’s own choices and actions?  It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it does have to be a resolution that puts an end to whatever the central conflict was. Romeo and Juliet ends with the main characters dead. You can’t have a more final resolution than that.

7. Kill your darlings. Some writers think this means you should kill off your favorite characters, but that’s not it at all. Everything has to be in your story for a reason. It has to move the story forward, set the mood, and/or give readers a deeper understanding of your characters. “Your darlings” refers to stuff you’re proud you wrote because it’s just so well written. If doesn’t have a reason to be in your story beyond being pretty, cut it out. Doesn’t matter if it’s single word, a paragraph, a chapter, or even a character (very often multiple characters carry out duties that could be better carried out by just one), cut it out. And if it really is that great, put it aside. Maybe someday you’ll write a story where it does move the story forward, set the mood, and/or give readers a deeper understanding of your characters. Put these darlings in that story, but not here.

8. Be flexible. A recent article in Popular Science pointed out that, since the Rosetta Stone, writing has become less and less permanent. We’re now writing in virtual clouds, for goodness sakes! It was a lot harder to change your words hundreds of years ago when it had to be written by hand on very expensive paper. Now it couldn’t be easier to do it on your computer. Try to think like an Improv actor. Sure, you wrote your scene this way, but what if you wrote it that way? When I was editing Why My Love Life Sucks: The Legend of Gilbert the Fixer, I often wrote several versions of different scenes so I could choose the best one. I would then move the other version into Word’s comments section, so I never really lost anything. (My daughter likes reading this version of the novel, which she calls the one with the “outtakes.”) Sometimes I’ll use the comments section to write down ideas for changes while I’m still writing the first draft.  It’s better than losing them because I didn’t write them down right away.  Give it a try. It could make your story a lot better, and you have nothing to lose, so why not?
 A “Scenes From a Hat” game from the Improv show Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

9. Make everything in your story matter. This isn’t the same as killing your darlings, although it might seem like it. This is about adding depth and meaning to the things that are moving your story forward, setting the scene, or revealing your characters. So how do you do this? I’ve found the best way is by making everything matter to your main character. If it matters to him or her, it will matter to the reader. There’s a huge difference between just any old rag doll and a rag doll your fifteen-year-old main character hugs when she’s lonely because it’s the best friend she’s ever had.

10. Show, don’t tell . . . except when it’s better to tell. Many beginning writers go a little overboard on the whole “show don’t tell” thing. There are times to tell and times to show. The important thing is to know when to do which. If your character is having an important discussion with another character, that’s a good time to show. If your character then goes home, eats dinner, goes to bed, wakes up when the alarm clock rings, eats breakfast, and does a lot of stuff that really doesn’t matter, that’s a good time to tell. “. . . she said, and then she turned around and walked away. The next day . . .” Bam, right into the next thing that matters. That’s the way to do it.

11. Follow all the rules? Um, no. This is related to show don’t tell, but it’s not just that. I think writers have to know the “rules,” because only in knowing the rules can you break them with good reason. One of the “rules” that drives me nuts is the one regarding incomplete sentences. Incomplete sentences can be very powerful in the right situations. The same goes for starting a sentence with a conjunction. There’s a difference between “Ashley looked up at the towering Ferris wheel” and “The Ferris wheel towered over Ashley. She looked up. And up. And up.” The latter gives you a better sense of how overwhelmed Ashley feels by how tall the Ferris wheel is.

12. Once you’re done, put it in a drawer for a month. Then go over the whole thing again, hopefully with more distance and a better, more objective perspective. Read it out loud. (After all, if it ever becomes an audio book, someone will have to read it out loud.) If you have text-to-speech software you can use, or you can transfer your book to your Kindle and listen to it, you should. Sometimes you’ll be able to hear things your eyes might miss, like a repeated word or sentence, or a typo. Printing your story on paper can also give you a different perspective. Again, if there are changes you’re not sure of, use the comments section in Word to jot them down. Try it both ways, and pick the one you like best.

This is certainly not a complete list of tips, but hopefully it’s enough to get you started. I know many authors do things quite differently. How about you? Do you have any editing tips you’d like to share? If so, I hope you’ll leave them in the comments section below. I’d love to hear them.

Monday, October 24, 2011

10 Tips for a Fun and Easy NaNoWriMo

 What’s NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. The name is a bit of a misnomer now that NaNoWriMo is international, going well beyond the borders of the United States. Participants can probably be found on every continent except for Antarctica. Every November, writers commit themselves to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

That’s insane.

I know, but it’s also fun.

Why would anyone commit themselves to something as crazy as that?

There are a number of reasons. The main reason I decided to give it a go was to see if I could write without my internal editor slowing me down. During NaNoWriMo, there’s no time to ask whether this or that is right. You have to make a choice, commit to it, and keep moving forward. It’s the only way to make it to that 50,000-word mark within 30 days.

The support and camaraderie is also great. You’re not alone when you do NaNoWriMo. Not only is there a website that lets you register, track your progress, watch inspirational and how-to videos, and connect with fellow participants, but there are local groups that organize Write Ins and other NaNoWriMo events.  My local group had a “Publishing Track” event in early October and will be holding a kick-off event on November first, with several more events to follow. Participants also get motivational emails, some of them written by famous writers. Last year, these included Lemony Snicket, Holly Black, and John Green. The year before that included Robin McKinley, Tamora Pierce, Maureen Johnson, Lynda Barry, Gail Carson Levine, and Jasper Fforde.

Winners--as in all those who make the 50,000 word goal--get a bunch of nice prizes, like badges they can post on Twitter, Facebook, and their blogs. The bragging rights are nice, but if that’s not enough, there are also deep discounts on Scrivener software--which is great--and the option to get a physical copy of your NaNoWriMo work from Amazon’s CreateSpace.

Of course, the main reason to do NaNoWriMo is that once you’ve written a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, you feel like you can do anything!

And there’s the novel itself, right? At the end of NaNoWriMo you have another novel to submit to agents, editors or contests, or you can self-publish it?

Um, yes and no. Lots of people throw out their NaNoWriMo novel when they’ve finished NaNoWriMo.


Some writers do it just for the experience, the sense of accomplishment, or to get out of a rut. But if you do decide your novel is worth publishing, it’ll probably need a lot of editing.

I wrote Why My Love Life Sucks, the first book in the Legend of Gilbert the Fixer series, during NaNoWriMo, and I edited it for about eight months after it was over. It was a lot of work, because I wanted to get the humor exactly right. I took a page from Improv to write many of the scenes several times in different ways so I could choose the best one. Sometimes the best option led to changes in other places in the story. It was a ton of work, but I do believe it’s helped me write a really great story. It was also a lot of fun, so much fun I didn’t want to leave Gilbert’s world when NaNoWriMo was over.

I’ve read that the bestseller Water for Elephants started out as a NaNoWriMo novel, so NaNoWriMo can definitely be a time to create a diamond in the rough. It has been done before.  Of course, you shouldn’t set out to write a masterpiece. Nothing can stifle creativity like perfectionism. Remember that you can always edit something badly written, but you can’t edit a blank page. Give yourself permission to write as badly as you need to, just as long as you get it done.

Do you have to write one novel from beginning to end?

Technically, no. One year, I started one novel, gave up, and then started another one. The second one was Why My Love Life Sucks. I could have added the parts of the two novels to make up the 50,000-word document, but I didn’t have to, because I ended up almost completing Why My Love Life Sucks within the 30 days and with over 50,000 words. The goal is to reach the 50,000-word mark. If that only takes you halfway through your story, that’s fine too.

Another year I worked on the outline for the Legend of Gilbert the Fixer series. If I do NaNoWriMo this year, I’ll probably work on the outline for the Toren the Teller series.

What if you’re not a novelist? What if you write picture books? What if you’re an illustrator? Or what if you’ve written your novel and you just want to edit it? Can you still do NaNoWriMo?

Actually, there are similar events geared to different kinds of writers and even illustrators. Picture book writers have PiBoIdMo, which is organized by Tara Lazar in November. The idea is to write 30 picture-book ideas in 30 days. Too much? Maybe NaPiBoWriWee is more your speed. That involves writing seven picture-book manuscript drafts in one week, and it’s held in May. Illustrators last January had the KidLitArt Picture Book Dummy Challenge, which encouraged illustrators to create and submit a picture-book dummy in 25 weeks. Even script writers have Script Frenzy in April, and comic-book writers and illustrators have 24 hours to write and illustrate a 24-page comic book on (what else?) 24-Hour Comics Day. And there’s NaNoEdMo if you’d like to work on revising your novel. That’s held in March. There’s a list of other events at: (although some of these are out of date).

If you don’t see something that works for you, you can create your own challenge.

For several years I ran PB Jammers, which was my attempt to create an easy version of NaNoWriMo for picture-book writers. The goal was to write 26 picture-book manuscripts, one a week for six months. Later I expanded this to include those who write middle grade and YA novels and who wanted to commit to writing 1,000 words a week. That’s something anyone can do, and if you keep it up, it will give you a full-length novel in a year.

This year I’m creating IlloMo, because I want to draw 30 illustrations in 30 days (full-color, full-page chapter headers for Toren the Teller and the Tale). I’m hoping IlloMo could help me stay focused and on schedule. You’re welcome to join me if you like.

It still sounds pretty daunting. Any tips to make it easier?


Ten Tips to Make NaNoWriMo Easier

1.       Register on the NaNoWriMo website.  The number one thing you can do is simply decide to make the commitment. Once you do, you’ll find a lot of support, advice, and encouragement on the website and through the organizers and other participants. Tell people on Twitter that you’re doing NaNoWriMo, and use the #NaNoWriMo hashtag to keep you accountable and motivated. Get as many people as you can to cheer you on.

2.       Get Dragon Naturally Speaking. Try to do this way ahead of NaNoWriMo, so you have time to get used to using it. Dragon Naturally Speaking is speech-to-text software, the best kind out there. If you’re like most people, you talk a lot faster than you can type. However, there is a learning curve, and it’s not just on your end. The program takes time to learn how you talk and write. One year I started really fast by using DNS, but then I ran into a technical problem and had to finish the month without it. It was so much easier with DNS. I also recommend getting a really good headset. Mine is the Sennheiser PC 350 headset with an added USB adapter. Wearing a headset and talking to yourself is also a good way to tell other people that you’re working and don’t want to be disturbed.

3.       Write an outline before NaNoWriMo. I know some people are pansters (as in they like to write by the seat of their pants), and if that works for you, great. Still, for most people, an outline will give you a direction in which to go so you don’t wander off into the proverbial woods never to be heard from again. I like to outline both the general story and each chapter before I write it, so I know exactly what has to go into every scene, but you don’t have to be that thorough. Scrivener software can help you with your outline. As I mentioned earlier, you might want to hold off on buying it, because NaNoWriMo winners, in past years, were given a significant discount. Any kind of outline will do. I usually write a general one and then a chapter by chapter one in Word. Other writers like to use corkboards with index cards. Whatever works for you.

4.       Now write an outline for a second story. Why? Just in case you either get stuck or you find you’re not enjoying the work. A second story means you can changes horses if you have to, so you won’t feel like you have to force yourself to finish NaNoWriMo. Make sure at least one of your novels is one you’d find fun to write. It’s easy to stop mid-novel when you’re not having fun. And like I said, you can include both novels in your word-count so long as those are words you wrote in November.

5.       Trust your instincts. If you feel like you don’t have any ideas for one novel let alone two, take a tip from Neil Simon. In his autobiographical book Rewrites, he explains that writer’s block isn’t when a writer has no ideas; it’s when a writer has a lot of ideas, but doesn’t trust himself to make the right choice. Trust yourself to make the right choice. The truth is, when it comes to NaNoWriMo, any choice is the right choice as long as it keeps you writing and getting closer to your goal.

6.       Take a page from Improv. Actors doing Improv have even less time than you do to create a story and get it across. Scenes usually take under three minutes. How do they do it? In Improvisational theater, the rule is always “Yes, and . . .” Never “No” and never “Yes, but . . .” This is like what I said about trusting your choices, because in Improv there’s really no time for doubt. Stories are built around a topic. The topic can be explored in many different ways, but the story should never be allowed to stray from the topic. In fact, writing is even easier than Improv, because in Improv the topic is supplied by the audience, while you get to choose your own topic. The main character wants something related to your topic, but other characters create obstacles or conflicts that prevent him or her from getting it. That’s called “raising the stakes.” So ask yourself what topic you want to write about. What can the main character want related to that topic? What obstacles will he or she encounter that will raise the stakes? Remember that these obstacles have to be related to the topic, not external obstacles. Anything at all can be your topic, but you have to stick with it, so make it a good one. Otherwise, you might lose direction, which will make moving forward so much harder. It’s okay to stray for a bit, just as long as you keep bringing the story back to its topic. Pick a topic you’ll enjoy writing about. For Why My Love Life Sucks, the topic was “A geek’s worst nightmare.” Everything in the story relates to that. It helps if you pick a topic that’s close to your heart. I’m a total geek, and I love geek culture in all its forms, so creating Gilbert and writing his story was a lot of fun. What topic is close to your heart? What are the different aspects of it? What obstacles can you create? What might your main character do to overcome those obstacles?

7.       Make sure your family and friends know that you’re serious about NaNoWriMo. Let them know the laundry might not get done, you’ll probably eat a lot of take out, and when they see you slumped in front of the computer with your headset on you’re not to be disturbed unless something or someone is on fire.

8.       Set daily goals that allow for setbacks. Instead of aiming for the end of the month, aim for Thanksgiving. Use the NaNoWriMo website to track your progress. There’s a graph showing you where you are and where you should be with your word count. Try to avoid falling below the line, but if you do, no harm. You can catch up and even get ahead another day, just as long as you reach that 50,000-word mark by the end of the month.

9.       Send your internal editor on vacation until December. If you do see a big-picture item you’d like to change, use comments in Word (or something similar in whatever writing program you’re using) to make a note of the thing you’d like to change at the start of the place you’d like to make that change. You can even attach that comment to the entire section (although I wouldn’t recommend that for really long sections, because multiple comments on top of each other can be confusing). Then continue writing as if you’ve already made that change.

10.   When you win, celebrate! Shout about it on Twitter. Use the NaNoWriMo badge on Facebook to tell your friends of your accomplishment. Post it on your blog. When something feels good it’s easier to make it a habit, and winning NaNoWriMo feels awesome! Instead of looking at it as a daunting task, you’ll look forward to doing it again next year. And what if you don’t make it? Don’t feel too bad. A large percentage of participants don’t. Figure out where you went wrong, and try to fix your mistakes so you can do better next year.

Oh, yes, and there’s one more tip: have fun!

Have any more tips, comments, or questions about NaNoWriMo or anything else in this post? Leave them in the comments section below, and I’ll try to get back to you.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Guest Post: The What, How, Where, and Why of Book Trailers

Today's post is by Greg R. Fishbone, who is generating buzz about his new Galaxy Games series with an exciting blog tour.


Making the Book Trailer

by Greg R. Fishbone

Thanks to Shevi for having me on her site and for asking me to talk about book trailers, what they are for, how they are made, and why an author might want one. I'll also talk about the process I went through to make my video for Galaxy Games: The Challengers--which is here for your viewing pleasure:

I'm sure everyone is already familiar with movie trailers. They're what book trailers would look like if authors and publishers could afford A-list actors, CGI effects, a film editing suite, that one guy who does all the movie trailer voice overs, and the broadcast rights to "Far and Away" by Enya. Lacking the budget for those things, authors can still represent the visual and auditory "look and feel" of a book in a two-minute blast that will help readers understand that oh my god this is going to be the bestest book ever and I'm going to want to order it now, now, now!

Why represent a work of text and imagination in a format that might combine images, video, music, and the spoken voice? Because, like it or not, we live in the video era of an increasingly video world. Video rules the web, and even the most avid readers are more likely to click on your book trailer link than on a PDF excerpt of Chapter One--although, hopefully, your book trailer will create curiosity and demand for more information. Once a book trailer is made and uploaded, you can embed it on your book site, author site, Facebook page, and anywhere else you want. If you do a signing event or school visit, the book trailer can be an effective and attention-grabbing opening act.

The first step in creating your trailer is to assess your technology, resources, and applicable skills. You might have a video camera, a laptop, some family members who can act out a cheesy skit, and a friend who knows something about film editing. You can search Google for royalty-free music, inexpensive editing software, public domain images, and tutorials on video creation.

I did my first book trailer in 2007 for The Penguins of Doom, using screen captures of my own doodles on PowerPoint slides, so whatever you come up with is bound to be so much better than that! For The Challengers, I was lucky enough to have awesome interior art from my publisher and use of a slideshow editor that included music and animated transitions.

The next step is to write a script that works within your resource constraints to entertain and inform your audience. Keep the five W's and H of journalism in mind: Who is the main character? What is the story about? When and where will the book be available? And how can the reader find out even more information?

Feel free to raise some important questions that you don't answer, because your trailer should function as a teaser for the book without giving away too much of what will happen. The script should capture the feel of your book, as much as possible, including suggestions for the kinds of images and music you will want to include. For my book about sports and science fiction, I wanted far-out graphics and music that sounded like a sports broadcast.

Don't start filming until you have a script and an accurate inventory of the resources available for you to make the video. If you've done your planning right, the actual making of the video will be the quick and easy part.

Then comes the editing. If you're including text, is the font readable? If you're doing a voice-over narration, is it loud and clear enough? If you're using images, are they the best and most appropriate ones available to you? Is there some important bit of information you might have inadvertently left out, or can you tighten the video to improve the pacing? As a writer, you should know all about revision already--put those skills to good use!

The final step is to upload your video and send the link everywhere you can.

Congratulations! Now you can add film producer and director to your resume, next to where it says published author.

I had a lot of fun making my book trailer, and I think it works as an effective introduction to the Galaxy Games universe, but I would love to hear your opinions and suggestions in the comments section to this post.

Thanks for watching!

Greg R. Fishbone, Author - - Twitter @tem2

The Challengers - Book #1 in the Galaxy Games Series

Puzzle Piece #16 of 31:

Follow the Galaxy Games Blog Tour, all October long!

Sunday, October 09, 2011

What Writers Can Learn from the Genius of Steve Jobs

Last week, the world lost a one-of-a-kind visionary. Through Apple and Pixar, Steve Jobs changed the world, improved lives, and touched hearts. My son’s school for developmentally disabled kids uses iPads to help its students communicate. And every member of my family cried during the most touching scene in Toy Story 3. It’s amazing to think that all of that started in Steve’s parents’ garage, with nothing more than one friend who believed in him and a dream. What does that say about the rest of us?

Steve Jobs left behind him a great legacy, not only in the products or the movies he helped create, but in his ability to inspire greatness in others.

When I read quotes in Entrepreneur Magazine, I often see how they can apply to writers. Here are several quotes from Steve Jobs from the November issue of Mac Life, and how I think they might apply to writers:

“I want to put a ding in the universe.”

I think this is a big part of the reason writers write. Life is fleeting. We all want to leave our mark on the world, our ding in the universe.   

“My job is to not be easy on people. My job is to make them better.”

If you make your books all sunshine and unicorns, no one will want to read them. As a fiction writer, your characters are your people. Readers want to see them encounter challenges, and they want to join your characters on a journey to overcome those challenges. Your main character or characters should develop between the beginning and the end of your story. Your job is to make them better in the end.

“I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.”

In his autobiographical book, Rewrites, playwright Neil Simon mentions once being praised for being a great rewriter. He was told, “Writers are a dime a dozen, but rewriters are gold.” Editing is such an important part of writing. Every character, every scene, every word should be there for a reason. And if it doesn’t have a reason to be there, cut it out. This is what some writers mean by “Kill your darlings.” Cut out the things that have more to do with your ego than your story. Be as proud of your editing as your writing. Be as proud of what you don’t do as you are of what you do.

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Description should do double duty. It shouldn’t just paint lovely pictures. Pretty descriptions often fall into the category of darlings that should be killed. Description should work. Like everything else, it should be there for a reason. It should ground the story and help bring it to life, or else it should convey something about the characters. There’s a huge difference between saying the glass was delicate and saying she was afraid to pick it up, because she didn’t want to break it.

“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”

There’s a story in you that only you could tell. Tell it. Don’t waste time trying to follow trends or write like someone else. Write like you, and only you. Because if you’re writing like someone else, so are hundreds of others. But no one else can write like you. Be a leader, not a copycat. Be an original. Be an innovator.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.”

You have to believe in your writing, because if you don’t, no one else will. In fact, even if you do believe in it, you’re going to encounter plenty of people who won’t. It’s going to be an uphill battle at times, so you have to believe that what you’re doing is great work. You have to believe that it matters. You have to believe you’re making a ding in the universe.

And I would like to add one more quote, not from the magazine but from the video above:

"The penalty for failure . . . is nonexistent."
It doesn't have to be perfect the first time. You have to allow yourself the freedom to fail. You can edit a bad piece of writing, but you can't edit a blank page. The freedom to fail is also the freedom to innovate, the freedom to create something new and brilliant that only you can create.

Steve, thank you so much for your contributions to this world. You will be sorely missed.

Monday, October 03, 2011

A List of 10 of the Best Fantasy & Science Fiction Novels for Girls

When my daughter was about ten, we read Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism by Georgia Byng to her. After a while, we would have my daughter read every few chapters, and eventually we left her to read the rest of the series on her own. My daughter is now fifteen, and she reads a lot of fantasy and science fiction. She loves novels with smart, strong and funny girls as main characters, girls like her. I asked her to help me compile a list of some of her favorites for other girls, the list at the bottom of this blog post.

When I was her age I read a lot too, and like her, I loved fantasy and science fiction. I journeyed with Frodo through Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, discovered with Schmendrick the Magician why all but one of the unicorns had disappeared in The Last Unicorn, and learned how a boy named Sparrowhawk became a great sorcerer named Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea.

Unlike my daughter, however, I never found those smart, strong, funny female main characters that I was looking for. Shouldn’t a reader be able to find him or herself in the novels he or she reads? Where were the girls who were like me?

The women in The Lord of the Rings books are mainly there to be beautiful or to add a comic element. None of them have active roles in the story. Of all the fantasy novels that I read, The Last Unicorn came the closest to embodying what it feels like to be a teenage girl moving between childhood and womanhood, which is crazy considering the character who embodies that isn't even human. What's even crazier is that Wizard of Earthsea features a boy as the main character even though it was written by a woman. Not even women were writing female main characters back then, or so I thought. (Much later, I discovered that there were a few contemporary female fantasy protagonists, like Meg in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which was published a few years before I was born.)  

So why did so few fantasy novels back then have strong female protagonists? Why were even women writers creating male main characters? Harry Potter is a much more recent example. Not only is the main character of that series a boy, the woman who wrote the series wrote it under the non-gender specific pen name J.K. Rowling. Why?

I think there might be two reasons. The first is that publishers don’t know there’s a demand for something until it hits the bestseller list. The Lord of the Rings hit the bestseller list in the sixties, so that told them there was an audience for fantasy novels of a certain type, a type with heroes, not heroines. So they tried to recreate that success and failed. By the seventies, according to Terry Brooks in Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life, the publishers had come to the conclusion that fantasy doesn’t sell. You had a hard time selling any kind of fantasy, forget about fantasy for girls. A publisher had to put his reputation on the line to publish a fantasy novel. Brooks was lucky to find a publisher who was willing to do just that. Stephen King also had a huge battle getting his first horror novel published, because publishers back then thought that horror didn’t sell. King had to prove them wrong, but first he had the almost impossible task of getting someone to publish his first horror novel.

Of course, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Something that’s never published won’t make it to the top of the bestseller list. So if it was believed that fantasy for girls didn’t sell well, that was enough to prevent them from getting published at all.

The second reason is that it’s long been assumed that girls will read books with male main characters, but boys wouldn’t read books with girl main characters. This led to the assumption that if you want to sell a lot of books, you had to attract both boys and girls readers—and the only way you could do that was by making your main character a boy. Changing a female writer’s name to something less gender specific or even male was also considered good for sales.

While it’s still somewhat assumed that boys won’t read books with girls as main characters, everything has changed. Why? Because it’s now generally acknowledged that women and teenager girls buy more fiction than men and teenage boys. There’s still a preference for boys as main characters in middle grade, but female main characters are blossoming in YA and older fiction. A few fantasy and science fiction novels with female protagonists--like Twilight or The Hunger Games have turned into runaway successes. What difference does it make which gender of reader puts something on the bestseller list, as long as it goes on the bestseller list and stays there?

And the most interesting thing is that, while in the past even women were writing male protagonists, nowadays even men are writing fantasy and science fiction novels with girls as main characters, like the Maximum Ride series by James Patterson.

As for me, not being able to find the books I wanted to read when I was a teenager turned out to be a good thing.  I eventually I came to the conclusion that the only way I was going to get to read a fantasy novel about a girl like me was if I wrote it myself, and that's why I started writing Toren the Teller’s Tale when I was sixteen years old.

Nowadays, girls have plenty of wonderful, smart, strong and brave fantasy heroines to look up to. Without further ado, here are ten of my daughter’s favorites. (Although I agree with many of her choices, my list would have looked a little different.) This is by no means a complete list, but I wanted to limit it to ten, so I apologize to all the great fantasy novelists--Gail Carson Levine, Tamora Pierce, and many more--who didn't make this list. Each of these books is the first in a series, so if you like the first, you'll probably love the rest too. While most are good for readers age nine and up, the last two are better for ages twelve and up.

List of 10 Recommended Fantasy & Science Fiction Novels for Girls

1. Akiko on the Planet Smoo by Mark Crilley—a group of aliens take a fourth grade girl on an intergalactic adventure to rescue a prince from kidnappers.

2. The Everyday Witch: A Tale of Magic and High Adventure! by Sandra Forrester—Beatrice Bailey is about to turn twelve, when means she will get her official classification as a witch. But she first needs to pass a test.


3. Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism by Georgia Byng—a young girl living in an awful orphanage discovers a book on hypnotism and her own incredible power.


4. Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George—a plucky orphan girl befriends a dragon and gets a mysterious pair of blue slippers that might destroy the kingdom.

5. Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R. L. LaFevers—eleven-year-old Theodosia, who spends a lot of time in 1906 in London’s Museum of Legends and Antiquities , discovers an ancient curse that leads her on a grand adventure.

6. Dealing with Dragons: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Book One by Patricia C. Wrede—daring and adventurous Princess Cimorene would rather deal with dragons than marry a prince.

7. The Sisters Grimm: The Fairy-Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley—after the disappearance of their parents, two girls discover that they must take on the family responsibility of being fairy-tale detectives.

8. Fablehaven by Brandon Mull—Kendra’s and Seth’s grandfather is the guardian of Fablehaven, a magical place where fairies and other magical beings live hidden away from most human eyes, and now it’s up to the brother and sister to save Fablehaven and their grandfather.

9. Scepter of the Ancients (Skulduggery Pleasant) by Derek Landy—a young girl teams up with a walking, talking skeleton to solve her uncle’s murder and stop whoever is trying to kill her next.

10. The Bar Code Tattoo by Suzanne Weyn—a high-school student becomes an outcast and has to run for her life when she refuses to get a bar code tattoo like everyone else.