About Caroline Carlson

Caroline is the author of the VERY NEARLY HONORABLE LEAGUE OF PIRATES trilogy and other books for young readers. You can visit her online at carolinecarlsonbooks.com.

Writing–and Living–in the World

I’ll start with a confession: I’m writing this blog post at midnight the morning before it’s due, and not because I’m intentionally reverting back to my high school work ethic. It’s been a tumultuous and overwhelming few weeks in recent world news, and staying engaged and informed and emotionally stable as we process all that news has often felt like a full-time job for me and several of the other writers I know. All of us seem to have the same questions: How do we write in an environment like this one, when all the other stuff of life demands so much from us? How do we maintain our creative energy? How do we sit down and focus? (How, in a world as busy as ours, can we possibly remember that we have a blog post that’s supposed to go online tomorrow?)

I don’t yet have many good answers to these questions. I’ve found so far that writing early in the morning is helpful; I sit down to work before I read the news, before my train of thought drifts too far away from my draft in progress. If I’m tempted to skim the headlines instead of writing, I turn on the software that disables my internet connection–a useful tool for all those times when sheer willpower isn’t enough. Sometimes I think of my writing as an escape from an exhausting world; at other times I try to weave my concerns and hopes into the thematic fabric of storytelling. And I aim to get words on the page each day because no matter what’s happening in the world, there are kids out there who need our stories, and I don’t want to let them down.

I’d particularly like to hear from Tollbooth readers today: Have you been distracted or overwhelmed lately, and if so, how have you been coping? How do you write (or carry on with your work in general) when large and small life events threaten to pull you away from the page? How do you balance living in the world and writing about it?

On Acceptance

 

I am not a fast drafter. I’d like to be one, but I’m not, just like I’m not the sort of person who can get out of bed before 7:30 am on a regular basis, or the sort of person who can run a mile and enjoy it. My drafts take a while. They’re generally in pretty decent shape when they’re done. That’s just the kind of writer I am.

I’d like to be the sort of writer who has a knack for delving deep into characters’ emotions. I am really, really not that sort of writer, especially in my early drafts. I always have to focus on my main characters’ emotions in revision, no matter how much I try to get them on the page the first time around. Even after I’ve done my best, I know there are other writers who could have done it better. That’s just the kind of writer I am.

I’d like to write a Very Serious Book one day, the sort of book that will make Serious People have Serious Conversations about Serious Topics. This is never going to happen.

I’d like to write an entire book without worrying for a minute about what other people will think of it. That’s never going to happen, either.

Here’s what might happen, though: I can accept my writing self–my strengths and my weaknesses. I can accept the books I write, and I can feel proud of them. And I can encourage my writer friends to embrace their own stories and their own processes without measuring them against their own ideas of what the writing life should be like.

So, dear readers, I’d like to know: what kind of writer are you? What parts of your writing life have you decided to accept?

Tips from the Slush Pile

Editors, like other superheroes, can sometimes seem inscrutable. What are they thinking each morning as they open their inboxes and pore through the most recent submissions from hopeful authors? What are they looking for? What do they want? Will they adore us? Will they cast us aside? What mysterious notions will strike their fancy? How will the editorial trade winds blow, and when will they shift?

I’m a writer first and foremost, but through my work at the Vermont College literary journal Hunger Mountain, first as a submissions reader and then as an editor, I’ve gotten a good look at life on the editorial side of the desk, too. What I’ve learned as an editor has been both useful and comforting to me as a writer. Now that we’re selecting final pieces to publish in our 2016 print issue, I thought I’d share a few tips I’ve learned from my time reading submissions. Here’s what makes me sit up and take notice, what makes me groan, and why I’ve promised myself never to take rejection personally.

If you are an experienced writer who cares about craft, you will stand out from the crowd. It’s true that editors and agents receive a ton of submissions, but what you might not know is that many of these submissions are from writers at the very beginning of their literary lives. At Hunger Mountain, we often see work with a lot of promise from authors who still need more time to practice and hone their craft. We also sometimes see work that’s simply not right for us and our audience, work that seems to have been cast out into the world without much thought or care. If you have taken the time to write, revise, and research appropriate homes for your work, you do not need to do anything special to get noticed by editors: they will appreciate your competence, professionalism, and attention to detail, and they will take your writing as seriously as you do.

If you’re writing about a well-explored topic, you’ve got to do it fabulously. Some guy once famously said that there are only two stories in the world. I’d like to suggest that in the world of YA short fiction, those stories are “a teenager goes to a party” and “a teenager struggles with an eating disorder.” Not that there is anything wrong with these stories! These are, in fact, real things that lots of teens experience; there’s a good reason we see so many stories about these topics in our submissions inbox. Many of these stories are excellent. We’ve published several of them during my time at Hunger Mountain, and some of those stories about common subjects are among my favorites. I’ll admit, though, that when I open up a submission that I feel like I’ve read a thousand times before, the writer must work extremely hard to win me over, grab my attention, and convince me that this story is something new and special. If your topic is familiar, the other characteristics of your writing cannot be. More than ever, you’ll need a strong narrative voice, a fresh perspective, a brilliantly unique character, a quick wit—anything that will make your work stand out from the pack of tales with similar themes. Ask yourself what makes this a story that only you can tell.

Sometimes it’s truly a matter of taste. I don’t know exactly why—maybe I had a bad run-in with Steinbeck in a previous life—but I really can’t stand stories about plucky kids growing up during the Dust Bowl. I know there are a lot of good stories about plucky kids during the Dust Bowl. I know other readers love stories about plucky kids during the Dust Bowl. I’m aware that this is a totally irrational irritation, but the fact remains: I hate Dust Bowl stories. I have been known to shout, upon opening a submission, “NOT THE DUST BOWL AGAIN!”

What I’m getting at here is that you shouldn’t let a rejection letter discourage you. It honestly might not mean anything at all about the quality of your work. It just means your story wasn’t the right fit for that particular editor. I know people say this all the time, but it’s not just an excuse to make you feel better. The next time you hear it, please believe it.

Editors can’t publish every piece they truly love. This is the truth that breaks my heart. Hunger Mountain receives a number of absolutely excellent submissions each reading period—more than we have the space to publish in our slender little mag—and, this year in particular, we’ve been forced to make impossible choices. I gave my heart to a more than a dozen great stories this fall, but we’ll only have room to print three or four. This is true outside the literary magazine world as well: even if an editor falls in love with your story, she might not be able to publish it. Maybe she doesn’t have the budget or the time for it. Maybe she’s already working on a similar title, and she’s trying to build a more well-rounded list. Maybe her colleagues just don’t feel the same way about the story. I know it’s not much consolation if you’re the author whose work has been rejected, but you should know that the editor who turned down your piece is probably kicking her desk in frustration right now. She loves you! She knows you will go on to do great things!

You all are writing a lot of amazing stuff. What I’ve been most impressed by during my editorial adventures is the amount of truly great writing that’s being produced in the children’s literature community right now. I’ve loved having a chance to get a small sense of all the new, interesting, creative, thoughtful, and risky projects writers are attempting these days, and I’ve been inspired to push myself farther in my own writing. Thank you for being talented enough to tell these stories well and brave enough to send them out into the world.

Life After the MFA: Part I

Today’s post is the first of a two-part series about writing and publishing during and after the MFA program. In this installment, I’m chatting with my VCFA classmates Meg Wiviott and Melanie Crowder about how our time in grad school influenced our later writing. In two weeks, we’ll talk again about the writing life after graduation. –Caroline

What’s your most recent writing project?

MEG: PAPER HEARTS (Simon & Schuster, September 2015) is a historical novel in verse based on a true story of a group of young women who were slave laborers at the munitions factory in Auschwitz. One of them, Fania, was turning twenty, and her friend, Zlatka, decided that birthdays needed to be celebrated, even in Auschwitz.

MELANIE: In a small river village where the water is cursed, one girl’s bravery could mean the difference between life and death. A NEARER MOON (Simon & Schuster,  September 2015) is a middle grade fantasy for ages 8-12.

CAROLINE: My latest book is the final entry in my Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series for middle grade readers. It’s called THE BUCCANEERS’ CODE (HarperCollins, September 2015), and like the rest of the series, it’s full of pirates and magic and bad jokes and descriptions of all the food I wanted to eat while I was writing.

Did you work on this book at all during your time at VCFA, or is this a completely new story?

A Nearer MoonMELANIE: Nope–this one’s brand new!

Something I find myself doing in all my books is infusing my metaphor into my prose style. PARCHED (HMH, 2013) is (obviously) about this dry, barren landscape, so the prose style was sparse to match it. AUDACITY (Philomel, 2015) is an intense story about a passionate young woman living through tumultuous times, so I wrote the story as a verse novel in order to capture that intensity. A NEARER MOON is set in a swamp, and explores the interconnectedness of actions and emotions through time, so I used a lot of repetition in my writing; I picture the repetitive prose style as ripples extending out from a pebble dropped into still water.

Paper HeartsMEG: I first started researching this project while in my third semester at VCFA and working with Shelley Tanaka. I then wrote it during my fourth semester with Rita Williams-Garcia, but it was a completely different animal then. Originally, I wrote it as a middle grade non-fiction picture book. It sold right before graduation. However, for a multitude of reasons that deal fell apart and I shoved it in a drawer for a while. I knew the story had to be for older readers (it takes place in a death camp and there’s a death march in it for goodness sakes) and while it wallowed in the drawer, I decided the story needed to be told in verse. Rita made me read poetry during my last semester, and I did—begrudgingly. I had written angst-ridden poetry as a teenager, but did not write any while in the program. Poetry confuses me.

The Buccaneers' CodeCAROLINE: My book isn’t technically a VCFA project either, but like yours, Meg, it has its roots there. I wrote the first book in my pirate series during my final semester at VCFA, and although I didn’t have any sequels planned at the time, I ended up writing about those same characters for 4 more years. In some ways, I don’t feel as though my writing has changed very much since my time at VCFA, but when I compare my first book to THE BUCCANEERS’ CODE (and especially to the entirely new manuscript I’m working on now), I can see that I’m still learning and developing as a writer. The development is just a little less dramatic than it was during my time in school.

What piece of craft advice from VCFA do you find yourself returning to again and again in your writing?

MEG: The very first lecture at our very first Residency at VCFA was Tim Wynne-Jones’s lecture, “An Address and a Map: Discovering Your Genius Through an Openness to Text” in which he talked about believing in our “own genius”. My learning curve for poetry was steep—one might call it vertical. In order to keep making progress and not see the project as a hot sticky mess, I needed to believe that eventually I would see my “own genius” in my poems.

CAROLINE: I loved that lecture! I think Dorothea Brande also talks about the idea of inner genius in her craft book, BECOMING A WRITER. It’s an idea that’s helped me hundreds of times when I can’t figure out what happens next in a manuscript. When I look back through what I’ve already written, I almost always discover that my inner genius has hidden an answer to my problem earlier in the book.

MELANIE: Less is more! Seriously. It’s my mantra.

CAROLINE: I would like to borrow that mantra. It hasn’t quite stuck for me yet.

Is your writing process as a working writer similar or different from your writing process as a grad student? 

MEG: I think there were more hours in the day when I was in the program. Somehow I’m not as productive as I once was. But I try to keep to the same schedule. I write in the morning. As a student I would be at my desk with my coffee by 7 AM, now it’s more like 8 AM. I write until I realize I’m hungry, which, depending on the day, can be anywhere from 8:30 to 2:30. My student afternoons were spent reading. Now my afternoons are spent running errands, doing laundry, or making dinner. I know that mundane stuff got done while I was in grad school, I just don’t remember doing it.

MELANIE: I miss all the reading too!

The biggest difference for me is that during my MFA, I had all the time in the world for my stories. (That’s not to say that my days were full of leisure–they weren’t! I was insanely busy!) But if a story needed time to simmer, it got it. If it needed several rounds of feedback before it was submission-ready, it got it. Now, if I am going to meet the deadlines set before me, I have to be smarter in both drafting and revision, and do more with less time.

CAROLINE: I agree with both of you. I had a nearly full-time job while I was at VCFA, and I still managed to read and write a huge number of pages every week. How did we get everything done? Now I write full time, and while I feel immensely lucky to do it, I am not much more productive than I was in school. I’ve found that I work more efficiently when I give myself artificial time constraints and deadlines, so now I try to set monthly goals for myself (and often weekly goals, too). Asking other people–like writer friends and VCFA classmates–to hold me accountable for my work has also been immensely helpful.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about the art or business of writing since graduation?

MEG: What I’ve learned about the business is that it is CRAZY. There is SO much we didn’t learn about The Business while at VCFA, which was good, I am glad we focused on craft, but exactly how much I didn’t know about publishing and copy edits and first pass pages and contracts and foreign rights and publicity and marketing and how much of all that was going to eat into the time I had reserved for writing came as a real shock to me once I sold my book.

The most important thing I’ve learned about the art, is that I have to keep my butt in the chair to create it. And just because I do that, there are no guarantees that anyone beyond my beta readers and agent is ever going to read what I create.

CAROLINE: I think all of us wonder if our books will be successful, but we often don’t stop to think about what success really means for us. And there are plenty of moments, both before and after publication, when it’s easy to feel like you’re not successful. Maybe no one came to your book signing; maybe you got an awful review; maybe your revisions feel insurmountable or your sales are miniscule. In those kinds of moments, I try to remind myself why I’m writing in the first place–to tell the kinds of stories I loved reading as a kid, and to pass that love of reading on to new kids today. No matter what else happens in the weird and unpredictable publishing world, if my books brighten even one reader’s day, I can feel proud of what I’ve accomplished. Knowing that makes it much easier for me to shove my worries and nerves aside and focus on my writing.

MELANIE: Everything beyond writing and revising your book is out of your control. Everything. How it will be received by critics, gatekeepers and readers. How it will be promoted, designed and marketed. How long it will stay in print. Book sales, foreign sales, audio sales, film sales, etc.

If you want to protect the art, you must, to a certain extent, put the business out of your mind. Write the very best book you can. Do what you can to support it as it makes its way into the world. And then get to work writing the next very best book you can.

 

Meg Wiviott is the author of the YA novel PAPER HEARTS and the picture book BENNO AND THE NIGHT OF BROKEN GLASS. You can learn more about her and her books at megwiviott.com.

Melanie Crowder is the author of the middle grade novels PARCHED and A NEARER MOON and the YA novel AUDACITY. You can learn more about her and her books at melaniecrowder.net.

Caroline Carlson is the author of the VERY NEARLY HONORABLE LEAGUE OF PIRATES trilogy for middle grade readers. You can learn more about her and her books at carolinecarlsonbooks.com.

Yes, You CAN Do That At A School Visit!

Before my first children’s book was published, I hadn’t set foot in a fourth-grade classroom since I was a fourth-grader. I’d been to plenty of author visits in my time, but I’d always been the kid sitting cross-legged and wide-eyed on the floor, not the wise, adult author who (presumably) knew exactly what she was doing. I’d never been much of a public speaker, and the prospect of walking into an elementary school and talking to students about my writing was terrifying: What if I forgot what I was saying? What if I bored the kids? What if I offended the teachers? What if no one called my name in Red Rover, which is what happened the last time I was in fourth grade?

Two books and a bunch of school visits later, I still don’t know exactly what I’m doing, but I’m slightly less terrified and a little more knowledgeable about the ingredients that go into a successful school visit. There’s a wealth of excellent advice on the topic out there already, so I won’t attempt to cover the basics here. Instead, I thought I’d share a few of the more surprising and unorthodox tips I’ve picked up so far:

Embarrass yourself! There is no more suitable place to be publicly shamed than an elementary school. Kids love to laugh—with you, at you, they don’t much care which. Show photos of yourself as a youngster, but be sure to choose a picture that’s as cringeworthy as possible. Wear a penguin hat. Read aloud from your very worst draft of that picture book you wrote when you were six. If the topic of your talk presents an opportunity for you to sing or dance (terribly), so much the better.

Scare the children! Just like the rest of us, kids face adversity and disappointment on a daily basis. It can be encouraging for them to see that even you—a famous author!—were rejected and humiliated and forced to type draft after draft until your fingers wore down to nubbins, which is why you should proudly present to them the terrifying visual evidence of your hard work. I like to show kids the lengthy editorial letters I receive, the pages of writing covered with crossouts and changes, and the piles of revisions I print out en route from rough draft to final book. Shannon Hale has a long, laminated scroll of rejection letters from publishers that she unfurls to kids’ horror and delight.

A terrifying tower of drafts

A terrifying tower of drafts

Create a ruckus! For kids, an author visit is a really special part of the school day: it doesn’t happen very often, it’s much more exciting than their regular classes, and since you’re not their teacher, the normal rules of school behavior don’t quite apply. You’ll have to take the temperature of each group before you attempt to create a ruckus, but if you think the students (and teachers) can handle it and you’re confident in your crowd control techniques, let the kids take a quick break from sitting quietly and listening. Have volunteers join you for an interactive storytelling game or a readers’ theater. Write a Mad Libs-style summary of your book and have kids fill in the blanks; then read the hilarious results. Write serious or silly questions on index cards, put them in a bag, and have kids draw cards and ask you the questions. Ask them to vote for their favorite character. If there’s a chance for kids to clap, cheer, or scream their lungs out, take it! (And then challenge them to get super quiet.)

Be honest. This might be my most radical tip, though it’s not nearly as much fun as the others. Kids are great at asking questions, and some of those questions can be tough. Is writing hard? Do you ever get scared when you’re writing? What’s your least favorite part of being a writer? Why don’t you have kids? Are you rich? Were you cool when you were my age? Who’s your favorite member of One Direction? These sorts of questions might make you want to reach for your SCBWI-branded whiskey flask before answering. Be tactful, of course, and be vague if you’d like (“Um, the one with the hair? Is his name, um, Larry?”), but please don’t lie. You’re a role model for the students you speak to, and they can handle the truth, delivered in a kid-friendly and down-to-earth way.

What am I missing? What unconventional school visit techniques have worked best for you? Let me know in the comments!

Baby Got Backstory

One of the things I love most about beginning a new writing project is figuring out the backstory: the history and culture of the world I’m building and of the characters who populate it. I’ll spend days thinking about my protagonist’s minor medical conditions, or the names and occupations of his relatives, or how the government of his city is structured. By the time I’m ready to start writing a first draft, I’ve collected a wealth of information about my characters and their world, and all I want to do is share this information with my readers. After all, it’s fascinating! Why shouldn’t I begin my book with a fifty-page description of every street in the city and each one of its residents?

At this point in the process, I remember that an infant story is sort of like an infant human: although they might be perfectly charming, your infant story’s burps and squeals are not nearly as interesting to normal people as they are to you. As I’ve drafted the first few chapters of my new project, I’ve had to figure out which pieces of backstory to include in the book, where to include them, and which pieces to discard—not because they’re bad in any way, but because they’re not helpful to the story. Here are a few of the guiding principles I’ve been attempting to follow recently:

Save that backstory for chapter two.

Okay, it doesn’t actually have to be chapter two. This is just shorthand for the idea that it can be helpful to start a story with a scene rather than with a big chunk of backstory-filled narration. The dramatic tension of the scene will draw readers into the book, and they’ll get to know about the protagonist and her goals. Then, when they reach the second scene or the second chapter and you hit ‘em with all that backstory, they’ll have some context for it and, more importantly, a reason to care about it. Get your readers hooked and invested first, and they’ll be craving those juicy backstory details as much as you are.

Sprinkles are just as effective as lumps.

I’m not very good at following my first guiding principle. Sometimes information just can’t wait until chapter two. How are readers supposed to understand the stakes of Melinda’s dramatic argument with her grandfather if they don’t know that her grandfather was the evil sorcerer who turned her into a fruit bat in the first place? When this is the case, I try to sprinkle backstory lightly over the scene, inserting it in between lines of dialogue, never in more than one or two sentences at a time, and certainly not in entire paragraphs. Something like this:

“I hate you!” Melinda said to her grandfather. He was, after all, responsible for her furry wings and her newfound powers of echolocation. “How am I supposed to go to the prom now?”

Don’t force it.

Putting essential bits of background information into dialogue can seem like a clever way to weave backstory into a scene, but you really have to make sure that this information is something the characters would realistically say to each other. Don’t put awkward words into their mouths just to satisfy your insatiable lust for backstory.

“Do you remember, my dear Melinda,” said her grandfather, “when I, the evil sorcerer, turned you into a fruit bat?”

“Of course I do, you moron,” said Melinda. “It happened thirty seconds ago.”

If it’s not essential right now, save it for later. Or for never.

I spend a lot of time looking for opportunities to introduce the little morsels of backstory I’ve been saving up. If I want to tell readers that Melinda is allergic to peanut butter, I might slip this information into a scene at the grocery store or the cafeteria—a place where it’d naturally come up. Still, even if a piece of backstory fits perfectly into a scene, I won’t include it unless it’s (1) really funny, (2) important to the story right now, or (3) important to the story much later, but I want to plant a sneaky little foreshadowing clue about it early on. There are a lot of details I’ve worked on and loved that will never fall into any of these categories, so I write them into the story anyway, and then I delete them with a sigh. The sigh is important. It helps give you closure.

Now that I’ve told you how I’ve been wrangling my backstory, I’d like to hear from you. What tricks do you use to weave brilliant backstories into your books?

Ask an Opinionated Writer: Chapters

Do you have burning questions about the craft of writing? Do you want someone to give you thoroughly subjective and opinionated advice about your authorial trials and tribulations? Maybe you don’t, but I am going to give it to you anyway in this new, very occasional blog series, Ask an Opinionated Writer.

Here’s how this thing works: You, the writers of the world, ask my opinion about a craft-related topic. I, after very little research or sleep, dispense my advice. Ideally, someone will learn something along the way. Does that sound like fun to you? Too bad.

Today’s unsolicited and possibly unsubstantiated craft advice is all about that humble building block of story structure: the chapter.

Dear Opinionated Writer, does my book even need to have chapters?

Of course not. Not all stories benefit from being broken into discrete segments. If you’re writing anything longer than a picture book or a piece of flash fiction, however, you’ll probably want to give your readers a few places to rest their eyes between scenes. They’ll need to get up to grab some more cookies from the kitchen, and you’ll need a chance to change your focus to another character, skip ahead in time, or pause for emphasis. Those pauses don’t have to be chapter breaks, of course; they can be lines of white space, or even those little asterisks that look like someone’s squashed a bug between the pages of your book.

The useful thing about chapter breaks, though, is that they are large and emphatic, like a really big squashed bug. Think about the effect you get from a single line of white space, and then think about how much stronger that effect would be if you used half a page of the stuff! The difference between a scene break and a chapter break is sort of like the difference between a comma and a period—they’re both pauses, but one is subtle while the other is decidedly less so. If you want to give a section of your book a decisive ending, switch to a new setting or point of view, or knock your readers out of the story for a moment (not always a bad thing), a chapter break could be just the solution for you.

How long should my chapters be, anyway?

I would say that’s up to you, but then I wouldn’t be very opinionated, would I? I personally like longer chapters. My chapters usually consist of at least two scenes, which works out to about 10 to 15 double-spaced typed pages. Chapters this length give readers a chance to snuggle comfortably into the world of the story without any jarring interruptions, and this effect is exactly what I want in the books I write, which are mostly medium-paced and sort of old-fashioned. If I were writing a thriller, though, I’d probably want to use shorter chapters to keep my readers a little less comfortable and a little more unsettled.

However long your chapters may be, dear authors, please do me a favor: Unless you are writing an early reader with very strict structural rules, don’t keep your chapters short only because you don’t think young readers will be able to handle longer chapters. If your story is the sort that requires lengthy chapters and kids aren’t up to reading more than a few pages at a time, they’ll find a natural stopping place within each chapter. Besides, you are such a good writer that you’ll draw them into the story, and they’ll be on to the next chapter before they know it.

How do I know when my chapter is finished?

Your chapter has achieved its purpose in life when it has advanced the story’s external plot, its internal character arc, or (ideally) both.

I am stealing this idea from author and VCFA faculty member Leda Schubert, who says in her lecture Exit, Pursued by a Bear that “advancing story and revealing character are the central purpose of scenes. … Your protagonist should be in a different place by the end of the scene; something will have changed.” You’ll notice that Leda is talking specifically about scenes here, but since a chapter usually contains at least one scene, I’d argue that these guidelines hold true for chapters, too. I try to make sure that each of my chapters contains at least one major plot development—a twist, a setback, or a triumphant resolution to a previous complication. I also like to flip my characters’ emotions on their heads: If my heroes are happy at the beginning of a chapter, they should probably be miserable by the end of it.

If you’re not sure whether a chapter is pulling its weight, imagine cutting it out of the rest of the story. Would the remaining manuscript still make perfect sense? If it would, then your chapter should be doing more to move the story forward. Maybe you’re ending the chapter too soon, before the real meat of the scene actually starts. Or maybe you’re including information that doesn’t need to be in the story after all.

My chapter won’t end! How do I get it to stop?

Once your chapter has done its work of sufficiently advancing the story, you’ll probably want to end it… but how? Knowing where and how to end a chapter can be tricky because there’s not always one obvious solution. There are, however, a couple of common strategies you can try. One is to end the chapter on a cliffhanger, at the height of the scene’s tension. The other is to end the chapter right after the scene’s resolution, when the tension has been released. I like both of these strategies and use them both all the time in my own writing. It’s important to not rely too heavily on one strategy or the other, though; ending every chapter on a cliffhanger can quickly become exhausting for both readers and writers, and ending every chapter on a note of resolution can drain all the momentum from your story.

Cliffhanger chapter breaks are great because they’ll keep your readers turning the pages. If you’ve ever been unable to stop reading a book after “just one more chapter” because you’re dying to know what happens next, you’re well aware of the power of the cliffhanger. On the other hand, this type of break can feel gimmicky and manipulative if it’s not used judiciously, so try to use it only at a few major crisis points in your story—not when the shadowy figure who enters the room turns out to be the main character’s mother bringing her kids a bowl of popcorn.

Ending a chapter on a note of resolution is great, too, because it gives your readers a chance to put the book down and go to the bathroom. It’s also a very satisfying sort of ending. Maybe you’ve resolved the main problem presented at the beginning of the chapter, or maybe you’ve made the problem even worse, but either way, you’ve given your chapter a complete miniature story arc with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s very considerate of you. This type of chapter break can be challenging, though, because it needs to happen as quickly as possible after that resolution has been achieved. Your characters will probably want to linger on for pages, making sandwiches and telling jokes. Don’t indulge them! End the chapter as soon as your characters’ actions and words become unessential to the story. I know it’s hard, but if you won’t do it for me, do it for John Gardner. He would have wanted you to, and he was even more opinionated than I am.

If you have a question for an opinionated writer, please ask it in the comments below, and I’ll try my best to answer it in a future post.

Guest Post from Steve Bramucci: On Equal Representation, Fear, & White Male Privilege

Note from Caroline: Today I’m happy to welcome Steve Bramucci to the Tollbooth. Steve is a storyteller, travel writer, and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA program in writing for children. His first novel for young readers, RONALD ZUPAN AND THE PIRATES OF BORNEO!, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2016. You can follow him on Twitter at @stevebram.

In April, when BookCon announced that their ambitiously named Blockbuster Reads: Meet the Kid Authors that Dazzle panel would be made up of four white men, the door leading to brave conversations about equal representation for women and authors of color on book panels, shelves, and in the media was flung wide. Besides sparking a lot of impassioned tweets, the story also spurred some incredible think pieces by middle grade and YA authors like Kate Messner, Megan Frazer, and Anne Ursu, whose entire blog should be read immediately by anyone with any interest in the representation conversation. I read these pieces and the Twitter conversations they sparked, did my best to listen closely, tweeted out my thoughts, and eventually emailed my friend Caroline Carlson with questions about how I might be a better ally to the cause.

Caroline let me know in no uncertain terms that most of the vocal supporters of a more diverse panel lineup had been women and people of color. Not many of the white men in our community had spoken up one way or the other, and a small number had actually opposed the whole idea of making the panel more diverse. After a few more emails, she offered me the chance to write a blog post on the subject of being an ally to the cause of equal representation.

My first thought was, “Yes! Awesome!”

My second thought was, “Oooh, if I define myself as an ally, I’ll also have to admit that I’m in a position of privilege.”

My third thought was, “Wait, I’m not in a position of priv…oh shit.”

In the days that followed, I tried to dig into why I’d had that third response. Because I think it’s that moment of denial that sheds light on why we (white male writers—or let’s go for the privilege trifecta and say white heterosexual male writers) aren’t as good at being allies as we ought to be to those who are marginalized.

Post “oh shit” moment, the following justification bubbled up in me:

I’m a writer and just like every non-celebrity writer I know, I have scrapped and fought and struggled and worked and worked and worked to get my foot in the door. I have tried and failed and tried again to chase this dream and am just now finally making inroads. At every single turn, I have chosen “put passion before being comfortable” as another white heterosexual male, Macklemore, once put it. Besides, as a magazine journalist, I’ve never seen 90% of the editors I work for, and as a children’s author with the ink still wet on his first contract, I’ve not yet met my agent or editor. As far as I know, they couldn’t care less about my skin tone or gender. How could I possibly have received any privilege?

Of course, this argument collapses before ever crossing the threshold. Having privilege doesn’t mean that a person will automatically exploit said privilege (as this Onion article points out). In the days after the BookCon drama, I read an excellent explanation of white male privilege that I’ll paraphrase (I’ve looked for it and haven’t been able to track it down so pardon my lack of attribution): privilege doesn’t mean that your path has been easy, it just means it hasn’t been any harder due to your race, gender, or sexual orientation. That definition helped me to truly “get it.” But the knee-jerk desire I’d had to somehow minimize the privilege that I undeniably benefit from worried me. I may not have shown the same unapologetic refusal to understand the very definition of the term as this self-satisfied Princeton student, but for a moment, an unwillingness to “check my privilege” had indeed revealed itself.

Here’s the thing: the lame justification that reared its head as soon as I committed to writing this post? It’s 100% based in fear. The fear that in a world any less favorable to my race, sexual orientation, and gender I might not make it. The fear that by declaring myself an ally for a cause I know to be just, I might somehow rob myself of the opportunities that my race, sexual orientation, and gender unfairly entitle me to in the first place.

And fear is a terrible thing. Perhaps the worst thing. Fear is why systems that favor white heterosexual males have been propped up, over and over by white heterosexual males. Fear is why those same men have labeled feminists “men haters” (you should definitely open up a tab to read Lindy West’s evisceration of this brand of man).

As a writer, fear is something that every protagonist I put on the page has to go toe-to-toe with. And when they step into the ring with fear, I’m always there, cheering them on, hoping that they knock fear out cold. Like many writers, I’m not fond of tidy morals—but I am a fan of higher-level values, values like a spirit of fair play, a sense of justice, a desire for complete equality, and the rejection of fear-based thinking.

So I hope to reflect those same values when I say: white heterosexual male privilege is a real thing. It has benefitted me in a million tiny (and not so tiny) ways that I’ve never even had to bother noticing (because not having to notice privilege is the very nature of privilege). This privilege continues to benefit me and no matter what I do I can’t reject it.

What I can do is recognize it, affirm the inequity that comes with it, and stand up as an ally to say: We need diverse books. We need equal representation by women and people of color on panels. What I can do is ask, as my buddies Matt de la Peña and Varian Johnson have both done so well: Why do all the adventurous, best-selling, larger than life heroes seem to be so very white?

To cop to my privilege and announce myself as an ally at the beginning of my career is only a small step. It’s one droplet of water in the rising tide that will lift all ships. But it is what the fair-play-loving characters I write would counsel me to do, and what the young, fear-despising kids who will one day read my books will demand.

It’s a small step, yes, but that’s how all journeys start.

READ MORE:

UPDATE:

  • Rachel Renee Russell, author of Dork Diaries, has been added to the Blockbuster Reads panel at BookCon (which is going on this weekend)

A Shameless Plea

As the author of a funny adventure story for middle grade readers, I’ve found myself in a sort of unusual position over the past few months following my book release. I’ve been fortunate to appear on several panels with other middle grade authors, and I have often been the only woman on the panel. (Author Anne Ursu wrote a great post about one of these appearances; you should read it immediately if you haven’t already.)

Without exception, my male co-panelists have been wonderful people, great writers, and thoughtful and funny speakers. I’ve been honored to sit alongside them, and I hope I’ll get many more chances to do so in the future. But the gender breakdown of our panels doesn’t usually come close to representing the gender breakdown in children’s publishing as a whole, or even in middle grade fiction in particular. My YA-writing friends tell me that in the world of teen lit, the reverse is sometimes true, and it’s not unusual for a YA panel to consist mostly of female authors. I’ve also seen panels about “books for girls” populated entirely by women, and panels about “books for boys” populated entirely by men; if you’ve attended a children’s literature conference recently, you probably have, too.

Lately, writers and readers have been asking for more representations of diversity in the books we read, the authors we’re exposed to, and the opportunities presented to all of us, regardless of our race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or the other traits that make us unique. While I can’t speak to all of these issues in the space of this blog post, I’d like to take this opportunity to make a shameless and specific plea for bringing groups of both male and female authors to speak to kids.

Here are just a few of the great things that can happen when men and women share the stage at an author panel or school visit:

Kids see themselves in the authors standing in front of them. I love speaking to elementary school students, telling them about how I became a writer, and showing them silly photos of myself when I was their age. I do this because I want kids to know that I was a lot like them when I was growing up, and that if they want to write books someday, that’s an utterly achievable dream. Bringing a group of both male and female authors to an elementary school shows kids in a concrete way that both boys and girls can grow up to be authors—and engaging, interesting speakers, too!    

Kids learn that both men and women can write all sorts of books. There’s a general perception—more of a stereotype, really—that men write funny, adventurous stories and women write quiet, heartwarming stories. A quick romp through any library will illustrate how inaccurate this idea really is. When we include women on panels about funny, adventurous stories, and when we include men on panels about quiet, heartwarming stories, we bust those stereotypes wide open, and that’s nothing but good for the kids (and adults) who attend these events.

Kids understand that both men and women write for boys and girls. Why do we so often assume that men write for boys and women write for girls? When I visit schools, I want boys to know that it is totally okay for them to read and enjoy my books, and I want girls to know that, too. I don’t write “for boys” or “for girls;” I write for whoever wants to read the stories I have to tell. I also know that my male author friends feel the same way. Some of our books might be about death-defying adventures, and others may be about friendship or family, but all of our books are for anyone who wants to read them: boys, girls, adults, postal workers, foreign dignitaries, and swamp monsters.

The elephant in the room gets a chance to leave. When there is a noticeable gender disparity on a panel, gender suddenly becomes a salient topic, even if it has nothing to do with what the speakers are actually talking about. This can be stressful, awkward, and distracting for presenters and audiences alike. As important as it is to discuss issues of gender, most of us would usually rather get down to the business of what we really love: talking about books written by—and for—everyone.

There’s far more to say on this subject, of course, and other smart people have already said much of it wonderfully, but I hope that all of us who write, publish, curate, share, and love children’s literature will keep this conversation going over the next few months and years. And if you find yourself organizing a panel, getting author friends together for a group school visit, or inviting speakers to a conference, please take a few moments to consider whether the authors in the group will represent a wide, diverse range of backgrounds and viewpoints. It’s important, and it matters—not only to us, but also to the kids who read our stories.

Surprise!

2013 is drawing to a close, and I’ll always remember it fondly as the year when my first book was published. Twelve months ago, I was a writer; now I am a Published Author. To be honest, I don’t feel all that different. It turns out that Published Authors still have cat allergies, grimy bathtubs, and popcorn kernels that refuse to budge from between their teeth, no matter how much they floss.

I have, however, learned a couple of things about being a Published Author. Some of those things go without saying (it is pretty cool to see your book in a real, honest-to-goodness library or bookstore!), but others turned out to be sort of surprising. My friend Alison Cherry wrote a wonderful essay about the things that have surprised her about publishing, and I thought I’d weigh in with a list of my own, so in no particular order, here are five things that have surprised me about the writing life in 2013:

1) Authors spend a lot of time at the post office.

2013 was the year in which I got intimately acquainted with my friendly neighborhood postal workers. (Okay, not that intimately.) I sent postcards to readers; I sent review copies of my book to friends, contest winners, and my mom; I sent paperwork to my agent and publishers. If I get another publishing contract, I will ask that my advance be paid entirely in bubble mailers.

2) Authors have to keep good financial records.

When you’re an author, you are essentially a freelancer, and you have to jump through all of the exciting financial hoops that come along with the freelancing life. You’ll probably receive your advance in at least two chunks, and you may never be entirely sure when those chunks will show up. You may have to pay quarterly taxes. You’ll have to save your receipts and keep records of tax-deductible business expenses (like the thousands of dollars you spend on bubble mailers). If you are lucky enough to sell your book in a foreign country, you may have to fill out that country’s paperwork in order to get paid. You will almost certainly send mail to the IRS more often than you send mail to your grandmother.

3) Booksellers and librarians are even more amazing than you thought.

If you love books, you already know that booksellers and librarians are wonderful people—but this year, I’ve learned exactly how valuable it can be to have a book professional enjoy your work and recommend it to others. A passionate bookseller or librarian can make a huge difference to your book’s future, and they can put it in the hands of readers who will love it just as much as they do.

4) Authors do a lot of public speaking—and it’s not so bad.

One reason why I enjoy writing books is that when I’m writing, I don’t have to speak to anyone. I can put words together in a nice, sensible order. I can carefully plan and edit my sentences to trick other people into thinking that I am not completely bonkers. When I speak, however, that’s not the case. I was dismayed to realize that when you are an author, you have to talk! In public! To other people! Quite frankly, I would rather jump into an Olympic-pool-sized vat of grape jelly and swim laps. Anyway, I knew that authors have to give occasional talks and presentations, but the surprising thing I learned this year was that these presentations are actually fun. I still get nervous when I have to speak to a crowd, but I haven’t completely embarrassed myself yet, and some of my favorite memories of the year are of the fun, fantastic kids I met at school visits and book signings.

5) There is always work to do, but the work is good.

After you’ve written and revised and polished and published and promoted your first book, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to do it all over again. It won’t be easier. It may very well be harder. But I can’t think of anything I’d rather do in 2014 and beyond. Here’s to a happy holiday season, and to lots of great reading and writing in the new year!