Harry Potter and the Backstory

In almost every revision of my novel, I’ve had a reader (or six) say that there was too much backstory too early on. It’s an issue I’ve noticed in other pieces within my writers’ group as well. The author wants so badly to share the history of her characters, but the audience isn’t nearly as thrilled to read it.


“Show, don’t tell,” everyone says. “Work the information into dialogue and action, rather than exposition.” Anyone who tries to do this knows it is much, much easier said than done.


Well, for some of us, at least. I’ve recently been listening to the audio book edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I read the book something like ten years ago (can you believe it was published a full fifteen years ago?!), and I’ve seen the movie since, so the world and Harry’s history are not new to me.


Even with that being the case, I don’t mind hearing it all get set up again. There’s a lot the reader needs to know, and Harry himself knows none of it. At the start, Harry has no idea that he’s a wizard, never mind an incredibly famous one. He doesn’t know the truth about his parents. He doesn’t know that a school called Hogwarts or a game called Quidditch even exists.


Rowling, then, needs to communicate all this information to us while keeping the story moving. No simple task! And yet, once I decided to pay attention to her technique, I was struck by how well she accomplishes it.


When Hagrid meets Harry (chapter three or four), he has to explain much of Harry’s past to him. He gives a speech that could go on an on, but instead is peppered with Hagrid’s attempts to manage his own emotions, Uncle Vernon’s bursts of frustration, and Harry’s own disbelief.  The story continues to move in the present while the past is being related. We learn more about each character, as well as the muggle and magical worlds, along the way. Check, check, check!


Studying Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for its craft, it’s no wonder the book garnered the praise it did. I admit being biased because most of my professional training is with children’s books, but I think there’s a lot any writer can learn through studying works for younger sets. Characters must be clear right off the bat, the plot must always keep moving, suspense must build steadily to keep both kids and the adults reading to them entertained.


Perhaps the cure for your next bout of writer’s block will be returning to one of your childhood favorites with a keen adult editorial eye. What made you fall in love with that book? What can you take with you to make someone else fall in love with yours?


Painting and Writing, or Some Motivation to Edit

I’m in the midst of a home renovation, and the most recent stage has involved a good deal of interior painting. Painting a room is like writing, in the sense that painting itself is only a small percentage of the whole process. There’s choosing the colors, cleaning the walls, spackling, washing or sanding post-spackle, taping, and maybe priming before a gloriously hued brush hits the wall. And then after the paint’s up, you’ve got to clean your rollers, take down the tape, move furniture back into place, hang things back on the walls. “Painting” proper is a blip in the course of the whole thing.


Sometimes writing feels that way too. For as long as it takes to get the words on paper, there is so much more time, at least in my experience, spent editing. Between my own revisions and those following notes by my beta readers and agent, I’ve already been editing my first novel for longer than it took me to write it. And should it be sold to a publisher, I know that editor is going to have more edits for me as well.


Perhaps “writing” is a romantic to say, “editing for the umpteenth time.” I wonder, should this novel be published and I go on to write more, at what point the balance will tip in the other direction, if it will tip at all.


In the meantime, I’m sharing a couple of quotes that keep me motivated through both actually writing and “writing.”


First, from Toni Morrison:


“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”


And piggybacking off of that:


“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”


To be fair, I don’t know where this quote comes from. It’s falsely attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. Wherever it comes from, I’ve taken it to mean what I need it to mean, and it keeps me moving.


As for “writing,” i.e. endlessly editing, from Marianne Williamson (and later, Nelson Mandela):


“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”


All right, who’s pumped?! Here’s to writing/”writing” some great books!

Writers’ Group 101

I am convinced that if you want to get serious about writing, joining a writers’ group is the single most important thing you can do. It gives you deadlines, other people to hold you accountable to meeting said deadlines, free (at least in terms of money) editors, and material to improve your editing skills.


Getting involved with a group, as the professor of my undergraduate fiction workshop advised, is not something to take lightly. Having started my own group a few years ago (which disbanded once too many people moved away) and now being a sort of replacement member in an already established group, I feel qualified to offer some experience-based tips on getting off on the right foot.


1. The most important qualification for a prospective group member is how committed s/he is to the group. Our group comprises writers of adult fiction, young adult fiction, and nonfiction personal essays. Some of us have worked in publishing; most have not. One has an MFA; others have no formal training in writing. What we have in common is that we prioritize submitting our pieces on time and responding to others’ submissions at our meetings (or via email later, if we can’t attend the meeting). Though a group of all fiction writers or all young adult writers would be great, too, for us, the diversity in where we come from and what we write makes the group richer.


2. Meet often. We meet every two or three weeks. It might seem like a lot, but it keeps us in touch with each other and always moving forward. We have a large enough group that there’s enough time between submissions for each individual to make use of her notes before bringing something else—new or revised—to the group.


3. Consider your numbers. Our group is eight, which is as large as I’d want to see a group go. Because it’s hard to schedule with that many people (some prefer weekends, other prefer weeknights), we’ll often have one or two members missing. Even then, there are enough people to keep things moving, so there isn’t too too much pressure to make every single meeting no matter what. Though this may seem to contradict #1, we all have young kids, so this is reality right now. We’re all committed, but we also understand when family takes precedence.


On the other hand, I wouldn’t want fewer than five in a group. The discussion is so important to build off of each other and see more than we did in our own private read-throughs.


4. Stick to a format. Our group begins each discussion by going around the room and having each person say something they liked and something they think needs improvement in the piece. This balance keeps the criticism constructive, and usually helps us pinpoint which issues need to be delved into more deeply in our discussion.



In both of the groups I’ve been in, we’ve used a traditional format, in which the author of the piece does not speak until the conversation among the rest of the group has ended. Then the author has a chance to ask questions or explain things that were vague. It can be hard to keep your mouth shut sometimes, but the beauty of the group is that you hear what other people frankly think of your writing. Plus, sometimes it can be really funny to see where they think your piece is going—or really inspiring!


5. Watch the time. We’re all busy people, and as much as the group can be a nice escape from the rest of life, we all do have lives to get back to. Everyone in my group is a mother (we meet post-bedtime), so none of us can stay too late, as we have little ones, if not full-time jobs as well, to carry on with. Our meetings are generally one and a half to two hours. It’s good to have that expectation, and even better to stick to it.


What else might you advise for someone looking to start a new writers’ group or improve an existing one?

The Third Time Isn’t Always the Charm

Last week, an application for my other blog, YoungMarriedMom, to join a blogging network was rejected . . . for the third time. I’ve been writing on that blog for over three years, and it’s turned into a lot more for me than it started out being. I simply wanted a way to hold myself accountable to writing regularly. Over time, it turned into a means of getting in touch with old friends and staying connected to friends and family who live far away, and an incredibly powerful tool of healing in what was a dark time last year.

At face value, it is a bummer that the collection of thoughts, photos, and reflections that I have poured my heart and mind into don’t fit into a larger online scheme. And yet, I wasn’t upset for very long after getting the news.

First of all, at least I got an answer, and I know my application isn’t wandering around somewhere in cyberspace.

Second, and more importantly, this blog was a stepping stone. That’s all it was intended to be, and it’s served its purpose beautifully—with the bonuses I mentioned above. Would it have been cool if it took off and became something huge? Of course. Is it any less valuable to me because it didn’t (or at least hasn’t yet)? No. Not at all.

Too often I have to remind myself of my own definition of success: to communicate something genuine, honest, and real; to make a positive difference in someone else’s life while making better sense of my own; to improve as a writer with every word that hits the page.

Hopefully the time for Big News will come. When it does, I will celebrate for sure. But in the meantime, there’s a lot of work to do, and I’d best enjoy it for what it is.

Tweet, Tweet

I have a confession to make.


When I signed on to Twitter for the first time a few months ago, I had no idea what I was doing. I don’t know much about programming, but I consider myself otherwise tech-savvy. When I launched Twitter, though, it was like someone had taken my computer and switched it to a foreign language (and not German, because I’d get that). It took a full day for me to start to feel like I had a handle on it . . . and that day felt like a week.


Fast forward to the present, and I’m loving all the great articles on writing, editing, and publishing I discover every day, courtesy of the editors, writers, and agents I follow. In case you haven’t been following my feed (it’s over there, to the right), today I’m sharing links to some of the best articles I read this week—pieces that got me thinking, reading and most importantly, writing!


Why Editors Focus on Page One: http://janefriedman.com/2013/06/10/why-editors-focus-on-page-one/#.UbX6mOtEbh8.twitter


Sarah Dessen and Regina Hayes: The Slate Book Review author-editor interview: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2013/06/ya_author_sarah_dessen_and_her_book_editor_regina_hayes_of_viking_in_conversation.html?utm_source=tw&utm_medium=sm&utm_campaign=button_toolbar


How Do You Find Your Next Read?: http://thepioneerwoman.com/homeschooling/2013/06/how-do-you-find-your-next-read/


What did you find on Twitter this week? Share in the comments, please!


Finish It

I played my share of Mortal Kombat as a child, so before I go any further, I want to make sure everyone’s reading the title of this post with the voice used to say, “Finish him!” at the end of the match. For those who aren’t familiar with the game, here’s a little help from Wikipedia on what this means (additions in brackets are mine):

A Fatality is a gameplay feature in the Mortal Kombat series of fighting games. It is a finishing move that can be used against one’s defeated opponent [in this case, my manuscript] at the end of the final match, after the boss character says “Finish Him/Her.” The Fatalities are usually lethal, featuring a brutal and morbid execution of the defenseless enemy character; however, some of them are actually non-violent and humorous, and some even result in the suicidal death of the losing character [oh, dear].

Every time I get notes on my full manuscript, I end up taking a few weeks to digest them before I dive into revisions. Some of this is because I need to wrap my head around the notes and consider where and how I’m going to make changes. The other part—the more influential part this time around—is because I’m afraid to jump back in. What if I don’t change enough? What if I can’t bring this manuscript up to the next level?

Last week, after much hemming, hawing, and explaining to anyone who asked about my book’s progress that I was stuck in a vortex of fear, I opened up the document, changed the file name to reflect the new draft, and got back to work. And you know what? It wasn’t that bad.

Maybe it’s because I’d spent enough time thinking about my edits that I was ready to go to town on it. Maybe it’s because I figured that if I don’t get it to where it needs to be this time, I’ll simply try again. Or maybe it’s because I’ve started applying this prayer—which, if you’re not religious, you can call a poem and still get something out of—to my writing.

Love and Fear

There are only two feelings. Love and fear.
There are only two languages. Love and fear.
There are only two activities. Love and fear.
There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks,
two results. Love and fear.
Love and fear.

—from “A Common Prayer” by Leunig

When I approach my writing with fear and anxiety, I’m not going to produce my best work. When I trust that I am capable of at least making my writing better with each pass, even if not perfect, my manuscript will continue to improve, and so will I, as a writer.

Is Being Published the Ultimate Goal?

As a writer who aspires to be traditionally published, my greatest challenge is in overcoming my own doubts. Putting the words on the page is (usually) fun. Even editing is enjoyable for me. What I struggle with is knowing that what I’ve done is good enough.


There are so many markers writers can use to measure our success. For those of us who haven’t yet been published, that seems like the ultimate goal. But at least some of those writers who have been published contest that it isn’t the end of the road.


A few years ago, I heard two-time Newbery- and two-time National Book Award-winner Katherine Paterson speak in an interview with Jon Scieszka, as he passed her the baton of National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Humble as she is, Paterson said that every time she finishes a book, she thinks that’s it, the last one. She never knows if she’ll be able to write something publishable again.


Seriously? Seriously.


Likewise, in his article “30 things that every writer should know” from The Telegraph, author Matt Haig writes,


– Having my name on a book never makes me more confident.


And here,


– Being published doesn’t make you happy. It just swaps your old neuroses for new ones. (I should have gone to Oxbridge! Why wasn’t I invited to Hay? Am I not Granta enough? I wish I was Jonathan Franzen!)


And again,


– The joy of writing never changes, however many books you have published. It is not always a joy. It is only a joy for a fraction of the time, but it is worth it, just for that fraction. And much of that joy comes from being that misfit kid grown up, leading readers and yourself to the wildest parts of your imagination.


As I prepare to jump back into my agented manuscript for a revision (that I’m admittedly scared of not doing well enough!), it’s oddly calming to know that achieving my goal of publication is not going to bring about a great change on a deeper level. It will only mean I have the chance to keep on creating with a larger audience.


As with so many other things in life, it’s not the doing that matters as much as doing it well. And that is something I have plenty of control over.