About Me

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Cher-y-lynne {sher-uhl-lin} –noun 1. One who formerly sold and recommended children’s books at a bookstore; a specialist in young adult, middle grade, and picture books. 2. A para-educator at a middle school. 3. A struggling young adult writer. 4. A lover of chocolate and popcorn. Archaic: An Audiology and Speech Language Pathology major at Brigham Young University. Questions? Suggestions? Books you'd like me to review? E-mail me at cherylynne1 (at) gmail (dot) com.
This is a blog for my ranting, raving, and occasionally brilliant opinions. You have been warned. Enter at your own risk.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Dreaded First Page

Let's discuss the bane of every writer’s existence: Your first page.

1. Plant your hook: While in a bookstore or library, chances are that the reader is going to give your novel the one-page test. If you don’t grab them in the first page, you’re done. Maybe your manuscript gets incredible on page 37, but if they don’t read page one, they’ll never get there. You MUST have something that makes your reader say, “Why?” or “How?” or, if you can do it very very well, “What?!” (The “What?!” approach is what made me read The Book Thief. The first page was pretty, but made no sense. I had to read more. I don’t recommend this for most authors, but like I said, if you can do it well…)

2. Set the genre of your novel: You can hope that the publishing company gets it right and gives you a title and cover that will clue any reader into what genre you’re in. But I don’t trust anyone when it comes to that kind of information, and since I have little to no control over titles or covers, I want to make sure my readers are not duped on the first page. If it’s a romance, bring in something romantic. If it’s science fiction, make sure we see something scientific-y. If it’s fantasy, we need to see some hint of magic. Think this isn’t important? Think back to all the novels you started but didn’t finish. Why? Usually it’s because the first page made you expect something that was not delivered in the novel itself. Don’t become the book that gets returned to the library before the reader hits page 50.

3. Don’t start with a dream: One of the most commonly broken rules. But let me tell you why. It has to do with Rule #2. Many times, these are designed to fool your reader. You start with an intense nightmare, tons of action, lightning-fast pacing…then the reader is dumped into a quiet book about a lonely girl in the Midwest who likes to pick dandelions. There’s a ditched book waiting to happen. And it’s a problem in two ways: first, the readers that pick it up will never finish it, and therefore never recommend it to friends, because they want what the book promised. Second, the readers that would like a quiet book about a Midwestern flower picking girl will never pick it up, because they’ll see a first page that looks like it dropped out of a James Bond movie. When you fool your reader on the first page, no one wins.

4. Don’t start with a flashback: This has to do with the fact that kids like to read “up.” They almost always prefer a book with a main character who is just a few years older than themselves. So if they open your novel and find it’s about a four-year-old, there’s a good chance they’ll just toss it. Tell us who your character is now, not who they were then. Now, is there ample opportunity to show us their life history later on? Absolutely. But leave it off the first page.

5. Ditch the prologue: I know. We can all name at least twelve books off the top of our heads with prologues. But there are very few prologues that are necessary, and even fewer that are done well. Prologues have many problems. For one, many prologues are just a lazy way to info dump, to tell us in long, dragging soliloquies about the world so that they don’t have to find more creative ways to actually work it into the manuscript. Or it’s a sneaky way to work in a flashback at the beginning, which is against Rule #4. Or it’s a way to fit in what is essentially a short story that happened in your world centuries ago, and has little to nothing to do with your character…but it’s fast paced and exciting, and it will keep your reader reading in order to find where that story ties in. My advice? Save the short story for your website. Don’t fool your reader into thinking that the characters in the prologue are main characters in your story. And don’t hide important information in the prologue, because studies have shown that most teens will just skip it anyway.

6. Introduce characters slowly and clearly, and keep your pronouns straight: You know your characters backwards and forwards, and you know that Riley is a girl who happens to be a tomboy. But your reader doesn’t. Be particularly careful if you have gender-ambiguous names, or characters that are doing activities not necessarily associated with their gender. I’m not saying that readers are sexist, but when we don’t have strong reason to believe otherwise, we will always fall back on stereotypes. And if you throw in more than three characters on the first page, I can almost guarantee that your reader will get lost. First pages are not normally read carefully. I always speed through the first page, because I want to know where the novel is going. And if your reader is not going to be careful, you have to be. Make it very clear who is who, and your reader will soon fall as in love with them as you are.

7. Avoid driving, sleeping, watching TV, or eating: This is a pretty easy one to fix. These are all passive activities. And in case you didn’t know, passive=boring. These activities are pretty boring when you do them in real life, and they’re definitely boring to read about. Now, at some point, your character will probably have a need to do some, if not all, of these things. That’s fine. But keep it off the first page. And when you take them out of the car or off the couch, you’ll be amazed at how interesting your character suddenly becomes.

Above all, have fun! The worst first page you could possibly have is a blank one. As long as you write something, anything, you’re on your way to an incredible story.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Author Interview: Claudia Mills

Congratulations to all of our winners! I will be contacting you within the next couple of weeks. But for right now, I would like to post an interview I conducted with the brilliant Claudia Mills, who I am honored to assist at this year's Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference in Sandy, Utah.

Claudia has a Ph.D in philosophy from Princeton and is a professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She is the mother of two boys, and has written over 40 books for children. And all of her books have been written between 5 and 7 in the morning with a mug of Swiss Miss at her side. She is one of the most brilliant and genuine people I have ever had the privilege to meet.

But enough of me. Read the interview so you can fall in love with her yourself.

Could you tell us the story of your first rejection letter?

It came in seventh grade. I had written a love poem to my first sort-of boyfriend, and I gave it to him. Shortly thereafter, he broke up with me, and I happened to see a list he had written of things he wanted in a girlfriend: “Not blond. Not emotional. Does not write poetry.” So I count that as rejection letter number one. After that there were too many to remember, all run together in my memory, but then came the one I remember best. I was in my mid-20s, working in NYC as a secretary/editorial assistant at Four Winds Press/Scholastic. Weary of uninformative standard rejection slips from all the other New York publishers, I decided to try sending one of my manuscripts to my own house, under a pseudonym, so I would have a ringside seat to watch the proceedings. Like all my other submissions, it was rejected. But this time I was the one who had to type the rejection letter.

You have a Ph.D in philosophy from Princeton, which is, to say the very least, no easy feat. How do you feel your educational background has affected your writing?
Well, it really hasn’t affected it in the way most people, including me, would have expected. If I heard that some children’s book writer had a Ph.D. in philosophy, I would expect that person to write high fantasy, epic struggles between the forces of good and evil, each page studded with nuggets of deep philosophical wisdom. I don’t write that kind of book. I write books like 7 x 9 = Trouble!, where a third grade boy is struggling against . . . the times tables. Still, in all my books I care about the small, central truth about the universe that my character discovers by the end of the story. And writing an opus as major as a doctoral dissertation made me able to believe that however daunting the writing task, if you just keep writing one page, and then another, and then another, at some point it really will get done.

Since you work basically two full-time jobs (as a professor at the University of Colorado and the mother of two boys), your writing time must be very limited, yet you manage to produce a steady stream of novels. How do you manage to maximize the writing time you have so that it's as productive as possible?
You cannot allow yourself to spend very much of your precious writing time on delay, denial, and self-doubt. It took me twelve years to write my dissertation, and of that entire span of time, literally two months was taken up with actual writing. The rest was spent telling myself I couldn’t do it, that it was impossible and hopeless, that it would never be finished, that I would go to my grave with the dissertation undone – including weekly visits to a therapist who specialized in working with people who couldn’t finish their dissertations, etc. Now when I write my books, that’s the part of the writing process I try to eliminate. Well, yes, but how? For me, what helps most is what I call “trusting the process,” which also means “trusting my writing group friends.” I just write the chapter, and then let them tell me whether it’s working or not. I heard one grownup-book author give a talk, and he told the audience that he had revised one scene of his book 88 times. The audience gasped with awe. I was unimpressed. “Don’t you have a writing group?” I asked him. “Well, no,” he said. “Well, they would have saved you 80 of those revisions,” I told him. And I was right.

I've heard that you write with a pen and notepad instead of on a computer. What does this do for your writing process?

This is going to sound a bit strange, but it’s almost as if my pen is a magic wand. Truly, I don’t think about my writing when I’m not actually doing it; when I sit down to write each day, I don’t have the unfolding scene planned out in any detail more than, e.g. “Sierra confronts her father” or “Second encounter with Luke.” Everything that happens in the book happens only as I actually write it. And it’s my pen that makes it happen. I don’t think it would happen on the computer. It doesn’t have that same magic power. I also love the coziness of curling up with pad and paper on the couch. Computers don’t seem as cozy.

You started writing when you were very young, and never stopped. What do you feel are some of the best strategies for inspiring children to write?

I think the two things children need to be inspired to write are opportunity and encouragement. I was lucky enough to have parents and teachers who prioritized writing and who praised me for my early successes at it. I was going to leave my answer at that, but then yesterday I saw the best strategy for inspiring children to write that I have ever seen in my whole entire life. While I was meeting with a fellow writer at a local café, in came an entire class of third graders, wearing their idea of beatnik garb (tie-dye shirts, hippie beads), and carrying notebooks. I inquired: it was a third grade class trip from a nearby elementary school – the kids were there to sit in the café, with their hot chocolate and croissants, and write poetry. And for the next hour, that’s what they proceeded to do. What child in that classroom would NOT be inspired to write?

You manage to jump effortlessly from writing for one age group to writing for the next. How do you deal with the difficulties of writing for different age groups?

I have the same process and approach in writing for any age group. I think we’re all the same, really, whatever our age. When I teach freshmen at the university, I tell myself, they’re just big fifth graders. And graduate students are just VERY big fifth graders. And kindergartners are just very little fifth graders, or maybe fifth graders in the making. At any age, we want to connect with characters we care about, and with a story that matters to us because it matters to them. And I think we also want to come to see the world just a little bit differently from how we saw it before we began reading.

What is your very favorite recent read in middle grade novels?

Well, my favorite author in the world, Carol Lynch Williams, has been mainly writing YA lately, so this isn’t a recent book of hers, but I will always love If I Forget, You Remember for its dazzling ability to blend hilarity and heartbreak on the same page, sometimes even in the same sentence. I thought last year’s Newbery, When You Reach Me, was the best Newbery in years . And I’m a huge fan of Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks series.