Monday, September 26, 2011

Guest Post: Chris Eboch on Plotting and Revising Your Novel

After a dozen books in print, I like to think I’ve learned a few things. After all, I’ve written historical fiction (The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery set in ancient Egypt, and The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure), original paperback series (the Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs), and various types of work for hire, including fictionalized biographies and a mystery about a certain famous girl sleuth.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the next book is always easy. Every novel has its own challenges and flaws. I tend to be analytical, and I have years of experience as a teacher through the Institute of Children’s Literature and as a freelance editor. So I’m always looking for clear, logical techniques to improve my writing, and that of my students. A couple of years ago I picked up a writing book that suggested you make an outline of your finished manuscript. My mind jumped ahead, seeing the possibilities. This could be a great tool for analyzing your work!

But the author didn’t do what I expected. She had some good points to make, but I thought she was missing an opportunity. I developed a system of my own, testing it with my manuscripts and in a class I taught, pulling in suggestions from other articles, editing and refining. And I came up with what I now call the Plot Outline Exercise.

Briefly, you make an outline of your finished manuscript, noting the main action and any subplots in each chapter, along with the level of conflict, the primary emotions, and the chapter length. Then you analyze your plot. I divide the analysis into sections for Conflict, Tension, Main Character, Subplots and Secondary Characters, Theme, and Fine Tuning, with over 40 bullet points. Here are the opening three, from Conflict, as examples:

·                      Put a check mark by the line if there is conflict in that chapter. For chapters where there is no conflict, can you cut those, interweave with other chapters, or add new conflict? The conflict can be physical danger, emotional stress, or both, so long as the main character (MC) is facing a challenge.
·                      Where do we learn what the main conflict is? Could it be sooner? Is there some form of conflict at the beginning, even if it is not the main conflict? Does it at least relate to the main conflict? The inciting incident—the problem that gets the story going—should happen as soon as possible, but not until the moment is ripe. The reader must have enough understanding of the character and situation to make the incident meaningful. Too soon, and the reader is confused. Too late, and the reader gets bored first.
·                      Where do we learn the stakes? What are they? Do you have positive stakes (what the MC will get if he succeeds), negative stakes (what the MC will suffer if he fails), or best of all, both? Could the penalty for failure be worse? Your MC should not be able to walk away without penalty.

As you work your way through the questions, you make notes on your outline about changes you’ll need to make to the manuscript. (I think it’s important that you study the overall manuscript and make notes first, rather than starting to fiddle with problems as you find them. You don’t want to waste time editing a chapter that you later decide needs to be cut.)

As an example, here is an outline of the opening scenes of my unpublished middle grade novel, The Mountain, featuring a 12-year-old boy who runs into mysterious people while hiking in the woods.

Chapter 1, 12 pages: Jesse plans a fishing trip while dealing with family secrets. Conflict—yes, related to family. Emotions—Jesse is angry and resentful. Subplot—family secrets.

Notes: Delete opening scene and start the next day when Jesse is ready to leave. Bring his father into the scene, showing the distance between them. Trim chapter to get Jesse out of the house and into the woods quickly—move scene with Becca to later in the book.

Chapter 2, seven pages: Jesse goes hiking, follows tracks, and meets a woman in the woods. Conflict—tension, but no major conflict. Emotions—confidence, then curiosity.

Notes: Cut scenery to get to action sooner. Have Jesse briefly get annoyed at family secrets while hiking. Increase conflict by having him notice blood on the trail. 

Outlining the book this way helped me take a step back and see problems. I had conflict in the first scene, but it didn’t relate to the main problem—the mystery in the woods. I needed to get Jesse into the woods more quickly. Then I had two chapters, one of them very long, with no major conflict. Since this is a suspense novel, I needed to increase the conflict, make the strangers more mysterious early on, and pick up the pace, deleting some of the description.

I also noticed that I dropped the family secrets subplot through much of the book, because Jesse is not at home most of the time. I needed to find ways to include that, if only by having him think about it.

The Plot Outline Exercise is flexible, and you can even use it at the outlining stage. To make the system more useful for others, I combined it into a book with essays covering specific techniques that come up in the Exercise questions, such as developing strong first chapters, writing vivid scenes, and using cliffhanger chapter endings.

Some of these essays I expanded from articles I’d previously written for Children’s Writer or Writers Digest. I also invited guest authors from a variety of genres, including romance, mystery, and fantasy, to share their insights. I cross-referenced the essays with the bullet points in the Plot Outline Exercise, so once users identified the problem, they could learn more about how to solve it. All this information became my book, Advanced Plotting.

If you’d like to learn more, stop by my blog, Write Like a Pro! where I’ve been posting a series of excerpts from Advanced Plotting. You can download the complete Plot Outline Exercise HERE  (scroll down on the left), or you can buy the book in paperback or as an e-book from Amazon 

Chris teaches through the Institute of Children's Literature and is the New Mexico Regional Advisor forthe Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. She has her MA degree in Professional Writing and Publishing from Emerson College in Boston, as well as a BFA in Photography from Rhode Island School of Design. She has worked as an editor and writer for magazines. She has taught Fiction Writing and has led dozens of workshops for children and adults.

Learn more about Chris and read excerpts of her work at (for children’s books) or (for adult romantic suspense written under the name Kris Bock) or see her Amazon page at

Monday, September 5, 2011

Author Interview: A.J. Paquette

I had the privilege of meeting A. J. Paquette (Ammi-Joan) in person this past spring at the 2011 Texas Library Association Conference while she was in Austin, and she’s every bit as lovely in person as she is in her picture. Charming. Kind. Warm. Professional. Stylish. And do you see the glint of mischief and curiosity in her eyes?  It really leaps to life when you hear her talk about the things she’s passionate about:  her clients with the Erin Murphy Literary Agency (yes, she wears many hats as agent and author), her own writing projects and her two glorious girls (oh, and she likes to travel. Oui?).

I first read Joan’s work when she published The Tiptoe Guide to Tracking Fairies, illustrated by Christa Unzner (Tanglewood Press, 2009) and loved her fresh picture book idea and voice.  Since then, Joan and I have kept in touch, and I’m thrilled she’s speaking to us today about her new middle grade novel, Nowhere Girl (Walker & Company, Sep 13, 2011). Welcome, Joan!

How did your writing process differ from writing a picture book? They’re both such different animals. Can you talk a little about how you handled switching and writing in a different genre?

There is definitely a big difference between writing novels and writing picture books. For me, my picture book inspiration comes in large part from my interactions with my children, so in writing those books I am, you might say, either channeling them or channeling the voice of my interaction with them. With novels, I feel something much closer to a child-voice of my own, drawing on feelings and emotions that resonate with me now, or with the person I was growing up. That aside, I think the main difference in my process is that picture book writing can more easily fit in around the cracks of my everyday work. If I’ve got a picture book in development, I can take a half-hour here or there to mull through a quandary or brainstorm a new rhyming couplet. Novel writing and revision tends to need longer chunks of time, and it also requires more of a shift in mindset to get into the right creative space.

In Nowhere Girl, we’re introduced to thirteen-year-old Luchi Ann who is living in a women’s prison in Thailand and the death of her mother forces her to leave the only home she’s ever known. Where did the inspiration come for this story?

The first inspiration came from a news article I chanced upon, describing a boy who had grown up with his incarcerated mother in a Thai prison. This was such a completely unexpected incident that it stayed in my mind and, eventually, began to weave its way into the story that would become this novel.

How important is it to choosing the “right” names for your characters? 

 I do tend to find that one certain name feels right for a given character, and with main characters especially, I almost have to find that “right” name before I can go very far into the story. Perhaps for this reason it’s very difficult for me to change a main character’s name once they have been brought to life on the page. 

Do you believe it’s important for characters to have strength and flaws? And how do you develop each of these in all your characters?

I do think that finding this balance in a character is extremely important. Characters who are all good or all bad don’t have the same ring of authenticity—maybe because such a person couldn’t exist in real life. I think the most strongly resonant characters have positive or heroic attributes which readers can look up to, and/or negative traits that readers can identify with and recognize in themselves. Flaws humanize characters—and, okay, they help advance the plot, too! But more than that, they make people so much more interesting. As far as development, I try to follow the story in all things. Dropping my characters right into the action and pushing them on their way, and then paying attention to how they would react—which they tend to do in their own quirky and unique ways—is one of the best ways to bring out well-rounded characters.

 There’s a powerful sense of hope in Nowhere Girl and that life continues even after death. Luchi Ann’s courage is breathtaking as she faces her fears and starts over by charting a new destination for herself. When does theme emerge for you in the revision process, and how do you strengthen it without beating it to a pulp?

I often don’t discover the theme in my work until after the first draft has been completed. Sometimes, determining what you “want to write about” from the get-go can encourage heavy-handed or didactic writing. But when you first follow the story, see where it takes you and what it has to say, and then look back down that path to find the common threads, it’s amazing how many things become very clear that started out as only a dull muddle. It’s in the revision stage that I tease out the themes that have begun manifesting throughout the story, and then work to strengthen and amplify them so that they have the proper development and exposure.

As I mentioned earlier, you wear many hats as a literary agent with the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. How do you balance the two careers? What are the joys you find in each role?

It’s definitely a juggling act, and for my first few years as an agent I found myself doing very little on the writing front. Nowadays, I am more easily able to compartmentalize those different parts of my work day or week. And for me, the two really do feed from each other, each one providing its own energy and inspiration. I wouldn’t trade each of my “hats” for anything!

Can you talk about some of your latest agented deals?

Yes! There are some very exciting new titles coming out over the next few months: In November, Anna Staniszewski’s hilarious middle-grade debut MY VERY UN-FAIRYTALE LIFE (Sourcebooks, 2011) hits the shelves; in December, look for Mary Lindsey’s dark and sexy YA paranormal, SHATTERED SOULS (Philomel, 2011), and in spring 2012, get ready for Eric Pinder’s adorable picture book IF ALL THE ANIMALS CAME INSIDE, which will be illustrated by the celebrated Marc Brown. This is just a small sampling, of course—I could talk about my authors’ books all day!

What’s it like collaborating with Erin Murphy as your literary agent? And what’s around the corner for A. J. Paquette, the writer?

Erin has been absolutely wonderful to work with—the perfect blend of mentor, friend, boss, collaborator and more. I couldn’t ask for a better agency to have settled into! And next up from my author persona are two picture books: THE TIPTOE GUIDE TO CHASING MERMAIDS (Tanglewood, 2012) and GHOST IN THE HOUSE (Candlewick, 2013). Both of these are in the artwork development stage which is so very exciting!

Tell us 3 things you can’t live without.

Firstly my laptop, since it connects to just about all I do; next I’m just going to say delicious food—because eating isn’t enough, it must be truly divine; and lastly, hot showers are essential at any and all times of year.

Tell us 3 things you wish were never invented.

I’m drawing a blank! I know such things exist, but the only ones I can think of offhand (eReaders, Facebook, jeggings) have definite upsides, even to my jaundiced eye (for manuscripts, for reconnecting, for my daughter). So who am I to splinter off a universe in which these things don’t exist? I’ll pass.

Thanks, Joan! Best of luck with both your careers.