Quick Fixes: Simple Ways to Improve Your Writing

Two days into running a private Facebook group for Orthodox Christian Children’s Writers and Illustrators, I’m thinking about writing technique, publishing tips, illustrators I like, group activities, and other delights in every available moment. This evening, while washing the dishes, I decided to jot down my list of hard-earned “simple fix” wisdom for writers. Here are 10 questions to ask yourself as you read over your work. Ask yourself before an editor asks you! And no, number 1 is not a question. It is a command.

  1. Spelling. Seriously.
  2. Are you relying on “to be” verbs too much? What stronger, more specific verb could you use instead of “is/was/are”?
  3. Are you over-explaining? Are you saying “As she stepped out of the car, she opened her umbrella because it was raining and she was getting wet” instead of saying, “She opened her umbrella as she stepped out of the car”?
  4. Are you writing in the active voice or the passive voice? There is only one right answer to this question. ACTIVE.
  5. Are you speaking for your characters, or are you letting your characters speak for themselves? When you write a piece of dialog, are they saying what YOU would say or what THEY would say?
  6. Are you using the same word twice in one sentence, or in adjoining sentences? Do not do this. Find another word or another way to make the statement.
  7. Words are music. Listen to the beat or rhythm of your sentence. Is it musical or awkward?
  8. Are your details consistent? Is that sofa the same color in every chapter?
  9. Is your point of view consistent? Do you keep switching from one perspective to another mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, mid-chapter? Did you forget what your characters would and wouldn’t know because you’re the author and you know everything?
  10. Is your agenda bleeding through your narrative? Are you noticeably judging your characters? Is your plot buckling under the weight of the point you are hammering home?

Those are my 10 simple fixes for writers. What are yours?

Writing in Faith, not about Faith

I think I just found THE words for an idea I’ve been striving to express for decades. The idea sprouted before I was Orthodox, but here it is in my present context.

Good Orthodox fiction is written IN Orthodoxy, not ABOUT Orthodoxy.

Fiction written ABOUT Orthodoxy (or Christianity in general) will crumple under the weight. Fiction does not do the work of nonfiction; it does a wholly different work, though it can bear similar fruit.

Fiction written IN Orthodoxy is fiction. Fiction may be full of light or full of darkness. The light’s the thing.

Narrative can only act for apologetics, in my view, the way a tune can remind you of a lyric. Faith-informed fiction is the melody only. If it’s rendered accurately, you will know the words.

It’s the difference between an oil painting of a flower and the shredded description of the flower pasted to the canvas in a floral shape. Let the explanation be the explanation. Let the portrait be the portrait.

Vase of Flowers. Creator: Jan Davidsz de Heem. Date: 1670. Institution: Mauritshuis. Provider: Digitale Collectie. Providing Country: Netherlands. PD for Public Domain Mark

Corgi Seven Leaf: Book Projects Update

This is a happy year in my writing life. I have three books coming out in three genres, from two publishers. I love that!

Corgi

The first book out is actually a third book – it’s the third book in the #SamandSaucer trilogy. The first two, Shepherding Sam and The Barn and the Book, introduced us to Sam, his corgi friend Saucer, and his friends and adventures at the Monastery of St. Gerasim. Sam struggles hard. Sometimes he’s angry, sometimes he’s happy, sometimes he wants to be left. alone. please. Saucer, corgi that he is, loves Sam and follows Sam around and barks at him and pats his foot and even, when occasion demands, takes a good mouthful of Sam’s pant leg and hauls him along where he needs to go.

Corgi standing under a blooming cherry tree
Photo by Alvan Nee on Unsplash

I just handed in my second round of revisions for this third book, and most of what’s left now will be copy-edits and minor adjustments. This book happened in layers, more than the last one did. I originally thought there wasn’t a third book, but with some prodding from my editor, I discovered there was indeed a third book. Like all my books, it fell out of the sky and hit me on the head. This is perhaps not the most dignified writing process, but it works for me! I wrote the story all in one gasp, so to speak, and then set it aside because there was time before the release date. The editor read through her pile and got to my story, and we started in on her first round of big-picture suggestions. The book gained several chapters, the characters gained depth, and it went back to her again for another round. She pointed out a few other adjustments, and that’s what I sent back to her last Sunday night.

I liked working on the characters this time around. They’re two years older than they were in the first book, and I did a little research to help me build out Sam. At no point in the books do we have a name for Sam’s particular kind of struggle. Many people have suggested that he’s on the autism spectrum, and my researched honored that suggestion. However, life has taught me that people with labels and people without labels have more in common than they think. This third book puts Sam together with Macrina, his arch-nemesis. Macrina would be the first to tell you that there is NOTHING the matter with her. But as the story developed, I realized, along with one of their mutual friends, that Macrina and Sam have more in common than either of them would like to admit. Perhaps we all do. For that reason, Sam still does not have a label. Macrina doesn’t either. There’s something in each of their struggles that most of us can relate to.

This book, like the first two in the series, will have a cover and three interior illustrations by the friendly and talented Clare Freeman! And that means I’ve also sent in a detailed list of information for the illustrations – listing scenes I hope will be chosen for pictures, and details of setting, clothing, facial expression, etc, Clare will need to create those pictures.

Seven

Seven Holy Women is a story-telling devotional I’m writing with a group of friends. All told, there are eight of us involved, but our math still works because the book focuses on seven women saints. It’s unique in my experience, for two reasons. First, I’ve never written a book with a group of friends before! Second, I’ve never run across a book like this one. Perhaps one exists somewhere, but it hasn’t popped up yet. Our book is unique because it uses short stories written in the second person to help our readers grapple with their own connections to these saints. “You are Morwenna,” the book begins. YOU. Your brain is wired to read those words and drop your imagination into the story, gazing out at the events as if they were your experiences, in your life. You aren’t Morwenna, of course. You are several centuries too late for that, but when I started writing the four short stories that were the root of this book, I loved the mental and spiritual exercise of trying to stand in these holy shoes, for a few moments only.

I needed help to make this book all that it should be, and that’s where my friends come in. Each of them took one of the seven saints, befriended her, and wrote about her. Each section includes personal surveys and a journaling opportunity, and as of this month, all seven sections are in the manuscript. The only remaining task is for me to write the final chapter, and that’s what I’m pondering now. I’ll wander back through the sections written by my friends and then I’ll have to make up my mind just what that final chapter needs to contribute to finish the book neatly and completely.

Leaf

St. Ia Rides a Leaf, the board book just contracted with SVS Press, is now in the storyboard stage! Kristina Tartara, the illustrator, has sent me the first illustration of Ia, and we’re talking over the color of her dress. This is a story set by the Irish Sea, so nearly every illustration will include shades of blue and green. Ia is a red-head, good Irish girl that she is, and we’ve tried four dress colors, drawn from our research on the dyes available to her in her place and time, and social class. Ia was a princess, so her clothes would be more colorful than those of neighboring peasants.

Meanwhile, Kristina has the final text, and this week she’s breaking it into pages and sketching the rough outlines of the scenes that will appear on each one.

I truly love watching the illustration process. I’d enjoy it for anyone’s book, and to watch my own story appear in pictures is one of my favorite parts of the writing life. It will never grow old! It’s especially delightful when I get to work so closely with the illustrator. Kristina communicates with me often and kindly sends me sketches and snatches at every stage. It makes me happy.

BLOG

And of course, my other writing project is this blog! I am so glad I came back to blogging. I’m finding all kinds of interesting people here in the blogosphere. I enjoy your words and pictures, and the ways they stretch my mind. Thank you for being here!

Our Board Book: St. Ia Rides a Leaf

As you know, illustrator Kristina Tartara and I have contracted with St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press for a board book. Earlier, I shared this photograph as a hint about the book.

Where is this place? It’s St. Ives in Cornwall! This charming seaside town, and the parish church that watches over it, are named for St. Ia of Cornwall (Ives is an Anglicized version of her Irish name).

I discovered St. Ia’s story while researching another book (coming out this Fall), and although it fit beautifully with the women’s devotional I had in mind when I found it, the story stayed with me until I realized it makes an excellent book for little ones as well.

St. Ia was an Irish missionary to Cornwall in the 5th or 6th century. England owes much of its Christianity to Irish missionaries who crossed the Irish Sea to save those heathen English.

Ia expected to travel with a group, but unbeknownst to her, her fellow missionaries decided she wasn’t old enough to come along. (Is there a child anywhere who can’t relate to this?)

Ia’s group left without her, and without telling her. She ran down to the beach, expecting to board the ship with them, and instead, she saw it disappearing over the horizon.

Ia was heartbroken. She stood on the shore for a while, being sad and praying, and she saw a leaf floating on the water. She touched it with her staff, the way you do when you are busy being sad and you start fiddling with something around you. The leaf began to grow, and Ia realized something special was happening.

The leaf grew large enough to be a seaworthy boat, and Ia rode her leaf to Cornwall. In one version of the story, she arrives before the people who had left her behind. (That must have been just the least little bit satisfying.)

Our book is a simple, lyrical 300-word retelling of this story. With contracts signed, Kristina and I are venturing into the world of story-boards and sketches. I love this. I will never get over the enchantment of seeing my stories illustrated, and Kristina is a great partner. We talk over the time and place, the probable age of Ia (our guess is very early teens), and the layout. When it’s ready, I’ll be sharing Kristina’s work here, both in development and finished.

Meanwhile, here is some of the other artwork we’ve found that shows Ia’s voyage, each interesting in its own way.

Board Book Contract with SVS Press

I am SO happy to announce that in company with talented illustrator Kristina Tartara, I have signed a board book contract with St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press! God willing, the book will release the Fall of this year.

Now that I’m blogging again, I’m going to enjoy musing and reveling my way through the publication process. I adore books with pictures, and I will never, ever get tired of the magic of writing a book and seeing it illustrated. It is one of the world’s great enchantments, for me. Kristina has already sent me a few tiny sketches – just lines, already full of character and humanity. It is WONDERFUL.

Board books are like word puzzles, I find. You have a story, and it may be quite large. The setting includes oceans and mountains and multiple human beings, and there are sounds and feelings and layers of meaning, and all of this? All of this. All of this must be poured into 300 words. 300 tiny words. So first, I write the story, wandering around it in my head, letting it be the words it can first lay hold on, and then I go back and shave off words. Polish. Polish. Polish. Words fall off like wood shavings, and the story grows clearer as it grows smaller. At last, it fits into those 300 chosen words, and I am satisfied.

Sometimes, the story happens in 20 minutes. Sometimes it steeps in a misty corner of my mind for months before it arrives.

And now, with 300 words and the clear visions of the inward eye, I let go of it and Kristina’s inward eye and skillful hand bring it to even greater life.

I love this.

I’ll be sharing the story behind the story, the main character, the history, the setting, the illustration process, and all the fun we have after it gets published. But for now, I will leave you with a hint.

Here is a picture of the location where the story is set. Can you guess where this is? Have you been there? Of course, you have to imagine away the houses. They were not there at the time…

What is your earliest memory of writing?

Once upon a time, when I was little, I went outdoors on a summer afternoon. I walked down the long driveway, from the backdoor of our yellow house, past the garden and the swingset, toward the garage. As I walked, I heard my own voice inside my head, telling the story of what I was doing. I knew the story stretched back to my beginning, and that I was just noticing it, not beginning it. I knew the story was happening still, and that it would keep on happening, as long as I kept on telling it.

That is my first memory of writing. At the time, I was only 4 or 5 years old. I wouldn’t have called it “writing” then, but when I follow the ribbon of my words all the way back, that moment is their anchor

Next, I recall a day in 4th or 5th grade when I decided to write a detective story. I wrote the title, The Mystery of the Golden Bell, across the top of the page and began on my story, scrawling along in pencil until I reached the end of the paper. I started on the next sheet, wondering what would happen next. And then it happened – the revelatory moment when I realized that if I was going to write the story, I had to know what was going to happen in the story! Alas, I had no idea what happened in the story, so The Mystery of the Golden Bell remains unsolved.

I’m interested in the beginnings of things, so I asked some friends to share their earliest memory of writing. I find the responses fascinating (also cute, funny, and characteristic).

My friend Katherine’s first memory is oddly appropriate to her later life. She’s a published author of a series called Crime with the Classics. I love that her earliest writing memory involves a “trial” with her mother playing counsel for the defense.

In sixth grade we were assigned to write a short story (possibly from a prompt, I don’t remember). The teacher accused me of having copied my story from a women’s magazine. My mother successfully defended me from this charge. I remember nothing about my story except that the main character was named Betty.

Katherine

I was struck by how many writing memories are connected to teachers. It’s a good reminder that writing is social: the activity itself may be solitary, but what is written is a communication, and sometimes we need help from mentors and friends to launch it into the world.

I remember in the 3rd grade my teacher trying to encourage me to enter a story that I wrote for a class assignment to a state writing contest. I was so nervous and scared that I told her I couldn’t send it in. After much encouragement, I agreed to let her mail it in.

About 3 months later, my teacher called me up to her desk before going outside for recess. All the kids had gone outside. She handed me a large manila envelope. As I opened it, a 1st place ribbon fell into my lap. I pulled out a spiral bound book. It was the stories of all the top 5 winners.

I remember just sitting there shocked. My teacher had a huge smile on her face, and she showed me a box of books that I had won for our school.

I couldn’t believe that I went from being this kindergartener who struggled with English and who saw a special teacher to help with reading writing, to a 3rd grader who won a state writing competition. It still makes me smile and warms my heart thinking about it.

Nancy

My third grade teacher taught us how to write poetry and arranged to have several of us read our poems on a local radio station. That was a thrilling experience for me and inspired a lot of poetry writing in my school years. Some of my poems were published in obscure little anthologies of children’s poetry. Funny, I’m not sure I even remember how to write poetry now.

Elizabeth

In first grade, our teacher had us do little writing assignments. But I don’t remember what I wrote. What I remember is that she wrote a poem about me being an author. Definitely changed my life.

Laura

The 5th grade teacher would give us lists of spelling words to use in sentences. I made the sentences into a story.

The 6th grade teacher asked, “Have you ever heard the term ‘stream of consciousness’? That’s what you’re writing.”

Frederica

In addition to helping build good writers, good teachers make good teachers! Check out this memory!

[My first memory is of] Learning to write in Kindergarten. We had these 10×10 (?) Letter books with tactile glitter letters on the front (one book per letter). I also remember Phonics workbooks and spelling tests. 😂 Creative writing memories are mostly from 6th grade because I think we actually had creative writing time with my teacher. I teamed up with a classmate and we wrote a “scary” story that was shared at the end of the year writing celebration. This is one reason why I loved doing writers notebooks with my 6th graders when I taught ELA. Drop everything and write days. It was the first chance in school they were ever told to write whatever they wanted to write! For some it was a challenge and they needed prompts. For others, they thrived in being able to express their thoughts and ideas. Otherwise quiet or class clown kids let their creativity shine!

Irene

This next made me chuckle. It’s from one of our #Blogtown friends, Elzabeta at God Has Promised.

I wrote a series of interviews with Garfield the Cat. A lot of lasagna was spilled. I also wrote my own sequel to The Empire Strikes Back because George Lucas was taking too long.

Elzabeta

George Lucas was taking too long! 😀

Here’s another early writer with her eyes on Hollywood.

In second grade I wrote Charlie’s Angels FAN-FICTION on construction paper in crayon. I think. Now I’m starting to doubt my memory. I definitely wrote SOMETHING in crayon and folded the construction paper into a ‘book’.

Cynthia

There were so many stories shared that there isn’t room for all of them in this post, so I’ll close with this one, which I love because it resonates with my own, deep, early memories of STORY – the core of all meaning and beauty in my world.

Well, I remember in kindergarten, we were all writing stories about sea creatures–but I was incredibly frustrated, because my teacher wouldn’t let me write it down myself, instead insisting on taking my dictation. Certain other classmates with neater handwriting were allowed to write their own, and I felt it was a great injustice. (The story itself was about a sea urchin, which I liked because they were purple, and was quite inane.)

My first memory of storytelling, however, was before that, a collaboration between myself and a truly remarkable babysitter (also Orthodox). My backyard was transformed into a magical realm, with each landmark being given Anne of Green Gables-style names, and C. S. Lewis-like cosmological significance. My dolls were central characters, of course, and were joined by several more who were portrayed by her and by myself at various points in the story. Together, with the aid of my trusty slingshot, we worked our way through rising tension, the apocalypse, and even into the Age to Come. If I ever write a story that feels as beautiful and exciting as that one did to me then, and does still despite my forgetfulness of the particulars, I will be well-pleased.

Elizabeth

Walking Down the Drive

Once upon a time, when I was little, I went outdoors on a summer afternoon. I walked down the long driveway, from the backdoor of our yellow house, past the garden and the swingset, toward the garage. As I walked, I heard my own voice inside my head, telling the story of what I was doing. I knew the story stretched back to my beginning, and that I was just noticing it, not beginning it. I knew the story was happening still, and that it would keep on happening, as long as I kept on telling it. Continue reading

Fiction Is Like Carrot Soup

Carrots

“So, is this autobiographical?”

“I think this character is my aunt.”

“Was it that boy you dated senior year?”

Each time I write a book, its publication brings on a flurry of questions. The questions happen because the books are fictional, and I’m beginning to think there’s something about fiction that doesn’t make sense to us as human beings.
Continue reading

Illustrating the Story

Several colors of paint and a paint brush in a dish on a paint splattered drop cloth

My next book, Shepherding Sam, is coming out in October of this year. Hooray! The words are finished and out of editing. Conversations with the illustrator have begun. I love this part, but it also prompts a brain dance with me, and the brain dance goes like this.

When I wrote the story, I saw it all in my mind’s eye. I didn’t see it as pictures drawn by an artist. I saw it the same way I see the deck, the Japanese maple, and the telephone wires outside my window. I saw it as real. More real than a photograph, which only has two dimensions. I wrote the story that I saw, but of course, I didn’t describe every person, place, puppy, and tree leaf in exact detail. I didn’t describe much at all. I just told the story. So every reader will have to fill in the faces, the leaves, and the puppy, and the illustrator will help them.

But wait!

The illustrator hasn’t SEEN what I saw. Nobody has. Only me! Continue reading