Bird Face Wendy

Things relevant to reading, writing, publishing or marketing teen fiction.

Give Fiction Readers What They Want: Someone to Care About

 

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Credit: Vlad Kryhin, courtesy of Snapwire

I read a lot of novels, usually at least one per week. And I get asked by a lot of authors to read their new releases.

I feel honored and privileged to be asked, so I read as many as I possibly can while not neglecting the titles I select for myself. But I have become very picky.

Besides being an author, I am a reader desiring quality entertainment just like the rest.

While attending to a good plot, or a good personal problem to solve in a character-driven novel, a few authors ignore this duty: to give the readers the emotional connection they want. And only those important to the story, if you please.

From my experience as a reader, that has everything to do with point of view.

I need a single POV (point of view) character, or at most, two POV characters. I enjoy getting into one or two main characters’ heads and viewing or feeling everything as though I’m in their skin. That’s deep POV, and I crave it, particularly in contemporary fiction. I find it jarring to jump around among several characters’ POVs, whether it’s for each scene or each chapter. Just when I get emotionally attached to a character—BAM!—the door slams shut and I have to get used to someone else. I only have the time and emotional energy to connect with and care deeply about one or two characters, not three, four, five, or six. And yes, sometimes authors use that many POVs.

The justification by the author for multiple POVs is typically that he or she wants the reader to know what all those characters are thinking. But why? Is every thought in their heads important to the advancement of the plot? Most often, I find that they are not.

And there’s the problem—the author is writing what the author wants. Not what the reader may want. The reader may not care what each and every character who appears more than once in a story is thinking. And may not have time to care.

In YA (young adult) fiction, where the focus of the story and the POV character(s) should be the young people, why would an author want to place the reader inside a parent’s or other adult’s head? And yet I see that sometimes, when it adds nothing to the story.

I appreciate the skill of an author who can tell me everything I need to know about the story through the eyes of one character. Maybe two, as in a romance or possibly a crime thriller.

Like me, readers want to feel a strong emotional connection that will carry them throughout a story. They want to care what happens to the main character(s) in the end, even if they want the bad guy to get his just desserts. My feeling is, that level of caring does not apply to every POV character in some otherwise good stories.

So please, have mercy on my tired reader’s brain and my emotional health. Place me inside the heads of only the characters that truly need to tell me their story.

Cynthia T. Toney

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Calling All Poets! Teach Fiction Writers a Thing or Two

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If you’ve followed this blog a while, you know I have great love and respect for poetry. To improve my fiction, I remind myself to tap into poetic description, and I encourage other prose writers to do the same.

In case you aren’t aware of it, April is National Poetry Month, and I’d like to honor all you poets out there.

Poets who write for their eyes only, to release their emotions and comfort themselves.

Poets who write to soothe or inspire readers like me.

Poets who address difficult subjects in a lovely way.

Poets who condense the world into a digestible, single-sitting format.

Poets who create verses and stanzas more memorable than prose.

Poets who write greeting cards.

Poets who write song lyrics.

Did I forget anyone?

If you are a poet, thank you.

If you are a classroom teacher, librarian, or bookstore owner, you can request (free) this year’s beautifully designed poster from the Academy of American Poets.

Let’s remind people we know–even those who claim to hate poetry–how it enriches our lives. Find your favorite poem and share it this month with someone you care about.

As a poet, what would you like to share with a prose writer? As a prose writer, what would you like to know about writing or appreciating poetry?

 

 

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Avoid Body Language Weasel Words–Enter for a Chance to Win a Free Edit

I enjoy the study of body language and never thought I’d suggest anyone avoid mentioning a character’s body language in fiction. But if that body language description is ordinary and overused, it’s a weasel word or phrase as harmful to the quality of the writing as any other.

If it can be misinterpreted, that’s even worse.

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In the first draft of a manuscript, I often depend on the verb “smiled.” I’m in a hurry and don’t stop to think of a better description for such a common action. Critique buddies are quick to point out that failing, for which I’m grateful, and I correct the problem on the revise. Or I mean to. Reading over my releases, I still see more instances of “smiled” than I am comfortable with.

You may think, what’s wrong with “smiled”?

As far as body language goes, a smile can convey a lot of things in addition to happiness: deception, nervousness, physical discomfort, romantic or sexual interest, pleasure over someone else’s pain. The meaning of the smile changes when used in context with other body language–movement or position of the eyes or brows, positions of the hands or limbs, or whole body stance.

GuyGoogySmile

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Besides, a reader may just-plain-get-tired of reading the same word or phrase over and over. I once edited a political thriller for a gentleman, now deceased. All of his characters—protagonist, antagonist, and minor characters alike—“smiled broadly” or “grinned broadly” no matter whether they were happy about something good or evil or perhaps experiencing a different emotion altogether. After the first few instances, all I could picture in my mind was someone with a big, stupid, toothy grin on his face each time I encountered either phrase. If I had been reading for pleasure, I may have discarded the book.

Merriam-Webster online defines a weasel word as “a word used in order to avoid being clear or direct.” In other words, the use of a word to deceive. For writers, add this definition: a lazy word used because we are unwilling or unable to create a better description. In a way, that’s deceiving—perhaps misleading or cheating—our readers.

Each writer owns a personal set of weasel words—those words used as a crutch to fall back on when we are tired or in a hurry or not at our creative best. In addition to “smiled,”  search your manuscript (or a published novel!) for body-action verbs such as “walked.” More than you would’ve guessed, right?

Choosing more precise body language description reveals much more about a character, his emotions or intentions, and a scene or setting’s mood. As a reader that’s important to me, particularly at the opening of a scene.

Is there a passage from your work in progress that contains a weasel word or phrase to convey body language? Which emotion or intention of the character would you like to express in a better defined and more creative way?

My gift to one reader of this blog post: Subscribe to my newsletter from my website cynthiattoney.com to enter for a chance to win a free body language weasel word hunt-destroy-replace edit of any single 3,000-word segment from your fiction manuscript. After the end of February, I will contact the winner using the email address you provide when subscribing.

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The Other Good Stuff Inside Your Book—My Fave 5

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A short discussion in a writers group I belong to prompted me to write this post. The question presented: What should an author say in the Dedication for a book?

First, I’m not sure an author needs to dedicate a book at all. I have a novel near my desk right now that doesn’t include one. But I gave my two cents worth in the discussion as to the individuals an author might mention.

That led me to think about all the other stuff, in addition to the manuscript, that an author writes or provides the publisher before the book is sent to press. Constructing or selecting them takes careful thought and precious time, so why not prepare them in advance?

Dedication:

This is usually short and poignant. I’ve seen a single name as well as one or two sentences, and sometimes they bring me to tears. The dedication mentions someone or something that inspired or supported you, your writing, or this particular book, but not necessarily took an active part in the writing or production. The dedication doesn’t have to mean anything to the reader. It indicates a close personal relationship with the author, and only the dedicatee needs to understand it. Yes, “dedicatee” is a real word.

Acknowledgments:

Now we get to the thanking, sort of like an acceptance speech at the Oscars. The big-name authors tend to keep it down to a single paragraph or page, if they provide one, and it usually appears near the back of the book. Most of the authors I read include one to three pages of acknowledgments, three being rather long. But I actually read them. Mostly to see if any of the individuals mentioned are also  in my acknowledgments. (I belong to a large network of writers that support one another.) Usually the acknowledgments start with thanking a spiritual influence, work through the publishing professionals that made the book possible, then the writing/critique partners, and end with family members or a spouse. Some authors give entire names, others only first names.

Select Quotations:

These sometimes appear right before the body of the work. I haven’t selected or included any in my books so far, but I often enjoy reading them in others. Sometimes authors choose biblical or other spiritual verses, or quotations from favorite authors or other notables. The quotations usually hint at themes or the author’s personal feelings.

List of Resources:

If a novel for middle grades or young adults addresses issues like mine do, such as coping with Alzheimer’s or adjusting to a blended family in 10 Steps to Girlfriend Status, the author or publisher may wish to include a list of resources in the back of the book. I appreciate such lists when I read fiction, as young readers, parents, and educators probably do.

Discussion Questions:

Discussion questions come in handy for book clubs, librarians, parents, and educators. I include these. When writing them, I find myself digging deeper into the themes of my stories, and that benefits me when I speak about them.

There are additional pages that an author or publisher may include in novels or anthologies, fiction or nonfiction, prose or poetry.

The five I’ve mentioned are the ones I encounter most often and enjoy.

What is the most memorable dedication, acknowledgment, or quotation you’ve seen in a book—or perhaps written? How do you feel about resource lists and discussion questions?

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Decorating the Real and Fictional Worlds

Maybe it’s because I spent a number of years working as a decorator, but description of settings in a novel is important to me. I like to read enough detail about the location for any scene to get a clear mental image.

I would rather see too much description and skim over some details than receive too little information. When I can’t picture the setting from the author’s description or from my personal experience (as in contemporary realism), I feel like a blindfolded captive.

Where am I???

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If a reader is more into action than ambiance, he may not appreciate the way I use home furnishing descriptions in my scenes. That’s okay. But I use them to help the reader understand not only the physical setting but also the scene’s tone and the characters’ personalities or emotional state. My decorating experience taught me to understand a client’s needs, desires, and fears when it came to creating an interior environment for him or her. That understanding is reflected in my writing, I hope.

If a character sits in a chair, he interacts with it. How does it look and feel to him? Does the color remind him of something pleasant or unpleasant? A writer can go overboard, but some outward detail can offer the reader inward details about the character.

Whether the fictional environment is a home, a public building, or the wild outdoors, the setting description is an opportunity for the writer to reveal more.

So why not decorate the space and make the most of it.

Do you enjoy reading many setting details or can you do without them? Does it make a difference whether the setting is historical, contemporary, and/or fantasy or science fiction?

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To Sequel or Not to Sequel

Sbookshelf  I admire readers who are so dedicated to an author or a set of characters that they read every single book of a series, usually in order. My admiration for the author who creates such devoted readers knows no bounds.

Wendelin Van Draanen is one of my favorite authors of a series for tweens and teens. I’ll most likely complete her Sammy Keyes mysteries (18 books, I believe) because I thoroughly enjoyed the three I’ve read so far, though not in any order. In 2014, Ms. Van Draanen released her last book of the series, Sammy Keyes and the Kiss Goodbye. So maybe I’ll catch up before I die.

Perhaps you’re a fan of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone “alphabet” mystery series: A is for Alibi through W is for Wasted (23, with only X, Y, and Z left to go, I believe). I’ve read a couple of them and would like to read others.

Before you think all I read is mystery, I’ve gotten into some Amish romance lately (only in books), reading a couple of novels from a couple of series by different authors. I enjoyed them very much, but to read a long series of Amish romance? I don’t know.

Some of Sarah Dessen’s YA books captured my interest for a while: Keeping the Moon (my favorite), What Happened to Goodbye (that one I didn’t like so much), and a few others. Some of Ms. Dessen’s novels seem like a series when they have the same setting and perhaps one familiar character—and yet sometimes not.

As I complete the sequel to Bird Face, I wonder about a number of things:

  1. Whether it will find a publishing home—or agent representation and then a home.
  2. Because the publisher of the original Bird Face will discontinue the company’s book publishing arm soon, whether a new publisher will be willing to republish that book and accept the sequel.
  3. Whether most agents and publishers even want a series.
  4. Whether readers of my first book will care if there’s a sequel.
  5. Whether the sequel should be written so that it can be read independently without any knowledge of the first book or be read out of order.

Whether  you enjoy reading a series or not, what are your thoughts about sequels and series? If you have a favorite series, have you read it in order? Have you skipped one or two books in the series, and did it make any difference to you?

 

 

 

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