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Maximizing The Potential Of Your Writing Group, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

A writing group can be a great resource for a writer, especially when you’re starting out. Most accomplished writers I know work with a group that reads their work and comments on it with the aim of helping you polish your word-nugget into something you can sell. I’ve belonged to a few writing groups, and they have all been helpful to me in different ways. Based on my experience, here are my thoughts on how to maximize your group’s potential so that everyone gets what they need.

1. Don’t bring in a rough draft. It is no fun reading someone’s crappy writing. Your buddies shouldn’t have to slog through a piece that is barely intelligible even to you. Polish it. Get it to the point where you can’t see anything wrong and then bring it in.

2. Have a page limit. Writing groups that include a wide range of writers with different levels of output will often end up feeling unfair to someone. Maybe not every writer needs to have their work read every time. It really is best if your group tries to keep the amount you read for each other fairly even.  You don’t want to be the person who dumps a 200 page manuscript on your group when you’ve only read twelve pages for any of them. If you prefer to have your work read in a big chunk, skip your turn several times so that you have done plenty of reading for the other members. But give them fair warning that a long piece is coming their way.

3. Have serious writers in your group. Any writing group is likely to have some people who are new to professional writing along with a few people who are already published. Your level of accomplishment will become increasingly uneven as time goes on and various members sell their stories or books. If you’re in a group like this, good! That means you’re with serious writers who are trying to build a career. Stick with them.

4. Have tryouts. This goes along with the item above. You don’t want to bring in a new member if no one in your group likes his/her writing. That person doesn’t want to be in a group of people who’d rather read a cereal box than his memoir about stamp collecting. Have everyone in your group read a sample from an applying writer and have an honest discussion about whether you want to admit him/her to your group. This is a kindness both to yourselves and to the applicant, who will be better off with a group of like-minded readers.

5. Agree beforehand what type of commentary everyone is looking for. I have a tough skin. If something I’ve written is crap, I want to know it before I send it to my agent. I’m okay with harsh criticism as long as it doesn’t mask a personal slight. That’s what I’m there for. But some groups don’t work like this. Some groups say only very supportive things, some groups have rules such as, “Say two positives for every one negative.” Some groups don’t discuss the negatives out loud, but give written comments about weaknesses in a manuscript. Decide what you need, have guidelines for participation written down. That wan, if someone isn’t going along with the rules, you have a written list of rules for a reminder.

6. Have some time, either before or after critique, to just hang out and talk. I’ve learned some of the most valuable professional tidbits from writing groups, such as scuttlebutt about an editor or publisher, or ways in which the industry is changing. This time to just relax and talk together is very important to your group, and helps strengthen the bond between members.

If anyone else has anything to add about writing groups, please feel free to do so in the comments section. Now go find some cool writers and get a group started.

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Amy Kathleen Ryan’s author website: www.amykathleenryan.com

Amy Kathleen Ryan’s bio page

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GlowSparkZen and Xander UndoneVibes    Deadly Little Voices (a Touch Novel) (Touch Novels)Shock PointThe Traitor's Kiss

Writing Teen Novels
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Three Act Structure For Novel Writing, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

In my last blog post about writing page turning novels, I touted the use of the three act structure as a useful device some writers use to help create dramatic tension in their stories. I’ve written entire novels myself without realizing I was employing it. Later, I’d look at the story and realize that every element of the three-act structure has been subconsciously inserted into my story. I think this happens because so many stories I’ve read before have followed it. I’ll even go out on a limb to suggest that three act structure existed before anyone knew it existed. It’s a narrative arc that has been deeply embedded in the human psyche since the time before people were writing stories down, when the tales told were legend and myth.

Before I describe the structure, let me clarify one thing that some of you iconoclasts might be thinking: a structure is not the same thing as a formula. A structure creates a framework wherein your characters move within their story. There are some out there who write outside of the common story arc, but most writers, even the great ones, adhere to this ancient narrative form.

Many variations of three act structure can be found on the web, and I encourage you to do some research of your own, but here is a brief outline:

1. The first act sets up your world and your characters. It shows how life is before your inciting incident, which sets your protagonist in motion. Your protagonist, when dealing with this new problem, will be hesitant in some way, but will finally confront a point of no return, where she has committed herself and has no choice but to stay the course.

2. This begins your second act, your rising action, comprised of points and counterpoints between your hero and your antagonist. The second act ends when the absolute worst happens, and all is lost.

3. But wait! Your hero uses her ingenuity and courage, rallies her dwindling resources to do something completely unexpected, and somehow wins the day. This is your climax. Loose ends are tied up, but hopefully not too perfectly, and the reader can finish reading your book then hurry to the bookstore to find more titles by you.

Part of what makes this structure so useful is that it helps the writer keep her characters in charge of the story. You are free to employ the vicissitudes of fate in your plot, but the main pivot points of your story remain in your characters’ hands. This helps hold your reader’s interest, because, in the final analysis, random chance isn’t very interesting. It’s what people do with their circumstances, their choices and their mistakes that makes fiction, and life, interesting.

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Amy Kathleen Ryan’s author website: www.amykathleenryan.com

Amy Kathleen Ryan’s bio page

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VibesZen and Xander UndoneGlowSpark    The Girl Who Was Supposed to DieAcross the UniverseTracks

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

How To Find A Literary Agent, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Based on the writers I’ve known, there are four basic ways to find an agent:

1. Query an agent through Literary Marketplace, or another reference book that lists agents who are accepting solicitations. Write up a very polished letter, no more than a page or so, in which you describe your book, say why it has commercial appeal, tell the agent why you are contacting her in particular to show you’ve done your research, and if that agency says you can do so in their submission guidelines, send in the first chapter of your book. Repeat a few dozen times until you find an agent who wants to take you on. This is how I got my first agent, who managed to sell my first book before we parted ways for mutual reasons, and though the partnership didn’t last, I’ll be forever grateful to her.

2. Go to a writing conference and pitch your book to an agent. This is how I got my second agent. I met her in person, we had a certain simpatico, I showed her the first paragraph of something I was working on, and she said she’d be willing to look at my work. I sent her my novel and she accepted me as her client. The nice thing about finding an agent this way is that most writing conferences aren’t going to invite bum agents to their gig. They want only reputable agents from competitive agencies, so you can be fairly certain that an agent at a conference like this is going to be a real professional. (This isn’t an excuse not to do research of your own, though!)

3. Go through a writer friend you know. If your friend has a good agent and doesn’t mind sharing, you can ask him/her to put in a good word for you. Then write an excellent query letter, and send in a fabulous piece of writing that doesn’t make your friend look bad to her agent. The only problem with this approach is that it can be really hard to get turned down by a friend’s agent, and unless you are super-cool about it, your friendship can be affected.

4. Sell your first novel yourself, then hire an agent to negotiate the contract for you and represent you thereafter. I know two different writers who found their agents this way, but I think this is getting harder to do these days and fewer publishing houses accept un-agented manuscripts.

Finding an agent can be time consuming and difficult, and the task is so daunting that some beginning writers want to skip this step. They do so at their own peril, because if they can’t find an agent who wants to represent their book, they’re going to have an even harder time finding an editor who wants to publish it. In other words, if your work isn’t good enough for an agent, it’s definitely not good enough for an editor. Yet. So if you’re going to put in all that work to make your book good enough, you might as well find someone who can be your business partner and defender. It’s tough out there; it’s good to have someone you can rely to always be on your side.

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Amy Kathleen Ryan’s author website: www.amykathleenryan.com

Amy Kathleen Ryan’s bio page

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GlowSparkVibesZen and Xander Undone    The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-AntoinetteDeadly Little Voices (a Touch Novel) (Touch Novels)Shock Point

Writing Teen Novels
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How To Tell Good Literary Agents From Bad Literary Agents, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

In my previous post, I discussed why a novelist should have an agent. What follows is a step by step process for how to tell the good agents from the bad.

A good agent doesn’t ask for money up front. Every book and magazine on being a writer will tell you this. Everything agents earn from you comes out of sales of your work. Most agents make about 15% on domestic sales and 20% on international sales. I’ve heard some agents are asking for a bit more but this is the basic guideline. Many good agents will also deduct some expenses from your take home pay, for example any travel, postage and long distance costs that were incurred during the sale of your manuscript. My agent does this and I’m okay with it. If someone asks for a “reading fee” or charges you for their editing services up front, I’d be very wary.

A good agent has a list of recent sales to reputable publishers and is capable of landing a decent advance. Most agents will list their clients on their website and you can check there for recent sales but the best way to determine an agent’s negotiating prowess is to buy an inexpensive subscription to The Literary Marketplace, where almost every sale to a publisher is trumpeted with a little code key for how much money the author landed for his/her manuscript. If an agent has gotten a “Significant Deal” or a “Major Deal” for a client within the last few years, you know this agent is capable of successfully running a bidding war. This doesn’t guarantee a bidding war for your work but at least you’ll know it’s a possibility.

A good agent gets good reviews from their clients. Before signing an agency contract, you can ask for references for your agent. I believe most agents are very willing to have current clients speak with prospective clients. You might want to ask things like how long it takes for the agent returns the author’s phone calls and emails, how long the author had to wait for the agent to submit their first book, and how the author would describe the agent’s communication style. I would caution you not to be too stringent with the way you evaluate these answers. A good agent will have a lot of clients and can get very busy, and might not always return calls/emails as promptly as you might wish. Also, I had to wait about six months for my agent to submit the first book I sold with her but I’ve never had to wait that long since. In other words, sometimes a good agent is worth waiting for. Only you can decide how long you’re willing to spend waiting for your agent to get around to you.

But how do you get an agent in the first place? My next post will answer that question. Stay tuned!

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Amy Kathleen Ryan’s author website: www.amykathleenryan.com

Amy Kathleen Ryan’s bio page

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Zen and Xander UndoneVibesGlowSpark    The CircleShades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)Code Name Verity

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Setting In Teen Novels, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

First, let’s define the term setting: Setting isn’t just a place and time. Let’s imagine that Jane Austen and Stephen King have both visited the same Georgian era house, and both felt inspired to set a scene in the attic.  In addition to the quaint sewing table and a smoky fireplace, Austen’s setting would include a rigid set of expected manners, an even more rigid English class system, and probably a whole regiment of charming rogues out to ruin the honor of vulnerable yet spunky young women. King’s setting might include a chainsaw with a bit of human hair caught in the gears, a menacing creeping mist, and a universe of bizarre magical beings just waiting for our blue collar hero to prick the membrane between our world and theirs. The place for these two writers is the same. The setting is completely different. Setting can include the history of a place, the people, the culture, the food, the dancing, the music, the assumptions of the characters, their religion, the mood, that intangible atmosphere… the list goes on. Setting is where and when and who and what and how. Setting is how it smells and sounds and feels, what it looks and tastes like. Setting is what makes the hairs rise on the back of your neck, and, if the writer does it right, setting is what transports the reader away from his/her bench in the school cafeteria to a world they want to stay in for a while.

How should setting in teen novels differ from settings rendered in adult literature? First I will tell you that there are no rules. Some YA authors like to dedicate pages upon pages to setting and, because the world is so complete and new and fascinating, the reader will stay with them, even if there’s no action dragging them along.

Some authors, and I’m one of them, prefer to use the action to communicate setting. For instance, sometimes I’ll put two characters in a room and start their conversation before I’ve described where they are, but I’ll move them through that space, and show the reader the physical setting with small brushstrokes as I move them. I’ll seat them on the swayback divan, I’ll have one of them stroke the silk upholstery as the other fingers the glass knob of an antique clock. Their voices are low at first, but increasingly loud and agitated as the conversation progresses. When one character learns of a terrible secret, I’ll have him collapse on his hands and knees on the woolen Persian carpet, where he’ll notice the smell of layers of smoke from clandestine cigarettes that has soaked into it over the years. I’ll have a third character knock on the heavy wooden door and, when he pokes his head into the room, the rusty hinge groans, and he squints into the dim light to find one friend grinning and another sobbing.

But some mixture of the two techniques is probably unavoidable. Even for an action oriented writer, it can be useful to pause the story to explain that this is a private boarding school for wealthy young men, and two years ago a freshman died during a hazing incident. Though the school was put through a grueling investigation, the death, (murder?) was never solved, at least, not to the satisfaction of Mr. and Mrs. DaVinci, the parents of the unfortunate boy. The DaVinci’s own several very lucrative business in Nevada and New Jersey, and they have investigatory methods that aren’t available to law abiding police officers.

And that, at least according to the way I think of it, was ALL setting: the history, the backgrounds of the characters, the significant events from the past, working together to create the nest wherein your story nestles.

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Amy Kathleen Ryan’s author website: www.amykathleenryan.com

Amy Kathleen Ryan’s bio page

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GlowSparkVibesZen and Xander Undone    White LilacsHold Me Closer, NecromancerTracks

Writing Teen Novels
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On Writing Imperfect Characters, by Alane Ferguson

Writing for young people is an incredible fit for me, underscored by the fact that my husband just called me an ‘Adult Teenager’!  (Okay, so maybe I made up a twist where every time Ron loses at Rumikub, he (or I) has to eat a Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Bean, and it’s possible that I laughed until tears streamed down my face when he bit into ‘skunk’!)  So there is some truth to the idea that I’ve never completely grown up.   Fortunately, my inner-teen gets channeled into Young Adult novels that I love to read as well as write, and that’s important if you want to write for an audience as specific as YA.  Additionally, as a YA author, I have the opportunity to teach up-and-coming authors through The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators by way of their workshop classes.  When I read through those manuscripts, I see the same problems time and time again.  I thought I’d take this month’s post to dish on common mistakes and how you, dear potential writers, can head off some pitfalls as you create your own dynamic worlds!

The first thing I like to remind YA students is that a writer’s job basically mimics creating a movie, only in our world we get to be the writer, director, actor, cinematographer, and, well, you get the idea.  A writer’s job is to make the setting tangible to the reader.  More importantly, your work must focus on a teen protagonist who reads as a believable, breathing, complex being.  That may sound like a straightforward point, but you’d be shocked at how many times I’ve seen an adult channel their thoughts/ideas/morals into their teen character’s point of view, with alarming results.  Their characters tend to be wise, pious, respectful young people who beg enlightened adults to rain pearls of wisdom upon their grateful, young heads.  Wrong!  It not only reads as inauthentic, but no teen will be able to relate to a person who turns to their mom or dad for ‘the answer’.  It’s what I call ‘adult-writing-for-teens-fantasy-syndrome’ and it is simply the kiss of death when it comes to storytelling.  The teen protagonist is on a journey.  He or she must make the climb.  Adult characters may help, of course, but a story for a young person must have a nuanced teen at its center, a person who will, at times, make a wrong decision.  But isn’t that what happened when we were young?  And, if we are honest, isn’t it still happening?  It is the realistic parts of ourselves that translates into an interesting character.

My protagonist Cameryn Mahoney is currently pulling up Colorado stakes and moving to Hollywood in order to participate in a reality show.  In terms of her future, it’s not the best idea, but it’s an adventure!  The wise Dr. Moore warns Cameryn of the danger, but no one can tell my protagonist what to do – she tosses his advice to the wind and goes for it.  Remember, a perfect character is perfectly awful.  You can’t have light without the dark, and so it is when you create a protagonist.  They must have shades of gray in order to keep the character you create relatable.

This gradation of color is of vital importance.  (As a rule of thumb, the peripheral characters can and will be less fleshed out, which is fine.  Right now I’m honing in on main characters.)  When I write from Cameryn’s point of view, I know her foibles as well as her strengths, and I dutifully record her stumbles as well as her triumphs.  Here’s one of the ways I illustrate this in my classes: I’ll ask my students to point out the flaws of various, well-known personalities.  What, I will ask, is Harry Potter’s character flaw?  Invariably, someone will say, ‘His scar.’  No, his scar is his physical imperfection, but his personality flaw is that he refuses to accept help, which is essential to becoming a fully rounded human being.  (This from the amazing JK Rowling herself!)  Do you see the difference?  For those of you who dream of passing from ‘reader’ to ‘creator’, don’t be afraid of writing an imperfect character.

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Alane Ferguson bio page

The Hunted: A Mystery in Glacier National ParkValley of DeathThe Christopher KillerThe Dying BreathVivaldi's Virgins: A NovelGenesisDead Time

Why I LOVE To Write For Teens, by Alane Ferguson

With my daughter, I just finished watching back-to-back episodes of The Vampire Diaries.  I found myself squealing with delight when Elena FINALLY kissed uber-hot Damon, followed by me bawling my eyes out in …the next episode when a character named Alaric stoically accepted his fate, while The Fray’s “Be Still’ played mournfully in the background.

Before you judge me a weepy author, I dare you to listen to that beautiful song without at least a single tear welling up in your eye. (Okay, okay, so maybe I’m just a wimp…) My point is, as my daughter and I passed the tissue box between us, I wondered at how my inner teen has remained in many ways unchanged by the passage of time. It’s as if I’m still the same girl running late to class, jamming my books into my too-full locker while trying to remember which pocket of my backpack contains my missing homework. (To this day I have that awful test dream, the one where there’s a quiz that I haven’t studied for and I’m at my desk, trying frantically to write down the answers on a blank sheet of paper.) My conclusion is that, although I’m now much older and wiser, I’ve been lucky enough to retain that passion, which in turn transmutes into the characters I create. My Cameryn is full of emotion, as are the other characters I’ve breathed to life on the page. They embody my readers. As my readers embody me.

So many times I’ve opened my door to a young woman in crisis.  Many are friends of my children who just need an ear. We talk, we eat, we laugh, and yes, sometimes we cry. Everything for them is so raw, so intense, and very, very important. When it is time for me to create, I find that I write their stories – never an exact rendering, but a flavor of what they share. That is mixed within the texture of my own memories, and I find myself echoing the words of Cameryn Mahoney, who is intent on giving ‘the voiceless a voice.’

As a young adult author I find that is my mission. I listen, and I remember. In the end I write for people I love, readers who are themselves filled to the brim with what I call ‘life force.’ These are the ones who will change the world. I can’t wait to see what they will do, because I and others will be the beneficiaries of their boundless energy and ideas.  Carpe diem!

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Alane Ferguson bio page

The Christopher KillerThe Angel of DeathWolf Stalker: A Mystery in Yellowstone National ParkMoonsong (Vampire Diaries)Vampire Diaries: Season 2Hunting LilaBlack Storm Comin'

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