On Being Surprisingly Relaxed ~ Creating an External Plot ~ Five Links ~ Many Events ~ and My Handsome Cat. 
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Dear Readers,

August has arrived! This summer has roared by fast, and one month from today, The Magic Words will be available in fine bookstores everywhere. I feel genuinely good about this:  I have done all I can with it, I hope people will get a lot out of it, the final book is beautiful, and I’m excited to hear what actual readers make of it. If you haven’t preordered yet, you can still do that (and send me a question to be answered here in the newsletter); if you have, when you get to read it, I look forward to your feedback. Thank you for your interest either way.

I do have to say that my calmness at this point in the process bemuses me, as I'm far better known for my rigor than my relaxation. I think getting a nice review from someone I respect certainly helped; it serves as armor against any bad reviews that might come, so I'm feeling equanimous about reviews as a whole. I also know my identity is not bound up in being a writer, as it is for many "real writers" (the term I use in my head, with these caveats); my calling is to be an editor, and that won't change no matter how the book does. Perhaps most of all, I think I feel relaxed because I know how much of what happens next is out of my hands:  It's up to review editors to highlight it (or not), media bookers to have me on (or not), bookstore owners to stock it (as I hope most will), and book buyers to purchase it (ditto, if they're interested). I'm going to do everything I can to spread the word about it, and if you're a writer and you like the book, I hope you might tell fellow writers about it too! But the main thing I could control in this process was the quality of the book, and I've done that, so far as I could. Therefore, this shall mark the one time in my life I will ever serve as a model of chill.

Thanks as always for reading, and I wish you chill and happy writing in the month to come.


Writer Q & A of the Month

What are some tips for developing a good external goal and action plot that feels authentic to the character and the emotional plot? Backstory: I've gotten feedback that my middle-grade novel needs more action. The internal goals and emotional plot are working well (in part, it's the story of a developing friendship), but my character doesn't have a solidly defined external goal to craft an action-based plot around. I've been working on it, but the goal and resultant plot always end up feeling forced. Any advice? — Molly

This is an excellent question, and a difficult (and common) problem. Before I offer some ideas for addressing the issue, it’s worth noting that the reason editors and agents look for solidly defined external goals is because that creates a solidly defined external plot, and external plots are, eight times out of ten, what we talk about to sell the book. That said, I think plot is rarely the reason people actually love a book. Rather, when we say we love a book, what we love is the way the book makes us feel, which always involves plot (our expectations of the action, set up and then delightful satisfied or subverted), but which usually grows much more out of the characters, setting, voice, and intelligence behind the story. J. K. Rowling is a master plotter, and I’ve gasped out loud at many of the twists and turns of her stories; but I adore the Harry Potter books even more because I love the characters, I want to live at Hogwarts, the narrative voice is so accessible and artful, and the sense of humor revealed through the worldbuilding makes me laugh years after I first read the jokes, even as the wisdom revealed in the overall narrative still makes me contemplate the questions it raises. Many people have told a “boy goes to wizard school” action plot; what made her take on it special was her unique authorial personality, revealed through all those other aspects of storytelling. 

And it is entirely possible to write an excellent and successful novel where your protagonist doesn’t have  solidly defined external goals, so long as you absolutely nail all of those other aspects of storytelling. (This describes those other two out of ten.) Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins, Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead, Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell . . . The great beauty and virtue of all of those novels lies in their exquisite depiction of everyday life and emotions, as shown through incredibly specific and realistic characters and circumstances. Insofar as their protagonists have solidly defined external goals, they tend to be highly localized emotional or relationship goals—learn something, be a good friend, kiss another character—which become important to the reader because they are important to the characters, and we identify with and believe in those characters so much. So if you already have a “characters becoming friends” plot, you could turn one character’s desire for a friend into that solidly defined external goal, and show the reader who she is, why she’s struggled with friendship before, and why this matters so much now; and if your characterizations and writing are good enough, that could be enough of a plot right there. 

“But,” you say, “I have not won a Newbery, so even if I do that, no one will want to buy my small and perfect novel!” Or: “I get that, but honestly, I don’t think I’m quite at the Rowell or Rowling level yet, where I DO nail all those other aspects of storytelling, so I think I need a plot.” Or:  “Okay, but I actually WANT an external plot--something I, and then an agent, and then an editor, can use to talk about my book. Help me out here!” 

Well, then I will say that plots don’t have to come from a protagonist having a goal; they can also come from obstacles. Could you brainstorm twenty obstacles or challenges your protagonist might face in living her life? A mean next-door neighbor, fear of the dark, her grandmother’s nasty cat, Crohn’s disease, dyslexia, police brutality, her family’s poverty, her brother’s alcoholism, a demanding teacher. . . . Set up the challenge this thing presents to your protagonist in the first chapter; show us what’s keeping her from overcoming it (take something away from her if you need to), and how she takes action in her life anyway*; and then, most likely, show us in the course of the novel how she DOES gain whatever quality is necessary to overcome the obstacle: voila, you have an external conflict plot. Or take a piece of information away from her and give her a reason to have to find it out:  a mystery plot. Or just assign her a task that she has to accomplish in the course of the book, ideally with this other character with whom she’s becoming friends. (Add one of each of these categories if you really want to bulk the book up.)

* It's really, really important that we see your protagonist do things--not just think, or remember, or worry, or admire her best friend who's off doing things. Just having the character do something interesting and/or get in some kind of trouble in the first chapter creates an exciting first impression that can power the rest of the book.

Giving your protagonist a goal OR a conflict OR a mystery OR a task should give you enough of an external plot, and a compelling opening situation, to get a reader interested, and give the agent and editor something to talk about and sell. I wish you the best of luck. 

Five Links of Interest

I’m refraining from politics here, but I’ve been riveted by them in real life, and thus I do not have many new, positive, non-politics-related links. So, after two pieces about or by me (la di da), I’m going with three of my favorite things on the Internet ever.

Publishers Weekly Children's Bookshelf interviewed me for their Four Questions feature about The Magic Words.

I wrote an essay for Kate Messner’s wonderful summer writing camp for teachers, “Teachers Write,” about using the skills you’ve mastered in your day job to strengthen or drive your writing.

It’s rare I can say a celebrity interview changed my thinking about my own life, but a year after this GQ cover story on Stephen Colbert was first published, I still think regularly about Colbert’s reflections on loving the bomb — “the thing I most wish had not happened.” It’s extraordinary.

On vacation recently, I read Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible — a fine (in several senses of the word) piece of Jane Austen fanfic — and it reminded me of this essay, which I really loved: "Why Dirty Dancing Is the Best Girl Movie Ever." The virtues she identifies in the film are also terrific virtues to see in romances or teen-girl protagonists in general.

And in honor of the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, here’s a way-long-throwback to one of my favorite Harry Potter songs ever. (Though I also love “Accio Deathly Hallows” and the complete works of Harry and the Potters, so there’s a lot of competition.) Potter Potter Potter Weasley Weasley!

Upcoming Events

August 13-14:  Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York City. I’ll give a talk called “YA Fiction:  What It Is, Why It's Hot, and How to Break Through.” The Magic Words will be available for sale for the first time at the conference bookstore.

September 6:  THE MAGIC WORDS goes on sale at fine bookstores everywhere!

September 7:  
Strand Bookstore in New York City:  A panel with Alvina Ling, VP and Editor-in-Chief, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; Mallory Kass, senior editor, Scholastic Press; Brooks Sherman, agent, the Bent Agency; and moderated by Eliot Schrefer, author of many excellent books.

September 10:  The BookMarks Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. 
Details here and full schedule here.

September 13:  New York Metro SCBWI. I'll moderate a panel called “Crossing the Desk:  Editors Who Write," featuring
Daniel Ehrenhaft, editorial director, Soho Teen; Andrea Davis Pinkney, editor-at-large, Scholastic Press; and Jill Santopolo, editorial director at Philomel Books/Penguin Random House. Details and tickets here.

September 20:  Cass County Library in Belton, Missouri. My hometown book launch will also be a fundraiser for the Cass County Public Library Foundation. 

September 21:  Left Bank Books, St. Louis, Missouri.

September 27:  Park Slope Barnes and Noble in Brooklyn, New York. 

I’m actively considering invitations for the rest of 2016 and beyond, so if you’d like to invite me to your event, please shoot me or my publicist an e-mail. Information here. 

While this is an old picture, this is actually where Marley is sitting, and how he looks, right at this very moment. Here's wishing us all a little golden time in the sun. 
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