Monday, August 31, 2020

What Do I Do With a Happy Surprise? (Holly Schindler)

You've heard it often: writers talking about those happy surprises. Something cropped up during drafting--a character behaved in an unexpected way. A plot turned in an unplanned manner. And then--why, everything about that book fell into place! The story I'd been struggling with for ages made sense! I could see the ending clearly!

Or something to that effect.

But often, when you're in the midst of drafting, it's hard to know if, in fact, that crazy idea you just had really was a happy accident. (Sometimes, they're plain crazy ideas, brought on by too much caffeine and too little sleep.)

I'm a big proponent of outlining. And I think outlining a book before writing can help recognize or make use of those happy accidents.

Outlining lets you figure out if this crazy idea will work without having to draft new chapters. (!!!)

Yes, since you're already outlining, you don't have to draft. You can just start in at the point you're at now, and re-outline the remainder of the book (without completely deleting the original outline, of course). This allows you to see how the new idea would impact the rest of the book without having to spend a month writing a bunch of chapters you'll potentially delete. Win-win.

Outlining allows to tweak your crazy idea.

Sometimes, the idea itself is not quite there. Not quite fully formed. If you've got your outline handy, you can see how this new idea might mesh with your existing themes and project goals--and how it might conflict. It allows you to look at the full book, and perhaps take your initial spark and tweak it just a bit before plunging in to outline or draft a new segment. 

Outlining makes it easier to retrace your steps back to the wild idea.

Let's face it: sometimes, those ideas aren't really happy accidents at all--just plain accidents. If you've outlined, though, you always know where the detour from the original plan occurred.

If you're pantsing it, it can be painfully hard to figure out where that point of departure happened. Because, quite frankly, you were kinda halfway winging it as it was, and you only had a basic idea, and somewhere in there, about a month and a half ago, you had this ah-ha! idea for that plot twist, or you said, "Hey, I wonder if that character would actually do this instead..." and by now, you've written, what, twenty thousand more words? Thirty? And the whole thing's veered off course, and at this point, you're not exactly sure where that whole veering off actually happened. Or how to unwind it. Or how to fix everything.

You see what I mean. This can frustrate an author so much a manuscript gets completely abandoned. 

Don't abandon a whole manuscript. Outline first.

Happy surprises really can save a work--but because they can be hard to recognize, they can also potentially derail a project. Outlining can help you incorporate an unexpected idea so that you're the next author to say, during an interview, "It came to me as a happy surprise..."

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Writing Exercise: Generating Story Ideas, by Chris Tebbetts

 I like to do a lot of spontaneous writing when I’m working on an idea, and one of my favorite outcomes there is when I surprise myself—with an insight, a random idea that I love, or a turn of phrase that captures exactly what I’m going for in a given writing moment. 

With that in mind, here’s a quick story idea-generating exercise that I do in some of my workshops. If you feel like playing along, please do! Maybe you’ll surprise yourself, too.

NOTE: Don’t read ahead. Take these steps one at a time. 

1) Write down five favorite movies. Not the ones you admire most, but the ones you enjoy the most. 

2) What is it about each of these movies that appeals to you? Think about plot, character, setting, and theme — along with anything else that occurs to you. Write down several items for each movie.

3) Now, what recurring elements do see in the lists you’ve just written? It doesn’t have to be something that’s true for all five of your movies. You’re just looking for things that show up more than once. It might be as basic as “lots of fantasy,” or as granular as “three of these movies have extreme weather in them.” Similarly, with character, it might be as obvious as “stories with female protagonists” or as subtle as “characters who make things with their hands.”  Maybe it’s “movies about friendship” or “stories with ambiguous endings.” Whatever it is you see, write down those recurring elements. 

4) Pick two favorite elements from the list you just made. Which ones grabbed you the most, in your gut, as you wrote them down? 

5) What are the feelings those two elements evoke in you? For example, if I were thinking about ADVENTURE, I might write down: excitement; anticipation; danger/foreboding. If I were thinking about STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS, I might think: heroism; determination; flexibility. Write your own answers down.

6) Where and when else do people have those same emotions? Where and when else have you? Going off my ADVENTURE example (excitement; anticipation; danger/foreboding), I might think about a job interview. I might think about a road trip I once took. I might think about going off to college for the first time. And for my SRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS example (heroism; determination; flexibility), I might think about a city bike messenger; Olympic athletes; or mystic shape-shifters.

7) Now, just start playing. Take everything you’ve written so far, including the rest of your list of recurring elements (not just the two you picked), and see where it all takes you. Incorporate what you like, discard what you don't need right now. What kind of story idea develops from here? 

Again, working from my own examples here, I might start thinking about a young woman who works as a bike messenger.  

And maybe she’s a shape-shifter as well. 

Maybe this story is a fantasy. 

Maybe she’s trying to get a new job in this mythical city that’s developing in my mind as I sit here, doing the exercise. 

Maybe it’s a fully green city, where bikes are the main form of transport. 

And maybe someone—some antagonist—wants to steal my hero’s bike, for some reason. 

Maybe that bike holds a secret. 

And on, and on… 

Your mileage may vary, but for me, the value is in just allowing the ideas to unfold without worrying where they take me. More often than not, I walk away with something I can use, either as a whole story idea, or maybe a new nugget of something that I can fold into one of my existing works in progress. 

I hope you find a few happy surprises of your own! 

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Writing Life Is Full of Surprises

Surprises, for writers, are just part of the business. One minute you're certain you'll never come up with another good plot idea, and then, surprise! An idea hits you and you can't wait to get started. 

Or you're certain that your book proposal or manuscript will get a lot of interest from publishers, only to learn that...surprise! Nobody wants it.

Or you think nobody will show up for your book signing, and then...surprise! There's a line around the corner!

But perhaps my favorite surprises come from thoughtful readers. Just the other day, I got this message from a mom:

My 9-year-old daughter was just gifted the Aleca Zamm series. She INHALED them. Didn't budge from the couch until she had read all 4. She's hooked! 

I'm sure this mom had plenty of other things to do besides making my day, but she took the time to do it anyway. What a lovely surprise! 

Ginger Rue is the author of the Aleca Zamm series from Aladdin and the Tig Ripley series from Sleeping Bear.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

The Surprises of Slowness

It may be a little cliche by now, but with all of the ways our "normal" lives have changed in these last several months, I'm amazed by the opportunities "slowness" brings. For me, having fewer places to go and less people to see means more time to slow down. 

One of the most wonderful benefits of this has been the way it has caused me to notice the "little things." I have a big window in my office and enjoying its view has always been something I've appreciated. But in these last several months, I have found myself appreciating what I see out that window even more. The cardinal that comes to sit in the nearby bushes. The hummingbird I see enjoying my flowers. And the furry caterpillar inching along the patio while my dog scratches at the window trying to reach it. 

These things have always been outside my window, but they seem to hold more meaning and enjoyment for me now. With less distractions, I have time to stop more often and watch the cardinal and hummingbird and caterpillar a few minutes longer. The old familiar saying, "Take time to smell the roses" has taken on a whole new meaning for me. I've discovered that doing this very simple thing, not only brings the surprise of more appreciation for the the "little things," but also another surprise - a greater sense of peace and calm in my life as well as an attitude of awe for the creation all around me. And this leads to yet another surprise - a greater sense of thankfulness for blessings big and small. 

So, in these days, when "normal" doesn't seem like it will be showing up anytime soon and the "slowness" of my life often brings me many moments of frustration, I let the cardinal and hummingbird and caterpillar, that are right outside my window, remind me to appreciate the wonderful surprises that "slowness" brings.

Happy Hummingbirds and Cardinals,

Nancy J. Cavanaugh


Sunday, August 16, 2020

Word-of-mouth is alive and well, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

This month, we're sharing our thoughts about happy surprises we experience as authors. What popped into my mind as I pondered this topic was that despite spending tons of time on social media, young readers still verbally recommend books to each other. No matter how much promotion authors do online, I believe the best way for a book to gain an audience is for one reader to tell another: "You have to read this!"

I recently received an email from Selene, 12. Here's an excerpt:

"So I don't like to read but my friend told me I should read this book so I went to the library and checked it out. It was amazing! This makes me want to read more books. All I want to say is thank you for writing this book. By the way it was published on my birthday!"

Two heartwarming and happy surprises in this note: 1) that she didn't like to read, but after reading my book, it made her want to read more books, and 2) her friend recommended it to her. Yay! To me, that's the ultimate stamp of approval.

Once upon a time when I visited schools in person, I was always thrilled to see some type of personal reader recommendation program such as book trees where kids wrote mini reviews, a favorite book swap event, or a bulletin board where students listed their top reads.

I'm willing to bet that recently, you heard about a book from a friend, or told a friend about a book you loved, insisting he or she read it.

Even as technologically connected as we all are, I hope that word-of-mouth book recommendations never go away. Nothing can replace a book passed from friend to friend with a personal rave review.


Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of five middle grade novels, from Random House and Simon & Schuster. Visit her at

Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Writer as Hero and This Magnificent Madness

 As we explore how the unexpected might inform our writing, it becomes all the more challenging to stay motivated given the current crisis. One way to keep my head in the game is webinars. And, boy howdy, this year I’ve had the joy of attending some inspirational webinars, including a couple of Emma Dryden’s discussions, on revision and another on agents. I’ve attended several classes hosted by Harold Underdown and Eileen Robinson, their most excellent novel revision graduate online workshop with KBR Workshops

This time, I want to highlight another most excellent class hosted by Lorin Oberweger’s Free Expressions

This was a lecture given by Christopher Vogler, celebrating the 25th anniversary of his book, The Writer’s Journey (Michael Wiese Productions, 1992). (Just a couple of weeks ago, she hosted a couple webinars by super agent Donald Maass. What a treat!!) 

The Writer's Journey is an old favorite, a steady, inspirational read. So I was beyond excited to hear Chris Vogler discuss his approach to writing. Talk about drinking the Secret Elixir! Chris Vogler explored the monomyth and its relationship to story. He explained -- to my delight -- how myth is a metaphor for a mystery that is beyond human comprehension. And story is the expression of that metaphor.

While the book explores the monomyth, made famous by Joseph Campbell, and its impact in the storytelling process, Chris Vogler expands the myth to include the writer. The writer as hero. And this is the fundamental inspiration of his book, and his discussion. Every storyteller bends this archetypal pattern to her own purpose or the needs of her culture. That’s why the hero has a thousand faces, states Chris Vogler. But at the heart of the story is always a journey.

“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (The Lord of the Rings, #1-3) 

The hero’s journey, you may remember, is found in all sorts of storytelling. Writers go on a similar journey, states Chris Vogler. In fact, as he states, “The hero’s journey and the writer’s journey are one and the same.” 

Most writers I know received their call to adventure at a young age. George Orwell knew he wanted to be a writer by the time he was five. Neil Gaiman also discovered his love of story at a young age, describing himself as “a feral child who was raised in libraries.” J.K. Rowling wrote her first story at age six, a book about a rabbit with measles. Raised by her grandparents, Lucy Maud Montgomery battled a debilitating sense of loneliness by creating imaginary friends, Katie Maurice and Lucy Gray, who lived in a fairy room behind a bookcase. 

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, #1) 

Writing is certainly hard work, “a perilous journey inward to probe the depths of one soul.” It is a fearsome process, no matter how many books one has under their belts. Sue Grafton, author of the wildly popular Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Series, once stated, “Most days when I sit down at my computer, I’m scared half out of my mind.” The mighty Stephen King noted, “I’m afraid of failing at whatever story I’m writing – that it won’t come up for me, or I won’t be able to finish it.” Even the mythic J.R.R. Tolkien said, as the first book of his iconic series was published, “It is written in my life-blood…I am dreading the publication, for it will be impossible not to mind what is said. I have exposed my heart to be shot at.” 

Chris Vogler shows that anyone – new as well as established writers – who sets out to write a story encounters all the trials and tribulations, joys and rewards of the hero’s journey. 

A writer encounters her trickster, taking shape as computer problems, doctor appointments and time management issues, and other “enemies of the status quo" that also bring perspective on the process. Pandemics, too, fall under this category.

A writer meets the grumpy threshold guardian in the form of our inner and relentless judgments of our work. The tension rises as we face the searing remarks of a reviewer, a copyeditor, an agent, or an editor. And finally, we cross the Rubicon. We are published. But the journey is just beginning, as we “fully enter the mysterious, exciting Special World” of a published writer. The ordeals become all the more exhausting as we face deadlines and revisions and constant rejections. As we build our platforms and speak – holy moly! – to readers. And our beloveds go out of print, and favorite editors retire, and the rise of the internet dragons. 

Along the way, if we are lucky, we meet our sidekicks, our Dr. Watson, our Rory and Amy, our Hermione Granger, our Samwise Gamgee. Sometimes, we meet our mentors, our Dumbledore or Gandolf wielding his magic purple crayon, the sage who gives advice, who tells us to keep going, just keep swimming. Don’t give up. 

Take hope, states Chris Vogler, “for writing is magic. Even the simplest act of writing is almost supernatural…We can make a few abstract marks on a piece of paper in a certain order and someone a world away and a thousand years from now can know our deepest thoughts. The boundaries of space and time and even the limitations of death can be transcended.” 

“It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers (The Lord of the Rings, #2)

It was an exhilarating lecture!

 -- Bobbi Miller

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Happy Surprises Caronavirus Style

 Many of us have been through the excitement of having a new book released this past spring and summer. And many of us have paired that excitement with the disappointment of having to cancel in person launch events and book promotion activities. We did it all online instead and it was fine. A bit underwhelming, but we survived. 

So, it was a special treat to have an outdoor socially-distanced book signing...two in fact...that friends and family members were excited to attend. Reading aloud from WISHES, DARES, AND HOW TO STAND UP TO A BULLY, in a park picnic grove, with everyone spaced apart on picnic tables and folding chairs, or standing, was special. 

Books are meant to be shared with an audience of appreciative potential readers. The park setting hearkened back to days of old when story tellers gathered around the campfire and regaled those in attendance with their folktales, yarns, and stories meant to be passed on.

Instead of a campfire, nature provided the heat. But there was enthusiasm, appreciation, and gratitude for such a small thing to make the day a happy surprise. A family with two children who hadn't been formally invited, stayed to listen. People applauded, pleasantries and kind words were exchanged, treats handed out and books signed. It was a welcome relief to be outside sharing my story for others to pass on.   

Have a book coming out this fall? Don't despair, go to the nearest picnic grove and read to those assembled. It's why we write in the first place, isn't it?

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

But If You Happen to Run Across the Cartoon, Would You Please Let Me Know?

 by Jody Feldman

What started as a memory and an unsuccessful Internet search resulted in an unplanned action on my part, something I’d never done before. Sort of surprised myself; was definitely surprised.

A new thematic thread in my work-in-progress brought thoughts of an editorial cartoon that’s stuck with me for decades. As memory serves, the first panel shows a father and his angelic child. In the next panel(s), the father literally opens the child’s head and fills it with the worst kind of prejudice. Finally, the child’s head is back together, but the angelic countenance has turned demon-like. Very powerful stuff.

I wanted to post that cartoon near my computer as writing inspiration.
No problem, I thought. I’ll find it online. The man who created it has won a Pulitzer Prize, has written an Oscar-winning short film, and is one of the most prolific and celebrated satirists in the country. In the kidlit world, he is best known for, among other books, The Man in the Ceiling and, especially, for illustrating The Phantom Tollbooth.

Piece of cake, right? I’ll Google Jules Feiffer + editorial + (other specific words} and voila! It will appear.

After hours of searching, however, I could not find that one cartoon. As a woman on a mission, though, I changed tactics. I emailed Jules Feiffer. The man is 91 years old, I thought. He can’t be bothered with someone like me, asking him to remember an old editorial cartoon.

But just four hours and six minutes later, there, in my inbox, was a reply; not an automated reply, not from some assistant, no. It was from Jules Feiffer, himself. Jules Feiffer!

After the first rush of giddiness, it dawned on me. Is this how the kiddos feel when we, as authors, answer them? A sense of surprise and awe and joy?


But here, in my house, on my couch, with dinner on the stove, I’m just your average person. Why would my correspondence make difference to a young reader who, for whatever reason, decided to contact me? In their eyes though, just maybe, I’m to them what Jules Feiffer was to me that day.

Given the volume of his work, it’s not surprising that he was only able to steer me in a couple directions to find that cartoon. “Sorry that I can’t help you further,” he wrote, “but, no fear, considering the Trump autocracy, I will, no doubt, touch on the theme again in my online monthly cartoon for Tablet.”

And so, I have no cartoon next to my computer to remind me of that theme for my WIP, but I have an email. And a full-body smile whenever I look at it.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

A Writing Surprise -- by Jane Kelley

Can writers ever be surprised by their own work? After all, every word that lands on the page comes from our minds. Unless you type with your eyes closed, or choose not to correct the computer's auto-correct. 

And yet, I long to be surprised by an image, an insight, or a rebellious character. Sometimes, on my best days, I am. When I'm not grinding prose out to reach an arbitrary word count. Or falling into old hackneyed habits. Or sticking to that outline no matter what goddammit. 

Surprises can be blocked. But can that magic be encouraged? Maybe. If I try not to work so hard. If I feel confident enough to loosen the reins a little bit and look around. If I have kept a corner of myself wild. I haven't spread poison on the lawn just to keep it perfect. 

Then, into that yard I know all too well, might come a bird. 

Be quiet when it arrives. Be careful reaching for your camera. Just see what the owl does, not what you want it to do. 

Listen. The owl is very silent. Nearby the wrens are frantically warning. Stay away from our nest. (I hadn't even known there were babies in that old bird house!) The owl did. The owl also knew it was time for little ones to fly off into the world, even though that meant leaving the safety of the nest. 

This wasn't a happy surprise for the wrens or for the owl. It flew away hungry, though I did my best not to get too close. 

But what a happy surprise for this writer. That something unexpected, and not completely out of the realm of possibility, could come into the yard. 

Shhh. Can you hear the baby turkeys peeping to let their mother know they are here?