Who I am, and why I write

Welcome! My name is Erin Manning, and I write clean Young Adult fiction for ages 12 and up. I'm an avid reader and I've been...

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Next week on the blog

I don't plan on posting on Fridays on a regular basis; in the past I have found that Friday is the one day of the week that I can't seem to make the time. Ordinarily I'd have had a post up today, but with a dental procedure to take care of and my husband's birthday to celebrate I didn't have time.

Rather than do a last-minute job, I'll save my post about where writers get our ideas for next week. In addition to that, I plan to discuss character names, daily goals, and the use of magic in children's fiction.

Hope to see you then!

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

On editing

I have a confession to make: I am supposed to be editing. I am not editing. This is a problem.

Some people who aren't writers may think that only indie, self-published writers like me ever do any major editing of their own work. Oh, sure, the traditionally published writers with agents and major publishing companies behind them still read through a manuscript and clean it up a little, but surely those people have built-in editors to do all the really hard editing, right?

Believe me, if that were true, it would be reason enough to keep querying agents and begging publishers to look at my books--even if statistically speaking most writers have virtually no chance of ever being published by one of the so-called Big Five publishing companies, who produce about 85% of the total number of books published each year. Because a nearly-zero chance might seem like a fair trade for doing the hard work of editing.

However, even a writer hoping to land that magical agency representation (without which a Big 5 contract is pretty much impossible) will have to edit, and edit, and edit again. This is because, if you are hoping to attract the attention of a potential agent, you have to make your manuscript as close to perfect as you possibly can. Some writers will even hire freelance editors to comb through their finished manuscripts before they submit them to agents--but at a cost of several thousand dollars per work, this is not a path that many people can afford. Most writers will do the majority of the work themselves, even if they use beta readers, join writers' groups, and pay for some critiques that fall short of a full-scale editing job (which are less expensive).

Whether you can afford lots of paid editing help, or whether you are hoping to convince a few of your friends to read and critique your work, it is important to get other people's eyes on your copy to check for major plot or continuity errors, places where things just aren't clear, and those annoying typos you've already corrected two or three times (and more seem to jump in somehow, as every writer knows). But it's a waste of your friends' time (and possibly your money, if you are paying readers or editors) to hand over a manuscript you haven't touched since you wrote the last line of text and staggered, exhausted, out to the kitchen for some victory ice cream (not that I've ever done that).

I find myself making several "passes" through a manuscript before I'm ready for anyone else to read it. The first time I'm just reading, correcting only a few typos here and there. The second time I'm looking for any discrepancies in plot, changes in names (characters, towns and cities, forbidden potions--any little thing like that). The third time I'm going slowly through the text and asking myself whether I've used too many cliches, whether the characters sound right, whether my descriptions make sense, whether the writing quality in general is satisfactory.

After that, the fourth time, I set the book up in the format in which it will be published--and then I read the whole thing again, looking for anything jarring or mistaken that I haven't already caught and fixed.

At that point, it's time to get someone else (or, in a perfect world, several people) to look at it before proceeding to the publishing stage.

Does this seem like a lot to do? It is, but there's no escaping a process like this one no matter how you plan to publish. I'll say it again: you should be prepared to do all of these steps before querying an agent and submitting your manuscript to him or her, if you plan to go the traditional-published route (and there will be additional steps involving the agent's preferred format for your manuscript and so on).

Like I said at the beginning of this post, though, I'm currently in the "supposed to be editing" stage. I have already read this MS twice, but am finding it hard to get enough time in my day to do the slow, careful reading required for the third reading. But I know it has to happen, and I want this book to appear in my catalog, so I'll keep going!

Monday, February 25, 2019

Writing talk: on writing for children

One thing that I don't think gets talked about a whole lot among writers is this: why is it--or should it be--different to write for children than for adults?

There are a lot of possible answers to that question. Some of them are obvious; some less so.

An obvious answer is that children aren't adults; not only that, but the picture book crowd isn't ready for easy readers and the easy reader crowd isn't ready for MG fiction. The words used, the sentence structure, the presence or absence of pictures--all of those things will be different depending on your audience.

And that's true. But when you are writing for middle grade readers, kids who are already capable of reading chapter books, whose vocabularies are growing and whose ability to read complex sentences is well underway, what makes their books different from, say, a young adult novel or a book written for adults?

I think the answers can be summed up in three words: what, how, and why.

The "what" refers to: what are you writing? Even today, when there is more pressure on writers to write edgy fiction for younger readers, there are some topics that are seen as inappropriate for children. There are mystery novels for young readers, and I can think of a couple of examples of such novels that are murder mysteries, but almost no one would think it appropriate to write a novel for a middle grade reader in which the protagonist turns out to be a charming and likable serial killer. Similarly, while adult relationship issues including divorce will crop up on children's fiction, even the proponents of edgy fiction would not write a work of MG fiction featuring an eighth grade prostitute as the main character and narrator (whether such a work can be written for adults in a way that is conscience-raising and serious as opposed to exploitative and encouraging of pedophilia is beyond the scope of this blog).

But even if the "what" has been satisfactorily settled, the next question is "how?" as in, "How will you present this material in a way suitable for children?"  To go back to the first question--suppose that you wish to write a murder mystery for middle schoolers; how will you go about doing it? If your first thought is of crime scene TV dramas where bloody corpses litter the scenes and forensic teams gather gory evidence in great detail, you're not really planning a children's book. On the other hand, if you are writing an easy reader for children in the six-to-eight range, you probably want to tone down the mystery to some missing cookies or something else suitable for the littlest readers. The way you approach the material is important, and you will find that restraint is more necessary when you are writing for children. I have, on occasion, written a scene only to realize that it is too dark or too scary for my youngest potential readers, at which point I will rewrite it with a more careful thought process centered around what children are expecting.

The final question, the "why?" refers both to individual parts of a given work and to the whole book. What message do you want children to take from your book? What purpose does a particular plot point serve? Most writers for children do not want to write books that are cynical and despairing, for instance, no matter how many adult books will contain those kinds of elements in them. 

How do you think children's books differ from books written for adults? There are many more possibilities; I've covered only a few.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Parents: should your younger children read YA books?

When I was a kid, I read lots of books written for children ranging from the very old to the contemporary. Classics of children's fiction as well as stories written when my parents were little were available at the library, as were the newer and more modern books. My parents didn't have to worry about these books; nobody would have dreamed of writing things in children's books that would be a problem for readers as young as eight or nine years old. Although young adult novels had been written as early as the late 1960s, the explosion of YA fiction hadn't begun yet when I was an avid child reader.

Today there are both Young Adult and New Adult books written; YA fiction is supposed to be for ages as young as 12, while NA are aimed at readers ages 18-24. What both of these books have in common, and what Middle Grade, or MG, fiction is not supposed to have, is sexual content, some of it very explicit.

Many parents of older middle-grade readers have no idea that a YA book their eleven-year-old is eager to read contains sexual passages that would have been considered pornographic by earlier generations. Even non-religious parents have complained that some of this content is too much, too soon for many readers up to children in their early teens; Christian parents who discover these books in their home may be appalled by what is in them.

Apart from explicit sexual content, many YA books contain adult themes that children as young as 8 or 9 simply aren't ready for. In addition to sex scenes, there are scenes featuring drinking and drug use; there is widespread use of profanity; there are scenes which push the envelope in terms of violence; there are occult elements including devil worship and other anti-Christian themes; and there is exploration of the hot topics of sexual orientation and gender identity.

When you discuss this with adults, some of them will shrug and point to elements in Chaucer and Shakespeare that were just as shocking to their audiences. But the point isn't that these edgy elements exist; the point is that even a precocious ten-year-old in Chaucer's or Shakespeare's day wouldn't have had much access to their works. But ten-year-olds today are often steered toward YA books when they have grown bored with the selections available on the middle grade shelves; the avid readers are especially pushed to challenge themselves with these books.

Worse, the growing popularity of YA books has led to a push for some MG fiction to expand into edgier content, though the argument that kids will read MG longer if MG contains elements formerly only found in YA is somewhat of an incoherent one.

In any case, I have always believed that parents are the best guides for their children as to the appropriateness of a particular book for a specific child. But many parents in these busy days simply don't know what the content of a popular novel their child may be begging for is really like. No matter how advanced a reader a child may be, I think many YA books are simply inappropriate for the youngest MG readers (8-10), with a few being possible for the older ones aged eleven and twelve, provided they are carefully chosen with the child in mind. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Writing talk: rewriting characters

I wrote just a bit about fictional characters and the struggle to make them real people who fit the story, even if it means letting the character be in charge, in a manner of speaking.

But what happens when you create a character and you realize that he or she simply isn't working out?

I've had a couple of experiences of that, and unfortunately I've dealt with it the right way and the wrong way.

The wrong way is something that happens when you're still an inexperienced writer trying to get a feel for this whole process. You've done all sorts of world-building; you've crafted an original plot; you've got the settings and themes all lined up; the dialog is working well. There's just one problem--the main character is flat, dull, unlikable, or just plain wrong, a jarring note in an otherwise decent novel.

So, what happens next? If you're like my younger self, you grimly carry on with the story while a festering dislike of the main character grows to the point where you just plain give up on the book. If the main character, or even an important side character, has evolved in a way that does not fit the story he or she can mean the end of the whole project (or, at least, the temporary shelving of it; writers are always optimistic about salvaging what they can from unpublished manuscripts).

Why would any writer do this? Honestly, because the right way involves something that is difficult at best and terrifying at worst: you have to get rid of the wrong character and replace him or her with the right one.

But depending on just how important the character is to the story, and just how entangled his or her presence has already been with the other characters, the plot elements, etc., this is potentially going to involve a massive amount of work. In my early years as a writer there's no way I would have tried, and even now, there is nothing that is more annoying than realizing that even a fairly important side character is sounding a persistent wrong note in the story.

My first successful character replacement came near the middle of my Tales of Telmaja series. The series involves the adventures of twenty extremely gifted people, all of them from a race of people who can teleport and are thus responsible for space travel (the story of how I ended up with twenty characters all of whom were important to the book is pretty funny, but we'll save it for now). I had decided to create one of these characters as a sweet, nice sort of girl, a counterpoint to some of the other female characters in the group. And I thought it would be interesting to make her quite beautiful, too. Then it seemed like a good idea for her to be related to a side character the readers would already know by that point.

I wrote this girl in toward the end of this particular book (plot reasons dictated that she not show up until then). But almost from the beginning I knew something was wrong. She didn't seem to fit the mold of the twenty mythical heroes I was trying to create. She made some of the other important characters speak and act strangely. It was as though I had created a fairy-tale princess and plunked her down into a science fiction book for no good reason. Worst of all, she was rather unintelligent and didn't seem to have anything to offer--she was a puppet, blinking and waiting for me to pull her strings.

When I realized that she didn't work, I wasn't exactly thrilled. The amount of rewriting that would be necessary was daunting, and I still didn't know at that point how to replace her. I spent some time thinking about what kind of character this next girl really needed to be, and as soon as I started writing her into the story I had that comforting sensation every author knows, the sensation that you are dealing with someone real who is not anybody's puppet and who will utterly refuse to do things that aren't in character for her. 

Once I had the character, I had to erase the first girl, and it wasn't easy. This new girl couldn't be related to anybody we already knew, and she wasn't staggeringly beautiful or particularly nice. But she fit the world and the story, and ended up playing an important role all the way through the rest of the series.

The bottom line here is: if one of your characters annoys you not because you are writing him or her to be annoying, but because he or she doesn't seem real and doesn't fit the story at all, don't put off the decision to replace the character. The sooner you realize someone doesn't work, the less rewriting you will have to do--but you will have to do it, if you don't want the manuscript to end up in a pile of potential future re-dos instead of becoming a viable work.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Writing talk: characters

There's an old saying about how the way to make God laugh is to tell Him your plans. I had planned on some focused, disciplined blog writing focusing on my newest project; I had not planned on an emergency dental visit and a looming root canal.

One thing you find out as a writer is that your original plans for the story may also make you laugh by the time you've finished writing. The very first "book" I ever completed, a fairy tale I started writing when I was fifteen, was supposed to be dark and tragic; I ended up writing more like A.A. Milne than like J.R.R. Tolkien, and The Fairy Godmother Expedition ended up being an unpublished and comic novella. No matter how many plans you make for your characters, if you are writing well at all, you will learn that your characters have ideas of their own; in fact, one of the surest ways to spot a flat or unconvincing character is to look for the character who always does and says exactly what he or she is told by the writer to do or say.

I realize that this will sound odd to those who don't write fiction. But fiction writers know that in order to be any good at all characters have to resemble real people, and real people are unpredictable. The best way to explain it, I think, is this: have you ever had to meet with someone, or make an important call, or do some other thing that is outside of your routine, and in the process of preparing for it you start to rehearse the scene in your mind as you imagine it will be? "Let's see," you think to yourself as you reach for the phone. "I'll ask Jane how she's been doing, and ask about her grandchildren, and get her to tell me a little about what she's planning for her spring garden--and then I'll sort of ease into asking her to help with the parish fundraiser."

In your mind, the whole conversation is unfolding; if you have a good imagination you might "hear" the sentences you're speaking and Jane's replies, and you might even notice her dog barking in the background as he usually does when you call. But when you finally get Jane on the phone, chances are nothing happens as you expect. Perhaps one of her grandchildren answers and talks to you in a polite but clueless manner until Jane grabs the phone. Perhaps Jane says in a rush that she'll call you back--she's at the store. Perhaps Jane spends thirty minutes telling you about a health problem and you realize it would be impolite to sign her up to take carnival tickets. When you planned out the imaginary conversation in your mind, you had full control over Jane's responses; but when the real Jane is talking, you have to listen to what she actually says.

For a writer, the situation is similar: you plan out your scenes; you rehearse your characters' conversations. But then when you actually start writing, you have to think of these characters as real people--real, that is, within the confines of the story. They have to act in character, and that means you can't just put any old words in their mouths, or force them to do any old thing. A boy afraid of heights might slowly conquer that fear, but he's not going to forget he's afraid and rush up a ladder just because the events of the story call for it; a female character who likes to present a strong, tough image to the world isn't going to change into a shy, giggling girl just because she puts on a dress and goes to a dance.The sloppiest writing is the kind that treats characters like puppets.

In my current WIP (writer slang for "work in progress), I initially intended the main character to be a little older than he is, and to be the kind of person who doesn't take anything seriously. By the time I had completed the first chapter, though, I knew that the events of the story didn't work for a character who fit my original plan. As soon as he appeared on the page, I realized that his character type was quite different from my first idea of him, and the more I wrote the more I realized that the happy-go-lucky jokester character would have been the wrong fit entirely for a story that was going to take the directions this one does.

But how do you know when you've let a character go on too long in the wrong direction? We'll save that for next time.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Return to blogging

I have to apologize for the slow start this blog has had. I began it right before last November's NaNoWriMo, and didn't stop to think about how hard it would be to work on a blog while writing the last novel in a ten-book series. It wasn't just hard; it was impossible, and then that inertia that writers know so well set in and kept me from getting back to this.

The fear of the blank page is a very real thing.

But now that I'm writing this post, I'm also ready to commit to frequent blogging here. And while I want this blog to be a platform that will help me reach parents of middle-grade readers (ages 8 to 12), I also want to talk more generally about writing and connect with fellow writers, especially people of faith who are writing for children.

In upcoming days I hope to talk about my current projects and share more information about the books I already have available. Stay tuned!