Voice

Different authors have different ways of tackling voice. Me? I come from a theater background, so a lot my writing techniques come from improv classes. I like to interview my characters by asking them a lot of questions and seeing what answers come up, sometimes I just ask them to write me a letter. The first rule of improv is ‘never say no’ you’ve got to take whatever comes out and run with it (anything that’s awful gets fixed later on when I edit-thank goodness for edits).

Here’s a letter my character Casey Quinn* wrote to me before I started writing Dreamer Ballerina. It was the first time her voice popped off the page, and that’s how I knew I’d finally found her voice.


Dear Sarah,

My name is Casey Quinn, and this may be the last thing I ever write, because Mrs. Hoover is starting to look like she might cut my head off if I make her stay after school one more day.

I am stuck here until I write a letter of apology to one Miss Priss-Ann Lee. I’m supposed to say I’m-ever-so-sorry I pushed you down and got your precious pink ballet slippers dirty. But I’m not, so any apology I wrote would be one-hundred-percent hooey—a big old lie, fatter than Uncle Albert.

And I ain’t gonna lie. That’s not my style.

You can’t make grown-ups understand, no matter what you do. And no matter what a teacher says about liking all her students the same, you can be well sure that she has a favorite. And you can be well sure that that favorite ain’t me.

That favorite is Miss Ann Lee. Pretty pink and pirouetting, with ribbons and bows, but certainly not sugar or spice or anything nice. Miss Ann Lee is nothing but nasty. But I’m the only one who knows that.

I am not her favorite, because I have a skinned knee, runny nose and shoes a size and a half too big. They used to be two sizes too big, but I’m growing. So my feet go slap slap slap when I walk across the room and slap slap slap when I walk back, and no one but me hears the rhythm.

Because no one but me is a true blue, natural born sky dancer.

I dance everywhere and everything. My feet twitch-twitch me awake in the morning and shuffle-toe-step their way through my day. I dance when I’m happy, and I dance when I’m bluer than huckleberries. My feet can even dance a smile out of my old mama’s tired face. And one day my feet are gonna dance me right out of no-good, nothing-ever-happens Raleigh.

I’ve been dancing to New York City since the day I was born, and my feet won’t quit til I get them there.

Mamma says I might as well dream of dancing on the stars, but you gotta have a dream. And you can’t let no one, not even no Miss Priss Ann Lee, step on it.


*Fun fact: Casey Quinn was originally named Spiney Babler after a Nepalese songbird.

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How many drafts?

“Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl

A few years ago, I was giving a talk at my old elementary school. The students had so many great questions about the book and about being a writer. And it was fun to see Mrs. Tripp, my fourth grade teacher, trying not to cry when I talked about how much I loved writing choose your own adventure stories in her class. One student asked me how many drafts I wrote of Dreamer Ballerina. When I answered him, the entire auditorium gasped. Seriously, if there was a video, you’d see the collective intake of breath make my hair move.

Can you guess what the answer was?

20.

From the first handwritten draft I scribbled down in a notebook, to the final published book, I wrote twenty drafts.

It sounds like a lot. The student’s looked horrified. But hey, writing is hard work, and it’s good to know that up front. I think it’s also good to know that first drafts are almost always rubbish. My first drafts are so full of mistakes, cliches, bad ideas, clunky dialogue and wrong-plot-turns, that it scares me to think about someone reading them.*  Thank goodness I get a chance to rewrite!

So, to the wonderful students at Mt. Desert Elementary School, don’t let the 20 drafts put you off. Don’t stop writing because your first draft doesn’t work, or your second, or your third, or your twentieth. If you love to write, keep on writing!

*Seriously, I have nightmares.

What’s in a name?

As an author, it’s easy to forget that a title is more than just the name of your book. When I first started writing Dreamer Ballerina it was called You Can’t Do Ballet in High-Tops. It was a line from the first draft of the book, a line that didn’t make it into the final version, but I still thought it was a great title. In a lot of ways I still think it’s a great title, IF a title was just the name of my book, but it isn’t.

A title is your book’s first impression. The first chance it has to grab a reader and say ‘Hey, over here, look at me! I’m exactly the kind of book that you love!’ It should give clues to the genre and tone of the book. (Did you know that Twighlight was originally called Forks after the town where the book is set? Do you think Forks would have been the same international phenomenon with that title?)

My published had a lot of reasons for wanting to rename my first book. They wanted something warm and simple, and a bit more hopeful because the book is a dream-come-true kind of story. The reason that surprised me the most was that You Can’t Do Ballet in High-Tops was too long. Not just that it was too long to say, but a title that long would mean that the cover design would either be all words OR the words would be small, maybe too small to stand out in a crowded bookstore. As an author, the visual aspect of my title had never occurred to me.

I have to admit, it was difficult to let go of my original title at first. But, I was lucky to work with a group of editors who I trusted. Once they explained why they wanted the change, and what they were looking for in a new title we worked together brainstorming new options. Some of the proposed titles included:

  • Toe Tied
  • Toe Shoe Blues
  • Bigfoot Ballerina
  • Dance Child
  • Ratty Tatty Ballet Shoes
  • Barefoot Ballerina

Eventually we agreed on Dreamer Ballerina and now I can hardly imagine my book had any other title.

Of course, when it started coming out in international editions there were a whole new set of new titles to get used to. But by then I was just excited to see what kind of title other people thought summed up the spirit of my book.

This time around, with my second book, I was much more prepared for the naming process. I started with a rough working title (The Invisible Scientist) and expected changes. After bouncing around a few different ideas, I’m very excited with the final result: Alice Jones Investigates: The Impossible Clue.

I hope it does what a good title should: make you want to pick it up and give it a try.

Dreamer Ballerina Around the World…

After Dreamer Ballerina came out in the UK, something unexpected happened, Greece wanted to publish a translation. And Germany. And Poland. I remember getting the news and just being dumbfounded.

The best part about this, besides having my books in bookstores in Holland(!), was that I get two copies of all foreign editions. You can see bits of them in the photo at the top of the blog, but here they are in detail.


UK

UK

Dreamer Ballerina

The original. The first cover to my first book. Getting these in the post was like getting to celebrate all of my birthdays at once.

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USA

USA

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Someday Dancer

A more wistful cover. It reminds me of the Wizard of Oz. There are some lovely black and white illustrations on the inside as well.

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Poland

Poland

Tanczaca: Dancing

The Polish version is a paperback, but it comes with built-in flaps like the dust jacket of a hard-cover so you can mark your place while reading. I love that!

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Greece

Greece

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πιρουέτες στο χωμα: Pirouettes in the Dust

This was the first foreign translation of Dreamer Ballerina to come in a totally different alphabet. Even if I couldn’t read the others, I could sound them out. Not this one. It was a challenge just finding the right letters to Google Translate the title.

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Germany

Germany

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Ein Traum und Zwei Fusse: One Dream and Two Feet

This cover is the closest to the one I pictured when I was writing the book. I was so excited when I saw this design!

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Unknown

Holland

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Dansen Tussen de Sterren: Dancing Among the Stars

This is one of my favorite covers. I love the rich blue and how it contrasts with the warm orange and yellow stars.

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Czech R.

Czech

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Tancit ke Hvezdam: Dance to the Stars

The same cover design as the UK, but the inside is full of stars, bows and hearts decorating each page. My name got changed to Rubinova too, which made me smile.

On the first day of Christmas my editor gave to me…

Happy December everyone! It is getting cold where I live and I’m drinking lots of cups of tea to keep warm while I write. I also just like tea. In my last post, I mentioned I was in the middle of revising Alice Jones and the Invisible Scientist for Chicken House. I thought it might be interesting to talk a bit about how much editing goes into a book once you sign a contract with a publisher.

disclaimer- this is all based on my experience working with Chicken House. Things may vary with other publishers, but I think the general idea is universal.

1. Major Revisions/Developmental Edit

The first thing that happens when a publisher is interested in your book (after you dance around your living room like a muppet and scare your cat) is a discussion about the changes they would like you to make. It sounds a little strange, doesn’t it?

Publisher- We love your book!

Writer- (squee!)

Publisher- But we want you to make some changes…

Writer-(say what?)

The thing is, writing is not something you can do all by yourself, which sounds weird. But having other people read your writing and give you feedback is so important if you want to get better. I write a draft, get help from my writing group. Write another draft, get help from my agent. So getting help from an editor is just the next step up the ladder.

This rewrite is for large issues, things that you can’t just fix by adding a new paragraph on page 11. Maybe your bad guy isn’t bad enough. Maybe your secondary character needs to play a stronger role. Maybe you need to add more description (or cut a whole bunch out).*

In my case, Chicken House asked me to come in for a meeting to talk about the changes they would like (this happened both times, the first time I was ridiculously nervous, the second time was a lot more fun). I actually really enjoy this process. Those editors are smart and have a lot of great ideas and a very good understanding of their target audience. I know some writers worry about having someone else ‘change’ their work, but in my experience, all the editor will do is point out where they see a problem. It’s up to you, the writer, to come up with how to fix it.

*yes, these are all things I have had to do for my own books (plus a few more too)

2. Line Edits

Once your big changes get approved, it’s time to look at the book scene-by-scene, sentence-by-sentence. Your editor will do a close reading, making comments on scenes that need more action or emotion, sentences that read a bit funky and anything else that catches his or her eye. These are changes that can be fixed by adding a paragraph on page 11, problems on a writing level instead of a structural level.

I imagine this used to be a lot harder when everything had to be handwritten and sent back and forth by post. Now that there is email and track-changes, it goes pretty quickly.

3. Copy Editing/Proof Reading/Fact Checking

Bad grammar beware, the copy editor is coming to get you. This stage is usually pretty straightforward. Sometimes writers use incorrect grammar on purpose, and generally if you can make your case you can keep your ‘mistakes.’

During this stage you also get something called a Style Sheet. The Style Sheet is a master list of how specific words in your book will be spelled, the names of places, companies and organizations and any non-standard usage that needs to be used throughout the book. You can see a copy of my Style Sheet from Dreamer Ballerina here.*

You may also go through some fact checking in this round. Chicken House sent Dreamer Ballerina to a reader in New York to make sure I hadn’t dropped any clangers when I was writing the city. (I had, the worst was sticking Casey’s friend Andrea in a 20 storey walk-up, apparently 6 was much more realistic.) They also double checked the names of the dance schools in the book and the dates I used. I’m not sure Alice Jones and the Invisible Scientist will get the same level of fact checking since it isn’t historical fiction, but we shall see.

*this version of the Style Sheet came before I argued that even though Dumpster is a trademark, it’s entered into general usage and shouldn’t be capitalized (they let me win on that one).

4. Page Proofs/Galleys

And this is the most exciting stage of all. Once all of the editing is done, the rewrites, the line edits, the copy edits and fact checking, your publisher will send you your page proofs. These are basically an unbound copy of what your book will look like in print. This is your last chance to catch any typos or misspellings before it goes to print. You go over it with a fine tooth comb and hope that you don’t find anything.

So that is editing with a publisher in a very big nutshell. I’m sure there are a ton of things I’ve left out (or just don’t know about because I only see things from the author’s perspective). It’s a lot of work, but it can be a lot of fun too. And when you get fun emails about bits and bobs like cover designs (so exciting) thrown into the mix, it’s just fabulous!