How To Write Fiction: A Guide for Poets

I was a poet to begin with.


And as a poet, I wrote slooooooooowly. Sometimes painfully so. I might spend an entire day, or week, or even month following the rise and fall of a line to its inevitable end.

To paraphrase Fred Chappell (another poet turned novelist), a good day’s work for a poet is to cross out the two lines he wrote the day before.

For someone like me in the habit of examining the universe two lines at a time, the idea of writing a novel—page after page after page, day after day after day—seemed daunting, to put it mildly.

You mean I have to write WHOLE PARAGRAPHS AT A TIME?


So, how did I get my poetry-wired brain from Point A (poem) to Point B (novel)?

Well, for starters, it took about a gazillion hours, numerous failed attempts, and the support from and commitment to my friend and coauthor Madelyn Rosenberg (shown here gleefully tormenting a toe-sock doll).


Most importantly, though, I had to let go of many of my deeply ingrained ideas about the writing process.

One. I could no longer write without “tuning in” consciously, the way I sometimes did when I wrote poetry.

It didn’t take me long to realize that strange, unacceptable things happened when I let my subconscious mind take over in fiction. I would sit down with the intention to write a romance novel, turn off my consciousness, and wake up a half hour later to find an intricate description of an old woman’s detached lung throbbing in the wildrose shrub outside an abandoned trailer’s front stoop.


Two. I could no longer count reading time as writing time.

Here’s how I work when writing a poem. I write a first line. I rewrite it. I write it again. Then I read it. Over. And over. And over until…………………………………………I’m ready to write the next line. Then I rewrite that line. Then I rewrite it again. Then I read it with the first line. Over. And over. And over until…………………………………………..I’m ready to write the third line. Which I rewrite and read and rewrite and read until…………….. I fall asleep in a puddle of drool.

Again, it’s pretty obvious this method is for crap when it comes to writing anything longer than a haiku. As I transitioned to writing fiction, I had to get comfortable with the idea that re-reading the entire manuscript from the beginning every time I sat down to work was not a practical option.

When desperate, I might use that method for paragraphs, pages, even chapters. But otherwise, it was onward! No looking back!


(Thanks for the inspiration, hat girl.)

Three. I had to get my butt in the chair and type something, whether I thought I had anything to say or not.

I’m going to let Neil Gaiman field this one for me, because he said it perfectly:

If you only write when you’re inspired you may be a fairly decent poet, but you’ll never be a novelist because you’re going to have to make your word count today and those words aren’t going to wait for you whether you’re inspired or not.”


(Neil Gaiman. Tasty!)

And yet, even as I had to shake loose numerous impractical poetic notions when I turned to fiction, there were a few concepts which, right or wrong, stuck with me as I wrote DREAM BOY with Madelyn—and they remain now as I write my current work-in-progress.

Of these, the most crucial is perhaps this:

There are certain moments when only the exact word will do.

Yes, I know we’re supposed to spew out that first draft. Get the words down and worry about making them perfect once we have a beginning, middle and end.

Fiction-brain gets that process. I’m able to do that at least 93% of the time. For the other 7%, though, the poet in me is convinced that writing any old thing is a great idea…


There are moments in writing when I need an exact word, dammit.

Its rightness is the bridge between what came before and everything that might come after. Its rightness is what makes the work, at least for that millisecond, worthwhile. Because for that millisecond, it’s not all about word count. It’s about following the right word to its best destination. It’s about accepting language for the gift that it is. In short, it’s what makes writing fun.


Even if I end up cutting the entire scene at some later date, I need that moment to keep me going. Without it, there is no joy in Mudville. Without it, what am I doing this for?

[Note: this post previously appeared on OneFour KidLit.]


Poetry Hop!

mortimer-final-300x229The ever-insightful Madelyn Rosenberg tagged me for the Mortimer Minute Poetry Hop. Bless her for doing so! And I’m not saying that in the southern bless-her-heart kind of way. It’s been too long since I’ve taken the time to ruminate about poetry.

So, my little bunny friend, come with me as I share three questions (and things that take the place of answers but are actually not) about poetry!

How do you feel about rhyme?

Here are 4 things I think about rhyme:

  1. Rhyme is a powerful drug, and as such, should be used with caution. It’s addictive and can lead to dire consequences. But when administered properly, rhyme can be just the right kind of intoxicating.
  1. Sometimes rhyme guides us to the inevitable word in a poem. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.
  2. Rhyme is fun. Fun on the run with a cat named Bun-Bun. Fun in the street with the cars that go beep. Fun everywhere, now that cat’s in my hair and I’m chasing a bear with my aunt’s underwear. (For me, the inevitable word always seems to be “underwear.” You can ask my children; I am telling the absolute truth.)
  1. Rhyme makes its own sense, so I don’t have to.

Read Madelyn’s much smarter answer to the same question here.


Can poetry matter?

This is a question poets apparently love to ask themselves, so I’m asking it here. I probably shouldn’t have, because my real question is “Why do poets keep asking themselves if poetry can matter?” I mean, it’s sort of like bakers asking themselves over and over if muffins matter.

Hell yes, poetry can matter. But not the way open heart surgery can matter or firetrucks can matter or group homes for developmentally challenged people can matter. Even so, sure, poetry matters. It matters to me. At least as much as muffins. Unless I’m hungry and there’s nothing but muffins to eat.


Why should people read poetry to children?

When I did a photo search on Flickr for Creative Commons images of muffins, I learned two things: people like taking photos of muffins and there are many cats named Muffin. Take that, Mortimer. Ohh, I think that's my new idea for PiBoIdMo -- Mortimer and Muffin! At any rate, this photo by Elaine Vigneault. Thanks, Elaine, for sharing. Love your puppy's puppy dog eyes!

When I did a photo search on Flickr for Creative Commons images of muffins, I learned two things: people like taking photos of muffins and there are many cats named Muffin. Take that, Mortimer. Ohh, I think that’s my new idea for PiBoIdMo — Mortimer and Muffin! At any rate, thanks to Elaine Vigneault for sharing this photo.

Because children deserve it. Just by being alive and having spongy brains, children deserve the gift of silly words that will click-clack-rump-pump-wiggle-waggle through their day.

Plus, I’m pretty sure frothy concoctions of playful language (by which I mean poems) make them smarter about how regular old Jane-and-Joe language works.

So do it, people. Read a kid a poem. The world will be a better place for it. And then give a kid a muffin. And give puppy a muffin as well. And then give a kid a puppy. Then give a sea urchin a haircut.  The world will be better for all that too.


So now it’s my turn to tag someone. Hillary Ferguson is an excellent poet, fiction writer, and blogger. I look forward to seeing what she asks, and answers too, of course!

The Next Big Thing ~ Dream Boy edition

0a1a0cd0bc03f1156cd82087d26130a0_biggerThanks to Rin Chupeco, whose fascinating young adult novel The Girl From the Well comes out next fall, for tagging me in THE NEXT BIG THING blog hop. Here’s how it works: last week, Rin answered questions about her upcoming book; this week, I answer those same questions; next, I send those same questions to other writers with projects in the works to answer in their own sweet time.

So, without further ado, welcome to The Next Big Thing, Dream Boy edition!

What is the working title of your next book?

Dream Boy

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I can thank the genesis of Dream Boy to three things:

      1. insomnia
      2. Ginger Rogers
      3. a really long communion line

Let me break it down.

I was up at 4 a.m. on a Saturday night (INSOMNIA) watching a 1940s-ish farce about a woman (GINGER ROGERS) who keeps ditching guys at the altar because they don’t live up to the ideal man she dreamed about as a girl. The next day, as I sat in my customary back pew in church, waiting for my turn to walk up the aisle (A REALLY LONG COMMUNION LINE), I started thinking about the nature of dreams.

A lot of times a hero or heroine in a story will dream about someone they later meet in real life but, I wondered, what if the dream-vision isn’t a premonition about a person who already exists? What if instead the dream actually creates someone—or at least brings the dream here, so it exists in our physical world?

Seemed like a fun question and one that could take a while to answer—which is of course the ideal spring-board for a novel! I contacted my pal Madelyn Rosenberg the next day and asked if she’d like to co-write Dream Boy.

What is the genre of your book?

Contemporary fantasy—lots of comedy, a throb of horror, a dash of romance!

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in the movie rendition?

Such a hard question! Kind of like potato chips: you can’t choose just one. But here’s a start…(Click on names for a link to photos.)

For Annbelle (our heroine!), I might cast someone with the easy likability of Elle Fanning. Plus, that girl can act! For Martin (the boy of Annabelle’s dreams), I’d go with younger versions of Max Irons or Alex Pettyfer. Will (Annabelle’s best friend) might be someone like Liam James or Jacob Kogan or even Kevin Zegers when he was 10 years younger. Talon (Annabelle’s other best friend) has a good dose of spunk. Maybe a younger Aubrey Plaza or Anna Kendrick or an older Quvenzhané Wallis. Serena (Annabelle’s other other best friend) could be played by Abigail Breslin or Christian Serratos.

There are a ton of other characters that play an important role in Dream Boy, but the only other one I want to weigh in on is that the high school fooball coach needs to be played by Will Ferrell. Because of course all movies without Will Ferrell suck.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Girl dreams boy… girl meets boy… girl, boy, and friends save universe.

Who is publishing your book?

The fine folks at Sourcebooks. (Shout out to the wonderful Aubrey Poole, editor extraordinaire!)

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

For-frigging-ever!!! I honestly have no clue. I’m pretty sure I have conceived and given birth to one or more children between the start and the end.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Good googly! Is there any way to answer this question without sounding like a big head? “If you liked Harry Potter, you won’t be able to put down Dream Boy!” Um, yeah. Let’s go with that!

Really it’s easier to think of movies for this one. It’s kind of like the narrator from Easy A has a mind-blowing reverse Inception-like experience… in high school.

inception gif photo: inception party inception-GIF-inception-2010-14288153-272-124.gif

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

(See above: Ginger Rogers.)

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

As much as it is about the aftermath of dreams, Dream Boy is about everyday teenhood and the struggle of growing up in a small town with big-city aspirations. It’s about the necessity of family, the saving grace of friendship, and the desire to figure out how you fit into the puzzle of your own life.

Now, all there is left to do is leave a trail of breadcrumbs for the NEXT BIG THING. So, here we go.

I am also tagging:
c1d5e63019f8ddf2ca7749845e945c7d_biggerWhitney Miller, whose novel The Violet Hour, will touch down March 2014

b8881cf126e47737806f71c86bc3af61_biggerJessica Arnold, author of The Looking Glass, forthcoming 2014

Jeninst-jennyphotony Bitner, author of the work-in-progress Mothership

Can’t wait to hear what they have to say!

Bird Talk ~ with Children’s / YA Author Madelyn Rosenberg

Mad on the Rocks (photo: Cece Bell)

Mad on the Rocks (photo: Cece Bell)

About Madelyn Rosenberg

Madelyn grew up in Southwest Virginia where she spent many years as a newspaper reporter telling other people’s stories. Now she tells stories of her own. Her books include The Schmutzy Family, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award for illustrated books, and Happy Birthday, Tree, which is on the Bank Street College best-of list for 2013. Canary in the Coal Mine is her first middle-grade novel. She lives with her family in Arlington, Va.


Canary in the Coal Mine by Madelyn Rosenberg

 About Canary in the Coal Mine

Bitty is a canary whose courage more than makes up for his diminutive size. Of course, as a bird who detects deadly gas leaks in a West Virginia coal mine during the Depression, he is used to facing danger. Tired of unsafe working conditions, he escapes and hops a coal train to the state capital to seek help in improving the plights of miners and their canaries. While there, Bitty manages to bring together two men: a state senator and the inventor of a machine that can replace canaries. But Bitty’s return to Coal Hallow coincides with a shattering mining accident that affects humans and canaries alike.

In the tradition of E.B. White and George Selden, Madelyn Rosenberg has written an extraordinary novel starring unforgettable animals in an incredibly imaginative society.


What sparked the idea for Canary in the Coal Mine?

I’d gone to a concert at Mountain Stage in Charleston, West Virginia, (something my friends and I did fairly regularly as the groups who visited Mountain Stage were typically better than the groups that visited Blacksburg — that particular show was Billy Bragg and Lucinda Williams, for instance). Anyway, a canary cage was on display in the lobby, and the whole idea popped into my head. I already had a heightened awareness of coal mining because my newspaper assignments sent me into coal country, both in West Virginia and Southwest Virginia. Meanwhile, my stepdad was telling stories about his own childhood. He wasn’t a miner, but his grandfather owned a coal mine in Blacksburg, and he (my stepdad) was always getting in trouble for paying in the slag piles.

Do you have any advice for someone who might want to write a book about animals – specifically animals that talk?

People in and around publishing often talk about how much they loathe talking animal books: They’re passé, they’re uncool, there hasn’t been a good one since The Mouse and the Motorcycle, etc. But those are the books I’d loved as a kid, and not everyone loathes them; there are still a lot of good ones being written today. When I first talked to my editor, Mary Cash, at Holiday House, she told me that at a conference, someone had asked James Cross Giblin (award-winning author, former editor-in-chief for Clarion) what he thought about books with talking animals. “Well, I suppose it depends on what they have to say,” he’d said. So I guess if I had any advice it would be to ask yourself that: What are your animals saying? Listen to them, and listen to your gut.

The Shmutzy Family by Madelyn RosenbergCanary is a mid-grade novel. Your other books, The Schmutzy Family and Happy Birthday, Tree!: A Tu B’Shevat Story, are picture books. Your upcoming novel, Dream Boy, is for teens. What are the challenges of writing in different forms?

I’ve always worked on different projects at the same time, because working on only one project feels too overwhelming, if that makes any sense. Picture books are like poems. They *feel* doable so working on them while I’m working on a longer piece helps my sanity. I admit, though, that some of my PB manuscripts have taken much longer to get right than my MG manuscripts. And I do worry a bit that it’s not helping with audience-building, especially in the early stages of my career. If I get that fabulous, 5-year-old fan I’ll have to say, “and in 10 years, you can read Dream Boy!” But the truth is, this is just the way I write. Each form teaches me something about the other and I’m not sure I could do it any other way. (As a side note: I’ll have a YA, a middle-grade, and a picture book coming out in 2014.)

Canary is set in 1931. How did you find writing historical fiction verses writing straight-up fiction?

They have a lot of similarities, in that each world you’re creating has certain rules. Only in the historical world (as opposed to, say, Planet Quinautoron), you’re not making as many of those rules up yourself. When I wrote Canary, the fiction part definitely came first — story before history, I suppose. I tend to think of it more as a period piece than as historical, but maybe that’s because I’ve watched too much Downton Abbey. Kids are smart so I don’t think any of them will take this as the definitive history of coal mining in West Virginia (especially as history doesn’t mention talking animals). But I do hope they’ll be curious enough to try to go learn more.

What character in Canary is closest to your heart?

I feel like I’d be cheating on him if I named anyone but Bitty, my main character. I love his bravery and his Opie-Taylor sincerity. But I became attached to my supporting characters, too, especially the gulls and Eck, the mouse. The first thing people seem to ask when you finish a book is if there’s going to be a sequel. I always thought if I ever did one it would be more of a spinoff, and that I’d follow Eck.

What’s your favorite thing that someone in the book says?

I love poetry, so I’m probably most proud of the nursery rhyme that Bitty recites and of the song that Alice sings (which I really wrote, but don’t ask me to sing it for you because I can’t carry a tune to save my life.) Also: When I was researching this story, I came across an article on West Virginia expressions from a 1928 linguistics magazine. I incorporated a couple of them. But when my son was in second grade, he had a teacher who used an expression that sounded like they could have come straight from that magazine (even though she wasn’t form the 20s and she wasn’t from West Virginia). I slipped that one in there, too. I keep hoping one of my son’s friends will read the book and say: Hey, Mrs. James used to say that! But it hasn’t happened yet. (It still might, so I’m not telling you which one it is.)

Happy Birthday Tree by Madeyln RosenbergI noticed you mentioned “newspapers” in there quite a few times. Is that a coincidence?

Nope. I love newspapers and they helped me solve quite a few problems as I was writing this book. They were also a good research tool for me. Newspapers also make a brief appearance in Happy Birthday, Tree. They also play a role in Dream Boy, and in my next middle grade.

What do you want readers to get from Canary in a Coal Mine?

That’s always a hard question for me because I’m not sure there’s a way to answer it without sounding completely full of myself. I want readers to see the absurdity of stereotypes and the power of friendship. I want them to see that you can be small but make a big difference. (See what I mean?) I want them to know that these people had a hard life, but that they still had each other’s backs. I want readers to be able to fall into another world. I want to spark imagination. And I want kids to wonder what their cats (or dogs or mice or hamsters or canaries or cockatoos or lizards or guinea pigs) are thinking.

The Beauties and Beast of Writing with a Friend

Last week (at the very moment my friend Madelyn Rosenberg and I were announcing to the world the good news that our young adult novel DreamBoy will be coming out next summer from Sourcebooks Fire), a friend shared with us this New York Times article,”On Writing with Others” by John Kaag.

Having just finished a young adult novel with the awesome Madelyn (and begun another with the awesome Jenny Bitner), I have found the experience to be full of surprises–almost entirely the good kind.

Here’s my take on five reasons that having a co-pilot on that long trip across a novel is a good thing… and one reason it’s not. Some are echos of Kaag’s excellent insights; others are my own.

The amazing Madelyn Rosenberg

The amazing Madelyn Rosenberg


1 ~ a committed relationship ~

Perhaps the most encouraging part of collaborative writing is the commitment I bring to the project. When I work on my own, it’s easy for me to convince myself (after 20 or 30… or even 120 pages) that what I’m writing is crap. When I write with a friend, however, I am committed for the long haul,whether or not it seems crappy during those horrible spells of self-doubt. I can’t help thinking of all the time and work my friend has put in on the project, and that makes me push through the muck, even when I’m not sure where exactly we’re headed.

2 ~ instant editor = better risks ~

I am, as Kaag suggests, much more likely to let loose with some half-baked notions in early drafts when I know my co-writer is there. These risks are usually huge fails, but every so often, they work fantastically.

When I write fiction on my own, I may take the same risks, but I worry much more over them. On my own, a serious misstep could head me down a long and fruitless path. Since I don’t have an instant editor, I may not be convinced of my mistake until I’ve already pounded out another 50 pages or so. And we all know there’s nothing quite so sweet as trashing a huge stack of pages just start over where you were a month before! Yippee!

When I write with a friend, I know I have an instant editor who can shake her head and point me in a better direction. Yippee, for real!

The astounding Jenny Bitner

The astounding Jenny Bitner

3 ~ operation UNblocked ~

There is nothing so amazing as getting stuck with a scene, sending it off (sometimes mid-sentence) to a trusted friend, and having it return a day or so later with that scene successfully finished and another started.

Gone is the head-pounding!

Gone the endless trips to the kitchen’s candy jar!

Gone the long walks full of mulling and wondering and wishing I knew what came next!

4 ~ surprise! ~

The surprising things that happen when you write with a friend are beyond fun. I’ve created structures that I thought were headed one way, only to find out when Madelyn returned her editions/additions that there was a whole other dimension to the scene if I just tilted my head one way or another.

Sometimes it’s a matter of a fortunate misunderstanding. For example, when I first named the character Talon for DreamBoy, I intended for her to be a male. Madelyn read the name as a female and used a female pronoun for her. So I’m easy… and here’s proof. I just rolled with it. Now Talon, the girl, may be my favorite character in the novel, and calling her a boy would probably prompt her to reach through the pages of the book and whack me on the head. (Yeah, she’s got that kind of spunk.)

5 ~ balance ~

Let’s face it. I have obsessions — those go-to things that give me energy and make me glow. I would write about rivers and earthworms and clouds all day if someone would buy me food and cover my mortgage for doing so. But a book about nothing but rivers and earthworms and clouds is… well, I was going to say boring, but since I’m obsessed, I actually find that idea pretty intriguing. Maybe I should write a book about nothing but rivers and earthworms and clouds? Hmmm… But I digress. Back to point: I have obsessions, so do my my co-writers. And sometimes those obsessions, being as they are obsessions, get to be a bit much.

I mean, what is it about the canned peaches in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? And I’m pretty sure Nora Roberts was watching way too many of those cook-off shows when she wrote Angels Fall.

So having two different writers with two different sets of obsessions gives a bit of balance to the work. Or at least I like to think so.


There are some projects that are not good candidates for collaborative writing because co-authorship requires you to let go. And letting go of something extremely close to you can be difficult and scary… and quite frankly, unnecessary. Here are the facts: The final writing will not reflect your solitary vision nor be subject to your solitary control, and there are some things that won’t come out right without your solitary vision and control.

So choose wisely when considering a project. Are you willing to let go of your idea and allow it to become what it becomes? Do you have a friend whom you respect enough to work with? If you can answer yes without reservation, you might want to give collaboration a try. If not, keep it to yourself until you’re ready to publish. And then let it go the old-fashioned way.

(… oh, and the waiting… sometimes the waiting can be be a drag…)