"Rules That Rule: Nuts and Bolts for Beginners" with Colleen McKenna

Thursday, February 7, 2002

Moderator is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books and over 150 articles. Kristi also taught writing for fifteen years.

Colleen is Coleen McKenna, author of l8 published books. Her newest series is with Holiday House. The first two books, Third Grade Stinks, and Third Grade Ghouls, have just been released. The third book, Doggone Third Grade will be out in Spring, 2002.

Names color coded in blue are viewers who asked questions.

Interviews take place on Thursday nights: 9-11 p.m. Atlantic/Canada, 8-10 p.m. Eastern, 7-9 Central, 6-8 Mountain, and 5-7 Pacific

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! I'm Kristi Holl, your moderator and the web editor for this site. Tonight I have with me Colleen O'Shaughnessy McKenna. Since 1987 Colleen has published 18 books with Scholastic, Inc. with sales of over three million copies. All writers need to learn the writing and publishing rules before they decide to break them, and Colleen will be talking about "Rules That Rule: Nuts and Bolts for Beginners." Welcome, Colleen!

Colleen: Thank you! It's good to be here.

Moderator: First, Colleen, could you tell us how you got started writing?

Colleen: I took my first writing class in 1983 when my husband announced he would be gone for three months with a trial. I began to write my first novel; knowing you should write about what you know, I wrote about my own four children. That book, Too Many Murphys, was the first of a series that paid for most of them to go to college.

Moderator: What, in your opinion, is the most valuable rule to remember when writing?

Colleen: Write about what you know, and what you love. The number one rule is to be true to yourself. What do you have to share, in story form?

Moderator: Do you feel plot is more important than character?

Colleen: No, I believe that character is more important than plot. Plot is so strongly attached to characterization. When you begin your story, make sure your character wants something very badly. That is what will make the reader side with the main character, knowing that they also want that. Characters need to be placed in a situation where they can discover what will happen to them and how they will be changed, hopefully for the better.

JaciRae: What about stories (like mysteries) that seem like mostly plot? How can you get the right balance and make the character most important?

Colleen: That's a great question. Many authors work better with plot, and it is a challenge to engage the main character to carry the plot. If the plot is very concrete, then your job would be to create a character who has the proper motivation to involve himself in this story. Motivation is so important when the story is plot driven. Why should we care?

Moderator: Is it all right to shift point of view? Adult books do, and some young adult books too. When is it okay to do that?

Colleen: Point of view is very personal. I am jarred by shifting point of view since I have invested my emotions in the main character. When I switch to being inside the head of another character, I feel that the story and my involvement is diluted. But, that is my own opinion.

Moderator: How important is an outline for your manuscript?

Colleen: If you knew me, you would laugh at the mention of an outline because I am such a storyteller. However, I do write a note to myself with what I want to accomplish for each chapter. That is an outline, right? You do need a skeleton for your story.

Kevin: I enjoy writing without an outline, but I seem to wander all over the place. Should I at least know what ending I'm heading toward before I start writing?

Colleen: Kevin, wandering is a kind of brainstorming. But, yes, you do need to know the ending, or at least how your main character will be changed by the actions of the story.

Moderator: How can a writer go from telling to showing?

Colleen: The whole notion of story telling is incorrect. A writer needs to show what is going on. No one wants to be told how to feel or how to react. You can go from telling to showing by writing in scenes. You need to include action, such as "Will leaned back in his chair and sighed..." and you need dialogue to advance plot and characterization and you need single viewpoint of the main character. I was told that Scholastic bought my first three novels because of my single viewpoint of my main character.

JaciRae: What about showing versus telling in dialogue? When is a summary of a conversation (telling) okay and when should I show the dialogue in detail with quotes?

Colleen: It is so tricky and important to know when to summarize past events and when to put them in dialogue. Just remember that dialogue makes it more immediate, but you don't have to include the "going from here to there" in dialogue. Life is too boring. You have to condense.

racemup: I have a nuts & bolts question. I've heard not to italicize the characters' internal thoughts (or inner dialogue) in your draft you submit. Some say to underline them instead and the copy editors will modify them accordingly. Opinion?

Colleen: Don't italicize or underline (which is considered the same to an editor). If you are truly in the head of your main character, this wouldn't be necessary. Also, you don't put thoughts in quotes. Just write. (Who did he think he was, thought Mary.)

Moderator: What are the three requirements for writing a scene?

Colleen: The three basic requirements are the blend of action, dialogue, and single viewpoint (which I call 'think time'). Remember the show, Wonder Years, which let us hear what Kevin was thinking? "Think time" is when you are in the head of your main character who is taking your hand and leading you through the story. Think time is the angle from which you are telling your story.

MBVoelker: Transitions [between scenes] are a weak point for me. All too often they either jar or drag on. What makes an effective transition?

Colleen: An effective transition is seamless. It is simply to take you from point A to point B. For example, if you want to show a passage of time, don't let the reader know that the main character went to the dentist and washed his hands and a dog bit him. Just write, "Three days later, Kent was still mad that he had been passed over for the promotion."

Moderator: Is writing a solo process or is objective feedback necessary?

Colleen: Feedback is so important. Writers for publication are not writing a journal. They are writing to connect to a complete stranger. So your thoughts are meant to create images for another which means that others must tell you if they are getting your message or not, and if they are receiving a different message, then you need to know. And not fight them about it.

JaciRae: Do you belong to a critique group or something similar yourself?

Colleen: Yes. I am with a smaller version of the same group I began with in 1983. All have been published. Some took 7 years. Persistence and trust in your group are vital, plus knowing this is a business.

Moderator: Characters seem to rule the plot. How can they come alive more easily?

Colleen: Your main character has to act immediately. He meets a specific obstacle, overcomes it, and gets what he wants. He has to be changed by the actions of the story, otherwise why have the journey? A good test is to break your story into three sections, such as: Cindrella can't go to the ball, she goes to the ball, she gets the prince.

Kevin: Do you ever use characters based on real people you know?

Colleen: I often use real characters for my stories, Kevin. Then I can picture their responses.

james55clinton: In dialect, how would you differentiate between the harsh, staccato Scot's voice from the soft, lilting Irish voice, when they use much the same vocabulary?

Colleen: You have to remember that you are intent on showing, not telling, james. So, if you had the Irish, you could use certain phrases and actions. Editors don't like the type to show the sound. For example, don't weaken dialogue with adverbs and adjectives. Such as, Clarney sipped his beer and said, "Be gone with you." His manner was rough. (Get rid of the rough comment.)

racemup: Is there an average word count for a chapter? Can one be too long or too short?

Colleen: No, unless you are working with a controlled vocabulary. For Hi Low readers, or early picture book, just write your chapter, and know you can cut or add. I think the average length is ten typed pages with 250 words per page. Cutting is so important. Be as Truman Capote who said, "I do my best writing with scissors."

janp: Do you ever find it difficult to put your character to bed for the day, and go, say, to the grocery store?

Colleen: If my characters have become real to me, they go to the grocery store with me. I can imagine them saving coupons, using them, giving them to a random stranger, or wishing they had enough money to buy everything on their list.

Moderator: Colleen, how important is setting?

Colleen: Setting is vital so you avoid the "talking heads" syndrome. Let the reader know if this is modern time, where the characters are, such as a bedroom, a playground, etc. That is why blending action with dialogue is so important.

Kevin: What about setting in stories like science fiction? I have to give so much detail to make the setting real to the reader that it takes over the story.

Colleen: Control the amount of knowledge you have. Let it leak out, for example, Jake glanced at the ruined shuttle. The mounds of lava had destroyed the gears. "We won't be able to use this again." Instead of doing a laundry list of what the scene looked like, give information which advances the plot, educates, but sounds realistic.

Moderator: Which books, if any, on writing could you recommend?

Colleen: Rebecca McClanahan's Word Painting, Lee Wyndham's Writing for Children and Teens, Creating Unforgettable Characters by Linda Seager, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont, any books on screen writing, and books by authors on their own works.

Moderator: Great list! We know revision is a part of writing. Is it a major thing, or just kind of like buffing the finished product?

Colleen: There are no good writers in the world--only good rewriters. The essence of a story only comes from the revisions. If an editor told me I could not rewrite, I would be scared and know that they were too busy to edit the final product.

Moderator: Does every story need an antagonist?

Colleen: Of course. Who wants to read the "Brady Bunch"? An antagonist pushes the button on your main character so he shows his stuff, or lack of it.

Moderator: Can the antagonist ever solve the story's problem?

Colleen: It would be very unsatisfying to have the antagonist solve the problem or be the hero. That happens in real life, but it wouldn't work in fiction. We are rooting for the main character. The reader feels cheated if the main character isn't in charge of his destiny after the obstacles are presented.

34:21 Moderator: How many obstacles are generally needed in stories, and what are their purpose?

Colleen: I would think there would be at least three obstacles to let the reader know, and believe, there is a chance that the main character may not make it. Those obstacles keep the reader guessing and the main character traveling on his journey. The main character has to be challenged.

Kevin: In a book, does each subplot have its own set of obstacles?

Colleen: Yes, but just know that these obstacles have to be directly tied into the main plot. You don't want two parallel plots trotting along side each other. It would weaken the story. Also, know that the subplots must be tied up before the final resolution of the main plot.

Moderator: Do you have a favorite writing exercise that helps jump start stories?

Colleen: Yes. I need to know what my main character wants, and why. Motivation is everything. So I write down a history of my main character. I list his likes and dislikes, best friends, worst enemies, hobbies, etc. so that I know his back story. When writing, you always begin in the middle of things. So I need to know who this character was a year, two years, a week before the story opens. I need to know his character flaws as well as his strengths. Quite often, the resolution comes from a battle between his strengths and his flaws.

Steve: How do you start in the middle of things? Do you ever write the beginning, then end up lopping off a big chunk of it?

Colleen: Yes, Steve, quite often a writer begins with a "throat clearing" chapter or two. Then, when the main character has enough substance, he is set in motion. This is the true beginning. Be professional enough to toss the rest.

Moderator: How important is manuscript preparation before submitting?

Colleen: If you want the editor to think of you as a professional, then submit as a professional, which means you read the books, telling you about 20 lb. paper, correct double spacing, 250 words per page, and make sure you do the homework. Know who is in charge of manuscript submission. A "Dear Sir" is a lazy kiss of death. Call the publisher and ask the secretary or get a current Writer's Market. Go to conferences and keep abreast.

Moderator: Is it true that third person is used more frequently than first? Why?

Colleen: Third person allows more freedom in description. First person is used more in adult. In third person objective narration, all descriptions must be based on concrete, external evidence.

Moderator: What would you consider the six most important plotting points?

Colleen: My six main points in plotting would be in answering these questions: Who is the main character? What is his goal or problem? Who are the other characters? Which obstacles prevent an easy solution? Do the events occur in a logical sequence? And does the main character bring about the solution or reach the goal? In some cases, the main character realizes that his goal was not worthy of his intent.

Moderator: Are all fictional stories based (in some way) on an author's own life?

Colleen: Someone once said that most of what a published author writes about occurred to the author before the age of 15. Those were dramatic years. I agree with that statement. What mattered to me then matters to me now. My books all have a strip of flesh from my younger years. Of course, I had a lot going on then: my house burned, my parents considered divorce, etc. Maybe that's why I write books for children where everything is more minor and light-hearted.

Moderator: How many characters do you think are needed to tell a good story?

Colleen: I would limit characters. Too many becomes like an overcrowded room. You have to push them here and make up lines for them. I think four central characters is plenty. I just realize that all characters have a job to do or they are out.

MBVoelker: Do those 4 characters include the villain? Or do you mean 4 characters on the hero's side?

Colleen: No, the villain, the protagonist, and two more strong characters. You can include a few more, depending on the age of your reader. You don't want to confuse the reader. And, characters who merely get the main characters from point a to b aren't considered central.

Moderator: How do you know when to start your story?

Colleen: I was told to start my story in the middle of things. To start your story on the day that was different, on the day when the main character would take a different stand on things, or be presented with a new challenge.

Moderator: How important are story beginnings? And how do you write a catchy opening?

Colleen: Story beginnings are so important, not only to the editor, but to the reader. You have to grab each because they want to see why this story is so fresh. Think of great openings to your favorite stories. Place your main character in a situation as early as possible and set them in motion, from which point they move forward, driven by the force of their own personalities.

Steve: Any suggestions for "grabbing" openings? How to find them?

Colleen: Steve, tell your story again and again. Then, think of how you would begin to tell the situation to a friend. Like, "One night Marge couldn't get her phone to work. It worried her since she'd had five crank calls in the past week."

Moderator: Colleen, in your opinion, what is the most valuable tool when writing?

Colleen: The most valuable tool is your own imagination. Be careful of what you read. It becomes part of you.

Steve: Do you have an agent, and do writers who write for adults need an agent these days?

Colleen: I published 18 books before I got an agent. I have one now but I am not sure if she is helping me. Adults writing for adults usually need an agent. Go to conferences and read material. Agents are looking for people who will make them money.

Moderator: I'm sorry to have to interrupt, but we're out of time now. Colleen, thank you so much for coming tonight and fielding so many questions. We really appreciate it. We hear so much advice about writing rules, and sometimes it's hard to sort through. Your talk tonight helped clear up which are the really important things to know and consider. Thank you for coming!

Colleen: Good-bye and good luck to you all. Thank you for joining us tonight. Take care.

Moderator: Do come back in two weeks when our guest speaker will be Joan Popek, speaking on "Flash Fiction." Joan has a passion for short fiction. She has published over 250 short stories, articles and poems since 1993. She loves flash fiction with its "literary power punch to the gut." Joan says "writing flash fiction is an excellent exercise to tighten your writing, and it sells!" So if writing adult short stories is also your interest, join us February 21. And now, good night, everyone!

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