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The Novel Intensive

 Erin Murphy, Krista Marino, and Joyce Sweeney

 FL SCBWI Regional Conference 2011 in Miami 

This was an absolutely amazing intensive.  The three instructors worked so well together, it felt like they’ve been putting this intensive on for years.  I’ll share some of the highlights with you and wish I could blog about it in more detail…but I can’t give away everything.  If you ever have a chance to take a workshop or intensive with any of them in the future, sign up ASAP!

Krista Marino, Erin Murphy, and Joyce Sweeney 

Overcoming Obstacles

Led by agent Erin Murphy

              Erin asked what our fantasy writing life would be like, and said that obstacles are usually assumptions and not reality.

What strengths/talents and weaknesses do you have?  Write them down…because we’re often too busy putting obstacles in our way to notice the good things.

Some people are over-disciplined (they might outline or have to write at the same time each day, and others are under-disciplined.

It’s great to have a support community.  She mentioned Verla Kay’s Blueboards as a wonderful one (I agree 100%--I’ve learned so much, made tons of writing friends, and even found my online critique groups through the Blueboards).

Erin mentioned a method called the Pomodoro Technique, which helps her stay on task.  You write down your goals the night before, then set a timer for twenty-five minutes and don’t let anything distract you from your goal.  If you need to look something up or come up with a brilliant idea for a different project, quickly jot down the info so you can work on it at another time. 

Joyce talked about the importance of a great critique group. She says to try to have at least one person who is better than you.  And make sure it’s the right group for you.  Do you leave inspired, or never wanting to write again?  (I feel really lucky to be in three wonderful online groups and two amazing local groups—including one led by super-mentor Joyce.  I can’t imagine trying to get published without my talented critique buddies letting me know if the pacing is off, when something is unclear, and helping me dig deeper than I ever thought possible into my characters and stories—not to mention all the support they give me.  Critique groups and crit buddies rock!!!)

Krista Marino added that authors shouldn’t post the amount of money they make online, and to make sure you don’t talk negatively about editors and agents. 

Building Scenes

Led by Author Joyce Sweeney


You should be in scene almost all the time, with little bits of narration in between.  Otherwise, you’re just telling the story.

 Here are the beginner problems she sees most often:

·         A point of view switch for no reason

·         Not writing in scene (you should see dialogue)


Each scene is a plot in and of itself—you should see a little arc in each one.

             Each scene has to matter to plot.  Make sure you cut it if it isn’t advancing the story.  If a book takes place in November, you don’t have to celebrate Thanksgiving if it doesn’t add anything to the plot.

 If something bad is coming, make sure the description fits the mood.

 Use the inciting event to lure the reader in.  It isn’t exciting to say ‘nothing much happened on Tuesday’.

 The climax doesn’t always have to be an awful event—it can be happy…but has to be more than just showing a friendship.  Make something happen, too!

 If you stop a chapter at an awesome place mid-scene, then you don’t need to orient the reader again in the next chapter.


I didn’t include the parts of a scene in this post, because I had taken an amazing two hour scene workshop with Joyce a while back, and blogged about it in detail here.



Led by Krista Marino


You can recognize the authorial voice from book to book—it’s the fingerprint of an author.  Some change it up more than others, like Libba Bray. 

The narrative voice is invented by an author, but it isn’t the author’s voice.

 Elements that contribute to voice:

·         Diction—vocabulary/word choices

·         Perspective

·         Characterization—conveys info about appearance, gender, education level, religion.  Even if it’s not on the page, the author needs to know EVERYTHING about the characters.

·         Dialogue—interior monologue is the #1 element she feels is missing from manuscripts.  When a character shakes her head, what is she really thinking?  It needs emotional context.  (She read a scene from a book without internal monologue, and then again with it, and wow…there was a HUGE difference.)


Just being about a teen doesn’t make it YA.  It has to do with perspective (experiences).  The second an adult voice takes over, we place judgment on a child.  To see a good example of teen outlook vs. adult outlook, watch 17 again—a great line from that showing the wisdom from an adult prospective is “When you’re young, everything feels like it’s the end of the world.”  The younger you are, the more a child often has the ‘end of the world’ experience.    

Big is a great movie to see for a teen outlook in an adult world. 

Her favorite books are character driven—they need to have a plot and a strong voice.  A great example is Harry Potter.

Make a list of your main character’s attributes.  Does he or she have any defining physical traits? You need to know your character’s motivation.  Think of him or her as real (one participant in the intensive buys things for his main character and looks at those items as he writes).

Dialogue or interior monologue should:

·         Illustrate the character’s personality  

·         Take the plot forward

·         Feel real

What they’re thinking can be different from what they say.  Internals that are creative and deep can take a manuscript to the next level. 

Go to a public place where you can listen to what kids say (and how they speak).  You can also use your experiences (try to remember how you felt at prom, etc. and wonder what if… and see where it leads).

Krista Marino mentioned that she usually doesn’t like first person, present tense.



Led by Erin Murphy


Put your manuscript away for a while and get some distance so you can see it clearly. 

Here are some revision methods to consider: 

·         Darcy Pattison’s shrunken manuscript method—shrink down to about four manuscript pages per printed page, lay them out on the floor, and glance at them to see the pacing.

·         You can color code elements, use sticky notes, create a spreadsheet, or use a program like Scrivner

·         Outline after you’ve written

·         Read it out loud

·         Have someone else read it

·         Switch between reading it in print or on a screen

If you hate cutting anything from your novel, create a file for the deletions (I’ve been doing that for a while, and am starting to have more pages in my Orphan file than my actual manuscript…but it definitely makes hitting the delete key much easier).

When you get a revision letter, start small and break it down.  You can’t do everything at once—it’s too overwhelming.

You can check for overused words on a program like Worldles.net.  (I think Joyce added this one—it really is amazing to see what your most used words are.  A word like ‘just’ shouldn’t be one of the most frequent words in your manuscript.)

There’s a helpful checklist/outline format on Verla Kay’s Blueboards called: Nine Steps for Plotting Fiction. 

Erin Murphy gave us a great handout  entitled Questions to Ask Yourself When Revising a Scene.  I LOVE having all these wonderful questions in one place, and am having fun choosing a few to consider with each full round of revisions.  I’ll share some of my favorites with you (since I can’t give away all of Erin’s secrets).

·         Why is this scene necessary?  What would be missing from the story if it were removed?

·         Do you find yourself skimming some parts to get to the good stuff?

·         Does the scene address the main character’s internal arc as well as his or her place in external events in the story?  Do we have a sense of his or her goal in this scene?

·         Are all the characters present in the scene active in the scene, or actively shown there?  If it’s easy to forget any are there, and that is not intentional, do they really need to be there at all?  **Another gem that Erin shared is that if this happens in several scenes, you might be able to merge two characters together (I had to do that in my first novel because I didn’t really need two grandmothers and the combined version of both became a much more 3D character).  She said it’s okay for characters to be there for comic relief.

·         Does the scene include any important concrete devices or motifs that need to be threaded throughout the manuscript?  (If not, are any of those things present within a scene or two of this one)?

Wow…I wanted to keep typing away, because I have two pages of wonderful questions in the handout.  Definitely take Erin’s revision workshop if you have the chance!  In the meantime, Erin told us that Robin LaFevers has an amazing site that contains a good portion of the ideas that inspired her handout.  There are tons of gems on Robin’s site—scroll down and check out the list of labels on the right side.


Here’s some of the great info I picked up about Erin Murphy and Krista Marino during the first page critiques and Q&A:

* Both of them aren’t big on talking animal books.

 Krista Marino:

·         Boy MG is needed

             Erin Murphy:

·         She prefers that writers have more than one book and are familiar with conferences and the writing world.  An agent is a partner, not a teacher.

·         As the economy slows, the process slows.  An agent might get a manuscript as strong as possible, then test to one or two editors to see if there are any revision suggestions before blowing their chances.

·         Smaller imprints in bigger houses tend to be a little more nurturing.

As you can tell, this was an amazing Novel Intensive, and I’m thrilled that I was able to participate and share some of the gems with all of you.  I’ll blog about all the Saturday speakers, plus the two wonderful workshops I took on Sunday as soon as I make some more progress on my MG revision. 
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( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 8th, 2011 10:39 pm (UTC)
Awesome blog post, Mindy. You know I would LOVE to attend one of your awesome FL conferences someday, but until I can, thanks for sharing some gems with us! :)
Feb. 9th, 2011 07:08 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Jodi. I hope you'll be able to attend a FL conference in the future--I had so much fun hanging out with you at Rutgers, and would love to see you again!
Feb. 8th, 2011 11:45 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this, Mindy!! Your Miami Conference is always amazing!!
Feb. 9th, 2011 09:31 pm (UTC)
You're welcome, Sharon. :)
Feb. 9th, 2011 03:46 am (UTC)
Loved this. I'm in revision now, these are great tips to stuff in my pocket. Thanks.
Feb. 9th, 2011 09:34 pm (UTC)
You're welcome. The questions that Erin gave helped me dig even deeper into my revision, and there are some wonderful ones on Robin LeFevers' blog, too. Good luck on your revision!
Feb. 9th, 2011 03:00 pm (UTC)
What a GREAT post! Thanks! I'm going to use all of this stuff.
Feb. 9th, 2011 09:34 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Brian. Good luck on your revision. :)
Feb. 9th, 2011 04:42 pm (UTC)
I would have loved this intensive. Thanks so much for sharing the highlights!
Feb. 9th, 2011 09:41 pm (UTC)
I wish you could've been here, Karen. Maybe you'll be able to join us for one in the future. I know the NY conference has an intensive, but it seems to focus more on critiques than craft. Do they have any intensives like this near you?

We have another one coming up on June 24th in Orlando. Then, the workshop is on the 25th and you stay in one track all day...PB, MG, YA, and I think there's a poetry track and one other--I'll share all the details when I have them. Maybe we can tempt you into taking the family for a Disney trip--the hotel is on Disney property.

We should be having another Novel Intensive in Miami in January also...if you want to escape the winter for a weekend.
Feb. 10th, 2011 12:34 am (UTC)
Ooh, that is tempting. We love Disney. This year my conference budget is maxed out, but I'll keep it in mind for 2012.
Feb. 12th, 2011 06:30 am (UTC)
That sounds great, Karen. And I know what you mean about watching your conference budget--they add up fast!
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )


Mindy's head shot
Mindy Alyse Weiss
I write humorous middle-grade novels with heart and quirky picture books.

I'm an Administrator on the SCBWI Blueboard, the FL SCBWI Newsletter Editor and Critique Group Coordinator, and a proud member of From The Mixed Up Files...of Middle-Grade Authors

I've been married for twenty years and have two beautiful daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix pup who was rescued from the Everglades.

I've been published in Highlights three times and placed in the 80th Writer's Digest Competition.


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