by Jennifer Simms
I've been to several writing conferences where an attendee asks a member of the industry, "What makes good writing?" and I hold my breath, waiting to learn what will make my novel truly shine. Instead, I find myself sighing along with the audience because the answer, "I know it when I see it," makes it sound like good writing is illusive, impossible for mere mortals to define. However, after completing the Writer’s Digest University course A Master Class in Plotting and Structure, taught by editor and self-professed “narrative nerd” Cheryl Klein, I now believe that good writing, or at least good plotting, can be quantified (though, in fairness to the industry panel, it may take eight weeks to do so). For months (or years, honestly) I’ve been trying to shape my first novel into a story editors will clamor to buy, but I lacked a concrete revision strategy besides trying my best, crossing my fingers, and sending it out again. Now, thanks to Ms. Klein, I have specific, definable strategies I can use to create a satisfying plot, which is, of course, the foundation of good writing.
The online course was presented through eight easy-to-read lectures, each with questions and/or an analytical assignment designed to help participants dig into our novels. Much of the work was done with the lens zoomed out, answering big picture questions about our intention and tone, and looking at how the entire plot worked (or didn’t). I used Ms. Klein’s directions for analyzing subplots to consider how well each contributed to my main action and emotional plots. She also provided tools for evaluating the structure of each individual scene, which helped me better define why certain sections of my novel dragged or fell flat. In addition, she supported the course material with great online resources and anecdotes about editing Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork. By far my favorite feature of the course was the ability to ask Ms. Klein questions in the class forum, which was like an eight-week backstage pass to the brain of an editor! I highly recommend this course to anyone who’s trying to figure out why your plot isn’t working or why your novel keeps generating rejections. Though her March class is already sold out, Writer’s Digest suggests you email them to learn when it will be offered later this year. (WDWOWAdmin@fwmedia.com)
Meanwhile, if you’re seeking a new perspective on your manuscript, pick up Ms. Klein’s book Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing for Young Adults, which is a compilation of her conference lectures and blog posts. It covers some of the material from the course, and provides additional insights on many topics, including picture book manuscripts and character development.
Another great resource is Writing Irresistible KidLit, by agent Mary Kole. Her straightforward style tells you exactly what you should and shouldn’t do when crafting MG and YA novels that will sell.
Thanks to Ms. Klein, I now have a roadmap to lead me through the (hopefully final?!) revision of my novel. What about you? Is there a writing course, book, or conference that’s taught you the qualities of good writing? If so, let us know about it!