Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Who's Your Threshold Guardian?
In a recent post I discussed common archetypes for characters and what their roles are in a story.
One of them is the Threshold Guardian. Often the TG is an actual person (the troll on the bridge who refuses to let you pass), but other times it's an event (Cinderella's dress is ripped to shreds, so she can't go to the ball).
Generally speaking, the Threshold Guardian isn't the main antagonist to your hero, although the TG might be one of the antagonist's underlings. But the big battle to defeat that person will come later.
What the Threshold Guardian does is throw up a brick wall to your character's progress, preventing your hero from making a big step forward in the story--a crucial step, something absolutely needed for the hero's growth and, possibly, survival.
At it's simplest, the meeting with the TG is a test. The hero's job is to prove himself or herself worthy of being a the hero of the story. It's also to prove just how badly the hero wants the goal at the end. (How much does Dorothy really want to get home?)
Your hero will encounter more than one Threshold Guardian, and always at pivotal moments, when two possiblilities are faced: turning back or making a big leap forward when the Threshold Guardian is overcome.
Lately as I've been contemplating this particular archetype, similarities to real-life situations have surfaced in my mind.
All too often we get a rejection on a manuscript or run into some other barrier in our writing or elsewhere in life and feel as if we have failed, that we've reached a dead end, that the universe doesn't want us to progress.
What if instead we seized the problem and recognized that these blocks are tests? What if we moved forward to prove ourselves, to show how badly we want to reach the goal at the end--so we know for ourselves just how much we want it and deserve it?
These are moments where the future hangs in the balance, and the direction the scales will tip is based entirely on what your next step will be.
Will you throw in the towel, deciding that this test is actually the end of the road? Or will you analyze your manuscript again to figure out why it wasn't acceptance-worthy? Will you rewrite and submit again? Will you quit? Will you whine and complain?
We are the heros of our own stories. When a problem rears its ugly head, recognize it as a Theshold Guardian and what that means: It's an obstacle that will give you the chance to grow, to learn, and to prove yourself.
Most of all, it's a temporary obstacle. And it's worth getting around, defeating, or making allies with so you can continue your progress, eventually reaching the end of the yellow brick road so you can click your ruby slippers.
Monday, October 29, 2007
Monday Mania: First Page
Critique Archive 0009:
THE TRAITOR'S SON
October 1998, Heathrow Airport, England:
The lady turned on him like a snapping turtle. “I don’t want you sitting next to me.”
One open seat near the window, and the young man was forced to take a seat further into the terminal. The lady aside, the young man mused on his positive experiences, unaware that his change of seating brought him into range as a target. In the midst of hundreds of people waiting to board the jumbo jet, he should have been safe.
To the gentleman dubbed by his co-workers as the assassin for his skill in identifying new talent, location was never a consideration. He was a professional and his target was well marked. Wasting no time, he moved in for the kill. “Is this seat available?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
The young man’s choice two years earlier placed the mark on him. The mark was simple but complicated – rather it was a combination of four marks innocent by themselves, but deadly when combined with the fifth. Short hair, clean-shaven, white shirt and tie, and a dark suit.
The assassin slid into the seat next to his victim and with cloaked words, began his assault. "Returning home from a mission are you, Elder Jones?"
The fifth deadly mark: A rectangular nametag emblazoned with, ‘Elder Jones, Misión de Espaňa-Málaga, La Iglesia de Jesucristo de los Santos de los Ǘltimos Días.
The assassin: An Air Force Senior Master Sergeant (SMSgt). Three-time Air Force Recruiter of the Year, his target would seal up the fourth award as he headed into retirement. While not a religious person, he knew his target well. He’d almost yielded to the enticings of the spirit and joined the LDS church as a young man before something went wrong – terribly wrong. A struggling young staff sergeant, he was caught in a web that by association nearly cost him his career.
The Sergeant could almost mouth the young Elder’s response. "Yes, I've been out two years, probably the best two years of my life." It was nearly always the same. If he’d heard anything less, he would have marched into a fast retreat.
The Sergeant knew what he was doing. As the Air Force's top recruiter, he prided himself on his ability to attract top notch young men and women into the service; those with the stability to finish their commitment and go on to make the Air Force their career. Knowing the training and discipline the Mormon Church instilled in these young missionaries, he had brought many of them into the service by going the extra mile.
Friday, October 26, 2007
As has been stated, several of us PEGs went to the Eden Writers' Conference last weekend. It was really well done, and heavy on marketing and PR. They had representatives from a company called AuthorMBA that focuses on helping authors "Brand" themselves and get their name out there in the right way. I love the name of their company--AuthorMBA--because it points out just how important the business aspects of writing and publishing are. They are only growing in importance and it's exciting to have such talented women (though there might be men on there too) offering up their know-how so that we can stay ahead of the game.
My head was spinning with all the information they gave and after the conference I checked them out and read up on them a little bit. I find them very intriguing and they have a daily blog that has given some great advice. Us writer types are always looking for tips, tricks, and advice, right? So, in the spirit of sharing something I found to be of value--I invite you to check out AuthorMBA.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
NY Times Bestselling Author--ADVICE
So he wrote Fablehaven (now a NY Times Bestseller).
Brandon said that he wished he'd asked himself the following 3 questions before writing his first book (hence the reason it's not published):
1. What audience am I trying to reach?
2. How do I let the audience know about my book?
3. Will my book fulfill their expectations?
You need one sentence that describes your book so that you can talk about it. Then you also need a paragraph description that describes your book. This is not just advice from an author, it's also essential when you are meeting face to face with an editor or agent. In fact, today, Jessica Faust of BookEnds Literary Agency is critiquing pitches on her blog.
Brandon Mull also said:
1. Pay attention to your life--get ideas from those around you (i.e. quirky characteristics)
2. Be an observer all the time
3. Be persistent
4. Get your book in front of the DECISION MAKER (a challenge for every writer)
5. Network if you know people who know people
6. Think about places that you have any claim or tie (His example was that he based his Candy Shop book on a real elementary school. When he went to the town to speak to the kids and sell books, he sold 500 books.)
7. Don't make the jump into full-time writing until you're making more than your day job.
8. Internet groups--make friends with the moderators and you'll get featured on their shout outs.
9. Capture emails by having a sign-up on your website for newsletters, etc.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
What Agents Want
This last weekend I attended a writing conference, where literary agent Christina Hogrebe of the Jane Rotrosen Agency spoke.
Among other things, she addressed the dreaded query letter and what she personally likes to see in one.
When she reads queries, she's not expecting the first line to be a catchy hook that draws her into what the book is about. In fact, when she described her ideal query, the description of the book was nowhere near the first couple of paragraphs. In her workshop, she read several queries that worked, meaning that the authors later became her clients.
Not one of those letters had a catchy hook in the first line.
What did they have? Here's what Ms. Hogrebe herself said, according to my notes, about what she likes to see in a query:
1) Show that you've done your research.
Right off the bat, explain how you found this agent and why you think this agency is right for you.
First and foremost, this means not using the same query letter for each agency you're trying to woo. Yes, that means extra work on your part (you'll have to research the agency and find out what they've sold), but agents appreciate the effort and like knowing that they aren't one of eighteen people cc:ed on your query e-mail.
Mention it if you met the agent at a conference, were referred by another client, found them on a website, or found their name elsewhere.
Also explain why you and the agency are a match. "I know you represent author XYZ, whose work is in the same genre and style as mine, so I believe we'd be a good fit," can get your foot in the door. Note that you don't say it's just like XYZ's work or (worse) that yours is better.
2) If you've had another agent before, say so.
Also explain why the relationship ended.
3) Explain your publishing history, if you have one.
No, published letters to the editor of your local paper don't count. Mention any "real" publishing credits (by that she meant something published with a press where there is a selection/rejection process for quality). This will not only lift you in the agent's estimation, but it will also help when trying to sell your work to editors (and then to their marketing departments) down the road.
4) Write a brief (one paragraph) blurb about your book.
Make sure it's, in her words, "great copy," and mentions any selling points. In other words, what will make your book sell?
5) Share your knowledge of the market.
Do this not by saying you're the next Tom Clancy, but by making a gentler comparison: "Fans of Tom Clancy will appreciate this book."
One solid reminder: Writers slave over their manuscripts, then often dash off a quick letter to sell the thing they've invested so much into. Don't make that mistake. Write a solid letter. Have others read it. Proof it (several times). And then send it in.
Have heart: while it's tough to break out of the query slush pile, it does happen. When Hogrebe read several of her clients' queries, she dispelled the myth that no one gets an agent that way.
The competition is stiff, but climbing out of that slush pile can be done. Stand out from the crowd by including those things agents really want to see.
I'll have to recreate my brilliant post for next week. In the meantime I have a quote for writerly people.
Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears these words used. How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them. Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto.--Ray Bradbury
Monday, October 22, 2007
Monday Mania: First Page
Janette Rallison submitted the first page of a novel she's writing. Feel free to make comments, but please keep them constructive.
Critique Archive 0008:
A fairy godmother’s guide to saving troubled teenagers.
Extra credit report
For Master Sagewick Goldengill
Thank you for allowing me to raise my semester grade through this extra credit project. Here is some pertinent background information about the troubled teenage souls involved, and how using fairy skills I was able to improve their dreary little lives, thus proving I have mastered the magic necessary to pass apprentice level.
(page break here)
Boys weren’t a problem for Anne. They only paid attention to her while asking for help with homework. She always knew the answers. See, no problem at all.
It wasn’t because she wasn’t pretty enough. She was. She had long dark hair the color of milk chocolate, hair that she usually wore pulled back into a pony tail because that way it took her two minutes to do and didn’t fall into her face while she looked down at her school work.
Her eyes were the same candy bar color—and really who doesn’t like chocolate? Certainly not the boys in her senior class. Her eyes were pretty enough even behind the glasses she always wore. It was unfortunately, her air of extreme competence that scared them away. In many times and places—as she slid things in and out of an immaculately organized locker, as she encouraged the students in her tutoring sessions—she didn’t seem to be a teenage girl at all. She was somebody’s mother, just waiting to happen.
Many perfumes promise to lure men to women. None of them reek of motherhood. None of them proclaim the wearer to be tidy, thrifty, and sensible. At least not in high school. Those traits become attractive much later on, when guys wake up and realize they’re not living somebody else’s life.
So there was Anne, walking out of the school building with a backpack which was heavier than it needed to be, because after all it couldn’t hurt to read over her Shakespeare assignment one more time. As happens with most important life changing events, she was not thinking about anything important at all. If she had thought of Hunter that day, those wishes, those half formed sighs of longing had faded as soon as the bell rang after calculus. He had picked up his books and tucked them under his arm without a glance in her direction.
Monday Mania: First Page
Critique Archive 0007:
- Twin Cars -
“Ben, it’s almost midnight,” Mom yelled up from the family room. “Are you going to go get David or not?”
“Yeah, I’m going,” I called back. “Just a sec. I need to save my game first.” I was right in the middle of my favorite computer game, and it wasn’t all that easy to just quit, unless I wanted to start all over again the next time. Mom never could understand that. After a few more of my favorite moves and maneuvers, I finally got to a breaking point and exited out.
“Which car do you want me to take?” I yelled down the stairs. Mom and Dad were down there watching a movie for their Friday-night date.
“Your mom’s, I guess,” Dad answered. “Mine’s almost out of gas . . . unless you want to fill it up on your way.”
“No, thanks,” I answered. I grabbed the red key ring from the hook on the wall and headed for the garage.
I still couldn’t get over Mom and Dad’s twin cars. They had identical Toyota Corollas. Dad had bought his the year before, and they both liked it so well that when it came time for Mom to have a new car, she decided to get another one just like it. Except for hers being a year newer, they were exactly the same in every possible way—right down to being absolutely spotless inside and out. Mom and Dad both came majorly unglued if any of us kids ever left so much as a gum wrapper on the seats. And heaven forbid we would ever even think about climbing in the car with dirty feet. Holy Schmoly, the whole world would come to an abrupt end.
Of course, they were different colors. We had to be able to tell them apart somehow. I didn’t know what Dad was thinking, though. If it had been me, I’d have given the ugly green one to Mom and kept the shiny new red one for myself.
Exiting the kitchen, I automatically headed for the nearest vehicle. Mom always parked hers by the door, presumably because she was the one with groceries to unload all the time. And Dad, being the perfect gentlemen, parked on the far side without any complaint . . . most of the time, anyway.
I was almost to the driver’s door when I just happened to glance at Dad’s twin car and realized
that Mom’s red one was over there. They were parked in the wrong spots.
“I hate it when they do that,” I mumbled to myself.
If Dad was driving Mom’s car for some odd reason, he always hit his own button on the garage door opener and then parked in his spot without even thinking about it. If we had one big garage door instead of two separate ones, that wouldn’t be a problem.
I reversed direction and headed around to the driver’s door of Mom’s red car.
It was then that I just happened to glance back at Dad’s car … and saw the real problem. At first all I could do was stare. Then I reversed direction again and went straight back in the house.
“Hey, Dad,” I yelled down the stairs, “you said to take Mom’s car, right? The red one?”
“That’s what I said,” he answered. “Why? Is it out of gas, too?”
I could just imagine him poking Mom in the ribs and winking at her.
“It can’t be,” Mom answered to Dad. “I just filled it up yesterday.”
“No, that’s not it,” I answered. “The problem is Dad’s car.”
“What about my car?” he asked, suddenly sounding very serious.
“Well … you better come and see for yourself. You’re not going to believe this.”
“Why? What happened?”
By that time, the video had been paused, and both of them were dashing up the stairs with that don’t-tell-me-you-crashed-my-car kind of look on their faces.
I just silently led them to the garage, threw open the door, and stepped back to watch. Predictably, they both just stood there staring, looking back and forth at the twin cars, over and over.
“I … I don’t understand,” Mom finally managed. “They’re both … red.”
“Duh,” I said. “You get an A-plus in Eye Test.”
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Advice From the Experts
Let me recap (by generous paraphrasing):
Carla Neggers (8 million books sold): You need to be able to visualize your novel as a whole. This may include listing the chapters/scenes on a page, and the characters that are involved in each scene. In writing suspense, this helps you see if all the pieces are coming together in the appropriate way.
Antonio Sacre (International storyteller): Everyone has a story inside. The important thing is to find the commonality that we all have within us. Then other's will relate to your story/characters.
Chris Schoebinger (Senior Acquisitions Editor of Shadow Mountain/Deseret Book): When you finish your manuscript find three honest people (not family members) who will give you honest feedback. We receive 1,000 queries a year--we accept 1% of those.
Laurie Liss (Sterling Lord Literistic Agency): If you aren't writing from your heart, I don't want to read it. What is your platform? Establish a platform.
Nancy Berland (Voted best of the best Publicist by RWA): You need an internet presence . . . start with website and blogging. You need a publicist if 1)You are a new author; 2) Break-out book; 3) Your career has taken off and you have no time to promote. Recommends "blog-touring".
Gene Nelson (Executive Director of Provo Library): Your librarian is your best friend. Northern Utah spends 15 million a year on books. Librarians buy books based on reviews. Coordinate a library event and do an author signing/speaking engagement. Give your ARC to the library book buyer. People who frequent the library are also book buyers. Book people are book people.
Jennifer Slattery (Publicity Manager, Harper Collins): Book Tours are not cost-effective unless you are a major author. Promote through internet.
Richard Paul Evans (NY Times Bestselling Author): Create an email list. Everyone you meet should be invited to join your newsletter list.
Overwhelming Majority: You need to be able to describe your book in one SHORT paragraph.
Recommended Reading (must have): The New Rules of Marketing and PR: How to use News Releases, Blogs, Podcasting, Viral Marketing and Online Media to Reach Buyers Directly by David Meerman Scott
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
When Homophones Attack
One of the banes of the computer age is the usually wonderful invention of the spell checker on your word processor.
The problem occurs when you type something that is wrong but that is technically a word—just not the one you meant.
One of my personal demons is the word, "from." I tend to type it as "form." Spell check will never catch that, so I have to be vigilant on that as well as other words.
But one major problem is that sometimes we aren’t sure ourselves which word we mean, or our fingers pick the wrong one.
Two common sets of mistakes involve pronouns: it and they. A quick review of the issues involved can help clarify:
It’s vs. Its
This one is so prevalent it’s almost epidemic.
It’s is a contraction of two words, IT and IS, and they’re connected with the apostrophe, in exactly the same way that DO and NOT are connected with one in the word, don’t.
Somehow because we add an apostrophe to people’s names when making them possessive (such as Bob’s cat/Mary’s car), people assume we do the same with pronouns.
Not so. Think of other possessive pronouns.
You wouldn't ever consider writing hi’s or he’r or who’se or thei’r.
Likewise, we don’t write it’s tire when referring to the car’s flat. The pronoun should be ITS.
Some examples of correct usage:
It’s going to be a hot day. (IT IS going to be a hot day.)
It’s a golden retriever. (IT IS a golden retriever.)
The tree has shed its leaves.
The truck was rear-ended, so its bed needs to be replaced.
The triple threat. But if you take just a second to think about which one you need, making the right choice is really very simple.
This is simply the possessive form of they.
Their house has a beautiful maple out front.
For the second year in a row, their business ranked #2 in sales.
Add the word "over" to this one, and you’ll never get meaning wrong. There (or over there) refers to a location.
Put your coat down there.
I’ve been to Paris and hope to visit there again.
We’re back to the wonderful world of contractions. How do you know that? By the trusty apostrophe hanging around. This time the two words it’s shoving together are THEY and ARE.
They’re such a great couple.
I love home-grown tomatoes; they’re much more flavorful than store-bought.
Always, always print out and reread your work to make sure your fingers didn’t type a mistake that your spell checker won’t catch. It only takes a few extra seconds, but the time is well spent if it makes you look professional.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Hook, Line, and Stinker?
- A query letter
- A synopsis (usually one page, but have several different lengths on the ready, such as the two page, the seven page and the fifteen page)
- the first three chapters or first fifty pages of the manuscript.
That's it. That's your entire arsenal against the slushpiles of doom.
And yet, how many people really spend enough time on that part of the writing process? Most of the time, the query letter is the first thing any agent or editor will see. The query letter doesn't show them your brilliance with analogies, or the your immense battle scene in chapter thirty-nine. The query letter has a hard time showing off your tear jerker ending. And if the query letter sucks muddy rocks, then the editor/agent will never see anything else.
It is just as important to workshop your query letter to several sets of eyes as it is to workshop your actual book. I sent my new query letter to six of my most trusted author friends who I count on to play it straight with me.
I'd be shooting myself in the foot if I didn't spend time editing and rewriting that most pivotal piece of paper. Your query is your hook. If you bait it right, you'll cast out and reel in a request for the first three chapters.
The first paragraphs of those three chapters are your hook. If you bait it right, you'll cast out and reel in a request for the full manuscript.
I spent months and months writing this novel. I will take the time to make sure my query is worthy of a partial request. I will take time to make sure my partial is worthy of a full manuscript request.
Jeff Savage (aka Scott Savage) asks this question, "Does your first sentence earn you the right to a second one?"
Monday, October 15, 2007
Monday Mania: Query Letter
Critique Archive 0006:
Dear Ms. Agent, October 15, 2007
Like all aspiring authors, I am seeking an excellent agent for my manuscript. I am also looking for an agency that is willing to represent an author who has published successfully in a regional market, but would like to make the transition to national.
MY NOVEL is a romantic suspense novel set in the 1930’s, with roots in Providence, Rhode Island. The main character's story touches upon mental illness, falling in love during the greatest recession in America, and finding the answers to a troubled past in war-torn Europe. This manuscript is written in first-person and is approximately 90,000 words.
I have won writing awards at several local contests (from the League of Utah Writers). I'm also a member of a critique group.
Please contact me by phone, email or mail if the excerpt from MY NOVEL holds interest.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
Avoid Talking Heads
What is a “talking head”? Maybe you remember the 1970's, when the punk singing group Talking Heads first made their debut. Or you might have heard the term “talking heads” used to refer to cable news anchors, TV or radio personalities who sit behind a desk and share their opinions.
I’ve often used the phrase “talking heads” in my language arts classroom. No, not to refer to those students who are so busy chatting that they don’t learn anything, although that has been tempting at times. I refer to a style developing writers often use, offering pages of dialogue, bouncing the reader back and forth like a ping pong ball, but failing to establish a sense of place, develop characterization, or move the story forward through action. Sometimes the reader can follow the author’s intention, but still come away from the work feeling they need to know more.
Here’s a sample passage adapted from the award-winning novel Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse to illustrate what can happen when writers fail to use more than dialogue to tell their story.
“Wear this in health,” Hannah had whispered.
“Come,” Papa said.
“Quickly, Rifka,” Papa whispered. “The boys, and Mama, and I must hide before light.”
“You can distract the guards, can’t you, little sister?” Nathan said.
“Yes,” I answered.
What is happening in this selection? Who are the characters? What do you know about them? Where are they? You probably don’t know all the answers to these questions after reading nothing but this adaptation.
Here’s the same passage in its original form. Notice the difference in information about where the characters are, what is being asked of them, and the action that is to come.
“Wear this in health,” Hannah had whispered in my ear as she draped a shawl over my shoulders early this morning, before we slipped from your house into the dark.
“Come,” Papa said, leading us through the woods to the train station.
I looked back to the flickering lights of your house, Tovah.
“Quickly, Rifka,” Papa whispered. “The boys, and Mama, and I must hide before light.”
“You can distract the guards, can’t you, little sister?” Nathan said, putting an arm around me. In the darkness, I could not see his eyes, but I felt them studying me.
“Yes,” I answered, not wanting to disappoint him.
You have probably figured out that these people are trying to escape from somewhere, despite danger and their own fears. These details were not clear in the first version.
If you want your reader to become engaged in your story, care about your characters, and leave the story with a sense of fulfillment. Add the rich details that take your reader right into the setting and the scene. Readers don’t want to follow a ping pong game, they want to make a connection with the characters. Don’t let your character’s dialogue stand alone as nothing more than “talking heads.”
Friday, October 12, 2007
Friday's Blog . . .
It's my day to share something brilliant, but it also happens to be the day that LDSpublisher posted a guest post I sent her. Sooooooooooooo, if you don't mind, please follow this link and read what I had to say over there. Thanks much.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
No Excuses, Just Write
Over the past few weeks while attending booksignings, I've had several people ask me the same question. "How do you find time to write?"
In the beginning, writing was an escape. It was something I did because I felt so much better and more fulfilled after. But once my first book in a series came out, it turned into a different game. Now I had a deadline, and I had to write toward it. So "finding time" wasn't just something I did when I felt like it, but it was something I had to fit into a busy schedule.
Appropriately, in Jack Bickham's The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, the first chapter is about not making excuses to not write. Well, we all have excuses, and many times they are very valid. But sometimes, they aren't.
Author, James Dashner, made this analogy to a recent audience when asked the same question. "How many of you watched an hour of television last night?" Most hands went up. "How many of you watched two hours?" A few hands went down. "How many of you watched three hours?" Several hands went down, but at least a half-dozen remained in the air. "Last night instead of watching T.V., I wrote for three hours."
Julie Wright owns a store with her husband, works a full-time job (starting at 5:00 a.m. each day) and manages to write one or two books a year. How does she do it? She doesn't make excuses.
Writing is hard work. It takes persistence, perseverence, self-motivation . . . you get the picture. I love Bickham's advice for the days that we have excuses not to write: "type one double-spaced page of excuses, date is carefully, and file it in a special place . . . you must do this every time you don't work." (3)
Bickham also says that no excuse is good enough. As a mother, I know there are many excuses that are good enough, so that's why it's important to set realistic goals and stick to them. But his message is loud and clear--at least to me . . . Writers write. Non-writers make excuses.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
I want to hug my daughter's third-grade teacher. She has come up with a fabulous way of helping students draft stories with great conflict, stories that have several steps and aren't simply a recounting of summer vacation.
At a recent parent-teacher conference, I got to read my daughter's latest story, written using the concept Mrs. P. had taught, which she in turn got from a book (which I'm admitting right now I haven't read) called Fortunately, by Remy Charlip.
Each line of the book begins with either "fortunately" or "unfortunately."
I'll quote a bit from my daughter's story (with her permission) so you see how it works. She began what happened after Ned from the original story got to the party he had been invited to:
Unfortunately, tigers burst into the party.
Fortunately, everyone ran out of the room safely.
Unfortunately, he got lost.
Fortunately, he found a plane.
Unfortunately, there was no pilot.
Fortunately, he knew how to drive a plane.
Unfortunately, he fell asleep.
Fortunately, there was another person on the plane.
Unfortunately, he could not drive it.
Fortunately, the boy woke up.
Unfortunately, they crashed.
Fortunately, the plane landed in a flower bed.
Unfortunately, there were bees in the flower bed.
Fortunately, the bees went after someone else.
Unfortunately, they were just getting more bees.
Fortunately, the boy could run faster than the bees could fly.
Unfortunately, he smashed into a door.
Fortunately, it was his house and he got in safely.
See how this works? Something good happens, and then something messes that up, which propels the character into the next situation. The reader thinks it's a good time to take a breath, that everything will work out. But of course it doesn't. Not until the very end.
While I don't recommend beginning every scene of your book with "fortunately" or "unfortunately," the amazing thing here is that this is pretty much how your book should work, too, just on a slightly more complex level.
One situation should lead causally to the next one, which leads to the next.
Good things happen, but then they get messed up, leading to the next thing.
If your story doesn't have enough "unfortunately" moments, it's going to be dry and slow-paced.
Take a look at your plot and see if you can't shake it up by going between the highs and lows that we learned from good old Ned and Mrs. P.
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
Mid Life Crisis
Often times, writers refer to manuscripts as their child. They created it, breathed life into it, making it belong to them in every way. And since we refer to a manuscript as a living breathing being . . . it stands to reason that a manuscript experiences the same emotions and pitfalls of humanity. It stands to reason that every manuscript experiences a midlife crisis.
Middle ages and middle pages have more in common than a few letters.
We understand the beginning of life. It's filled with wonder and discovery and excitement. The end is filled with wisdom and an excitement of it's own as the actual climatic end draws near. But the middle? What are we to do with the middle?
If it's a romance, the beginning is so they can meet. The ending is so they can finally confess their ardent love and admiration. And the middle is where your characters learn exactly what it is they so love and admire.
If the book is a mystery, the beginning is the crime. The ending is where we find out who's guilty after all. And the middle is the setbacks and push forwards as we collect clues that lead us to the ultimate discovery.
So we understand the purpose of the middle. It is our bridge from the beginning to the end. But why does it feel like our bridge comes with a horrible sagging defect in the center that forces us to tread through the freezing water underneath after all?
One of my friends from high school is an artist. She once told me that every work of art has an ugly stage. When I'm cleaning cupboards and I rip everything out to reorganize it, invariably my kids and husband will come in and tell me I made a worse mess. I chant her statement to myself.
Well sometimes the middle feels like the ugly stage.
But it shouldn't. In life, the middle is where you finally have some wisdom, and you're still young enough to have it matter. In books, the middle is the meat of your story. It's where all the good stuff happens. And consequently the middle has a beginning middle and end too.
The middle beginning: This is where you start the "suffering chain" for your protagonist. The "suffering chain" is where you make their life and end goal impossible. You flesh out secondary characters and give them purpose in the protagonist's life. You make sure we understand the antagonist's goals.
The middle of the middle: This is where you have lots of choices. Someone said at a writer's conference once that the middle middle needs a betrayer (whether real of imagined) of some sort. I don't think it needs one but if you want one, the middle middle is as good a place as any to throw it in. The middle middle is where you squeeze the protagonist into tighter spots and limit their ability to get out of those spots. This is where, in a love story, the character recognizes they love the other person and find themselves impulsively offering over a kiss or whatever. Then immediately regret the action. In Pride and Prejudice, the middle consists of Darcy confessing his love to an unwilling Elizabeth. He was squeezed into a tight spot emotionally until he acted out irrationally. This is a good place for your character to act out too soon and irrationally creating a longer chain of suffering for the protagonist.
The end of the middle (or beginning of the end)?: Your character needs to wrap up all the little issues here. The big issue needs to be saved until the actual end, but the little things need wrapped now. Do not introduce new characters unless they can be quick about their business and aren't pivotal to the plot. You must force the protagonist into serious action here. In order to be likable, the protagonist must have made several small choices for themselves, but here is where they must shine with action. They must be forced and squeezed ever tighter until they can only choose the one final thing that will lead to the actual end.
Then you can have them ride off into the sunset or finally show the widow who murdered her husband (or show that the widow murdered her husband, whichever works for you)
Like in life, the middle is better when we don't fill it with "filler." Empty calories don't lead to satisfying endings. If we want our middle to have zip and energy, then we need to stick with your basic food groups and save the ice cream for dessert.
Monday, October 8, 2007
Monday Mania: First Page
Critique Archive 0005:
It had been fifty years since I last visited my parents’ home in Foster Center. The farm had been bought and sold and the land divided. At my grand niece’s wedding reception, one of the old-timers, like me, told me my folks’ place was still standing, although abandoned. It was the last farmhouse remaining on the east side of the creek.
When the festivities died down I drove to the home where I’d spent my youth. The road was paved, a few sidewalks had cropped up, and newer homes replaced the old. I had previously returned to Foster on brief visits for family functions, but I’d never stayed long. Now, at the age of seventy-five, I was going home.
The farmhouse sat a half-mile from the new road. The trees surrounding the property were immense and bent with age, and the house was smaller than I remembered. Driving down the rutted lane, I parked and climbed out of the car. I ascended the creaky steps to the front porch. Leaves were strewn everywhere, and some of the boards were rotted through. I pulled open the screen, surprised it was still there, and pushed the front door open. After stepping into the dim interior of the empty house, I unfastened a stubborn window and open it. Fading light entered the room, revealing dust and cobwebs. A rocking chair, resembling my mother’s, stood alone in the center of the floor. I could almost see my siblings sitting near her knees, laughing at her silly stories, as the rocker creaked back and forth.
I brushed off some of the dust and caressed the smooth curving wood—it felt cool to the touch—then I dragged the chair to the porch. Twilight had begun to fade, but the weather was still warm. I sat and began to rock, just as my father had, just as my mother had.
Closing my eyes, I listened to the crickets begin their song. Memories flooded through my mind and once again I was a young woman of nineteen.
Saturday, October 6, 2007
Agent Scam Alert
I am posting out of sequence, but I thought this was important to notify everyone asap. Yesterday I received an email from a literary agent who said she was interested in representing my new book. I was suspicious from the beginning because I couldn't remember querying this woman. And it came to an email that I don't give out to agents.
So I quickly googled her name and discovered that she is listed on the Top 20 Worst Agent list .
She signed her name as Michele Glance Rooney. I found this agent has a track record of contacting authors and inviting them to submit. Then she charges fees for reading, submitting, etc. According a blog written by Victoria Strauss, Rooney has not sold any trackable manuscript to any publisher.
The message she sent me is as follows:
How's your writing going? I just wanted to send you an e-mail and let you know you that I'm very interested in reading your writing projects with an eye toward becoming your literary agent. If your writing project is still a work in progress, please feel free to send me a synopsis and sample chapters. My submission address is:
Michele Glance Rooney, Literary Agent
P.O. Box 2533
Birmingham, Michigan 48012-2533
You can check out my website at http://superliteraryagent.tripod.com
I'm looking forward to reading your work. I wish you great success with your writing career and with all of your endeavors.
Have a stupendous day!
Michele Glance Rooney
I, of course, emailed her back and requested a client list and her 2006-2007 sales. She hasn't replied.
My message to you: PLEASE investigate every agent by googling their name--even if they are listed in a reputable agent guide. In a previous blog, I list things to watch out for when querying agents.
Friday, October 5, 2007
Eager vs. Anxious
There are some words in the English language that seem to be interchangeable but are not. One that I have confused many, many times is eager and anxious. They both seem to denote the same thing, anticipating something--but they are in fact very different and should be used in the proper context.
The easiest way to remember the difference is that eager is something looked forward to, something wanted. Anxious is something that causes worry or strain, it refers directly to anxiety, which is not something any of us want.
She was eager to finally meet the man behind such poignant editorials. (This denotes that she is looking forward to it.)
If, however, she was nervous about the meeting, the sentence could read
She was anxious about finally meeting the man behind such poignant editorials.
Choosing which word is important in appropriately relaying your character's thoughts, feelings and impressions of certain events. Generally, if the event is positive, eager works as the modifier, if the event is negative, anxious is more appropriate.
She eagerly waited for the doctor to burn off her wart. (If this does not make sense, you have not had any warts burned off)
He kissed her with anxious lips. (I think I'll pass on anxious lips, but eager ones are very welcome.)
She anxiously awaited the official call that would tell her she was a millionaire. (I think I would be far more eager than anxious about receiving a call like this)
The door was locked and she dove behind the garbage can as she heard his footsteps enter the room. She was more eager than ever as she imagined what would happen when he found her. (I think you get the point.)
However, part of the fun of the English language is that there are times when eager or anxious could be used interchangeably, such as:
I'm eager to find out what my cholesterol is now.
I'm anxious to find out what my cholesterol is now.
Either word could work depending on how your character feels. If she's been eating her oatmeal and unpasteurized eggs religiously, she might very well be eager to see what progress has been made in her triglycerides. However, if she has not kicked her Big Mac habit, anxious better denotes her anticipation of the test result.
For me, learning tips like this has been a slow process. Reader's Digest's Word Power has been very helpful to me, as has having friends like Annette Lyon to explain the significance of some words and the context they are meant to be used in.
Some other examples of other words often used synonymously, but depending on context can be very different are:
obese vs. overweight~there are many overweight people that do not fall in the range of obese, which is generally 30% above normal weight for their height and means that their health is threatened.
trim vs. thin~You wouldn't ask for a thin steak if what you wanted was a trim one.
sugary vs. sweet~A bananas flavor would not be described as sugary.
Can you think of any others?
Thursday, October 4, 2007
Chasing the Market
This past year I’ve been to several writers’ conferences and workshops. I’ve heard agents, publishes and NY Times Bestselling authors all say the same thing: Don’t try to keep up with the trends in your writing. So it was no surprise when my handy The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack Bickham also contained the same advice.
Why? You might ask. That’s what’s selling, isn’t it? That’s what the publishers are looking for, right? No necessarily.
By the time a trend rears its head, the market is already flooded with similar books. Not to mention that these books were contracted by an agent probably two years before, took months to find a publisher, and another year to hit the shelves . . . so today’s trend is what publishers were looking for two years ago.
Of course you must know what the trends are so that you do stay viable. But if you are a Suspense author, don’t jump ship to Chick Lit just because it’s selling (which, by the way, isn’t hot anymore).
If you're madly writing a novel about a werewolf or a vampire, by the time you start submitting, the “buying” market will have fizzled. On the other hand, if you're madly writing about a werewolf or a vampire because you love it, keep on. As long as you aren’t trying to piggy-back on a trend.
Recently, the Donald Maas agency did something that I think all agencies should start doing them (Bravo!). They posted what they are looking for. The exact premise. And they will update it each month.
A Huck Finn-like fantasy featuring a raft trip down the Mississippi, with magic.
An African-American Lord of the Rings.
A noir novel featuring a Muslim detective--not about terrorism.
An American epic like Of Mice and Men about today’s underclass, illegal immigrants.
A ghost story that’s truly contemporary.
An historical novel that weaves in scientists and big ideas.
A New York-in-mid-Century novel along the lines of Empire Rising.
A dog novel as great as Call of the Wild.
A literary romance with a heroine for all time and a tragic ending, preferably written by a man.
The next The World According to Garp, about an idiot savant.
Hmmm. If you are like me, you can maneuver something you’ve written into one of these premises. Well, maybe I can’t, but it’s nice to see some straightforward details. Right now, I’m querying agents for a thriller I wrote. I’ve gone about it the traditional way—researching agents to find out who represents thrillers. You’d be surprised at how many return emails I receive that say, “Sorry, I don’t represent thrillers.” But it’s listed on their websites that they do. So hats off to Donald Maas for taking the additional measure to let writers know what they are looking for.
Meanwhile, the sound advice of Bickham rings true:
“The best books don’t follow trends; they establish them.”
(The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, 95)
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
Favorite Books on Writing
Over the years I've amassed a pretty decent library of books about writing. I've tossed a few to good will along the way, ones that I found less than useful, but I have many that I consider excellent. If anyone comes near these books with dirty fingers or without express permission, they should expect my wrath.
Sometimes if I feel my creativity and motivation sagging, all I have to do is pick up one of these books and reread it. Suddenly my writing self is in overdrive and story elements start clicking into place.
Below are some of those books, plucked from my bookshelf:
The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron
Part inspirational/part how-to, this book is a guide to freeing your creative self, blasting through writer's block, and affirming your abilities. Basically, nurturing your inner artist. Cameron has several other books along the same lines, and they're all excellent. Among them is Walking in this World and The Right to Write.
Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury
Written by one of the best writers of our time, this book is chock-full of wisdom from someone who knows what they're talking about. It also includes history behind some of his books, such as the one he's possibly most famous for, Fahrenheit 451. Funny, poignant, and spot-on, this one has my scribbles in the margins, underlines, and brackets all over the place.
On Writing, by Stephen King
First, I have to admit that I don't read his novels, and there's one simple reason for that: I know I'd scare myself witless in the process and never sleep again. But this is one amazing writing book. The first section is his publishing story (we can thank his wife, Tabby, for rescuing Carrie from the garbage can, which really launched his career), and the second is specific advice about writing, everything from drafting to rewriting to following proper format guidelines. A don't miss.
Sometimes the Magic Works, by Terry Brooks
Subtitled Lessons from a Writing Life, this book explores writing from the man who is arguably the father of the modern fantasy genre. So much of what he says will ring true (do you also get distracted and daydream about your characters and space out what people are saying to you?). He discusses how he gets ideas, the big outline debate, why he writes, and much more.
Writing in Flow, by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D
A great primer on reminding your creative side how to relax and let the story come. Includes exercises to help you get into flow as well as many people's descriptions of their techniques and what it feels like for them to reach that point where the world falls away and it's just you and your story.
20 Master Plots (And How to Build Them), by Ronald B. Tobias
A fascinating journey of exploration where the author describes the basic plot lines found in virtually all literature (among them: quest, adventure, revenge, rivalry, pursuit, sacrifice, transformation, and maturation). As you read, you can't help but pinpoint which one best describes your story. Even better, you can get a better idea of how to focus it and make your work even better.
Scene and Structure, by Jack M. Bickham
This book pretty much blew my mind when I first read it. I had to rethink a lot about the book I was writing at the time, and while some of his techniques are easier applied to a fast-paced adventure book than the slower historicals I write, this book still helps me to get the tension, conflict, and story problems to work better. A previous post mentions some of his basic concepts.
Character and Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card
Your characters are the lifeblood of your story. Getting to know them yourself and getting your reader to know them are important. Likewise, it's crucial to learn how to use point of view properly and to the greatest effect.
The Writer's Journey, by Christopher Vogler
As I mentioned last week, this is another excellent book that follows tried and true, time-tested patterns that can be mixed up to create an innumerable amount of fresh, wonderful stories. I'm not done with it yet (I'm digesting it nice and slow so I can savor it), but I think it'll be one of my classics I won't ever get rid of.
Snoopy's Guide to the Writing Life, Edited by Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz
Okay, so who doesn't just love Snoopy and his endless quest to be published? This delightful book includes loads of comic strips chronicling Snoopy's writing, submissions, and rejections. In between, over 30 famous writers (Ed McBain, Danielle Steele, Sue Grafton, Fannie Flagg, Julia Child, Elmore Leonard, Jack Canfield, Clive Cussler, and many more) give their own practical advice.
I have other books about writing, including ones with narrow focuses like life in the 1800s, poisons, and forensic medicine, but the ones above are my favorites for overall writing and inspiration.
What about you? Do you have any favorite books on writing that others should look up?
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
Deep down . . . I'm really shallow
Now that I've written my title to this, I cringe at how many meanings it has for me personally.
But really this isn't about me. It's about my characters and your characters and characters in general. I recently completed reading a book for the YA market. The plot rocked. The fantasy elements stunned. The setting perfect. But the characters were so flat, they were unrecognizable road kill.
I know that sounds harsh but I feel the editors failed this author. They should have sent the manuscript back and given a little lesson on dialogue and depth and motivation. But alas . . . no.
I am not here today as a writer, but as a reader--to shout in behalf of readers everywhere who say, "Please give me depth! Please do not let me dive into a puddle when I thought I had an ocean.
Your characters have to make choices for themselves. They have to solve things for themselves. They have to grieve when things go wrong, but take action against that wrong. They have to show emotion. They need habits; they need intelligence. They need opinions. They need a few flaws since no ones perfect. They need pasts and futures. They need depth.
If you want living characters, learn about dialogue. Eavesdrop on other people's conversation if you must, but take the time to do real dialogue.
And don't have your characters explain and explain and explain.
I know a little exposition is necessary, but if you do too much, you're going to have some other writer ranting about you on a blog somewhere in the world!
Exposition can be hidden. Do your readers a favor and do not have characters whose only purpose is to say, "Well,this happened because a long time ago blah blah blah . . ." or "this might happen because blah blah blah." If you have a character whose only purpose is to be a narrator of your story, you may need a rewrite.
I think that's what bugged me most about the last book I read. The characters never take responsibility for anything they do. The girl doesn't seem all that bothered when her brother is thought to be dead, and doesn't rejoice enough for me to believe her when she finds he really isn't dead. The whole book is filled with emotions so blah that I don't see any of them as anything important. I don't care what happens to anyone in this book.
If I'm going to invest my time with your characters, I want to care about them. I need to care about them. Please make me care.
So I beg of you writers out there. Don't let me dive into another puddle when I thought I was diving into an ocean. You should see the goose-egg on my forehead.
Monday, October 1, 2007
Monday Mania: First Page
Critique Archive 0004:
"If you’re hoping to see the Prince, you won’t. He isn’t returning from his trip until this evening."
The amused voice startled Adelicia from her thoughts at the tall workroom window. She turned to face Wynne’s wide smile. "Me?" Adelicia exclaimed, pointing to herself with one hand. She tossed her delicate needlework onto the worn oak table beside her. Then, clasping her hands to her heart, she turned back to the window and gazed forlornly at the rolling hills in the distance. The gentle rain on the glass heightened the melodramatic effect as she said with a slight tremor in her voice, "I confess—you’ve discovered my secret." Adelicia turned to the other seamstresses with a flourish of her skirts and held her arms out helplessly before them. "But what mortal woman could resist the possibility of capturing even the smallest glimpse every maid’s fantasy: the King of Conceit; His Majesty, Lord of Arrogance?"
Adelicia took a few long strides across the room and laid her hand on Wynne’s shoulder with a melancholy sigh. With a slight break in her voice suspiciously resembling a giggle, she finished dramatically, "But alas, I fear the Prince will never love any maid more than he loves his looking glass." Laughter erupted from the other seamstresses, followed by applause as Adelicia fell into a magnificent swoon on a nearby chair.
The laughter in the room gradually died down. Wynne turned to Adelicia with a wry smile. "Deny it as some will," she said, "every woman in this kingdom has some hidden dreams about the Prince."
Adelicia sat up from her theatrics and raised an eyebrow at Wynne’s remark as she brushed a stray wisp of her golden red hair from her eyes. She picked up her needlework from the table in a handful. "Don’t judge others by yourself, Wynne. My dreams consist of more than well-rehearsed charm and a handsome face."