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Thursday, January 22, 2015

A New Look at Editing: Your Novel In Eight Minutes

by Cat Woods

As a speech coach, I often help students "cut" pieces from novels for competition. In my neck of the woods, this amounts to summing up an entire novel into an eight minute spoken presentation--or roughly 1,300 words including an original introduction.

Truly, it's like editing on crack.

The process is easy enough: read; tease out the phrases, sentences or paragraphs that best portray the scope of the story; and tie them together with a nice little intro. For prose, this entails sifting through a lot of introspection and a little bit of action. For duo, it means cutting and pasting the story together through the written dialogue. Humor is usually a healthy combination of both.

Regardless, the outcome is the same. When my speechies have cut a novel for competition, they've somehow whittled down the story to a fraction of its size--all while packing an emotional punch and retaining its integrity. The only usable words are the ones the author penned. No changes can be made and the lines must be connected in the order in which they appear in the novel. No rearranging allowed.

The outcome is quite awesome, really. And, it's something we should strive for as writers. We should each be able to whittle down our writing to the very heart of the piece. We should be able to tease out eight minutes of cohesive dialogue that somehow show the scope and depth of our story. We shouldn't have a problem finding that unifying thread that connects the beginning, middle and oh-so-satisfying end. And if we do, we just might need to eliminate unnecessary character peeks or fill in some plot valleys.

This process is completely different from writing a synopsis, which is really a blow by blow of each chapter. It's also very different from a query letter summary. This is more fluid and evocative. It strikes an emotional chord and carries the reader...er, listener along for a quick, but thorough roller-coaster ride. It's like storytelling on crack.

After working on several speech scripts this season, I challenged myself to "cut" my own stories. I think you should do the same. Like me, you might be pleasantly surprised by the results or get a swift kick in the muse. But, if you're not quite ready to dice your own manuscript to bits and pieces, try cutting one of your favorite novels to get a feel for strong character dynamics, intriguing plot nuances and meaningful dialogue. It's a great way to learn how to ferret out the important parts of a story or to determine what is lacking.

Once you master those, you'll have this whole writing thing licked. Then maybe, a speechie may someday cut your novel for use during a competition. And that, my friends, is the best word of mouth advertising I've ever seen among avid readers, educators and parents.

How do you content-edit your writing to ensure cohesive story lines and consistent character growth? Have you ever dissected another writer's work to see what he/she does right? If so, what did you learn from the process?

Curious minds want to know.

Each spring, Cat Woods spends thirteen weeks straight judging speech competitions in Southwestern Minnesota. She loves the interpretation categories because they force her to analyze character relationships on multiple levels. And speaking of characters, some of hers have found their way into print and reside in a smattering of anthologies--the most recent one being Tales from the Bully Box, a middle grade anthology. If you're so inclined, you can follow Cat's exploits at www.catwoodsblog.com or www.catwoodskids.com. In the meantime, happy cutting.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Right Yes

by Charlee Vale

"You only need one yes."

I can't tell you how many times I've heard this. It's one of those platitudes that gets splattered all over querying writers, or writers thinking about querying, or anyone who has even even thought about trying to get published. In the face of the vast enormity of trying to find an agent, and then an editor, this phrase does us the favor of shrinking down something daunting to a manageable size.

Back in 2011, when I was querying for the very first time, this was my mantra. I did everything I was supposed to do--I compiled a list of agents, worked on my query, started querying in batches. I was waiting, I was ready. After all, I only needed one yes, right?

Through a quirky situation (and a miracle) I got a full request on my very first query. Naturally, I did what every brand new writer does on a full request an fantasized about getting and offer of representation. Which was when I discovered something troubling: I wasn't necessarily excited about the thought of accepting that offer. I was nervous, and frankly kind of queasy.

I spoke to an author friend about my imaginary offer, and she said something to me so simple that I felt stupid for not realizing it sooner. 'Why would you query someone you wouldn't want to work with?'

I had made a list of every person I could possibly find that repped YA, and they were all on my list to query. Because in my mind, each of those agents was a potential yes. A potential chance at representation and the road to publication. However, I hadn't even considered that quantity in querying isn't necessarily the same as quality. It's true that you do only need one yes, but that's not the important part. You need the right yes.

So do your research. Find the agents you think you would want to work with, using whatever qualifications you're looking for, and make a list. Do you want an agent who is very editorial? Someone who is a newer agent trying to build their list? Someone who's a veteran and seen everything that can possible happen?

That final list may be twenty agents, five, or fifty. But every agent should be one you want to work with. After all, if they aren't, then why would you put yourself through that?

Keep trying to get that one yes, but just make sure it's the right one.

Charlee Vale is a Young Adult writer, bookseller, photographer, and tea lover living in New York City. You can also find her at her website, on Novel Thoughts, on Twitter, and doing research for her next round of queries.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Wit of the Staircase

by Matt Sinclair

There's a French term that appeals to me: L'esprit de l'escalier. Literally, it means "the wit of the staircase," and in practical language it means thinking of the perfect response too late. 

Let's face it, we've all done it, whether there was a staircase involved or not. In fact, the perfect response often hits me in the bathroom, which seems appropos.

I'm not sure, but such instances may in part be why I became a writer. I like having the perfect word to say, le mot juste to keep that little French thing going. But it doesn't always happen immediately.

As writers, we need to have an ear for what our characters are saying, even if they've already walked through the exit on a scene. The key: know your characters. Even when they don't know what to say, they're telling you something.

Good thing we can revise, huh?

Monday, January 12, 2015

When I Was Eight

by Riley Redgate

Like most strange adults, I was once a strange kid. Back in my elementary school days, I had a knack for sleepwalking: I'd end up downstairs a lot, managing our staircase with ease, and sometimes I'd have conversations with people while asleep. One night, my father found me in the hall outside my bedroom, staring at nothing. When he asked me what I was doing, I helpfully replied that I was "looking." Looking at what? I don't know. I didn't elaborate. We chatted for a minute or two about why I was still awake -- it was about 1 AM -- and then I went back into my room. I remember zero percent of this.

Nighttime is when I do my best work. Unfortunately, it is also when I am weirdest. This has always been true. Once, when I was eight, I walked downstairs in the middle of the night, sobbing. My parents asked me what was wrong. My response was, "I just don't want to die!" If I were my parents, I would've been terrified of me. (Note: I have not yet died.)

People wonder why old fairy tales were so bloodthirsty, what with all the violence, cannibalism, etc. I feel like the answer is pretty simple: children are obsessed with darknesses and terrors. I have spoken with innumerable people who tell me they went through a Holocaust fascination phase as a kid (so did I). When I was in elementary school, my fellow students loved this Jingle Bells parody, which is a blood-soaked piece of rewriting if I've ever seen one. And kids, Neil Gaiman says, read his notoriously horrifying book Coraline as an adventure, while adults get nightmares. Let's be honest, though: all you need to do is crack open one of those Scary Stories anthologies to find something traumatizing. Those were always popular at my school libraries.

When I was eight, the ideas of death and pain were everywhere in the media I consumed. Kids' books and movies have a high body count -- dead parents, dead kids, people getting injured all the time. Harry Potter is the poster child for fictional orphaned kids, who have been trendy in literature since Dickens. Kids get devoured by the handful in Roald Dahl's The BFG, and tortured by Ms. Trunchbull in his book Matilda. Part of this is the dichotomy kids' books often draw between good and evil: evil people hurt others, and good people stop that from happening. But there's more there.

I'm still scared of dying, like most people. But when I was eight, the fear of it crippled me. I had huge fears that swallowed me up every night as I lay there, staring at the ceiling. I have a body of experiences now that help me cope with fears based on how my life has gone this far. But when I was eight, fiction was the only way I could understand most fears. Stories make awful things comprehensible to kids. It's an incredibly important part of growing up, understanding what bad things are, why they happen, and how they operate.

Books taught me the best way to beat the monsters, too: keep going. Keep reading to the end of the story. Keep moving forward until something changes, or until you understand. That's why my favorite kids' books, from chapter books to YA, have heavy or dark elements -- these books help readers deal with hard truths, and persistence is always the way to tackle them.

It's understandable, wanting to shield kids from the worst parts of the world. Still, in my opinion, kids shouldn't be sheltered from scary topics. There's a time and a place for everything, obviously, and kids' literature has boundaries that adult categories don't. All the same, loss, pain, and death are part of being alive, from the youngest age, and in my life, books have been the weapons I've used to fight back the fear of them.

Riley Redgate, enthusiast of all things YA, is a bookstore-and-Starbucks-dweller from North Carolina attending college in Ohio. She is represented by Caryn Wiseman of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Sporadically and with occasional weirdness, she blogs here and speaks with considerably more brevity here.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

It is 2015 And Everything Old is New Again

by Sophie Perinot

“Nothing is original, even in sin.” Somebody said that. I thought Oscar Wilde, but I've had surprisingly little luck pinning down the attribution.  Doesn't matter for these purposes, trust me.


Here’s the thing see, the publishing world as we know it is coming to an end!!! (Gosh I wish I could chant that while holding a sign on a stick).  What world isn't?  Things change in all industries, all the time.  Back when the paperback was first introduced there was a tremendous amount of hand wringing.  And we all remember the hysteria that surrounded the e-book and the supposed extinction of the paper book.  Who can forget this heady moment when, approximately 2 years after the Kindle was introduced, the Guardian trumpeted the news that Amazon was selling more e-books than paper ones? Oh yes, the paper book was doomed, until someone recently, helpfully, pointed out (by gum it was the Guardian again) it was making a comeback (“Whisper it quietly, thebook is back …”).
But I don’t really want to talk (aka argue, because wow there is a lot of yelling going around) about whether these are end times.  Because I think, as a writer, there is a more interesting question—what are you going to do about it?

For the purposes of this blog-post let’s assume publishing is the Titanic.  It is sinking.  It wasn’t supposed to, it was supposed to let you quit your day job and make you a legend in your own time (not that it ever did that at any point in its history for a vast majority of writers), and now it is going down into frigid waters (with historically inaccurate sharks for good measure). This is your moment to decide what to do and THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT ANSWER.  I picked the Titanic metaphor for a very specific reason—and no, I am not a fan of Leo and I am not going to start humming Celine Dion.  In this particular metaphor I am a proud member of the orchestra.  I can’t figure out where the lifeboats are, and even if I could, well, I am a writer.  Come hell—or in this allegory very high water—I have at least a couple more stories in me that have to be put to paper.  If somebody told me “your next publication date will be your last, after that you won’t be able to get your words printed on toilet paper with a crayon” I would still finish my wip, I would polish it and tie it up with a bow before trunking it.  I would go down clinging to it (maybe bop a couple of sharks with it as I sank).


None of us can be sure we will survive in the new (make that the new, new, new to the 10th power) age of publishing.  Nobody was certain in the past either folks.  I believe there is a certain dignity in pursuing your craft to the best of your abilities when things seem dire/hopeless.  It is an exercise in character.  And I say again (before I get tackled to the deck and pummeled in my last minutes) I am not suggesting this is the route for everyone.  But if you are of my mindset, pull up a chair, take off your life jacket (it is cumbersome anyway).  Let’s ignore the screaming and the abominable listing of the deck that makes it hard to keep the laptops from sliding off our desks, and let’s write the best thing we’ve ever written in 2015.


Gentlemen, ladies, it has been a pleasure playing with you.

Monday, January 5, 2015

How's Your Franily?

by R.S. Mellette

No, your franily is not some body part that you've never heard of. It has nothing to do with your furnace, health insurance, permanent record, or any of the other things we worry about in life. Your franily is the combination of your family, friends, and fans. It is where all artists begin their professional journey.

I used to think that was kind of pitiful. Poor van Gogh, only sold a single painting in his lifetime, and that was to his brother. Okay, one sale does suck, but there is no shame in it being to a family member. This isn't a starving artist thing, it's a starving entrepreneur thing. As soon as a friend or family member gets a job in sales, who is the first person they pitch? You. So why should you be worried about hitting them up to buy your book, see your play or movie, come to your opening, or whatever?  That's just the way the world is, especially these days.

Of course, the trick to longevity in any business is to increase your franily. Outside of marriage and children, your family isn't going to get statistically larger. You can grow your list of friends, but doing that for sales isn't the best thing for your soul – except on Facebook, but that's another matter.

So the best thing you can do is grow your fan base. Doing that is something people make careers out of, but the cost effectiveness of hiring a publicist is, arguably, prohibitive. If you're going to grow your fan base, how do you do it?

First, you need to find a foothold. What is your starting point?  For most, that foothold is friends and family. Each of them have friends and connections. Sure, only a tiny percentage of them will be willing to help you, so you have to figure out how you can help them. For example, many of my friends have nieces, nephews, grandkids, etc. who are the right age for Billy Bobble Makes A Magic Wand, which is 10-16. That's a tough age to shop for. My book helps them stuff a stocking or add to a pile of birthday gifts. That in turn helps me, not only with a sale, but hopefully to add a fan or two to my base.

So, great. That's one or two sales, maybe ten if you count all the friends who actually help you make a sale. What next?

When I worked at Busch Gardens as a street performer, employees used to make fun of the tourists who came to the park. I think this sort of thing happens in every business. It's an easy defense mechanism to lampoon those you have to interact with on a daily basis. I remember one day walking through the park afterhours, and enjoying the woods that surround the Williamsburg, VA attraction. It really is beautiful. The architects didn't just slap down some concrete and rides. They made a real park that happens to be full of amusements.

While I was in this little euphoric moment, I thought about the tourists. Who were these people I entertained for thirty minutes six times a day?  My answer? They were me. If I wasn't working there, I'd be playing there, and some employee would make fun of the sunburn on my growing bald spot.

Tourists are just regular people getting away from their regular lives, coming to me for some escapist entertainment. When they go back to work, I'll be going to them to straighten out some problem with my health insurance, or returning a stupid gift without a receipt.

Your fans are the same way. They are you. Obviously, they share your interests because they've read your book. As for the fans you haven't reached yet, look for them as if you were looking for yourself. When you find them, you might find something you didn't know about you and your franily.

R.S. Mellette's new book is Billy Bobble Makes A Magic Wand. He is an experienced screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist. You can find him at the Dances With Films festival blog, and on Twitter, or read him in the Spring Fevers, The Fall: Tales of the Apocalypse, and Summer's Edge anthologies.