Monday, May 30, 2011

Art, Defined

by R.S. Mellette

When last we left our intrepid adventure into Artistic Cross Training, we were asked to define art. This was deemed necessary because we can't have a useful discussion about art if we don't have a common idea of what we're talking about.

I should say that I've done to you the same subtle slight of grammar that was done to me when I suffered through this exercise. Sorry about that, but the struggle is an important part of the training. For those still fighting for an answer, would it help if I worded it this way: Define The Arts?

ANSWER: Art is: Theatre, Dance, Music, Visual Arts, and Literature.

If you recall the college senior I overheard at a party boasting of adding one to the list, it was literature. Looking back on it, I'd say that any student who didn't include that should have been told "not quite." Architecture is sometimes listed, but that could be included as a part of the Visual Arts, just as Film and Television are a combination of Theatre and the Visual Art of Photography. That's what I said in 1980. Having worked on a few films since then, I'd say we have to figure out a way to get Sound included. I suppose it's an aspect of Theatre. No need to split hairs, as long as we give Sound the same respect Picture always gets.

So, when I talk of artists, I mean anyone who works in those five disciplines, or derivatives thereof. When I talk of art, I mean anything that fits within those categories or derivatives thereof.

So, is a stop sign art?

By this definition a stop sign in the street is not art, one hanging in a gallery is—but does that make it good?

That's the topic of my next blog.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Dark Fantasy

by Darke Conteur

I don’t think there is a genre as diverse or as fascinating, as Dark Fantasy.

I believe people read science fiction to escape into the future, and historical fiction to escape into the past, but what is it about the darker side of fiction that draws us to it? Is it the hidden desire to be immortal? To possess supernatural powers? Do we read and write this genre secretly hoping that what we’ve written is true, and that perhaps, we are the privileged few who are allowed access into a world others dismiss?

Who would want to venture into a world full of demons and vampires? Why would anyone want to live in a world full of zombies? People die in these worlds, either physically, or their humanity dies, and yet there is a growing number of people who can’t get enough.

Is it because Dark Fantasy allow us to secretly travel to places society deems inappropriate? Perhaps, like Erotica, it allows us to delve into parts of our own personality that we may feel is too embarrassing or private to reveal, or is there something deeper to our attraction?

From our earliest childhood memories, fantasy stories were told to us as a means of moral guidance. The character-singing, fluffy fairy tales that our children hold so dear, are a pale comparison to the original brutal tales of death our ancestors told. Their stories were a constant reminder that the world was a dangerous place, and if one strayed off the path, your fate was sealed.

Perhaps this is the attraction. We long to tread away from the safety of society, to live in danger, to feel the blood course through our veins. Perhaps life has become too safe, and we need the diversion, that spark, that can only come in the way of a good Dark Fantasy novel.

Whatever the reason, Dark Fantasy will continue to be popular, if only to fill that empty need in our everyday lives.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mythos and the Muse

by Calista Taylor

I've heard it said that there are no new stories, only new ways to tell them, and I think this is very true. Although the possibilities seem endless, I'm afraid writers often jump on the bandwagon when a particular story becomes popular. Wizards, vampires, werewolves, zombies anyone? Unfortunately, trying to follow a trend can be a difficult thing to do, because unless your timing is perfect or you have a truly amazing twist, it becomes difficult to make your story stand out amongst all the others that are similar.

So instead of traveling down a road thronged with people, why not pick a path less traveled? I would suggest embracing the old and making it new again.

I've often found myself paging through an encyclopedia of mythology as my imagination races through the possibilities. There are so many mythological creatures to pick from, and so many amazing stories waiting to be retold in a new and fresh way that's relevant to our time.

Here are a few sites on mythology and mythological creatures to help guide your muse down a path less traveled.

If there are any other links you find useful but that we haven't posted, please let us know by leaving a comment.

Do you often use mythology for inspiration? Where do your new story ideas come from?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Voice—It's not just for manuscripts anymore (actually, it never was)

by Sophie Perinot

Query letters (*sigh*). Most writers would rather gnaw off their own arm than write one. But, if you want to make a run at acquiring an agent and getting a traditional publishing deal, there is no escape—write one you must. There’s a lot of chatter out there in writer-land about “the rules” of querying. Don’t believe me? Peruse the archives for any of the dozens of excellent agent or author blogs, or head over to one of the on-line writing communities (AgentQuery Connect is my personal favorite) and count the number of threads/posts devoted to crafting, critiquing and editing query letters. But one of the most important elements of a successful query is often overlooked in those numerous and lengthy discussions—voice.

This is a major oversight. I would posit that snagging an agent with a good query is NOT merely about what you say but is equally about HOW you say it. For those of you who have seen “The King’s Speech” (and if you haven’t, forget reading my post and get yourself that DVD) think of the moment at Westminster Abbey when Geoffrey Rush (playing speech therapist Lionel Logue) asks Colin Firth’s George VI of England, “Why should I waste my time listening to you?’ The King’s answer. . . “Because I have a voice.” If you want agents to listen to you, to pay attention to the punchy mini-synopsis of your oh-so-clever plot that you spent a gazillion drafts perfecting, then you’d better let the voice that imbues your manuscript sing out from your query letter as well.

Why is voice the forgotten step-sister of the query letter discussion and, consequently, MIA in so many structurally sound query letters? I think there are a couple of reasons.

Voice is not easy to define. There is no nice little check-list of steps that I (or anyone) can give you to follow in order to make certain that your query letter has voice. But I think every writer can learn to recognize the presence or absence of voice. As Justice Stewart said (in his concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio) “I know it when I see it”—okay, okay Justice Stewart was talking about obscenity not voice, but substitute the word and the point is the same. You can spot voice even if you can’t define it. You just need a little practice. Next time you sit down to read query letter examples (you can always head to the threads full of queries posted for critique at various writers’ sites for this exercise) don’t fall into line-edit mode. Don’t look for the flaws in the hook; point out the missing comma in the second sentence; or immediately notice that the writer has mentioned too many characters by name. Read the entire letter beginning to end rapidly to get a “feel” for it. Does the letter set a mood? Does it have a distinctive tone? Is the author’s style of writing consistent from beginning to end? Does the query create a world that you are sucked into (even if it is only for three brief paragraphs)? If the letter does any of those things, then—ding-ding-ding we have a winner—the letter has voice.

Voice is very individual. Once you’ve learned to sort query letters into “voiced” and “voiceless” piles you can’t merely use the queries that have a clear voice as a template for your own. Rats. You need to go back to the roots of the story you are trying to pitch—your manuscript. What tone and style of writing do you use to tell your story? If you were writing a blurb for the back cover of your novel how would it read? DON’T over think this (yes, I can see your brow furrowing already from my desk in cyberspace)! Just grab your keyboard and pound out one or two draft cover blurbs. Do they have voice? If so, imo, you are well on your way to a great query. All you have to do is massage those blurbs to make sure the critical information (hook, mini-synopsis, closing paragraph w/stats) agents expect in every query are all there. Remember, however, this “voice” approach does not mean writing your query in the same POV or tense as your book. Queries need to be third person present tense. It does mean creating the same ambiance.

Nothing kills voice like committee. Read that again. This is the most heartbreaking of my points. You’ve learned to spot voice. You’ve gotten back in sync with the voice that drove your manuscript and you’ve drafted a query letter that you believe employs that same voice. But you can still blow it by editing the voice out—often with the help of others.

Now it is wonderful (truly) that we writers have so many on-line resources today. Besides asking our faithful critique partners to take a look at our draft query, we can post it and get dozens of opinions from fellow writers. We can then re-post a newer version of our query and get opinions all over again. And somewhere along the way, in trying to incorporate all those suggestions (yes, even the excellent ones) we can stamp out all the voice our poor little query letter ever had. If you can bear one more quote, as Lady Bracknell says in The Importance of Being Earnest, “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit. Touch it, and the bloom is gone.” Now this time you need to substitute “voice” for ignorance. When improving your letter (and I am NOT suggesting that you cannot learn from others, or that you cannot edit a letter in a way that is beneficial) take care that voice is not trampled under foot.

Don’t let other writers re-write your query for you in their own style (I am sure I am oft guilty of this in my query critiques and I take this opportunity to publicly offer a mea culpa for such behavior). Err on the side of voice. Be prepared to ignore people. If you feel that making your letter fit a format or satisfy a majority of those who commented will destroy the voice of the letter step slowly away from the precipice. Thank everyone politely and then stop checking that darn comments thread. And remember that every comment should be “gut” checked. Trust your gut. Your gut (and your brain) wrote your manuscript. That puppy is probably 80k words so your gut and your brain can manage 200-300 words worth of query. I guess the position I am ultimately taking is: maybe a little feedback is better than a lot when you are trying to develop and project your author-voice. I would never have wanted 10 or 20 (let alone 30 or 50) opinions on my query. I got four. If that is heresy so be it.

What do you think—is voice as crucial an element in your query as in your manuscript? Is it as important as a clear synopsis of the plot? More important? Can voice alone can generate requests? Do you have a useful test/method to share for identifying writing with voice?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Write Angle Crew Wants YOU!

For U.S. Army!

Oh, wait, sorry.... Got carried away there.

What we do want, however, is to hear what you want. As our mission statement, well, states "We seek The Write Angle to help you..." We hope we're well on our way to doing just that, but we'd love for you to tell us what topics you want to see on FTWA.

Are you curious about character-building? Sweating over your synopsis or have questions about queries? Anxious about agents? Do you just want me to knock it off with the alliteration already?!

Leave us a comment and let us know what topics you're dying to see on the site and we'll do our best to address them in future posts. Alternately, use the links in the sidebar to find us on Facebook or Twitter to ask your question. If you really want to keep it private, email us.

Consider this an open invitation, by the way. Any time you'd like the Write Angle Crew's take on a topic, shoot us an email and ask!

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Crucible and The Tower: Lover as Primary Antagonist in Romance Novels

by Lucy Marsden

I am a Craft geek.

I’ll even admit that in conversations with other writers, I often blow past “geek” and go straight to “pedant,” sometimes missing “nazi” by mere inches.

Therefore, it’s been interesting to observe my evolving stance on the role of the primary Antagonist where romance novels are concerned. Broadly-speaking it’s this: Unless the Antagonist is the other lover, I don’t give a damn.

I know that the Antagonist is important; in Story, it’s the fact that the Antagonist is blocking the Protagonist’s goal that forces the Protagonist to change and grow in pursuit of that goal. It’s just that, as a reader and a writer, the conflict (i.e. the force for change and growth) that I’m most invested in, is the one between the lovers. (I think of this model of conflict in romance relationships as the sexual crucible, a concept taken from the work of marriage and family therapist Dr. David Schnarch, and one which I’ll discuss more fully later in the post.)

This preference of mine is problematic, I know. As a reader, it means that I will flip pages and skip scenes that are in the Antagonist’s point of view, because unless the big A is on the page with the lovers actively giving them grief, I don’t care, and I want to be in one of the lovers’ POVs in that case, anyway. (An exception to this is any work by Jenny Crusie, because missing a chance to spend time in the head of one of her characters is a sin. I will also make an exception if the POV moment for the Antagonist is relatively brief AND I get the sense that they are soon to be the hero or heroine of their own book.)

Writing-wise, things become tricky, too. If my hero’s goal is in direct conflict with my heroine’s, neither of them can back away from their goal because it’s so important, and only one of them can win, this is GREAT conflict, but not exactly the recipe for a believable Happy Ever After. Take the case of the Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan movie, You’ve Got Mail. Hanks’ character destroys Ryan’s character’s cherished family bookstore, and yet we’re supposed to believe that they’ll be HEA because “it was only business.”

Um, no.

Ryan’s character’s motivation had to be violated in order to make that ending “work.” And the minute we violate character is the minute our books become so-hard-the-plaster-fell wall-bangers, so let’s not go there.

Let us instead look at the case of the Nicholas Cage, Cher movie, Moonstruck—by way of a brief detour to the Tarot deck. In some Tarot readings, the Tower card (interestingly, also known as La Foudre, “The Lightning”) means the destruction of our old lives, and at the core, the destruction of the edifice that was our sense of Self. But—and this is a big “But” (*insert preadolescent giggling here*)—it’s often the destruction of a false and ill-fitting Self; a Self that is a lie, and that is holding us back in crucial ways. Screenwriter and novelist Michael Hauge talks about character arc as a process of going from “identity”—this safe but false sense of Self, to “essence”—an authentic, scary, but fully-alive state of being. Living in our essence is risky; we’re naked and striving, with none of our usual defenses to protect us, so we’ll often resist it like hell, or run from it. Living in our essence is the only way to be truly seen and truly fulfilled, however, so we’ll continue to yearn for it, and in our braver moments, we’ll act on it, too.

Back to Moonstruck. In this movie, Loretta is hungry for love and passion, but her life has become about being safe and reasonable, and she is settling for emotional scraps from her fiance, who is more married to his mother than he ever will be to Loretta. When Loretta meets her fiance’s brother, Ronny, she is initially appalled by, then desperately attracted to his intensity—so much so that she goes to bed with him only a few hours later. Ronny proceeds to “tower” Loretta’s gray existence, and we, the audience, cheer him on. It’s not a tragedy to see her dutiful life burn away under the blowtorch of Ronny’s passion and determination, it’s a relief. He sees her essence, won’t accept anything less, and is willing to fight her for it:

"Love don't make things nice. It ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren't here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed!"

Everything she thought she knew about her life and her Self is remade in the fires of her relationship with Ronny; all the lies and facades melt away, and what is left is true and shining. It’s the philosopher’s stone that’s at the heart of every great romance, and it’s why the crucible is such a perfect metaphor for this alchemical dynamic. Let me be clear: there are wonderful romances out there in which the other lover doesn’t act as the primary antagonist, but most romances DO have a moment in which the lovers call each other on their bullshit in some form or fashion, and the characters grow and change in an important way because of it. I love this, because I think it says something true about the power of human relationships to make us better, and more fully ourselves. Moonstruck works because Ronny’s “towering” serves Loretta’s journey towards her essence and her goal of being deeply, passionately loved, even if the means of achieving her goal gets stood on its head.

So there you have it: my bias about the role of the Antagonist in Romantic relationships, and my favorite Romance dynamic. I want to say more about Schnarch’s work, and the ways in which he says the crucible dynamic plays out for couples in the bedroom, because it is hot and profound, but I’ll leave that for another post. I would also like to recommend The Popcorn Dialogues, Jenny Crusie's, Lucy March's, and Alastair Stephens' rocking podcast for anyone interested in what movies can teach novelists about storytelling. (Seriously: they're currently covering caper movies and Trickster heroes right now, and it's fabulous.)

But enough about me. Do you have preferences about where and how conflict is used in romance novels? Favorite couple dynamics? Examples of what worked for you and what didn’t? Share, please!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Telling My Story—Or Not

by Matt Sinclair

I was not born in a log cabin. I have neither run for public office nor finished a race longer than 6.2 miles. Despite my best attempts, I did not play professional baseball and have never dated a supermodel. (And I'm not quite sure which of those two I tried harder to accomplish.) I am not an alcoholic, though there were a couple nights during college when it may have appeared I was trying hard to become one. There was one time when I almost wasn't allowed out of a rehab facility when I was visiting a friend ... but seriously, who hasn't had that experience?

In fact, when it comes right down to it, my life is a pretty average tale of suburban youth, assorted mistakes and successes, several thousand baseball and softball games, a little love, a lot of boredom, and probably a few million words read and written. Not much to write about that the whole wide world might find even moderately interesting.

Of course, if I ever sell the manuscripts I've written and build the audience I'm hoping to develop, then all bets are off!

I wouldn't call myself a regular reader of memoir, but I've read enough of them to know what I like. In the past several months, I read Heaven Is for Real and McCarthy's Bar—though I'd call the latter a travelogue more than a memoir. I generally stay away from the celebrity tell-alls because I just don't care about most of those people.

Which brings me to my point: Unless you're a celebrity or have gained a level of noteriety for whatever reason, if you're writing a memoir you must ask yourself the same question that an agent would ask. Why should anyone care?

I don't mean to sound flippant, and I'm not being cruel, but the world is filled with pain and suffering and always has been. What makes your pain and suffering worth reading about? What lessons that you've learned do the book-buying public absolutely need to learn?

Then again, the same might have been said to Frank McCourt, whose memoir, Angela's Ashes, was arguably one of the best and most well received in the past twenty years. And he answered those questions. The book is many years old now, but the reason it was successful is timeless. It had something many aspiring memoirists fail to accomplish in their manuscript: a narrative arc. It was a story—a true story, yes, but a story nonetheless.

It felt real not because it was real but because there was a storyteller behind it. In a great memoir, like a great story, there is search and discovery. There is change. Even a well-written recitation of facts comes across as a mere chronology, not as a story.

A wise friend of mine shared a tidbit that helps place this all in perspective. The things that happen to you are events, she said, but a series of events does not make a compelling story. When she was in college and some of her classmates prattled on about what happened to them, their professor was known to say, "I don't care what happened to you. I only care what you did!"

Get it? No matter how amazing that car accident you narrowly averted was or how awe-inspiring was the sight of dolphins swimming beside your boat, they're meaningless unless they changed you. You survived your brush with death? That's nice. But you haven't changed one whit; you're still a twit. Show me why I should care.

Unless you have the built-in audience a celebrity can attract, your memoir won't sell unless it has those essential story elements: action, reaction, and change. In my opinion, it's one of the many reasons memoirs are queried much like novels: If the story doesn't attract an agent's attention, it's not going to do a whole lot for a large audience either. Without a story, you're just spinning tales and your wheels.

What is the story of you? Is it worth telling as memoir?

Now, back to me....

Monday, May 16, 2011

Twitter 101 For Writers

by Calista Taylor

As writers, one of the most important things we can do to ensure our success is to build a platform. And since these things take time, I recommend starting as soon as you're able, rather than the month before your publication date.

There are many ways to go about getting followers, but I have found the easiest way, hands down, is Twitter. Not only is it easy to get followers, but each of your tweets (if you've used your name/pen name) will add another hit for YOU when someone searches for your name on Google. Personally, I think that's HUGE, because if someone's trying to find me or my books, I want to give them the most avenues to me and my sites.

I cannot recommend Twitter enough, and when I do recommend it, I usually get the same response—"But I have nothing to tweet about, and I don't want to keep talking about what I had for lunch." Trust me when I tell you, we don't want to hear about it either. BUT that's not really what Twitter is about, and it's certainly not the way to use Twitter for effectively building a platform. Instead, why not tweet about a great blog post you just read, or tweet a snippet about what you're currently working on? Still too difficult? Then you can just retweet (RT) someone else's tweet. Best of all, it takes up very little time to build a following—15 minutes every few days is plenty—and at just 140 characters per tweet, it's quick.

Easy, right? Here's some information to make it even easier and to help you find your way around.

  • Though Twitter is fantastic, I find it far easier to use a program designed to maximize ease of use. Here's a quick rundown of all the available Twitter clients, so you can find something that will work best for you. I personally like TweetDeck not only for ease of use, but because it allows you to add as many columns (for searches) as you'd like. Recent rumors also have Twitter in talks to purchase TweetDeck.
  • In order to address someone in Twitter, just put an @ in front of their twitter name.
  • The way to maximize the amount of people your posts will reach is to include hashtags (#) with your tweets. Hashtags are similar to category tags, so if someone does a search that includes the hashtag you've included, they'll see your post. There are several hashtags for writers. Here's a list from Daily Writing Tips. Hashtags are also used to conduct live chats, and Debbie Ohi has a current schedule at her blog (not to mention all sorts of other great Twitter related posts). The hashtags I use most often are #writetip, #pubtip and #amwriting. You will also see a lot of #WW and #FF. These are short for Writer Wednesday and Follow Friday, which are shout-outs to let others know the people in the list are worth following.
  • I briefly mentioned RT's. Retweeting is a great way to pass on information you've found useful, and if you found it useful, then it's good to spread the love. It's ok to trim the tweet, as long as you don't alter the meaning of it. Just remember to keep the original poster's name in the tweet so they get credit. Also, if someone RT's something you tweeted, it's polite to thank them.
  • Unlike Facebook, where someone friends/follows you only if they know you, that's not the case with Twitter. People will follow you if they like your tweet, your bio, or because of a #WW or #FF. They'll also follow you to try and promote themselves. Do you need to follow back? Not always. Also, you may suddenly lose a follower or two. Don't let it bother you. It's nothing personal.
  • Make sure you complete your bio, and you add a link to your site or blog (if you have one). A picture or avatar is also a good idea, and remember, the picture that turns up is TINY, so make sure the picture you use can be easily identified and is a clear image. Also, I highly advise using your name or pen name, rather than something completely unrelated to your writing identity.
  • A great way to get followers is to follow other people who you find interesting. For the most part, if you follow someone, they'll likely follow you back. Also, participating in the live chats and using hashtags to join in discussions are great ways to get followers and find like people to follow. And by all means, comment on other people's tweets.

I hope this makes Twitter less intimidating. And an unexpected surprise to come about after tweeting a while? It makes you damn good at tightening up your writing. Who knew?

Have you recently ventured onto Twitter? Or are you a longtime fan? Has it helped you build your platform?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Define Art

by R.S. Mellette

In the first of the three universities I wrestled with, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, we had a class that spent an entire semester doing nothing but solving puzzles and trying to define Art. Luckily, the class was taught by a music professor whose real talent was composing young people's minds. You've heard the phrase, "learn to think outside of the box"? That's based on the most famous of the puzzles we were challenged with.

For those who don't know, here's the deal:

This is the nine dots puzzle. Most of you probably said to yourselves when you saw this, "Oh, that. That's old. I've seen it." Goodie for you, but not everyone has, so sit tight.

The challenge is to connect all nine dots with four or less straight lines without picking up your pencil and without drawing over the same line twice. Go ahead, give it a shot.

I bet half of the people who said, "Oh, yeah, that's old," are hoping I give them the solution somewhere in this blog because they've forgotten.

Did you get it? Keep trying. Then read a little more.

Just about when the first of us 18-year-old freshmen pounded our desk in frustration the learned professor would say, "Think about how you're trying to solve the problem. How many different ways have you tried?"

How many different ways have you tried? Try some more.

"Look at your paper," he would say. "What do you see?"

Well? Starting to learn where the phrase came from? Do you see a box? Keep trying.

I did a quick check on Wikipedia to find the phrase is credited to at least two different people and that the puzzle possibly originated in 1915 or so. Normally, I'd give credit where credit is due, but here it seems there's a dispute, so we'll save that for another time.

How are you doing? Still inside the box? How many ways have you tried to solve it?

I can tell you there are millions of ways to solve this puzzle, so what's taking you so long?

We would spend an hour every morning of the first semester solving such puzzles and fulfilling our one assignment: DEFINE ART.

I didn't smoke pot back then – still don't, it makes me dizzy – but if I did, it would have been before this class.

"Art is a visual composition that relates a message to the viewer," someone would offer.

"Okay," said our teacher, "is a stop sign art?"

That conversation would take up 30 minutes, then he'd pass out another puzzle:

Six buckets in a row. The first three are full of water, the next three are not. Arrange the buckets so they alternate, full/empty/full/empty by moving only one of the buckets.

Wait! I'm still trying to figure out if a stop sign is art! My head can't handle moving buckets.

This went on for an entire semester.

Eventually, someone would get the magic "ah-ha!" moment, and come up with the one, true, definition of Art. We were instructed not to blurt it out, but write it on a piece of paper. The professor would read it and tell you if you got it right or not.

For those of you who wish to play this game, I will tell you there is one, true definition. It's important that we have one, true definition because, if we're going to discuss something we have to first all agree what it is we're discussing. If everyone in Hollywood had to suffer through this class as I did, they'd save themselves a lot of trouble when they hit the studio system.

How are you doing with the buckets? I have to say that's an easy one. I'm not giving you the answer, you'll know it when you get it, just like the definition of Art.

By the way, I never got the definition right on my own. I was at a party and overheard a senior talking about how much he enjoyed the class and how he'd added something to the definition that no one had before. At least, not in class.

Still working on it? Good.

Back at that party, I felt like I'd lost my virginity to a cheap prostitute. I'd learned the answer on the street. I didn't earn it. I felt dirty, but there was no taking back the knowledge once it was learned.

So what's your definition of Art? Is a stop sign art? What's the difference between an NBA player's drive to the basket and a modern dancer's leap across the stage?

Post your thoughts. If you know the definitive answer, don't blurt it out, but help me respond to your fellow readers' ideas. I'll follow up the next time it's my turn on this blog-go-round.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Do It Like a Pro

by R.C. Lewis

I have a confession. I’m a little bit of a perfectionist. Just a little. As busy as it keeps me in my own life, it also has a side-effect of making me picky about some things.

Such as eBooks.

My mother owns a Nook (e-ink), my father owns an iPad, and I have an iPhone. I’ve perused a number of eBooks on all three, both Big-6 and indie, using a variety of apps on the Apple devices. I haven’t e-published anything myself yet, but I’ve played with the file formatting process, educating myself in case I decide to go that route.

"But it’s easy!" I hear you say. A few tweaks to your Word file, upload it to Kindle Direct Publishing and/or Smashwords, and conversion to eBook happens like magic.

Well, sometimes.

And sometimes the magic malfunctions.

With many writers new to the world of eBooks, they often think their DIY product looks just as good as the latest eBook from a major publisher, but does it really?

Here’s R.C.’s personal list of formatting red flags. (And when they show up in “pro” eBooks, I’m really annoyed.)

  • No Linked Table of Contents. Yes, I know, they’re not required. But why would you not utilize one of the most basic advantages of digital literature? When I bring up the ToC, I should see either chapter numbers or the full chapter title.
  • Incorrect Justification. Text should be full justified (lining up on both the right and left edges) with hyphenation to avoid the odd case of one longish word spread out to fill a whole line. This is especially important when reading on a smartphone, and annoying when not done properly. Apparently, some people prefer the ragged-right-edge look—I'm not one of them. Most e-reading apps let the reader choose (which can lead to some other issues), but if there's a "publisher default" option, I prefer that to show up justified.*
  • Missing/Inconsistent Indentation. Paragraphs should be consistently indented. I can live with block paragraph formatting, which is how this blog post is set up—no indentation, and extra space between each paragraph. I have seen eBooks (for which people charge money) with a few paragraphs indented, but many others missing the indent and no space to denote a new paragraph. The only clue that a new paragraph has started is the fact that the last line may have ended a little early (which is hard to spot if the book is left-aligned). Very difficult to read.
  • No Chapter Breaks. Each chapter should start on a new screen regardless of my chosen text size. You’re not saving paper by starting the chapter a “page” earlier. Some may not think this is important, but when I get the chapter heading sitting at the bottom of the page, I don't like it.
  • Weird Margins. This one’s more rare, and I’m not sure what the author/publisher is doing wrong to make it happen, but I’ve occasionally seen eBooks with very wide left/right margins. Again, when reading on a smartphone, this is particularly maddening.

Can you avoid these red flags on your own? It’s been done. There are innumerable forum and blog posts containing tips for formatting your Word document just right to get perfect conversion from sites like KDP and Smashwords.

Alas, my perfectionism has spawned my inner control-freak. If I’m going to DIY, I like the idea of doing as much of it directly as I can, rather than trusting so much of the conversion to happen outside my control. The powers-that-be over at AgentQuery Connect have been experimenting on that end and have developed this helpful guide for getting a file ready for Kindle. They've also got a matching fancy-pants guide for making an ePub file. (I don't think they agree with me about the chapter breaks. Maybe not justification, either. We'll see if they forgive me.)

For my own experiments, I’ve used Apple’s Pages word processor, which will export to ePub format. After a simple tweak to insert my cover image (rather than pasting the image onto the first page of the document), it looked great on both the e-ink Nook and the iBooks app on the Apple devices. (Oh, speaking of covers, I'll get to that in a minute.) I used a free program called Calibre to convert to .mobi format for Kindle readability—a Kindle-owning friend was kind enough to check how it looks on the actual device, and it seems pretty solid. I plan to do some more careful checking of that soon.

* Here's the promised note. I've made four ePub files that I read on my iPhone. Used the exact same style settings and process for all four. With my iPhone full justification setting turned off and auto-hyphenation on, two show up with full justification (as I told it to do in Pages), and two don't, with the exception of a few random paragraphs. After digging into the gnarly code (ePubs are little more than a zipped group of HTML files), I found the difference and had some fun with find-and-replace to clean it up. Still not sure how the inconsistencies crept in there from the Pages file.

I’m sure there are a number of ways to get it done, some requiring more technical expertise than others. The important thing is that your method delivers high-quality results.

Now, a quick word on covers. Remember, on search result screens, your cover image won’t be any bigger than most postage stamps, but the title (and hopefully your name) should still be somewhat legible. On a main product page, the image will be larger, so it should also look good under that level of scrutiny. On many e-ink readers, the cover image will be displayed grayscale; you need to have enough contrast.

Don’t use artwork/images/fonts you don’t have the rights to use.

If anyone could mistake your cover for an elementary student’s very first assignment using Photoshop, consider professional help. It’s the first impression potential readers will have of your book. Don’t make it a turn-off.

Do you have any pet-peeves regarding eBook formatting? Any tips for getting it done right (and at what level of techno-prowess)?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Dumping Those Info Dumps

by Jemi Fraser

Sometimes it's really bad...
Jemi clawed at the earth above her, desperate to escape before the air ran out. She'd never liked getting her nails dirty, even though her dad was an incredible gardener and she'd grown up digging in the dirt. His tomatoes always won top prize at the county fairs. And his petunias? Priceless.
Sometimes it's even worse and doesn't even have that first sentence to draw you in...
Jemi had never liked getting her nails dirty, even though her dad was an incredible gardener and she'd grown up digging in the dirt. His tomatoes always won top prize at the county fairs. And his petunias? Priceless.
Blech! Can't write any more! :)

I love RC's definition of an Info Dump: Halting the momentum of a story to lay out a large chunk of information. If the information is critical to the story, it should be woven in as skillfully as possible.

Skillfully weaving in backstory isn't as easy as it sounds. We have to give the reader enough information so they feel connected to the main character. If the reader doesn't connect, he or she isn't going to stick around to see what happens.

On the flip side, if we give too much information all at once, it grinds the story to a halt (see the hideous example above). Hopefully in the first example, the reader wants to know why Jemi is buried and how she's going to get out. No one cares about tomatoes, or her nails, or her dad. Even if that information is vital to the story (maybe the neighbour, crazy from all those 2nd place ribbons, has planted her to get back at her dad), all of this can wait.

Sprinkle the needed backstory throughout the first few chapters. Only reveal what you really must reveal, and only when you really need to reveal it.

There's nothing wrong with writing out all of your backstory so you know it. As writers, we have to know every aspect of our characters. We have to know how they're going to act & react. And we have to know why. So, go ahead, write them out, put the info in a file. Just don't put it all in the story! Pick and choose those details. Which ones does the reader really need to know?

So, how DO you include the pieces of information you need?

Weave. Sprinkle. Tease. Hint. Show. Entice.

Use dialogue, as long as the character isn't relaying information the other character(s) would obviously know. Include a few hints in the setting and descriptions. Use internal dialogue—sparingly—to let us see the character's motivation.

And remember—we don't need to know everything all at once. Just enough to tease us into wanting more!

So, do you have trouble with info dumps? What's your biggest challenge with them?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Hooray for Series!

by Cat Woods

As some of you know, I attended an amazing writer's conference last month.  One of the things I learned and promised to cover more in depth was how series are it.  IF they are done well. 

  • Series are easier to see in a bookstore.  A single title takes up a very small space on the shelf compared to a line of books in a series.  This is particularly true for chapter books.  Visually, the sheer number of volumes draws the eyes to a series.  Bingo.  Our books have been seen.
  • Series are familiar.  Young readers and reluctant adult readers tend to gravitate toward series where the world and characters are familiar.  Anyone who read Harry Potter knew what to expect.  Every time they cracked open a new book, they were greeted with charming Ron, intelligent Hermione and mischievous Harry.  With little to no effort, readers were drawn back into a comfortable world. 
  • Series are family.  Because we are so familiar with the characters in a series, they become like a family to us.  Readers quickly become invested in the lives of their beloved characters.  Every new title in a series is like a family reunion where we can rejoice and commiserate with long lost rellies.  
  • Series allow readers to be part of the group.  Let's face it, kids aren't the only ones who want the secret knock to the clubhouse.  It is the human condition to want to belong, to be taken along on the adventure of a lifetime, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.  A series is an invitation to join a secret club.  It satisfies our need to fit in.

While shelf space may call to a reader in the bookstore and be the reason a series is first noticed, the familiarity and sense of family keeps readers coming back to buy the next volume and the next.  So how in the heck do we write one? 

  • Character Connections.  A successful series must have a group of characters or family, if you will.  This group mentality reinforces the desire for readers to fit in.  It also allows the writer to reach a broader audience by creating multiple, strong personalities within the core group.  When readers can assimilate with a character, they will feel more comfortable joining the fun.  Harry Potter has the geeky side-kick, the brainiac, the misfit and the bully.  A favorite character for every reader.
  • Consistency.  A consistent world or home base allows readers—particular young readers—the freedom to explore while returning to the comfort of home.  This consistency is extremely important in fantasy and scifi where the world has complex rules, innovative creatures and interesting landscapes.  
  • Concept driven.  More than anything, a successful series must have a concept that readers can quickly identify with.  With a series, our concept, or hook, should only be one sentence.  Period.  Two children enter their favorite tree house and time travel to different adventures.  A young wizard must learn to control his magical powers and defeat his late parents' adversary or die trying.  Okay, not perfect, but you get the picture.   If we can't summarize our series in one sentence, we may have to rethink our projects. 

  • Create multiple points of entry.  A series must have many layers that can open up to a new story idea.  Unlike a single title or a trilogy, many series have indefinite end points.  The story itself is renewable in scope.  Readers can be voracious, and a writer's job is to supply unique and interesting stories to feed this appetite.  A successful series provides the potential for new problems and off-shoots for new stories.  The series writer has to look at the whole forest when writing instead of focusing on a specific tree.
  • Create multiple story arcs.  To be exact, the series itself must have an overall arc, as does each individual book within the series.  In other words, each book must introduce a conflict that is satisfactorily resolved at the end of the book.  Yet the series itself must also introduce a conflict that takes the entire series to resolve.  Throughout the entire series, the characters must change and grow, and eventually overcome the obstacle that initiated the series in the first place.  Yowzer.  How's that for complex?
  • Be prepared to ride the wave.  If you haven't figured out by this point, writing a series takes a lot more time, energy and organization than writing a single title.  Because of this, writers must be dedicated to the craft of writing.  Did you know that a series releases anywhere from 1-4 books per year depending on age group and genre?  To maintain reader enthusiasm, books must appear on the shelves frequently and consistently.  Deadlines must be adhered to and writers must write, edit and promote multiple projects at any given time.  If you don't love, love, love your characters, do not pitch a series, as nobody can predict the longevity of one.  For example, The Boxcar Children is Albert Whitman's top seller and has 127 books in the series.
So we have amazing characters, a broad story arc and the commitment to write as many books as it takes to resolve our overall conflict.  How do we pitch our newest concept to an agent?

  • Write the first book.  Seriously.  As successful series writer, Lin Oliver stated, "Nobody cares about your idea in publishing.  They care about the execution."  Get that first book written.  Make sure it stands alone, yet leaves a hint of great things to come. 
  • Pitch your first book as a stand alone with a series potential.  From what I gleaned from several speakers, agents and editors don't need to be told a manuscript is the first book in a series.  They can usually pick out the potential simply by the style of writing and the whiff of something deeper that needs to be explored.  If you have done your job well, they should be delighted to learn you've thought ahead.  However, we shouldn't fear mentioning the potential in a query letter.  We just have to do it right.  NO: This is the first in a series of six.  YES: This stand alone project has the potential as the first book in a series.  I have completed my series proposal should you be interested in looking it over.  For more series query tips, click here (Agent Query Connect) and see what editor Kristen Weber has to say. 
  • Write a killer proposal.  This includes providing a broad overview of the characters, the world and the overall story arc, as well as sample plots for future volumes.  Ms. Oliver cautioned that if we can only come up with three or four ideas, we do not have a series.

  • Series are an investment.  A successful series creates a life for itself. 
  • Series represent a property or franchise that creates future, renewable success.
  • Series can make a publishing company. 
  • Series are prone to being exploited in film or on television. 
The moral of the bonus info?  Keep your subsidiary rights.  I repeat.  Keep your subsidiary rights if at all possible.

Now that you know why a series can be a powerful gig in the writing biz, it is only fair to warn you that they are also one of the hardest projects for an aspiring writer to break in with.  It's hard enough for publishers to take a chance on a debut novelist.  Contracting for multiple books can be extremely risky.  If we want an editor to pick up our series, our ideas and the execution of them must be phenomenal.     

So, does your series idea have what it takes?  What do you think of the time commitment and expectations for creating a successful series?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Hurry Up and Wait No More

by Pete Morin

I began my first novel around February of 2008 (one of the very firstand very crappydraft chapters is still posted at youwriteon). At that time, the “e-Reader” was an infant (the Kindle arrived late in 2007), digital publishing was still pretty much a novelty (Smashwords was born in May of 2008)(read a fascinating history of digital publishing here), and the Big Six held a de facto monopoly on an author’s access to readers. If you wanted to “self-publish,” you were pretty much committed to driving around with a trunk full of your books, peddling them to bookstores one-at-a-time.

By February of 2009 I thought I had a halfway decent product when Diary of a Small Fish finished in the top-5 one month on Authonomy and received a fairly complimentary review by a Harper Collins’ junior assistant editorial intern (heh). There might have been a modest number of pioneers out there, but self-publishing still carried that stigma—might be good but not good enough for a real publisher. No, you have to take a shot at the brass ring, right? A year of revising and editing ensued.

By February of 2010, well—I had an agent (and a damn fine one at that!)! The promise of acceptance (if not acclaim) was within grasp. So was the Kindle, for millions. And Nook and iPad and you-name it. By God, a revolution was in progress, and the Grand Dames of Mid-town Manhattan were on an extended cocktail hour. (A year—or ten—to respond to a manuscript submission?) Why, they actually had their noses in the air at this silly notion of a digital revolution. These apocryphal anecdotes of authors actually selling a previously self-published manuscript to one of them. The very idea!

Another year of revising and editing.

And here we are today. Hundreds and hundreds of damn fine novelists (and yeah, okay, thousands of crumby ones), impatient with the glacial pace of traditional publishing’s reaction to a new paradigm—uploading manuscripts by the thousands, selling millions of copies. The number of self-published authors being offered deals increases daily. Joe Konrath waves the flag, Barry Eisler joins him. Amanda Hocking sells one million eBooks in a year and wows the world with her multi-million dollar offer, an exclamatory statement that a writer can do it either way, and damn successfully. But she’s just the biggest and latest example of the trend sure to continue.

I was trying to think of an appropriate metaphor for the contrast between the self-publishing phenomenon and traditional publishing. I think I have it. The former is like a street bazaar, thousands of vendors and buyers jostling in the dusty streets.

The latter is like a Sotheby’s auction of rare coins.

Okay, I admit it. I still want to be like so many of you—a rare coin, minted by a name brand. I still want the spine of my novel to have the word “Penguin” (and not in the title). But above all, I want as many people as possible to read it and enjoy it, and I want them to read it before the beginning of the next decade. I haven’t got all goddamn day.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Why YA? Why Now?

by Mindy McGinnis

For a while now it's seemed that YA is the market to be in.  Writers whose usual stomping grounds are certainly not in that arena have been throwing their hat in the ring—Joyce Carol Oates, James Patterson and now John Grisham.  Even Rick Riordan, of Percy Jackson and the Olympians fame was not originally a YA/MG author.

The market shift can easily be spotted in the changing genre coverage of agents, as well.  At least twice a week I get emails in my inbox from QueryTracker, alerting me to an agent who has expanded their area of interest.  More often than not, they're adding YA to the mix.

It's easy to name the catalysts—J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer—but they wouldn't be household names if people weren't reading the books.  There are plenty of excellent writers with original plots out there—across genres and readership-age—who haven't initiated worldwide culture shifts.

So what gives?  Why did your local Barnes & Noble knock down a wall to expand the teen section?

Recently, I had my college buddies over for yet another Twizzler and Dove chocolate fest.  Books came up, and everyone turned to me for recommendations, since I spend 40 a week surrounded by them.  I tossed off three or four titles, pens started scribbling and I said, "Sorry guys, I just realized everything I'm telling you is YA.  It's pretty much what I'm reading right now."

To my surprise, this group of above-average intelligence, thirty-something women all said, "Oh—us too, it's totally cool."  Since I had a captive audience I picked their brains—why?  Why are adults reading YA?  I have to admit, it's kinda been killing me.  And their answer echoed what I had come up with on my own:

Because we didn't have any.

Readers in my age frame had to leap across a massive gap in our early to late teens.  We went from R.L. Stine to Stephen King, Sweet Valley High to Danielle Steele, Nancy Drew to Kinsey Milhone.  With few exceptions (God bless you Lois Duncan, Judy Blume & Christopher Pike) there wasn't a market for edgy, intelligent YA—definitely not in the numbers we're seeing now.  As a teen, I had to search out titles that interested me in my age range.  As an adult, I'm saturated with YA books in the TBR pile, and the bedstand is hating life.

Teens are reading in massive numbers.  I speak from firsthand experience when I say there has been a major shift in the way pleasure reading is viewed in the high school where I work.  The quarterback is carrying around the same book as the mousey girl with glasses, and he's not trying to hide it underneath a copy of Men's Fitness, either.

Adults are reading those same books.  There's a reason why Sweet Valley was trending on Twitter days after the release of Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later.  It's 'cause women like me were happily throwing down our college degrees and rolling around in some trash-awesome.  Am I vicariously attempting to recapture my youth?

Or am I trying to fill a fifteen-year-old gap?