Friday, April 29, 2011

Getting to Know You

by Matt Sinclair

My wife is a saint. I suppose she'd have to be to put up with me—what with a writer's piles of papers and books, the frequent empty stares when my mind is off in some fictional setting with people who exist only in my imagination, and of course the hours spent pulling those people into the world of sentences, paragraphs, chapters....

That said, when I met the woman who became my wife, her saintliness was the furthest thing from my thoughts. Light years away.

Ideally, we learn who people are in the manner and time that makes the most sense. When we learn about them too soon, alarms tend to go off and books are closed never to be reopened.

In short: pace yourself.

I was reminded of this recently while working on a manuscript I thought was nearly finished. I'd been through the manuscript a couple dozen times, but at the suggestion of my critique partners I saw one of my characters in a new light. What I thought was a seemingly innocuous business trip by the wife of my main character became a launch pad for a whole new story line: a potential affair. The more I thought about the possibility, the more I recognized that this undercurrent had been in the manuscript all along, only I hadn't been watching for it. My shoelaces were untied. Seems I'm always the last to know!

So with a song in my heart, I considered having an affair with this woman, so to speak. Within a half hour, more than 1700 words were down. And it was a complete mess. Chalk up one more example to Anne Lamott's crappy first drafts. The conversation between my characters moved way too quickly. These were married people, after all. Married people are slow. Or maybe it's just me.

What mattered most is that it didn't ring true, and I knew it immediately because I know this woman. No, she's not based on anyone I know. But that doesn't matter. She is the woman I've been writing all these many months.

I know how she wears her hair, and I know what she thinks about during her commute to work. I know what she thinks of her family and her job. In my mind, I see her every day. I'm still in the midst of revisions, but I think I know how the potential affair will end. I've written dozens of scenes between her and her husband, many of which lie dormant in old computer files—waiting, perhaps, for a short story and a name change to protect the not always saintly.

Like my personal relationships, those I maintain with my characters are vitally important to me. These people aren't my best friends. I don't even like them all the time. But as an author, that doesn't bother me; they're human, and people stink sometimes. Some characters are prone to make selfish decisions, while others choose to forgo their personal pleasure for a greater good. Ultimately, I find that discovering who these people are both on and off the page is among the most rewarding aspects of writing fiction.

The key, it seems to me, is letting the characters come to a decision by themselves—in their own time and in their own way. That takes time. But it is time well spent.

What do you think? How long does it take to get to know your characters? How many scenes litter your 'cutting room' floor?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Connecting With Our Characters

by Lucy Marsden

Sometimes we struggle with it as part of a first draft process—a feeling that we don’t know this person who we’re trying to write about, and so the character feels one-dimensional or inert for a while.

Sometimes the issue is that the outside world has pulled us away from our story for so long that we’ve forgotten whatever it was that we thought we knew about our story people, and are faced with the challenge of re-immersing ourselves and bringing the story back to life.

And sometimes it’s something totally different, some other factor that makes our characters feel like awkward, unlikeable strangers to us. I won’t pretend to be able to analyze every aspect of this; my guess is that the struggle presents differently from writer to writer. My fabulous critique partner, Ruth Cardello, and I both recently dealt with this issue, however, and I thought it would be cool to invite her over to talk about our different experiences with our estranged characters, and what helped us to finally connect.

LM: Ruthie, you recently self-published the first book in your Legacy series, MAID FOR THE BILLIONAIRE. The positive responses to the book that you received resurrected your enthusiasm for completing the second book in the series, FOR LOVE OR LEGACY. You’ve spoken to me in the past about how difficult it was to reconnect with the characters in this book. Can you say more about that?

RC: Lucy, thank you for asking me to share my experience on your blog.  I've learned so much over the years from listening to others work through the bumps and slumps that are part of the writing process. I hope my experience is able to help someone else.

I finished MAID FOR THE BILLIONAIRE over a year ago and began dabbling with the second book.  In the last year, however, I changed jobs and added a new baby to my family.  My busy schedule left me feeling disconnected from my characters—a feeling that intensified with each "pass" I received in response to my first book.

 I wrote and rewrote the first chapter so many times that I forgot what I loved about the hero and the heroine in the first place.  Stephan had sizzled on the page in book why was he a one dimensional, overdone douche in the second book? 

I had to reconnect with my first story to find out, and I'm guessing that it's that process that you'd like me to share here.

LM: Yes, please!

RC: First, I had to get excited about writing again.  I had heard that some people put a book up on Amazon and B&N for free in order to gain an interest base before they publish and charge for their second book.  I decided to take the plunge.  What did I have to lose?  If the first story wasn't as good as I hoped, then I would know pretty quickly as the reviews came in.  Maybe Stephan was never that sexy of a character, and that's why he was having trouble carrying his own book.

I uploaded my book four days ago, and as of right now (clicking over a tab to check), 1,106 people have downloaded it.  The reviews were better than I had hoped, and emails are coming in from people around the country who want to read Stephan's story.

So, I dusted off my original chapter—yes, the first one I wrote before my revising frenzy beat the life out of it, and read it back to back with MAID FOR THE BILLIONAIRE.  The problem was instantly clear.  In the first book, Stephan promised the reader a complex character with strong motivation for his actions.  When I tried to fit that character into the more traditional beginning of a category romance, however, his character deflated.  He didn't want to be defined by the heros who had come before him.  He had his own story to tell.  I just had to get out of his way.

I'm happy to say that Stephan is back in book two and raising the temperature on the page again.

LM: So glad to hear it, Ruthie, and so glad that you could come over and be part of this discussion!

For myself, I think a couple of different things were going on in the scene that I was working on. First, I had been away from the scene for a couple of weeks, and that always makes me feel like I’ve got this heaping helping of inertia to overcome in terms of getting back into the story world.

Second, the hero and antagonists’ goals for the scene had changed, and were still in the process of re-gelling, so I was whacking myself over the head for a couple of hours trying to nail down what Bastien wanted, why he wanted it, who was getting in his way and how, and how he was going to react to that emotionally and behaviorally. You know—trifling stuff like that.

Last, I think I unconsciously use an omniscient camera angle during my first draft; I am so worried about laying out the story for myself, that I am telling almost everything and showing almost nothing. And there might be nothing wrong with that; writing is mostly about re-writing, and layering in all the stuff that you don’t gravitate towards during your first pass, but here’s the thing: that omniscient lens was making Bastien feel facile and distant, and it was leaving me cold.

My current MS is an erotic romance, which means the story is ALL about emotional and sensual intensity and immediacy. Moreover, this was the scene where my hero and heroine would finally meet! Instead of being immersed in the fun of that, though, I felt like I was watching my toothsome hero through several layers of plexiglass, or possibly even Tupperware. What to do?

Well, I started by going to the library, barricading myself in one of the private study rooms, and shoving super-duper earplugs in my ear. The rest of the solution was a two-part procedure:

1) I pulled a piece of text from one of my favorite romance authors, Denise Rossetti, whose use of deep, third-person POV feels very powerful to me. I noticed how completely she put me in the skin of her characters, how every sensory detail and emotional reaction was SHOWN. I noticed how the vibe of a particular character infused his thoughts and perceptions and dialogue-- every bit of it was so very him. Then I went back to my scene, and looked for opportunities to use the same techniques.

2) I repeated to myself, over and over again: “Stop rushing to tell this story. Slow your ass down, and BE in the scene with Bastien.”

Thankfully, this worked. Bastien isn’t as exuberantly 3-D as he will be in time, but I can hear him and feel him in a way that I couldn’t before, and the heat and humor that should be in the scene is showing up, praise Jah.

So tell me, because I’d love to hear more from other folks: What blocks you when you’re trying to connect to your characters, and how do you get around it?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Going Solo: One Author's Publishing Experience

by J. Lea Lopez

I am lucky to have met many writers at various stages in their careers through social networking and online writing sites—every one of the Write Angle Crew is an example of that! One author, Drew Cross, recently did a guest post for me at Jello World and was kind enough to do an interview for us here at FTWA.

Drew's novel, BiteMarks was recently released by the indie publisher Night Publishing. He has also self-published another novel, and is working with a different publisher for a middle grade fantasy novel, The Scarmap. This is what he has to say about his journey to becoming a published author.

JL: I don't think it's any secret that the traditional publishing industry is in the midst of a lot of changes right now. As a new author, what are your thoughts on this? There are some writers (and let's think mostly of new writers, not the established writer who has a fanbase and household name already) who look exclusively to go with indie presses or to self-publish (sort of a stick it to the traditional publishing man camp). There are others who still put every last bit of their stock in traditional publishing and turn their noses up at anything self-published. And of course there are more 'moderate' writers who seek to use the success and knowledge gleaned by agents/publishers in the traditional marketplace to their advantage while still trying to position themselves favorably for the future. Where do you see yourself?

DC: I'm a literary dilettante—I dabble with all routes into print! The way I see it, the big boys are taking fewer chances on new writers due to the economic climate that we find ourselves in (the same with agents).

Self-publishing is bloody hard work (mainly the marketing, the formatting doesn't seem to be all that bad), and you run the risk of putting out books that are poorly edited, or making elementary mistakes that cost you time and sales. Having said that, the experience is useful—you get a feel for what can and can't be done—as well as making valuable contacts (and friendships) along the way. Don't underestimate the power of what your friends can help you with!

Indie publishers are hit and miss; I'm extremely fortunate that Tim Roux at Night Publishing seriously knows his stuff, which is why they're flourishing. However, there are many other Indies going out of business when they've got aspects wrong—it's heart-breaking to see your publisher disappear from view when you're preparing for launch; not to mention messy! I like Indies—they're happier to take a chance on newbies, and the right ones can still be a valid place for career-minded writers. You'll work harder to get noticed than if you're with one of the big names, but you'll learn from that experience, and nobody's working harder than Tim is right now!

JL: I know you can't name your U.S. publisher for your MG novel at the moment, but can you say whether it's a larger house, an indie imprint or small press? Did you submit directly to the publishing house, or did you use an agent for that deal? I'm just wondering how you would compare your experience working to secure that deal vs. your experience with BiteMarks and eventually Night Publishing.

DC: The U.S. publisher is part of a larger publishing group, and I snuck in by the backdoor (I was dealing with another good-sized Indie in the US who turned out to be broke, another author jumped ship and suggested that I follow suit, and together we jumped the queue to the commissioning editors desk!). I've never had an agent, since they seem to be largely uninterested in newbie writers at the moment, so I've focused on networking with fab writer friends who've been kind enough to suggest publishers for direct submissions on occasion. And I've submitted to others that caught my interest because of their back catalogues. I'd love an agent, but only if I felt they could add value.

JL: What type of value would you be looking for?

DC: By value, I guess I mean that they could introduce me to publishers that I couldn't approach myself. I'm not interested in sharing a cut of my earnings with somebody who can't justify that cut by getting me bigger opportunities.

JL: How do you stay abreast of industry changes and news?

DC: I don't think you can beat social media for industry changes and news. I pick up most of that from Facebook and Twitter—another thing to thank my many wonderful friends out there in the ether for!

JL: You co-wrote a book with another author and you two self-published. What did you learn from that experience? How did you know when the book was ready, editorially? Did you pay for an editor, or did you do all the editing and proofreading yourself? What about cover art—do you have talented friends, do it yourself, or hire someone? How difficult/how much work was it to self-publish the book? Would you do it again in the future? In other words, tell me EVERYTHING!

DC: The self-published work (Eternity by AJ Cole and Jenni James) is available through kindle and smashwords. It's been a steep (and continuous!) Learning curve so far! We did our own edits, formatting, cover, pricing, marketing etc, etc...and in retrospect, whilst we saved money that way, we also put ourselves under a lot of pressure in the process.

The book was read by friends and acquaintances to gauge initial reaction (this is, of course, only an indication, since friends are unlikely to tell you it's atrocious, but we wanted them to point out anything that jarred more than anything else!). I'd self-publish again, but ideally once I'd begun to establish a modest 'name' for myself—since it takes more time than I've got at the moment to build a healthy amount of sales. I'd also probably pay for professional edits—they make a LOT of difference to the reader's enjoyment of the finished product.

JL: You mentioned to me in a previous conversation that you think there is a definite formula for success when it comes to e-publishing. Any idea what that formula is, because I'd love to know!

DC: The bits you need to get right for a 'formula' are: Pricing, editing, cover design, tags, availability for ALL e-formats, and a logical structured approach to marketing (don't do them all, unless you intend to neglect your family and friends and live online forever! Focus on Goodreads, kindleboards, guesting on popular blogs, featuring interesting guests on your own blog, regularly tweeting and FB contributing to a continuously growing network of friends...). Don't keep shouting BUY MY BOOK—it's irritating and gets ignored anyway—instead be generous with details about yourself and keep updating day in and day out to build momentum. Getting reviews in the right places is extremely important for getting visible too.

JL: With regards to marketing the book, what has been/will be your approach? Do you feel your presence on twitter/fb/social media in general is valuable or important in this aspect? Do you place any importance on blogging or an author website to build a readership and promote the book?

DC: From a marketing point of view, you can't go too far wrong with reading JA Konrath's blog for starters. He basically pioneered self-publishing marketing strategy, and regularly shifts tens of thousands of books each MONTH! Social media is absolutely at the heart of your strategy if you're serious about selling e-books in volume; but not simply spamming your friends and family! Writers are only going to form a small part of the audience that you want to reach—you need to engage readers (not necessarily the same demographic!). 
Drew is a married father of two from Nottingham, England; he has been a model and a police officer (but never a model police officer!), and now masquerades as a financial adviser for a large banking group while dreaming of one day writing full-time for a living. When he's not reading, writing, toddler wrangling or weimaraner wrestling, he enjoys martial arts, cooking various cuisines (South East Asian a particular favourite) and meditating.
 Be sure to check out Drew's books, and if you'd like to hear more of what he has to say, follow him on Twitter @authordrewcross.

Have you, or are you considering, self-publishing or signing with an indie publisher? We'd love to hear your comments about the experience!

Friday, April 22, 2011

More ‘Naked’ Potential

by Brenda Carre

It's hard to follow two posts on getting naked, but here goes.

Have you any lesser-known ways of your own to network and make valuable contacts in the writing industry? If so I would love to hear them. In this post I hope to lay bare four tried-and-true ways of my own.

1. Join organizations of like-minded writers. Be prepared to learn. I have the pleasure today to travel south to Seattle, Washington and Norwescon. While there, I will be giving a four-minute reading called a Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading. An RFR is networking and fun all rolled into a one-hour session where ten authors read excerpts of their work. Readings are usually given to a full room of listeners. Other members of this organization have taught me the art of picking and reading short passages. Listening to the amazing work delivered by the other ‘Broads’ is both engaging and revelatory.

Broad Universe is an international non-profit organization dedicated to promoting, encouraging, honoring, and celebrating women writers and editors in science fiction, fantasy, horror and other speculative genres.

Romance Writers of America is another amazing source of writerly goodness. There is likely a local chapter of the RWA near you. Many host writing contests and talks by fantastic speakers. There are writer organizations for pretty much every genre out there. Take the plunge. Clothed, or not. You will not be disappointed.

2. Attend local writers’ conferences and conventions and become a volunteer. This not only saves you money but it gives you the opportunity to connect with writers ‘behind the scenes’ as well as giving you the opportunity to connect with other writer-volunteers. One of my local favorites is Surrey International Writers Conference.  This is a fabulous big conference hosting authors, agents and editors from all over North America and abroad. If you live near a large city, the odds are there will be a significant writers' conference within driving distance. If you don’t, consider putting one together in your area. An author friend of mine helps put together a great small conference in the Yukon that attracts many industry pros each year.

3. Visit and patronize your local indie bookstore and your branch library. Don’t be afraid to go and talk to the school librarian either, especially if you write YA. (My wonderful colleague on this blog Mindy McGinnis is a youth librarian and an amazing resource) In my city there are still several ‘destination’ bookstores that host readings and make a genuine effort to order in hard-to-find books. These amazing readers and resource folks keep me informed of who is coming to do readings and they have even done cold reads for me and given me valuable critique on ‘plot holes’ in my manuscripts. Nobody knows marketing and what is on demand by readers like booksellers, and librarians

4. Connect with authors by attending readings, by commenting on their blogs or by following them on Twitter. There are many amazing authors out there that are happy to respond to comments. One of the most helpful I have found is the wonderful fantasy author Carol Berg. Her informative blog, Text Crumbs, is a treasure of craft-related information that takes you all the way from plotting to production. Other blogs I have found to provide some naked honesty from the pros are: Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Dean Wesley Smith, and Kevin J Anderson.

Go have fun.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Artistic Cross Training

by R.S. Mellette

I sat there naked listening to the teacher talk.

No, this wasn't one of those dreams where you find yourself in school or at work in your underwear. This was reality. No, I wasn't one of those young boys being abused by their smokin' hot eighth grade teacher... darn it. I was working as a model for figure drawing classes at Virginia Commonwealth University while I tried to finish out my BFA in theatre at this, my 3rd college.

To take my mind off my right foot, which had gone so numb from sitting still that it felt like it belonged to some other person, I listened to the teacher talk about technique. His art class sounded similar to my acting classes, and from what I could gather, his students hated him as much as some of the actors hated our teachers who pounded the drum of technique.

He talked of "seeing the muscles." (This was back when I had muscles). The students had to name them like doctors in an anatomy class. If a student drew lines, he asked them to point out the lines they saw on my body. (This was before I had lines on my body). "There are no lines," he would say, "only sharp differentials of light and shadow."

He was not teaching his students to draw; he was teaching them to see.

On breaks, I got to walk around and look at the students' work – which if you ever get a chance to do will make clear the concept of Cubism. In this teacher's class the drawings looked like me. Not only that, but as they year went on, the work got better. In another class, where the teacher did not harp on technique, anatomy, seeing what was really there, etc. I wondered why I had to be there at all. The drawings were as mushy as her discussions of how to draw. Her lessons had a point, but not for beginning students.

Noticing this difference, I decided to pay more attention to our teachers hammering home techniques of acting. "Listen and respond." "Don't act. React to what you're given." "Don't show, just do."

They weren't teaching us to speak – that's another class – they were teaching us to listen. To listen to our scene partners. To listen to the words on the page and what they had to say about the human condition our characters faced. They were teaching us to listen with our entire being.

The idea of artistic cross training took hold in my head and has become a tool of mine in all aspects of life. One I hope to share in this blog.

Painters learn to see. Actors learn to listen. Musicians learn to hear. Dancers learn to feel. Writers learn how all five senses create more than the sum of their parts.

From the artists' work, we learn how to become better human beings.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Writing Naked

by Sophie Perinot

I am a very private person. But as an author I recognize that the writing process is no place to be coy. When I sit down to my keyboard I do so naked. NO, not in the buff (though if that works for you I say go for it!). I am talking about sitting down ready to bare myself emotionally.

Why do I get naked? It’s a matter of “C”haracter. I want my characters to be believable, because let’s face it nothing makes someone drop a book faster than 1-dimensional, card-board cut-out characters. I want readers to IDENTIFY with my characters (even the ones they don’t like very much). To achieve these goals, my characters need to behave as real people do in similar circumstances.

So how do I create flesh-and-blood out of thin air and computer pixels? How do I get “into” my character’s skin? By calling upon the ghosts of undergrad-acting-classes past (see Mom and Dad I told you taking acting wasn’t a complete waste of my time and your tuition dollars) and using the same techniques that a Method Actor would.

“Affective Memory can be VERY effective. Affective Memory can be understood as “emotional memory”(at least in acting it can. In psychology it is my understanding that people will go three rounds with you about what the term means and whether an “affective memory” even exists but I didn’t study psychology so let’s leave that shall we?). I am suggesting that as an author you delve into some of your most personal emotional experiences and use them to breathe life into your characters. The best writing means revealing, by proxy, feelings and experiences you would never share with someone at a cocktail party. Giving voice to stuff (emotional reactions and behaviors) you wouldn’t tell your own mother. Better still, revealing things you have trouble admitting to yourself.

Of course the easiest and most convenient situation for using emotional memories occurs when one of your characters is plotted to experience an event that you’ve personally lived through. Walked away from an evil, philandering husband-from-hell? Now is the time to mine all that pain for profit. But lots of times the conflicts in our characters’ lives are entirely removed from our experience (just as well – particularly if you write in a genre involving violent deaths). So how do you create convincing emotional action and reaction for such events? Creative substitution (you’re a creative type, remember). Ask yourself when in my life have I felt/behaved in the way that I need my character to feel/behave now? Recall that occasion in as much detail as possible until you not only remember the externalities of the event but how you felt as well. Then take the next logical step – how did your feelings make you behave?

If you honestly cannot come up with an incident that provides useful insights for an emotional situation faced by your character feel absolutely free to strip your relatives, friends, colleagues and neighbors bare (how often is someone going to suggest that, eh?). Do you have a friend who felt ignored by her husband of many years (something that is happening to your protagonist in the middle part of your book)? How did it change her? What was she like to be around? Did she get angry, sad, both? Did she internalize her feelings or externalize them? How did they manifest themselves and who got the emotional pie in the face?

A few caveats (or “your naked is not everybody’s naked”)

First, every character in your book is NOT you. Or at least every character SHOULDN’T be you (that’s what bad actors do – play themselves in every role. Can you imagine 30 novels all featuring permutations of me as the main character -- yuck). You want variety (it’s the spice of life and also of fiction). So, no matter whose experiences you draw upon to generate an emotional response for your characters filter that response through the character’s setting (time period, socio-economic class, etc) and personal psychological make-up. In other words, it isn’t enough to “know thy self” you need to know your each of your characters inside and out as well.

Second, there is no point in being embarrassed or dodging the really painful, frustrating, mortifying internal material that might provide a fantastic basis for your characters’ internal lives. Even though you know (see point one) that your characters are NOT you, some percentage of your readers are going to think they are. Yep, remember that stale marriage bit from your manuscript? When readers see your husband some number of them are going to give him the fish-eye. If you are going to get branded with the good, the bad and the ugly from your characters’ psyches you might as well be emotionally honest in the writing process—you might as well bare your soul in the service of your art.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Query Quandary

by R.C. Lewis

Mention queries, and writers of all ages sprout a few more gray hairs. The first rule of #AskAgent chats on Twitter is No Query Questions. I used to think there was no such thing as a writer who looks forward to writing one or an agent who adores slogging through hundreds of them to find a few gems. Turns out Cat likes writing them, just not sending them. So there's at least one out there. But not many, I bet.

No one (or almost) really likes them, but I get why they fall under the "necessary evil" category. And it's not like there aren't resources out there to help—enough blogs to overload anyone's browser, for starters.

Even with all that help, we struggle. After doing my best to help critique several queries on AgentQuery Connect and overhauling my own query for the umpteenth time, I thought about what makes it so difficult. Boiling a novel-length plot down to a couple hundred words isn't easy, obviously. But what—above all else—stands in the way?

They say the devil's in the details. I contend that the devil's in determining the depth of the details. (How's that for alliteration?)

Boil down the plot too much, and you get something like this:

An orphan boy discovers he has unexpected power and is the Chosen One who must battle ultimate Evil.

Could be Harry Potter. Or Star Wars. Or possibly dozens of other fantasy works.

More often, though, I think we tend to go to the opposite extreme, thinking every nuance of the story is essential if the agent or editor is to understand the plot. Try this (exaggerated) example:

Milton Dauntless, a shy thirteen-year-old boy with a faithful Chihuahua-Corgi mix named Gargantuar, discovers his parents, Darwina and Ted, weren't killed in the famous So-So Steakhouse food poisoning scandal of '99 as he'd been told all his life by Grandma Gertie. In fact, his father was killed by the evil vampire lord Vladindeath, who has secretly ruled the underworld ever since defeating the werewolf clans seven hundred fifty-two years ago. As the sole survivor of the powerful Dauntless clan, Milton must now learn to harness the power of the Crystal of Purity, find out what happened to his mother when she escaped the bloodbath of her husband's murder with her long-lost brother Sherman, and defeat the vampires once and for all.

(Okay, that was kind of fun.)

That one is obviously bogged down in excess detail, including irrelevant backstory and too many names. (I have a related post on my blog on the issue of Name Soup.)

Here are some of my conclusions, and I hope others will add to them.

Get Enough Detail
  • The whole point of the query is to show an agent or editor what makes your story stand out from the others. Part of this can be through voice. But these days, if you're writing about vampires or angels, for example, you've got to show your unique twist.
  • Make it memorable and leave them wanting more. Again, the point of the query: get a request for more material.
  • Include details that are snappy, quirky, or unexpected ... without belaboring the point.

Don't Overdo the Detail
  • R.C.'s Personal Rule of Thumb: Anyone who won't be mentioned by name again in the query shouldn't be named at all.
  • Avoid backstory. Plenty of time (and more creative ways) to incorporate it into the manuscript itself.
  • Axe details that can leave the reader saying, "Why should I care about that?" For example, knowing all of that about Milton's dog doesn't really tell us anything substantial about the character (except maybe that he has a silly sense of humor when it comes to naming pets) or the plot.

It's a thin line to walk between too much and too little. No wonder so many of us find it so difficult.

Do you have any pointers for finding that perfect balance?


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Clean House is One in Which No Writing is Being Done (Unless You Have A Maid, But That’s Cheating)

by Mindy McGinnis

I’ve got to admit that I’m often torn between the demands of real life, and the demands of the fake people who live in my head.  Sure, there are certain responsibilities that must be attended to—cats don’t feed themselves, dog vomit doesn’t magically disappear—but is it imperative that my dresser be dusted off?  Who sees it anyway?  Me.  And do I care?

Technically, no.  I don’t.  Most of the dust in my bedroom is comprised of my own dead skin cells anyway, right?  So why do I care if part of me now resides on top of my dresser?  It makes its own kind of sense, really.  But—even practical me gets a dragging sense of inadequacy when I see that layer of dust.  I’ve failed as a housekeeper.

Then the flip side asks me—what if I fail as a writer?  What if the fake people in my head die and I walk around smelling bad because of it?  OK that last bit isn’t going to happen, but cutting off the circulation to my imagination will in fact kill my characters, and nothing cuts off the blood flow to the brain like housework.

And hey fellas—this applies across the board.  I know plenty of awesome dudes and single fathers who work their butts off, so don’t think that this is a female-centric philosophy. 

I was recently reading the excellent book Women Who Run With the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and came upon this excellent quote:

“I've seen women work long, long hours at jobs they despise in order to buy very expensive items for their houses, mates, or children, and putting their considerable talents on the back burner. I've seen women insist on cleaning everything in the house before they could sit down to write... and you know, it's a funny thing about house cleaning... it never comes to an end. Perfect way to stop a woman. A woman must be careful to not allow overresponsibility (or overrespectability) to steal her necessary creative rests, rifts, and raptures. She simply must put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes she "should" be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only.”

Think on that for a bit, the last sentence particularly.  It resonated with me, and I’m betting it will with you, too.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Trends in MG

by Jemi Fraser

Trends, trends, trends.

What's going to be next? ... What's hot right now? ... Should I write to trends?

Who knows? ... Varies, depending on who you ask. ... No.

But, it is always interesting to see what your prospective audience is reading. If you find trends over the years in the same audience, you might see something useful.

For years, I've taught middle and upper elementary school—grades 5 - 8. The kids are 10 to 14 in this age group. For the most part, they love to read. I tell them the first day of school that they'll love reading in no time. They always prove me right.

So, what trends do I see? It changes, but here's what's hot in my class (Grade 5/6) in MG this year.

Humour. Kids love to laugh. They like different kinds of humour too: jokes, small smile humour, giggle inducers, I-wouldn't-want-that-to-happen-to-me humour, and laugh-out-loud-until-you-cry humour.

Big hits this year: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, Dear Dumb Diary (these are all series which totally supports Cat's discoveries at SCBWI!)

Mysteries. Kids love to solve mysteries—love to put together the clues to see if they can figure it out before the main characters. Detective and spy stories are popular.

Big hits of the year: Treasure of Turtle Lake, Alex Rider series

Adventure. This is the most popular genre by far in my classroom this year. Kids love to imagine themselves being heroes, participating in adventures. They like big, outrageous adventures that could never happen. They love adventures that happened long ago and those that happen in other worlds. They adore adventure that is something they could actually do under the right circumstances.

Big hits of the year: Dogsled Dreams, Ranger's Apprentice, Lightning Thief, Golden Compass, The Divide, anything by Gary Paulsen. Some of these books are fantasy as well, but the kids tell me the adventure part is why they like them the most.

So, those are the MG trends I'm seeing so far this year.

Are you seeing similar trends? Any suggestions for books my students might like?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Are You Entitled To That Title?

by Darke Conteur

A while back, someone on AQC posted a question about the title of their novel and if there were any specific rules. It was a big surprise to them when a fellow member (Litgal, I’m looking at you) basically said that it didn’t matter what the title was, there was a good chance it wouldn’t be the one the publishers went with, if and when the novel was published.

Get that? The title of your novel (as it is now), might not be what’s on the cover. For those of you who didn’t know this, I’ll give you a moment to pick your jaw up off the floor.

This didn’t surprise me. I’ve heard stories about this for some time. My own dealings with a copyeditor for my editorials were an interesting lesson. I never titled them, was told not to by the newspaper editor, as the copyeditor only had so many characters to work with to fit the whole thing in the column. That was fine by me, but the titles he gave them—and what I had in mind, were always two different things. I wasn’t even allowed to suggest anything. Imagine that, not being able to suggest a title for your own work!

How does this bode for your novel? Would a title change enhance or ruin your story? I don’t think so. Remember, this is part of the marketing side of publishing. Why would the editor purposely re-name your book to something that wasn’t appropriate? Besides, I’m pretty sure you’ll have a say in the final naming of the project.

Some titles are changed because they’re too long, or might sound like another book, which is why I suggest you do a search on your chosen title. You’d be surprised at what you’d find, but don’t fret over naming your story. Sometimes they don’t come to us at the beginning and that’s fine. What’s important is the idea. Work on the story, and let the title take care of itself.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Conference Surprises--Ah ha moments from SCBWI-Iowa

by Cat Woods

I don’t want to rehash agent and editor blogs, nor do I want to repeat what writer-bloggers tend to discuss on a fairly regular basis. Instead, I aim to provide you with the top ten shockers I learned at my SCBWI conference in Iowa this past weekend—a place where industry professionals ran the gamut from well-known authors and illustrators to agents and editors to marketing directors.

10. Many panelists were not opposed to picking up successful self-published writers. HOWEVER, the average self-pubbed writer will likely be consumed by sharks long before s/he sells enough to be noticed by the publishing professionals. My words, not theirs. I think editor Molly O’Neill said winning the lottery would be easier. Michelle F. Bayuk, Director of Marketing, cautioned conference-goers that the problem with an already pubbed book is the initial reviews—critical components of a marketing campaign—are impossible to get, virtually rendering a previously published piece invisible to school and library markets.

9. Nor were the panelists afraid of the e-book. Rather, many embraced it as “the wave of the future.” They tended to view it as simply another format in which to sell a project. None of the panelists believed the e-market would replace illustrated pieces any time soon. Tip: Retain your e-rights.

8. The idea of Bloggers as Booksellers has been circulating, so I asked panelists to weigh in. Of those who answered, the consensus was that bloggers can and do create buzz. But—yes, the answer always came with a “but”—anybody can write a review. Not every blog reviewer has clout and some have more than others. So, use this technology if it’s you, but don’t fret if your book isn’t making the review rounds.

7. Marketing and promotion. It is not our job as writers to sell books. It is our job as writers to create connections that will sell books. Convoluted? Here’s an example given by Ms. Buyak. Never ask a bookseller to carry your book. EVER. Form a relationship with that bookseller so he wants to carry your book and let your marketing team get the books onto his shelves.

6. Which leads me to the whole school-visits-are-a-good-thing shock. Self-promotion is all about connections. Create them at schools, churches, organizations, non-profits, fire departments, etc. Book signings are a different can of worms. Do those to celebrate you, not to sell your book.

5. Whatever your book’s audience, engage in those communities as often as possible. The more ties your book has, the bigger your market. This equals backlist potential, and the ability for a book to backlist well is one of the defining factors the panelists look for when considering a project. So, what does this mean for us? Exploit natural tie-ins, and do not ignore the library/school potential.

4. Writing is two-fold. Business and craft. Each is distinct, yet inextricably entwined, like DNA. Be aware of both and the impact one has on the other, but do not sacrifice one for the other. Without true art, there is no product to market. Yet without a market, art cannot find a home. Need a boost right about now? Agent Stephen Fraser believes that every project has a home. It is just a matter of finding it.

3. The universal message of every speaker: “Write your own story in your own voice with your own vision. Do not write derivatives. Know the trends.” So what are they in the juvenile lit arena? According to Mr. Fraser, chapter book series will continue to do well, as will books with metaphorical or spiritual components for YA readers. Historical fiction and picture books are slow now, while graphic novels will become commonplace.

Ms. O’Neill believes character-driven books are key, even in picture books. This plays largely on a reader’s ability to make solid connections with the story and the MCs. All panelists agreed that while picture books are a hard sell now, agents and editors will advocate to the end for a picture book that tugs at their heartstrings and speaks to them.

2. Talent is a must, bios are optional. Everyone loves debut authors. Yes, yes and YES! From agents to editors to acquisitions boards, the excitement of finding a fresh, new voice is akin to finding a trunk of jewels at the end of a treasure hunt. Ms. O’Neill explained that a debut novelist has no mixed track record and can often be an easier sell.

1. And the biggest shocker of all: series are it. I’ll say that again. Series are desirable. They are easier sells on the bookshelf than single titles, and successful series are the biggest money makers. Why? The short answer is because readers have an instant connection and familiarity with the characters. They are comfortable and satisfying. The long answer is far too complex to go into now.

Want more on series? Come back May 6th when I post what I learned from a master, Ms. Lin Oliver.

Want more depth? I’ll do my best to answer any questions.

Monday, April 4, 2011

An Introduction to Steampunk

by Calista Taylor

When I say I write steampunk, the usual reaction I get is "Steam... what?"  I can't help but laugh since it's always the same response, but I'm always happy to explain with the hopes of drawing one more over to the dark side.

Steampunk has experienced a recent explosion in popularity, with steampunk elements popping up in movies, fashion, and everything in between.  However as popular as steampunk is, there are still many who are not familiar with what it actually is, though they've likely been looking at steampunk without even knowing it.

There is a bit of difficulty in explaining steampunk as a genre, since it really is quite adaptable and flexible, and extends well beyond a genre of fiction to an aesthetic in clothing, art, and everyday items. The simplest way to describe steampunk is to envision the industrial revolution, where steam-powered machinery ruled, occurring at the same time as the technological revolution.  But really, because of its flexibility, it can be so much more than that.

Here's a brief overview of steampunk as I see it.

Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative science fiction that usually takes place during the Victorian time period or in a world where Victorian aesthetics and ideologies are dominant. However there is the very important addition of technological advances — often steam driven — that did not necessarily exist during the Victorian time period and may be far more advanced than even our current technologies, but are always in keeping with the aesthetics of the time period. The technology is often used to try and better the lives of the people and erase the inequalities of society that were so dominant during that time period.

Steampunk, at its earliest, was influenced by writers like H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Mary Shelley, since their works included many fictional technological inventions and prominent elements of science fiction. Though steampunk is often set in Victorian England, you can easily find many stories set in other countries and areas, some settings altogether fictional.

Because there is so much more to steampunk than what I've covered, I encourage you to check out Wikipedia and Tor for more information. Also check out the great postings Tor put up for steampunk month, and if you're looking for some great steampunk reads, here's a list.

I do hope you'll pick up a steampunk book and give it a try, or even better, try writing a bit of steampunk.  After all, what other genre allows you to combine head-strong corseted women, airships, and a multitude of steam-powered inventions?

Friday, April 1, 2011

BBC's Query Tips: Knowledge Gleaned From Years of Stalking Agent Blogs

by Mindy McGinnis
I've got a round of agent blogs that I check up on and read almost daily. From this I've learned a few things that should be basic starting points for anyone who is getting ready to jump into the world of querying, and also a good refresher for those of us who have been at it for years... and years.

1) DON'T tell the agent how awesome you are. Every single agent I've read who comments upon this agrees: A modest writer is a better writer.

2) DON'T mass email your query. Most agents won't even read a query that has multiple recipients or is not addressed to them specifically.

DO double check your spelling of the agent's name. Also, be sure of their gender.

3) DON'T tell the agent that your grandma and your son's friends love your book. Why? Your grandma won't tell you if you suck.

4) DON'T even send that query if your word count is over a certain number. That number can be played with according to genre, but basic
guidelines will tell you that any unpublished, unrepped writer querying their novel that is over 100,000 words is sunk before they leave the harbor.

5) DON'T be overly friendly with your tone. A query is a business letter. You're approaching a professional about your hope for establishing a professional relationship with them. Opening with, "What's up?" isn't how to get your foot in the door.

DO personalize in a professional manner. Do you follow their blog? Did they mention they're looking for a certain type of project
that your ms fits perfectly? Tell them that. The agent wants to know why you're querying THEM—and hopefully it's not just because
they're an agent and you're a writer.

6) DON'T make assumptions. Dear agent: I know your submission guidelines say that you only want a query, but my novel is so awesome I know you'll want the full right off. So to save time, I attached it to this email. This goes back to DON'T #1 as well.

DO follow their guidelines. Every agent has a different way they like to approach their slush pile. Some will want the query, some will want a synopsis as well, some will ask for sample pages. Always check the agency site, or agent blog to learn their preferences. Also, some agent's preferences do differ from the blanket preferences listed on their agency site. If in doubt, go with what the agent profile or blog specifies.

DO when sending sample pages be sure to check specifications. The vast majority of agents will not accept attachments. Cut and paste into the body of the email.

7) DON'T hassle an agent. Ever. Did they read your query yet? Wait and see. Emailing them to ask if they read it will only irritate them and add your name to their mental list of people that annoy them. Not where you want to be when they do read your stuff.

DO feel free to check in after a period of time if an agent has your partial or full. VERY basic timelines would be anywhere from four to six months on a partial, even longer on a full. Yes, that long. Also—a lot of agents post where they're at with their partial and full piles in their blogs. Check there before obsessing too much.

8) DON'T think that you're the exception. A query is one page. Period. A great query weighs in around 300 words. Yup, that little.

9) DON'T open up by saying that you're an author seeking representation. I have a hard time picturing an agent reading that line and dropping their coffee cup to yell over to the next office—"GUESS WHAT!!!! I've got an author here seeking representation!!!!"

DO open with your hook. There is a debate about whether or not an agent wants to see the genre, title, word count first off so that they know what they're looking at. I personally always open with the hook, and it's served me well.

DO make sure you include genre, title, word count in your query somewhere. I prefer mine at the end.

10) DON'T tease the agent. "Will Cheryl live to fight another day? Can Bob save Lucy from Mr. Villain Man?" The agent might wonder if you're writing a serial radio program from the 1940's, and that market is kind of over.

11) DON'T wear a scrunchie like the one the girl pictured here is wearing. That also, is kind of over.

How Do You Get To the NYT Bestseller List?

by Pete Morin

Bennett Cerf, the co-founder of Random House (better know to the people of my generation as one of the panelists on What's My Line?) told this story in his 1956 book, The Life of the Party: A New Collection of Stories and Anecdotes (now available on eBay for $1.99).

Rumor is that a pedestrian on Fifty-seventh Street, Manhattan, stopped Jascha Heifetz and inquired, "Could you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?"

"Yes," said Heifetz. "Practice!"

Clearly, Heifitz's invocation is well-applied not just to music, but practically every skill acquired by mankind.

So how does an aspiring novelist practice? Food fights have started over less controversial questions.

Well, of course, you must write! But what good is writing all the time if you don't know what you're doing? You have to know what you're doing. How do you learn what you're doing? Some insist you must go to school and acquire a Masters in Fine Arts. Catcalls and brickbats ensue.

Here's a suggestion that I learned from James N. Frey, in his superb how-to book, How To Write a Damn Good Novel. [N.B. Frey is one of dozens of successful novelists who've shared their ideas, methods and suggestions. An aspiring novelist who doesn't read these—at least some of them—isn't, in my opinion, serious about becoming a successful writer.]

Besides being a multi-published novelist, Frey has taught creative writing at a number of institutions for two decades. He was Teacher of the Year at UC Berkeley in 1994. His methods of teaching are alluded to repeatedly in his books, which are universally praised. Bottom line, a good guy to listen to.

Frey has his students select a work of fiction by their favorite author. They then select 2-3 pages from the book that they find particularly excellent, and then copy it. Word for word.

Here's what Frey says about it:

You will not only get a feel for how good stylists use words, you will feel the timing and the rhythm of their prose and the snap, crackle and pop of their dialogue.

The next day, write a few pages imitating the style. If the scene you typed out is an outdoor scene with a lot of action, write the same sort of scene, trying your best to imitate style.

Do this with other authors you admire, regularly. Here's what he says the result is:

By doing these exercises, you'll soon discover that your own, individual, distinctive styles will emerge, styles suited to your personality and to the particular story you are writing, styles unlike any of the styles you've been imitating.

We all have favorite authors. They all have their own style and methods. Very few of them are similar. We aspire to write like our favorites, or at least to learn how it is and why it is that these authors succeed in their craft. We can do that by sitting in a classroom and deconstructing sentences, examining their syntax, etc. Like MFA students do, maybe. I'd just as soon jump into the polar bear pit at the zoo.

But here is an exercise where, Frey assures us, we can see measurable results, and rather quickly:

Doing the following exercise a half-hour to an hour a day has made some of the worst prose-writing students in my classes into some of the best... in a few months—or less. Often the improvement is very rapid and the degree of improvement is astonishing.

A final word about reading.

You cannot become a better novelist without reading novels. Not just a few, but dozens. Hundreds. Maybe the exercise above reduces the number of Leonard novels from 15 to 10, but if you want to write mysteries like Elmore Leonard, you have to read everything Elmore Leonard has ever written. Otherwise, you'll probably end up sounding like an amateur who's copying Elmore Leonard.

Until about 7 years ago, I didn't read that many novels—maybe 5-8 per year. Now I read 5-8 per month.

That's practice.

Practice, practice, practice!

(The joke is also referenced in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds when Brad Pitt's character Aldo says "You know how you get to Carnegie Hall, don't ya? Practice".)