Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Monday, August 30, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: Of course, you won't be submitting a proposal with plus and equal signs. You'll need to insert the elements of story into a narrative. By this method you should be able to come up with a 25, 100 and 250 word version of your story. Start with the bare bones for the shortest version:
Character A wants B. But Obstacle C is determined to see her fail. Character A must [struggle, battle, overcome] Obstacle C by doing D and [learns, discovers, changes, grows] as she [wins, loses draws] B in the end.
In this bare bones version, the only other thing you might squeeze in is the time/setting. With the longer versions, add in details as you can. Most of the time, multiple viewpoints and subplots will not be mentioned in these brief treatments. Another hint: For inspiration, head to the jacket flap or back cover copy of books in your genre or for even shorter descriptions, look at the movie section of your TV Guide where one sentence tag lines are listed.
Try This! Using your WIP (work in progress) insert the correct words for your story into the formula. You should come out with a one or two sentence "tag" line for your story. A story that doesn't fit the mold can suffer from low stakes, the writer not really knowing what the novel's about or both. For a great example of a fiction proposal, read Barbara Scott's blog entry on The Roving Editor
Friday, August 27, 2010
Writing Tip For Today: When should you switch the first two chapters and when is it better to amputate chapter one?
- Switch. Compare the action of the scenes in 1 and 2. Does chapter 1 feel heavy on narration? Back story? Setup (descriptions, exposition)? If you must read several pages into the chapter before an actual scene occurs, reevaluate the intro. The narrative/back story/expo stuff may be better off broken up and woven a bit farther down the story line. If chapter 2 has all the action and none of the explaining, it might be best to switch these. Readers will put up with questions about the story for much longer than they will typically put up with no action (scene).
- Amputate. If chapter 1 does little to advance the story, it may be wise to amputate. Don't worry, many, many novels start out with first chapters that are mostly a sketch of the character and the plot for the writer. By amputating chapter 1, you can still reveal any important info later. Resist the urge to put this information into the character's mouth as dialogue. It almost never works. And we all know the rule about back story in first chapters--not a good idea. Again, readers are willing to discover the set-up as they read, as long as the story moves. Narration zooms out the camera , scenes zoom the camera close.
Try This! Write a short scene with high action and tension. Then, add some narration that describes the scene. Which do you prefer?
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Writing Tip for Today:
- Sometimes feedback is good but hard to hear. If you are writing a first novel, chances are you have a lot to learn. Your choices? Change everything. Change nothing. Let it sit for a few days and then change only what you believe helps.
- Other times, jealousy, rigidity about writing rules or just a bad day prompt critique partners, agents and editors to trash your stuff. Some writers are so focused on rules, they don't consider that a writer could break one and make it work. But on the other hand, a writer who doesn't master the rules probably shouldn't break them. As Somerset Maugham famously said, "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are."
- Most times, the answer is in-between. The advice to "take what you can use and the rest you can lose" is wise. If you hear the same feedback from more than one trusted or experienced source, pay attention. But just because one writer condemns a tool or device you utilized, it doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong. Remember, there are only two kinds of writing. Writing that works and writing that needs work.
Try This! What's your method for handling a harsh crit? Why do you think writers are insecure about their work?
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: Placeholder scenes can have as much or as little detail as you wish, but here's what they look like for me.
- In placeholder scenes, I include the characters, the setting and the purpose of the scene. Sometimes I also jot down the scene's outcome or the reaction of the POV character.
- Placeholder scenes are great for scenes in which I haven't yet fine tuned the plot point the scene illustrates. I know something like x needs to happen, but I'm still thinking about the how and the why of it.
- As I'm leaving notes to plant a character, situation or characteristic, I'll often use a placeholder scene to help me flesh out that plant later on.
Try This! Find a novel you've read recently and admired. For the first two or three chapters of the book, jot down these elements: characters in the scene and which is POV; the setting; action of the scene, and the POV character's reaction to the scene (happy, sad, mad?). Now try writing a similar summary for one of your WIP's scenes.
Monday, August 23, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: Learning new skills and applying them can lead to frustration. If you are in the middle of a draft, do you start your novel over so you can incorporate these new techniques? As reader Jan commented, it could be tricky to overlay a concept such as "higher stakes" without completely rewriting your story. Here are some safe ways to try out your new skills:
- If you like writing exercises, try using them to test a new concept.
- Brainstorm with a writing partner to work these concepts into your draft.
- Learn to Plant. Start where you are and make notes to "plant" later. This is often the way I work. I get a brilliant idea that makes my story much better, but I already wrote 150 pages. So on page 151, I write as if the new idea is throughout the book. After my draft is finished, when I'm revising, I do what I call a plant. I introduce the idea very early in the draft, and build up the idea slowly until I'm back at p. 151. It's crucial that the idea doesn't suddenly leap out of the bushes unannounced. If it builds slowly over many chapters, the idea will feel more logical and organic.
Try This! Go through your draft and mark places where you think this new idea might be needed. Later, when you are in revisions, you'll have notes at the ready for spots that need planting with a gradual build-up of the idea you wish to present.
Saturday, August 21, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: High Stakes doesn't have to mean the world is about to blow up.
- Balance the stakes. As you raise the stakes, remember to balance the inner and outer conflict. A novel in which everything takes place inside a character's head feels confining, and a novel that never ventures inside a character's head feels shallow. As Donald Maass says in Writing the Breakout Novel, "The combination of high public stakes and deep personal stakes is the most powerful engine a novel can have."
- If your character's goal is to overcome his/her past, avoid the trite and overworked. If your guy is in mortal danger, give him an unexpected occupation. We all know soldiers and cops face death, but what about a hair stylist?
- Time is running out. Using time constraints gives the reader something to focus upon and if the goal must be accomplished before such-and-such a time, all the better.
- Give your character high principles. If your protagonist is fiercely loyal to some noble principle, the struggle will be hard to ignore.
- Test your character's principles to the utmost. We each face trials everyday, but in fiction the results should be larger-than-life.
- Find the universal element in the character's specific problem. In essay writing we speak of subtext, of how a story about a young mother's struggle to cope with her new role might be just that on the surface, but underneath, the place where the reader makes a connection, is that we're all struggling in this life. We're all doing the best we can. It's this subtext, this universal appeal, that readers are eager to find.
Try This! Write a one page character sketch of your protagonist. Include that character's principles, personal beliefs he/she would never abandon. How are those beliefs related to the plot? Have you communicated this passion throughout the story?
Friday, August 20, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: So what are they?
- What does your lead character desperately want more than anything? Notice the question doesn't say, "kinda sorta want if it works out." No, this goal should be at the top of this character's list. If the lead character doesn't want this goal in a profound way, it's harder to get the reader to care about that situation.
- What stands in this character's way? This is the conflict, obstacle, or mountain which prevents your character from simply realizing the goal. Obstacles can be people, Nature, even weather or the character's own self. Caution: If the main obstacle is the self, be prepared to either balance that "inner conflict" with a more overt threat or be very skilled.
- What is your character willing to do to overcome obstacles and realize the goal? Many students respond, "Why he's willing to die!" when dying isn't anywhere in the picture or else it's inappropriate. Why would a character risk his life over whether or not he wins the lead role in the school play?
Try This! Answer the above questions for your work-in-progress (WIP). Now, think of a way to raise the stakes of the story, either by making the want more desperate, the goal more important or the obstacles higher or all three. How does this change your story?
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: All along the writing path, aha moments are sprinkled for every writer, new or experienced. Could be the moment you knew exactly what to write or the moment you solved a problem and knew what you shouldn't write. Gabrielle Rico's "Cluster Method" of brainstorming uses aha moments to indicate when the writer knows the angle or topic needed for an essay or other work. What's your aha moment?
Try This! Put an abstract word (love, justice) or an emotion (anger, grief) in a circle on a clean sheet of paper. Now free associate by drawing spokes around the circle, jotting down events or experiences that illustrate the word you chose. When you reach an "aha!" moment, stop. Now, write for a few minutes on that experience. Flesh out your story by using characters, dialogue and action.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: The secret? Write crap. You don't believe me? Let's take a look at why this works:
- You think about your writing while you're doing other things. While it doesn't exactly count as writing, it's a solid precursor to formulating what you wish to say.
- Take off the internal brake when you sit down to write and allow yourself to let the words flow. You will either hate it and delete, thereby writing next what you wished to, or else your subconscious will write what you really want to say.
- For fiction and memoir: Think cinematically. Scenes come quicker and more easily if you watch your own movie as you write. The number one mistake I see in first novels is a lack of meaningful action.
- Don't edit as you write. If your editor hat is on while you create, your creative hat gets smothered. Quit agonizing over word choices and whether you have "ly" words. When you draft, you get it down. Later, when you revise, you fix it up.
- Give yourself deadlines. Writers who belong to crit groups or who take classes often cite as reasons accountability or discipline. If you know you must workshop your stuff this week, it gives you a goal. For those unable to find or join a group, there are online groups available. Or you could hire a mentor like me to keep those words coming.
- Most of all, if you are crafting fiction, remember that for this writing time you set aside, you get to enter a world. A world you plucked out of your imagination. Dive in with gusto, for soon the floor will need sweeping, the day job will come calling and you will have to answer. If you write crap, if you give yourself permission to draft horrid, no-good, awful prose, you won't be disappointed if your efforts need a lot of work. Yes, the secret's out now. Write crap and you may be pleasantly surprised.
Try This! If you are experiencing "writer's block" or some other hindrance to word count production, time yourself. For ten minutes either type or write without stopping. Even if you have to write, "I can't think of anything to write." Chances are you'll tire of such nonsense and write something you didn't know was in you.
Monday, August 16, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: I think it helps to realize that writers at all levels get frustrated, cope with self-doubt and hit challenges in their writing lives. Yes, even Stephen King sometimes wonders why he does all this. No matter whether you're chasing a first byline or your fiftieth series contract, there are going to be times when you ask yourself if self-flagellation might hurt less than the woes of a writer's life.
- Seek out a writer friend (family and/or regular friends don't understand why we torture ourselves) to commiserate with when you're frustrated. Religious writers might pray more.
- Read a really good book to inspire you, not put yourself down.
- Organize your office. (*This one is only good once a year!)
- Read biographies of famous writers--most have frustrations to report. For instance, Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) once was so frustrated that she threw her manuscript out the editor's window. He made her go out and pick up every page.
- Exercise, do yoga or some other physical activity. Mood-boosting endorphins will flow and your back and neck might quit hurting.
- Get out contest awards, old clips or past accolades from your fifth grade teacher, who believed in you and said you'd make a great writer.
- Remember the particular thrill of creating. This is why you write. The frustrations are part of the package but don't have to dominate. Don't allow frustration to overcome your original passion to write.
Try This! For one hour, write whatever you want. Don't work on that novel, article that was due yesterday. Just for an hour, put down what you'd write if you weren't trying to fulfill an obligation or write to a market. Stream-of-consciousness writing is fine. Have fun and shut up the inner critic for now.
Sunday, August 15, 2010
Writing Tip for Today:
- New novel writers with unfinished book-length work should be aware that a pitch will probably not result in representation until you've completed and polished, maybe even hired a pro editor to help you get the book into the best shape. If you can afford a conference, go ahead. You can absorb the conference culture, network and take workshops which interest you. Set a goal and target a future conference where you plan to pitch to agents.
- Keep in mind that these agent pitch sessions often cost extra. Expect to pay $15-25 for each 15 minute session with an agent/editor. Many conferences do provide free pitch lessons or practice sessions where you can hone your skills.
- If you have a completed novel or a nonfiction proposal with a solid platform, then yes, the cost of a conference may be worthwhile. If you itemize your taxes, it's a write-off, and should you hit it off with an attending agent or editor, a conference makes sense. Inquire about scholarships available, volunteer or enter a conference contest. Winners are often allowed to come free for at least part of the conference.
- If you are an experienced author, writer or teacher, make up some proposals for next year's conference. The schedule for next year is often decided in January or February. Pitch several workshops in your area of expertise and consider the past few years' offerings so as not to duplicate unless you have a fresh angle.
- Buddy up. If you must fly in order to attend, network within the organization to find possible roomies to help hold down costs. Start early!
- Find Prepay programs. Some conference set up funds where you can pay for your conference in installments.
- Brown bag it. See if you can get to a grocery store in the area and purchase healthy snacks or even meal makings for times the conference meals aren't included.
Saturday, August 14, 2010
I remember chafing against that edict to "Query Only," so in the late nineties, when Todd Pierce's advice came along, I jumped at the chance to be daring. What seems like eons ago, Pierce, a professor at a Florida University, ran a web page for those trying to land an agent. He not only touted inventing a writing contest and awarding yourself the prize (not recommended), he also dared his readers to break the "query only" rule.
Writing Tip for Today: For those new to this game, "query only" refers to the request many literary agents make in the marketing books or on their sites. I was taught that "query only" means just that. No sliding in the first three chapters or that 20 page synopsis. So when Pierce suggested authors add the first page of the manuscript to those grouchy "query only" requests, I wondered if it would work. What are some possible pros and cons of this action?
As writers, I wonder if we really appreciate how hard lit agents work. Everyday, they must wade through reams of awful stuff, from autobiographical tomes handwritten on lilac stationery, to all-caps missives that read like manifestos. If you choose to send agents anything besides what they request, your query could end up like this:
The very tired agent, seeing the attachment to your e-query, 86s the whole thing without opening it. Never send attachments to a prospective agent unless specifically asked to do so.
The agent, just off August vacation, says, "What the heck?" and does a speed read of both the query and the opening page. Then 86s it.
Agent, getting hungry, decides to print and schlep your query to lunch. Spills ketchup on the manuscript page, blotting out opening line. Writer holds breath, in case agent is quick with the napkins.
Agent, up after midnight reading the day's crop of new queries, tries to stay awake long enough to get to the first line of your novel. Puts your query in the "maybe" file and falls asleep sitting up.
Agent, moved by your reasonably good query, makes a note to request a partial. The first page of prose doesn't exactly knock off the socks, but it intrigues. A partial can be the first 50 pp, the next 50 pp and so on, until agent either decides it's worth a shot or else drops the manuscript on the tarmac, scattering literary genius to the four winds and the flock of Canada geese who live next to the runway.
Agent, riveted by your stunning query, is elated to find the first page of your work included in the body of your email. Can't wait to call you and request the full.
The point is that sure, most writers talk about people who broke the rules and got away with it. But remember, these are rare cases. My advice? Stick to what an agent requests.
Try This! Make two lists of agents from info you glean from a marketing book or the Internet. Find at least 25 active agents who say they are interested in your type of book, and put the ones from large or prestigious agencies on the "A" list and the new, maybe hungry, agents on the "B" list. Make a plan to mail out at least 5 queries in September.
Friday, August 13, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: Shorter is better when it comes to these proposals. We've discussed before the creation of 25 word, 100 word and page-length versions of your novel's story. These instruments give you maximum versatility. Use the 25 word as a pitch or as back cover copy. The 100 word version can be a short synopsis or be adapted to your query letter. When and where to use the different versions will depend on whether you need the full story or a tease.
Try This! How is your novel's 100-word synopsis different from the back cover copy?
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: You may have seen RUE written on your draft. The letters stand for Resist the Urge to Explain, and this temptation frustrates many a writer. Here are some easy ways to help the reader experience the dream most effectively:
- Resist Micro-management. Stage directions, especially, can be troublesome if the author tries to be too specific. For instance, is it really important that your character spins to the right or kicks with his left foot? And is it his left or right, or the mirror image? If you write that a character is eight and a half inches away from something, the reader stops reading long enough to wonder, "Exactly how long is that?"Convoluted stage directions can be similarly confusing.
- Describe Just Enough. You may be great at Concrete Sensory Detail, but the reader will forget why he's in the scene if you go too far in describing. Think of it this way: when you meet someone, you tend to notice a few details, but normally you don't catalogue people in every detail. Use only the bare minimum of descriptors necessary for the reader to get the idea.
- Balance Scene and Narration. Great writers are usually masters of what's known as narrative pacing. If you act out a bunch of stuff that doesn't advance the story, then sum up a pivotal moment in a sentence, your sense of pacing could use some work. Likewise, if you write long chunks of narrative, the reader may decide to skip ahead to the next scene.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: The point is that it's not that you can't cold query during the "off seasons," only that the probability of contacting an agent who's actively looking gets better during these windows. Agents search year-round for that next great book, but it makes sense to target the times when publishers are planning their next line-up. Get out that query letter for your completed novel, and be prepared to actively submit the query come September.
**Next, I'll review a cool formula for getting at the heart of your story without the torture most writers believe comes with query-writing.
Try This! Take a stab at either writing or revising a query letter. The letter should be formatted as a business letter, single-spaced, hard double return between paragraphs. Your query should fit on one page.
Monday, August 9, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: Yes and no. If you never spend time revising, your work won't get polished. If you don't send out queries or submissions, you may be your only reader. And so on. These days most writers wear multiple hats on every writing day. Here are a few:
Try This! In the above list, how many of these hats have you worn? Which is the most daunting and what do you do to overcome this reluctance? What are some other hats not listed?
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Writing Tip for Today:
- Be Honest. The best essays dig deep and reveal honesty as well as some universal truth or condition that many will easily identify with on an emotional level. Crack it open.
- Be Optimistic. You must be an optimist to succeed with these types of publications. If your writing topic, tone and style are hopeful and upbeat, you may have an edge. That isn't to say they want sappy or trite essays--far from it. Some I've read have touched my heart. That's what you're aiming for: heart felt, not treacly or shallow.
- Show a story. Use scene writing techniques to illustrate your story. Even if you aren't a fiction writer, use fictional techniques like scenes to allow your reader to experience the story. Story Telling often sounds preachy or talks down to the reader.
- Show only one story. Your essay must be tightly focused around one event. Limit back story (flashbacks) so the reader isn't jumping around in time. If you must include back story, use the Rule of Three. Use active verbs and as few modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) as possible.
- R.U.E. Resist the Urge to Explain. You show the story, but don't get sucked into explaining it for the reader. Often you can spot these explanations by looking for prepositional phrases, words that label emotions (anger, happiness, etc) or general words that don't give much info (love, justice, etc).
- Start in media res. Begin in the middle of the action. Readers don't require a lot of set-up in order to sympathize with the character.
- Use the one sentence test. After you've drafted your essay, sum it up in one sentence. Being a first-time mom is scary and mistake-prone, but we're all doing the best we can might be the theme for an essay about becoming a mom. See if you can find some hint of this as the story theme on your essay's first page. It's usually not as overt as the "topic sentence" you wrote in school, but it should give the reader a clue about the direction the essay will take.
- Revise, rinse and repeat. Good essays often require many revisions.
Try This! Using a draft of an essay you want to submit for an anthology, go through and mark the places where you are in a scene, and where you are in narration or exposition. What's the ratio of scene/non scene? Be sure the scenes are pivotal (story-changing) moments.
Monday, August 2, 2010
Writing Tip for Today:
- Use your first year to simply immerse yourself in the conference culture. Focus on taking workshops or hearing agents, writers and editors speak at the various luncheons and dinners. If you do pitch a project, be extra-sure you're really ready to pitch. Free pitch practice is usually available.
- Find out if there are any pre-conference activities meant for first-timers. Seek out the shepherds or conference officials who are assigned to look after first-timers.
- Attend with a friend. At least you won't have to talk to yourself.
- Consider going this year as a day timer and attend only one day.
- If the conference holds a pre-conference writing contest, you might enter it. If you win a prize, you usually get to attend the awards dinner for free.
- Look for ways to volunteer as a way to cut costs next year.
- Learn to network. Be upfront about your writing without bragging or being pushy. That's really what a conference is all about.
- SMILE! And please don't try to corner the editor or agent in the food line or in the bathroom stall. That's an urban myth which needs to die.
Try This! Write one sentence that conveys the essence of your book. It will probably sound like a zillion other stories, but that's OK. Try to avoid using general words (situation, things, circumstances) and be specific. If possible, try to work in these elements: Time, place, protagonist and problem.