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I’ve been doing some work with difficult characters over the last few months. Either the character in question has some pretty obvious flaws (which are part of who they are), or they do some pretty flawed things over the course of the story. Or both. It’s not that the characters I’ve been working with in my editorial practice are unlikeable, it’s that they’re human, quirky, realistic.

People are not all good, all the time. That doesn’t happen in real life, nor should it happen in fiction. But in fiction, you have to always keep in mind the idea of “relatability.” Because a character doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Like Tinkerbell needs applause, the characters in novels need readers to believe in them and relate to them in order to be real. In the publishing world, if I can’t relate to your character, as a reader, chances are, I’m not going to get too deep into the story. I may even put the story down.

But sometimes characters must do things that aren’t exactly relatable. They must be mean, or selfish. They must act in a way that hurts others, or themselves. They must get away from their own best interest.

So how do you make a character like this accessible to the reader through good times and bad?

Vulnerability.

Sounds simple, but what does that look like on the page? I’ll prescribe my magic solution: Let the character admit that they’re being a butt, and it will humanize the behavior. It will get the reader on the character’s side. Just like in real life, in fictional life, an apology or owning up to a mistake go a long, long way.

Here are some examples. If a character is being cruel to another character, they could do something like this:

“Takes one to know one!” I shouted. I was being so terrible to Brady, but I couldn’t get past him telling the teacher on me. He was supposed to be my friend.

While the reader may not agree with the behavior, at least they know that the character acknowledges it and has a reason for it. Even if that reason isn’t that valid, at least the character knows they’re in the wrong. Even if the emotion blows over soon, the character has taken the time to guide the reader through their less-than-noble feelings. The character here is being a butt, but the behavior is coming from a place of hurt. In other words, vulnerability.

If they admit that woundedness, they become more human and less of a jerk in the reader’s eyes.

The same applies to actions. Play with vulnerability and motivation there, too. For example:

I knew it was wrong to steal. That’s the first thing we learned in Sunday School. And yet here I was, sitting in my car with a brand new MP3 player, still in the box, burning in my pockets. They hadn’t even stopped me. I can sell it and help Mom with rent. I can sell it and help Mom with rent. I kept that on a loop in my head, but it didn’t make me feel any better about what I’d done.

In this example, the character has shoplifted something expensive. But they feel bad, which is one layer of vulnerability. And they did it for a noble reason, which is another. So we have two things that help sell the reader on the behavior.

The other vulnerable thing to smooth over tough-to-swallow words or actions is how they handle themselves after the fact. Does the first character apologize to Brady, even if it’s at the very end of the story? Does the second character go back to the store and pay them for the MP3 player once the financial emergency is over? Admitting their wrongs to the reader in the moment, and admitting their wrongs to others in the story: a two-pronged approach to broadcasting vulnerability.

If you have tough-to-motivate stuff in your manuscript, how might you use vulnerability to help build a bridge between the character and the reader?

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When I talk to client about world-building, I talk a lot about context. If, for example, there is a magic in a world, I want to know if a) magic is common, b) the protagonist has experienced magic before (if yes, how much? what kind? etc.), and c) how they feel about it. So when a streak of green lightning flies across the room, I am looking to the protagonist for clues. How they react to it will tell me a lot about how magic operates in the world.

But this sort of approach isn’t just for world-building. You can add an emotional stance to almost everything. How does your character see the world? How they react to stuff will be a very good guide.

For example, if they see the new kid in school, they might say:

There’s Bo, the new kid in school.

This is merely factual, but is there an emotional signature there? No. So the reader is still wondering…so what’s the deal with this Bo guy? Do we like him? Is he weird? If he’s important, I want to know more about him right away. One answer (other than putting Bo in the plot or in scene with the protagonist, which I would also recommend) would be to add an emotional stance.

For example, here are some more complex reactions we can have to seeing Bo:

There goes that Bo, swaggering like a show pony. Who does he think he is?

There’s Bo, on the fringes of the cafeteria with the cool drama kids already . Would he say something to me today? I hope so.

And then there was Bo. Was he the one who shot off that green bolt during homeroom? What if he’s an algae elemental? What if he can help me figure out the Slime Pond mystery?

Here we have three different attitudes about Bo, because I’ve let the narrator have an emotional stance in addition to providing basic information (“There’s Bo”). In the first example, the emotion about Bo is quite negative. In the second example, it’s attraction to Bo. He’s already off fraternizing with some other group, but the narrator hopes that he’ll come pay him or her some attention, too. The third example gives world-building context but there’s also an emotional signature of intrigue. We get the feeling that algae elementals (ha!) are quite rare, and they’re desirable, at least for the narrator.

I could play with this stuff forever. For example, what if algae elementals weren’t rare? How would we convey that idea through the narrator’s emotional stance?

And then there was Bo. Was he the one who shot off that green bolt during homeroom? Great. The first new kid we’ve had in ages and he’s another dang algae elemental. This stupid school is teeming with them.

Don’t just settle for describing something or someone. It’s in how you describe them that the reader will be able to read the narrator’s attitude and emotion toward them. It’s all about context, folks!

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It’s my absolute pleasure to introduce you to baby Theo, born March 11th. We’re doing really well as a new family and he is loving all of his wonderful books. He’s especially a big fan of Oliver Jeffers so far, from what I can tell. Or maybe I’m just projecting. :)

Theo’s entrance was a whirlwind. He was born about three and a half hours after we got to the hospital. He’s now smiling, eating, sleeping, and going through diapers like he owns Pampers stock. We just put his newborn clothes away because they got too small. There’s this little rhinoceros onesie that made me cry as I packed it up. I can’t believe I’ll never see this kid in it again! I can’t wait for him to grow and learn and become his own little person, but I don’t want him to age another minute. He has already gained three pounds since birth. Oy!

Spring has sprung in Minneapolis, finally, and I’ve been taking him on walks around our lake with our two dogs in tow. They are fiercely protective of their little brother, and can’t wait to be his best friends for life, once he’s more able to play.

My freelance editorial business is still up and running, in case you’ve been curious about my services. I have been working from home since 2005, so I’m always working, and never working at the same time. Other freelancers will know what I mean! It’s a juggling act but I am more than used to it.

Life is great! Some of you probably read my post about the journey to get here. I’m happy to report that it was all worth it, and that I’d do it all again tomorrow because motherhood has brought me so much* already in these five short weeks. Thank you to everyone here for your support and good wishes. Back to our scheduled programming next week!

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* everything but sleep!

Photos by Brooke Ringdahl.

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There’s a subtle error that I’ve been seeing in a lot of manuscripts lately. It really is quite simple to notice, once you know what to look for. I don’t know if it’s something in the air, with this beautiful spring in full blossom outside, but I have noticed it in almost every MG and YA I’ve been working on so far in 2016.

See if you can spot it:

He ran as quickly as he could, his lean body like a jaguar.

Want another one?

Her arms jerked like a robot as she scrambled to hide the candy into her backpack before the store owner saw her.

What’s the common thread? Both sentences make comparisons. However, both compare a part of the protagonist to a whole, rather than the same part. The fix is very easy to implement. Look:

He ran as quickly as he could, his lean body like a jaguar’s.

Her arms jerked like a robot’s as she scrambled to hide the candy.

So easy! So elegant! The more correct choice is to compare the protagonist’s part to the corresponding part by making the subject possessive. This way, the girl’s arms are like the robot’s arms instead of the whole robot itself, which muddies the image.

As long as we’re talking about subtle grammatical errors in writing, I would love for everyone to read up on what a dangling modifier is, and try to avoid them. These guys are tricky. In my exuberance to get my point across, I still find myself using them all the time. I’m sure there are a few in this blog, or even in my book, and I’ll be the first to admit that I have my own grammar and spelling blind spots, as everyone does. (Fun fact: The word “mustache” is misspelled in my book as “moustache” in one instance. It’s nobody’s fault but mine. What a terrible failed hipster I am!)

Now, to put your minds at ease, you are not going to get immediately disqualified for an error like this. Everyone has their off days. If you keep doing it throughout a manuscript, then maybe. If you keep doing it and then some with other errors, then you’re calling your credibility into question. The bottom line is, you are a writer and you’re submitting a piece of writing to agents and editors who deal in the trade of writing. So, your writing needs to be of very high quality in order to compete with every other writer who is trying to break through. Words and grammar are your stock in trade. If I was hiring a seamstress (because I suddenly live in the 19th century), I’d look at her stitching. And if it’s shoddy, I wouldn’t hire her. Because I’m not hiring her to trim a mustache, I’m hiring her to sew. Right? That’s just how it works.

Sure, an agent will overlook some typos, but why submit a manuscript with typos, misspellings, incorrect formatting, and grammatical errors? I have actually heard some writers say, “Well, that’s what an editor is for. It’ll get fixed once someone buys it.” Are you kidding? Why would a publishing house take a (potentially expensive) gamble on a writer who can’t submit a manuscript that demonstrates a basic grasp of grammar and writing? If you’re making sloppy errors or you just haven’t managed to nail dialogue formatting (the capitalization and punctuation surrounding your dialogue), which is another problem that I’ve been seeing in almost every single manuscript, then what confidence is an agent or editor going to have in your skills?

Basically, leaving simple spelling, grammar, and formatting errors in your manuscripts is setting yourself up for a completely preventable tragedy. And what am I always talking about? Giving yourself a stronger shot at success. The two don’t go hand-in-hand.

A note: This post was written in February and programmed here to fill a hole in my programming. Normal blog posts will resume in the next few weeks, but I just wanted to put some fresh material online!

Recently, I worked with a client who had written, by all accounts, a middle-grade novel. It has fantasy elements, an eleven- or twelve-year-old protagonist, rich themes that have to do with the coming of age time period, etc. etc. etc. But my client hadn’t really thought of the work as MG. Instead, he’d envisioned it as a crossover, perhaps close to THE BOOK THIEF in terms of potential market reach. Basically, he wanted to tell a story and then let the market decide where it fit.

We ended up having a lot of very interesting talks about this idea. Long story short, however, that’s not really how it works. When you’re writing something, you want to have some idea of where it will fit, per my recent “Writing With Market in Mind” post. If you gently leave it up to the publishing gods to decide, you may not get very far. First of all, agents and editors like writers who pitch their projects confidently and know at least a little something about the marketplace.

For all intents and purposes, the project in question seems very MG, even if that was never the client’s conscious intention. And if it walks like a MG, and it quacks like a MG, if my client doesn’t pitch it as a MG, he’s going to get some raised eyebrows. Furthermore, if he doesn’t pitch it as a MG, it may just get slotted into that category by agents and editors alike anyway. If he were to query adult fiction agents with the project, as I’ve described it, I guarantee most would say, “This isn’t my wheelhouse, this sounds like MG. You should be querying children’s book agents.”

You can always say, as my client did, “Well, I sure would like to tap the crossover audience and sell this to children and adults, please and thank you.” Wouldn’t that be nice for everyone? Most people would love a crossover hit like THE BOOK THIEF or THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. Selling the same book to two different markets? Yes, please.

The problem with a crossover is that you can’t aim for one, however. I have said this before and I will say it again (and again and again). The only person to decide that is a publisher, and most won’t take the risk of trying to publish across categories. This strategy is reserved for only a tiny fraction of all books that go to print. And sometimes, a crossover only becomes a crossover when it’s published in one category first, then the other, and it happens to gain traction in both.

What I’m saying is, it’s a lot easier to set some lobster traps than it is to drag the whole of the sea. At least with the former strategy (picking a concrete category), you will probably catch some lobsters. With a wider net, you may catch everything, but there’s a big chance you’ll catch nothing, or a whole lot of garbage.

Many beginning writers think that putting, “This book will appeal to everyone from age 1 to 101!” is a huge selling point. Who wouldn’t want to sell to everyone from 1 to 101? That’s, like, billions of people. Why wouldn’t a publisher want to sell billions of books? Unfortunately, this line of thinking is delusional. Any marketer will tell you that your catchment area is too big. What a one-year-old likes is very different than what a 101-year-old likes and that’s actually a good thing.

So I advised my client to either a) become okay with the idea of pitching his story as a MG, or b) edit the story and weave in several elements that would give it more appeal to the adult fiction marketplace. This isn’t too far-fetched because there are a lot of books set during the “coming of age” period that go on to publish in the adult realm. That 9-12 or 13-18 age range isn’t just for children’s novels. The revision route is obviously the taller mountain to climb, but, if it fits the client’s vision for the book better, then it’s what has to happen.

The jury is still out on what this client will choose to do, but I wanted to bring the situation to everyone’s attention, because it contains some valuable truths about “picking a lane” and thinking about the category of your own work.

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Awaiting Baby

Thank you to everyone for the amazing response about the baby news! (See the original announcement here, I posted about it in December.) In addition to the glorious books that rained down on Baby Macdonald, which I will speak to in a moment, I also heard from a lot of people who have walked their own complicated paths toward their family goals. This is exactly why I have no problem talking about the IVF process. Too often, people who struggle can’t help but feel alone, whether it’s because they feel ashamed about their problems, or others have made them feel that way. This is horrible. We all have our crosses to bear, and yet there’s great strength in community. None of us are truly alone if we choose not to be, and I’m really glad I decided to speak up.

Human connection is one of the great joys of life, and it was a real honor to hear from my blog readers who have done fertility treatments, who’ve adopted, who’ve lost pregnancies and children, or who still haven’t reached their desired destinations. It was incredibly touching to share in such intimate stories with my readers.

As for the books, oh the books! My husband, Todd, and I were moved to tears by the generosity and love pouring in from you blog readers. We stuffed Baby’s bookshelf twice over! My favorite part, however, was hearing from readers. One sent me something that I’d originally seen as part of a Writer’s Digest webinar critique. That little manuscript went on to sell at auction, and a few years later, there it was on my doorstep as a published book, complete with an inscription to Baby. Talk about coming full circle! Another package arrived from a very well-established author who I have long, long, long admired, with an incredibly touching note. I had no idea this author was one of my readers!

To all of you who sent books, I have done my best to send a handwritten Thank You card. Some Amazon deliveries would only let me send a digital Thank You where I couldn’t find a return address (ugh, so impersonal!). There were also a few packages where I accidentally discarded the return label before I had a chance to note who was responsible for what. If the wonderful readers who sent me IVAN THE TERRIER, ALL THE WORLD, and LITTLE GREEN would please email me, I’d love your address so I can send a proper note of gratitude. If you sent something and also haven’t heard back with a card, please let me know.

Now I’m in the home stretch, only a week away from our due date. I have no idea when the baby will start the eviction process. It could be today (!!!). It could be three weeks from now. (Oh, how I hope it’s not three weeks from now, though.) All this is to say that the blog will go a little silent for the next two weeks. But I’ll be back with an update once there’s something to share. Coming back to this blog after taking a hiatus in 2015 has been one of my great joys, so don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging for too long!

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Rhyming picture books were the bane of my existence as an agent, honestly. I had one rhyming PB client out of maybe fifteen PB “generalists.” And yet 8 out of 10 picture book manuscripts that came into the slush were in rhyme. That’s a pretty big disparity, right?

Part of the issue is that a lot more picture books used to be in rhyme than are being published now. So some writers still have this idea in mind that PB = cutesy rhymes. To those writers, I would suggest a trip to the bookstore, so they can see what’s being actively published now. Last week’s post on paying attention to the market would apply a little more heavily here…

Whether it’s a misconception that you have to write rhyme to publish a picture book, or an affinity for rhyme, or a misconception that young kids can only communicate in rhyme, I’d like to discuss this controversial topic with a little more clarity.

Now that I’m a freelance editor, I actually love working with rhyme. Why? Because I have creative writing training, know my poetics, and can identify rhyme issues a thousand miles away. I’m not bragging, but I am here to ruin your day a little bit: Rhyme involves a whoooooooooooooole lot more than putting cute words at the ends of sentences. Yet a lot of people who choose to write in rhyme don’t seem to make that connection.

First of all, most of the end rhymes I see in manuscripts are about as inspiring as “cat” and “hat,” and I’m pretty sure someone else has already cornered that market. The point of rhyme isn’t to find a word that works and wedge it in somehow, the point of rhyme is to delight, impress, and surprise. If I see an unexpected rhyme in a manuscript, that immediately tells me that the writer knows what they’re doing.

A big mistake I also see is letting rhyme dictate story, not the other way around. Writers become so fixated on getting those rhymes in that things become arbitrary. Why is her name “Dorange”? Because you had to rhyme with “orange”? Okie dokie… Why is he sitting on a wall? Who does that? Oh, so he can have a great fall? Gotcha. But are you writing in service of your story or reaching for a rhyme? If the story falls by the wayside, you are choosing style over substance, and that’s problematic. The integrity of story must come first.

Yet another consideration is rhythm. This is where the poetics training really kicks into gear. Shakespeare didn’t just write in iambic pentameter to torture college students. There is actually a lot of (please forgive me, for I am about to sin) rhyme and reason to rhythm in poetry. If you haven’t read your rhyming manuscripts aloud and counted your syllables at least once, what are you doing reading this blog post? Make haste! Because if I try reading your rhyming manuscript aloud, and the rhymes are fine, but your syllabic counts are all over the place and I’m tripping over my tongue with each line, this is what it looks like to me:

7 syllables
6 syllables

7 syllables
8 syllables

9 syllables
7 syllables

Whyyyyyyy? Why are you making my head hurt? What’s the pattern? Books, especially poetry books, teach us how to read them. Rhyme is a pattern. It says, “You are about to learn that if one line ends with rhyme A, the next line will also end with rhyme A. Then the next couplet will introduce rhyme B…” The rules are right there. So if you’re going to go through all that trouble with end rhyme, why would you not consider your rhythm, too?

I think that reading your work aloud will be extremely illuminating to you if you’ve never even considered counting syllables. The trick here, of course, is actually reading your work as it’s written, not reading your work with the rhythm that you want to impose on it. It’s amazing how writers tend to snap into their ideal rhythm when reading, even if that’s not exactly the rhythm they’ve written. Better yet, have someone else read your work to you. Where do they falter? Which sentences trip them up? It’s an incredibly illuminating exercise.

Now, you might think that I’m just being a stickler. Or that having the letters “MFA” somewhere in my personal history have put me on a high horse. Here’s the real poop on rhyming picture books, and I know you’ve heard this before: Most agents and editors don’t love them. When I was an agent, I didn’t love them because I didn’t know a lot of editors who loved them. When you’re an agent, it makes a lot of sense to really love stuff that sells well, because then you’re providing great service to your clients and making money. And I’m betting that editors see a whole lot of rhyming manuscripts, too. Maybe not 8 out of 10 submissions, but maybe 5 out of 10. And let’s say that their houses are pressuring them to acquire more quirky/funny picture books along the lines of Peter Brown and Mac Barnett. So they only have room for 2-3 rhyming PBs on their lists each year.

Then there’s the idea that there are people out there who really, really, really, really know how to write rhyme. My example in this category is always BUBBLE TROUBLE by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Polly Dunbar. I took one look at that text and never wanted to try writing in rhyme, because I think it’s just such an accomplished, virtuoso rhyming text. If there are writers out there who are carrying Margaret Mahy’s torch and talents for rhyme, they are going to get those coveted and limited PB acquisition slots. Because they know what they’re doing. And the editors who want to work with them are going to hold them up to Mahy-like standards, since that’s an example of rhyming done extremely right that’s already out in the market.

As you can see, there are a lot of considerations to writing in rhyme. And finding a good end rhyme to shoehorn in there is just the first level. If you are at all curious, college poetics textbooks are always enlightening, even if you have to also invest in some toothpicks to prop your eyelids open. Long story short, poetry is an ancient art form that has tons of rules and ideas all its own. It’s a system. And if you’re going to bind yourself to a system, you better know the system. Within the system, you might just find a lot of freedom and creativity. Otherwise, if you don’t know it well or you’re just playing around with it because you think it’s what you have to do, it’s a set of handcuffs that will start to chafe pretty quickly. And it’s likely that you will not be truly competitive.

If you’re writing rhyming texts, don’t freak out. Just make sure you’re doing an excellent job. I mean, that’s good advice for any type of writing, or any pursuit, really, but I’ve found that it especially applies to getting rhyme past gatekeepers. Because rhyming PB texts often come from good, but misguided, intentions.

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Today I was thinking of the very important and potentially controversial issue of writing with a market in mind. What do I mean? Well, if you see that novels about alligators (ridiculous example) are heating up in the marketplace (“the market”), do you pursue that above any idea you may have organically? Or do you keep writing what you’re writing and put relative blinders on as to what publishing is doing?

Writers tend to fall into two camps on the issue. Let’s talk pros and cons to help you see it more comprehensively.

By paying attention to the market, the market-minded writer is aware of what publishing is doing, and probably more aware of various guidelines. For example, you know that you could very well write a 200-page picture book, but that it probably wouldn’t get as much traction as if you’d slated your work toward the common 32-page format. Sure, you can do whatever you want, but it’s going to come to a screeching halt if you try to wedge it into a marketplace that has no category for it. Categories, as we all know, are especially important in children’s books, where writing for specific ages means you have to pay attention to things like word count, protagonist age, etc. You are of the opinion that you need to know the game before you step onto the playing field, so paying attention to what’s getting published is a way for you to learn the business and (potentially) get a leg up, especially if one of your ideas happens to align with what’s currently sought-after. Think of market awareness as giving yourself a stronger potential chance for success.

If you are a market-ignoring writer, you may be surprised when you try to submit. “What do you mean they’re not publishing 3,000-word fairytale storybooks anymore?” you ask. “I’ve put two years of my life into illuminating this manuscript with my daughter’s kindergarten illustrations!” Well, if you had been in a bookstore in the last few years, you would’ve seen very clearly the way the wind is blowing in terms of length, tone, and illustration quality. Hey, whether or not the market is right or wrong in not really publishing the type of book that you want to write is up for debate, and that’s not really the scope of this post.

The truth remains that there are trends and preferences to today’s publishing culture, and that it would behoove the savvy writer to at least know what they are if they intend to offer up a product for sale. The same applies to any economy. If I happened to notice that twee handmade jewelry and adorable knit caps are selling like gangbusters on Etsy, I wouldn’t, for example, try to hang my shingle out as a lady mechanic selling rusty old car parts. I’m not going to get as much traffic there as I would on, say, the fantasy marketplace of RustyOldCarParts.com. The same idea applies here. It’s just common sense.

There are, however, potential cons to paying too much attention to the market. You can become a slave to trends and lose what’s yours about your work. Your ideas will start to sound like copies or rip-offs of what’s currently trending, and you might lose some passion for your projects because you are chasing the market instead of your potential contribution to it. The market is also fickle, and trends come and go. There’s also lag time to consider. What you’re seeing published now was acquired two years ago, so unless you are very connected or have an agent in your corner, it’s hard to know what editors are looking for at the present moment. Paying too much attention to the marketplace tends to create anxiety, whether it’s founded or not, and takes the fun out of the creative process.

And if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, and approaching it with a more mercenary attitude, chances are good that others will find it more difficult to be passionate about it, too, and treat it like a project-of-the-week. Emotionally, this can lead to some bitterness. I heard it a lot during the Twilight era. “Why did that stupid vampire novel get published, while I have a perfectly good vampire novel and nobody wants it?!” writers would gripe. There’s no good answer to that question. Maybe the stupid vampire novel was submitted before yours, or the writer had started it before the Twilight epidemic as an original, unlikely idea, and it’s full of that type of passion, whereas the griping writer’s novel was written in haste to make a few quick bucks. Who knows. But sometimes trend-driven projects take on a competitive edge that wouldn’t otherwise be there, and prove unpleasant to their creators.

Plus, a lot of the wild successes of publishing have come out of left field, as far as categories are concerned. So there’s something to be said for originality influencing the market, not the other way around.

I think an approach somewhere in the middle ground is the best. Know what the marketplace is doing so that you can give yourself a fighting chance. But don’t dwell on trends or haunt the deals notices too closely. Stick to your original ideas and pursue them passionately, as long as you’re also keeping a distant eye on what it might be like to sell them down the road. This, to me, is the sane road.

What kind of writer are you when it comes to paying attention to the market? Do you let it dictate, or do you follow your heart and then see if there’s a spot for what you’ve created? Or are you a little bit of both?

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It’s been a while since I’ve been active on the conference circuit. There were months during my agenting career when I would travel to two or three conferences and workshops a month. It was fantastic for my frequent flyer account, sure, but I loved everything about these events because I could teach workshops, meet writers, and see the world. It was awesome.

Even though I’m not doing much speaking anymore (though I may have an event on the books for this summer, more details to come!), that doesn’t mean YOU have to stay home. If you haven’t done any workshops or conferences recently, or ever, there are a few upcoming events that I want to get on your radar.

First of all, many of you have heard of Highlights Magazine, yes? Well, you may not know about the Highlights Foundation out in Pennsylvania. This organization’s mission is to empower and educate writers. When I was agenting, I was actually on faculty for one of these events and I can’t recommend the experience enough. The Highlights Foundation has a few offerings coming up that they wanted me to tell you about.

First, in March, there’s the “Everything You Need to Know About Children’s Book Publishing” crash course, which includes faculty members Harold Underdown and Jo Knowles. If you’re interested in children’s book publishing–and I can only assume you are, since you’re hanging out on Kidlit.com–check it out. As an extra enticement, the Highlights Foundation is offering $200 off the registration price with coupon code CRASH. Take a look at the registration page to submit your information and take advantage of the special pricing.

For those of you who are in the know, there is also the Big Sur Writing Workshop, organized in part by my former employer, the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Big Sur is, hands down, one of the most incredible opportunities for writers that I have ever come across. This year, it looks like they have rolled out an Advanced Master Class offering for writers which is still accepting applications. If you’ve done Big Sur before or you are confident enough in your skills, I would apply. Writers would tell us all the time that Big Sur was one of the best things they’d ever done for themselves. I can personally attest to the magic of that place, the connections you make, and the leaps you’ll take in your craft once you take the time to go.

If a March opportunity isn’t possible, there’s also a really appealing “Summer Camp at the Barn” offering from Highlights, which just sounds dreamy, slated for July. I was on faculty in the summer, and the property they have for workshops is just incredible, lush, and green. Not only will you deepen your craft, but you will get away from your daily life and reset there.

It’s my firm opinion that every writer deserves to invest in a workshop or conference at some point in their development. Why not roll a weekend or week of learning into a creative retreat? Bucolic Pennsylvania or stunning Big Sur are the perfect backdrops to take some much-needed next steps in your writing life. If you’re unable to jump on a retreat or workshop this year, keep both of these resources on your radar. They are worthy of your attention.

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it seemed that, for a while in the early 2010s, every book I was getting in the slush as an agent had something to do with the end of the world. Dystopian fiction was all the rage, The Hunger Games were exploding off the shelves, and the Mayans had supposedly hinted that the end times would happen in 2012. (Maybe they did and we are all a dream that one of my pugs, who sleeps pretty much continuously, is having?)

Point being, I saw the same iteration of manuscript over and over:

Kid is arbitrarily chosen to save the world, because the world is definitely ending, usually by a mechanism that is large, ominous, and largely outside of anyone’s control. The phenomenon is either natural (disaster, asteroid, climate collapse, virus, etc.) or manmade (shadowy government forces, global war, etc.).

I’ve written before about the unique challenges of the “chosen one” style of story, where a child is, seemingly, arbitrarily plucked from obscurity to avert global disaster. This is a very tough type of book to pull off, and yet that doesn’t stop pretty much everyone from trying. Basically, it opens up a lot of questions that never seem answered quite to my satisfaction. Why this totally ordinary kid? Why such profound magical powers out of nowhere? If this kid is so special, why haven’t they been groomed for the task from birth? Who decided that this one child, on a planet of 8 billion people, was the only hope?

Structurally, these stories also seem to follow a lot of the same steps, which now seem clichĂ©. A milestone happens and they discover a secret about themselves that reveals a destiny. Then they are thrust into a completely new group of people. Cue meet and greets. Then they have to learn a whole new set of skills. Cue training montages (which contribute to a rather static “muddy middle,” since you can only write a few scenes of learning how to do XYZ before they start to run into one another). There’s a rival and a big challenge, then the character must do the thing they were destined to do. It looks unlikely for a second, and the Earth is splintering apart and shaking, and then, suddenly, they persevere at the last moment and the whole world is saved!

The big issue with these stories, other than their relative sameness, is that the stakes are maybe…too high.

Now, I can imagine you, dear reader, are about to throw your laptop at me. I keep talking about stakes and stakes and stakes and tension and friction and increasing stakes, and then I show up one fine Monday morning to tell you that, well, stakes can be too high. What do I want? Why am I so finicky? Is nothing ever good enough for Little Miss Goldilocks over here?

Hear me out. The issue with most manuscripts is, indeed, that stakes tend to be too low. The action is small, there’s not enough personal investment from the character, and the consequences of each action and plot point are barely registering on the charts. However, the opposite extreme is also problematic. If someone ran down my street right now in their boxer shorts, screaming that the world was ending, I would…shrug? Go to a news website? Call my husband? Throw caution to the wind and eat a whole thing of ice cream? I don’t know. That’s such an improbable event (no matter how many times our imaginations have gone there) that it’s too big to believe.

So selling such high stakes becomes very difficult. You have a lot of convincing to do, starting with the character, then the reader. Is the world really going to end? Readers, by this point, are savvy customers. We know how these types of stories go. And we know that the world ain’t ended yet. And if it was going to, it would probably be turned over to the professionals rather than landing squarely in the lap of a 12-year-old kid.

So should you even bother with an apocalypse story? You can. There’s always something deeply fascinating to humans about the idea of the world exploding or being decimated by virus. I would imagine there are some hastily written zika virus manuscripts popping into agent inboxes right about now. If you still want to do this sort of thing, I would suggest that the kid and the apocalyptic event need to be inextricably tied.

For example, this specific kid needs to match this specific apocalypse in a way that makes them the only possible answer. Let’s say that their mother was a leading climate scientist who was recently kidnapped. Life sucks for the character as they try to put the pieces back together. Then it’s revealed that the reason for the kidnapping was that Mom had just stumbled upon a shadowy government conspiracy to overheat the Middle East in a desperate bid to end the conflict there. But it worked too well, and now the entire planet is in grave danger. Mom is presumed dead, but Kid has his doubts. Worse yet, Mom told Kid some very classified information right before she was taken, almost as if she knew what was going to happen. Now Kid might be the only one to reverse the runaway climate. But, even with the world (theoretically) at stake, Kid has their own skin in the game: to see if Mom is actually alive, and to bring those responsible for the kidnapping to justice.

Apocalypse story. Shadowy government conspiracy. Runaway climate change (giving the story a timely hook). But what do we notice about this premise? It’s not just some random kid. In fact, the kid has deeply personal reasons for springing into action. And averting the apocalypse is almost a byproduct of more intimate, meaningful goals.

That’s what I would suggest doing if your stakes are too high: make them smaller (not in scope, but in terms of intimacy of objective and motivation). Make them more personal. Make it believable that a kid would rise up against huge forces to get what they want, because what they want is very close to their hearts. The stakes stakes can remain huge (there’s still an apocalypse scenario) but their impact on your specific character is what has the power to set you apart in this very crowded category.

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