Advice

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This is a note I give a lot in my work with clients. It goes: “Saying something simple in a complicated way.” I know exactly why people do it. But it often has detrimental effects on that one holy grail of writing that people strive for, voice.

For example:

The sky is blue.
The heavens swirl with shades of the purest cerulean.

Yikes. I mean, sure, we want to be remembered for prose that has at least a little bit of flair because our unique authorial voices are what distinguish us from the other guy. At the same time, there’s a delicate balance between substance and style. If style trumps substance, often to the point where the substance is almost unrecognizable, you have a problem. The reader will be lost in your Baroque description and lose the meaning. And that’s not good for their overall focus and, as a result, involvement in your story.

Do I feel like a bit of an idiot writing such inane description as “The sky is blue”? Sure. But sometimes the sky is blue and it needs to be described as blue and the simplest answer is the most difficult: just write “The sky is blue” and move on to developing character or plot.

Why does this bother us so much, as writers? Why do we have to twist ourselves into sentence pretzels and dive into the thesaurus to turn out a description that’s unlike any anyone has ever written?

I call this Writer With a Capital W syndrome. A writer’s trade is her vocabulary, natural voice, and ability to express herself. So writing “The sky is blue” feels like a total cop out. Instead we, especially those beginning writers out there, want to really strut our stuff and prove our worth. We lace the sentence with adjectives or adverbs, we choose really zippy verbs, we labor over every image to make sure that the reader is going to see exactly what we want them to see in their pretty little heads, so help us God. I imagine Writers With a Capital W have a lot of steam coming out of their ears after all that darn concentration.

The thing is, though, sometimes it’s okay to loosen the reigns a bit and let the scene we’re creating speak for itself. Our imagery and writing prowess doesn’t need to be on display every second. In fact, that demands a lot of the reader and tends to skew focus away from the story we’re telling. And that, at the end of the day, is the heart of it. Substance needs to trump style. Not all the time, but a lot.

If you’ve ever been accused of trying too hard, purple prose, overwriting, or not killing your darlings, listen up. There’s no shame in simplifying it a bit and letting the content of the sentence, not the flair with which it is written, stand out. In fact, it may be a welcome break from all that wordsmithing!

Sealed with a KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!),
Mary

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I’ve written a lot about dialogue (start here and here). Now I want to introduce the idea of keeping a scene going and picking the right time to interrupt the flow. What’s the best time to insert information, description, dialogue tags, or action?

If your answer is, “Uhhhh, whenever I think of it?” then congratulations, you’re like most writers. But just because you think of inserting something into a scene at a certain moment doesn’t mean that’s the best moment.

We’ve all had the experience, I think, of reading a manuscript (our own or a critique partner’s) and getting involved in a scene. Great! We’ve all also gone with the writer on a tangent when they interrupt the scene to insert some kind of block of text, right? Then the scene restarts with a rejoinder or response–”I completely agree with you,” she said–and…wait a minute! What were they talking about? You scroll up madly to reconnect the conversational thread.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: scene is about the dialogue. It’s not about the dialogue tags. It’s not about the actions or gestures that accompany the speech. It’s not about the description of the cafeteria around the characters who are speaking, unless it just so happens to break out in a food fight and interrupt them. It’s about what’s being said. Or at least it should be.

Whenever you interrupt the flow of dialogue, you best have a good reason. This is not the time for big blocks of text that derail the reader’s attention and train of thought. This is not the time to establish part of the setting (which you should’ve done as we were entering the location) or reinforce a character’s personal appearance (which you should’ve done when we were meeting them the first or second time). When we hunker down for a scene, think of it as an express train that makesvery selective stops. It should stop for things that are important to the plot, first and foremost. If that food fight is going to happen in the middle of the scene, then, yeah, by all means stop the dialogue. If the mean girl comes to harass everyone, then include it.

But there’s a time and place for all sorts of other distracting information, and in the middle of a scene usually isn’t it. By being selective and figuring out the right time to drop information on your reader, you are gaining control over your prose. The more writers practice, the more organized they become. They realize that there’s a natural ebb and flow to good writing and that it’s perfectly fine, desirable even, to be strategic in handling where and how you introduce different character and plot elements. For now, you should be vigilant about not disrupting a piece of dialogue’s train of thought. That’s an easy fix and it helps instill good writing habits.

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This post relates to notes I’ve found myself giving to writers and it’s along the lines of my Pimp Your Premise post last month. The theme is the same: You’ve done all this work, created this thing, so why not get the most out of it?

The note that originally elicited this response was a scene with high emotional potential that, for some reason, didn’t live up to its potential. Rather than becoming a sensitive life wire of emotion, the character drifted through, basically, the climax of the story with all of the interiority and sensitivity of a crash test dummy. (For all those who are new to my story theory rhetoric, I define interiority as having access to your character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This is possible to accomplish in either first or third person.) The emotions were definitely possible in this intense scene, but the writer wasn’t going there.

More and more, my advice to writers can be summed up as: GO THERE. If you set up a premise with a really unique element, exploit that element to the fullest and design as many plot points around it. If you’re writing a grief story and there’s a lot of potential for your protagonist to hit rock bottom, have them crash into it at high speeds. If you’re writing a love story, give us that moment when he loses himself in her eyes entirely and becomes vulnerable for the first time ever. There are a million story opportunities for your characters to become a raw nerve.

As a group, writers–and don’t think I’m insulting writers here, this sentence could just as easily read “humans”–like to play it safe. They have their pet storytelling techniques, their favorite plot twists, their go-to phrases, their easy physical clichĂ©s that they deploy instead of having to write about the messy world of emotions. But the writer’s role job isn’t to play it safe. It isn’t to tread the familiar path, because the familiar path isn’t going to electrify readers. Artists in general search for the truth of the human condition by getting out of their comfort zones…and by taking their audiences with them.

If you yourself are unwilling to GO THERE, your reader’s potential to suffer, triumph, and understand diminishes. I’m constantly impressed by how many manuscripts scratch the surface in precisely those moments when they should be plunging in. Interiority flourishes during a boring classroom scene but is oddly silent when it’s time to visit Dad in the hospice, for example. Or we spend a lot of time on happy emotions but completely sidestep anything negative. (Reverse this dynamic for a dystopian manuscript!)

Let me get down to it: The scene that feels the hollowest in your manuscript should either be cut or you should screw your courage to the sticking place and GO THERE with it. Especially when the events transpiring call for high, noble, intense, painful, or otherwise uncomfortable emotions.

To call upon a book outside the kidlit canon, this was my biggest problem with THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, an insanely successful adult novel by Kim Edwards that came out in 2005 and was incredibly successful. (SPOILERS) While it is a very emotional story, there is one glaring missed opportunity, a moment begging the author to GO THERE that was never realized. Briefly, the story is about a husband who immediately realizes that one of his newborn twins has Down’s syndrome. This is another era and he quickly spirits the girl away to a nurse, then lies to his wife, saying the second child died. Flash forward many years and the secret is close to coming out. Just as I was expecting the BLISTERING reveal and ensuing confrontation between husband and wife, the husband dies suddenly. The wife finds out another way and rages at his memory.

I know plenty of people who loved this book. But I really, really, really would’ve loved to see the scene where husband and wife stand naked before the truth. It’s one thing to rage at someone’s memory, it’s another to confront him in the flesh. And not just him, but the pastand the future. I would never call this author a coward, but I wondered what kept her from GOING THERE and giving us this highly emotional scene using both characters, not just one.

So if you’ve got a premise that’s locked and loaded with the high-stakes potential for emotion, don’t just skirt around it or do the next best thing. It’s going to be challenging, because you have a lot wrapped up in these characters and part of you probably wants to protect them, but you have to think of the most emotional points in your plot as an invitation to unleash those feelings without holding back. GO THERE.

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A reader wrote in over the weekend to ask:

I wrote a nonfiction article for a kids’ magazine. I sent it recently, haven’t heard back yet. Because I’m completely fascinated with the subject I wrote about, I sat down and wrote a different story on the same subject that ideally would be a nonfiction children’s picture book. I’ve sent it to just one agent a few days ago. No here’s my dilemma: I know all the “first-time rights” and “all-rights” lingo, but I’m wondering that, 1. does it apply because the mag article is different than the picture book story, and 2) in the 1-in-billion chance that the agent wants to pursue my book, do I need to jump up and shout- wait!- a magazine might publish a different-but-same-topic article I wrote. I feel like this could be potentially sticky…and I’m just wondering if there’s any justifications for my worries.

An interesting question! Here’s my response:

Rights to a book are pretty heavily connected to the text of a book. A lot of authors publish NF articles in their subject area before writing a full-length book about it (and lots of people pitching NF book proposals are told “This is more of an article” because there’s not enough meat in their topic/angle to support a full book).

In children’s, you could wander into a bit of a gray area because I’m imagining that both texts will be shorter and will cover a lot of the same information–i.e.: both overview biographies or both simple explanations of a scientific principle, etc. This is where you will want to pay close attention to the text and make sure that you’re not publishing a close replica.

If your article vs. book angles are very different, like one is an overview and one covers a much more specific area of the subject, you have nothing to worry about. But if the topics are close and lightning happens to strike twice in the form of a magazine acceptance AND a book publishing opportunity, there is nothing wrong with strategically delaying the article until you can share your concerns with an agent or editor. As opposed to the book manuscript and publishing plan with your acquiring editor, the article will be a lot easier to edit in a way that still meets the magazine’s purposes.

A larger point deserves to be made here: If you have a magazine editor, agent, or book editor on the hook and they like your work or area or expertise (in the NF world especially), there is nothing wrong with communicating openly, asking thoughtful questions, or attempting to get that person to work with you if something like this should come up. Your magazine editor might be perfectly willing to publish a slightly different article or time the article differently (delay it while negotiation is in process, run it closer to your book’s publication date to build momentum, etc.) in case you happen to get a book contract.

The good thing about this potential scenario, of course, is that being published in various venues on a subject will help you leverage yourself as an expert on a certain topic. As you build your career, you’ll actually want to seek out these types of situations and get your name out there. I know some of these questions are stressful, but try and think of this as a potential positive, because it very easily could be!

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I’m seeing some submissions lately that put the cart before the horse in terms of what they’re pitching. Several writers write and say, “I have such and such project that would make a great app. And then this other project just screams to be developed into a touring ice show. Finally, I can just see the face of my third protagonist plastered on everything from stuffed animals to t-shirts.”

There’s a lot to be said about focusing on your project as a book idea and letting all these other things come later. Since I’m seeing more and more of this type of pitch, I want to remind everyone that it’s okay to simply have a book that’s going to make a good book. In fact, that’s the point of trying to query a book.

And let me just add to what I’ve already said by emphasizing that nowhere is it stated that every single book idea will get every single ancillary product/right/option in the world. When you look at the sheer number of things that get published every year, a much smaller percentage goes on to merchandising opportunities, movie options, video game licenses, and all of the other things that some aspiring writers dream about.

I think that all this talk of apps really got people’s imaginations going. “It’s going to be a book AND an app, guaranteed,” one thinks, “because everyone is talking about apps!”Then that “and…” mentality spread to theme parks and licensed coffee tumblers and international editions. I get it. But it’s very important to remember that most books don’t get apps, or foreign sales, or entertainment deals.

That’s the danger of REQUIRING anything on your publishing journey, whether it’s a trilogy of books in order to tell your story or a read-and-play app that plugs into your premise. The more you require, especially as a debut, the fewer incentives you’re giving a house to take a chance on you. Your “and” turns into their “but,” ie: “We really see the potential for this book idea BUT they’re pushing us for a trilogy and I’m just not sure that we can make that kind of investment.”

Require less, open your mind to telling your story in the simplest way possible, and celebrate the ancillary successes that roll in. It’s often a fun and happy surprise when Hollywood calls or a comic book edition is picked up, and it can pay a month or more of your rent. Yay! But it’s not guaranteed and it’s also not the end all and be all. Keep it in perspective. That’s the best way to establish market savvy and tone down your expectations, thereby becoming a writer that many more people would be willing and excited to work with.

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Katie Van Amburg, a recent college graduate, wrote in a few weeks ago and wanted to know what she should be doing next to further herself as a writer. Should she get an MFA? Should she work at a publishing house? These are some of the “next step” questions that a lot of writers have when they’re looking around and wondering if the writing that they do in their rooms is going to be enough to speed them toward their goals.

Is taking the next step and working at a publishing house or getting an advanced degree for you? Well, as a lady who has done both…

This is a tough answer to hear but it’s necessary: There is no magic bullet. I worked as an intern at Chronicle Books in San Francisco, and it was wonderful. I learned a lot. I also got an MFA degree and wrote a thesis, which was a completed fiction manuscript. Again, I learned a lot. But working at Chronicle didn’t get me automatically to some new level as a writer, and neither did the MFA. Neither ended directly in a publishing deal. I published a book this year but it took into consideration all of my experiences in publishing. And everything I wrote for Chronicle or for the MFA certainly must’ve played a role, but at the end of the day, the sum of all my experiences came out on the page.

Writing isn’t a linear progression. There’s no “go get your medical degree, then do a residency, then…” path outlined for it anywhere. That can be liberating, but it can also be scary because there are so many variables and fewer tangible results than in other fields.

If you do any of these things, you are doing them for YOU and to grow as a writer, not to get brownie points on your resume. Remember that. If you expect to wake up the morning after your MFA thesis is accepted and somehow be changed, it’s not going to happen. (Sorry to say, but it’s sort of like publishing a book. When I got the deal, I called Andrea. The first thing she said to me was, “That’s great, but just don’t think it will change your life.” At first, I thought she was being a bummer. Now I know she’s right. That one thing will not change your life…unless it becomes a megaselling hit and makes you lots of money. Most books are all about what you got out of writing it and then all about what you do with them. Waking up on publication day is like waking up on any other day.)

However, if you think a structured, workshop-based program will help you get to the next level, apply to an MFA and get everything you can from it. If you want to see how a publisher works from the inside out, go intern at one or work for a literary magazine or read for a literary agent. But don’t expect either of them to be more than what you make of them.

Sure, good programs and good publishers will furnish you with mentors and experiences you’ve never had before. And there’s a lot of value in that. But there’s usually no benchmark with something like this. The lessons and realizations (and then the energy and courage to use those insights when you’re back at the page) mean the ball is in your court. All of these things are just individual steps, it’s up to you to put them together into a ladder a climb it.

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One of the most important notes I can give to an aspiring writer is a gentle reminder that they should start in the present moment when they begin their story. Often, a story will start with generalizations or philosophy. Maybe a description of the weather or a person’s mood. Perhaps physical details or action that hasn’t really been given a time or place. For example, take this:

First days of school were always the worst. They made Caylee feel bad. Nothing was ever exactly how she wanted it to be, and she supposed that was the point of life. But first days were the worst, because they combined a hope she should’ve probably learned to ignore by now with the eventual disappointment of growing up.

Not only is there telling about emotion (“They made Caylee feel bad”) but the writer here (me) is hitting the reader over the head with the coming of age theme of growing up and tempering expectations. Yawn. Notice that we don’t have a concrete place yet, nor do we have a specific time (it’s the first day of school but is the character at home in the early morning, on her way to homeroom, reflecting on it at night, etc. etc. etc.).

The reader is in limbo and, without any additional action that could potentially make this clunker of an opening go down more smoothly, there’s really nothing here to hold on to in any serious way.

Your beginning is Prime Real Estate, remember. Not only do you want to start strong and grabby, but you also want to get away from the vague, get away from the general, get away from the philosophy, stop writing bumper sticker expressions of your theme, and go toward the specific and the well-defined. In that vein, a reboot of the above example could be something like:

Caylee tried to close her locker but the stupid thing stuck. Only five minutes before homeroom on yet another “first day of school” that she was supposed to be so excited about. She imagined what it would be like to walk in late and have everyone staring at her. Suddenly the brand new white toes of her brand new pink Converse felt fake–like she was obviously trying way too hard. She kicked the locker door closed and scuffed her right shoe. Great. A visual reminder of how perfect-seeming days usually ended in disappointment.

A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but we know exactly when and where we are, and I’m still working with some of the same emotions and ideas. Notice how the much more specific thoughts about them really help do away with that limbo/hazy/floaty feeling inspired by vague statements like “the eventual disappointment of growing up” and “First days of school were always the worst.” These same issues have now become much more specific to the time and place, and also to the character.

Make sure that, within the first two paragraphs, the reader can always point to exactly where and when your story starts. If you need a lot of time to get to grounding your reader, you haven’t found your beginning just yet.

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Motivation is how you convey why a character is doing what they’re doing. I go into great detail about it in my upcoming book, WRITING IRRESISTIBLE KIDLIT, which comes out in late October/early November. But it all boils down to this, and if you want to write this on a Post It for your computer monitor, that might not be a bad idea:

I don’t care about what a character is doing until I know why they’re doing it.

All reader investment and emotion comes from caring. All character emotion comes from the events of the plot and how they rub up against their motivations, objectives, wants, and needs. If you don’t put any thought into the latter elements–or if you don’t work to convey those to the reader–nobody will care or feel anything.

And feeling is the biggest thing you want to inspire in your audience.

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Just a quick post for my picture book readers: PB titles are an art and should be considered carefully. Of course, most book titles change on the path to publication, so what you pick may or may not be set in stone. However, there are a few things I often see in slush that you’d do best to avoid.

The first is, giving away the ending in the title. A title like Josie Finds Her Cat is not great because I’m guessing that the main action of the plot is that Josie loses her cat and looks for it. While that’s a relatable conflict for a picture book and might keep reader attention, the ending is revealed in the title–she finds the cat!–and the manuscript loses all power because the reader never feels the tension of the conflict. Imagine a movie where someone has spoiled the ending–how much do you really care about all the stakes rising throughout if you know they’re going to be overcome? Sure, as adults, we can suspend our disbelief and follow a story, even if we know how it turns out, but picture book-age kids are a little less skillful at this.

The second is, giving away the lesson. A title like Josie Learns to Share is poisonous on two counts. First, it suffers from the malaise I discussed above. The lesson is usually learned at the end, so this kind of title is a variation on a theme. Second, it makes me think that your picture book is going to be didactic and preachy. As we know, that’s one of the biggest no-nos for today’s writers. If the entire point of your book is to bludgeon a kid over the head with the message that THEY MUST SHARE, then you don’t have a picture book for today’s market. If the story and the message are so entwined together that removing one kills the other, your idea is a nonstarter. A good picture book must be a wonderful story with a message carefully and subtly imparted as a result of the character’s growth. There cannot be a wise adult swooping in to deliver a last-page message, or a kid staring at the reader and saying, hollowly, like a Sunday school manners robot, “And so I learned that sharing is caring!” Picture books have evolved past that. If I get a sense that your book is going to be didactic from the title, I will be that much less excited to read it, and so will your audience.

Browse some of the picture books being published today to see what kind of titles are on shelves, then think outside the box of what you remember picture book titles being when you were growing up.

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We all know the feeling–we’re about to do something really nerve-wracking, and all we want to know is whether or not it went okay. This applies to every nervousmaking thing in life: proposing marriage, going in for a job interview, giving an important sales presentation, pitching your book at a conference. While a marriage proposal usually gets a response right away, most of these other scenarios are of the sort where you put your best foot forward and then you wait for results.

Now put yourself on the receiving end. A candidate comes in for a job interview and they do well. They present themselves professionally and answer your questions. You put them in your “maybe” pile, or maybe slot them for a second interview. Then you let them know that you’ll be calling them with your decision in a few days. Pretty standard stuff. Very much the same thing happens to me when I sit to hear pitches at a writer’s conference. I listen to the pitch (and try to put the writer at ease if they are feeling nervous), then I say something along the lines of “I can’t really tell a lot about the writing from a verbal pitch, so I’d love to see a sample.” Most pitches are very short and, remember, a pitch or query letter and written prose are two very different things. I can’t extrapolate the latter from the former, even if I tried. Once I explain this to the writer and ask to see a snippet of the writing itself, I follow this with instructions for sending one. Again, pretty standard stuff.

But imagine you’re a job interviewer at the end of an interview, and the candidate just sits there, looking at you expectantly. Or maybe they go so far as to ask, “Well, am I gonna get it?” Or, “How did I do?” Or you’re sitting and hearing pitches–having seen none of the writing, which is what you’re “hiring” as an editor or agent–and the writer leans forward and asks, “So, is it gonna get published?” Or, “Did I do okay?”

We’re not a guaranteed 30-second decision credit card application hotline, guys. These are questions that have no right answers and, more often than not, they put the asker at a disadvantage.

Whenever you go from professionally presenting yourself in a good light and saying what you have to say, to letting your ego and insecurities drive the situation, you cross a line. The first question puts me in the very awkward position of reminding you that I haven’t seen the writing yet and, besides, I am just one person and certainly not the final word in what does and doesn’t get published. How am I supposed to know whether your work will sell, sight-unseen? Even if the premise sounds good, I don’t want to get your hopes up or seem like I’m making any promises, so the only thing you’ll get from this question is, likely, a tactful dodge. The second question asks me to outright lie to you about your pitch performance because nobody who asks “Did I do okay?” usually wants to hear anything resembling the truth. (And it’s the people who feel like they have to ask who usually didn’t do that well…)

The fact is, the percentage of people who get their work picked up at conferences is equal to or just slightly higher than the percentage who get plucked out of the slush. (1% to 5%, depending on who you ask. And the reason conferences might be slightly higher is that they usually attract people who are further along in their writing or making a firmer commitment to getting published. Paying for a conference does not guarantee you’ll get published, of course, but most do attract a more serious writer.) I always applaud writers for showing up to conference, but I’m afraid that they have to play by the same rules as everyone else submitting, unless they’re in the rare situation that they make a deeply personal connection with a faculty member, in which case the game might change. Whether you pitch in person or in a written query, the etiquette is the same, the agent or editor still wants to see the writing, and an instant decision should not be expected.

No matter how tempting it is to ask about your odds or performance, especially since you have a real, live agent or editor sitting right there, I would advise against it. I’d hope it’s awkward for you, and that you have that kind of self-awareness. Because it sure as heck is awkward for us on the other side of the desk.

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