Advice

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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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One of the most difficult things to do if you get a lot of critique or pay for reads at conferences is to synthesize all the feedback you’re receiving into something that makes sense. Last week, a blog reader wrote in to ask the following:

I have a question about feedback about a WIP. I recently had 3 manuscript assessments completed, two full reads by highly recommended freelance editors (paid for), and one 10-page review by a professional agent (also paid for). The first two were really positive with minor ‘fixes’ to consider and when asked if I should persevere, the response was ‘absolutely’. However, the third feedback, from the literary agent, basically told me to start something new and give up on that MSS. So how does one take such varying feedback? Which feedback do you take on board and which do you reject without being biased?

This is a tough one. If it were me and my manuscript, I’d try and find a middle ground between “minor fixes” and “trash the thing.” Also, keep in mind that the editors read the full manuscript, which is helpful, while the agent only read the first 10 pages. In this writer’s case, I would be very tempted (as a human) to choose the editors’ opinions and discard the agent’s. However, as an agent (definitely not human, LOL), I say that the source does matter. Don’t reject the agent’s harsher feedback because you don’t like it. Here’s why: Besides writing quality, agents also have to react and think about premise and marketability, and they know more on that front than laypeople or even trained freelancers. They’re the ones staying on top of trends and the ones closely familiar with what is and isn’t selling.

(Sidebar: I’m not particularly thrilled with the agent’s response myself, though I would say there’s probably some truth to it. The reason for this is that saying “burn it” isn’t constructive to a writer. Even if I see little hope for a manuscript, I always try to at least provide some actionable feedback. I’m sorry to hear this wasn’t the case in this situation.)

Freelance editors focus primarily on the strengths and opportunities for grown in the manuscript as it exists before them. If the manuscript is technically good and the story moves along well, they may be tempted to rate it highly. Agents, however, are looking at the quality of the thing, sure, but they are also always trying to place it in the context of saleability. Because the most amazing piece of writing isn’t going to do anyone much good if it can’t be published for whatever reason (usually a too-slow or too-quiet or too-clichéd premise). So while the agent’s feedback is harsh, there may be truth to either the writing or the concept not working.

If the writer in question wants another agent’s opinion and money is not an issue, I would encourage them to seek yet another agent or editor’s opinion (someone from the sales side, not another freelance editor). That should clarify the picture a bit. If they can’t get another professional critique at the moment, I would focus on tweaking the story and concept to something that’s more exciting by today’s standards. Concept might, after all, be what the agent reacted poorly to. There’s also nothing like actually putting a project aside and getting a fresh new idea. The project doesn’t have to die, it can just step aside for a minute while you chase something else. Odds are good you’ll come back to it, ready to see it with new eyes. That’s a way to take the agent’s negative-sounding advice and make it empowering instead.

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Legendary children’s editor Ursula Nordstrom (responsible for shepherding classics like Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are) once said:

If I can resist a book, I resist it.

This is the note on which I end almost all of my talks, and the challenge I issue to writers. Sure, the idea of someone resisting your book isn’t a pleasant one, but the trick, especially in this market, is to make resistance impossible. You should never aim any lower than that with your creative work. Am I right? And you do that by learning the marketplace and honing your storytelling craft to razor-sharp edge. How? I’m glad you asked!

It’s in this spirit that I bring you WRITING IRRESISTIBLE KIDLIT: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers. It’s my writing book. It is inspired by this blog, by my readers, by my clients, by my colleagues at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency and Movable Type Management, by the agents, editors, designers, and publishers shaping the industry, by the amazing writers who are working in the children’s book space today, by the SCBWI and the other conferences that have given me a platform, and by my own thinking about story over the years. It would not have been possible without the support of the fantastic team of people at F+W Media and Writer’s Digest, who have been my partners in literary crime for a few years now. (Trust me, some of the jokes I get away with during the webinars could easily be considered literary crime…)

For the book, I culled excerpts from thirty-four of my favorite published middle grade and young adult titles, and analyzed them to give my readers the most relevant examples for craft topics like theme, character, plot, imagery, dialogue, and more. There are tons of my original thoughts on all of these issues, as well as input from published authors and fabulous children’s editors. I also include insights into the children’s publishing marketplace from an agent’s point of view–where the market has come from and where it’s going.

Writing this book has been the thrill of a lifetime. I can’t wait for you all to read it and have a comprehensive picture of just what the heck I’ve been trying to say on the blog and at conferences these past few years. On a special note, I did not repeat any blog content for this book. Since I’ve written so much for this blog on the topics that I’m covering in WRITING IRRESISTIBLE KIDLIT, it could’ve been very easy to copy and paste some chapters entirely. But I wanted to challenge myself to create completely new content (and maybe I’m a bit of a masochist…probably a mix of both). Plus, I hate “blog books” that end up being repeats and disappointments, and wanted to absolutely avoid letting my faithful readers down. The only familiar sections you’ll notice are from some talks and webinars that I typically give, but not everyone has heard me speak. To balance that out, I’ll be phasing some of the old speeches out of my repertoire after this book is published.

Other than that, all you need to know is that it comes out in late October, 2012 from Writer’s Digest Books! Don’t worry, I’ll be talking more about it as the pub date approaches and doing some giveaways. Thank you so much for your support and early excitement about this project. I can’t wait to share it with all of you!

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This paragraph comes from an interview I did recently, and I just wanted to put it out there for your consideration. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about, especially as I’ve been finishing my book and really considering the writing craft intensely. The below is a thought on what makes a book stick in a reader’s memory, and it dovetails with a writer’s main objective:

The books I remember most are the ones that capture my emotions and make me feel intensely. One of my favorites is HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT by Natalie Standiford. It captured teenage loneliness and longing so well that it bring tears to my eyes with each rereading. That and being able to create images for readers that stay with them. I’ll never be able to forget the Rue/flowers scene in THE HUNGER GAMES (the book version, not the movie version, sorry!) or Hazel and Augustus “drinking stars” in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. If you can create moments that feel as real as our own memories, you’ve got a reader for life.

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As I say, I’ve been doing a lot of Writer’s Digest webinar critiques lately, and so a lot of posts have been inspired by things I’m seeing and notes I’m giving. While there are lots of personalized notes that I give on each manuscript (which are specific to the work), there is a handful of notes that I cut and paste from a master Word document (5 pages long!) because I have to give them over and over and over again, as they apply across dozens of manuscripts. No blog post is about a single critique that I’ve given. If I’m writing about it here, that means I’m seeing it a lot. One webinar student, Barbara, wrote back to react to a note that I’d given her. This is the note:

If you have to go into a flashback or two in the first 500 words, my guess is that you haven’t found your beginning yet. A strong opening scene is one you want to stick to for a few pages without yanking the reader away.

Barbara’s was personalized slightly for the manuscript at hand, but that is the heart of the comment. I give this note when a writer establishes a present moment with their novel opening, but then they either go into a flashback or cut the scene short and dash off to another scene within the first 2 pages (or 500 words, which is also the limit for critique submissions for the novel webinars).

And this was Barbara’s reaction to it:

Just a quick note to thank you so much for your critique. I have been struggling for a long time now on my opening pages, not quite understanding why they weren’t working. Your observation that maybe I haven’t found my real beginning yet was eye-opening. I am now filled with ideas for a new first chapter, and so relieved that I can take all the pressure off my current first chapter!

I wanted to share this with you because I think it’s a very common issue that a lot of writers struggle with. Beginnings are hard. You have to accomplish a lot with them (there’s a checklist in my upcoming book that I thought long and hard about). You almost never know everything your beginning will have to do until you finish the book, and it’s often the section that you’ll have to go back to over and over again to make sure it works and pulls the reader in while introducing your character and world without too much heavy telling or backstory. Whew!

As such, most writers don’t land on their real beginning until much later in the revision process. Some don’t even land there until their book is sold and they’re deep into editing it on a more professional level. The point is, do the best you can with the beginning, learn as much as you can about how to make a good beginning work (while you’re waiting for my book, check out HOOKED by Les Edgerton, out from Writer’s Digest, and discussed on this blog already here), and then give it your best shot.

If you lock yourself (mentally) into a beginning that isn’t working, it will hurt you in the submission pile, since that’s what you’re showing off to agents and editors. Stay as open-minded and as flexible with your novel opening, and make sure you write one that you will want to sustain for a scene or two without slipping into flashback or making a scene transition. That’s one easy way to know when a writer is in their opening mojo–they grab on to a beginning and they run with it for a while. Thanks to Barbara for letting me pass on this reminder, and keep my note in mind for your own writing.

Should you want a chance to get a critique from me, I’m giving another Writer’s Digest webinar on May 10th. This is a general market overview, which I’ve given once in September 2010 and which I often give at conferences. If you haven’t taken a webinar from me before, or haven’t heard me speak, this is a great opportunity to hear a talk that I’m phasing out of my repertoire.

It covers the picture book, middle grade, and young adult marketplace and some bigger picture craft issues. Every writer will get a personalized critique of their picture book (up to 300 words), or the opening of their MG or YA novel (up to 500 words). It all happens on May 10th at 1 p.m. Eastern, but you don’t have to be present (if that time doesn’t work for you) to get the critique. Just register as a student anyway and you’ll get a recording of the webinar after the fact. You’ll also get to submit questions which are guaranteed an answer, either live or in a PDF that arrives in your inbox, and your work for some personalized feedback from me. Register here!

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I speak and provide critiques at many conferences every year, and I also offer Writer’s Digest webinars that include critique. I work very hard on these critiques. Teaching writing is a passion for me (hence the blog). Most of the writers who get critique (at conferences, in critique groups, through the webinars, as a result of contests, etc.) approach it with the right attitude. Critiques are a learning opportunity. You submit your work, you hear feedback on it, and, eventually, you either incorporate the feedback or cast it aside. Sometimes a critique will completely click and validate your own instincts. Sometimes you won’t like it at all.

Let’s start by saying that, yes, some critique is just bad. It’s either totally off the mark (“Did they even read my story?”) or it feels mean-spirited (there’s a personal attack or they say something along the lines of “you will never ever ever ever publish”). Keep in mind, though, that telling you that your writing still needs work is not personally mean. It’s most likely honest. All writers, even published ones, strive to improve their writing, so “needs work” is not a bad thing. Just because someone doesn’t heap praise on you or call you “the next J.K. Rowling” in critique doesn’t mean it’s a bad critique. No professional critique would say such a thing, so if that’s what you’re expecting, you’re in for disappointment. Most critique may be hard to take but, if it’s honest and comes from an expert source, it will have at least one or two nuggets of truth or action items that you can implement in your writing. If you leave your emotions out of it, you’ll most likely find this to be the case.

Critique is a tool. It is given to you and you must use it how you see fit. Maybe not right away. Maybe you’ll put it aside for a bit and then use it to look at your manuscript afresh. But it is extremely valuable–it is another set of eyes on your work, which is a very rare thing for writers to receive. Let’s now go into what critique isn’t. Something goes on in critiques and at conferences that I call American Idol Syndrome. There seems to be a mentality in the creative arts right now (not helped by all the competition shows that have sprung up over the last decade) that all you need is your one shot at greatness and then you’re a star. Instead of doing the hard labor for years and years, instead of working your butt off, all you need is to be in the right place at the right time in front of the right gatekeeper.

Believe me, I love this dream. I remember being 12 or 13 and reading in Seventeen magazine that some model got discovered when a scout saw her at the mall, offered her a contract on the spot, whisked her away to a life of luxury in NYC, and then it rained unicorns and puppies on her forever and ever, etc. I won’t lie to you–I was much more self-conscious going to the mall after that. I always chose my outfit carefully and maybe even put on a little make-up, which, for me, is a huge effort. This fantasy is very appealing to humans. Work is hard. That’s why they call it “work,” instead of, you know “beach party.” We would rather have success tap us on the shoulder while we’re browsing Hot Topic and offer us the key to our dreams. But this happens much more rarely than you’d think in real life (that’s why we know the exceptions…they’re news). Especially in publishing, which isn’t as TV-ready-glamorous as fashion design, being a TV chef, modeling, singing, etc.

I know that when writers sign up for a conference or critique, there’s this little part of them that thinks, “Maybe I will meet my dream agent and we’ll ride off into the sunset together!” Heck, I met one of my now-colleagues at a writer’s conference. Writers connect with agents, editors, and other writers at conferences all the time. But those meetings are a lot less about luck than they are about hard work. The writers that do find their agents and editors at these things are the ones who have done years of work on their craft, who are coming to the conference savvy and informed, who have bought a critique that brings them to the right person’s attention, and who have done as much as possible so that they’re ready to be fallen in love with.

Louis Pasteur said: “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” The people who win Idol have, most likely, years and years of voice lessons and musical theatre and practice behind them. They look like they’re just randomly being “discovered” on TV, but their entire creative life has brought them to that moment. It’s the sweaty, repetitive part that the cameras don’t show you. This goes for any creative endeavor.

Now. There is a small set of writers who do not react well to constructive feedback. They are the ones bitterly disappointed that they were not “discovered” as a result of a conference meeting or critique. All they wanted to hear was, “This is a diamond in the rough and I will publish it right this minute!” Anything else, no matter how sound the feedback, is crushing. If you are pinning all your hopes and expectations on one conference or critique, and you feel like “this is it, or else…,” I would save yourself the trouble and stay away for now. It is very likely that your unrealistic expectations will be dashed.

Publishing is a tough business, and writing is, by its very nature, emotional. Writers, especially those striving to publish, need thick skins and heaps of resilience. I’d encourage everyone to adjust their expectations of mega-stardom and insta-fame now rather than be disappointed in the future. That’s not to say I’m thinking small. I would love for all of my clients to be #1 bestsellers! But you can’t go in expecting that to happen, or the journey will be very angsty for you. Hope for great things (every conference or critique is an opportunity to grow), but don’t require them. Screw your determination to its sticking place, and get into this game to learn and grow as a writer. That’s the good stuff right there. If you happen to take off, it will be that much more satisfying, and you will have a very strong craft foundation to bolster your success.

Until that happens, if you still want to play the one-in-a-million odds at instant stardom, line up to audition for the next season of Idol. I guarantee that you won’t be alone in pursuing this favorite of human fantasies.

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I sat down at the computer to write a blog post when I started thinking… Gosh, it’s really weird how I’m writing this blog post on March 8th, but it won’t be posted until March 14th, because I’m loading my blog up ahead of my trip to Paaaaaaaaaaaaaris! Wow. I can’t believe I go to France tomorrow. An eleven-hour direct flight from San Francisco. I’m going to go stircrazy on that plane, and then I’ll have to navigate the Métro. Can’t complain, though! It’s Paris, after all. Hmm. I wonder if my readers know that I’m writing from the past. What will it be like on March 14th? That day, I’ll be in Beaune, the heart of Burgundy wine country. Mmm…wine country…

A noise from the hall sneaked into my thoughts, pulling me out of my reverie about pinot noir. “That’s right!” I muttered to myself. “I’m supposed to be writing a blog post!”

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It’s difficult to describe disconnecting a character from his thoughts. This action is usually laden with cliché after cliché after cliché. Voices sneaking into thought. Dialogue snapping a character out of their thinking. Noises startling. Talk of reveries (as you can see above). Fog and/or haze lifting. Being lost in thought. And on and on.

I’m sick of all of them, basically. I would recommend that you avoid this altogether. If a noise is going to come from the hall mid-thought, describe it, then jump back into narrative. If dialogue intrudes, show us the dialogue, and then get into the swing of things, maybe with one descriptive phrase so the transition isn’t so jarring. Just like you should eliminate the frame, you don’t need to tell us that thoughts have been interrupted. Give us the thoughts. Give us the interruption. Then give us the results. It’s that simple. The narrative of the thought actually stopping is fluff that should be easy to trim.

An example:

Blah blah blah. Wine country. France. Thinking thinking thinking.

“Mary, write your blog post already!” Mary said, rolling her eyes.

“Oh!” Mary wondered how long she’d been spacing. “Duh. Thanks, Mary!”

There’s that one descriptive phrase in there, to get the reader back into the action, but you could even do without it because the “Oh!” conveys surprise or a startled feeling. This issue is a very small nitpick, but, as I said, every word and every phrase counts in your writing.

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