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A lot of writers hear the well-meaning advice that, in order to break in more easily, they should have some writing clips and credits to their resume. It’s good advice, and I especially don’t want to disenfranchise the many writers who have been actively pursuing this strategy with my answer, because it is a very worthwhile strategy.

In case you haven’t thought about this issue before, I’ll summarize here: When you’re an aspiring writer, you have a lot of ambition to write, but not a lot of platform. People aren’t buying what you want to sell, basically. Or, if they are, they aren’t really paying you for it. You’re probably getting opportunities to showcase your work on blogs and at other web-based venues that don’t have a budget to compensate contributors. Or maybe you start your own blog, like this ol’ hack did! This is how a lot of people get going.

Then you think that there has to be more out there that’s, well, more noteworthy to a potential publishing gatekeeper. So maybe you explore other avenues to showcase your work. Whether it’s in the children’s writing realm, say, Highlights Magazine, or in an unrelated area, like an op-ed for the local newspaper, or a poem in a general fiction literary journal, you start to set your sights higher.

Whether you try to gather clips in print journalism, the literary community, scientific or medical magazines (a lot of writers have done a lot of technical writing for their day jobs), etc., you’re basically writing and racking up pieces that someone else has vetted and decided are good enough to publish.

This all makes a lot of sense, right? If you want to write, write, and maybe the momentum of all your writing will speed up your efforts on the book publishing front. Being published is being published, no matter what you’re publishing. And writing professionals love to see writing credits. Right? Weeeeeeeeeell…

It’s not often that clear-cut. Publishing an op-ed in your local paper in Portland is not the magic ticket to calling attention to yourself with a children’s book editor in New York, unless, of course, your op-ed or Huffpo article causes such a stir that it goes “viral” and attracts a lot of attention or controversy. In fact, under my original name (a much longer version of “Kole”), I published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, which is a notable newspaper that people have heard of. And I thought, for sure, this was my golden ticket. The day it ran, I waited for the phone to ring. Aaaaand…my mother was very proud of me. Then one man from Idaho took offense at my sense of humor. That’s about it.

The fact of the matter is, if you can say in your query that you’ve published with a top-tier publication that most casual readers have heard of, that’s going to be an amazing feather in your cap. And agents and editors might take notice. But it’s likely not going to get you a book publishing contract.

And outside of that, if you’re publishing on blogs, or in smaller literary magazines, or in venues that have nothing whatsoever to do with publishing novels, then your clips are going to tell a potential agent or editor one positive thing, but one positive thing only: That you’ve hustled a little and know a little bit about the process. And that’s a positive thing, because that might indicate that you’re at least somewhat easy to work with during the publishing process. But it’s not a guarantee of anything.

My main objection to splitting your focus and concentrating on amassing clips if your primary goal is to publish a book can be expressed in this recent post. The truth of the matter is, some journalists spend years trying to crack the New York Times for their own resumes. It’s an entirely new skillset. First, there’s learning how to write well enough that the Times would take interest. Then it’s cultivating contacts and editor relationships that will get you prime consideration. Then it’s learning the culture of the publication (and every publication has one, no matter how small they are) and learning how to work within it successfully. After a lot of effort, you may finally get published in the Times. But then you’re published in the Times, not in the book realm.

What’s missing from this picture of all the effort you’ve put in? Oh yeah, honing your novel craft, which is why you’re doing any of this to begin with. So gathering clips is phenomenal, but it doesn’t help you accomplish your primary goal directly. And there’s no guarantee that it will help you accomplish your primary goal indirectly, either. You may sink a few years into pitching freelance articles to magazines, distract yourself, and maybe emerge with one well-regarded piece in Real Simple…that has nothing to do with your novel.

Is that payoff worth it? Only you can decide. This strategy only seems to work well when you’re a journalist in your day job, and a novelist by night. Then you possess both skillsets already, and you can jump back and forth more easily. Otherwise, it’s like going through all the work and trouble of growing a new arm, just so you can give your primary hands better manicures. It seems like a lot more effort than it’s worth.

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This is a great question that came via email from Matt:

Is there a writing principle about how much interiority should be within a scene?

As with all great writing debates, I’m here to say that there’s no set guideline. Womp womp. Sorry to not have something more concrete, but I do have some food for thought that might help you choose your own approach.

My rule of thumb, however, is to use what’s necessary and find a balance. As with anything, balance doesn’t come easily. Some writers err on the side of too much interiority, some writers barely scratch the surface of their character’s rich inner lives, even in first person.

The imbalance of too much interiority is especially apparent when nothing is happening, plot-wise. Alternately, nothing happens because there’s too much interiority, or internal conflict, rather than external conflict. If you have your character thinking about everything, maybe you’re on this end of the spectrum. Know that, while a level of interiority is desirable, you also need to focus on the things that come less naturally to you, namely pacing and plot. It’s very important to know how a character reacts to what’s happening, but it can’t be the end-all and be-all. To be fair, I see this imbalance less than its opposite.

The more common imbalance is seeing little interiority in big moments, when connection to the character should naturally increase in order to keep from alienating the reader. Writers who fall into this category tend to be very comfortable with plot. When they do talk about emotion, maybe they simply name what a character is feeling, or talk about the feelings by using clichés that detail emotions in a character’s body. These are offshoots of telling, and, as you’ve heard me say many times, interiority is quite different from telling, though the distinction can be subtle for a lot of people. Characters with too little interiority are also prone to being stuck, or to being in denial.

As you can see, there are many more links discussing a lack of interiority or issues with inadequate interiority than there are dealing with too much of it. This is yet another reflection of the fact that I see writers end up toward this end of the issue a lot more.

If that’s not the case for you, and you think you’re somewhere in the middle as an interiority-user, I would still suggest analyzing how you’re striking that balance. Make sure the reader feels connected to important moment, and use enough interiority to highlight the things that are truly important. When something big happens that your character should be reacting to, ask yourself: And? So? Some recent thoughts questions that help develop interiority can be found here.

Next, think about how interiority and plot intersect. Use interiority to plant the seeds of tension as you develop your plot. It’s not enough to have a character feel afraid, for example. They’re usually afraid of something very specific, or a worst case scenario. To help tension along, let their minds go to those darker places, especially if the plot hasn’t caught up yet. More thoughts on that here.

This is such an important facet of the fiction writing craft that I really hope you never stop exploring this fascinating topic, and figuring out how to best use this tool.

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I’ve been on a roll with some really good reader questions lately. As a reminder to anyone out there who may be new to the blog, I do open myself up to general inquiries about writing and publishing via email. Sometimes these exchanges end up on the blog, sometimes they’re between you and me. Information on how to reach me is available in the sidebar. I regret that I can’t answer very specific questions or review work…that’s reserved for my freelance editorial clients. But questions Kate’s, below, are more than welcome!

What are your feelings about submitting an excerpt from an as-yet unrepresented novel for publication in a literary magazine? My concern is that on the off-chance that the excerpt would be published I would thereby render the whole novel unsellable to a publisher. In my case I’ve rewritten the submission to make it work better as an excerpt, but I’m not sure if there’s enough difference between it and the version in the manuscript, or whether that even matters. Thanks!

This is a great question, and one I see from time to time. I didn’t find out the exact circumstances until later, and it turns out I was right. Because I imagined a few things about Kate’s situation that would lead her down this path of reasoning. First, Kate is frustrated by a novel that’s not getting picked up. She later reported submitting to agents for quite some time and not getting where she wants to go. Second, she has likely started thinking…Well, what else can I do with this thing? Is there a shortcut to getting to getting noticed? Hence the literary magazine idea. And it’s not a bad idea, in theory. But would I recommend it? This was my response. Read on:

Good question. I’ll answer, but start my answer with another (blunt) question: Why? What’s the point? If you want to get a novel published, it is very, very, very unlikely that you’re going to get there by publishing something in a literary magazine from it that an agent will see or that will otherwise draw attention to your efforts. That’s a very circuitous route. And getting published in a literary magazine involves learning about good literary magazines to submit to, submitting to them, getting immersed in that, etc. If your big goal is to get a novel published, your energy is much better used focusing on the DIRECT route: writing a kickass novel and getting immersed in the novel/agent submission process.

While, yes, writing credits are kinda sorta important to collect when you’re trying to make your name as a writer*, they are not the determining factor. And literary agents and literary magazine people don’t spin in the same worlds some of the time. You’d think they would be connected, and some definitely are, but agents have so much to read that when a literary magazine lands on their desks, on top of everything else, it may or may not get attention. For me, even if someone is published in The Paris Review, one of the most noteworthy journals and pretty impossible to get into, if I hate the novel they’re submitting, the credit is impressive, but meaningless to me because, as an agent, I am looking to sell you as a novelist, not a literary magazine writer. So, you could be doing all that UNRELATED work for very dubious payoff. If the journals even want you.

The thing is, lit mag demand for unpublished novel excerpts is quite low compared to standalone articles, short stories, and poems. They’d rather publish those because they’re more satisfying for the reader, rather than some random piece of something that, who knows, nobody may ever hear from again. Unless they’re inspired to contract you for a serial series, I wouldn’t imagine that this type of piece is hot property. And if they do, you may have more problems publishing it eventually because more will have appeared in print.

So the print rights issue is certainly one to consider, and some publishers might be jerks about it, saying that since you’ve already exploited some rights by putting the excerpt in print, the property is less attractive, etc. It has happened. But that’s honestly not why I’d reconsider this idea. Finally, what about when you revise your manuscript, as you’re bound to do, because you wake up one day and realize the piece you’ve been missing? It happens all the time. And then you have this excerpt floating around that’s now horribly broken, in your eyes. And that’s your “sales piece” that’s now immortalized in print.

I know that you are probably very eager to do something, anything to move your chances forward. Think of taking the more direct path. Write the best manuscript you can. Write a killer query. Research agents. If you really have enough free time to also research literary journals, more power to you. But to me, that’s not going to be your strongest potential path to success.

  • I know many of you are going to find this statement interesting. I will cover clips and writing credits in a subsequent post!

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Based on last week’s interiority post, I got a great question in the comments from Kyle:

Mary, I love your thoughts on developing interiority both on your blog and in your book. I have a formatting question though: should those inner thoughts be set off in italics?

This is a small issue, but one I’ve been meaning to address. Lo and behold, I haven’t gotten around to it until this handy reminder. Thanks, Kyle! The straight answer to the question is quite simple: whenever you render verbatim thoughts in text, you do want to use italics. For example:

Wow, time has sure flown by. The holidays are over and it’s halfway through January! I should probably throw out those Thanksgiving leftovers, she thought, giving the fridge a wary look.

Super easy. Just put the thought in italics, avoid any kind of quotation marks (those are for spoken dialogue), and either add a “thought” tag, as you would a “said” tag in dialogue, or don’t. It all depends. If you’re citing verbatim thoughts a lot, you won’t need to do this after the first few times, because the reader will know that italics mean thoughts.

But this question does raise a bigger one. Does interiority have to exist purely as verbatim thought, or are there other ways to render it in narration? In my view, interiority can absolutely exist as part of regular narration, meaning that you don’t have to stick something into italics/thought in order for it to be a thought. If that makes sense.

Perhaps an example would clarify. Compare this with the verbatim thought that appears above:

Mary gazed over at the fridge and, with a pang, realized that there was still Thanksgiving gravy congealing in a Tupperware somewhere on the bottom shelf. Where had the days gone? Only yesterday, it seemed, they were getting the house ready for guests and turkey, stumbling over one another in a cleaning frenzy. Now it was almost time to write Valentines.

The tone is a little bit different. Both examples are in close third person, but the former is directly in the character’s thoughts, while the other takes a step back. It stays close, obviously, but doesn’t put anything in thought formatting. “Where had the days gone?” could easily be a verbatim thought, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be, because it matches the voice in either configuration.

(As you can tell from the examples, I am feeling the rush of time passing, especially as Baby’s due date approaches…and I should probably clean my refrigerator! :) )

Basically, this is a very nitpicky distinction to make, and what you decide is ultimately up to you. It boils down to style. I personally prefer the latter example, but that’s just me. The reason I would advocate for this over sticking everything into thought formatting is that it looks a bit cleaner on the page, you’re not presenting block after block of italics. But it really is up to you. I’m simply so happy to have people playing around with interiority and thinking critically about it that I say you should follow your bliss and do anything that makes sense to you.

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One of the biggest things I champion, in first and third person, is interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) as a way of getting to know character. (You can view all the posts I’ve written with an “interiority” tag here.) Some writers struggle with the idea of accessing a character’s emotions. When to do it, how much, whether or not it falls under the dreaded “telling” category, etc. But I maintain that access to your character’s thoughts, if done well, and at the right time, is one of the most important elements of getting a protagonist down on the page in a relatable and nuanced way.

Many writers have a sense of whether or not they excel at this. I recently worked with a client who came to me saying, “Dang it, I just don’t know how to render a character’s emotions.” It was true, and I appreciated her self-awareness. Instead of accessing her protagonist’s head, she pulled out physical clichés as shorthand for his feelings. His heart was beating, so that meant he was nervous. His fists clenched, and he was angry. His cheeks flushed, and he felt in love. But when you’re simply letting your body parts do the talking for the character, you will never get to the emotional nuances underneath.

He’s nervous…about what in particular? About whether or not he’ll succeed? About a specific worst case scenario, which would give me additional context or foreshadowing about the plot? He’s angry…at who? The other character in the scene, who is a snake, or himself for believing the snake in the first place? As you can see, there are many things beyond the base emotions that we can name, and that is where the real meat of your character lives.

If you suspect that you might struggle with interiority, write the following questions on a Post It note and hang it above your writing station:

  • What is your character doing right now (objective)? Why (motivation)? (The why is especially important.)
  • What do they hope will happen?
  • What do they worry will go wrong?
  • How do they feel about themselves?
  • How do they feel about their scene partner?
  • How do they feel about their place in the plot in general?

Obviously, you don’t have to address these questions in every scene, but you can train yourself to think along these lines when your character is experiencing emotions. For every big emotion they might feel (anger, fear, lust), there are probably two or three secondary emotions that you can tease out that serve to deepen our understanding of the character or increase tension. When you become better at looking through your protagonist’s eyes with these issues in mind, you can pick and choose whether or not to funnel some, all, or none of this information into interiority.

Emotions are tricky, messy, nuanced. They deserve a lot of attention as you craft your protagonist, and even secondary characters. At any moment, no matter what is happening, you could delve into their inner lives and discover some of these thoughts and feelings. Do you always need to share them? Of course not. But in bigger moments, where you really want to pull the reader in, try to hit some of these notes. Specificity is key. Take a scene you’re really struggling with, or that feels alienating, and try answering some of these questions today!

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Have more FUN writing.That’s it, that’s all, that’s what we usually forget to do first.

It’s so important, but we so often forget it. Working on my book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit, was one of the biggest blasts I’ve had in my life. But I would still stress about it. Second-guess myself. Wonder whose bright idea it was to write a damn book in the first place. (Nobody out there to blame but us chickens!) Sure, even if you’re pursuing your life’s passion, you can easily get stressed, especially when questions of whether it’s good enough or what to do with it or whether it’ll get published start to creep in.

We all work this way, I think. I haven’t met a single creative person who didn’t suffer somewhat while pursuing their craft. (Not even my chef husband is immune from creative angst. My suggestion is usually to top the dish in question with caviar and give it to me!) But I was powerfully reminded of this idea when reading an excellent client manuscript over the holidays.

Without giving too much away, I worked on an alternating-POV adult romantic paranormal fantasy where we sometimes dipped into the paranormal creature’s perspective. It was really good stuff. But I often noticed that the tone seemed to scatter. You know how different genres have different conventions? Like there’s a pretty stereotypical voice you can expect when reading sci-fi vs. contemporary vs. dystopian work.

With this particular project, the writer’s voice and tone tended to shapeshift. When she was writing a romantic scene, there were definitely phrases and overtones creeping in that would remind you of a pretty standard romance novel, right down to the heaving bosoms. When she wrote some action or battle scenes, the voice would grow more formal in a way that’s familiar to high fantasy readers. In the midst of it, there was a certain spark and energy that was uniquely to hers. But all the changes made for a bigger picture that lacked cohesion.

Then I noticed something interesting. Her voice rang out strong and true with one POV in particular. The paranormal creature. The tone didn’t shift at all, the POV experience seemed much more immersive, and the writing flowed. I found myself scribbling “More Monster POV plz!!!” in all the virtual margins. (Don’t worry, please, if you’ve ever thought of hiring me. My comments aren’t really straight out of ICanHasCheezburger…)

With any voice notes, I try to be thorough because voice is such a hot button issue that can be so nebulous for so many. I thought about it for a while. Why did Monster POV work so well? Then the obvious answer struck me. It’s fun to write in monster POV. Most days, I’ve had ENOUGH of stressed-out-human-lady POV. What I wouldn’t give to walk around as a monster through the foggy shadows of some menacing countryside! Stomp stomp, crunch crunch, ROOOOOOAAR!

So I wrote her a prescription for more fun when writing. (Among many other things, of course.) Writing can be tedious. Revision can be on par with a root canal. Putting a query letter together gives people the actual fits. I’ve seen people cry while pitching. And not, like, just once, either. It’s so easy to get caught up.

What’s the fun part of your WIP? What’s fun about it? Is it a particular character you love? A head you like getting into? A setting that calls to you? The tempo of an action sequence? Whatever it is, do more of that. Every writer is different, and every story offers unique opportunities to have a gas.

I’ve always, always said that if something is tedious for you to write, think of the poor sap who has to read it. Your passion for every passage is obvious on the page. If you’re hating every minute, odds are nobody’s having any fun.

Figure out what makes you relish your writing time, and do more of what you love in your current project. Do more of what you love in your non-writing life, too, while you’re at it! Happy 2016!

 

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Back in college, I did a few freelance articles for a photography trade magazine. Mostly wedding photographer profiles. A woman I’d become close friends with in a creative writing course happened to be an editor for this publication, and she gave me some assignments for fun. By about the third piece I turned in, she sent me a very friendly email that haunts me to this day. She basically said, “Hey Mary, I’m noticing that all of your articles follow the same pattern. You start with the photographer’s youth and then the event that made them fall in love with photography, then you cover their education and development as a photographer, and their you end with their current work. Maybe you could, yanno, mix it up a little bit.”

She was right. Of course she was. I’m no journalist and I had no idea what I was doing or how to organize a compelling non-fiction article, so I picked the easiest possible organizational strategy when talking about a person: the resume, or, in other words, “Started from the bottom, now we here.” And by golly, I was going to drive it into the ground until somebody stopped me because I didn’t know what else to do. And, to my *ahem* credit, I thanked her profusely for the feedback…and was so mortified that I stopped writing for the photography magazine shortly thereafter. A writer’s ego is a strange creature.

But I figured out the lesson in her wise words eventually. Yes, a decade, give or take, counts as “eventually,” guys. There are patterns in writing. Some are good patterns, some are individual patterns that maybe keep us from growing in the craft.

An example of a good pattern is a larger organizing principle or story theory, for example, Joseph Campbell’s hero cycle. While this is an oldie, it’s very much a goodie, since its wisdom applies to any number of stories, in any number of ways. Chronological order is also an old standard that can’t be beat when writing a novel. Sure, you want to jump back in time to fill in some backstory and context every once in a while, but moving from point A to point B as the character grows and time marches forward is an idea that will never go away.

The reason I like these two is that they’ve vague and versatile. They dictate a general idea and then it’s up to you to apply it in your own style. You’ll notice that I talk about story theory in my book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit. But I try to leave much of it up to the writer. I recently ordered a slipcover for my sectional because the upholstery we originally got clings to pet hair like it’s pirate treasure. The slipcover fabric is so stretchy that it was able to fit my couch and look custom-made without any measurement. I was dubious until it arrived, since it purported to fit couches from 66″ to 96″ and that seems like a pretty big spread. But it’s really quite amazing, fits perfectly, and now the dogs can drool and shed on it with abandon. All this is to say that I try to give writing guidelines as if I were that slipcover (stay with me here, folks, this is getting weird…). Your story is the couch. You pick its overall shape and dimensions. The organizing principle’s job is to cover it and mold to what you want to do, all while giving it a cohesive look and function.

Now, there are writing teachers out there who like to dictate patterns in much more specific terms. I’ve had many writers, believe it or not, come to me and ask, “Well, in So and So’s Story Theory, he says I have to include the inciting incident by the 5% mark, then the first conflict by 10%, then the first major loss by 25%. The cousin dies, but it’s at 27% and I don’t know what to do.” This kind of teaching-writing-with-an-iron-fist always baffles me. I like the broader, sweeping guidelines, not micromanaging a manuscript down to the nth percentile. In my world, a rigid story theory is great for people who have never written a novel before. It gives them valuable scaffolding to cling to. But once you’ve written one, and internalized some basic principles, I think most guidelines can take a backseat to how you want to tell the story.

So, basically, I like the big writing patterns. Like chronological order for a novel. Or the pattern of emotional development that I outline in my book.

But every writer has other patterns. And before you know what you should do about your patterns, if they’re helpful or hampering, you should at least become aware of them. (Hopefully without becoming mortified and quitting.) This post was inspired by a client of mine who starts many chapters in exactly the same way: scene-setting and talk of the weather. I applaud the scene-setting. Many writers who simply leap into a scene with dialogue or a plot point fail to ground the reader in time and place. But this pattern for this writer was almost formulaic. Weather. Scene. Then the chapter starts. Over and over.

What happens when a reader detects an underlying pattern in your work is they become less engaged. By the fifth weather/scene/start chapter, I’m going to check out at the beginning a little bit. Unless the descriptions of the weather are building up to something massive (it’s a book about a big storm, or a person with weather-related superpowers), there needs to be variety. The pattern cannot take over the narrative.

This reminds me of picture book writers who are working in rhyme. Sometimes I see writers twisting their syntax into crazy sentence pretzels just so they can make a line rhyme. This begs the question: Is the story in the service of the rhyme, or the other way around? You always want to be putting the story first. If you find that writing in rhyme warps your natural voice, makes you write like a Victorian schoolmarm, and leads to all sorts of other problems, then it’s the pattern that needs to go, and you need to free yourself up to tell the story the best way you can. Patterns. They’re all around. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re hindrances.

What are your specific writing patterns? Are you trying to break them or are you working with them? Discuss.

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Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about dress code for writers. If there was such a thing, 3/4 of my wardrobe would be out the window. I’m basically in my pajamas right now, with an additional layer of dog hair to make the outfit fancy. This is a post inspired by several editorial client manuscripts where I’m noticing characters going about their business with an overall lack of tension. This post builds on the idea introduced in last week’s post, about making subtle changes that could yield more tension. If you haven’t read that one, go check it out, then read on here.

You don’t want a character who is freaking out all the time, because that will be exhausting. They care too much about everything, and everything is a big deal. if you find yourself with this type of character on your hands, this is going to backfire pretty quickly. If everything is at a level 11, you lose the ability to make it matter after a while due to the Law of Diminishing Returns. As they say in The Incredibles, “If everyone is special, then no one is.”

That leaves us with a character who doesn’t care as much as they could. They are too casual. There are two ways to be too casual: about things that don’t matter, and about things that do. You may have one of these characters if people have told you that they’re having a hard time relating to the story or getting worked up about its events. If you’ve received the comment that your readers are having trouble caring.

First, your issue could be a character who is mellow in a mellow situation. For example, a character named Jane is about to take a test. It could go like this:

There was an exam coming up in pre-calc. Whatever. Not only did she have no plans to ever touch a math textbook again, but the teacher had offered to drop everyone’s lowest test grade. Jane didn’t even break a sweat, and went back to scribbling in her art notebook.

If Jane doesn’t care, why should we? The outcome doesn’t matter, she doesn’t seem at all worried, it’s a non-issue. The fix would be to make Jane care, even a little bit. Even if she wants to seem like she doesn’t. Inject tension into how Jane feels versus how she’s behaving. Compare this example to the original:

Jane scribbled in her art notebook but she couldn’t help watching the clock out the corner of her eye. Pre-calc was coming up, and that damn midterm. Whatever. At least that’s what she tried to think. Even though she didn’t care about math, her mom would. And she didn’t want to fail, because that meant more math practice, maybe a tutor. Jane sighed and stopped drawing. Maybe she could cram a few more minutes of studying in. Everyone else was doing it.

Here, we get a subtle shift in Jane’s thinking. She really doesn’t care, but there’s tension now because she won’t let herself fail the exam on principle. Whatever her real reasons are, there’s now a little battle going on. She feels conflicted. There’s tension. Jane’s overall stance on the exam hasn’t changed–it hasn’t suddenly become the Everest of her high school career. But at least she cares now, and notice also that the very fact that she does care bothers her. Or she feels like she’s forced to care. Either way, there are multiple layers of tension.

Tension comes from uncertainty, fear, anxiety. With the revised example, I’ve added an undercurrent of doubt. She knows this exam isn’t the end all and be all, but she wants to do well on it anyway, and she worries she won’t. Even if a character feels confident, you can always add a shade of tension. We all have these darker feelings, even in moments of great light. Use that to your advantage. Friction means tension means stakes means reader engagement!

This brings me to my next, more obvious, idea. You can certainly dial up the tension by changing the character’s attitude toward something. Why not take it one step further and change the something to have higher stakes? Instead of blowing the exam off (too casual), she has a more complex and interesting relationship with it. If you’re not going to present the event in a layered way, why even bother describing it? You’re giving a lot of manuscript real estate to what amounts to a throwaway. Surely there are other things you could be narrating that stand to get more of a rise out of Jane. Maybe an art competition.

One of my favorite things to remind writers is that they are creating a world from scratch. They make up the characters, the events, the circumstances. If a character is bored, they are also boring the reader. If they don’t care, the reader has to struggle to latch on to the story.

If you suspect that a character is either being too casual about their circumstances or stuck in circumstances that are too casual, take control, add some small tension, and beef up the moment. Or cut or change it. But don’t let the story tension peter out. If all else fails, have them thinking about something else that’s coming up, and plant the seeds for tension down the road.

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I’m working with a client on a Synopsis Overhaul right now. Quick plug: If you haven’t checked out my freelance editorial website in a while, I have added this new service, as well as Reader Reports. I won’t bulk up this post by describing them here, but they’re two great options for getting feedback on your novel’s development as or before you write it (in the case of the Synopsis Overhaul) or getting my eyes on your entire manuscript, along with comprehensive notes, but without the investment of a Full Manuscript Edit. Check them out!

There’s a proposed scene in my client’s outline that doesn’t quiiiite work. Of course, she is free to write it and see if she can make it work as she develops her draft, but I had a reservation about it. Basically, her protagonist, let’s call him Sam, does something illogical. The issue is, he has been planning this illogical move for a while. He’s a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, and, for a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, the plan makes no sense because he should know better, and he would get caught immediately.

But in the manuscript she’s planning, he completely ignores common sense and does his plan anyway. I told her in the synopsis edit that I didn’t buy it. The plan is so foolhardy and out of character, and so improbable in his environment, that I really would struggle believing its feasible. I called it the Improbable Thing.

In writing fiction, we create the fictive dream, right? We create a world and a character and a set of circumstances and actions that function with a certain logic. There’s enough logic there that the reader can suspend disbelief and “go there” with the story. Here, I was having trouble “going there” because my own logic kept calling out that this was too far out to believe.

My client is really attached to this plot point, and she doesn’t want to remove it from the story, which I completely understand. First of all, I’m not going to tell her to axe it at this early juncture. When I work with clients on developing a novel outline, I don’t rule anything out. They are free to write a draft of the novel as they wish, and see if it works. It’s tough to work with just an outline, because I don’t get to really see the manuscript in question. I just get to see its bones. Who knows how the final version could flesh out? But that’s what makes synopsis work exciting! It’s all about possibilities and tweaking things so that the actual manuscript comes into sharper focus.

So, if it’s not fair to say, “Yeah, cut it, it’s a disaster” at this point, then what? How do you work around a plot point or character development that seems improbable? In writing her back about whether or not to axe her beloved plot point, I had a great idea for this post.

If you’re faced with an instance in your story that people aren’t “buying” (or you’re worried they won’t buy), it’s time to think about the context. The present may still be good, but what if you put it in a different wrapper? A brilliant potential solution.

What if, in this case, Sam doesn’t plot the Improbable Thing in advance? He wants to accomplish XYZ, but he doesn’t think that it’s possible. Then, he is in the right place at the right time, and the opportunity to do an Improbable Thing comes up. He only has an instant to think, and so he thinks, “What if this is crazy enough to work?” This could be just the new context my client needs. It accomplishes two things:

First, it adds a layer of impulsiveness to the Improbable Thing. It wouldn’t have worked as a plan, because it makes no sense as a plan (too many holes). But it could totally be sold as a last-ditch, impulsive, emotional effort, and I’d buy it because if Sam is being impulsive, then he’s not thinking clearly.

Second, if Sam is right there saying, “This is too crazy to work, but I have no other choice,” then the reader feels reassured. We see him questioning it, right as we’re questioning it, so the reader and protagonist are on the exact same page! We’re a team! Nobody thinks this could work, which opens up the possibility that…well…maybe it could! It’s that leap that will help the reader suspend disbelief. And then I’m “going there” with Sam instead of rejecting the Improbable Thing.

If there are moments in your manuscript that you’re really struggling to sell, if you think they’re too far out there to make sense with plot or character, but you like or need them, think about context. By changing the wrapper, you can still give the reader the present, it will just be surrounded by a different situation or motivation or expectation. It’s up to you to create that experience and make it believable.

Of course, some things are just not going to be a good fit, no matter how hard you try. But others might just be, well, crazy enough to work, as long as you frame them right.

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I received a question the other day (thanks, Kate!) about author notes in picture book manuscripts. Great stuff. Let me give you some information on the topic so that you can move more confidently forward with your picture book submissions.

First of all, you see author notes more frequently in non-fiction work. After the topic is covered in the manuscript, it’s widely accepted to hear from the author (limited to about a page, with text that’s not too dense). The purpose is to add a few interesting tidbits that maybe didn’t fit into the actual narrative (maybe you’re covering a certain period in history with the text, and want to add some “footnotes” of what we’ve learned about that period since), or to personalize the subject. Authors will often speak to why they gravitated to a particular subject or why they find it particularly fascinating. You shouldn’t style it as a diary entry, but as long as you can keep up the same tone and level of interesting content, you can take a more personal approach. The tone is friendly and engaging.

For non-fiction/fiction hybrid and straight-up fiction manuscripts, where there’s a non-fiction subject but it’s fictionalized or the project deals with a non-fiction principle applied to a more artistic main text, the author note switches function. If your project, is, for example, a fictionalized account of a historical figure or a purely fiction story whose plot has a lot to do with the life-cycle of Monarch butterflies, for example, you want to use the author note as a teaching tool, to provide concrete information. The text is all about Bonnie observing the Monarch life-cycle, but the author note sums it up with additional facts that would’ve weighed down the text itself. The tone is more academic.

So what kind of author note do you have on your hands? Are you “softening” a non-fiction text or are you adding factual scaffolding to a fiction or fictionalized text? For the former, you’ll want to keep your author note brief. If your text is 2,000 words, 250 additional words wouldn’t be uncalled for, or an eighth of your manuscript length. (Do note that non-fiction picture book texts tend to run longer than fiction, because it’s understood that there’s more information to communicate and the audience is on the older end of the spectrum.) If you are working with the former “scaffolding” style of note, 500 additional words, or a quarter of your main text, would be your upper limit.

These are not hard-and-fast guidelines, but more of an exploration of the issue. Use the author note to say enough, but don’t write a second manuscript. If you find there’s a whole lot you want to add in your postscript, maybe there’s a way to revise the main text? Remember, the note shouldn’t do the heavy lifting. The main text has to be the star.

As for mentioning the author note in your submission, that’s easy-peasy lemon-squeezy: “The main text of TITLE is X,000 words, with an author note of X words at the end.” Ta-da!

I’ve discussed picture books primarily in this post, but MG and YA novels also have tons of room for an author note. If, say, your YA is largely inspired by the historical character of Lizzie Borden, feel free to spend even 2,000 words or so on some of the bloody facts of the case, and why your twisted little mind ( 😉 ) decided to use it as inspiration. Word count limits apply less to novel author notes, though you still want to keep them engaging and quick.

I’ve interrupted my own programming, so look for the follow up to my “Product and the Pitch” series next week!

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