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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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Building a Library

Over the years, I have shared a lot of personal stuff with you, my dear writer-readers. Pets, tattoos, moves to Brooklyn, moves from Brooklyn, moves back to Brooklyn, and finally from Brooklyn for good (oy!). I mean, I still have people ask me about Sushi, a beloved cat I lost in 2011. It’s really been an honor to show up at the keyboard and share a bit of myself, a bit of my ideas, and a lot of my heart with you every week or so.

Now it’s time for me to reveal a very exciting personal development. Don’t worry, I’m still writing here. (They can wrench this domain name from my shriveled hands in 50 years!) I’m still working with my stable of amazing freelance editorial clients, and I couldn’t be happier. But in 2016, my family is finally growing with the addition of a baby in March! The gender will be a surprise.

announcementThis news is incredible for my husband and I, because of the road we took to get here. Everyone has struggles, and this was, unfortunately, one of ours. I have wanted to be a mother for as long as I can remember. Growing up an immigrant only child in a single-parent household was very lonely, and I always imagined that I’d one day fill my home with children, the more the merrier! But then we wandered into what I can only call hell: infertility.

I have made many lifestyle changes over the years to put my health first. I’m pretty young. I’m motivated. Every single time we failed to conceive, it felt like an incredible failure of body and spirit. When infertility is suspected, the burden usually falls on the woman because a whole lot more can go “wrong” in our systems as far as reproduction is concerned. There’s basically one test for men, while women sometimes spend years investigating the equipment. Every month, I sunk into a despair that words can’t exactly describe. This went on for two and a half years. That may seem like a blip. But when a child is what you want most in the world, and deep in your heart is the fear that you may never get to have that irreplaceable human experience, time almost seems to move backward. And since all of our tests came back perfectly normal, we didn’t even have a good explanation, which was maddening.

After cycling through half a dozen doctors (“You’re young! Just keep trying! Are you sure you’re doing it right?”), tens of thousands of dollars of tests, kits, and procedures (insurance becomes real scarce as soon as they hear “infertility”), acupuncture, therapy, yoga, even chakra-alignment (I’m from San Francisco, guys, and I was desperate…), we finally washed like ragged castaways on the shores of a fertility clinic. There, they administered an easy $300 test that nobody else would do because failing it was so unlikely. And we finally had our answer: my husband has a fluke sperm issue, so rare it doesn’t have a name, and so significant that we literally have a 0.0% chance of conceiving naturally. What are the odds!

That was the best/worst appointment of my life. The best, because we finally had closure, and a game plan. Luckily, IVF and a related procedure (ICSI) are made for exactly this scenario. The worst, because don’t nobody tell me I have a 0.0% chance at anything! Unfortunately, this one was bigger than my stubbornness. And it turned out that we tried for those two and a half years completely in vain. This was a tough pill to swallow. On the bright side, we ended up doing IVF in June, had a brilliant response, and I got a positive pregnancy test on my birthday in July!

Now, as I near the third trimester, we feel so lucky. I mean, infertility was basically the worst thing I’ve ever been through, and I’m still grieving the fact that, whenever we want to have a child, we have to roll up to a clinic with our wallets open instead of doing it the old-fashioned way. In fact, because I’ve had such stunningly bad results, I no longer believe that babies happen after unprotected sex! 🙂 But there are those who have much more complex issues, who struggle for much longer. Our one IVF cycle (costing as much as a new car out of pocket), believe it or not, was pretty much the best case scenario in the advanced reproductive technology big leagues. (Most insurance counts infertility treatments as non-essential, sort of like a boob job, unless you have a great plan. But my husband is a small business owner and I’m a freelancer, so we pay handsomely for our minimal coverage.)

Now that I have that off my chest, I really waffled about writing this next part of the post. I’ve always seen my role in your lives as a guide and friend. It feels wrong to ask for anything in return because of the rich personal rewards that my work brings me every day. But I’m humbly reaching out to you now with a request:

Books are why we’re all here. And I would love to welcome our baby with a library of classic and contemporary children’s books that builds on what I’ve collected over my career. With IVF and my husband’s dream of opening a restaurant coming true this year, we simply can’t feather our literary nest. I want to flood this child’s life with love and beauty and letters. I want to greet them with good vibes (and good books) from the community I’ve created. This baby has been the dream of my heart for as long as I can remember, and now he or she is finally coming. If you have any new or pre-loved books, for any childhood stage, that you’re compelled to send along to us, it would mean the absolute world. I would personally be so grateful. Please write a note inside so that you can become a part of our story.

(I’ve removed the address here because it was for a temporary mailbox. If you are still interested in sending something, please email me at mary@kidlit.com. Thank you!)

If material things, well, aren’t your thing, I was recently reminded by a freelance editorial client of my passion for the work of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, where I used to volunteer while living in San Francisco. I just started training as a volunteer for the Minnesota chapter. Already, this baby has inspired so much positive change and hope in our lives. In the same spirit, maybe he or she will inspire you as we head into the holiday season, to share some joy with a few extra hearts. You can find Make-A-Wish volunteer information and links to your local chapter here.

ETA: Because somebody asked, you can find our baby registry here.

Also, I feel obligated to add that, while many options for growing a family exist, I felt very strongly, being an immigrant with only three living blood relatives in this or any other country, that I wanted to try for biological children. It’s a deeply sacred, personal choice that every aspiring parent makes differently. For example, newborn adoption costs about as much as a round of IVF (or more) and there’s a lengthy approval process that could’ve added years to our journey.

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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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Being Too Casual

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 was going through my emails for some reader questions that I’ve gotten over the years. This one comes from Susan last year, and it’s basically this: She saw some marketing materials for a book that’s coming out that’s exactly like what she’s working on. She’s upset. How is she going to find the will to continue writing this project if someone else has already beat her to it?

This is actually a very common question, and here is the (at times, tongue-in-cheek) response I wrote that I hope can help a few more of you out there:

I know everyone says “don’t worry about it” and that obviously hasn’t made you feel any better but…don’t worry about it. That book and thousands of others will be published this year. Unless this particular book hits it DIVERGENT-big, it will have its moment on the stage and then gracefully recede onto the backlist. (Sad but, more or less, true. For every mega-successful book that’s published in a year, there are dozens or hundreds more that do pretty well for themselves but don’t make a global splash.) Then next year’s crop will come. Then next year’s.

It’s the ciiiiiiircle of liiiiiiiiiiiiife!

Meanwhile, in the BEST case scenario, you will take six months to polish your book. You’ll take three months to query and sign with an agent. You and your agent will revise for three months. It will go on submission, and let’s say it sells in an amazingly short month. Did I mention that the entire publishing process moves at a snail’s pace? And you’re not even done! Then it will go into contracts, editing, design, proofreading, blah blah blah, and it will finally come out in hardcover a year from when the editor bought it. That’s a MINIMUM of two years from today. But if there are invariable publishing delays or you need two revisions instead of one at any point in the process, or they decide that another similar book is coming out and they should push you back a season and you have no control over any of it, then it’s more than two years from the book that’s upsetting you right now.

On top of that, you can’t really know a book from a paragraph of description. The voice, the tone, the plot, the sense of humor, the lightness or darkness, the literary quality. All of these things happen in the execution, not the pitch. (ETA: The product and the pitch, people! It was an idea in my brain like a year ago!!!) So the book you’re worried about could be completely different from what you’re doing. And you don’t even know it until you read it. What attracted that writer to that idea, and that editor to that manuscript, could be completely different from what kind of response your idea will drum up.

So, basically, all this is to say you should probably trash your manuscript and start over. Just kidding! You’re totally fine. Keep on trucking. Nobody is stealing your ideas. Maybe one day your book will be featured in an online newsletter and some writer is going to start worrying and email me because she thinks she’s working on the exact same thing. It’s perfectly normal and doesn’t mean the end of the world. In fact, this is far from the first time I’ve heard this question. There are just a few archetypal stories in the world that we keep telling over and over, in different wrapping paper. That doesn’t make one book more or less special than the next, and as long as the stories are well-done, there’s room for them on the shelf.

Don’t believe in the myth of scarcity. This book isn’t taking away from your potential place in the spotlight.

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Many of you who are familiar with my writing have heard me express surprise and frustration at the idea that so many writers are obsessed with the pitch that the product (in our case, the manuscript) seems almost an afterthought. Back when I would speak at conferences, I would get maybe 8 questions out of ten about the query letter, with only 2 about craft. Once the pitch is over (one page, or about three minutes in a conference session), the burden of proof falls squarely on the product. And in the end, the product is what matters!

But people still love to talk about that pitch. I think I know why. It’s what you present, so IT feels like the “make or break” point, not the manuscript that follows. It’s also shorter and more formulaic, so it’s easier to control. You can’t really control whether someone falls in love with your manuscript right from the get-go: Tastes vary, manuscripts are of various quality, and your style comes into play a lot more. But with the pitch, if you have a great query, it’s pretty easy to feel confident. There are fewer moving parts to gamble with.

So that’s where the attention goes. Good? Bad? I say it’s understandable.

The pitch is what opens the door, so it does deserve its fair share of focus. But once you have someone on the hook, you still have to reel them in, and that’s where all attention goes back to the manuscript. So you can’t escape that nasty product part, no matter how hard you try.

To even get people to look, though, you need the pitch to be solid. The more I think about it, the more I see that a pitch needs to:

  • Be specific
  • Be targeted (audience-focused)
  • Answer the question, “Why does my audience need this?”

The good and bad news is that a pitch can’t change your product. It can spin it, sure, and a certain amount of spin is desirable, but if you aren’t already thinking about these questions as you write your project, your pitch won’t superimpose them onto your manuscript in a satisfying way. You can say that your product is all sorts of things in the pitch, but if that doesn’t come across when someone reads it, the pitch is going to get thrown out as inaccurate. So if you’ve never thought about what your book really is, or who it’s for, or why it’s necessary in a crowded publishing marketplace, you’re likely going to struggle mightily with the query letter, which basically asks you to talk about all of these things.

The worst pitch in the world is pretty much along the following lines:

This is a really great coming of age story about a character who goes through a lot of stuff and comes out the other side. It’s for everyone from zero to 100, and I wrote it because I’ve had this story in my head for thirty years, simply begging to be told, and it wouldn’t let me go until I got it all down on paper.

It’s not specific (every story that involves character change can be seen as a “coming of age”), it spits in the face of the old adage about trying to be everything to everyone and brazenly disregards the reality that there are very specific audiences out in Publishingland, and it doesn’t justify its own existence in the larger scheme of things. You know how baby pictures are always adorable to the parents? And that’s great? But not everyone wants to look at other people’s baby pictures past the first couple unless there’s something personal and notable about them? Do you see where I’m headed with this?

Back to Shark Tank. The entrepreneurs that make it hook the Sharks with a pitch that answers the above questions. What’s the product? It’s not just a doohickey. The world has enough of those. It’s a doohickey that’s for…the kitchen, the garage, taking great baby pictures, whatever. In publishing terms, let’s say it’s a dystopian romance.

It’s not for everyone, because if you say it’s for everyone, the savvy Shark is going to know full well that you can’t market a product to everyone. For exaggeration’s sake, that would cost trillions of dollars and you’d have to get your message to the outer reaches of Mongolia. Not possible, nor desirable, even. Because the savvy Shark knows that 7.9999 billion of our 8 billion marketing recipients are probably not going to like or need whatever the product is. There’s only one thing that’s for everyone, and that’s oxygen. (Except anaerobic bacteria don’t like it. See? You can’t please everyone.) And maybe vanilla ice cream. But are you really going to try going up against the clout of vanilla ice cream?! Everyone is different, and we all like different things. This is GOOD. In publishing terms, our example is a dark YA fantasy for today’s troubled world.

Finally, we get to the big “why.” And this is the hardest question to tackle. I am often left with this idea after I finish reading a manuscript. And? So? Why? Why does this need to be a story? “Well,” the writer stammers, “it’s a story I really want to tell about a kid who goes on an adventure.” So what? Everyone goes on adventures every single day. We all have incredible stories that make up our lives. Why do I need to give you hours of my time and dollars of my paycheck to read your story? (Especially since it’s one you just made up?) Well, that’s where the question of theme comes in. What about your story is going to dovetail with my story and bring about a new or different understanding of the bigger picture? How is it going to elevate my life? In our publishing example, let’s say that heavy identity and survival themes are explored against the backdrop of a troubled world, which uneasily mirrors our own. To think about this as you write, to mention this in the query shows that you’ve seriously thought about the “why” and that your product has a raison d’etre (reason for being, I don’t know how to do the little hat accent on the first “e”).

Let’s tie our doohickey example all together and hit all three points:

The Doohickey 3000 is a revolutionary tool for new and exhausted parents that guarantees you’ll never take a bad baby picture. Baby will be so mesmerized by the Doohickey 3000 that they won’t blink, drool, cry, or vomit, and it will coax a gummy smile out of even the fussiest youngsters. Whether it’s to finally get your family and friends to “like” your damn baby pictures, or to take the world by storm by landing your baby on one of those terrible clickbait viral websites, the Doohickey 3000 will help you foist your bundle of joy on the world with ease!

Now let’s circle back to our publishing example:

DOOHICKEY is a dark YA dystopian romance that pits two teenagers against a scary and uncertain world that closely resembles our own. By deeply exploring themes of identity and survival, it will give contemporary teen readers an outlet to explore some of the fear and uncertainty of growing up in a world where there’s a public shooting every week and we have somehow turned into our own worst enemies.

If you don’t know how to answer some of these questions about your own manuscript, maybe it’s time to go back and really dig into that third question, the “why.” Why are you writing it? Why is it a good project to work on now? Why might the world embrace this story?

“Because I wanna write it, I just wanna,” is fine, and that passion is what’s going to keep you going through revisions, but it’s not enough when you start to think about the reality of publishing, which is that publishers want to put products (books) out that will sell to customers (a reading audience). They don’t just exist to make your childhood dreams come true, or so you can print business cards that say “Author.”

Once you know what it is, who it’s for, and why they’d probably like it, then the pitch becomes very easy to assemble.

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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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