Teenage Perspective Cheat Sheet

One of my favorite parts of SCBWI (where I took no pictures, because I am made of #epicfail, by the way) was Krista Marino’s voice workshop, where we dissected and discussed what an authentic teen voice is. One of the keenest insights came when she invited her author Frank Portman (mastermind behind KING DORK and the forthcoming ANDROMEDA KLEIN) to talk about his songwriting for his band, The Mr. T Experience (better known as MTX).

Now, full disclosure time: Frank Portman didn’t land on my radar with his brilliant YA debut novel, far from it. I was a fan long, long ago. When I was 14-15-16-17, I’d pile into a friend’s ride or drive my junker Ford Taurus up and down the San Francisco Bay Area and go to MTX shows. (There’s a fangirl picture of me with Dr. Frank, in fact, that I tried to find for you guys, where I’m wearing a leopard print coat, a rockabilly dress, an Avril tie, knee socks… all the trappings of good teenage fashion sense, believe you me… It’s probably best that I seem to have misplaced it, on second thought…)

Dr. Frank and Krista made a very good point during the workshop. Writers, remember:

Teens aren’t stupider versions of adults. They’re just as smart, just as emotional, just as perceptive… they’re simply lacking the experience and perspective that most adults get in the process of living more years on the planet.

And, since your character will change over the course of your story, your narrative is just one way they’ll get some different perspective and evolve as people, right? Excellent. In the meantime, as you’re fleshing your characters out, MTX songs make an excellent primer in teen voice and angst.

Have you forgotten how desperate guys are to find a girl, any girl who likes them/wants to talk to them/can stand looking at them? Do you remember the sting of feeling completely alone and invisible to the opposite sex? Listen to the hilarious “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend” off of Our Bodies Our Selves.

Have you forgotten the tremendous roller coaster of first love? The ups and downs and the dizzy compulsion to make it work despite any and all common sense? Try “Who Needs Happiness (I’d Rather Have You)” from Revenge Is Sweet, And So Are You on for size.

Do you remember the ecstasy of finding the one person who understands you? The relief of discovering an oasis amidst the torture of high school? Listen to “Thank You (For Not Being One of Them)” off of Love is Dead.

If you think your voice is lacking authenticity, if your teen emotions aren’t ringing true, do yourself a favor and pick up a couple of Mr. T Experience albums. And yes, this is extremely, extremely gratifying for my 16 year-old inner fangirl. Who knew my nerdy MTX fandom would pay off career-wise? You can check out their record label’s minisite by clicking here. You can also check out Dr. Frank’s website.

How to Write a Query Letter

There are a lot of “how to write a query letter” articles out there about what not to do. A lot. And I’m going to write some here in short order. But this is a different article. An article on how to do a query right, just so you can see my philosophy on queries.

writing a query letter, fiction query letter, query letter editor, children's book query letter
Writing a query letter that’s simple and compelling is an art form.

How to Start a Query Letter

It’s simple, really:

Make me care.

Cut out the cutesy jokes, the rhetorical questions, the extraneous subplots, the superfluous biographical details and get to the heart of your story.

Start simply, without a lot of throat-clearing, and get to the point:

Dear Name,

I’m writing to you because you represented BOOK/because I saw you at CONFERENCE/because I like your philosophy of WHATEVER. I’ve got a complete manuscript I want to tell you about: MY BOOK, a WORD COUNT – length novel for AGE GROUP.

So far, so good. Personalize the query to the agent and then give them the bare bones details of what your project is.

The Key to Writing a Fiction Query Letter

Now we get the meat. The meat is a longer paragraph (or two shorter paragraphs) that creatively presents the answers to the following questions:

  • WHO is your character?
  • WHAT is the strange thing going on in their life that throws them off their equilibrium and launches the story?
  • WHAT (or who) do they want most in the world?
  • WHO (or what) is the main character’s ally?
  • WHO (or what) is in the way of them getting what they want most in the world (their obstacle)?
  • WHAT is at stake if they don’t get what they want?

The above questions are essential to a complete story. They are, in effect, designed to get you thinking about the most important elements of your book. The funny thing is, when I read the answers to these questions, I start to care about the character! I start wishing I could read the whole story!

Unfortunately, you can’t just present the above information in Q&A format. These are the questions you’ll have to answer in prose, in a maximum of two paragraphs, in a style that tells the agent something about you, your book and your voice. Yes. It is moderately difficult to do. But now you’ve got tons of ideas for how to pull it off and what the meat of your query should include.

How to Finish a Query Letter

Then, you’ll finish your query with:

  1. Some brief biographical information. Things that are relevant: if your life has somehow inspired something in your novel, like you’re writing about a kid who’s obsessed with physics and you happen to be a physicist, also mention previous publication credits, advanced degrees like an MFA or anything else that is applicable to writing, etc. Things that are not relevant: how many cats you have, that your kids loved this book when they read it, how great the weather/food/backpacking is in your neck of the woods.
  2. A cordial invitation to request the full manuscript.
  3. Your signature and contact information.

Voila! Now you have a query letter that hits the very heart of your story, doesn’t waste any space and makes the agent or editor reading it care about the character and the character’s journey.

This is by no means the only way to write a query letter, but it does cut to the chase rather simply and brilliantly, doesn’t it?

Need a query letter editor? I’ve seen tens of thousands of queries, and I can help yours stand out in the slush pile.

When To Cut Something Out Of Your Manuscript

Here are some very simple benchmarks for when to cut something out of your manuscript. If you are agonizing over revisions and trying to decide whether to keep a paragraph, scene, phrase, character, line of dialogue, etc., run it through this checklist.

(Hint: if people are telling you that your pacing is slowing down or if a scene is running long and boring to re-read during revisions… Pay attention!)

You should probably cut it from your manuscript if:

  1. It does not advance our understanding of the character. Does this piece of writing show us something new about or a deeper layer of your character? Everything you write serves a purpose (and no, that purpose is not to boost your word count). If nothing new is revealed as a result of this being in the manuscript, cut it. If no new nuance emerges, give it the axe.
  2. It is just so darn clever. Find the part you love so much because it is witty. Cut it. That’s you showing off as a writer and I’m willing to bet that it does not advance our understanding of the character (see above) or advance the plot and tension (see below).
  3. It does not advance plot or raise tension. Every piece of fiction needs plot and tension to keep the reader going. Some things have very little happen in them but they’re readable. That’s okay, I guess. In the same way that elevator muzak technically counts as a composition. “Readability” is not what we’re striving for, though. So make sure you are turning out plot points and upping the tension with every scene you write.
  4. It does not reveal anything new. In terms of plot, or backstory, or foreshadowing or our immersion in the world of the book. If something doesn’t give us more meat to chew on, it’s just fat and gristle.

This is a very reductive view of revision. But honestly? I’ve been reading some manuscripts this week where I’ve wondered long and hard: Why is this in here? Whether it’s been a particular bon mot that the writer couldn’t cut (KILL YOUR BABIES!) or a scene where the same wrinkle in a friendship dynamic is replayed over and over (“I just need to know I can trust you, man!”/”You can trust me, broseph!” for like five scenes straight…), I have developed a wicked itchy delete button finger.

And what happens after you trim all the unnecessary fat from your manuscript?

What’s that?

You’ve freed up some room in your word count and it gives you anxiety?

Go forth and fill it with important, varied, nuanced and truthful stuff! Because if what you’re writing isn’t any of that–if it is just taking up space in your manuscript–then those are dead words anyway. It’s better if you cut them when you see them, as they’re placeholders for something more awesome.

Trust me. Now go: chop, chop, chop.

How To Write Excellent Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags are like clauses. If the actual line of dialogue is the meat of the sentence, these little guys hang somewhere around or within it and add information. But there are dialogue tags, and there are excellent dialogue tags. You want the latter, obviously.

dialogue tags, who to write dialogue, how to write great dialogue
Don’t clutter your scene with dialogue tags, let what’s being spoken take center stage.

When I’m reading manuscripts, I always note some dialogue tag issues. Here are some of the most common, so you can play along at home and edit them out of your revision.

Avoid Dialogue and Tag Redundancy

This is a big issue, as anything redundant in your manuscript sticks out like a big old zit in a prom photo. Go back through your manuscript and see if you’re saying anything twice in a single line… once in your dialogue, another time in your tag. Hint: this is where most of your ickiest adverbs will be. Examples:

“I’m so angry, I could spit!” she growled, nearly snorting fire from her flared nostrils.

Alex’s hands flew to blot at his crimson cheeks. “I am so embarrassed!”

“Oh yeah? What’s it to you?” she said, testily.

These are technically not bad writing. But they are redundant. In the examples above, the action or adverb basically echo what is conveyed in dialogue. If we separated those tags from the dialogue and used either the description or the dialogue alone, we would still convey the same emotions. Be careful not to repeat yourself (like I just did).

Don’t Use Dialogue Tags to Choreograph Action

Writing a novel sometimes feels like doing blocking for a play or directing actors in a movie. You have these characters in your head and they’re moving around the place you’ve imagined for them. In real life, we take pauses in our speech, we fiddle with our keys, we put a tea saucer down then pick it back up again (if we’re classy enough to drink it out of fine china).

You want to make sure your reader gets what these characters are physically doing in space, right? You want them to see your characters like they see actors in a movie. Sure, but when you do it too much, it really drags your dialogue down. Here’s an example of one short, continuous snippet that starts to read like choreography (sorry, indentation and blogging do not go together):

“I don’t know, I mean, he’s got to come out of there sometime,” Suzie said, ripping a bite out of her turkey sandwich with her perfectly white teeth.
“I gueff,” Chris said, his mouth full of burrito. He swallowed it down. “I guess.”
Suzie chased her bite with a sip of Diet Coke from her dewy wax cup. “It’s the third time this week Biff’s shoved him in that locker.”
Chris reached into his pocket and checked the time on his phone. “It’s been about an hour already.”
Suzie arched an eyebrow. “What if he runs out of air?”
“Impossible, there are at least a dozen vents.” Chris put his phone away and folded his hands in his lap.
Suzie pushed her chair away from the table, leaving her sandwich nearly whole on its red checkered wrapper. “But you know he has asthma!”

What’s going on in this scene? What are the characters saying? Do we even really care? I don’t. I couldn’t keep track of the dialogue because there was so much business in between. The only actions we really needed, I suppose, are Chris taking out his phone to check the time and Suzie pushing herself away from the table. The rest could be trimmed back significantly.

Don’t Stuff Adverbs in Dialogue Tags

This one needs no introduction or explanation. For the last time, folks, let’s lay it all out there: adverbs are like corn dogs. You think they’re a really good idea, then you eat a couple and you realize they’re much better in moderation. Don’t cut all adverbs out of your manuscript, but prune… aggressively. They don’t add much — only in special circumstances do they work — and they are usually a sign of a writer not trusting their reader.

Dialogue conveys things. That’s the whole point of it. It tells us who a character is, how they talk, what they think, what they say aloud vs. what they keep inside, what people are planning to do, what people did, how people feel about things, etc. etc. etc. Good dialogue is very information-dense without hitting you over the head. If it is well-written, the reader learns new things without even realizing.

Adverbs and the other kinds of tagging errors I’ve discussed here just get in the way of good dialogue and make it too… obvious. That’s not what you should be aiming for. If you’re seeing a lot of adverbs, it’s time to really examine your dialogue and make sure you’re conveying what you need to in the actual scene and not leaning on adverbs as a crutch.

How to Write Excellent Dialogue Tags

Some things to remember about writing good dialogue:

  1. Make sure your tags aren’t redundant.
  2. Let the dialogue speak for itself and don’t rely on adverbs or choreography.
  3. This is advice for writing good anything: trust your reader.
  4. Make your dialogue information-dense but not obvious.
  5. Bonus: don’t play the name game!

“Now take this to heart and prosper!” she said, triumphantly, her fingers clacking on the keys of her MacBook as she wished her readers well. (Ba-dum bum ching! See what I did there?)

Hire me for fiction editing. I will comment on all facets of your manuscript, including, yes, those pesky dialogue tags!

Review: Love, Aubrey

by Suzanne LaFleur
Middle Grade, 272 pages.
Wendy Lamb Books (2009)
ISBN: 978-0385737746

At the beginning of LOVE, AUBREY, we don’t know what kind of tragedy has rocked Aubrey’s world, we just know she’s utterly alone. As we watch her buy herself a beta fish and putter around her empty house, it emerges that her father and sister died in a car accident and her mother fled from the grief of losing them and the guilt of being behind the wheel. Grandma comes to pick up the pieces and moves Aubrey to Vermont. The two women, young and old, united by tragedy, try to put the pieces of their lives back together while searching for Aubrey’s mother.

Once they find her, it becomes clear that her pain is too raw and she simply isn’t ready to be a mother yet. Aubrey must begin the slow and complicated process of making friends, grappling with her memories and reimagining what home and family mean in this new life of hers.

If only most adults had the strength and grace of this eleven year-old character. Aubrey is so hurt — on many more levels than she’ll ever admit, even to the reader, who knows most of her secret heart — but her wisdom shines brilliantly from these pages. Through writing letters, first to her beta fish, then to her dead sister’s imaginary friend, then to her dad and finally to her mother, she expresses just how strong she’s become, how strong, in fact, she’s always been. These letters cap off chapters in the perfect balance of narrative and the character’s own self-expression.

LaFleur’s writing is a thing of beauty and simplicity. Through Aubrey’s crystal-clear voice, she expresses longing, love, pain and hope with the lightest touch. The reader is always deeply involved in Aubrey’s emotions but never told about them outright. We just know Aubrey so well from the first page that everything she does makes total, resonant, brutally honest emotional sense. When her mother doesn’t come home for Christmas, we know her rage and grief, even if we’ve never experienced her circumstances.

This is the whole point of fiction, the very essence of creating a character who lives and breathes. For such a short, quiet book, LaFleur manages not only startling character development but a fleshed-out plot. Memories, emotions, flickers of new life and tortured pangs of the old combine seamlessly as Aubrey does chores to keep her mind off her grief, goes to a new school, visits with a guidance counselor, rediscovers her relationship with her mom and finally chooses her real home, at least for now.

The tagline of the book is: “She will make you cry. She will make you smile. Aubrey will stay with you forever.” I can’t put it any better than that. In this age of high-concept paranormal adventures, barbed-wire edgy and unrealistic, cookie-cutter romance, sometimes I wonder where all the small, literary books of amazing emotional depth and power are. LOVE, AUBREY is the book I’ve been waiting for (Gayle Forman’s IF I STAY (review) and Carol Lynch Williams’ THE CHOSEN ONE (review) also come to mind). It fills me with utter joy that such a talented writer and such a passionate editor found each other and created this unassuming, completely take-your-breath-away masterpiece.

LOVE, AUBREY comes out on June 9th, 2009. If you’ve forgotten the glorious ache of feeling your entire register of human emotions, read it as soon as you can. You’ll be so glad you did. I didn’t even know how much I needed Aubrey in my life. Links: Amazon, Shop Indie Bookstores.

For Readers: This book will appeal to middle grade readers as well as, um, everyone on the planet. Buy this for the kids in your life and tell them to pass it on to siblings, parents, grandparents. I’m serious. Everybody needs to read this book and its appeal is so broad, so human, that it will charm and touch each person who comes in contact with it. Of all my recent reads, this one is most likely to stand the test of time. It is a modern classic in my head already and it hasn’t even come out! Yes, I know I’m gushing, but I’m totally allowed.

For Writers: It isn’t often that writers achieve the ultimate goal of transparency, as LaFleur does here. There are some writers, of course, who thrive on their trademark voice, who use it everywhere as an indelible stamp. LaFleur has a style, sure, but as a writer, she completely disappears into Aubrey’s voice, she spins her words without once interrupting the “fictive dream” to call attention to a flourish of writing, a clever joke, an important moment. Most writers, whether consciously or not, just can’t quite get themselves out of their own writing. Not LaFleur. What you see here is all Aubrey, all the time. Please read it. If it doesn’t change your writing, and I’m not sure it will because its lessons are very subtle and complex, it will change the way you see character and it will redefine your boundaries of how deeply into a fictional soul you can go.

The Last Threshold and Writing What You Can’t

Here’s a post written by Mary-the-Writer, not Mary-the-Agent. I’ve written a lot of manuscripts in the pursuit of my craft. Each has been better than the last one and I have no doubt I can tell a story, but there’s a threshold in my way that I’m always grappling with. It’s the hardest, most menacing final hurdle, and I haven’t hopped over it yet, as my work remains unpublished.

My struggle is voice. A voice that’s believable, that changes, that evolves and reeks of humanity. Because that’s what is necessary in today’s market. And my biggest problem is impatience. I want to publish a book and I want to do it right now. But things don’t work that way. In my pursuit of the manuscript “just good enough for someone to publish it already!!!” I’ve been turning out lazy, one-dimensional, generic writing. Some writers, those trained in critique groups and workshops, will automatically move to pat me on the knee and whisper that no, it’s actually very good and that I shouldn’t say that, and that I’m being self-critical, and blah blah blah. But compliments don’t help a person improve. They’re the last things you’ll remember, after you process all the real, honest and challenging advice you get.

In the pursuit of the book that’s good enough, I haven’t written a book that’s alive. Something with a pulse. Something that has the “x factor” to succeed. (Hint: the “x factor” in any manuscript is voice.) Not yet. That’s what I finally have to tackle (in all my “spare” time, ha!). And the painful funny thing is, I’ve known it all along. In my rush to write and revise, I’ve known that these manuscripts haven’t been my absolute best work. A long time ago, in college, I figured out that my lazy try was better than some people’s absolute best writing. That’s the moment when I decided to play it safe. I know I’m not alone in this.

People have a tendency to stop short of doing their best. It’s a self-defense mechanism. If they don’t write the things they really want, if they don’t pour out the real effort, then the failure they’re imagining (and will most likely experience) can’t hurt them that deeply. Criticism slides right off, because they have a dirty little secret: this wasn’t the real try anyway.

Well, I am throwing in the towel on that attitude these days. It’s childish, it’s self-defeatist and it’s the last great threshold in my writing life. Is there anybody out there with me who’ll do the same? Have I hit upon anybody else’s dirty little secret? Good.

Here’s my advice to those writing what’s just good enough:

Write what you can’t. Write what you’ve been afraid to write this entire time.

I’m done with writing safe, bloodless manuscripts that get me nowhere. Just like any writer, I’ve faced a lot of rejection. But I’m grateful for it, so thank you to all the editors who haven’t published me yet. Thanks for not letting me get away with it. I’ll be here until next time, getting over my self-inflicted BS and finally writing the manuscript that’ll make me vulnerable, that’ll seem impossible, that’ll take me over my last threshold.

I want nothing less from the writers who query me.

Describing Emotions With Physical Cliches

Without further ado, here are the Four Horsemen of the Prose-ocalypse:

  1. Eyes
  2. Hearts
  3. Lungs
  4. Stomachs

What do I mean? These four areas of the body are the well-worn favorites of writers everywhere when it comes to describing emotions of any kind. Count how many times you’ve seen the following (or similar) phrases:

She darted a menacing glance over her shoulder.

He cast his eyes to the ground.

My heart clenched in my chest like a giant fist.

His heart knocked against his ribs like a caged bird.

She let go of a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.

Timmy gasped for air like a drowning man.

The sound of his raspy breathing was the only noise in the otherwise death-silent room.

A gnawing feeling radiated from her guts.

Acid roiled in my stomach, threatening to make an exit up my esophagus.

And on and on and on. Now, that’s not to say these phrases are inherently bad. They’re not. But as writers, you should always be aware of your descriptions. There aren’t many areas of the human body that act as emotional centers. Eyes, hearts, lungs and stomachs are the four biggies. A lot of stuff happens at these hotspots as a character moves through the emotional arc of a story.

But every time you write something about eyes darting, a heart clenching, breaths catching in throats or guts rumbling, just know that these Four Horsemen appear in almost every manuscript. It is your job to put a fresh twist on these descriptions and to give your readers new images.

Just because you know everyone struggles with this problem and just because you want to easily convey emotion in your work doesn’t mean you can get complacent and fall back on the stuff I’ve outlined above.

I issue you a challenge and throw down the gauntlet! What are some fun ways you outsmart the Four Horsemen in your manuscripts?

Too Many Characters in a Manuscript

One sin I see a lot of writers committing is the character horde. They simply have way too many characters. Worse, they seem to always be possessed to introduce these characters in large chunks. (Ah! I’m writing a scene where my main character arrives at a new school… here are twenty new characters for her to meet!)

If you find yourself tracking your characters or having to go back and look up the name of the character you want to use…if you find yourself boasting that you keep track of your cast with a spreadsheet (and you’re not writing high fantasy)…I beg you to slash the cast list.

Keep in mind that characters on a page are people that your reader can’t see or hear. That’s where your job comes in. Because you’ve got a pretty big barrier to reality — the character is alive only in words, your reader has never seen them and oh, yes, you made them up! — you have to work that much harder to flesh out this person and make them realistic. In real life, a person can walk down the halls at school and notice some dorky girl named Cathy in some gross penny loafers and then remember her. Or they can spot a friend from grade school that they don’t really talk to anymore and try to avoid them. In a book, the reader has a more limited attention span for these types of second- and third-tier characters. And if Cindy or the old friend don’t appear again, there’s almost no need to mention them if you don’t have to.

Introduce us to characters for two reasons:

  1. They’re going to be instrumental in the plot.
  2. You want to characterize an environment by introducing us briefly to one or two of its characteristic inhabitants.

Both are totally valid. You want to introduce us to the girl who your Nerd Herd MC is going to beat out for Homecoming Queen, because she’s involved in the plot. You also want to introduce us to some of the dumb jocks hanging out in the cafeteria and throwing bananas at each other because you want to provide dumb high school foils for said MC.

If you find yourself with too many characters, ask yourself honestly if anyone in your brood can be cut or, better yet, combined. One writer friend of mine ended up combining her MC’s two best friends into one person. And she did it, because it made the book stronger in the end. The characters she’d written were too similar and served similar functions to the MC. That’s another great thing to look at. If all your characters serve the same function (support main character, irritate main character, bully main character), do you really need many iterations of the same thing?

If you were to look at your manuscript with a cool, objective editorial eye, which characters could you get rid of altogether? Which characters could you combine? Nothing disorients a reader more than being introduced to three, five, ten or more new characters at a time. Sadly, I’ve seen this a lot lately.

Don’t forget that you’ve created these people and given them names and faces. You’ve got the added bonus of having “seen” them before. As a reader, though, we’re going in completely blind. The disadvantage of having a lot of characters is that it’s almost impossible to flesh them all out to the level where they come alive. I’d rather have fewer characters who are much more fleshed out and involved in the plot, than lots of characters who appear for a scene or two, don’t pop up again and remind me more of furniture than of human beings.

Strive for clarity, simplicity and not to overwhelm your reader.

Struggling with when and how to add layers to your work? My professional eyes on your manuscript can help.

Does A Character Have to Change From Beginning to End?

I just read a MS where the author’s answer seemed to be an emphatic: NO!

My answer? An emphatic: YES!

This question is much bigger than I have time for right now. I’ll do a longer post later. In short, though, I’ll leave you with a quote. My MFA professor, Lewis Buzbee, is probably not the first man to say this. But he said it again last night in class and it couldn’t be more applicable to what I read today:

“A story is a character’s journey from innocence to experience.”

Dunk that in your morning coffee. And no, I don’t think we’re just talking about Adam-and-Eve-style innocence here. More to come later!