Saturday, August 28, 2010

Quick Announcement

If you signed up for the Structure Workshop, you should have received an email invitation to join the class loop.

One of you has a bouncing address. If you haven't received your invitation, this is you. Please email edittorrent at gmail dotcom with an alternate address or other instructions.


Interview about reviews

I have a masochistic appreciation of articles about the NYTimes Book Review. Anyway, here's an interview with two women bestsellers who throw down the gauntlet. :)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Coherence in backstory

More about backstory--

We know we need it, so make it work. Part of the problem is that "layered-on" backstory (that which is meant to make the reader feel sorry for the character or understand some motivation) often ends up just being contrived-- the rivets are showing, and the reader can feel the extraneousness of it. "Right, right, she was orphaned and we're supposed to feel sorry for her. Got it."

One way to counteract this is to make the backstory congruent with something in the present time. This is probably pretty basic, but I'm going to say it anyway! The purpose of backstory is to show how the past affects this character in the present. That is, a child who was orphaned (parents died) is likely to have abandonment issues as she grows up, and this might mean that she is reluctant to fully give her heart to a lover-- she knows how cruel fate can be, ripping him from her just as fate ripped her parents from her.

But notice that her abandonment issues will be different from those experienced by a man whose parents -deserted- him in childhood. That boy-grown-man is likely to distrust PEOPLE, not FATE. So he's not worried that this loving person will be ripped from him; he assumes that this person doesn't really love him and will leave. (And maybe that there's something wrong with him that makes people leave him.)

This makes the character and backstory work together for coherence. But the coherence requires us as writers taking the backstory we invent seriously, and imagining what it would REALLY cause in this particular person. That is, stop thinking of it as "backstory" and start thinking of it as "her/his past".

Other examples? Hmm. In romance, often the heroine is recently divorced, and it seems to me the cause of divorce is as important as the fact of divorce. Too often, I think, the writer misses an opportunity here, presenting the cause as something generic (usually the husband cheats on her, often with someone close to her-- a best friend, her sister?). That double-betrayal OUGHT to cause a particular kind of trust issue, but usually the character is shown to end up with a sort of generalized aversion to men. (Actually, many real women in that circumstance would end up far more wary of getting close to another woman, as the betrayal by the friend/sister might seem the greater.) Anyway, I say this is a missed opportunity, because in settling for the generic backstory (and yes, take it from me, it's pretty generic), the author loses the chance for coherence, the sort of connectivity of past and present that make this character seem real to the reader.

For example, hmm. Let's say that you want your heroine to feel ambivalent about her brilliance or talent. This is especially true in the past. A woman with great artistic talent or scientific brilliance in, well, just about anytime before 1980 (and even now, alas) might worry that this would make a man feel inadequate, or spotlight her as "weird" in society. So if you set it up that she is divorced, don't go with a generic "can't trust men" sort of divorce-backstory. Make it particular to this story and this character. The husband couldn't deal with her greater talent or success or intelligence. She won some big prize or grant, and that was when he chose to leave, because he couldn't take her greater ability. That would make "success" a real danger to her, as it led directly to her loss of her husband.

But also notice that it would make her suspect that even someone who loves her is unlikely to accept her as she truly is (brilliant or artistic or obsessed with something), and in fact that what she might consider the best aspect of her is precisely what would scare men off.

Much more coherent than just a generic "can't trust men" backstory connection, because here, it's not just that she can't trust men-- she can't trust her self, her true self. And of course it sets up for the eventual resolution, that the one man who can accept and love her talent and brilliance is the hero. It also, notice, sets up events where the talent and brilliance come into play in the plot, which makes her active (using her skills) but also creates conflict (if she has learned to hide these skills and now has to show them, not knowing what the hero's reaction will be, but expecting the worst, because of the divorce-cause already established in backstory).

Other examples? We should just keep in mind: Backstory might be just a writing element to us, but to our characters, it's their PAST.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Showing what you know about him/her in the opening

I'm running a class now on romance plotting, and we're exploring what strengths and goals and conflicts our main character has. And I confidently jotted down that my current hero is an all-powerful nobleman who can get and do anything he wants, and so the heroine kidnapping him is a reversal.

So I was pleased with myself until I realized I hadn't actually SHOWN that in the opening (pre-kidnap) scene. In fact, because I start in the hero's POV, I'm presenting more his insecurity and dread (he has to propose marriage to someone he doesn't love in the morning). He certainly doesn't FEEL all powerful, and that's all that's coming across. (This is actually a kind of good reason for a secondary POV, like that of the porter who guides him up to his theatre box, who is probably respectfully fearful of this powerful guy, not being privy to all his insecure thoughts. Not that I would start a book in secondary POV. I do have standards, however inconvenient.)

So I'm thinking now of how I can modify the opening slightly to show that, however uncertain he feels, as far as the society goes, he's powerful. I already have him interacting with his younger brother, who resents that power, so I might pump that up some, have bro mutter something about him being a bully. I could also have those he encounters in the theatre bow to him like he's really important. He doesn't have to feel that way, as long as others show it in their behavior (power is so much really a function of what others think).

The point of this is not to impress the reader with his ultimate coolness, but rather to set up "power" as something he must give up, something to sacrifice, something that becomes a conflict for him as he falls in love.

... So are there concrete ways in the opening you "set up" some of the character aspects you want to develop, that you've devised in exercises or thinking about this person?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mulling character appeal-- always dangerous

Been mulling over this hero thing, and that made me think of how the character arc arcs and all that.

I really think that the characters have to change in the course of the book, so the way they are in the opening scenes is kind of a "before" picture-- how they are before they change because of the plot events. But the problem with that is... the character might not be instantly attractive if those opening scenes showcase the "opportunity for growth," those unevolved parts that must be changed. So how can we get the reader to hang on in those opening scenes-- make the character identifiable/sympathetic/interesting enough that the reader is willing to wait to see how he/she changes?

That is, how do we keep readers hanging on, if the "hero" isn't "heroic" in the first scenes?

Examples? I'm thinking of Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. He's dismissive, snobbish, unpleasant in his first scene. Why do we hang on and hope he wins Lizzie's heart? What did Austen put in there to get us interested in him?

"Ten thousand a year and a house in town." Well, wealth does appeal. :)

He also spars well with Lizzie, which is a useful ability in a hero-- he shows right away that he can get her humor and knows when she's zinged him.

He's a good friend to Bingley and shows that quickly, and that does indicate that he's able to love.

We're never in his POV, so we don't get all that backstory about him being orphaned early that might make for easy sympathy. (I don't think our sympathy ought to be engendered primarily by backstory anyway-- often miserable backstory is invented just to make this character more understandable, and that gets us quite away from the present of the story, and the organic development of characters. Remind me I want to write about "layering on" character and why that's bad.) We have to see him through Lizzie's eyes, and she doesn't like him... so do we? And if so, why?

Other examples? I think Rhett in Gone with the Wind is appealing in the first scene because he's irreverent-- he doesn't take the war or Scarlett too seriously. Also he is the only one who "knows" her, who knows that she's more than the debutante everyone else sees in her.

Okay, so look to your own work or favorite books. How -in the opening scenes- do we introduce a more problematic character and show the "room to change" without putting off the reader?


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Em and En

Thomas keeps asking about dashes, one of my guilty pleasures. I use way too many dashes! Anyway, he asked about en-dashes and em-dashes.

First, understand that this is a house style thing. That is, no matter what you do, the copy editor is going to "fix" it to fit the publishing house style or what the typesetting software interprets correctly. So that's a good thing to ask your editor about, just so you can put the correct one in to make sure that the copy editor "reads" it right, as a dash and not a hyphen.

But en vs. em isn't something that will earn you a rejection.

Just in case, though, here's the customary usage:

A hyphen isn't actually a punctuation mark as it's used within a word or term to join. A hyphen is a very short line (in typing it, you'd type - just once) which is generally used within a word or term to make two parts into one unit, like "half-soused." (There are, of course, other uses of the hyphen, but that's the most important.)

That means that the first part (before hyphen) and second part (after hyphen) go together and are to be regarded as one term. These combinations are usually called "coined terms" because the writer has "coined" the term by putting together two other words. The first modifies the second, and together they might modify another word.
The half-soused writer stumbled home to his blank pages.
I've been free-lancing my real estate articles.

The longer a term has been in the language, and the more common it is, the more likely you are just to make it a word and not a hyphenated "coined" term. So "halftime" and "lifestyle," which were once hyphenated terms, are now just words.

Hyphens and dashes are physically similar, and they both "join" things. But hyphens are used within words, and dashes within sentences and phrases.

En-dashes are longer than hyphens and shorter than em-dashes. (The "en" and "em" refer to the length of the line-- the "en" is as long as an "n" relatively, and the "em" is as long as an "m" character.) En-dashes are usually used for from-to ranges:
The open house is from 2–4 pm.
The Atchison–Topeka–Santa Fe railroad linked three major western towns.
Joan Parker, RIP. 1934–2010.

En-dashes are NOT two hyphens. Most word processors use "insert symbol" to put in the dash of sufficient length.

Em-dashes are longer than either the hyphen or the en-dash. In the days before word processors, we used to type the hyphen twice to make this. Some of us still do. :) It's usually possible in a word processor "auto-correct" to have an automatic substitution-- you type in the two hyphens, Mr. Word supplies a em-dash. Doesn't work in Blogger, however!

Em-dashes are used within a sentence to create a parenthetical (but without parentheses) to show an interruptive thought or aside.
Maybe -- alas, fond hope!-- she would call him back with news.
Douglas-- my first boss-- was exactly a year younger.

Notice that the first is truly interruptive, but the second is me being lazy-- I could use commas instead. But as you can see, I overuse dashes.

Also, an em-dash signifies when you're ending a sentence abruptly before the end. ("Fading out" is signified by an ellipsis-- ...)
She should call him back and-- No! She wouldn't humiliate herself that way!
On Donder and-- Donder? Are you there? Blitzen? Where are you guys?

Dashes are very seductive, as they can substitute for other punctuation marks (commas and periods, mostly). And so some of us-- not all of us!-- use them so we don't have to think about whether this is a restrictive modifier (no commas) or a non-restrictive (commas) or if this is more a statement or a question or an exclamation. I for one always have to go through everything I write and replace half the dashes with non-dash punctuation. (Here are some examples from a grammar book writer.) My first drafts look like Emily Dickinson verses, only without the profound thought and rhymes:
"Hope" is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

(Emily D probably didn't mean for her "end-line" marker to be set in type, but many editions of her work have all those dashes.)

So-- well. Use the symbol when you can (as when you're typing in the word processor), and understand in a submission, your purpose is to let the eventual copy editor know what she/he should put in right there. That is, you don't have to know the house style, but you do have to type this in a way that conveys your meaning to the copy editor who does know the house style.

Oh, and what about spaces before and after? Again, the copy editor will do that if the copy is going to typesetting. But in something like this-- a blog, I mean-- I usually put a space AFTER but not before the dash. That's because the "before" is being interrupted, so no pause (space), but "after" is resuming in a more deliberate way. I don't like the look of it all smushed together without spaces--like this--so I put the space in after the dash to separate the dashed-phrase from the real sentence.
HOWEVER, when you use a dash at the end of dialogue to signify an interruption, you probably don't want a space between the dash and the close quote, so:

"You have never respected my right to spe--"
"Yes, I have!" he protested.

And now back to our regularly schedule mullings. :)


Dorchester lays off its editors-- bad news

A writer's take on the Dorchester news.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Dangerous love

Well, all this talk of protective heroes makes me want to talk about danger.

The edge in romance, the edge that makes it erotic, I think is danger-- not necessarily danger from the outside, but danger from the romantic character. That is, falling in love should be like playing with fire somehow. It's not just a nice peaceful benevolent experience, but somehow dangerous to the self. It can END up being all supportive, but if it's that way all the way through the book, if love is always safe, it's likely to be boring because there's no conflict.

What is the danger of love? Well, the first is always-- you must give up yourself or part of yourself to love someone. No arguments, please. It's true. Sure, you gain too, etc. But when you are standing on that cliff, looking at love, jumping is scary. Why? Because you might lose yourself.

You can't know, when you start to fall in love, that this is going to be wonderful. Maybe it won't. Maybe it'll lead to murder. Maybe you'll give up your desire to become a singer so that you can follow him on his mission trip to Rwanda. Maybe you'll be swallowed up by her intrusive family. Maybe his hazardous lifestyle will keep you in a constant state of terror. Maybe your values are opposed and it means you give up what you really want-- children, adventure, ambition, a job, your closeness with friends, I don't know-- in order to be with him.

Love is scary. And it's scary even if this is going to turn out to be The One. In fact, it might be more scary then, because there's no turning back. You're probably going to end up caring for this person more than you care for yourself... and that's really scary.

Anyway, while love can be supportive and might end up enhancing your life, if it seems that way all the way through the book (all together now), there won't be much romantic conflict. Love really is dangerous-- this isn't something made up by romance writers-- and (this is really important), it is dangerous even when or especially when it's the Right Love. "Loving is giving hostage to fortune," remember? When your happiness is dependent on another, you can be unhappy a whole lot.

So... how can a potential lover be dangerous? If you have a romantic relationship in your story, what would you say is the danger posed by one to the other?

Denny and I were talking about this, and I said I thought her hero's danger to the heroine was specifically that he held the key to the past she doesn't want to remember. If they become intimate, he might inexorably lead her to discoveries about that past-- bad stuff.

Buffy and Spike-- well, her danger to him is that she makes him want to be good, and that makes him feel bad. (Well, he IS bad, but he's never felt bad about it before. :) She is dangerous to him because she tempts him into giving up what he thinks is fun, great, all that.

His danger to her is more subtle. He loves all of her and doesn't see The Slayer as separate from the woman. She wants to believe that this killing machine part of her isn't really PART of her, that she -- the real her-- is still innocent within her, and will still be there when she's done being the slayer, that slaying is just a job. From the very start, Spike sees her as the slayer, and loves her as the woman who is the slayer. To accept his love would mean she has to love the part of her that she secretly hates.

Darcy and Elizabeth, since Theresa brought them up. Darcy is dangerous to Elizabeth because he disapproves of her family and is a constant reminder that she can leave her family. She wants to love her family in a pretty uncomplicated way and not see their faults. Darcy is partly wrong about the family-- he IS a snob-- but he's partly right too, and she really doesn't want to see the family plainly.

Elizabeth is dangerous to him because she continually taunts him into a loss of control. He is quite controlled and thinks he has to be as a young nobleman of good intent. He can't give into his anger and passion, so he has always taken refuge in his hyperresponsibility and his class-oriented repression. As a not-quite-respectable miss, she taunts him into realizing what he has given up for the repression-- and teases him into uncontrolled displays of emotion. She makes him FEEL, and feeling is dangerous to him as it is uncontrolled.

Other examples? Your own?

RU Ready?

Today's agenda:

Go to RU.
Leave a comment.
And you might win a spot in the September Structure Workshop.

You might not, however, get a quick response to your comment. I'm on the road for the next few days and will have only sporadic internet access. But I will answer comments when I can.

Good luck! Go win!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Not sure we disagree, actually, but what the heck = Heroic throwdown

Well, I guess I don't think a hero has to be heroic and protective and all that at the beginning of the book, and most really aren't. There has to be some change between the guy at the beginning and the guy at the end-- I mean, he can't be uniformly humongously wonderful, or what crazy heroine wouldn't fall in love with him on page 1?

Darcy, btw, doesn't save Lydia until about 2/3rds through the book. He certainly has no desire to protect Elizabeth's feelings or her sister's nascent love when we first meet him. So I'm not really sure that Darcy is a good example of Theresa's point-- rather he's a good example of MY point, that -- while Dahl's hero was protective from the start-- heroes don't have to be heroic early on. Darcy and most heroes get better as the book goes on, which means they have to start with some heroic deficits.

The guy grows into being terrific. He's got to show the potential, certainly, but if he's entirely heroic from page 1, what opportunity does he have to grow?

Different ways of structuring, I think. But I really don't think a "hero" in the sense of the male lead has to be "heroic" in the sense of protective and benevolent at the beginning of the story (at the end, sure. Usually).

So I'm right. :) The Dahl hero is set up as a "regular guy," wanting sex alone, and it's a surprise to the heroine that he's really kind of a control freak who wants to keep her safe. She comes to appreciate that.

But I don't think all or even most heroes have to start out with some sort of instinctive protectiveness towards the heroine or anyone else. They CAN be that way, but they don't have to be that way. The heroine, after all, is dangerous to them in some way, and so they might not WANT to protect her because they have to protect themselves against her (Buffy and Spike, for example-- sure, he ends UP sacrificing himself to save her, but he starts out trying to kill her-- and he's more heroic because he's made that journey from where he started)).

I think especially in the opening, we must be wary of making characters too totally evolved. That can lead to boring stories. They need to be interesting, sure, but they don't have to and shouldn't be perfect, and so heroes, I think, don't have to be protective to start with. They have to be interesting. But I am crazy about sequencing. I think the END should be different from the beginning, and so should the characters at the end. So what might be de rigeur at the end might be kind of boring if you put it at the beginning. A hero growing into love, sacrifice, protectiveness is more interesting than someone starting out that way and not having much to do to change (in Dahl's case, he has to accept that the heroine can take care of herself, and that he can love her even if she's not constantly in need of protection).

Anne Stuart frequently has heroes who are plain dangerous to the heroines at the start. Or at great odds with the heroines. Or just kind of uncaring. They end up being more protective, sure, but they don't start that way. I like that. I don't write that way-- wish I could!-- but I like to read it. I like some sense that this person has some problems that love can help fix, that he needs the heroine so he can become better-- he's not got all the ingredients for heroism perfectly mixed from the beginning.

Room to grow-- that's really what I want in a character at the beginning. :) At the end, sure, love can so empower him that he gets all protective and sacrificial. (This is sounding a little sexist- the heroine can save him too!)


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Romantic Hero's Purpose

This one goes out to the romance people reading this blog. I've been thinking over Alicia's post on Contrasts and Juxtapositions from earlier this week. It's been a while since I had to quibble with Alicia about one of her points, and as usual, it's sort of a side point and not really her main point. And as usual, I find myself wanting to start by noting where we think in tandem. It's so rare that we disagree that the urge to preface and even conciliate runs strong.

So here's a quick rundown of two places where I nodded in agreement while reading the post.

-- Genre fiction as folk art? Yes. Exactly. Love the point about innovation within a framework, "the same but different" so often referenced by agents and editors, or as Alicia puts it, something new balanced on the familiar and expected.

-- Victoria Dahl is an adept writer with a knack for surprising readers in a delightful way. No argument there. I haven't read Crazy for Love, the new release Alicia cites, but it's only a matter of time. (And nothing in this post should be construed as criticism of a book I haven't read or an author I respect.)

And then the wheels screeched as my ability to agree with Alicia ran off the side of the road.

You see, I don't think it should be at all unexpected for a hero to have the urge to protect the heroine. In fact, I think if he doesn't have that urge, at least by the end of the book, then he can't be a romantic hero. By definition.

In sociobiological terms, human males have two primary roles: to impregnate women and to fight off predators. There are other sub-roles, of course, and the way these roles manifest in modern men is surely different from how they manifested in our ancestors. Nevertheless, this is what the male body was designed to do, and it's what the deepest part of the instinctive brain will urge males to do.

The way these roles translate into romance hero archetypes is probably pretty obvious. The sexual urges, for example, form part of the tension in even the sweetest romances. Ever wonder why babies factor so prominently in sweets? It's because, in part, if we don't get to see the sexual behavior of the male during the course of the story, we need some other signal that he's capable of fathering a child. So we have an epilogue with the happy couple cuddling their infant a year later, and the reader is left to understand this is a coupling that works.

And as to the warrior/protector side of the male, this manifests in dozens of different ways. Some are obvious -- he's a SEAL or a Scottish chieftain or some other battle-hardened sort. Some are less direct -- he's a CEO (conquerer of the boardroom and enemy competitors), or an aristocrat (lord of all he surveys), or some other high-status male type. A big part of the emotional arc in romance is the journey this male must take from independent warrior to the man who will risk injury and even death to save his mate and children.

This is why so many successful romances have elements of danger to the heroines which allow the hero to intervene and prove his worth as a protector.

And this is why, when I read Alicia's description of the hero trying to save the heroine from imaginary sea monsters, I thought, "But that's what he should do."

It may be that this particular scene was set up so deftly as a sex scene that it was surprising to watch it morph into a protection scene. I don't know because I haven't read it. But that's a different kind of surprise from surprise that he's protective at all. And when Alicia describes the protective urge as more individual or more unique to this character, well, that's when I knew I had to write this post. That urge is not unique to any one romance hero. They should all have it. How they express it might be unique, but they should all have it, even if only by growing into it by the end of the book.

(So tempted now to shift into Darcy Discussion Mode now, a nearly perpetual condition for me these days. Instead will assert that it was his rescue of Lydia that allowed Elizabeth to ultimately love him, knowing he would not only protect her but her family as well, and even protect her from her family if need be. Heroic actions from a heroic character. Debate among yourselves if you like.)

As to Alicia's assertion that this could translate into some kind of 3-act structure, I think I will limit myself to this: what she describes is not so much a story structure as one method for creating a reversal, which is a structural device. I might not be parsing that part of the post correctly, but that's how I read it. There are many different ways to leverage the power of the reversal, and that sort of surprise behavior built upon a reader's assumptions or expectations is a good one.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What reward for writing?

Many of us assume, wrongly, that all writers pretty much have the same desires, that we define "success" in the same way, and that it's all about sales figures and royalties.

So I've been thinking about what writers want out of their writing and their writing careers. We're coming off three decades of growing sales (until recently) of popular fiction at least, and most of us know at least one writer who hit it big and made a million or more during this time, and maybe a few others who have made pretty good livings just on their royalties and advances.

Okay, I'll stipulate that at least the latter, if not the former, has probably become less likely than in 2002. That is, it's not going to be all that common for novelists to make good upper-middle-class income solely from their novel-writing. (Maybe it wasn't COMMON before, but it was certainly achievable in certain genres.) There will always probably be the blockbuster novel and the novelist who gets and stays on the bestseller list and gets advances of more than a million (that was always pretty rare, and probably won't get that much rarer), but $80K writing income a year-- fewer and fewer of those, I fear.

Anyway, this will of course make literary writers grin, because they (most of them) probably never expected to make a living just on their writing income. But I think maybe we pop fic writers might need to think about the motivation for writing now too.

What do you want out of writing?

Usually when I ask that, writers will say that they want to be on the NYTimes bestseller list, or they want to make enough in writing income that they can quit their jobs. But these were always pretty unlikely for most writers, and with industry compression and consolidation, the likelihood might be somewhat less. The consensus I keep hearing is: "More writers published, but less money for each." Kind of good news/bad news.

I'm reluctant to say this, because I grew up in a union family and tend to suspect that whatever justification comes from less money is justification for exploitation, etc. I mean, really, we OUGHT to earn good money if we write good stories! But so far the universe has never rewarded my "ought" with "t'will be," so no matter what I want for all of us (weeks on the bestseller list, long lines at mall booksignings and our agent begging to go down to Cinnabon and buy us a magical no-calorie pecan sticky bun, and advance checks with a lot of digits before the decimal), reality bites. So leaving open the possibility of fame and riches and Jude Law optioning our latest opus (co-starring Robert Downey, Jr.), let's talk about what we really want.

Let's say you accepted -- like poets and lit fic writers do early-- that Jude and Robert and fame et al are not likely. What would constitute writing success to you? What would make you content and/or happy with your writing career?

Also-- what do you want? What do you hope to get out of writing your stories? And what does your "want" mean about what you value?

To be more practical, publication can help you get a job. For someone like me who teaches, I hate that aphorism, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." Published books mean, so there! I can do both! The value is reputation, but actually credentialism. I can brandish the booklist as a credential of worth along with my teaching experience.

Publications do open doors, especially in academia. In fact, a couple well-published, well-reviewed books will generally substitute for a graduate degree or a PhD if you want to apply to be a "visiting writer". And usually they don't care much how much the book sold, as long as the publisher is "respectable," because so few academic books sell more than a few thousand copies. So "a publication or two that helps me get an academic job," that's another reason we might persist at this even if we don't bring in the big bucks.

What about more personal reasons? For example, a songwriter I know said once that she would be happy if she wrote a song that years later, people sang along with (knowing the words) when they heard it on the radio. That sounds to me like a good "want" and a good definition of success. What's the value that makes that "success" to her? Reaching listeners, having an effect? Mattering years later?

Another writer told me recently, "I want fan mail, not necessarily thousands of letters, but personal letters telling me what the story mean to them." That's about having an effect (and learning about it, of course). Many of us have a bit of the diva in us, and a publication does set you apart (no one writes fan mail to their accountant!) in a significant and flattering way. And there's nothing wrong with that, is there?
What are some other good reasons to go on writing and trying to get published, if fame and fortune on the JK Rowling scale are probably not in the future? Well, proving ourselves, yes. Really, writing a novel and getting it published is such a rare achievement that most people, even siblings and parents, tend to be impressed and might even say, "I guess you're not so worthless after all." :) (The downside—they tend to have an exaggerated estimate of the size of your advance and might expect you to pick up the check for family dinners.) A lot of writers have long-suffering "patrons of the art" (you might call them "spouses") who decide their sacrifices were worthwhile after all.
And take it from one who knows—when a boss says scathingly, "So how's that book of yours coming?" there's nothing like being able to retort blandly, "Pretty well. (Publisher) is releasing it in February."
So a publication can create credentials, some measure of fame, and vindication too. What are your motivations? What is necessary to achieve them? And here's the toughie— is what you're working on and the way you're working likely to achieve that? Let's face it, what we might write if we say our dream is "NY Times list" might be different than if we decide our dream is actually "getting a creative writing teaching position in academia" or "exploring this elaborate world that I have been mentally building for decades."
Barbara Sher suggests that when we think of as-yet-unrealized dreams, we analyze what really fires us up about that dream, and work on that possibly more easily realized aspect. (For example, she mentioned that someone who still dreams of Hollywood at 45 and figures that she'll never attain it might realize that she really wants to act, to be part of a group of actors, and then fulfill what she really desires by joining a local theater group.)
So if your motivation is, "Making a difference in (some social issue) with my writing," you might be frustrated if you keep trying to write trendy thrillers. And if your motivation is "making Grandma Chastity proud of me," you might rethink your career path in erotic romance (then again, you never know… Granny might have a hot fantasy life!).
The best motivation for writing was given to me by Monica Pradhan, who realized that she was likely the only published romance novelist in her age group who was an American woman born of parents born in India. She said that even after a dozen published novels, she realized there was one novel only she could write because of her unique background and set of talents. And so she wrote a novel about modern American women who consider that old-fashioned solution to romantic conflict, the arranged marriage.
Ever since, I've thought of that—what's the book only I could write? That's actually become something of a dream for me. (The POV book, don't laugh, was my first attempt at realizing that dream. What, you thought I wrote it for the fame and fortune? You think Jude Law might star in the screen adaptation?)
I'm not saying that writers shouldn't get paid and well, or that we should all give up dreams of financial security through our books. But I do wonder if in aiming for that we might not be making it harder to achieve something else. What do you all think?
If you knew fame and fortune weren't forthcoming, would you still write? (Pace Dr. Johnson, who said, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.")
What would you say is your reason for writing ("except for money")?
What specific reward do you seek? What attainment or achievement makes or will make you feel that you're a success as a writer?

Monday, August 16, 2010


Here's a question Vanity Fair proposes-- is it weird that Jonathan Franzen supposedly dedicated his upcoming book to his agent and editor?

I actually saw that in another recent book, and thought it was... weird.

Let's distinguish between dedications and acknowledgments. They both usually come at the front of the book, after the copyright page but before Chapter 1. Sometimes the acknowledgment page is at the end of the book. The writer uses the acknowledgment page to thank those who have helped in some way-- maybe a firefighter who gave advice on arson, and the town clerk who provided so much research on the town, and the critique group who read through every draft. This is where writers usually acknowledge the editor and agent, often in fairly fulsome terms. "Thanks to my wonderful agent Anne Agent, who took a chance on an unknown and bolstered my spirits at every stage... to my brilliant editor Edward Editor, who with tact and talent turned this pumpkin into a Cinderella!" This is also where writers mention their families if they dedicated the book to someone else. (Children are usually thanked for not complaining about being neglected. :)

So the acknowledgments generally show gratitude for help, usually for the specific time of writing the book. They're usually more professional than personal in tone. The dedication, however, is usually a personal shout-out to someone who has had a profound effect on the writer's life-- her parents, or his wife, or a beloved teacher, or a best friend. Some heartbreaking ones include the death date-- an "in memoriam." Some dedications are more didactic-- Toni Morrison dedicated a book to "the 60 million" (Africans who died in the "Middle Passage" into slavery). But dedications are often a glimpse into the deepest values of the writer, and who inspired the book or helped create the person who wrote it.

Anyway, I have to say, a dedication to an editor and/or agent seems odd to me. They might have sold/bought the book, but did they inspire it? Did they help the writer become the person who wrote it? Probably not. But the writer must have felt a sense of gratitude beyond the professional?

So... who are you going to dedicate the next book too?
And are there people you'll acknowledge in the acknowledgment page?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Article on pennames

Here's an article by "Tawny Tipples" (yes, a penname :) about "transparent pennames," when a well-known writer uses a penname but doesn't even try to hide it, and why?

Contrasts and juxtaposition

On a mini-retreat with Denny, which means we go to the pool to do our brainstorming. :) The only way to keep up with the heat! Of our brainstorming, I mean.

Anyway, Denny mentioned how she's using "comparison and contrast" in her plotting and scenes, and that got me thinking. I think of popular fiction as a type of folk art (like folk music), building on a long tradition, with old practitioners teaching new respect for the tradition, and the new ones innovating in often subtle ways while maintaining the traditions. Well, one advantage this gives pop fic writers is that we can count on readers to know the traditions about as well as we do, and that gives us an additional layer to build on: What is expected.

We pop fic writers can play on the traditions, tease reader expectation, present the expected and then withdraw it and replace it with something new. The "something new" is more fun, more surprising, more meaningful, balanced on the familiar and expected. That is, we get double here-- the reader is set up for the familiar, kind of writes the familiar story in her mind, and so has that done when the writer presents something contrasting, something unexpected.

A minor example-- but you'll see this in many adeptly written genre stories-- Dahl's Crazy for Love presents the usual hero-desire, to have sex, of course. The reader will expect, when the hero goes with the heroine on a late-night swim in the sea, that he will try to "get a leg over," as the Brits used to say. After all, he's macho and vital and full of Y chromosome. But Dahl sets this up only to replace it with something more fun and more individual. Yes, he's macho, and sure, he wants to do some smooching (and more). But what makes him different than most heroes in that situation? He's a control freak, a protector, and as much as he wants to make love, he wants more to get her out of the dangerous night sea, where sharks and riptides lurk. The heroine figures it out: "You're going to make out with me just to keep me from swimming!"

That's in the first act. His protectiveness, in fact, becomes a conflict in the second act. And in the last lines of the book, he's about to kiss her on a balcony, very romantic. But surreptitiously, he edges her away from the railing, just in case.

See how the expectation is set up-- heroes always are ready willing and able for sex, at least with the heroine. But then a more individualized aspect is introduced as a supplement (if not a replacement), and what happens? The issue is raised subtextually-- what makes a hero heroic? It's not just awesome sexual stamina. (Heck, they all have that. :) It's protectiveness. It's caring. It's making people safe. (That's why, btw, the author comes back to this in the end-- to show that no matter how much fun we might make of his protectiveness, he's never going to lose it... and we don't want him to.)

The juxtaposition of the expected with the unexpected, the familiar with the surprise, that's what deepens the experience for the reader and produces those subtextual issues. Layers of meaning:
1) There's all the meaning that has built up in centuries of this traditional expectation within the genre or folk culture. Consider what those meanings are-- what this, whatever it is, indicates about the character(s), what it means about the world of the story, what other stories it refers to, what it has always made readers think... Any genre expectation, btw, tends to be responding to or amplifying some common deep inner need within humans (like the sudden appearance of the monster in horror is an attempt to play off the inner fear of the unknown, but also the inner need to seek comfort). That is the "universal" that gets juxtaposed against the surprise. But that universal, traditional meaning is all-important, so writers should set up the expectation of it in the reader-- the reader will do the rest.

2) There's the meaning of the unfamiliar too, whatever happens instead of (or in addition to) the expected. There's some reason why you the writer have gone in this new direction, maybe the individuality of the character, or the setup for an event that isn't produced by the familiar. But that will produce its own meaning, and it will be enhanced by the contrast with the familiar. In the Dahl book, for example, the hero considers his need to protect as "freakish," as something a little wrong with him, simply because it's not the usual "me want sex" caveman thing. That kind of contrast will immediately individualize the book and the characters, and give the reader something to do (contrasting the two).

3) Then the actual juxtaposition itself has meaning. Putting the familiar up against the unfamiliar, forcing that comparison (what's similar) and contrast (what is different), will produce questions, like "what's different? why is it different? how did that happen? which is better?" And those questions will produce another layer of meaning, the conclusions the reader draws from asking.

Notice that these three break rather neatly into a traditional 3-act structure! The first sets up the familiar. The second act undercuts that and creates and increases conflict by adding the unfamiliar. The third act resolves the conflict with the synthesis of the two-- both are important, and both together create a new meaning.

Also this draws the reader in and makes him interact with the story. The reader has to participate in the setup of the familiar (reader expectation requires the reader :), by recognizing the familiar and all its implications (especially the tradition that created the familiarity). Then the reader has to recognize that the surprise is something new and respond to that. (This is sort of a gift to the experienced reader. A new reader might not know the tradition and thus won't get when it's supplemented. That doesn't mean the new reader won't enjoy the book, only that this strategy can give additional pleasure to the experienced reader.)
Finally, the reader will be led to ask questions and raise issues and think through to a new meaning.

Interactivity means reader involvement, which is always good.

So that's one way to use comparison/contrast in a story-- familiar/unfamiliar.

Any examples you can think of?


Saturday, August 14, 2010

For Those of You Who Are Wondering but Are Too Shy to Ask

I've received several questions about the September Structure workshop, and thought it made sense to address them here, too.

I'm a new writer. Can I take your class, or will it be too advanced for me?

No, I don't think it's too advanced for a beginner. It will flood your brain with information, but it's information you can use right now to make your writing better, and none of it is conceptually difficult. And you need at least a fundamental understanding of structure to shape a book, so in that way, it's perfect for new writers.

But it is a lot of material. A lot. My whole goal in this course is to take abstract concepts (Aristotle's notion of magnitude, for example), and show you how to translate that to real scenes and plots and characters. So it's very practical, and for that reason alone, it would be great for a new writer.

My advice to the new writer, though, is to hang onto the lessons and revisit them in a year or two. What's important to you in the early stages is not what will be important to you later. Today you might be wrestling with conflict and causation. Tomorrow, it might be sequencing and logic. The workshop addresses a broad range of structure concepts, some of which might be more worthwhile later. (But it sure won't hurt you any to get exposed to these ideas early on.)

I've published six books. Will there be anything new for me to learn in this class?

Experienced writers like the structure workshop because, even if they know these theories, they don't always know what to do with them. I mean, it's one thing to say that events must have a certain magnitude. It's another to know how to evaluate your writing for magnitude and change it where necessary. (I've been working on the magnitude lesson today, which is why this is on my mind.)

And if you've had little training in literary theory, but still manage to pull together publishable books, this class might provide you with a new understanding of your instinctive approach to your work. Perhaps you already "get" the mechanics of character shifts in some deeply intuitive way. This workshop will give you the tools and the vocabulary to manage your draft structures in a more thoughtful way.

Are there still spaces left?

Yes, a few, but not many. I want to keep this class size fairly small because it's intensive. I've done it in person for years, but never online before now, and I'm not sure how that will affect the Q&A. But if we keep it fairly intimate, I'll know that I have ample time to handle whatever arises, and nobody will be shortchanged.

I don't understand what this workshop will be about. What is structure?

Take the class and find out. :)

It's going to be a great workshop. I've given this one in person a million times over the past two decades, and believe me, people walk out of it armed for battle. This isn't just academic theory blah blah blah, and there will be a lot of step-by-step explanations of how to handle different structural concepts when working on real manuscripts.


Friday, August 13, 2010

Pennames not WASP

I was thinking of pennames, and how we choose them. You know, one thing I worry about is how while our culture is becoming more wonderfully diverse, writers so often choose Anglo "easy-sounding" pennames no matter what their own names are.

So "Margie Kowalski" becomes "Joanne Gray." And "Jamie Martelli" becomes "Bill Gray."

I was out to dinner tonight, and there was a fun group of people. There was the guy with the Welsh name married to the Finnish woman (who had a Hispanic surname and a Finnish given name), and the Jewish fellow and his Italian wife, and the African-American couple with the African first names and Anglo surnames. This is actually our culture, isn't it? And we love it. We love the diversity and especially the food from around the world. :)

So just a hope-- if you're going to choose a penname, for whatever reason, consider choosing a name that is in the same grouping as your own name. If you're Italian, choose an Italian name. If you're Asian, choose an Asian name. That way no one will think that most writers are Anglo-Saxon. Celebrate the diversity that is us.

Alas, I'm a typical American mongrel, Anglo on one side, and three types of Eastern Euro on the other. And like many women, my surname is my husband's (Swiss, so not all that exotic). But I love the name "Novak" (like Kim Novak, who was an actress in one of my fave Hitchcock films), and that name is Slovak, like my mother. So I'm thinking of using that as a penname if needed-- attractive, but also resonant with my own background ("All names ending in K are Slovak!" my grandma said, though I doubt it's true :).

Just a thought. We are multitudes, and we love it, and we should show it and not hide it. And there are plenty of writers with Anglo roots who can use those lovely English names too!

So, if you had to choose a penname for whatever reason, what would you use?


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Contemplating New Models

Yesterday on the glorious timesuck that is twitter, Devon Monk asked,

So here's a question: Has anyone tried the Netflix model for ebooks? Buy or rent one month after books are in stores for monthly fee?

I don't know whether anyone has tried it, but I can tell you that as soon as I read that comment, I broke out in math-induced hives. I tried to explain why in my tweets yesterday, but the short format isn't good for this kind of complex issue. So, for Devon, here's a better answer. (Also, everyone should buy her books. Go ahead. We'll wait for you.)

Ready? We're going to subtitle this post,

A Woefully Oversimplified Look at Money in Publishing

Let's start with the basic supply chain. Authors sell to publishers. Publisher sell to distributors. Distributors sell to retailers. Retailers sell to consumers.

That covers it for quite a lot of the books that go home with consumers. There are exceptions -- sometimes authors sell direct to the public (vanity books) or to retailers (as with the kindle author program). And sometimes publishers sell direct to retailers or consumers. But as a general rule, it's a 5-step process to get the book from author to reader.

Here's another general rule. Most of the time, the sales made at each step of the process are handled on a per-copy basis. In other words, the consumer pays a certain amount per copy of the book. Then the retailer pays a lesser amount to the distributor, the distributor an even lesser amount to the publisher, and the publisher an even lesser amount to the author. (Some of you are shaking your heads right now at all the ways this paragraph might be inaccurate. Stick with me. It's accurate enough for our purposes, and we don't need to consider returns and other distribution conundrums for now.)

The consumer, and everyone else along the chain, knows that the price is per copy. You don't pay $7.99 for a mass market paperback and expect to take home an infinite number of copies for that one-time $7.99 payment. The whole accounting system through all five steps is more or less built on this basic assumption: we pay for every copy we buy (or collect for every copy we sell).

There are exceptions. Before we get to those, let's think for a moment about how an author's contract is written. There's a rights clause detailing which rights are being transferred from author to publisher. Example:

Author hereby grants and assigns to Publisher for the term of the Agreement the following rights, whether now existing or hereinafter arising, in and to the Work:
1. The sole and exclusive right to print, use, manufacture, publish, distribute, and sell the Work in book form, whether paperback, hardcover, paper-over-boards, trade paperback, mass market, or otherwise, and in audio recording throughout the World in any language
whatsoever, and to license others to do so.
2. The sole and exclusive right throughout the World to sell or use and license others to sell or use any and all subsidiary and performance rights in and to the Work, and any part thereof, including but not limited to all of the following rights: (i) first serial, (ii) second serial, (iii) abridgment or digests, (iv) book club, (v) reprint by another publisher, (vi) translations, (vii)
tape, record or other recordings, (viii) dramatizations, (ix) use in, as or for motion pictures, (x)
transmission or other use by radio or television, (xi) in any digital form by any mechanical, electronic or other means now or hereafter known.

You see how the rights are broken down and detailed? That's because, in general, rights not transferred specifically are reserved to the author. Not all contracts break them out in such a sweet outline form, but they all list which rights are being transferred, and they generally distinguish between primary and secondary rights (also called subrights). In our example, paragraph 1 deals with the primary rights and paragraph 2 deals with the subrights.

Later in the contract, in the payments clause, each of those specific grants will be handled separately. The percentages for each tier will be spelled out carefully, for example:

(c) Discounted sales. On all net copies sold at a price lower than the lower regular wholesale price through special arrangements with charitable or professional associations or similar organizations, a royalty equal to seven percent (7%).

I won't C&P an entire payment clause here because they generally run long and they're super boring. (Much like this post, alas.) The important phrase to note here: On all net copies sold.... It's what I was talking about earlier, that we expect payment to generally be made on a per-copy basis.

Subrights, though, are handled something like this:

Except as otherwise provided below, Publisher shall credit the Author's account with 50% of net proceeds received for the disposition of Secondary Rights.

And there may also be a listing of specific secondary rights and how the splits will be measured. In any case, for those kinds of rights, money is aggregated rather than measured on a per-copy basis. The publisher collects a lump sum for disposition of the secondary right -- $X for book club rights, to be split equally between author and publisher regardless of how many copies the book club sells. See the difference in the language? On all net proceeds, not On all net copies sold.

Which brings us to the netflix model. As you may know, netflix charged a monthly fee in the $10-20 range, depending on your subscription plan, and for that amount you may rent a certain number of movies each month. Can this be applied to books? Possibly, but it could be a wicked headache come royalty time. Let's start by asking into which general category such rentals would fall.

Option 1: We would have to treat it as a primary right and apportion some amount of each month's fee to each month's rentals.

This is what gave me math hives. Let's say Randy Reader pays $12 a month and rented 6 books by 5 authors published by 4 different houses. Theoretically, some portion of that $12 would then be split among the 6 books by 5 authors at 4 houses (with everyone in the supply chain taking a cut, too). And what do we do if he keeps the book through more than one rental period? And what do we do in the months where he rents 30 books for the same $12 -- how does that affect the bottom line numbers when we're calculating royalites? How can we ever hope to have an accurate accounting with such a system? You see? Hives and headaches all around. It's do-able, certainly not impossible, but ::shudder:: (I will let you do your own math to try to calculate how much an author might receive per rental come royalty day. Don't forget to withhold portions for everyone in the supply chain.)

Option 2: Treat it as a subright and do a lump payment.

The more sensible option, perhaps, would be to treat this like a book club. Charge the rental-retailer a lump fee for the right to rent the title over a set period, and then split the money received in half. Calculating the lump sums would be its own ring of hell, but it would be far better than the alternative. Of course, this presumes that the contract will allow for this kind of rights transfer. Maybe it will and maybe it won't. (If you think that's not an issue, consider all the wrangling over e-rights on backlist now in progress.)

So there you have it, everything I wanted to tweet yesterday but couldn't cram into 140-character bites. Thank you, Devon, for the great question.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Principles question

Hey, can you all help me out? I'm writing an article (maybe?) about conversation, and I need to talk about principles and how to deal with them.

Can you all just tell me some principles? I know that makes me sound unprincipled. (I gather others don't think "Don't start a book with a line of dialogue" counts as a principle. :) But I figure if I have a lot of examples, I can come up with some Grand Unified Principle about Principles.

I'm looking for two kinds, and if you could just write out examples in a sentence, like an edict, that would help.

1) The sort we'd identify as principles, sort of bedrock rules, political, moral, ethical, like "Never wear white shoes after Labor Day." (You laugh, but there are women for whom that's a moral principle. :) Or "Always cut taxes." Or "All human beings deserve respect." You see, I must not have a lot of principles, because I can't come up with good examples! See why I need help?

2) Personal life principles that we live by which aren't necessarily things we want to be public about, but shape out lives anyway. "Never let them see you sweat," or "Family first," or "You can only trust family," or -- boy, those all sound so primal.

Anyway, if you could just give me examples, I'd be appreciative!


A Topic Close to Alicia's Heart

Romantic rogues.

Been thinking a lot about this character archetype in recent weeks, but I won't bore you with those thoughts. Suffice it to say I encountered a bit of metastory earlier this summer in which the bad boy from a classic novel was redeemed -- transformed into a romantic hero, even -- and it's been weighing on my mind ever since.

For purely academic reasons, of course. *ahem*

Because girls never go all swoony and coo over rogues, right, Alicia? Especially not over cocktails in the lobby bar in Orlando. And especially not us. We're far too dignified for such shenanigans.

Which brings me to my questions for Team Comments, and anyone else who cares to play along. (Yes, it's a non sequitur. Indulge me.)

Is a rogue the same thing as a bad boy?

Do you prefer one character type to the other (as a reader)? Do you avoid either?

How far can a rogue (or bad boy) go before crossing the line into villainy? Got any examples?

What makes you trust that a rogue (or bad boy) has been redeemed and made worthy of romantic love?

These aren't merely speculative questions. I'm writing something on this topic -- not a blog post, go figure -- and am trying to refine my thinking. TIA for anything you care to share.


Monday, August 9, 2010

Pitching beyond plot

Been listening to a lot of pitches lately! And I have a couple suggestions if you're heading for a conference or a meeting with an editor/agent soon.

First, read Theresa's seminal series on Tweeting your pitch. This works for log-lines in query letters or synopses too!

Then my thoughts:

1) Don't be nervous. Or don't be nervous about being nervous. Almost everyone is nervous in this kind of situation. The editor or agent won't hold that against you! And if you need to read the pitch, go ahead and read. A couple pitchers made a nice little apology, no big deal, that worked as a good lead-in for the pitch. "I'm sorry. I have to read this."

2) Pitching in person might require a bit different a log-line than a written query does. You have to speak it aloud. Say it several times to several people to trim it and make sure it's not an unspeakable mouthful. The editor/agent should not be the first person to hear you say this out loud! A friend can listen and tell you what word could be trimmed and what can be emphasized.

3) What do you do after the pitch log-line? That might take just a moment. What if you have 7 more minutes to fill? Prepare for that. Think about what the editor or agent needs to know. For example, how long is the book? Is it complete (tell if it is complete-- wait to be asked if not :)? Do you have other publications, and who is your agent if you have one?

4) Do not, please, fill the time with a retelling of your plot. The editor or agent is unlikely to be able to follow this, and to tell you the truth, Gone with the Wind would sound dull recited in summary like that. Find a way to talk about your story that is not a recitation of events.

5) How, you ask? Well, first, keep in mind that this is a STORY, not just a plot. What are the major elements of story? Plot, yes, but character too. Setting. Conflict. Action. Emotion. Think about concentrating (at least to start) on any one of these. That is, instead of presenting your story as a series of events, consider starting with one of the other elements (whichever is more intriguing or prominent). You might, for example, talk about "Hagerton, the quaint little southern town with the dangerous big secrets," and sketch out the setting contrasts (the placid county square where the lynching had taken place, the graceful steeple of the church where the young men had sought sanctuary only to be betrayed by the saintly minister) or the characters and their contradictions (the charming old man who had led the dawn raid, the bored teenagers at the high school today who discover a hideous photograph in the school archives....). That is, tell the story through another approach than "this happened, then this happened." This is something you'd probably have to figure out ahead of time.

6)Think of talking not about what happens, but what changes. You can bring in what happened, but the focus would be on "what changed." Danny and his girlfriend Kelsey love their little town, and why not? They are both the youngest of prominent founding families of Hagerton, and they're proud of their heritage. Not that they'd boast about it. They don't need to. Everyone in school already looks up to them. They're the golden couple, homecoming court, prom king and queen. And their future looks just as bright. Kelsey's up for a big scholarship at the state university, and to flesh out her application with community service, she decides to write a history of the town. Danny agrees to help her go through the old photos in the school archives. And what they find shakes their complacent sense of their place in the town and their trust in their neighbors. You can tell what happens as a way to explain what changes. But start with how things are going to change-- an overview, not a summary.

7) Keep focused on, "What is my story about?" Whenever you find yourself veering into plot summary, slow down. Talk about some other aspect of the story. "The theme is--" "The main character--" "The conflict is--" Really, any of those will be more interesting than "And then this happened." But this is something you might plan out beforehand. Most pitchers practice their logline, but the pitch is more than that. Before you go into the session, sit down with a friend and try to get through at least five minutes of talking coherently and intriguingly about your story. You don't have to memorize that, but do have several "overview" approaches worked out in your mind. Figure out what your theme is, what your conflict is, what the character journey is, how the world of the book changes. Then you'll have those aspects available to talk about.

8) If you finish early, don't feel you have to talk more. Ask the editor/agent questions about the market, about the publisher or agency, about what she/he really likes in a book, about what sort of proposal is desired and whether to send a submission electronically or snail mail. If you don't have any more to say, just quiet down. Let the editor/agent take the lead there at the end (because you do want to hear, "Send this to me"). If the editor doesn't say that, and you're feeling bold, you could ask, "Does this sound like something you'd want to see?"

9) If the editor/agent doesn't ask to see the story, stay cool. Just smile and shake hands and leave. (Or if you have another book, and there's still time, pitch that.) It's painful to be rejected right there, and it's going to feel like it's YOU being rejected, not the book. But if you present your story well, the editor/agent can decide then if it's right for the publisher or agency. There are all sorts of reasons why it might not be right, and there's really no arguing with that. If this is an angel book and they are no longer looking for those, the best pitch in the world probably won't make a difference. You want to present your book in the clearest and most intriguing way, but it is what it is. You just don't want the pitch to be rejected because the editor thinks it sounds convoluted or boring (when it isn't!). Do your best to represent what the book is about and why it's good, and if that's not what the editor/agent is looking for, say thanks and don't take it personally.

10) There's nothing wrong with asking something like, "If I write something that's more up your alley, can I send it to you?" But put it better. "Now I've really got a good sense of what you are interested in. I'm going to start a new book, now that this one is done, and I'll be incorporating some of those elements. Can I send it to you when I'm done?" The editor/agent will probably say yes, and then you kind of have an open invitation to submit in the future and put "requested manuscript" on the envelope or subject heading.

11) And the editor/agent does understand that you are an author, not a TV informercial host. You won't be graded on whether your voice quavers or your hands shake. Sure, those who are experienced at pitching business tend to do better in these appointments, but it's not so much their confident manner as their understanding of how to present the "product". They know what to focus on and what to leave out. You can't instantly acquire the sort of confidence that lets you fearlessly recite a memorized speech and make it sound spontaneous. But you can have prepared a comprehensive sense of your story and several ways to explain it. You can be ready with a few intelligent questions that can show you know what's important and make the editor say, "Go ahead and send me this book (or your next book)." So if you've represented your story well, no beating up on yourself! Don't think you were rejected because your voice wasn't strong enough or your gaze wavered. The editor is going to try to figure out from whatever you say if this is a book that might work for the publisher. And your job is not wowing her/him with your zowie personality and great public-speaking skills, but rather explaining your book well and cogently.

The point of this pitch isn't to sell the book. (That probably won't happen right there.) It's to vault over the query stage and get the editor to look at your actual story. That's quite valuable. But it's not your only option, so don't ever assume a "Sorry, I don't want it" is a rejection of you as an author. You can always send an email afterwards thanking the editor/agent for listening to your pitch or meeting with you. And then, when you have another project, you might already have a bit of a relationship with the editor/agent to build on.

And it really is true: "Not right for us" doesn't mean any more than that. It doesn't mean, "Burn that manuscript!" or "Give up your dreams of being an author!" Send the book elsewhere. Pitch it to someone else. The pitch-taker hasn't read a word of your story, so he/she isn't rejecting it, and can't (and won't) comment on your skill as a writer. Do listen, but understand that, "This sounds really convoluted," might mean that your story is convoluted, or alternatively, that you have presented it in a way that's hard to understand (as is very likely if you try to recite the plot). If the pitch isn't successful, take a few moments afterwards to review what happened. Do you think that you didn't present the story well? That the story wasn't right for this place? A couple things you can't assume from a rejection: 1) the editor/agent hates you, and 2) there's necessarily something wrong with your book. Either might be true (well, the first is unlikely), but a pitch-rejection doesn't mean either of those. Don't change yourself or your book solely on the rejection of a pitch. :)

So do prepare, but prepare your explanation of the story. You can't transform your personality in an hour ahead of time (and you shouldn't want to), but you can make sure that you have the understanding of your book-- of what it's about, of what changes-- that will help you present it in the clearest and most intriguing way.


Sunday, August 8, 2010

Italics again

Theresa, was it you that mentioned the problem with Courier and italics? Or someone else?

Anyway, here's a link that states categorically NO UNDERLINING in a manuscript.

And a friend just emailed me asking, and I had to agree that I too am an "italics only" advocate. However, at the RWA conference, someone (maybe not Theresa, maybe yes, but you know, that was probably after several drinks, and ...) said that in Courier, the italics doesn't look much different than the regular font, so it's better in Courier to underline. (Yet another reason not to use Courier. :) Have you guys heard that?

Also, any thoughts here? Would you use italics for some things and not others? To emphasize a word, maybe? Or underline foreign words? Or what?

And what about this Courier thing?


Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Language of the Senses

For some time now, I've had a note on my desk that reads, "Blog about that comment about smell/language." There was a time when I knew which comment this note referred to -- one of you posted something interesting and should be recognized for it, even if I can't for the life of me remember which comment or commenter it was. (My brain has been a sieve all summer. Counting down until school starts again, and can I get an amen on that one?)

Oh, well. If any of you remember posting a comment about writing the sense of smell, please pipe up in the comments so I can credit you appropriately. Luckily, I do still remember what I wanted to say. This is all about the words we have at our disposal to narrate the physical senses. Our language doesn't treat the senses as equals, and this can sometimes present writing challenges.


We have an extensive vocabulary to describe what we see:
  • concrete nouns
  • verbs of action
  • verbs of appearance
  • verbs of being (sometimes)
  • adjectives
  • some other modifiers
Usually, when we narrate an action, we're doing it by accessing the sense of sight.
The little girl skipped rope.
Bobby tapped his bat on home plate.

When we read these words, we get a visual image from them. Each of us may get a slightly different visual. Doesn't matter. The point is that most of the words in most narratives will draw on the sense of sight. Our language is rich and evocative and packed with possibilities for describing what we see.

If you don't get what I mean, try an exercise just for kicks. Write 150-words about a woman grocery shopping for ingredients for a dinner party. Now write the same piece from the point of view of a blind man. What is the experience like when you strip out the sense of sight? How does it change the narrative? What words can you use with the sighted woman that you cannot use with the blind man? There are probably quite a few changes that have to be made, if only because what we see is such a large part of what we narrate.


Look again at our sample sentences about the kids on the playground. Either of these are suggestive of the sounds, too -- the slap of rope against asphalt, the thud of wood against plastic. We see the images first, and perhaps we also hear.

Sound creeps into the narrative in many ways through action verbs, but there are more obvious uses of sound, too. Dialogue is spoken by characters, and if you're anything like most readers, you "hear" those words differently in your silent mind as you read them. (How many of you shifted your inner ear to accommodate the quotation marks around the word hear in that sentence?)

Then we have words we use, usually verbs and adverbs, to describe the quality of the character's speech. People yell and whisper. They speak throatily or brightly. This manner of conveying sound qualities in speech has fallen out of favor, but we still have the vocabulary to accomplish it.

Then there are the fleets of nouns to describe non-spoken sounds -- hoots, thumps, scrapes, rustles, and so on.

If you look at the vocabulary set for vision and sound, the words directly describe the sensual impression conveyed. When you read the word hoot, you get a direct and instant knowledge of what is being heard. When you read the words little girl, you get a direct and instant knowledge of what is being seen. No need for translation or further interpretation.


Not so with the sense of smell. For narrating scents, we have a blended vocabulary, you might say. Some of the words are direct -- pungent, acrid, cloying, and other similar terms all describe the native characteristics of a smell.

But this vocabulary in English is not as well developed as the vocabulary for sight and sound. We just simply don't have the words to accurately convey a sense of smell as directly as with sight and sound.

Take, for example, cloying. We know our response to a cloying scent. We don't like it. It's invasive, and not in a pleasant way. But is it sweet like cheap perfume? Or disgusting like roadkill? Either of those scents can be cloying, but they're cloying in entirely different ways.

We can work around this as writers by drawing on comparative language. When I asked the questions above about cloying, I used the word like both times. This is no accident. Our vocabulary for the sense of smell almost demands this kind of usage if we're going to be precise about what we're trying to convey. It's not always necessary -- we do have some good, robust, precise words for smells -- but this particular sense does often demand an indirect approach in the narrative.

There are other work-arounds. Sometimes context will control the way a reader interprets a word meant to describe a scent. Yeasty, for example, can be used to describe the smell of bread (a pleasant smell) or the smell of an infected body (an unpleasant smell). If the word is used in a hospital ward, the reader will know which way to lean.

The bottom line is this: Pay attention to the way you're using language to evoke a sense on the page. Not all senses are handled alike.


Friday, August 6, 2010

Query question

Someone asked me how a query to an editor will differ from a query to an agent. This is just my opinion!

So check out the Query Shark blog for lots of (mostly bad) examples and an agent's comments. (Not for the faint of heart, but very helpful.)

My thoughts:

The diff between querying an editor and agent? Well, think of their different purposes. The editor wants a publishable book. The agent wants a client.

So for an editor, you put the emphasis on your book, what it's about, how long it is, etc. The last paragraph might be about you, but most is about the book. Generally, that's what the editor is going to be dealing with. Not your career, no matter what they might say at conferences. Editors work for their publisher's success, not yours. That doesn't mean they don't care about you and your career, but the book and how it's going to help make money for the publisher, or fill an open slot in the schedule, or win a prestigious award and result in good press for the publisher, that's what really matters.

In the agent query, you want to talk about the book you're submitting, but the agent is also going to be interested in you as a writer. What else are you writing? What genre or sub-genre do you mostly concentrate in? What is your background and how is it relevant to your writing career? (Like you live in a fishing village in Oregon, and that's where you set your books. Or you work in the oil industry and write "oil thrillers" -- don't laugh, there is such a thing. In fact, I think some writer invented the BP oil spill before it happened. I recently saw a book -- I'm fuzzy on details-- where the main character tutored rich kids in how to write college application essays and got dragged into the corruption of writing them herself... well, turns out the author had done that, and I'm sure she explained that in the query, as it's all over the marketing material that's out now.)

Don't get too high-flown here when you talk about your future plans. Your life coach might want to hear about your expectations of a quick rise to the top five of the NYT list, but the agent just wants to hear that you intend to write a four-book series in this universe and then have a YA version with the same basic storylines, and then you intend to parlay that success into a follow-up series about.... (You're not actually swearing you'll write all those. )

So in an agent letter, you might do the first paragraph or two about the book, and the next about you and your background, and then one or two about future books and future plans.

Just a different focus. See what I mean?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Announcing the September Workshop

Alicia and I are very excited to announce the first ever edittorrent online workshop.

Starting September 1 and running for two weeks, I will be leading an intensive class in Fiction Structure. (Some of you out there may have taken the face-to-face version of this seminar and might be able to comment on what our workshoppers would be in for. *evil grin* Try not to scare them too much.)

We'll start by examining some of the classic theories analyzing structure (Aristotle, of course). This is all big-picture stuff that gives form and coherence to your story as a whole.

Then we'll look at mid-scale structure: scenes, sequences of scenes, and how to create coherency in blocks of actions. We'll talk about structural tricks for incorporating things like theme and motif in easy ways, all with the goal of making the text feel integrated.

We'll wrap up with a brief look a small-scale structure at the sentence and paragraph level, but if history can predict the future, we won't dwell too long on this part of the workshop. When I teach this class in person, we tend to spend a lot of time on the large scale and mid-scale sections, which is where the students seem to gravitate. I always want to cram in some thoughts on sentences and paragraphs, but I'm also willing to be guided by ongoing Q&A. That's the nature of a workshop. :)

This course will be conducted through a simple yahoo loop, meaning that you'll need to be able to join the yahoo group.

The cost will be US$50. There's a paypal button on the blog sidebar for those of you interested in signing up.

I'm leading this one, and Alicia will lead the October workshop. We'll be alternating months with this ongoing series, and I'll have more information for everyone on the course schedule soon. Some of you might recall that we talked about a different topic for the September workshop, but that particular one has been rescheduled.

Anyway, registration for the September workshop may begin now. The class size is limited, so you might want to sign up early.

Questions? You know where to post them. :)


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Series synopsis

A student asked me how I'd suggest writing a "series synopsis," to go along with the proposal of the first book. (Now as Jami just reminded me, I must define that: Proposal usually equals the first 3 chapters of the first book, and a longer, more detailed synopsis of that first book. That is, this series synopsis accompanies, doesn't replace, the book synopsis.)
She wanted, sensibly, to give an idea of what the trilogy or tetraology is about, along with the more detailed first-book synopsis. But she didn't have much of the plot of the other books outlined.

I suggested that a series synopsis is (in my experience) about a page long, and goes along with the synopsis for the first book. It isn't about plot (of course, I'd say NO synopsis should be about plot-- plot-based synopses are usually so boring), but rather about the problem or situation that will carry through the whole series.

You outline that series-long situation and how it affects the main characters ("Jack Aubrey's ships are all involved in the naval war against Napoleon. This war rages over six seas and four continents, and involves complex historical issues like slavery, democracy, and colonialism. Jack is always in the middle of the action. But the huge war is not the only conflict he faces. Starting out as a young, merry lieutenant, he grows in every command to become a leader, but the problems he faces on each ship teach him to be a man too. ETC.") or the group. ("In The Church of England series, between-the-wars Anglican clergymen face dangers theological and personal as their country and their parishioners change around them during the decades leading to World War II. One by one, the clerics achieve power through their ambition, but are brought down by their spiritual failings. ETC.")

Then you might quickly sketch the first book in a paragraph, and then finish up with a paragraph about the rest:
"The second book (title) explores the growing tensions in the friendship between Stephen and Jack as they compete for the same woman. In the background of this very personal battle is the war with Napoleon, which rises to an explosive point when.... Other books in the series will address (a few big-picture and personal things). The last book of the series will resolve the major questions and reveal (some major revelation), finally bringing the warriors home to England as the war and its aftermath finally wind to a close."

That is, set up the situation that makes this a series, what connects all these books. Then sketch the first book. Then (quickly) sketch the rest of the series. You don't have to know every plot, just what the series as a whole will confront and eventually resolve.
What do you all think? Have you ever submitted a series? Did you do a series synopsis? What did the agent or editor want?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Trimming sentences

You know, I like some "roundabout" in a sentence, if it fits the character, and when I first draft, I have a lot of longer sentences with a lot of roundaboutation. I'm not the writer you go to for terse, just the facts sentences. :) But... but character-revealing voice-ian roundaboutation might be acceptable, but confusing verbosity is not. Hence:
He was just as glad he had to duck into the alley to get back to the mews where he assumed was the door she had identified as the rendezvous place in the note.

The "he was just as glad" is the roundabout stuff I want to keep. (It really helps, when you're trimming, to identify precisely what you want to keep. Trim the rest. :) When you have a voice that allows for more fulsome sentences, more elaborate constructions, that doesn't meant it's open season on adding junk into a sentence. In fact, the rest of the sentence should be as trim as possible, so that desired roundabout stands out.

Fortunately, I always put in plenty of junk that can be trimmed. To wit:

He was just as glad to duck into the alley to get back to the door her note had identified as the rendezvous.
So I let myself keep "just as glad". The rest was trimmable! And everytime I look at this sentence, I find more places to trim. :) So, I'm sure, can you, but tell you what-- instead of revising MY sentence (that is my job!), take a moment and choose a sentence of your own and revise THAT. (Put in comments and tell us what you did! So we want the before and after. We're mean that way. :)

Now I'm not trying to eliminate every word that might not need to be there. I want to keep the setting in there in almost every sentence-- that is, I want to keep the characters interacting with the environment-- so while otherwise I might delete the alley, I won't here. (In fact, I might make it the "dark alley" or the "gloomy alley." So there. I am such a slut. :)

But once I decided to trim, I realize that "rendezvous" sort of implied place.
Also that he really wanted to get back to the door, so who needs 1) the alley, 2) the mews, AND 3) the door? In one sentence? Alley, yes (because the previous sentence has him on the Strand, a big street), but mews? Why, other than to show that I know what a mews is? If I truly want the muse, I should make this two sentences, alley to mews, mews to door.
One problem I have, and I see in a lot of submissions, is trying to put too many actions (I mean, little actions) into one sentence. Nothing wrong with two sentences with two actions each and some transition in between. In fact, that will likely lead to more supple narration.

Okay, so:
1. Trim redundant words.
2. Trim excess and "understood" actions.
3. Look for relative clauses and see if you can reduce them.

What's a relative clause? Well, it's a clause (has a subject and verb), and usually begins with a "wh" word (which and who are the most common), and performs as an adjective (modifying a noun).

Question: Do you need the relative clause? Do you need that thought even?

There are two relative clauses here, probably two too many! What, you say? There's only one "wh" word in there! Well, the other is "elliptical." That means it's there in meaning but taken out, just by custom:
He was just as glad he had to duck into the alley to get back to the mews where he assumed was the door (which) she had identified as the rendezvous place in the note.

Relative clauses are by nature interruptive, and because they are clauses (subject and verb), often feel more weighty than the meaning they impart. I think in conversation we often use them to mark time while we think of something else, or add some information we forgot to say. ("So John, who is my ex, called last night and wanted to go out.") When they show up in our written prose, they can often be trimmed outright (the "he assumed") or reduced ("she had identified").

I noticed that the "she had identified" was really clunky, and that "in the note" was misplaced at the end of the sentence. It was hard to figure out where to put "in the note" and "as the rendezvous" as they both go with the same verb (identified)-- what's first? what's second? Hey, whenever there's a conflict (in a sentence, not in the plot), punt! Prepositional phrases are (like relative clauses) adjectival, modifying a noun, and they're often reducible. Notice that I reduced "in the note" to make it actually the subject == the note identified... But then I thought I'd lost the "she" and the sense that it was her action, so I made it "her note" rather than just "the note." "She" is in there now, but in fewer words.

Anyway, I kept what I wanted to keep, but refined the sentence so that it's less verbose and thus less likely to attract the gentle attentions of the editor.

So everyone go out into your own work, and give us a "before and after" sentence, and tell us why you revised as you did, and what worked for you. And if you tell us you don't have any sentences that need trimming, we'll all hate you, so... just don't. :)