Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Cheat Sheet for Beta Readers

In May, I discussed critique etiquette on behalf of both the critiquer and the critiquee.

Since then, I've been privileged to have several people beta read two manuscripts of mine. I've also beta read a handful of manuscripts for others.

(When I say "beta," I mean "The reader who has the manuscript I think is ready for querying & sending out to industry pros." I consider a manuscript ready for a beta reader when I've been over it with a fine-toothed comb, love it in its current condition, and am too close to the forest of its words to see the trees that may need trimming.)

Some beta readers are airy-fairy, pat-you-on-the-back types. They're great for the writer's ego, but do little to improve the work. Others are overly critical. Their comments make both writer and work feel like this phone book:

I asked writers on Twitter what they found most useful in a beta reader.

@BJMuntain summed it up best: I'd want to know if they enjoyed it, if they felt bored or 'taken out' of the story anywhere. [I'd also want to know] If anything didn't seem to fit properly or if a plot question was not resolved in a satisfactory manner, [and] how they felt when they finished.

That's it in a nutshell. I agree 100%. For instance, I ask my beta readers such questions as:

* Did you like the book? If so, what worked for you? If not, at what point did the story lose you & never regain your interest?

* Was there anything you expected that was missing?

* Was there anything included that you thought was out of place?

* What could be done to make each of the main characters more interesting / compelling / memorable?

* In your opinion, is the story worth rewriting, editing & pursuing, or does it need more work than it's worth?

* What was your favorite scene or scenes?

* What was your least favorite scene or scenes?

* If you had bought the book or e-book, would you feel cheated? Would you loan / recommend it to a friend? Why or why not?

Many of my cherished betas have actually responded and provided insightful answers to these and other questions.

I realize, however, that answering questions with regards to what they've read resembles an essay test too much for some people's comfort. Which is why without further ado, I present the Beta Reader's Cheat Sheet.

Simply print out and circle the most appropriate response the next time a writer pursuing publication asks for your opinion:

-------------------------------CUT HERE---------------------------

Beta Reader's Cheat Sheet

* The author this book most reminds me of is:
A. John Grisham
B. Stephen King
C. Beverly Cleary
D. Jodi Picoult
E. Dr. Seuss
F. Stephanie Meyer

* This book would be better if it had more: (circle all that apply)
A. Sex
B. Death
C. Zombies
D. Vampires
E. Ghosts
F. Mermaids
G. Talking Dust Bunnies

* This book would be better if it had less: (circle all that apply)
A. Sex
B. Death
C. Zombies
D. Vampires
E. Ghosts
F. Mermaids
G. Sandwiches

* The primary male character should be more like: (circle all that apply)
A. Harry Potter
B. Sherlock Holmes
C. Frodo Baggins
D. Darth Vader
E. Edward Cullen
F. Huck Finn
G. Jay Gatsby

* The primary female character should be more like: (circle all that apply)
A. Lady Chatterley
B. Fanny Price
C. Junie B. Jones
D. Hermione Granger
E. Mrs. Tiggywinkle
F. Eliza Doolittle
G. Cruella DeVille

* Reading this was the entertainment equivalent of:
A. Winning the lottery
B. Oral surgery
C. A hands-on TSA search
D. Recreationally ingesting prescription pharmaceuticals
E. Eating dust-bunny sandwiches
F. Defending myself in traffic court
G. Listening to paint dry

-------------------------------CUT HERE---------------------------

Monday, December 27, 2010

Heifer Update: 2010

A big, hearty hug & tons of heartfelt holiday thanks to everyone who participated in this year's fundraising drive for Heifer, International.

Thanks to all new followers and to those who commented on last week's Christmas Angel post, we were able to donate a whole hive of honeybees!

It's a gift that will keep on giving.

Earlier this month, I helped my friend Randy Sue Collins, beekeeper extraordinaire, launch her new Organic Beekeeping 101 DVD. I learned so much about bees while working with Randy Sue (she's very passionate about her bees).

Thanks to Randy Sue, I might be brave enough to try raising bees myself this next year. Randy Sue has driven home how critical bees are to the success of our crops and our gardens. What better gift to share with Heifer recipients?


Your words have made a difference. A tangible, noticeable difference that will make someone else's life better.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to say a few words or to follow along. Together, we've done a good thing. Here's hoping that you enjoy a busy, buzzing, honey-sweet new year. I see many more good things in your future!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

4 Free Ways to Be a Christmas Angel

Times are tight for all of us. You may not have any extra cash this holiday season, but that doesn't mean you can't give worthwhile gifts that will make a difference in someone's life.

Here are 4 ways to be a Christmas angel, even if you have less money to spend than Bob Cratchit. They won't cost you a dime, but all will provide rich rewards that last far into the new year...

1. Let Your Words Put Food on Someone's Table

Follow this blog or leave a comment below. I'll donate $1 to Heifer International for every new follower and every commenter between now and 12:00 midnight EST December 24.

I wish I could take credit for this fantastic idea, but it originated last year with then-uberagent Nathan Bransford, who kicked off his "Making Spirits Bright With Heifer" campaign, in which he pledged to donate $1 to Heifer International.

Last year my fabulous commenters made a gift of bees possible. All told, Mr. Bransford's idea raised over $2000 for Heifer. Just from people like you typing a few words in the comments sections of blogs like this.

When you've joined this blog or left a comment below, be the gift that keeps on giving!

Visit Nathan Bransford's blog (he did it again this year, too: donating $1 to Heifer International for every comment through 6 PM Wed., Dec. 22, PST). Comment on all the blogs listed on his post that are still open. (This will be one of them. As of this writing, there are 14 listed.) Then, click on any blogs linked below and comment there, too! If you join or comment on 20 blogs, that's $20 you've contributed to help someone -- just from typing in a few words of commentary!

If you'd like to contribute in a tangible way to Heifer International and make a positive difference in another person's 2010 holiday season, write a dedicated blog post about it and add your blog to the Linky list below:

2. Follow the Leaders

Bestselling author & agent Jason Pinter (@jasonpinter) launched the #donaterif Twitter campaign yesterday to raise money for Reading Is Fundamental.

Lots of your favorite writers, publishers, editors, and agents -- as well as "regular readers" have jumped on board. Most have pledged $1 for every new Twitter follower they get between now and December 31.

Shelf Media Group has a list of all #donaterif participants. As I write, there are 42 names on the list.

If you are on Twitter, just adding these people to those you follow will give the gift of reading to someone else who needs it. If you're not on Twitter, there is no better time to sign up. You'll never find a better list of recommended folks to follow!

If you do nothing more than comment on the blogs listed in #1 and follow those on #2, your actions will raise over $50 for two very worthy charities! Even if you can't afford to donate a cent yourself.

If, however, you want to be personally involved in gift-giving this year, here are a few more suggestions that are within the means of everyone:

3. Pass the Book

If you're a writer or a reader, chances are you have shelves full of books. And some of those books probably haven't been opened in over a year.

Why not free up some of that shelf space and donate the books you haven't read in the past 12 months to people who will read them now? Many homeless shelters, Goodwill industries, soup kitchens, libraries, hospitals, nursing homes, school districts, and church groups will jump at the chance to take your books to new readers. Often, your donation will also qualify for a tax receipt, which is a "win" for all concerned!

4. Tell a Story

Contact your local hospital, hospice at home, homeless shelter, or preschool and volunteer to read to those who can't.

Take your favorite book or ask if they have a preference, then spend an hour or two of your time sharing your love of the written word with others. Imagine: if you were too sick, blind, harried, or humbled to be able to relax with a book -- wouldn't you appreciate someone taking the time to transport you to a lovely literary world for a few moments? Pick up the phone and make a few calls. I predict your gift will be greatly welcomed.

I don't know who to attribute the sentiment to, but it's true:

"Measure your wealth not in what you have, but in what you have for which you would accept no money."

Have a blessed holiday!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Rudolph's Rejection

(Humble apologies to Robert L. May and Johnny Marks.)

Dear Writer,

-- We have read and evaluated your work. Unfortunately, at this time, it does not fit our publishing needs. More detailed comments are annotated below:

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

You know Dasher and Dancer,
And Prancer and Vixen,  
Comet and Cupid,
And Donner and Blitzen.
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all?

 -- "Prancer" is obviously a reference to a reindeer with homosexual tendencies, whereas "Vixen"is an overly suggestive name. I question whether either are appropriate in a story for small children.

-- You begin with a list of eight characters, all of which sound enough alike to be easily confused.  Furthermore, none of the characters are ever mentioned by name again.  If you must throw all of these names at the reader, do so in a way that piques the reader's interest instead of wasting the reader's time.

-- Do NOT begin your work with a rhetorical question. Few things scream "weak writing" more loudly.

-- In any case, the rhetorical question is patently ludicrous. If he's "the most famous reindeer of all" (line 6), why would you have to ask whether or not someone recalled him?

-- Eliminate the backstory and get to the point. I'm not hooked.  Furthermore, why begin with something the reader knows? Tell me something I don't know.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Had a very shiny nose
And if you ever saw it
You would even say it glows.

-- Both "shiny nose" (line 2), and "it glows" (line 4) are redundant repetitions of the "red nose" introduced in line 1. Don't waste the reader's good will rehashing a simple fact that has already been established. Move the story along.

-- What drives the protagonist?  What does he want?  Acceptance?  A normal nose? A good night's sleep in a dark room? Without knowing what he wants, the reader cannot empathize with him.

-- The concept  in the final 2 lines is awkwardly expressed. These lines also suffer from tense issues. The shift in tense from simple past in the first two lines to the amalgamation of conditional ("if you ever saw it you would say") and present tense ("it glows") raises larger concerns with regards to your overall writing ability.

-- The glowing nose could be an intriguing paranormal element. Yet you have done nothing to develop the plot possibilities that present themselves.

All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names.
They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any reindeer games.

-- The protagonist's socio-economic condition has not previously been addressed. Is he ostracized because of his physical differences or because of his financial shortcomings? Be clear about what barriers stand in the way of him achieving his goal (though at this point, I remain uncertain what that goal is). Avoid the temptation of piling hardships upon him.

-- Who are these "other reindeer?" Are they the 8 introduced at the beginning?  What names did they call him?  What games did they play?  Specifics are necessary in order to connect with the reader and make your words memorable.  As it is, these words are so vague as to be instantly forgotten.

Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say,
"Rudolph, with your nose so bright,
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"

-- I am extremely uncomfortable with the premise that Santa Claus, a sympathetic adult in a position of authority, would be so heartless as to call attention to the protagonist's deformity and would seek to profit from it. 

Then all the reindeer loved him
As they shouted out with glee
"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,
You'll go down in history!"

-- At no time during the story was it established that the protagonist's driving desire was fame or leaving a historical legacy.   

--Three of the 22 lines submitted end with the word "reindeer." A hallmark of a successful writer is a sizeable vocabulary.
-- The pop-culture reference is a nice touch. Unfortunately, I suspect you do not have Fox's permission to use it, and their legal department has more clout than yours.  It has to go, unless you're considering this a piece of fan-fic, which is a dead end for anyone wishing to be taken seriously as a writer.

-- Speaking of dead-ends for a writer's career, few publishers are willing to tackle the white elephant of rhymed verse. Dr. Seuss got away with it. But he's dead.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider your work. However, as we are only interested in "evergreen" projects with long-term sales potential from writers who have committed to mastering their craft, we'll have to pass on it. We wish you the best of luck in placing your work elsewhere.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Inspiration in Crisis?

Today's post comes courtesy of guest blogger & Twitter tweeter extraordinaire Patty Blount (@PattyBlount). Check out her blog "To tell a compelling story..." when you get a chance. And tell her I said "hi!" -- A. H.

Twitter pals Ami (@museinks), Jeannie (@jeannie_moon) and I were chatting about writerly mental illness last weekend… you know, are we crazy because we write or do we write because we’re crazy? As conversations often do, this one took a turn toward the topic of real-life crises and how we frequently use them in our WIPs. Here we are, a bunch of authors writing fiction, excited by the prospect of injecting more realism into our work. Ironic, no? Wait, it gets better.

Write what you know, the experts always say. Easier said than done, particularly if you don’t know that one thing that would really nail a pivotal scene. For example, I used to study self-defense. One thing I’ve learned is that TV fights aren’t nearly as painful and bloody as they should be.

In one of my classes, we learned how to make a weapon from the contents of our purses. Things like keys, tweezers, even a credit card.

To demonstrate, the instructor ran the edge of a credit card under my nose. The pain took me to my knees. I couldn’t see from the all-faucets-on reaction that pain induced. There was no blood in this demonstration because this was a light movement. With a bit of pressure and speed however, I’m convinced a credit card could slice a jugular. I never forgot that lesson or the pain. I now make sure I over-write fight scenes (it’s a lot easier to delete extra information than to add it in later).

But how do you craft the scenes that involve, oh, say a groin kick when you lack a penis and therefore, have absolutely no frame of reference?

Research, baby. I managed this by turning to the Internet for help. Several men rose (ha!) to the occasion and described, in excrutiating detail, how it feels to be kicked in the nuts, which injected just the right amount of realism into my YA manuscript, SEND. Such valuable second-hand research must be preserved in case it’s needed in the future, so I now keep a file of details, like what it looks like every time my husband falls down the stairs.

He does this a lot.

Ami noted that head wounds bleed. A lot. Actually, most wounds do. Even the ones that aren’t that serious.

Take last summer, for example. We were doing some work on the house and had a strip of drywall corner bead in the garage. My son walked into the garage, turned, and the tip of the strip tore a four-inch-long gash in his calf. He left a trail of blood from the garage into the downstairs bathroom.

By the time I got down the stairs to that room, he was standing in a bloody puddle. When I moved his hands away, my heart damn near stopped when I saw a gaping wound in his leg, revealing white pulp. I was certain he’d need immediate vascular surgery to repair this wound. We packed him into the car, two people keeping pressure on his leg and drove through red lights to the emergency room.

The Leg of Inspiration.
Thirteen stitches. Yep. That’s it. Just thirteen stitches and he was fine. According to my son, the initial wound didn’t hurt very much. It felt like a little scratch. When he looked down and saw the blood, he was more panicked than anything else.

The pain was immense when the doctor injected the local anesthetic over and over again. We had to hold him down for fear he’d kick the doctor, instinctively. And it itched as he healed.

I’ve committed all this to my file.

A writer never knows when a dose of realism is going to be needed.

Friday, December 10, 2010

"What Would You Rather Write?"

or, Answering the Impossible Question

Earlier this week, literary agent & author @WeronikaJanczuk asked writers on Twitter about the diversity of their craft.

For those of you novelists, is the novel your primary writing medium or do you pen short stories, poetry, etc., in addition to books?

Most of the respondents said they stayed mostly in the realm of the novelist, though some dabbled in short stories. I read their comments, sighed, and felt alone.

The same day, Lonny Dunn (@ProNetworkBuild) asked me the same question.
@MuseInks do you like novel writing more than screenwriting?

To which I replied, “Depends on what I'm working on at the time.”

He said he thought my answer vague and gave me an easy out: “mustabeenbusy.”

Which got me thinking.

Yes, I am busy. (Praises be!) But I wasn’t trying to be vague or elusive.

To me, asking whether I’d rather write a screenplay or a novel is like asking whether I’d prefer to watch a movie or read a book. Or whether I prefer sunsets or conversation. My answer would be the same:

It depends.

My main source of income is writing non-fiction. I also write novels, screenplays & songs. I can't imagine choosing only 1 medium (novels, scripts, poetry) & eschewing the others. Each has its own magic.

Screenplays are the creative equivalent of sunsets. They follow a pre-ordained, immutable structure. They hold little interest to those with limited vision. They color the world for a finite period of time. They can be experienced either alone or with a group. And they all end with “fade out.”

Screenwriting requires me to indulge the visual.

Since film is the medium of sight, the stories that work best on film are those that must be seen to be experienced.

Battles take place in all their blood, grit, and gory glory.

Lovers demonstrate their passion.

Heroes save the day in irrefutable Technicolor.

Everyone who sees a film enjoys the same shared vision. Actors, actions, sounds, and sequences; all exist as a visual constant to every person who watches the movie.

Where screenplays are concerned, the story lives because we see it happen.

If screenplays are sunsets, then novels are conversations.

A conversation requires commitment and involvement from more than one person. Conversations are not passive experiences. They must be entered into in order to be enjoyed. A conversation may happen between two people who afterward remember it differently or reach different conclusions.

The experience of reading means that I must engage the brain, willingly put another’s ideas into my mind, and use my imagination to breathe life into the words on the page.

When I write a book, only words will connect me to my readers. Five people could read the same book and each have a different idea of what the characters look like, act like, and sound like.

As a novelist, I can enter a character’s head and expose that character’s thoughts, but it’s up to the reader to sift through, analyze, and evaluate them.

In novel writing, the only color I have at my disposal is black ink on white paper. With this monochromatic palette, I must paint scenes of vivid word pictures that color my readers’ fantasies and spark memories they never knew they had.

I know that hearing a novel writer say he or she also writes screenplays is anathema to many agents. (Don’t believe me? See what the Estimable Query Shark has to say on writers who also want to work in film.) But I don’t understand this. To me, it’s like saying a dressage horse should never learn to jump. Or that you can learn downhill skiing OR Thai cooking, but not both.

I’ve spoken to screenwriters who shy away from writing a novel. I know novelists who are cowed by the rules of screenwriting. Members of both camps bemoan the fact that screenwriting and book writing each exercise different writing muscles and require different skills.

Well, duh.

Writers write. Why wouldn’t a writer want to develop new skills?

One can learn to play the piano AND the guitar. They’re not mutually exclusive. Each discipline simply has its own fundamentals that must be mastered before the experience is as enjoyable to the audience as to the artist.

In life, as in art, I have many interests. I adore sunsets and conversation, movies and books, screenwriting and novel writing.

So you see, it’s impossible for me to answer whether I’d rather write novels or scripts. It’s equally impossible to say whether I like writing non-fiction books more or less than writing songs. That’s akin to asking whether I prefer sunsets to conversation, or riding over eating. Each fills a different niche in my life better than anything else could.

I write many different things in many different genres, mediums, and styles. Some things I write for money – to feed my family. Some I write for myself – to feed my soul.

And I cling stubbornly to the belief that I am not alone.

What’s your preference? Sunsets or conversation? Or both? Or neither? Comment below and let me know.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Art of Christmas Wishes

A picture paints a thousand words...and several thousand words can paint a picture. I love the wall hangings from Postertext. Tops on my Christmas list are The Great Gatsby and Through The Looking Glass.

The creators used the text from the books and arranged it to depict a scene from the story. Cool, huh? Art that crosses mediums to be -- more art.

It inspires me that books written decades, centuries, lifetimes ago can continue to speak to readers today. That notion is what compels those of us who write to press onward.

It tempers the criticism our work inevitably receives.

It encourages us to persevere in the face of rejection.

It motivates us to complete what we start -- even though we may be the only ones currently clamoring to know What Happens Next.

It's the green light at the end of a dock, winking across the waters, teasing us with the possibilities.

It's the feeling of disappearing entirely into the world we create in the hopes of making that world real for someone else.

One of my Christmas wishes is for every writer struggling to break into print to experience the thrill of acceptance. But remember -- whether that particular wish comes true for you this year, I still believe that the thrill of creation far outweighs the joy of publication... At least in this writer's book.

And so my larger wish is for every writer to discover anew the passion that fuels the art -- and find the time to indulge it!

Editor and literary agent's intern Cassandra Marshall wants to know: What do you want for Christmas? Telling her (and providing a link to the object of your desire) could win you a nifty stocking stuffer: a FREE EDIT of a FULL MANUSCRIPT!  How's that for a wish come true!

Grab My Button!
What's your wish? Comment below, and we'll dream together!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Big BEE Event

Last week, Conan O'Brien imagined Oprah "gifting" her audience with angry bees.

Conan's point, I suppose, is that the audience's reaction would be the same whether they were just presented with new cars or an irate swarm.

This is the sort of CGI stunt that makes my 7 y.o. inclined to disbelieve everything she sees.

As I watched the footage, however, I was reminded of what Simon Buxton, author of The Shamanic Way of the Bee says in the film "Vanishing of the Bees":

"The future of beekeeping is not in one beekeeper with 60,000 hives, but rather 60,000 people with one hive."

...and I think if Oprah had given her audience members bees, she could have done worse. In fact, if she ever DOES decide to give the gift of bees, she should get in touch with my friend, beekeeper extraordinaire, Randy Sue Collins. Randy Sue could set both Oprah AND Conan straight on how great such a gift would be.

It's no secret that bees are in danger. Colony Collapse Disorder - when entire hives of healthy, honey-making bees simply leave, never to return - poses real concerns not only for these beneficial insects, but also for humanity. We depend on bees to pollinate roughly 1/3 of our food crops. Albert Einstein's (probably apocryphal) observation that if all the bees of the world were to die, mankind would follow in less than 4 years rings frighteningly true.

One of the things I love about what I do is the fact that I get to meet fascinating, knowledgeable people who are tops in their field. Randy Sue is no exception. She spends much of her time educating schools and other organizations about the importance of bees and the joys of beekeeping.

Randy Sue's brand new video on Organic Beekeeping is the definitive work on understanding, cultivating, and living in harmony with honeybees. I'm honored to be involved in its launch. It speaks to those who are interested in learning about the nature of these insects, to avid gardeners, to people wanting to harvest their own honey, and to all who are interested in keeping honeybees happy and healthy for generations to come.

A one-day "Organic Beekeeping 101" DVD Launch Event happens on Friday, December 3. On that day, everyone who orders Randy Sue's delightful DVD receives a slew of cool, added bonuses to sweeten the deal.

It may not be the equivalent of giving audience members new cars. But for those who get the DVD and put what they learn from it to use, it could open their eyes to the wonderful world of honeybees.

Who knows? Maybe they'll start a write-in campaign for Oprah to give away bees next time.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Writer's Thanksgiving Prayer

Dear Lord,

I know You probably think this is going to be yet another prayer asking for an agent – much like most of my earlyteen conversations with You involved fervent pleas that You send me a horse -- but it’s not.

For one thing, we’ve covered the agent issue enough lately that I am confident it remains foremost in my file.

For another, it’s Thanksgiving. I just wanted to take some time to say “Thank You.”

I give thanks that people like Sooki and Kim Kardashian have book deals. Every time I start to get discouraged and suspect that that perhaps my writing isn’t good enough to get published, You have provided shining beacons to remind me that many publishers truly don’t care about the quality of the written words they put into print.

I thank You for the Buffy reboot. (Though someone must have made a deal with You-Know-Who to cut Joss Whedon out of the action.) And for the Superman reboot. Every time I come to You asking for new inspiration, simply point me toward these testaments that the industry isn’t looking for something new.

Thank You for giving me friends and family who literally could not care less about what I write. I don’t think any of them have read the book I had published this year – and that’s ok. They’re not horse trainers. They’re not the target audience. They make me realize that there is more to life than just work.

Thank You, too, for my clients and friends in the film and publishing industry. For they do care about my career. They continue to challenge and encourage me. I know while You were here, You had a few close friends who cared about what You were trying to do. I’m eternally grateful for the pros You’ve introduced to me. We all support each other as we continue onward and upward. It’s a blessing to know that I’m not in this alone.

Thank You that though I have yet to make the New York Times bestseller list, I will still be able to put more food on my table tomorrow than many people on this planet will see in a month. I may sound glib, but I’m not. I am deeply, profoundly grateful to be able to feed not only my family but also the friends who will share Thanksgiving with us.

I cannot thank You enough that I don't have to fly this holiday season. Getting groped and scanned by gruff, irritable people always puts me a little off my thankfulness game.

(I'm not presuming to tell You how to do Your job, but here's a thought: inspire someone with clout to mandate that all our elected officials undergo the same TSA screening as those of us who voted them into office. I bet that would instigate some changes that would make many travelers sing Your praises.)

I am exceedingly thankful that I live in a country that still lets me talk to You -- or not -- on my own terms.

I’m also thankful that the furnace and electricity works, the car runs, and we’re all relatively healthy. I realize that some of the things I regularly complain about others would welcome as a blessing.

Finally, I thank You that I was not born a turkey. Seriously. I’m grateful.

Thank You for hearing my prayer and for blessing me and my family through this past year. Special thanks for eventually granting my horse request. Now, about that agent...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Cake or Death?

St. Joseph native James Frey is back in the publishing news again. He's the literary establishment's equivalent of Brittney Spears or Levi Johnston: tabloid fodder guaranteed to generate controversy.

(Long-term readers may remember my Frey-based rants back in 2006 when fallout from his fictitious memoir hit the proverbial fan and when Oprah lambasted him for lying. I mentioned him again last May when Oprah reversed her earlier decision and apologized to Frey for saying that his lying to her was a bad thing. I have nothing against Mr. Frey. Honestly. It's just that he keeps doing stuff that merits... discussion.)

Yesterday's post brings us up to speed on Frey's latest Death-By-Dishonor venture: the book packaging company and intellectual property black hole of Full Fathom Five.

Their motto should be: "Why Should You Profit From Your Words if We Can Instead?"

For a fascinating dissection of Full Fathom Five's contract, see YA Writer Maureen Johnson's blog post that also takes prestigious MFA programs to task for graduating students gullible (or desperate) enough to sign such a contract.

Here's the thing: James Frey is not evil. He may be a huckster, a liar, and a fraud, but he is not holding a gun to the heads of these writers and forcing them to sign their lives away. He's only capitalizing on inherent flaws in a system that includes self-appointed gatekeepers and elevates platforms over merit.

This is the system that publishes Snooki's novel and the "memoir" of 16 year old Justin Bieber.

It's the system that puts a multitude of "Cat Who" books in print when every reader and writer knows that if an unpublished author were to submit any one of the last 10 titles in the series for publication, they would meet with instant and unequivocal rejection.

It's a system built upon desperation. And Full Fathom Five's stable of overtalented, underpaid, uberdesperate writers only shows what the going rate for "desperate to be published" is.


I am not disparaging work-for-hire writing contracts. Far from it. The first book I ever wrote that got into print was a write-for-hire. I made enough money writing it to put food on my family's table. It gave me the opportunity to work with a brilliant horse trainer. It introduced me to a wonderful group of publishing professionals. It provided the impetus that drove several other book deals that weren 't write-for-hire.

However, in the past year, I turned down a "sure thing" ghostwriting project. The book would have been published. I would have had the chance to work with a legend in his field. I would have made significantly more than $250. But it wouldn't have been enough to live on.

Since I know how much time it takes me to write a book from scratch start to polished end, the project literally would have paid me pennies per hour. I suggested a more equitable compensation for my time, but our numbers were too disparate.

So we parted ways (amiably) and moved on.

The brilliant comedian Eddie Izzard has a classic routine in which he asks "Cake or Death?"

Obviously, if given the choice, no one in his or her right mind would choose "death." But one could easily substitute the words "creative career or Frey cook?" Evidently, at least 28 would choose the second option.

As long as there are writers desperate for publication, there will be people ready and willing to exploit their talents. In any case, someone's going to make a killing.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Full Fathom Five: Thy Father Lies

or Why Writers Should Shy Away from Signing With Death

Last week, both the Wall Street Journal and New York Magazine took a long look at St. Joseph homeboy James Frey.

WSJ's piece, written by Katherine Rosman and Lauren A. E. Schuker, is the kinder, gentler one. With some puzzlement, its final paragraph states, "There is still residual hostility toward Mr. Frey" for his 2006 antics in which he wrote a work of fiction and told the world it was true.

One can almost picture the WSJ staff scratching their heads at such ill will, for the rest of the piece focuses primarily on his financial successes ("His debut book... was named Amazon Book of the Year and has sold eight million copies in more than 30 languages") and on namedropping his current affiliates (Michael Bay, Stacey Snider, Steven Spielberg... The list of luminaries goes on and on.).

New York Magazine, in contrast, ran an "Emperor's New Clothes" style article in its Books section wherein Suzanne Mozes exposed the New-York Times bestselling writer's Full Fathom Five book packaging company.

The article explained how Frey trolled prestigious MFA programs in search of drones to do his dirty work writing. It painted a word portrait of a man who was intemperate, unapologetic, charismatic, and ballsy. It evoked nothing so much as a mental image of the Wicked Witch of the West auditioning flying monkey minions.

lol Black flying monkey =P Pictures, Images and Photos

According to both articles, Frey is looking for talented writers to work for next to nothing creating content that he oversees. The contract they sign specifies that they will be paid in peanuts 2 installments of $250 each, if they're lucky. It also says that the writer's name may or may not appear as author and that Frey owns all content created for his company.

Understandably, the pieces provoked significant discussion among the publishing pros (writers, agents, publishers, and editors) I follow on Twitter. While all agree that Frey isn't technically doing anything illegal, few are condoning his actions. For it is painfully obvious to anyone even remotely affiliated with the publishing industry that Frey's business model is just the sort of thing your mother warned you about when you said you wanted to be a writer.

We writers spend much of our time writing words that will garner more rejection in a single month than Big Bang Theory's Howard Wolowitz will have to endure in a lifetime. So when someone comes along and suggests that we have talent, that he believes in us, and that he will get us published, it's enough to make us beg for a pen so we can sign a deal with the Devil Full Fathom Five.

Ah, how we imperil ourselves and our careers when we forget the classics. Of course, the whole situation smacks of Faust. But the name of Frey's company alone should engender feelings of panic and the desire to wash oneself thoroughly with germicide. It should sound nigglingly familiar to any writer worth his or her pay. For Shakespeare coined the phrase before Frey used it. In The Tempest, Ariel sings:

Full fathom five thy Father lies,
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a Sea-change
Into something rich & strange.
Sea-Nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! Now I hear them, ding-dong, bell.

In other words: Dad is dead and lost in the depths of the sea.

Which is where your self-esteem, your credibility, and, in all probability, your writing career will end up if you sign on Full Fathom Five's dotted line.

(In case you misunderstand me, I'm not at all against write-for-hire agreements. I have some experience with them, you see, and they have served me and my career well. Tomorrow's post will explore this topic further in "Cake or Death.")

What's your take on the Frey-for-all? Would you sign? What's the minimum amount you'd write for? Drop a comment below. But remember -- play nice.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010


Last month, several people I follow on Twitter had an honest discussion about self-censorship. They shared stories of pulling back on their words and hiding what they wrote. I was struck by the honesty and the underlying sadness of the exchange and asked if one or more of them would be willing to share their experiences with my readers. I am very grateful to Michael T. Rusk (Twitter: @DeciduousTree) for rising to the challenge and providing today's guest post.


There was a time in my early life when I wrote what I thought and felt in real time. Some came out as poetry, some as prose and some ended up as songs. The subject matter was either satirical, poking at the establishment and people in power or disturbingly dark sexual references and anti-religion. The first set of writings were somewhat acceptable in a public venue and our folk trio, including my soon to be wife, sang some of the songs at assemblies in our Catholic high school. A couple of the times there were audible gasps as I poked fun of the Principal, an imposing and feared nun.

I continued to write in my first year of college, feeding off the growing anger against the Viet Nam war and the simmering racial unrest. I never gave any thought that my writing was connected to real life in a way that could affect employment. I worked on a highly secure military facility at the time as a co-op student. Che Guevara and Malcolm X writings were common companions in my briefcase. I was oblivious to the uproar it would cause if I was discovered reading this on the base.

We got married between Christmas and New Years, 1967. Working full time, enrolled full time in college and starting a family took a lot of my time. I continued to write as much as I could but my wife was very uncomfortable with my subjects. She had a deeply ingrained mindset that a person should never write anything down.

She continued the criticism and warnings until my passive-aggressive personality made me put the writings away. They stayed away for a very long time. Until I heard Terry McMillan answering a question posed by a student regarding Terry’s concern about how her mother would react if she read Terry’s books. Terry’s answer struck deep in my heart – “I write for myself. I don’t think about how other people will react.”

Her 1993 comment was enough to unlock my pent up writing. I was suffering through very turbulent emotional times. Repressed hostility and hatred was festering in my brain. I wrote poem after poem spewing forth my emotions, draining the toxic venom from my body. The cathartic effect probably saved my life. I continued, underground, only a few close colleagues knew of my writings and offered feedback.

I changed jobs and started what would have been a modern day blog. It was written and printed with a strict rule of one page limit. I was one of the troops and I resumed my satirical, sarcastic mode of writing poking fun at the leaders of the company while delivering nuggets of real information. First issues had a circulation of 12 just for the people in the department. It wasn’t long before other people in the company requested copies and within a year the subscription list included most of the employees.

As luck would have it, I advanced rapidly in the hierarchy of the company until I was one of the Chiefs. Still pumping out my newsletter but it was becoming increasingly difficult to poke fun of senior management since I was one. Besides, I knew too much inside information and I had a hard time not telling the folks about it. It was extremely difficult to keep things light when I knew we were going to do a layoff. I suspended publishing for a couple of weeks prior just so I didn’t have to deal with it.

By this time, the delivery was through email and copies were being forwarded to family and friends. I decided to go public, remove the proprietary company content and target a general audience. There was enough material in the DC area that I could draw on to have a good time in the same style. My family became interested in reading my material. Not thinking, I added my wife and her friend to the subscription list. My wife was a frequent subject of some of my humor, “wifey-poo”, never in a mean way but just what I considered funny situations. She was immediately offended by these references.

I began to get a lot of orders of what not to put in my newsletters regarding “private” information. Turns out “private” was a very broad term which I couldn’t avoid violating at least once in every edition. The final straw was just after our first grandchild was born. I proudly announced the fact to the subscribers in my newsletter – not all the private details just name, size, weight – the normal things you’d see on a birth announcement. My wife went ballistic when I got home. Somehow, she felt I had stolen my son’s thunder! We had a rather heated debate, until I went silent.

That was the last issue of “Mikey’s Muse”, May 16, 1997.

Along comes Twitter, February, 2010. I started by following random people based on their tweet content (plus how cute the avatar was). The selection process favored authors, artists, creators and for some reason political activists. I felt inspired and started to venture back into writing, creating a blog and posting some short stories. But the old feelings of hiding, sneaking, being underground came back to me. I minimized screens when my wife would walk in. She assumed I was having an affair and hiding my conversations with my girlfriend.

I finally told her what I was doing so she could quit worrying about a girlfriend. In retrospect I should have let her keep on thinking it was a girlfriend. I got the standard lecture about how things written will come back to haunt you, what if your boss sees what you write, what are you writing about the family, maybe the family doesn’t want you mentioning them … on and on and on.

I went back to my computer, my Twitter friends, my Blog and thought about my life past and life future. Trying to decide if any of my writing was worth all this upset and confrontation. Here I was, either going to start self-censoring again or quit writing and find some other creative outlet. I had to consider 42 years of marriage, constantly being criticized for expressing myself, trying to avoid conflict, but look forward to our golden years living in our nice home, comfortable, status quo … it was quite a fork in the road.

So, I chose to quit … my marriage.

Epilogue: It’s been a little over two months since our separation and I’ve settled into a cozy one bedroom apartment. The setup provides the creative space I craved, the ultimate writer’s workshop. I converse freely with my friends on Twitter and can write behind the scenes on my book. However, I have felt very reluctant to post anything to my blog since the legal work is still in progress for the divorce. Ironically, I don’t want to post anything that can be used against me.

Do you have any experiences with self-censorship? Have you ever been worried that what you write can be used against you? Have you ever had your words come back to haunt you? I invite you to comment below. And keep on keeping on.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

NaNoWriMo 2010: A Thread of Thankfulness

Last year was the first time I entered National Novel Writing Month. I got my 50,000 words written -- just squeaked by at the 11th hour -- but the book still remains to be finished. With any luck, that will happen during NaNo this year.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of NaNo '09, though at times I felt that I was taking a month-long break from reality. At other times, I questioned my sanity because reality refused to take a break from me. Last November for instance:

  • The book I was under contract for went to the publisher. This, of course, required the tying up of the myriad little editing loose ends that always accompany a major co-authoring project.
  • The school calendar included an entire week of half-days, which significantly impacted my writing plans. (It's a widely accepted fact that it's easier to be creative WITHOUT a six-year old hanging over one's shoulder asking to see what one is writing...)
  • The choir that I directed added additional practice days in preparation for our annual Christmas cantata the second week of December.
  • My family & I went on a 3-day Thanksgiving trip to a ginormous waterpark -- which significantly impacted my ability to say "I'm going to go write now" with any real credibility.
Now, for me, NaNo is as much a part of Thanksgiving as eating too much on the final Thursday of the month.  NaNo and Thanksgiving are inextricably intertwined in my mind.  Few things make me more thankful than having the time to write.  And a concentrated month of my family supporting my crazy career path only fuels my thankfulness.

I am so thankful to Robert, my wonderful husband, and my very good friend Chari, who read as I wrote last year and clamored for more chapters. They pushed me to keep writing -- even when I got around word 30,000 or so and became convinced that my doing NaNo was an exercise in generating crap.

Robert has always been my biggest fan. He has known of the story I am writing (in all its permuations) for years. Chari, on the other hand, is completely unfamiliar with the material. She's my "newest fan." Both of them kept me going.

This year, I was considering three different projects for NaNo.  Both Robert & Chari chose for me: they insisted that I finish the novel I started last year.  (Chari pitched a rather remarkable fit about the evils of writers who force their avid readers "to wait an entire freaking year to find out what happens.")

It pains me to admit that last year I plugged along with the project for awhile, but against my own advice ended up editing what I'd written instead of finishing the thing. Then I allowed Real Life and other projects to pull me off track.  This year, the 50K that NaNo requires will be just the thing to finish it.

I am also thankful for the students I've worked with who took the time to let me know that I was of use to them in some way. Last year at least three fellow NaNo contestants participated because I mentioned the contest in one of my workshops & encouraged students to sign up.  None of the three had ever written anything lengthy before, and all three finished!  Sometimes all a writer needs is someone to think he or she is up to a particular challenge. I love being that person!

And so, as this November looms, bringing its own bag of challenges, here's to all my writer friends -- especially those of you who are ready to jump into NaNo with both feet. May you continually find yourself surrounded with those who encourage you to grow, who support your dreams, and who fill you with thankfulness!

Are you a writer who is participating in NaNoWriMo this year?  Good luck! I invite you to take a moment to leave a note of thanks to those who you are most thankful for.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Query Quest IV: Ready to Send

The past few posts have featured the evolution of Writing Practicum member Bob Ghent's query letter from First Attempt to Gawky Adolescent Query to Yes! It's Ready / OOops! It's Not Query.

Regular readers know that just as Bob was planning on sending out the query featured in yesterday's blog, he DISCOVERED A MAJOR FLAW RUNNING THROUGH IT AND ALL PREVIOUS VERSIONS!

The horror!

Upon noticing the flaw, Bob did what any well-intentioned query newbie should do. He synthesized what he had learned thus far, incorporated his new knowledge, and wrote a kick-butt query letter that easily tops all earlier versions.

What was the problem? you ask? If you haven't spotted it yet, I'll give Bob the honor of the Big Reveal. Take it away, Bob...

~Drum Roll~


P.O.V. Point Of View! The most recent version of the query featured at least five shifts in POV! First Tonk, then Cira, Strager, Jace, and back to Cira. I didn’t stick to the POV of the protagonist(s). The query is only 244 words. How hard could it be to keep a single POV? No wonder it felt choppy when I read it.

Here's the final version -- the one I'm sending out

Version 6 - 226 words

Cira and Jace discover dragons are real when a young Tonk falls from the sky. They learn his wings are too small to fly back to the portal and when it closes in twenty-four hours, it will seal his death. Cira’s heart goes out to Tonk and determines that she and her thirteen-year old twin must save him.

They learn of a mysterious handwritten book about magic and dragons. Their search for it involves them with Kade, a seven-foot felon willing to kill to get a dragon. They cannot turn to the sheriff for help. He wants Tonk for revenge against a rogue dragon that murdered his wife.

Cira and an unlikely ally hide Tonk while Jace continues searching. He finds the book, learns its secrets and when kidnapped by Kade is forced to reveal Tonk’s location. He attempts to escape but it leaves him near death and allows Kade to capture Tonk.

The rogue dragon returns with a dangerous agenda. Magic sword in hand and astride a dragon whose heart is larger than its wings, Cira battles the rogue. However, it is brutally strong. She fails and has only seconds to discover the secret of her one resource or die.

The twins are polar opposites and must learn that working together is the only way to defeat Kade, stalemate the sheriff and return Tonk home.

(NOTE: Of course, salutation, title, genre, word count, & author contact information are all included.)


And with that, Bob hit:

Hoping this was helpful to those on their own Query Quest. What process did you go through as your own query letter(s) evolved? Care to share?

["Send button" featured on]

Monday, October 18, 2010

Query Quest III: The Fatally Flawed Query

On Friday, Bob Ghent, a member of my Writing Practicum, shared his edited query letter with another self-made markup that showed he still had work to do. (See Query Quest I for the original query letter before the edits began.)

Today's query version is the one he thought he was going to send -- until a last minute review of the Query Shark's do's and don't's illuminated a heretofore unseen fatal flaw... Which he'll discuss and fix in tomorrow's post.

First, however, the one he was GOING to send:


Version 4 - 244 words

Tonk is a young dragon that accidently falls from a magical world into the modern lives of teenagers Cira and Jace. His portal is one hundred miles above their home and will close in twenty four hours. Too small to fly home, Tonk will soon die on Earth. Cira’s heart is touched and she demands that Jace help her find a way to return him.

• “Accidently” – not needed. Plus, it's spelled wrong.
• “His portal is one hundred” – Exposition that doesn’t really move the story line along.
• “On Earth” – Obviously he is on Earth if he can’t get home. Not needed. The sentence is not that good. It can be better.

They learn of a mysterious handwritten book about magic and dragons. The search for it involves Strager, a vengeful sheriff who lost his wife to a rogue dragon four months earlier. He is desperate to capture Tonk but must also deal with Kade, a seven foot felon willing to kill to get a dragon.

• “Must also deal with Kade” – So what? Not my problem if the sheriff has to deal with Kade . . . Or my readers! AND it’s really not the sheriff that has to deal with Kade, IT’S THE TWINS!
• “A seven foot felon willing to kill” – Too vague. Does this threaten someone?

Jace continues searching while Cira and an unlikely ally hide Tonk. Jace finds the book and learns its secrets but when kidnapped by Kade, he must reveal Tonk’s location. His attempt to escape leaves him near death and allows Kade to capture Tonk.

• “Jace finds the book” – This is a complex sentence that stumbles along with the words “and, but and he must”. Cumbersome to read.

The rogue dragon returns with a dangerous agenda.  Magic sword in hand and astride a dragon whose heart is larger than its wings, Cira battles the rogue.  However, it is brutally strong.  Her efforts fail and while falling toward earth with only seconds to live, she refuses to give up.

• “Her efforts fail” – This sentence is too wordy.
• “She refuses to give up” – Another, SO WHAT. This does not show her struggling with options or any decision she might have to make to save her life.

The twins are polar opposites but their strengths are complimentary. Cira, her dragon and Jace become an unstoppable team that wins over the sheriff, defeats Kade and reunites Tonk with his family.

• “Strengths are complimentary” – Sounds nice but it’s not needed.
• “Cira, her dragon and” – Long sentence that wraps up the story with a neat little bow. Never tell the ending! I think it’s better to wrap up the end with a challenge for our protagonist(s) to solve.


Bob notes:

Tomorrow, the major flaw exposed & the resulting (final) query...

Friday, October 15, 2010

Query Quest II: The Juvenile Query

Yesterday's post was the first installment of Query Quest. In it, Bob Ghent, a member of my weekly Writing Practicum, graciously agreed to transparently share the process he used to craft his first query letter.

His query went through several revisions before he deemed it fit for being sent out into the world.  Today, the first major re-write -- which resulted in a letter that still lacked focus and frame. I present: the Juvenile Query Letter...

Version 3 -- 244 Words

A dragon named Tonk falls from a magical world into the modern lives of thirteen year old twins, Cira and Jace.  The portal he fell through is one hundred miles straight up and will close in 24 hoursHe is too young to reach it and will die if he stays.  Jace knows it is impossible to return Tonk but Cira’s heart is touched and she demands he help her find a way.

  • “He is too young to reach it” – Poor sentence.  Reword for fewer words and better structure.
  • “Impossible to return Tonk” – Not needed and does not show the consequences of staying.

They learn of a mysterious handwritten book about dragons.  Their search leads to Strager, a vengeful sheriff who lost his wife to a rogue dragon just four months earlier.  Strager plans to capture Tonk but he must also deal with Kade, a seven foot felon who will kill to get a dragon.

  • “Strager plans” – Planning does not show Strager in action.

Jace continues searching for the book while Cira and an unlikely ally hide Tonk.  Jace learns the book’s secrets but Kade kidnaps him and he must reveal Tonk’s hiding place.  Jace attempts an escape but it leaves him drowning in Henderson Lake and lets Kade capture Tonk.

  • “Drowning in Henderson Lake” – Too specific.  Telling the story is a no, no.

With magic sword in hand and astride a dragon whose heart is larger than its wings, Cira battles the rogue dragon.  However, he is brutally strong and she must chance a desperate move.  She fails, her dragon is in grave danger and she searches for options while falling to earth.

  • “Cira battles the rogue dragon” – Time line problem. It sounds like it should go with the murder of Strager’s wife but it doesn’t.
  • “She fails” – Long complex sentence.

The twins are polar opposites but their strengths bind them together for one purpose – to return a youngling dragon to his home.

  • “Return a youngling dragon” – There’s more to the story than this. Weak ending.

After this edit, Bob went back to the proverbial drawing board, ready to make the adolescent grow up & get a job! Tomorrow, we'll see what he thought was his ready-to-send Edited Version... And discover a Fatal Flaw that he identified only at the eleventh hour.

How's your own Query Quest faring? Do you have any experience with "Juvenile Queries?" If so, please share. I'd love to hear how you worked things out.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Query Quest I: A Query Letter for the Trashcan

Bob Ghent is a member of the weekly Writing Practicum that I facilitate.  He's an engineer at heart, so he's our go-to guy for spotting things in our writing that don't add up or that don't make sequential sense.

He has recently finished "DRAGOOLEND," a fantasy for middle grade readers.  Now he is heavily involved in the umpteenth edit.  He is also researching how to write a query letter -- a daunting task for nearly all writers, but especially so for first-timers.

Bob has done his research.  He's been studying the Query Shark website and applying the advice he found there.  For three weeks, he brought only his query letter to our Tuesday night Writer's Practicum so we could critique it and help him polish it. But all the work he did was his own.

I asked Bob if he would share his query writing process here.  He has graciously agreed to.  In today's installment, Query Quest begins:


My first query letter turned out to be more of a synopsis and way too long so I didn’t include it in this blog post. This starts with version 2.

I read several Query Shark critiques to help me get some ideas. Anyone writing fiction should visit that site and carefully read the good, the bad and the ugly query letters.I made a list of a little over 30 tips from the critiques.

After I completed each version, I used the tips to critique my work. It was an eye opener!

I sent version number 5 to Query Shark and only five minutes after I hit the send button, I found more changes I wish I had made.

My final, number six, is the one I wish I had sent. Well, it’s spilled milk and all of that. It’s a waiting game now.

The query letter versions are below. Needed changes are underlined, w/ comments I expect The Shark might make in blue.

Version 2 – 258 words

A youngling dragon named Tonk falls from a magical world into the modern lives of thirteen year old twins, Cira and Jace. Tonk’s wings are too small to return him home and he will die if he stays. Cira is quick to help but Jace sees the impossible side. The portal to return Tonk is at the top of the sky.It will close in twenty four hours.

  • “Youngling” takes up space and it seems more specific than a query letter needs.  It is also redundant for “wings are too small” in line two. 
  • “Is at the top of the sky” is vague.
  • “Close in twenty-four hours” Conveys little more than a mild problem and does not show any consequence.

As often happens, Jace yields to his sister and their quest reveals the existence of a mysterious handwritten book about dragons and magic. Their search for it uncovers others who know about dragons; a vengeful sheriff and Kade, a seven-foot felon.

  • “Others who know” – So what?  Where’s the danger?  Why should we care?

The sheriff closes in and Cira must leave to hide Tonk. Jace continues the search and discovers how to return Tonk but Kade kidnaps him before he delivers the answer. A daring last minute escape leads Jace to certain death and Kade to Tonk.

  •  The sheriff closes in – Specific detail not necessary in a query letter.
  •  “Certain death” implies Jace dies and I did not want that.
The wild card is a lone dragon that arrives with a dangerous agenda. It murders the sheriff’s wife and a mile above Cira’s hometown it springs a surprise attack against her. Astride her dragon and with magical sword in hand, she battles the powerful dragon but the battle proves unwinnable. Gathering courage for her last seconds of life, she encounters a magical being that knows how to defeat the dragon. However, he is upset with her and is willing to let her die.

  • “The wild card” – Not needed.
  •  “Gathering courage” – This involves two lines that lengthen the query letter and seems to have specific detail not needed in a query letter.
To defeat their enemies and return Tonk, the twins must do something they have never done.They must trust each other.
  •  “Something they have never done” – Weak.

That was Bob's first pass. This query letter was relegated to the trashcan & an edit commenced.  Tomorrow, he'll share the next incarnation of his query letter as he continued in his quest for the Perfect Query -- one that results in "send me pages."

Does the thought of writing a query letter fill you with trepidation? Would you rather have oral surgery than try to attract an agent's attention?  Why not try Bob's approach?  Write a letter knowing that you're going to trash it.  Then edit it relentlessly.  Do you have any experience with writing a "trashy" query letter? Comment below & let me know.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

When "The End" Is In Sight

I've been working on a project that (in theory) should be done by now. In practice, however, life and the occasional plot tangent -- not to mention, one really cool but unpredictable character -- have conspired to keep me from writing "The End." Yet.

I continue to live in great hopes that “The End” will come, however. Since I’ve been doing a lot of pushing to get to “The End” lately, some thoughts on finishing a project seemed in order:

You Can’t Reach A Goal You Don’t Have
If you begin a work without a clear understanding of where you want it to end up, chances are it will never be finished.

For one thing, you will never know whether or not the project is actually done. Furthermore, without a clear end goal, there is nothing to help you stay focused, and your characters are left to fend for themselves. When that happens, they tend to end up just muddling about, playing things safe and refusing to get into any sort of interesting trouble.

Enjoy Playing God
As a project winds to a close, you get to ask yourself all sorts of God-like questions.

  • Is there enough conflict?
  • Can anything more be done to escalate a character’s dramatic journey?
  • Do all events make sense, or do they appear contrived?
  • Is the original purpose / theme / motif well-served?
  • Are the characters real to you, or could they be more rounded?

Once the project is in its final stages of creation, it is important to ask these questions and others like them. If you ask them before “The End” is visible, however, often the creative process gives way to premature editing, which can lead to a real loss of inspiration.

Knowing that you have a complete version of the project to fall back on can free you up to explore various creative options and – hopefully – improve the work.

Revisit the Past
I generally find that my characters develop more distinctive voices and personalities as a project progresses. Once I’ve spent several weeks with them, I generally know their likes and dislikes, their speech rhythms and pet words. While I may “know” some of these things at the outset, they often seem arbitrary or contrived.

As I near “The End” – especially when I’m fighting to make each scene worthy of inclusion – I find it helpful to take an occasional break and re-read several of the opening pages. I sometimes find character traits I’d forgotten about. More often than not, I discover my characters saying things that are no longer consistent with who they have become.

Remember Your Audience
Never forget that the two most important parts of any project are its beginning and end. That is what the audience is most likely to remember. The beginning must drive the entire project and hold the audience’s attention. The end must be inescapable, unmistakable, plausible, and satisfying. Ideally, your audience won’t be able to predict it, but when it comes, they won’t be able to imagine a better means of closure.

Botching the ending lets your characters and your audience down. So spend the time it takes to get it right. Agonize over it. Make sure your loose ends are tied up. Make sure your characters remain consistent. Make sure you’ve explained everything that is necessary.

If you wish, leave the door open for another installment. But don’t spend so much time being clever, trying to hint at the start of a series or franchise, that you fluff the end. Give your audience what they want – a reason to read / hear / see the project over and over again.

With any luck, I’ll finish the project soon.  I will #Write2theEnd.  To all of you who are currently on a similar journey: take heart! Keep writing! The End is in sight!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wishes for Wannabe & Working Writers

In May, I posted a list of Stuff That Would Be Cool if it Happened. Since then, sadly, neither Mr. McAvoy nor Mr. Pattinson have contacted me, I have not gone into outer space, and I have not been cast as either a movie rider or chosen to voice an animated character. But I continue to live in great hopes...

Today is my birthday. It's not one that ends in "5" or "0," so it's not one that engenders depressing reflection on such topics as "What Am I Doing With My Life?" and "Why Haven't I Accomplished All I Wanted To Do By Now?"

It's just a birthday.  I'll be spending a portion of it teaching the first in a series of 4 Writers Workshops at the Bridgman Library in Southwest Michigan. 

Birthdays are often associated with both gifts and wishes.  Which got me thinking about another list.  So, I present to the Birthday Fairy, my Wishes for Writers everywhere. I wish you:

  • Sleepless nights and days of distraction.  Nothing compares to the joy of having a work in progress be so compelling that it consumes your thoughts and your dreams.  The combination of creative energy and laser-like focuses of brilliance can fuel a writer for long, long periods of time that must be spent in the Real World.
  • A kind, beneficent, forgiving muse.
  • Thick skin to deflect the barbs of criticism and the poleaxes of rejection. They have killed and wounded many a worthy writer.  Don't let them get to you.
  • A certain supportive someone.  Whether you discover your support in your spouse, your sister, or on Twitter, here's hoping you have at least one person in your life who loves every word you commit to the page.
  • A tough but fair beta reader. May you find someone who is willing to not only read your work and comment on it, but who can identify flaws and suggest ways to make it better. Most beta readers don't come gift-wrapped, but they should. They are a writer's secret weapon against rejection.
  • Enough rejection to keep you humble.
  • Enough acceptance to keep you writing.
  • Enough fans and readers to keep you sane.
  • Enough critics to keep you trying harder.
  • Time to read.
  • Time to write.
  • Time to experience life so you can write even more authentic and compelling material.
  • Finally, I wish you a heaping helping, lifetime supply of perseverance. Keep on keeping on. No matter how many distractions life slings at you.  No matter how many speed bumps and detours you discover on your road to publication. No matter how many birthdays the Birthday Fairy lays on you.  Keep writing.  Keep creating.  Keep believing that it will happen...
...Deep breath...

~Candles blown out~

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I Plot, Therefore I Am...

...Much More Likely to Get Where I Want To Go

I am an ardent fan of outlining my work before I start writing it. In the current writers' vernacular, most would consider me a "plotter" rather than a "pantser." (This is not to be confused with the urban slang word pantser used to describe a person who pulls down the already sagging pants of a gangsta wannabe currently displaying a generous portion of his underthings to the world.)

For a lengthy but interesting treatise that gives equal time to the merits of both camps, check out Cindy Myers' "Plotter or Pantser" post. In essence, it all boils down to two things:

A plotter plans things out in advance.

A pantser starts writing and flies by the seat of his or her... You get it.

I have tried writing sans outline with only a general idea of where I wanted to end up. I even finished the book. I now have 85,000 words that I refuse to inflict on anyone. They are destined to sit on my hard drive indefinitely, because what the book needs is for me to apply one or both of the following Plans to it and beat it into shape. Which will require pulling threads of stories that don't work right, re-structuring major characters, and editing with an eye toward structure and salability. All of which sounds like more work than I feel like doing at the moment. And so, anarchy & chaos continue to reign supreme in that particular project.

I don't look at an outline as a "fill in the blanks" novel-writing tool, though I know several authors that do, and that works for them.

(A side note: when I write non-fiction books, I make a detailed table of contents, expand it as much as possible, and list questions that must be answered for the reader by the end of each chapter. That, then, becomes my working outline and writing the book is very much like a fill-in-the-blanks kind of project. The process works well for me for non-fiction, but it takes all the fun out of fiction writing, in my opinion.)

When writing fiction, I operate under the assumption that in order to ultimately work, a story needs to have a framework that holds it in place.

Furthermore, each major character that populates the work not only propels the plot forward, but also has his or her own story line that continues even when the character isn't Center Stage.

Therefore, though it sounds stuffy, boring, and the very antithesis of the creative process, I rely on an outline to keep my story structure in place. It frees me to focus on the minutiae of building sentences and crafting nifty vignettes within the story without losing sight of the Point.

In other words, having an outline gives me a road map from beginning to end. It allows me to take interesting short side trips to explore points of interest along the way, but ensures that I don't stray too far off track.

Plotting Plan 1: Use Tried & True as a Launching Pad.

I am a huge fan of using the Hero's Journey (or a variation therof) as a "cheat" for outlining my story. The reason for this is that, at its core, the Hero's Journey encompasses and embodies what humans have come to expect from a story. It provides a useful, endlessly adaptable framework on which to hang our writing.

[If you're not intimately familiar with what I'm talking about, the Hero's Journey Wikipedia page is invaluable for brainstorming and outlining. The content on the top of the page explains the basics of the structure. But toward the middle of the page there are Other Formulations that offer alternatives and structural nuances.

Devotees of Joseph Campbell may insist that there is so much more to the Hero's Journey than Wikipedia. Well, duh. But when outlining a story, I'm not doing an English major's graduate thesis. I'm just looking for landmarks so I can plan my hero's journey.]

I don't see using the Hero's Journey as writing with a formula. I consider it more like following tried and true guidelines to tell my tale. The structure can be mutated into myriad story possibilities, but if my story utilizes any of the 17 stages (not all stages are present in all stories -- even in the illustrative source material), then I feel it should do so in the correct sequence.

That's how I use the Hero's Journey as my outline. I take my premise / story / idea and write out the gist of what happens. Then I compare it to the accepted Hero's Journey models and see which fits best. That enables me to make an informed decision about what portions to combine or leave out all together. I can also see potential errors in structure from the beginning.

I'll fill in the basic story details following the Hero's Journey as quickly as possible so I can get writing. If I get a *brilliant* idea for something new halfway through my story, I'll hold it up to the Hero's Journey lens to see if it helps or hinders my original vision / intent.

A further note: I also use a modified version of the Hero's Journey to plot individual character arcs within the larger story. Again, I find it invaluable in keeping me on track, in forcing me to put my characters into difficult situations, and in making sure that stuff happens without me charging off tilting at plot windmills.

Plotting Plan 2: Story Beats / Screenwriting 101

A second tool I use for outlining and staying on track is a slightly modified screenwriting story beat sheet.

I LOVE this, by the way. It is absolutely invaluable for figuring out all the plot twists and major character arcs before delving into the deep story.

Since a screenplay is no more than 110 pages long and each scene is approximately 2 - 3 pages, that means the meat of the story must be told in 45 - 50 bite-sized pieces. There are a million screenwriting books out there, each trying to tell you both how to both play by the rules and how to break them, but the fact remains that the Western movie-going public has specific expectations for their stories.

I use a grid of 1-inch squares to plan the beats of my scripts. (Truth be told, my grid is an old calendar. A month & a half, with 1 day allotted to each scene / beat = completed story outline.)

The 45 square grid helps me visualize my whole story. It shows me where my pace is too slow, illuminates gaps in my original logic, and forces me to solidify my subplots.

When I know where the major encounters of my story are, how my main character moves from Point A to Point B, what trials (s)he encounters and how they are surmounted, who the antagonist is, and how things are ultimately resolved for maximum impact to both character and audience, then I can get writing.

Sometimes I'll write the screenplay, if I want to focus on the visual elements of the story. Other times, I'll write the novel, if I want to explore the inner lives of my characters. Either way, knowing my 50 major landmarks along the way keeps me from digressing into tangents and keeps my stories from dissolving into anarchy or chaos.

I've found that, contrary to expectations, working from either a Hero's Journey outline OR a story-beat grid does not leave me uninspired. I generally do both the Hero's Journey work AND a story beat plan before beginning.

Then, each chapter or scene begins with what's already mapped out on my grid. It completely alleviates the blank-page syndrome. It breaks my writing up in bite-sized, easily attackable pieces, and tells me what needs to be done to move the story on.

I follow the outline / story beat grid for the first draft. Then I embellish and explore short new paths for various characters on the second draft. After that, it's just a case of a solid edit and the thing is done!

Plotting my story before I begin is the best exercise I've found to determine whether or not I have a story worth telling. It also helps keep me on track so I can eventually #Write2TheEnd, instead of leaving my characters with their pants down.

What about you? Are you a Plotter or a Pantser? What are your favorite tried-and-true plotting tools? Or, do you just wing it? Share your insight or pants-losing stories with me!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Slaying the Dragon of Authorial Intrusion

or, The Devil is in Zac Efron's Details

I recently had the extreme misfortune of seeing a film in which everything that can go wrong with both writing and directing came together in a glorious, ghastly, gooey mess and intended to write a post on the Charlie St. Cloud Drinking Game.

(For those wondering, the Game includes such rules as:

*  Take a drink every time a character calls a friend or family member by name, and

*  Drink every time Charlie repeats himself... Repeats himself.)

But that will have to wait.  For one thing, it promotes rapid inebriation -- something I really don't condone.  For another, while searching for the answer to "How did Burr Steers ever get allowed to direct Zac Efron after the execrable 17 Again?" I ran across an article Andrew Goldman wrote for the September 2010 issue of Details Magazine.

Now, Mr. Goldman is an accomplished writer who has a long and rich publishing history with such powerhouse publications as New York Magazine and ELLEDetails has featured his articles on Matt Damon and Ashton Kutcher.  In the world of celebrity interviewing, he's a seasoned White Knight who knows what he's doing.

As I read the article, I was reminded anew that even White Knights must beware of dragons.  And when battling the Dragon of Authorial Intrusion even the best of wordslingers can get singed.

The article reads less like an interview for a slick, glossy, well-paying magazine and more like a blog post.  Though he's supposed to be writing about cover-boy Efron, the author refers to himself 4 times in the opening paragraph.  A few column-inches later, he actually uses the term "retard-o" as a pejorative adjective.

In the opening salvo, it's as if the Writing Knight gets enveloped in the steam of some hot air.

The valiant writer re-enters the fray, but it shortly becomes obvious that this dragon will prevail.  How else can one explain this description of Zac contracting poison oak?:
Maybe he also saw, down there on the rocks, the desiccated dreams of all the "real deal" actors who never panned out. All he needed to do was clear one little poison-oak bush directly below. No problem. He leaped. And the second before he hit the freezing water, he felt an ever-so-slight whoosh tickling his back and hands as the bush branches transferred enough of the dread urushiol oil to eventually spread over every part of his body—even his much-squealed-over teen-idol dick.
Score one for the dragon.  With "desiccated dreams" and "much-squealed-over" body parts, the writer's interest in his subject is completely overshadowed by his wink-wink, nudge-nudge interest in himself.

The battle continues, but it ain't pretty.

The writer squanders every opportunity to use his words to showcase his talent at interviewing.  But he never passes up a chance to impose his personal views.  It's as if he begrudges Zac for being his assignment and takes pains to illustrate his beliefs that he would make a far more interesting interview.  (Perhaps he would. That's not the point.)

Nothing shouts "Authorial Intrusion" louder than a writer proffering an opinion about something with which the writer can not have any personal experience.

It's like single people offering marital advice.  Or a childless person waxing eloquent on child-rearing.  Or a dog offering tips on choosing kitty litter.

In any case, the very next paragraph contains this gem:
Whether you're the type who watches "High School Musical" and starts feeling so tingly that you think you've finally gotten your period...
... and it becomes clear that this particular Writing Knight will not slay his dragon at any time in the immediate future.

Yuck.  Just -- yuck.

I'm trying to imagine an incidence when it would be appropriate for a man of a certain age to opine about how an adolescent girl would feel when getting her period.  (Though anyone who thinks the adjective "tingly" applies should be marinated in the aforementioned urushiol oil. But I digress...)  I'm sure an incidence must exist.  I'm equally sure it's not when writing a feature article that ostensibly focuses on a star.

When writing, the devil is in the details.  If you're writing about you, then, by all means, state your opinion often and with great vigor.  If, however, you are not the featured subject, then prepare to engage the Dragon of Authorial Intrusion.  Be willing to fight him for every word.

The battle is yours if the reader falls in love with your subject instead of falling over your prose.

Not everyone can write.  That's why we need the Writing Knights. And it's why we mourn when they fall prey to their own dragons.