Friday, April 23, 2010

"It's Not My Job!"

The manuscript was ready to go. The deadline for having it to the publisher loomed. But the photos had yet to arrive from the original photographer. She had not responded to any of my (many) e-mails regarding the high-res photo files I needed for the book. So, to make sure she got my e-mails and understood what was needed, I called.

In a nutshell, she had no intention of sending me the files I needed. She also had no intention of contacting me to say so.

You see, she was terribly upset that we hired a different photographer to finish illustrating the project. When I asked if she really thought that the photographs she sent me were enough to correctly illustrate the entire project, she replied that it wasn’t her job to decide such things. She took the photos that she was told to take. (This is not entirely true, as -- in addition to the numerous shots that were unacceptable for reasons that ranged from incorrect framing to inept composition -- entire sections of requested photo illustrations were missing entirely.)

I didn’t point out that the client who “told her to take photos” was the same one who had hired her in order to get the benefit of her experience. I also didn’t mention that, though it wasn’t MY job, I would have been happy to provide her with a complete list of what was needed to illustrate the book. I could have even drawn her little storyboard-like pictures, if she had only told me she didn’t have a clue.

In any case, the manuscript went out. While I generally prefer to compile everything and send it to the publisher in one comprehensive package, this one was minus a certain photographer’s contribution. The publisher was aware of the situation and as a result of “Miss Not My Job,” the editor of the project, another photographer, the expert for whom I was writing, AND I got saddled with extra work.

Be careful about playing the “It’s Not My Job” card if something is not done. If you are going to play it, be sure that it is tempered by cogent communication to all parties concerned. Also, be aware that few people in a big project do only what their “job” entails. A successful project comes about only with the support of team players.

Don’t be in a hurry to narrowly define your “job.” Not only is it self-limiting, but it can also stall a project or close it down altogether. Oddly enough, a myopic job description often accompanies someone who is overly concerned with who gets credit for what. That, too, can stop a project in its tracks.

Doing something that is not your job is not a bad thing. It can teach you new skills (like photo editing, for instance). It can put you in touch with professionals that you might not otherwise interact with. It makes you a more integral and important part of the project team. And – who knows – you might discover that you actually enjoy what you’re doing.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Something for Everyone: Filling Four Quadrants

Some writers are phenomenally successful writing for a narrow audience. For reasons that should be immediately obvious, ChickLit caters to a completely different demographic than True Crime or Hardboiled Mystery. Which is not to say that some people don’t enjoy reading from more than one genre. But — for the most part — what appeals to one sector of the population doesn’t do anything for another.

Some writers, however, have discovered that expanding their works to include something that appeals to a variety of different “types” can boost visibility, longevity and popularity, not to mention sales.

I’m not talking about the writer with a developed following in one genre writing something in a completely different genre. More often than not, that only serves to alienate the writer’s core audience while simultaneously failing to find a new readership. If a writer simply must stretch creatively, that is why God created pen names.

No, what I’m referring to is the writer who consciously takes into consideration demographics other than the intended reader and writes something – anything – in the work to speak directly to different segments of the population.

J.K. Rowling has done this beautifully with the Harry Potter series. There is something in each book to appeal to just about every combination of young or old, male or female. Shakespeare knew a thing or two about this as well.

Hollywood has coined a phrase for the project that appeals to everyone: the Four Quadrant film. Penning the Four Quadrant feature is the enviable elusive brass ring of screenwriting. Though the industry has paid lip service for years to the notion that “a great movie begins with a great script,” the reality is that stars and directors generally make exponentially more money than writers. So it goes without saying how much real emphasis is placed on the script.

However, satisfying the people in each of the Four Quadrants doesn’t just happen. No matter how big the star or how big the director, no single person on the planet appeals to everyone. That’s why, within every project, the writer needs to create a variety of memorable characters that will appeal to men and women, boys and girls. It’s also why the writer needs to come up with a wide range of jokes (from the sublime to the ridiculous), construct several varied story lines, and find the right balance between action and drama.

Do it right, and you get something like “Finding Nemo” or “How to Train Your Dragon” -- films that really are fun for the whole family. “Titanic,” The original Star Wars trilogy, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” also fill the bill and offer something for each quadrant. (Each had an obvious core audience, but offered something to others who were only in the theater because that’s what their dates wanted to see.)

Of course there is nothing wrong with writing within a particular genre. You must know who your audience is. You must know to whom you speak. But during your editing process, consciously creating characters and moments that speak to different audiences can take your work from good to brilliant.

Branching into other quadrants within your project may not only add depth and nuance, but it can also literally open your work up to a wider audience. And that can only help your writing career.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Picture Books: Publishing's Problem or Promise?

Earlier today, Elana Roth, a respected agent at Caren Johnson Literary Agency posted an agent's take on "The Picture Book Problem." In it, she says some hard things about unagented authors (whose ranks include the talented Judy Schachner, of Skippyjon Jones fame) and questions why such people write picture books.

Every observation she makes about where picture books and their authors stand in the industry is correct. Disheartening, perhaps, but correct.

You see, the sad truth is that picture books don't make money. They don't make money for the publishers. They don't make money for the authors. And rest assured -- if the authors aren't making any money, then their agents (should they have representation) are suffering as well. This is why relatively few agents will accept picture books for representation.

In addition, most picture books are... well... really REALLY bad.

Many people think that a picture book should tell a cute little story involving talking animals that illustrates some didactic moral for the reading rugrat to meditate upon.

As if.

As a result, most spec picture books suck.

I say this in the kindest possible way, you realize.

However, there is another side to the story. After reading Ms. Roth's post, I felt compelled to add my two cents' to the discussion. Here's my take:

The Skippyjon Jones books are big hits with my bookworm daughter. We quote extensive passages – often around mealtime, or bedtime – and always accompanied by peals of laughter. When she grows up, I am sure that she will remember Skippyjon as one of her favorite early reads.

The books I have in print are co-authored or ghosted non-fiction. They were unagented because the best advances the publisher could afford were so low it wouldn’t have been worth an agent’s time to get involved. However, I loved writing them. I got to work with some great people at a very respected niche publisher. I learned invaluable lessons about editing, distribution, and promotion. Furthermore, writing the books allowed me to work with icons in the horse industry. I felt that I have helped to preserve their knowledge and make it readily available to others who need it. In their own way, the books I have in print have been very rewarding

I write adult, YA, and MG fiction in a variety of genres. Selling them to any publisher of note will require an agent to get involved and love them as much as I do. The books I’ve done have little to no bearing on my current projects. They will do little to attract an agent’s interest and they did not put much in my bank account. I do not, however, regret writing them.

In the same vein, perhaps picture book writers fondly remember how a particular book in their childhood sparked a life-long fascination with words. Perhaps they wish to do the same to a new generation.

One picture book is in my list of Things I Hope to See in Print. It’s not because I hope to make a ton of money with it (though that, of course, would be lovely). It’s because I love it. It moves me. It moves my child. I believe that it could move others as well.

I understand that many picture books by hopeful authors may be sub-par. I also understand there is little money in writing them. Agents and big publishers may pass them by because they do not make good business sense. But picture books provide a child’s earliest experience at realizing words can unlock exciting new worlds. They prime the pump of reading. For some writers, the chance to contribute to a child’s love of reading may be reward enough.

What are your thoughts on picture books? Are they a problem to aspiring authors, agents, and publishers? Or do they hold the promise that our children will enjoy a long love affair with literature?

(True confession: I like Ms. Roth very much. I have followed the work she's done for some of her clients and would be honored if she would agree to represent me. Whether she does or not, I will continue to search for The Right One.

The truth of the matter is that authors need agents because we tend to do a lousy job of selling our stuff. Generally speaking, we don't have the objectivity or experience required to analyze contracts, market new projects, and stay on top of the publishing industry. This is not because we are stupid. We're not. We're the Creatives. Which, by definition, means that we have a tendency to remain too close to our creation. What we write requires an agent's objectivity in order to compete in the publishing marketplace.

So: please feel free to leave your comments on picture book writers or on working as an repped or unrepped author. Feel free to take issue with my opinions. Do not, however, use this as a forum to attack literary agents. Such comments will be "lost" during moderation.)

Thursday, April 08, 2010

I Control My Words -- Words Don't Control Me

A Final Observation on Critiques and Criticism

The content in Tuesday's post, Advice or Attack: Thoughts on Giving & Getting Criticism, coupled with the receipt of a form rejection has caused me to muse a bit more on my responsibilities as a writer...

One of the hardest things to do is distance myself from my words far enough to be able to objectively consider their real merits. I use several techniques for creating this objectivity. One of the main ones is to imagine I am reading my rival’s work instead of my own. This little mental exercise is often all I need to break the parent / child connection I have with my words and see them for what they really are...

My words are just that: words. Ink on paper. Pixels on the screen. They cannot be humiliated, embarrassed, angry, proud, vain, or self-conscious. They are inanimate objects.

Ah, but stones and arrows are also inanimate objects. Like stones and arrows, words must be wielded with restraint.

I recently made the mistake of reading and commenting on a co-authored script as if I had written the piece by myself but was critiquing it as if it were from a rival. I was ruthless. I marked every place where things didn’t ring true, where the dialogue was stilted, inane, or dead-on. I shredded assumptions. I questioned motivation. I made the snarkiest of snarky comments.

In short, I forced objectivity and ripped the script to shreds – all with the intention of highlighting weak areas in order to rework them and make them strong.

I critiqued the heck out of the script. But I neglected to take my co-author into consideration.

My co-author has worked in the film industry for years. He has a very thick skin. He didn’t take my comments personally. But he didn’t take them well. He wanted constructive criticism and me writing repeated variations of ”I hate her right now. She’s a selfish, whiny, spoiled bitch!” about a character didn’t help.

(A side note: This kind of self-criticism does helps me when I edit my own work. When I go back to make changes, I take the negative comments and use them to build upon. However, I NEVER write such things about other people’s work. It’s just too harsh and people become defensive. I know better. There are better ways to say “This doesn’t work for me” than “This SUCKS!”)

I don’t need to handle my co-author’s words with kid gloves. But I do need to treat them with dignity. Because no matter how much we writers say we want criticism – and we do! – we do not want to be criticized.

The magical thing about the words I write, however, is that they can affect people – myself included.

And that is so COOL!

The words I write have the potential to move you, inspire you, entertain or intrigue you. They can open up a whole new world and invite you to explore it. They can cause you to look at this world differently. They can introduce you to people who are more real than the people you see every day. They can change your life.

But this can only happen if they are done right.

Wielding words is a lifetime learning experience. In the same vein, the ability to decode the intent of another person’s written words can also take awhile.

Forms Don’t Fuel Fights

Literary agent Janet Reid (a.k.a. the tough but fair Query Shark) commented on Twitter last week:

I see some very clever ideas just flattened by telling, not showing. I have forsworn remedial interaction after several unhappy scuffles.

When I read that, I felt the community of still-unrepped-but-hopeful-and-hardworking-writers (to which I belong) had lost a valuable resource. An agent who once freely dispensed advice on how to improve one’s craft is no longer doing so because the writers she was trying to help mistook her criticism of their work for criticism of them.

Ms. Reid is not alone in her unwilling participation in the aforementioned “unhappy scuffles.” I follow many editors and agents on Twitter. At least once a day, one of them will comment on receiving a rejection rant. Personally, I consider it the rejected writer’s way of committing career suicide.

For shame! Critique notes, no matter how pointed or painful, can point out a heckuva lot more that needs to be improved in my writing than a standard form rejection.

If I submit something for representation there are many reasons why an agent might send me a form rejection.

• My query may be inadequate, with so-so writing that doesn’t do justice to my book.
• The agent may be swamped with queries.
• The agent may have enough clients at the moment.
• I may not have done my homework well enough and submitted a query for a genre the agent doesn’t rep.

A form rejection does nothing more than tell me to “move along” in my quest for representation. It’s the easiest way for an agent to say “No.” Plus, they don’t fuel fights.

If, however, I can get an agent or intern to look at my query and take the time to critique it, then I feel like I have a Golden Ticket.

It’s up to me to decide how to play it. I can tear it to shreds, fling it in the air, and hurl epithets at the agent who gave me the Ticket – because what I really wanted was a pony! Or I can shelve my pride and my ego and consider my writing through the Ticket’s filter.

Of course accepting someone’s criticism of my work is difficult to do. The fact that it’s necessary doesn’t make it any easier. That’s why, when I proffer criticism of my own, I must remember that though it’s meant about the Work, it will first affect the Writer.

How do you handle giving or getting criticism? How do you distance yourself from your work to allow it to benefit from another’s perspective? Comment below and let me know.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Advice or Attack? Thoughts on Giving & Getting Criticism

The Story Thus Far…

Yesterday (Hooks & Sinkers: The Writing Advice that Sparked a War of Words) I explained how a blog post by James Scott Bell on Things to Avoid in Your Novel’s Opening Page that I recommended on my Facebook Fan Page hit a nerve with one reader who took issue with the way the advice was presented.

(Mr. Bell critiqued an example of What Not To Do with several variations of “I don’t care.”)

The reader, who is an aspiring novelist, was so incensed that she blasted Bell and gave him a hefty piece of her mind.

A lively discussion ensued.

The Conflict: How DARE You Not Care?

I commented that I felt Mr. Bell’s bluntness mirrored what I have heard from many agents when discussing aspiring writers’ work. They want to care about the characters they read about - but their time is limited and they are quick to dismiss something when they don't feel engaged.

The rejoinder was eye-opening:

It was the "I don't care" bit that so disheartened me this morning... He sounds like an angry, supercilious, impatient know-it-all.


We writers want advice. We need it and we know that. Most of us aren’t so in love with our words as to imagine that they could never be better.

(Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the Twitter entries for #stuffmymusesays, and you’ll realize that we’re not delusional when it comes to our abilities. Most of us press on in spite of the fact that we feel like imposters and are often filled with downright self-loathing.)

But some days, we confuse advice with an attack. We mistake broad, general suggestions for targeted, heat-seeking missiles honing in on our hearts. It’s easy to do.

You see, every time I query an agent, I feel like I'm offering my child on the auction block and praying that he fetches a hefty price.

I am responsible for my writing. I am the parent of my text. I want it to grow up big and strong so it can withstand the arrows of both critics and regular readers and take the world by storm. And it is all too easy to blur the line between my Work and Me.

The Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency included these wise words in a post that addressed Why Some Advice Makes Authors Angry:

Is it possible has hit too close to the truth?... Yes, getting too close can irritate; however, instead of being angry, first try to analyze why the message bothers you before composing a stinging comment in response.

How do you distance yourself from your words in order to benefit from well-meaning advice? Is it important to you that criticism or advice be softened and “nice” in order for you to act upon it? Feel free to comment.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Hooks & Sinkers: The Writing Advice that Sparked a War of Words

Last week, I read an excellent post on Things to Avoid in Your Novel’s Opening Page from the Kill Zone bloggers. The post in question dealt with the hook – those critical 250 words that make or break a book. (It’s worth reading. Check it out. I’ll wait…)

The Inciting Incident: Book Hook No No’s

“Why is a hook so important?” you may ask.

Good question.

The short answer is: only about 250 words will fit on the first page of the average book. If they don’t grab your reader’s interest, then the reader won’t turn the page. If that happens, dear friends, then your book is dead in the water.

It won’t matter that you have a killer scene in chapter 3. It won’t matter if you have encapsulated all the angst in history in your protagonist. It won’t matter if you have written The. Funniest. Sidekick. Ever. If the hook doesn’t make the reader turn the page, no one will know.

The Kill Zone blog is the labor of love of 7 acclaimed thriller & mystery authors who use it to educate and inspire those of us who may not have ahem made it yet.

The "Opening Page" blog post referenced earlier is written by James Scott Bell, bestselling novelist, non-fiction author, and contributing fiction editor to Writer’s Digest Magazine. So, you know, he has some credibility.

Bell lists 5 specific no-no’s that can ruin a book hook. These include:

• Don’t have a character alone, thinking.
• Don’t do an exposition dump.
• Don’t start with a dream.

The Catalyst: A Facebook Fan Page Link

Because I’m always on the lookout for useful information, I posted a link to this piece on my Facebook Fan page. (Note the selfish plug. I’m shameless, really.)

A few people wrote to thank me for the useful information in the link. Others, however, took exception with how the advice was presented.

You see, J.S. Bell gave an example of What Not to Do and explained that it was a poor choice for a book’s hook because:

I don't care. I hate to be piggy about this, but I really don’t care... The mistake writers make is in thinking that readers will have immediate sympathy for a person who is upset. They won’t... We all got troubles. What else is new?

One reader of the piece appreciated Bell’s honesty and posted:

I just looked at my first page again. I reworked it with his advice, and it looks lots better. Thanks for the link.

However, the advice & rationale struck a nerve with another reader. She posted a mini-tirade against Bell, called his credentials into question, blasted the genre he wrote in, and defended beginning her book with One of The Forbidden Five.

As you can imagine, a lively discussion ensued. Tune in tomorrow for a look at why one person’s comments about the words we write can trigger a maelstrom of emotions usually reserved for people who make disparaging remarks about our children.

Has a person’s criticism, advice, or suggestions for changing something you’ve written ever sparked a firestorm or fury from you? Please comment below on your experience.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Relax & Write

Today, MuseInk welcomes guest blogger Monique Jones, who offers advice that every writer can take to heart...

Writing can be hard work if you're in a slump. There are a lot of articles on the internet about how to get out of a writer's block, but the most important rule is one that seems counter-intuitive: relax.

One thing I always do when I get stuck is to take my mind from my writing problems and do something completely different, be it just cruising around the internet, watching television, drawing, listening to music or (as weird as it sounds) writing something different than the article I'm stuck on.

By altering my state of mind, I get out of my mental pigeon-hole and open up. Sometimes it takes an hour, other times a few days, but eventually, an idea comes to me that is so fantastic that I have absolutely no problem writing it -- all thanks to relaxing. So next time, you're in a rut, just remember that '80s song by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and relax!

Monique Jones is a senior majoring in journalism at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a visual arts graduate of the Alabama School of Fine Arts. Monique has written for and was features editor and Editor-in-Chief of UAB's school newspaper, Kaleidoscope, and currently writes for Monique is also an online affiliate of the WB Entertainment Affiliate Program., and is writing a book, Polite Society