Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ruminations on Redundancy

Or, Allow Myself to Repeat Myself...

When I was in university, one of the English professors had practically papered his office door with comics and jokes that had grammatical, composition, or literary themes.

(One of my favorites, which I spent far too much time looking for online in the futile hope that I could link to it here, was a Sunday "Shoe" strip. In it, as I recall, Shoe, the crochety old bird, is nursing a drink at a bar. Something out of frame periodically bellows: "Evermore!... No, that's not right... Livermore! No.... Fillmore!" Shoe and the bartender resignedly endure the outcries. "No, no, no," the speaker mumbles. "It's 'never' something... Nevermind!"

The frame expands to include a massive -- deeply pickled -- black bird sitting at the bar. Shoe looks at the bartender and says, "I see the Raven's drunk again," just as the black bird belts out: "NEVERTHELESH!")

Anyway -- in addition to Poe-inspired humor, the professor's door boasted the following sign:

"Department of Redundancy Department"

For some reason, whenever I encounter redundancies within a project, I cannot help but "see" that sign.

Redundancy -- unnecessary repetition -- is a surprisingly common weakness that often occurs in otherwise polished manuscripts. As with any flaw, the first step toward elimination is recognition. Some examples:
Redundant Cat Repeats Himself

* He spoke to her and asked…

* He thought to himself…

* The information was posted on their website for viewing…

* We discovered in our investigation…

* “You’re right,” he agreed.

* Ideally, the best you can do is...

* I have a friend of mine...

See? Repetitiously redundant wording.

Several things can contribute to redundancy, including:

* Trying to explain a step-by-step procedure so the reader is assured of "do it yourself" success.

* Combining different edits of a manuscript.

* Forgetting what a word actually means.

* Attempting to be overly precise.

* Being too close, or too familiar with the project.

* Working on too tight a deadline that does not allow time for a clear, objective reading.

Redundant Nevermore

Some ways to recognize redundancy when you see it:

* The same word or phrase shows up repeatedly in a sentence, paragraph, or section.

* Similar (or identical) beginning and ending sentences within a paragraph.

* Two or more words that mean the same thing within the same sentence.

* Using words to describe what a character's actions already convey. (He nodded in agreement...)

Correcting a redundancy once you find it is rarely difficult. Simply excise all but the most important reference in the offending passage. Not only will this make your writing tighter, but it will also significantly improve your ability to engage your audience's attention -- and keep it.

Friday, May 25, 2012

How to Get a Book Deal When You Suck at Pitching

I am good at many things. Pitching a project, however, is not one of them.

I have a friend who is an amazing pitcher. She is ready, at any time, to say a few sentences that rivet your attention and leave you craving more.

Me? Before I go to a pitch fest or writing conference where I'm a participant instead of faculty, I practice my pitches for a month. I practice everything, from "Hi, I'm Ami Hendrickson" onward, saying the words out loud and timing myself. It's true. If I don't, I know from heinous experience that I blather. I skip over important bits or go haring off on interesting rabbit trails instead of presenting the inciting incident in a way that makes an iota of sense. In fact, practicing out loud is one of my go-to Tips for Surviving the Pitch Session.
lolcats funny cat pictures
If I don't practice to within an inch of my life,
my pitches become Giant Sucking Vortexes of Awful. 
Not everyone has to practice like I do. Some people are pitching rock stars. Sadly, I must have been in the cosmic little girls' room when God was doling out pitching talent.

Fortunately, though pitching is an important skill in a writer's career -- one that every writer, no matter how pitch-challenged she may be, should strive to master -- it is possible to get a book deal signed even if you can't pitch your way out of a paper bag.

Everyone's road to publication is different. I can only tell you what worked for me.
  1. Put yourself out there. Get out of the studio. Get away from your computer. When you are at a conference or networking event, for the love of God, get off of your freaking phone! Go where you know people who work in publishing will be. Attend their classes. Shake their hands. Ask knowledgeable questions. Meet. Greet. Repeat.

  2. Be yourself. Do not posture. Don't compare yourself to a famous author, living, dead, or fictitious. Don't talk all about yourself. Just be yourself. Be the person your best friends love to hang with. At no time should you remind the people you're talking to of a strutting rooster or a hot air balloon. If you already know you suck at pitching your book, then don't pitch your book. Not at first. Pitch yourself instead. Best way to do that? --

  3. Pay Attention. See, once you stop talking, then others can start. And since they're in the industry you want to break into, they probably have a ton of information that you need. So listen. Show genuine interest in what the publishing pros have to say. Engage. Pay attention. You'll discover who is looking for what and where different agents' and editors' tastes run. That knowledge, plus the personal connection, can be invaluable.

  4. Know what you can do. You may not be a pitch-meister, but you sure 'nough better be able to write. Don't say you can write a book if you have never finished a book. Don't claim to be able to write a screenplay if your hard drive is full of half-finished scripts, but you've never typed "FADE OUT." Knowing what you can do, and saying what you can deliver isn't bragging; it's networking.
  5. lolcats funny cat pictures
    A writer who doesn't network is as fulfilled as a cat in an aquarium.
These are the tenets that worked for me. I got my first book deal -- and nearly every writing gig since -- by following them. I was participating in a horse training clinic and shooting the breeze with the trainer (whom my horse nearly killed, but that's another story) when he asked me what I did. I told him I was a writer. This was true: at the time, I wrote for several local newspapers and magazines and had worked in an advertising agency. But my passion was for my novel and my recently finished screenplay.

That encounter led the trainer to call me some time later when a publisher approached him about writing a book and he knew he needed help doing it. I was 9 months' pregnant at the time, but when he asked if I wanted to write his book with him, I said "yes." You can't always choose the circumstances of your break.

The publisher was initially reluctant to take a chance on me, an "unproven" writer, but the trainer insisted I was who he wanted to work with. Though he had never seen a word I had written, he knew me. He'd seen my work ethic at his clinic. He knew we could work together.

The resulting book is a perennial bestseller for the publisher. That project led to others... which led to others... I have been blessed to write books and other materials for world-class experts in their field -- and I still suck at pitching.

In my last post, "The Problem With Pitching," I lamented the fact that some writers pitch better than they can deliver. I'm working right now on a project that sold on the basis of a pitch, but which is currently languishing in Development Hell because the writer didn't deliver anything usable. So the director called me. I may not be able to pitch. But I sure can produce.

I'm not for a moment suggesting that you give up on learning to pitch well. I believe that pitching is like any skill: no one is born knowing how to do it. It can be learned like anything else.

However, some people just "get" how to pitch better than others. If you're like me, and are still struggling with perfecting your query letters, elevator speeches, and pitches, take heart! Even if you don't pitch a perfect game, you can still play!

Get yourself out there, play nice with others, pay attention to what the pros say, and be confident in your abilities. In my experience, those four things can build a solid writing career while you continue to perfect your pitch.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Problem With Pitching

“You must learn to pitch” is a commonly heard mantra in the publishing industry. I’m not going to be so disingenuous as to suggest that a writer doesn’t need to pitch well. If you can write a compelling story in 100,000 words, you dang well better be able to say a sentence or two that makes people want to read those words. Boy Howdy, you betcha!

But beware of buying into the fallacy that pitching is the Be All and End All of a writer’s career.

Ty Cobb probably knew how to pitch a baseball, but that’s not why he’s remembered. Pitching didn’t make him great. Knocking the ball into next week is what made him a legend.

On more occasions than I care to remember, I have gotten a writing job because someone else lobbed the publisher or producer a heckuva pitch—

And then choked when it came time to deliver.

Usually those writing gigs end up being Top Sekrit Ghost Projekts that I can only talk about in the vaguest of terms because – really – it’s just bad form to go around saying things like “I got this job only because Writer A can’t write her way out of a paper bag" or "If Writer X hadn't choked when it counted and turned in drivel that would embarrass a kindergartener, I wouldn't be here."

A pitch is an idea.
It needs a writer to make it live.
You see, it's one thing to be able to say a few glowing sentences and get people excited about a project's potential. In fact, being able to get people SO excited that they are willing to pony up real, cashable checks, payable to you, just on the basis of those few sentences is a special talent. Frankly, it's a talent I wish I had.

I don't. (More on that in my next blog post, tentatively titled "How to Get a Book Deal When You Suck at Pitching.")

Instead, I have something else: the ability to actually create a book or script that takes the idea of a pitch and turn it into real words on a page.

"You can't copyright an idea" is a famous Real World truism.

Another is "you can't publish (or produce) a pitch."

The problem with pitching is too many writers feel that once they've successfully lobbed the idea at the Dealmakers, then their job is done. In reality, it has only just begun.

To quote literary agent Scott Eagan:"You can have a rocking query but if the writing sucks, then the writing sucks." Granted, Mr. Eagan wrote that line in a post about the importance of writing a great query letter (or pitch), but there is no escaping the fact that the best query in the world won't mask the travesty of a manuscript that doesn't deliver.

The problem with pitching is that some writers have spent too much time practicing their salesmanship instead of perfecting their craft. They are then shocked - shocked! - to discover that when it's time to deliver the heat, they strike out. What they thought was a kickass fastball doesn't have enough juice to carry it over the plate.

"You must learn to pitch" is very true. I don't dispute that for a second. But if you don't first learn to write -- and write WELL -- then you're going to strike out long before you hit the major leagues.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Unsung Heroes

True confession: I am a huge fan of Glee.

Writers could do a lot worse than learn a few craft tricks from the show.
  • It isn't easy to create an entire population over-the-top characters that flirt with being melodramatic caricatures, but who, at the last moment, veer enough toward believability to become real.
  • The writers consistently get navigating the minefield of high school right (though it must be a special kind of hell to be a writer perpetually trapped in revisiting one's high school experience). They remain absolutely faithful to the world they have created.
  • I know many hate the cheesy PSA-themed episodes tackling such issues as underage drinking, bullying, body image, sexual orientation, and religious tolerance. But I think that they do a good job dealing with difficult subjects -- with no easy answers -- in interesting ways.
  • I love how they get us to root for the the underdog, even when the underdog is actively being a grade-A jerk.
  •  No character on the show is always "the Good Guy." Even the nicest characters have deep flaws and could benefit from significant personal growth. Better yet: no character is always "the Bad Guy." Even the characters you love to hate have qualities that make them human and evoke empathy if not outright sympathy.
  • And of course, there are the musical numbers -- which are often very, very, very good.
In my opinion, the underlying message of Glee is that even the "losers" of an organization have merit. The beautiful irony is that people tune in, week after week, to willingly spend time with the least popular kids in school -- kids who, if we were in school with them, we would probably avoid. (Either that, or they would be our friends, in which case, we'd be outcasts right along with them.)

Glee is all about unsung heroes. And yet...

It has unsung heroes of its own.

Darren Criss & the Magic Drummer Boy
The real heroes of Glee are not the kids who get Slushie-d every week, or thrown into lockers, or forced to choose between cheerleading and singing. The real heroes aren't Rachel or Finn or Kurt or Quinn or Blaine. No: the students at William McKinley High actually know who these people are. They get recognition. They get to be in the spotlight. They get plaudits. They get to sing and dance and perform and be recognized. Among their peers -- even among the people who loathe them and everything they stand for -- they exist.

In my opinion, the real heroes of Glee are the unsung heroes: the musicians.

McKinley High School has the MOST AMAZING music department in the history of public schools. They also must have the most awesome music teacher on the planet (whom we never get to meet because he or she never hangs out with Will Schuester or does any of the cool stuff, like go to national competitions).

This teacher works with Magic Musicians: kids who can play any arrangement of any song upon sight-reading it. The McKinley Magic Musicians show up whenever and wherever they're needed so the Glee kids can perform and look good. The MMM's happily play in the background while the Glee club kids take center stage.

One could argue that no regular character on Glee is more unsung than Brad, the ubiquitous, omnipresent, practically mute pianist. If Rachel, or Puck, or Kurt, or Mercedes didn't show up, the club could still perform. If Brad was a no-show, they'd be screwed.
Matt Morrison & the Magic Mariachis

McKinley High School has a full string section, a brass section, a jazz ensemble, amazing guitarists, a mariachi band(?!) and (get this) a harpist! In addition, it has ready access to a full gospel choir. These people are in the background. They never play a wrong note. They never hold up a performance to tune their instruments. They absolutely never have personal issues that interfere with them being at their post, ready to play, when needed. The vast majority of them don't even have names.

Brad and the MM's are McKinley High's version of 99% of the Dalton Warblers, who exist only to accompany their leading man.

The Magic Musicians of McKinley High are never asked to join the Glee club. They never sing. They're never involved in fundraising. They never ride the bus to the performances. But they show up and kick ass anyway. We watch, accepting their existence and their insignificance without question. They exist as faceless support, in the background, doing their job -- and doing it well -- even though, at the end of the day, no one knows who they are.

Writers: take note.

The real trick to good unsung heroes is having them do their job so well that no one questions them. They have a single purpose: to make the Main Characters -- and, by extension, their creator (that's you) -- look good.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Mystical Muse of Music. (Or: What's on Your End of Life Playlist?)

My grandfather died of Alzheimer's. (I know, technically, that's not true. Alzheimer's doesn't kill you, the medical pro's say. To which I respond: Of course it does. Slowly. Sucking away your existence one memory at a time...)

To lose the memories that one has spent a lifetime collecting is a callous, cruel joke one's brain plays on the body and soul. The process of losing oneself to Alzheimer's is slow... insidious... It's spread so thinly over such a long period of time that even the person losing his or her mind is aware of the impending disappearance, though powerless to stop it.

To this day, every time I find myself searching for a dropped word or a lost train of thought, a part of me wonders: Is this how it begins?

That's why I love the life and hope that shines through this video. (It's a little over 6 minutes. It's a wonderful 6 minutes...)

No, there is no cure for Alzheimer's. But imagine the joys of discovering a back door to reclaim lost memories! Wouldn't a reprieve, no matter how fleeting, be preferable to aimlessly wandering the uncharted caverns of your mind?

Music speaks so personally to us. There is a chemistry to music -- an elusive allure, much like the chemistry of pheromones that might spark feelings in one person I meet, but not in another. The music that moves me doesn't necessarily move my husband or my daughter in the same way.

The characters I create, if they are full, well-rounded, and complete also have their musical preferences. If music could literally bring my characters to life in much the same way as it affects the elderly patients in the above video clip, what would it take to play them awake? If I know the answer, I can infuse it in my writing, energizing and enervating the people therein.

I know some writers who have playlists of writing music. I rarely do this -- finding that music, especially music with words, distracts rather than inspires. But when in the getting-to-know-you phase of character-building, I find it very helpful to determine what each character's musical preferences are. That knowledge helps make the character "real" in a way few other exercises can compare with.

Music gives us knowledge of each other because it introduces us to ourselves. So -- I'm sort-of seriously beginning to compile my own End of Life Playlist. I know what songs would remind me of who I am. What songs would be on yours?