Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Thoughts on Roald Dahl's "Television" Poem

As we drove through town this Thanksgiving day, on the way to Grandma and Grandpa's house, my daughter noticed the stanchions in front of Wal-Mart and Best Buy and other stores, awaiting the ravening hordes that will be pushing and shoving each other in a few hours. 

"Why would people let themselves be herded like cattle just to buy a few things?" she asked. 

"Flat screen TV's are on sale," I said. "Wouldn't getting one cheap make you want to stand outside in sub-zero temperatures and trample others underfoot?"

She caught my eye in the rear-view mirror. "Sarcasm?"

"You think?"
On the way to the grandparents', we listened to an audiobook of Roald Dahl's 1964 classic "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," which features Dahl's awesome "Television" poem. The fact that it's rather preachy doesn't make it any less relevant... 


The most important thing we've learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set --
Or better still, just don't install
The idiotic thing at all.

In almost every house we've been,
We've watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.

(Last week in someone's place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit 
Until they're hypnotised by it,
Until they're absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.

Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
They don't climb out the window sill,
They never fight or kick or punch,
They leave you free to cook the lunch
And wash the dishes in the sink --
But did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?


'All right!' you'll cry. 'All right!' you'll say,
'But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children? Please explain!'

We'll answer this by asking you,
'What used the darling ones to do?
'How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?'
Have you forgotten? Don't you know?
We'll say it very loud and slow:
THEY ... USED ... TO ... READ! They'd READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more.
Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!

Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read!
Such wondrous, fine, fantastic tales
Of dragons, gypsies, queens, and whales
And treasure isles, and distant shores
Where smugglers rowed with muffled oars,
And pirates wearing purple pants,
And sailing ships and elephants,
And cannibals crouching 'round the pot,
Stirring away at something hot.
(It smells so good, what can it be?
Good gracious, it's Penelope.)

The younger ones had Beatrix Potter
With Mr. Tod, the dirty rotter,
And Squirrel Nutkin, Pigling Bland,
And Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and-
Just How The Camel Got His Hump,
And How the Monkey Lost His Rump,
And Mr. Toad, and bless my soul,
There's Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole-

Oh, books, what books they used to know,
Those children living long ago!
So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.

Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks-
Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They'll now begin to feel the need
Of having something to read.

And once they start -- oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts. They'll grow so keen
They'll wonder what they'd ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean,
Repulsive television screen!
And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The NaNoWriMo Writer's 10 Commandments

I. Thou shalt not begin writing before November 1.

II. If, in the fervor of creativity, thou dost begin writing before November 1, the words that thou writest shall not figure into the final counting.

III. Thou shalt not undertake NaNoWriMo lightly. Even if thou dost not "win," thou shalt write -- and no word thou writest shall be writ in vain.

IV. Remember the eleventh month is for writing. Thirty days within it shalt thou write, and none shall stop thee. Neither thou, nor thy spouse, nor thy children, nor thy grandchildren, nor thy parents, nor thy brothers, nor thy sisters, nor thy friends, nor thy coworkers, nor thy boss who is an ass, nor any other shall thwart thee.

For 335 days of the year thou mayest move heaven and earth to procrastinate and devise myriad excuses not to write. But November is the WriMo, and God knows you deserve it. Therefore, thou shalt bless the Office of Letters and Light and meet thy daily goal that thy manuscripts may grow long and thy word count increase.

V. Honor thy structure and thy passion, that thy story may remain strong and thy chapters may be long.

VI. Thou shalt not murder the English language, neither shalt thou commit grammar-cide in the rush to increase thy word count.

VII. Thou shalt not commit the premature edit, for such actions inhibit the creative muse and boggeth down the finishing of the great work which you have begun.

VIII. Thou shalt not steal the words from a previously written work and include them in thy word count. Neither shalt thou plagiarize, for this is cheating. Verily, I say: winners never cheat and cheaters never win.

IX. Thou shalt not covet thy buddies' word counts, not their agents, nor their book deals.

X. Thou shall persevere for 30 days. And thou shalt avail thyself of every opportunity to encourage other writers who are undertaking the same task, crossing the same creative desert, and climbing the same NaNo mountain that risest before thee.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Problem With Backstory

A few weeks ago, in church, I heard a story that was so unexpectedly funny (in church!) that I laughed loudly enough to make those nearest me turn their heads to see who was causing the ruckus.

I couldn't wait to share it with my daughter. So, on our way home, I repeated it practically word for word:
A grandma was babysitting her granddaughter. "Grandma, how old are you?" the little girl asked.
"Oh, honey, when you get to be my age, you don't tell anyone how old you are," Grandma replied.
A little while later, the grandma noticed that her granddaughter was no longer playing in the living room. A quick search of the house revealed the little girl in the grandmother's room, on the grandmother's bed, with the contents of the grandmother's purse spread out, as the little girl intently studied her grandma's driver's license.
"Grandma," said the girl, "you're seventy-three."
"That's right, Dear. How did you find that out?"
"I just looked at your birth date and did the math. And Grandma -- it says here you got an F in Sex."

My 10-year old laughed as hard as I had. But then she stopped. "That's the punchline," she asked. "The point of the story."

Uh-oh, I thought. I nodded.

"So the whole 'how old are you?' lead up was all backstory," Miss Thing said. "It wasn't necessary."

Much as it pained me to admit, she was right. Not only could the story have started with Grandma searching the house for the missing granddaughter, in the interest of time, set-up and payoff, it should have started there.
The story starts with an incident that sets things in motion.

Backstory can introduce the main character. It can set the scene. It can ground the reader in a brave new world. But this is not information that compels the reader to turn the page. This is not even information that the reader needs in the first chapter. As long as backstory reigns, the story can not start.

What is missing in backstory is the Inciting Incident -- the plot point where things start to happen. The question "how old are you" may have been the backstory that set the plot machine in motion. But until the grandma realizes her babysitting charge is missing and goes to find her, the story stays static.
Backstory is just water under the bridge...

If you're in the throes of an edit, consider revisiting the beginning of your project and identifying where the story starts. Find the incident that kicks everything off. The incident will not be backstory. It will not be exposition. It will not be staged drama or contrived conflict. Instead, it will be an event that involves an action that sets the main character or story (depending on whether the project is plot- or character-driven) on a collision course with the ending. THAT is where your story starts.

Find it. Start there. And wave goodbye to everything that happened earlier.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

If You Can't Say Something Nice...

From the Inbox:

Help! I am reading the first ten pages of a ms. for critique and it kinda stinks. Okay, it sucks!  But I have to fill out notes on it, both positive and negative.

What are some general positive comments I can make on it?  I'm sure you must have some in your little bag of wisdom words!

Jewelry pouch.Exellent for travell  for safety of your jewelry.
If only I HAD a little bag of wisdom words...
Ah, the problem of Finding Something Nice to Say...

When reading, evaluating, editing, or critiquing a project (that is not yours), it's shockingly easy to see the flaws.

But pointing out problems with a piece is only half the story. If that's all a critique partner does ("Allow me to elucidate how much you suck!"), the process ends up being more bullying than bolstering.

Don't get me wrong, I am not a proponent of the Sweetness and Light philosophy that advocates making writers feel good about themselves just for slapping words -- any words -- onto a page. ("You expressed yourself through words! Cue the marching band and confetti flingers! Hurrah.") Cheerleading without suggesting ways for improvement leaves me clammy.

So, what do you do if you're reading something for critique and the merits of the piece are, er, hidden?

Some suggestions:

First, remind yourself that this is a work in progress. Even if the writer thinks it is finished and polished, your keen editorial eye realizes that more work is required. You are not critiquing the writer; you are critiquing the work.

Second, try to identify what strengths the writer should play up. At first glance, these strengths may be hidden. (Often, this is especially the case when critiquing a writer who is just starting out. But we all started at some time. Don't be a snob just because you've mastered the craft better than the poor schlub you're critiquing.)

Some strengths might include:

* Vivid characters
* Unusual situations
* Strong, worthwhile subject matter
* Good description
* Good command of written English
* Memorable dialogue
* Interesting idea for a story

There *has* to be something the writer does that would improve the read if it were done even more.

Finally, remember: Progress, not Perfection. Your job, as critiquer, is not to edit the hell out of this manuscript so it's ready for publication. Your job is to give the writer guidance, using the benefit of your objectivity to identify a work's strengths and weaknesses. 

After all, isn't that what you want from those who critique your writing?

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Virtual Trail Ride

I have come to the realization that I will never get all the stuff done that I should.

I'm the kind of person who makes a To Do list in the morning, turning the paper sideways and scribbling in the margins to cram in all the things that I delude myself into thinking I can / will / should / must accomplish before hitting the pillow that night. More often than not, my daily To Do list becomes my weekly To Do list, as more and more tasks find there way into the blank spaces. If I do something *not* on the list, I've been known to find a space to write it in, just for the satisfaction of crossing it out.

Helmet: check. Sunglasses: check. Perfect day: check!
I could write non-stop, 24-hours a day and I still wouldn't get everything written that I want to. Plus, my family would suffer. I could "Mom" and "Wife" constantly, but still not be World's Best Parent or Spouse. And no writing would get done. I could dedicate myself wholeheartedly to keeping a perfect house, but everything else -- writing, family, AND sanity -- would fall by the wayside.

This realization should stress me out. It probably would, but I have the perfect antidote to stress: a trail ride in Michigan fields on a crisp late summer morning.

Come with me, and you'll see...

I'm on Lily, a 16-year old, 16.3 hand black Percheron mare. My friend is riding Armani, an aged Hanoverian mare she rescued from severe neglect earlier this summer.

We head out behind the barn and take the field road to the back of our property:

Izzy, the German Shepherd, leads the way.

The day is perfect: Maxfield Parrish-blue sky, spectacular clouds, no bugs (!!), and no hunters (for a few more weeks at least). Everything smells earthy and warm.

A light breeze blows, and a red-tailed hawk calls while he circles overhead.

The dogs happily explore every new smell that presents itself. We keep an eye on them to make sure they don't decide to go on a trail of their own. Izzy & River the Wonder-Pit roam together...

Hitch, the kelpie, is the caboose to our train.

A left through the back of our field...

And we hit the dirt-bike paths. Trotting time!

River drops back and runs beside us, ears flying:

A mile and a half later, everyone is ready to take a break. Including Lily (aka "Miss Fluffy Pants"). So we wander into the woods.

Turn right just past our neighbor's trailer that he uses for harvesting wood. There's a path through the trees. Trust me...

Aaaaahhhhhh. It's so quiet in here, you can hear the horses' feet reverberate on the ground like a giant bass drum. It is the most relaxing sound in the world.

It rained last night, but only a few spots on the trail have any water. The horses don't mind mud and slog through without hesitation. Izzy, the water hound, sits her fuzzy butt in the puddle. Though it's a gorgeous day, Lord knows we need more rain.

We come out of the woods onto a long-abandoned blueberry field and orchard. Though it looks inviting, we don't trot. Not only has it been a long time since the trees were pruned (a real consideration when one rides a draft horse), but the ground is unpredictable, too.

You have to look sharp: portions of the path have been vandalized by moles and groundhogs. Whenever you spy a hole, steer wide and point it out to anyone else riding with you.

We find enough holes that have shown up since we last rode here that we decide this will be the final ride through the old orchard this year. There's no reason to invite trouble -- there are lots of alternative places to ride. 

We meander over to another neighbor's field. Izzy finds a woodland creature. She searches valiantly for it, but comes up empty:

Our neighbor, Bill, is an avid hunter. His Heavenly Hunting Shack -- complete with heater, working windows, and a bird's eye view of the entire field -- is just ahead and to the left. Horses in training often suspect it is out to get them. After awhile, they accept it. Lily ignores it.

The Heavenly Hunting Shack. Deer beware!

I'm too busy trying to take a picture of the HHS and I neglect steering. Lily gently veers toward home, but I veto that idea. One thing you can always count on: your horse will always know the way back to the barn.

We take another wooded road that we haven't ridden on lately, only to discover a huge tree has fallen across it. Fortunately, our horses are both surefooted and used to trail-blazing...

Meanwhile, the dogs play in the ditches that line the path...
Can you see the dog in this picture?

The wood road ends at a roadside field. The dogs are ecstatic. Evidently, the field is the canine equivalent of the Daily News.

We ride the perimeter of the field and realize that we've already gone about five miles. The dogs are finished catching up on the news in the field, and they're starting to make fewer and fewer forays off by themselves. It's time to be heading home.

So, it's back through the woods and over the downed tree...

When we skirt the orchard, the dogs stick close by. Miraculously, they never get stepped upon.
We trot and canter one final lap around the open field...
Then we head home...

The horses know where they're going: back to the barn for a good grooming, some cookies, and turnout.

You can almost hear us all go aaaahhhhhh. Stress? Gone.

Now, to tackle that To Do list...

Friday, July 05, 2013

Finding A Champion for Your Screenwriting: Q & A with Script Consultant Jim Mercurio

I am excited to introduce my readers to story analyst and script consultant Jim Mercurio. In 2008, I was fortunate enough to spend a week in Los Angeles participating in one of Jim's Killer Screenwriting advanced script workshops. I found the experience invaluable.

As a story analyst, Jim has A-List and Oscar-nominated clients, in addition to being available to those still trying to break into the industry. Creative Screenwriting magazine ranked him as one of the top screenplay consultants in the country. His clients include Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated writers. Jim ran the Expo Screenplay Competition for six years before starting the Champion Screenwriting Competition. He is currently working on the first ever screenwriting book to focus solely on scene writing.

Jim is a tireless mentor and cheerleader for his client's projects. Plus, it is impossible for me not to like someone who can quote both Star Trek and Springsteen in order to illustrate a particular writing technique.

I was thrilled to learn that Jim had recently released Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List, an in-depth, 10 hour / 6 DVD course on craft. I've seen excerpts, and it's full of solid, actionable information. I was even more thrilled when I asked if he'd be willing to provide an interview, and he agreed! 

Q: You are a script consultant what exactly do you do? What can a writer who engages your services expect from your working relationship?

A: In general, a consultant or analyst provides feedback to help you improve your screenplay. I mine your draft and try to give insight that organically emanates from it. However, I think what I usually do goes beyond that.

I do the above, obviously, but I function more as a champion and a coach. As a mentor, I try to be the illegitimate love-child – in spirit – of Sargent Foley (Officer and a Gentleman) and Mr. Keating (Dead Poets Society). [This hints at the breadth of my teaching examples, too.]

"What am I fighting for?" More than a goal: a gameplan.
Improving the script is the goal but I think, just like in scenes, the idea of "goal" is limiting. Think about your favorite scenes or some of the most memorable moments in cinema…  

The cab ride in On the Waterfront, Quint’s monologue in Jaws or even Sally’s fake orgasm in Katz’s Deli in When Harry Met Sally. The idea of “goal” doesn’t begin to capture their emotional impact. When I teach scene writing, I use a term from acting – “What am I fighting for?” It’s a more active way to look at it. And the answer to the question for the characters are usually huge: love, acceptance, to save someone’s soul.

So your goal might be to improve the current draft of your script but more often than not, I approach my work as if I am fighting for your soul as a writer. Am I being overly melodramatic? Maybe, a little. But my company name and Myers-Briggs type is Champion. It’s not that I ignore the immediate goal of fixing the current script, but what I do best is to see what’s special in your writing and encourage it. Focusing on your overall growth as a writer will ultimately lead to a better script but it also gives you the tools to sustain a career as a professional storyteller.

Q: What are some of the most common misconceptions about script consultants?

Good question. I am not sure that I can speak for all writers. Personally, I see several writers coming to me with the expectations that what I do is the same as notes, coverage or typical one-way feedback. My insight goes deeper than that and I expect the process to include a dialogue where we explore solutions and clarify anything that is confusing. We also discuss any patterns or craft deficiencies I sense. 

On average, I spend 20 hours on a script. I prefer the coaching paradigm where the feedback is spread out over as many as half-a-dozen drafts, but even my one-shot set of notes have some interactivity built-in and expected.

A.H.: One thing I particularly liked about your workshop was the give and take. You would present us with a concept or technique, and then lead the brainstorming process about ways to incorporate that tool or element in our writing.

Right. My job isn't to dictate "here's how it's done." Instead, I spend time offering solutions that might work, but whose larger purpose is to inspire.

A pet peeve of mine is when writers vilify story analysts or consultants who charge “too much.” In response, I simply ask writers to research what they are getting. I pay $20 for a 15-minute haircut at Supercuts, which ends up being the same hourly rate for my coaching clients. If, after 15 hours spent giving you feedback, my insight is still valuable to you, then the concept of “overpriced” is moot. It’s the writer’s choice to decide if they want to continue to engage me or any consultant.

Q: In your experience, what stage in a writer's career is the optimum time for a writer to engage a consultant's services?

A: The idea of "optimum" for each writer will vary. 

Budget might be a legitimate concern. If so, writers can hold off on hiring someone like me until they have written a script or two or until their self-directed learning has hit a plateau. There is a plethora of resources that are free (blogs, websites, newsletters, produced scripts to read) or inexpensive (books, DVDS, coverage services, local classes, online courses). 

If budget is not a concern and you know that personal interaction and the push-and-pull of a coaching or consulting relationship would accelerate your learning curve and growth, then hiring a mentor to hasten your walk through and beyond the basics might be just what the script doctor ordered.

Part of the reason why I spent two years and tens of thousands of dollars on my new 10-hour DVD set, Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List is that I wanted to reach a wider range of writers. For a fraction of what it would cost to travel and attend a weeklong class, I can bring writers “up to speed.” I include 30-40 hours of free workshops to my coaching and consulting clients because it allows our one-on-one time to be more efficient.  

(An excerpt illustrating how pattern use aids clarity. With Star Trek example FTW!)

I am not complaining about teaching the basics or working with beginners. In fact, I have traveled and given private classes in some pretty cool cities for novice clients including successful businessmen and a young kid who is literally an international rock star. However, in the same way, I work to elicit what is “special” in your writing, I know you (and I) will get more out of the relationship if our time spent on Screenwriting 101 doesn’t intrude on the time where I can share what is “special” from me: more advanced and nuanced insight.

Q: Describe your dream client. What does the ideal client bring to the table?

A: I like helping a professional or near-professional writer get from good to great or from great to world-class. In these scenarios, we know there isn’t some set of rules I need to explain to them. We stumble upon the “answer.” An Oscar-nominated A-List client had me look at a cut of his film and I was able to boil the problem down to a 2-3 sentence thesis with which he was happy. It’s an exciting challenge to not know exactly how you will be helpful but to be open to the process and trust that it will be productive.

It comes down to trust and open-mindedness. No matter the skill level, a dream client really wants to grow and is willing to be challenged without becoming defensive. 

The flipside of being a champion and a coach is that I see the gap between where writers are and where their amazing potential can take them. Encouragement is constant, as is pushing them to face the deficiencies in their craft. 

My filmmaking background and gift-slash-curse for craft minutiae often mean there is more work to be done than expected. The coaching (working on several drafts of same script) or mentoring (coaching on two scripts) process that I prefer requires a commitment from both of us. Writers have to trust me and the process.

Q: What are the top 3 things you find yourself telling writers who want to improve their scripts?

A: 1. Brevity and essence. Writers must fight to get to the core of their story and all of its elements. Strip away all that’s not essential, unique or special to them. This is partially a by-rote craft lesson about succinctness, words and specificity. But it goes beyond that. In the same way they must reveal to the audience the essence of their protagonist, they must also discover their essence as a writer. I push them to recognize what they do best as writers, discovering the idiosyncrasy of their voice and take on a story.

2. Raising or recalibrating expectations. Once again, some of this is simply craft. Writers will tell me that their script is as good as the bad movie that opened last weekend on 3500 screens. But that’s not good enough. If you are working in a genre, it’s not good enough to satisfy its “criteria.” You have to surpass them. You have to transcend  the genre… and 99% of the time that means ADDING something to it, not just taking elements away. A thriller that’s super smart but not thrilling is no longer, well, a thriller, right? On a practical level, it’s also about being realistic about their writing in terms of concept, budget, and marketability.

3. Let go of the goals. Worry more about “what you are fighting for.” Like, I said, I focus less about you getting an agent from this script and more on improving your craft and storytelling so you can apply it script after script. The goals will take care of themselves.

Q: How would you suggest a writer go about researching script consultants and deciding who would be a good professional fit?

A: Many people who work as a story analyst or writing coach have some public body of work whether it’s produced credits, educational products (DVDs or books) or simply blogs or articles. These can shed some light on their tastes, background and approach. You might even start “small” if there are options for lesser services.

One warning about looking at samples of an analyst’s work. I have discovered there are times when a writer will be amazed by an insight into his or her script, however, that feedback won’t resonate as strongly to another writer. My notes are tailored to the individual writer who is currently immersed in a given script. I would suggest that you ask the consultant or analyst if you can speak to past clients so that you can get the reaction from someone who received feedback on their own script.

Q: How would someone determine if you were the right consultant for them?

A: Check out the clips from my DVD set. Or if you order it, you will be immersed in me and know more than you want to about how I look at screenwriting.  Kidding… But keep the finger on the pause button… I talk fast. Also, consider my non-coaching services or the Snapshot Evaluation which is a litmus-test like service that I offer to allow people to explore if they might want to do coaching with me. They can also send me questions [email jim (at) jamespmercurio (dot) com] or set up a quick chat with no high-pressure sale tactics about their goals as a writer.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Thoughts On Writing Niche Projects & Perseverance: Q & A with Author Marcy Blesy

I am so happy to introduce you to Marcy Blesy (@MarcyBlesy), author of the children's picture book "Am I Like My Daddy?" the middle-grade "Confessions of a Corn Kid," and the YA series "The Lexie and Rhett Chronicles." Marcy blogs regularly about children's books, often reviewing and championing middle grade titles. Marcy has embraced both traditional and indie publishing. Her tenacity and subsequent success inspire me. When she graciously agreed to an interview, I knew she'd inspire you, too...

Q: What was your inspiration for the story "Am I Like My Daddy?"

A: AILMD is a picture book in the children's grief genre. Many books in this genre deal with the immediate time after the death of a loved one. In this book, however, Grace is seven. Her dad died when she was five, and she has limited memories. The book is an evolution of her discoveries about her dad as well as herself, how she is unique, and how she is different. The book is hopeful and positive with suggestions for kids going through the death of a parent and how to get the answers they seek.

My dad died when I was 13. I have very few memories. My mom died when I was 24. Very soon after she died I sat down at the computer and wrote all the random things I knew about her because I was so fearful I would forget again. People think that if the kids aren't talking (about the death) then they must be fine (don't upset the apple cart), but in reality, they may not be fine or may have questions they are afraid to ask for fear of upsetting the adults in the family. And, as has been my experience, new questions arise with maturity.

Q: "Am I Like My Daddy?" went through several major revisions. Tell me a little bit about your road to publication.

A: I wrote AILMD four years before publication. Originally the entire story was written in rhyming verse.

I received standard rejections as well as more personal rejections. I received enough encouragement from professionals that I knew I had a unique idea, though. Many of them suggested I rewrite the poem in story form. I also worked at one point with a well-published children's author who suggested I write the story in journal form.

AILMD evolved from poem to third person to journal form to first person to a final version combining first person, journaling, and a small bit of the original poem. I guess you could say I took suggestions and made the story work with what ultimately felt right to me.

Q: How did you find your publisher for such a niche project?

A: I am a volunteer at Lory's Place, a grief education center in St. Joseph, Michigan. The director, Lisa Bartoscek, wrote an endorsement letter for the manuscript that I included in my submission packets.

I submitted 99 times to agents and publishers. Some publishers, including Bronze Man Books, who published AILMD, turned down earlier versions of the manuscript over the years. I was stubborn and persistent.

When I submitted the (almost) final version to BMB, a small press university publisher at my alma mater Millikin University in Decatur, IL, they contacted me and asked to meet. Our meeting lead to two more rounds of revisions before they offered me a contract in October, 2011. The book was published in December, 2012

99 "No's" 
1  "Yes"

It only takes one!

Q: What was the process from idea to publication? What do you wish you knew then (when you started) that you know now?

A: I had only written a few picture book manuscripts when I first wrote AILMD, so I didn't really know what I was doing. I had always had that dream of being an author, but I was in my late 30s at the time and had to learn the business as well as hone my writing skills along the way.

Oh my gosh, you need thick skin and patience, neither of which I have!  But, and I have read this in many interviews with well-published authors:  Persistence can trump talent. If you are willing to put in the work and keep learning and improving, eventually there will be a payoff.

Q:  Any advice for a first-time writer working with an illustrator? What are some of the most important things in the writer / illustrator collaboration?

A: As is common with a traditional press (even a small one like Bronze Man Books), I did not get to choose my illustrator. You can imagine since this book is in the grief genre that I was nervous an illustrator would be chosen that only saw the theme of the book as sad and missed the bigger picture.

I commend the publisher for choosing such a talented and gifted artist, Amy Kuhl Cox, but I also believe there was some divine work at play, too.  :-)  Amy brought the book to another level with her beautiful stained glass look pictures. She also focused on the relationship between Grace and her mom who helped answer many of Grace's questions about her dad.

I did learn that the illustrations and the writing are two separate talents, though, and that the finished product cannot exist without each part. I tried to let Amy work her magic separate of my opinions, though I was dying to see everything she did because I was so excited. (This is where my impatience problem gets in the way again.)

The process was very collaborative between the publisher, Amy, and I. We used dropbox to submit the manuscript changes, early illustrations, etc. so we could all respond. I had asked Amy if I could send her a picture of my dad who died when I was young. I didn't know if she already had an idea for a dad or not, but "just in case." She agreed. When I opened an early file version of the pictures you could imagine my surprise when I saw a drawing that was later inserted into a picture frame in the background that featured a drawing the family picture of my dad, mom, and I that I had earlier given her. What a nice gift she gave me.

Q: A specialty publication has a specialty audience. How do you go about finding ways to connect your target readers with your book?

A: Local events don't work well (except for my personal book launch) because people don't go to book fairs to buy a book in the grief genre.  However, online marketing works.  The publisher and I targeted grief organizations, counselors, etc. is a leading grief resource website. They are very selective in the materials they sell on their site, so I was thrilled that AILMD was selected as one of only 12 books in the "loss of a parent" category.  Amazon has continually sold out and reordered copies of the book.

The publisher generously offers the book for sale at wholesale price to organizations that purchase ten or more copies. They can then sell the copies, if they choose, at full price ($12) and use the money for fundraising purposes.  For example, I run an elementary library. We knew a lot of students would buy the book simply because of the Mrs. Blesy connection.  From the 60 books that were sold there, $360 went to Lory's Place. This is an offering the publisher makes available to anyone.

I also blog occasionally about children's grief.  AILMD has its own facebook page, and I use twitter to connect with other grief organizations.

Q:  In addition to traditional publishing, you have also had some success in self-publishing your YA stories. Tell me a little about the Lexie and Rhett Chronicles. What factors made you decide to self-publish?

A: And yet again, that impatience creeps in!  The traditional publication route takes a long time with no guarantees (at least for me). As an experiment of sorts I decided to dip my toe into the e-publishing world using Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing.

I have written a middle grade and young adult novel, so I wrote a YA short story called "Prom for One," about a disasterous prom night that has a sweet twist for its main character. The story is 10,000 words.

I priced it low because of its word length and  hired a photographer friend to take a picture of another friend's prom dress for the cover. Formatting was a nightmare that I have now mastered, though. I had a couple of beta readers offer their opinions, too. Then I clicked "Save and Publish."  Fast and inexpensive!

I hit social media hard with marketing. I have sold 375 "Prom for One" copies since March and published the second and third short stories in The Lexie and Rhett Chronicles ("Graduation for Two," "Test for Three").  In addition to the individual sale of the three stories on Amazon at .99 apiece, I also sell the virtual "box set" of the trilogy for $2.99. The second and third stories are selling themselves as I have the links at the end of each story to the next one in the series. I also buy premade covers now from a great website.

I have been very pleased with the responses I have been receiving and the immediacy of it all. Although, let's be honest, at .99 a story I am not making big money here.

However, I love the creative outlet and continue to write. You never know.  In addition, I continue to query agents and traditional publishers with two more picture book manuscripts.

Q:  In your experience, what are both pros and cons of Traditional vs. Self-Publishing?

A:  Traditional:  Pros's:
*  That sense of accomplishment in that others in the field justify that what you are doing is good enough to invest money in to publish.
*  Professionals who take care of  the business details of publishing.
*  Payment can be nice.

Self-Publishing:  Pro's:
*  Control belongs to the author (which can be seen as a pro or con!).
*  Speed of publication.
*  Ability to get feedback from readers more quickly.

There is still a bit of a stigma with self-publishing, but I really think e-publishing has shaken things up in a good way. I love it, but I would love to be published by a big NYC publisher, too!

Q:  I love the story about what you learned from a "bad" review and the valuable lesson you learned from it. Would you share?

A: Most of the feedback for "Prom for One" and "Graduation for Two" has been positive. I did have a funny, though not-so-funny at the time, experience with my latest and final story in the trilogy, "Test for Three." A reviewer left a horrible, one star review, not for plot, characters, grammar, etc. (any of the things warranting a one star), but because I didn't have a "happily ever after" ending. The first two stories definitely do.

Apparently, since I have been marketing the series as a romance because it is a great love story, diehard romance fans expect a particular prescription to their books. I now don't use the word romance since the third story doesn't end with the characters walking into the sunset (insert sarcasm).

Truthfully, it was a painful lesson, but with self-publishing there is a lot to the business of publishing you have to learn on your own. I am still quite proud of the ending and would never change it to meet the "romance" requirement. When I read that others have cried or that the story stays with them, that makes me feel good. Those are the responses I wanted when I wrote it.

Q:  What advice would you give to someone considering self-publishing short stories?

A: If you don't want to invest in the time for a full length novel or you are just really good at writing short stories, I say go for it! The feedback is helpful and fun. Just be clear in your title that the story is a short story (list word count in the description) or reviewers expecting a full length novel may feel cheated and review you in such a way.

Q:  In your experience, what aspect of publishing surprised you the most? What did you learn from the experience?

A: Things change! In the last five years, most publishers no longer want paper submissions. Queries happen over email.

You can put so much work in the submission process or after publication marketing process that you forget to actually write! I know I have been guilty of this. Don't stop writing.

Everything I write gets better and stronger. I don't make the same mistakes as I did in earlier manuscripts. I know that later manuscripts won't have the same mistakes that current ones might have. If writing is your passion, then follow it. You won't have regrets.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Discovering the Depths of Subtext

Lately I've been thinking a lot about subtext and one's ability to communicate with one's target audience.

Subtext -- conveying meaning and understanding without clearly stating the information -- is one of the publishing industry's favorite bits of jargon. Good writers excel in using subtext to engage the reader. When applied correctly, subtext adds depth, layers, and texture.

Many how-to articles try to tell writers how to incorporate subtext in their work. But thanks to a recent Twitter exchange, I've come to the conclusion that most of them miss what should be an obvious starting point. You see: in order to master subtext, the writer must first make sure that the stuff on the surface is interesting and engaging in its own right.

Why? Because the deeper stuff will be lost on some readers.  

Not all readers are created equal. Not every person who reads a work will possess the necessary tools to enable him or her to appreciate the extra nuances subtext provides. If a reader must understand the subtext in order to appreciate the content, the writer has done little more than craft a Members Only piece. Though it may stop shy of navel gazing, it is the literary equivalent of delivering a heartfelt sermon only to choir members.

The Twitter exchange / subtext kickoff I mentioned began with this picture, posted with the caption "Gabbing gals":
Photo by @subjectplusverb. Used by permission.
The ensuing exchange illustrated how one's understanding of the various layers of subtext affected one's understanding of the photo.

Layer I: The Surface

Some people looking at this picture bring with them a limited understanding of horses and training. Those not "in the know" don't see anything except the obvious. But that doesn't mean they can't find things to appreciate.

The endearingly citified Yi Shun Lai (@gooddirt) confessed: "All I see is the literal ponytail."

And this is fine.

The picture contains an element -- a pony tail in a ponytail -- that is both interesting and unexpected enough to engage even someone who is not a horseperson. Likewise, some people will never delve deeper in the written word. It is the wise writer who deliberately crafts scenes to maintain surface tension.

Layer II: The Composition

Even non-horse people can dive a bit deeper when looking at the photo in question. Some might find their eye following the sight line of the legs' shadows. Though both horse and human are so well aligned that their shadows merge seamlessly, the shadow originates with the girl.

Now, it is entirely possible that this element of composition, the merging shadows that enable the viewer to think in terms of metaphor, was a happy accident; a coincidental construct. Nevertheless, the mere act of taking the picture involved forethought and intent.

So, though some might read more into a text than the writer consciously intended, never underestimate the power of the subconscious muse, sprinkling poetic subtext like fairy dust to brighten the astute reader's day.

Layer III: The Intended Audience

I would wager that most "horse people," upon seeing the original photo, zero in on the horse / human connection. For those who speak horse, this is a lovely representation of communication, contentment, trust, and companionship.

The horse is dry, not sweaty. She hasn't been run into submission. Her ears are relaxed; she is at peace, yet she is willingly placing herself in close proximity to the handler.

No pressure on the halter or on the lead rope forces the horse to stay in place. She is where she is out of choice, not coercion.

The trainer's body language is one of calm, reserved acceptance. She, too, is relaxed. Her shoulders, arms and hands are quiet and contained. She is not forcing her presence on the horse or imposing her will on the mare.

The mare is not your typical riding horse. She's a heavy breed, probably weighing close to a ton. She's also clean, well-fed, well-groomed, and healthy. She's symmetrical and sound, which means that she enjoys excellent care, in addition to enjoying her handler's attention.

All of the above information is immediately available at a glance to people familiar with horses. It doesn't matter if they ride English or Western. It doesn't matter what language they speak, what breed they prefer, what country they live in, or how accomplished a rider or trainer they are. Such information contained in this single photo is the equivalent of genre-specific subtext -- readily grasped by fans, but lost, perhaps, on those unfamiliar with a particular literary category.

Layer IV: Privileged Information

Then there is the information that unpacks the photo still more, if one knows where to look for it.

For instance, only those familiar with the Natural Horsemanship training philosophy will recognize the equipment and be able to identify the handler's training influences.

The black rope halter could come from several sources: Clinton Anderson, Double Dan, Josh or John Lyons, Buck Brannaman, to name only a few. But the Dans, Lyons, and Brannaman don't generally use hardware on their leadropes, so that narrows things down...

It's the stick that speaks volumes. Lots of trainers use sticks: Clinton, Steve and Wendy Smith, Pat Parelli, and more. But the color is a giveaway. The "carrot stick" is orange: practically shouting "Parelli!"

Which means there's a good chance that the trainer is a PNH fan. If so, she probably knows the Seven Games, understands her mare's "Horsenality," and is working on improving her grasp of the Four Savvys.

Which also means that though there is more to unpack in the photo for those who are Natural Horsemanship aficionados, some of the subtext therein is lost -- even on horse people. It is possible for subtext to apply only to the Chosen Ones. Those not in the know find it as difficult to decipher as the preceding paragraph.

In writing, it's common to salt in such privileged information for hardcore fans. That kind of subtext is the equivalent of gaming Easter eggs -- of interest and of use only to a select few. 

Layer V & Beyond: The Murky Depths

And then there's the Super Deep Seafloor Subtext. This stuff may resonate only with one or two people on the planet. In fact, it may hold meaning only to the writer.

For instance, I don't know enough about the mare and the trainer in the picture to know their history.

But what if the mare was a rescue? Or if she had a serious attitude problem that had perplexed other trainers? What if she had colicked recently or had recovered from a serious leg injury? That knowledge would make the picture one of supreme achievement: overcoming the odds to reclaim what others considered lost.

Or... Imagine if financial or medical concerns beyond the girl's control had necessitated selling the mare to a new home. This photo could be documenting the last time they ever worked together: a penultimate goodbye, adding tragic undertones to the image.

Or... What if a lifelong fear of horses had plagued the girl? That tidbit of information could tint the picture with several shades of empowerment and optimism.

If such backstory is available only to a few souls, then the subtext associated with it is lost to the larger audience. However, that doesn't negate its influence on those privy to the information.

The wonderful thing about subtext is that it provides a well of meaning for the words we write. If done correctly, it offers something for everyone. It entertains those content to just scratch the surface, yet rewards those willing to dive deeper.

Super special thanks to @SubjectPlusVerb and @ReadSchmead for the use of their picture for this post! -- A.H.