WRITERS’ MARKET FOR CHAPTER BOOKS OFFERS SURPRISES AND CHALLENGES

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I hope that your writer’s resolutions are still on track. I put my chapter book manuscripts on the priority list to finish a “final” revision and market. I don’t have an agent. As you may remember, I’ve tried that twice over the years and for me found it unsatisfying for many reasons. The one positive—having more time to write—I regret. I am back to studying the potential markets again. Brrr, it’s cold out there. All those publishers that I I previously sold multiple titles to accept agent submissions only.

I found a few publishing houses that said that they “prefer” submissions through agents or that they “do not take unsolicited manuscripts. I take that as a code word meaning that they will consider a query, and if they are interested enough to see the manuscript, they will contact you. Once they do that, you are no longer unsolicited.

For this go-around, I looked for houses that published chapter books and accepted queries or manuscripts direct from authors. I used those removable sticky flags to tag everyone that met the criteria leaving the tail protruding so that I could return for more study. Since I write in multiple genres, I will use different colors for the others. When I checked each tag, I made a chart noting specifics:

Email submissions or Postal mail only

Whole manuscript or samples and synopsis

Author biography, cover letter or provided form

Response time or only if interested

As every one of them appears to want something different, before I submit anything, I will go to their online sites and double-check. As I reviewed my research, I found surprises.

I found 44 houses that take chapter books and will consider a query or the whole manuscript. Of those, 25 want hard copy through the mail, despite the quick email. Their response times vary from one week [only one of them] to 18 months to no response unless they are interested. Only five of those who want regular mail only request a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope to reply. The other 20 recycle your hard copy and don’t reply unless interested.

Only five out of the 44 said that they accepted simultaneous submissions if you inform them. I find it reprehensible that as a whole, the industry has so little regard for the talent that keeps them in business. I realize that it comes from the desperation of the bottom line, plus the thousands of those who make a little effort to learn the craft or get professional editing before submitting.

It’s the time lapse between submission and response [if any] that I question. I’m sure with the budget cuts that few editors have first readers anymore to cull the slush pile. But a quick glance of the cover letter or the first page of the manuscript reveals subject and style. That eliminates the bulk of the pile right there.

Our best chances of finding the perfect match are to write the best we are capable, research the market thoroughly, follow through with a visit to their website, and follow their instructions to the letter. As for those excessive response times, it’s your decision whether you play the guess-and-hope game until you haven’t heard after six months or a year, or you send a letter withdrawing your manuscript from consideration. You might be missing out on a sale, but more likely you were withdrawing something recycled months ago.

We who prefer traditional publishing are in a buyer’s market. It has its frustrations and disappointments. But there is nothing quite as satisfying as knowing that someone believes in your work enough to invest their own time and money to offer it to the public. Good luck!

 

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Mental Exercise for Your Writer’s Brain over the Holidays

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Just because we turn off the computer to prepare for the holidays, it doesn’t mean we should or even can turn off our minds. We are blessed to carry our best writing tool wherever we go. My family once gave me a custom tee shirt that said, “Just because I’m not WRITING doesn’t mean I’m not WRITING.”

As we scour the Christmas wrapping paper, we can stretch our vocabularies for as many descriptions of red as we can from blush to burgundy. Then there’s the saffron-green of the sun-starved, rain-logged shoots, or the nearly black-green just before dawn awakens the leaves.

While we tie the bows on gifts, we might consider the alternatives for tying up the loose ends of that story after the decorations come down.

Remember the feeling of frustration of standing in the post office line, shifting those packages from one arm to the other. Hold on to that ache; it might come in handy in that scene you want to strengthen with some sensory detail.

As we wrap that wool sweater for great uncle Dave, remember how your hand sinks into the cloud-like weave. What would you call that gray? Is it gun metal, mouse, or driftwood gray?

Until the timer goes off for those cookies, try a word association exercise. Not the linear kind that is so limiting, but those sometimes referred to as spider web or starburst. I like to think of it as a dream catcher. In the center of a blank sheet, write your key word, a diagonal slant, and the antithesis.  For example, bridge/gap, or arid/flood, etc. Now circle those. Think of as many words as you can from each of the words and let those start its linear line. For instance, from bridge I might put washed away, grandpa’s teeth, construction, covered, game, and one and on. For gap, I might start with generation, trendy clothes, Reconciliation. Follow each of these, and you will see story ideas forming. The nice thing about this exercise is that it is perfect to work on in the short spurts between cookie batches. If I succeed in uploading the photo of my exercise, you’ll see that everyone one of those threads can inspire a story.

And, oh those scents of Christmas everywhere: what reaction do you get? Did it bring a tickle in your nose? Did a familiar scent bring an incident to mind? Christmas is a virtual feast for your senses. It’s a good time to expand our descriptive capacities. That’s a gift that will keep on giving all year.

Merry Christmas, and a Happy, Productive New Year.

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PICTURE BOOK: THE EASIER IT READS, THE HARDER IT WRITES

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November is Picture Book Month, and since we have nearly two full weeks left, it seems appropriate to acknowledge such an important contribution to children’s literature. Many aspiring writers are attracted to the genre because they mistakenly believe that the deceptively simple books are easy to write. Just stick a bowtie on a puppy, give it a cute name, and you can whip up a story on your coffee break. How hard could it be?

That’s fine if you want to read it to your grandchild. She’ll enjoy your grocery list and the attention. But if you want to write for publication, my motto is, “The easier it reads, the harder it writes.”

The first step is to know your audience. Children are neither Goody Two-Shoes nor the “bad seed,” or are miniature adults. They share the same needs as any of us: To love and be loved, to achieve and learn, to have peer respect and self-respect, and to feel secure physically, emotionally and spiritually. Additionally, they have some unique needs. I remember feeling it was so unfair that I arrived at the party late. Everyone else seemed to know the rules already.

Primary children have a limited world: home, neighborhood, church, daycare, and regular school. Their interests are self, family, [siblings, being the youngest, oldest, or middle child], nature [animals, growing things], God, and accepting things that they cannot see. Even the ordinary things, like changes in seasons, are new experiences. These are your readers. Writers have a lot of potential subjects for fiction and non-fiction. That’s the good news.

The bad news is we have to get our wonderful manuscripts past an array of adults to reach the child: editors, publishing review committees, book reviewers, librarians, teachers, and parents. The final approval belongs to the child. Is it entertaining enough for multiple readings? A good story is like a familiar friend to share many times. That means it must appeal to an adult too.

Specifics and sensory details appeal to them: two sparkly sugar cookies on a smooth apple red plate, instead of cookies on a plate. Bring in numbers and colors where they are natural to the subject.

For practical purposes, we define all heavily illustrated books as picture books. They may be anywhere from no words to around 1,000 although most publishers seem to favor around 750 words. Remember that you are dealing with short attention spans. You should write as if you’re paying per word. The true picture book needs illustrations for the text to make sense. Subjects might be numbers, shapes, or colors, even. The toughest skill to master might be to switch from short story format to picture book format. They may contain the same number of words, but they are not the same. A short story might take place in one scene, in a span of a few minutes to a year. In a picture book, each page is like a chapter in a novel, moving the story forward quickly, making each page suspenseful enough to be a cliffhanger making the child ask, “and then what happened?” Plus you need to think like an illustrator. You’ll need at least 20 pages of unique scene changes. Type it out that way and imagine the scenes. Read it aloud to be sure that a pause is naturally at the end of a page turn. Is the sentence too long? Do you take a breath in the middle? Then the answer is yes.

Early primary children [birth to kindergarten] start out with the concept books. They may review something the child already knows [animals, colors, numbers, etc.] They might introduce the unfamiliar, like a visit to the dentist or first day at school. Every page is of equal value, like stepping stones, or a string of same-size beads. They usually end back where they began. There is no suspenseful buildup. Except for numbers or the alphabet, many of them have interchangeable pages without spoiling the subject. To appeal to a publisher, we need a unique approach. You might consider combining two concepts or find a unique vehicle for it. For example, a traffic jam with ten vehicles stopped at an intersection. One red firetruck turns right, leaving nine. One blue van turns left, leaving eight, etc. There is a preponderance of these on the market, but they still sell if your idea is special.

Picture book writers need not be illustrators. Unless a publisher requires illustrations accompany the text, you could be jeopardizing a sale. Not all artists are illustrators. Publishers like to pair a newbie with an established illustrator to guarantee sales. Check out the publishers’ websites for their policies. Don’t be one of those micro-managers. Leave the art to the illustrator. After all, they will get half the royalties.

Some illustrated books have plotted stories. The art enhances the story but is not necessary to the understanding. These are picture story books. All half-text/half art books for the young we’ll refer to as picture books. They must stand a read-aloud without awkward stumbles and tongue twists, and they must be graphic. Even if the author isn’t also the illustrator, he must think like an artist. That means plenty of action with the dialogue and exposition. Illustrators complain that they can’t draw talking heads. Move the characters around. Maybe they are on backyard swings and then run indoors to retrieve an apple—anything to keep them active. Another character joins them. Visualize your story as you edit it. Can you see the illustration as a close-up, a single character? Then it’s time to write a group scene for variety.

It is okay for writers to use a less familiar word. I try to limit unfamiliar words to no more than three in a story because the child might start out listening to a story. Their oral vocabulary is much larger than their reading abilities. I like to keep the sentences short and words simple. That way the manuscript sells for a storybook or a beginning reader. On the copyright page, look for a bracketed “e” [E].

Picture books are like islands. The story is visible. The theme is the strong foundation beneath the water line. That is what the child carries away from the story. The hidden themes are as serious as those of Shakespeare: brother against brother, abandonment, the powerful abusing the weak, etc. They are real life made palatable by costumes and those magic words, Once upon a time, or in a land far away. The optimistic classic and they lived happily ever after, might be missing from tomorrow’s classics. There is virtually no subject that is taboo as long as you keep in mind the child’s level of understanding.

I worried for days trying to work my way through a story on child abuse, The Ghost in the Garage, one of the Goosehill Gang series. I wanted to punish the parent, just as that classic abuse story, Hansel, and Gretel. I finally realized that I saw the story through my adult eyes. Once I saw it through the understanding of a primary child, the denouement became clear.

What we see is not a “happy ever after” but young characters overcoming one barrier and achieving one small goal against all the odds. Writers can show the young that each success is worth the effort, and we might get the message too.

WRITERS LOOK TO THE HOLIDAYS FOR INSPIRATION

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We are in the midst of the longest holiday season of our year, with Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Cuanza, and New Years among them. These holidays are a literary feast for writing ideas. Family and friends come together with good intentions. It is a time for joyful reunions. We catch up with all the wonderful news.

But the reunions might also trigger memories of slights and misunderstandings that we long ago tucked into dusty corners of our minds. Holidays also usher in those gushing/annoying letters naming all the successes and awards that they achieved while we were battling poverty, feeling as if we were at wits in, and underappreciated by our bosses. These are fodder for stories for children or adults, secular or non-secular.

Not all writers want to write holiday stories because they have such a brief window for publication and promotion. The competition is fierce for short stories in magazines, and even more for books. Holidays are a microcosm of conflicts that could happen anytime, anywhere, and you still have the differences of opinion, conflicting goals, and memories of conflict. Sometimes old slights fester from childhood and erupt into a contemporary rage. A 70-year-old woman burst into a rant about her sibling tearing the heads off her paper dolls when they were little girls. I imagined that was easier than recognizing the abuse that was too recent and raw to confront head-on.

Holidays bring with them high expectations and the inevitable disappointments, opportunities to heal old wounds or inflect new ones. They sometimes skewer our objectives and magnify our human needs to love and be loved, to achieve and learn, to have respect from others as well as self-respect, and to feel secure spiritually, physically, and emotionally.

I once wrote a Christmas short story based on a memory a relative told me about my deceased uncle. It focused on his love and generosity to a family at Christmas time when he had little to share and embodied everything I thought Christmas should be. It was my gift to our writer’s club holiday party. I was too impatient to wait six months before shopping for a market. Meanwhile, the idea nagged at me–the bond between the two people seemed a living thing.  It became the first two chapters of my middle-grade novel, Growin’ Pains, which followed a troubled girl through her year of coming of age. We writers should never waste anything when we can recycle.

The dinner conversation with those we rarely see is a highlight of holidays. It is also the catalyst for conflict and story ideas. When I worked on a metropolitan newspaper, we single folk worked the holidays so that our married coworkers could spend time with their families. [That reminds me of another Christmas story, but I think Dickens already did it]. With nearly everything else shut down, the city desk was sluggish. To while away our quiet morning, we had a pool going as to when the phone would ring with news of the first murder of the day, and whether the weapon was a gun or carving knife–big cities; you can always count on them. Inevitably, it was the carving knife at the table, and it depended on when they sat down to eat. At some point, someone at the table would ask, “And just what is that supposed to mean?” The second most used dialogue was, “We don’t talk about that in this family.” How’s that for a story-starter?

Whether your own holiday story is a mystery, burying the hatchet on old grievances, or the story of redemption, it is your opportunity to rewrite a bothersome past.

Holidays make the perfect starting point for a good story or a renewed commitment to work on our craft. Happy Holidays!

MAKE ME LAUGH OR CRY: WRITING SHOULD BE EMOTIONAL

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Since a lot of you joined lately, I’e updated and reprinted this from four years ago.

When readers open a book [or flick on their electronic reader, I reluctantly add], they expect to enjoy it, or at least to FEEL something. Most adults will continue to read, even when a storyline is only so-so. I do that, too. I keep hoping that it’ll get through the rough or boring spots and wow me at some point. I am disappointed to find that it’s boring or unrealistic. I don’t know if I am more disgusted with the book or with myself for continuing to read. Perhaps we must read what we think is inferior to recognize what is good.

There is no way a child will read a boring book. There are far too many books and electronic distractions to choose from for children to spend a boring moment hoping a story will get better. They simply toss the book aside the moment it fails to interest them. That is why editors can tell by the first page if they want to read a manuscript further.

Our job to start out with great writing so that the reader doesn’t stop before page ten where the action begins. It doesn’t have to be a Mickey Spillane “two shots ripped into my groin, and I was off on another adventure” type of lead. But hook the reader with something familiar enough to make them feel comfortable and different enough to whet their curiosity.

A sure way to grab a reader is with emotion. Think of all the emotions we experience in a day—joy, anger, fear, shyness, etc. We give the reader the opportunity to experience emotion with whatever challenges they face. Readers expect to not only learn about a piece of life they have not experienced themselves, but they also want to laugh, to cry, to empathize–to feel. But they want to do it vicariously by identifying with a protagonist much like themselves.

The character is a surrogate for us, and a buffer between us and danger,  the same way those magic words, “Once upon a time,” let us know as children that ogres couldn’t reach us. The emotions will be greater than the story itself. It is a scary world in reality, and few of us feel we can control any of it. Stories allow us to face those fears whether they are as overt as an abusive parent in a contemporary story or facing down a fiery dragon in fantasy.

Words can’t erase a feeling. The main character overcomes a negative emotion with a stronger more positive feeling. [Example: A young boy is afraid of heights. Everyone tells him it is silly to be afraid; just be careful. It isn’t until his kitten appears trapped on a branch higher than an arm’s reach that the love he feels for his kitten overcomes his fear and he takes his first step off the ground Our desires direct our reasoning. We can justify just about anything if we put our minds to it. If you don’t believe that, remember the last time our boss or leaders told you that what they are doing is for your best interest. We internalize our emotional struggles that eventually cause our actions or inactions. [Example: I know I’m not supposed to stay up past my bedtime, but I can do it without being caught. But what if Mommy catches me? Etc.] It adds tension when the character has hidden emotions that are contrary to the overt feelings:

I would dearly love to dump this pitcher of water in her lap. “More ice, Aunt Maude?”

As you think your story through, see it in your mind’s eye as scenes, each leading to the next. Be aware that your reader will “become” the character as he or she reads. Your reader will experience the emotional struggle going on with a clear view of the protagonist’s thoughts. That’s subjective viewpoint, whether you use the preferred third person or first person version. That is what bonds you, the reader, to the protagonist until the last word.

Practice makes near perfect. Try your hand at writing scenes of frustration, jubilance, sorrow, regret, etc. Avoid using those descriptions. Show don’t tell. We’ll FEEL those words.

If I haven’t laughed out loud or had a good cry by the end of a book, I feel cheated. How about you?

 

 

WRITERS, WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS?

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Whenever I spoke to writers’ groups, “Where do you get your ideas?” always came up. Like the unique platypus, the final story is usually a combination of odds and ends that somehow fit together. I eavesdrop, soul-search, collect bizarre facts and observe animals and fellow humans. Some ideas come from experiencing life itself. When I was a reporter, I covered The Salt Grass Trail, an annual event where we ride horseback or in wagons once followed by the pioneers, sleep under the stars, and eat from the chuck wagon. Many of the riders are genuine ranch hands on a “busman’s holiday.” I was one of the substantial numbers of wannabees.

Armed with a large supply of liniment and a boutique western outfit, I rode the three and a half days and ended up with the worst sunburn, sprained ankle ever, and er, uh, various sore spots. The real cowboys were no worse for wear. I concluded that the difference was their practical work gear from the broad-brimmed hat to the pick-toed boots. It inspired my non-fiction book; HATS ARE FOR WATERING HORSES: Why the Cowboy Dressed That Way. That book was the springboard for the biography for children, HATS OFF TO JOHN STETSON, and THE COWBOY CAPER, the humorous Sebastian [Super Sleuth] series. Whoever said that you are limited to only one book per idea?  If something raises your curiosity, follow through with research. You never know where it will lead.

Perusing a century-old school reader, I came across a tall tale about a trapper, John Coulter, and recognized his name from the Lewis and Clark expedition. Everything I’d learn about the adventure had been more about the sacrifices and hazards. If Coulter had a wild imagination and sense of humor, he appealed to me as a different viewpoint. Further research inspired WHO’D BELIEVE JOHN COULTER?

But the most unusual catalyst was probably a dot on a pre-colonial map that hung on my neighbor’s wall.

With the dot was a hand-lettered notation: “Goody Sherman’s pig penned here.” I was immediately intrigued. Who was Goody Sherman? Why was one pig so important that it was on a map?

Research brought up more names. Captain Robert Keane [keeper of the pound], Deer Island [the pound: where livestock spent the summer], and Governor Winthrop. A governor would have left a broad footprint in history. He was the logical place to start.

His diary referred to Goodwife Sherman as “that woman and her pig.” Ah ha! Conflict, animosity—all the ingredients of a suspenseful story was coming together. He mentioned a seven-year court battle over “that pig.” Through the Library of Congress, I secured the court records, which contained a wonderful collection of little-known facts.

By the time I concluded my research, it had a stack nearly three feet high. Goody’s lawsuit became more than an argument over a pig. The Magistrates and Deputies originally met together, Parliament-style. They became so divided over the fate of the pig that they refused to meet in the same room. This strong, determined woman lost her case, but she nonetheless split the government into two separate houses, inadvertently creating a model for our congress when our forefathers wrote our Constitution150 years later.

I came to know this woman as if we were contemporary neighbors chatting over the fence. I cared what happened to her, a sign that I was ready to write. The story theme grew beyond a picture book; the goal morphed into a chapter book. It seemed a natural for classrooms and school libraries as a supplemental text in social studies, history, celebrating The Constitution, Women in History, and so forth.  That was something that teachers were always clamoring for, and librarians would stock up.

It didn’t sell well. In fact, it never made back its advance. The publisher couldn’t wait to drop it. The book, like Goody Sherman, faded into obscurity.

Perhaps the title torpedoed sales. It sounded more like humorous fiction than a story based on a historical event and a little-known figure. It is difficult to gain acceptance, no matter how factual, when it goes up against long-accepted facts. Whatever the reason, the two other biographies followed like lemmings. I suppose many of us wish that we could have retroactive-do-overs. Maybe I should have insisted that we keep the qualifying title, GOODY SHERMAN’S PIG: How a Pig Split Our Government in Half. Perhaps the impressive list of sources should not have been omitted. It didn’t look like authentic history.

Consider this a cautionary tale. Be prepared to argue your case for what you believe is appropriate to include. You might have to sacrifice a page’s worth of story to make room for the source list, but it could be worth it to be accepted by your target audience.

Whenever you hear yourself utter “hmm” or “I wonder,” follow through with research. You might stumble into the best story yet. Don’t overlook your family tree for ideas. It’s the ordinary people unaware at the time that they are making history. Their anecdotes could become the springboards for your best stories, even if you disguise them in the name of family peace. I have, but I’m not telling!

 

The above-mentioned titles are available on many of the online booksellers if you’re interested.

The Manuscript is Done. What’s Next: Agent or Publisher?

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The question that most writers ask is, should I send my manuscript to a publisher or an agent? It is a little like the old chicken vs. egg dilemma. The best answer anyone can give is it all depends.

You have a better chance of getting a great agent if you have a few sales under your belt. You have a better chance at selling to a great publisher if you have an agent. It is a classic catch 22. Finding an agent might prove as difficult as finding a publisher. For either, it is a case of no one size fits all. Editors and agents are like fingerprints. No two are alike. Just because your best friend sings their praises doesn’t mean that the two of you will be a good fit. And just because that stranger you enjoyed chatting with at that cocktail party doesn’t mean that you should sign without reading the fine print.

There are advantages and disadvantages either way. Without an agent, you have a limited number of houses open to unsolicited manuscripts. Many of the major publishers are agents-only. They do not even allow query letters. A few occasionally put a call for manuscripts on their websites. Editors at regional writers’ conferences will sometimes agree to read one manuscript from the roster list of attendees. If you’re particularly lucky, you might get a one-on-one consult during the conference.

It might take you months to find an agent, if at all. Professional journals like The Writer, and The Writer’s Digest list agents and what genre they specialize in.  Check out the website, http://www. aaronline.org/find for a list of Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc. Its members operate under a canon of ethics and must be professionally active for the two years preceding application for membership and sold at least ten different literary properties in the previous eighteen months. For an agent not listed, find out what they have sold and how long they have been a full-time agent. If they take you on, you might be the sale that qualifies them.

You need to be sure that the two of you are a good fit. I’m not a good example since I’ve had two unsuccessful tries. Of the more than a hundred traditionally published books, I marketed all but one. The first agent I signed with almost cost me the book sale I already made. The second one sold only one manuscript over the years. Severing the “partnership” was traumatic for me, and it took me far too long to accept that we were not a good match. I think we were both relieved.

There are good reasons to have an agent:

They know the editors and what they want.

They know the trends at least two years in the future.

They do the marketing, leaving you to concentrate on writing.

They can get your manuscript to an editor who doesn’t read unsolicited manuscripts.

They get the rejections, which can negatively affect your writing.

They might be your most effective booster in low times.

On the other side, you have relinquished control over your baby. You are not their top priority since they have many clients, and a sale is a sale [except to you]. I heard from one author that her agent withheld other clients’ manuscripts as a bargaining chip to get her a better contract. That may be fine for her, but did the other clients know and approve that they were hostage to someone else’s negotiations? In another incident, the agent wouldn’t withdraw a manuscript or even ask about its status because she didn’t want to bother or offend the editor. Oh really?

Some agents are hands-on in revisions before submitting your manuscript. Others decide which of your manuscripts they will represent and leave the rest to you to place. Some are timid about inquiring about the submission status. Another might be so pushy that editors avoid their calls and considering their submissions.

You have to understand what you agree to give up and weigh the benefits against the losses, so ask questions. Even if you solicited their services, you are not obligated to sign on.

 Once you get over the hurdle and sign with an agent, it could take months longer to find a publisher, if at all. There are no guarantees.

You might decide to market your material yourself. The benefits are:

You keep control of your manuscript.

No one will believe in it more than you.

You will develop a more personal relationship with the editor so that she is more willing to work with you on a flawed manuscript.

Publishing houses have personalities that vary from experimental to ultra conservative. Within those houses, the editors want the stories they most enjoy reading for pleasure. Publishers have websites with their submission requirements, and a few websites like http://greatstorybook.com/publishers-accepting-submissions-from-authors-now/ carry updated lists. Publisher’s Weekly carry updates. It’s expensive, but most libraries I’ve been in have them in their magazine section. My experiences with editors are mixed. One couldn’t stop noodling with every sentence simply because it was there. She made me feel as if I was not a writer at all. We were not a good fit. Another editor asked a question and then stepped back to let me work through it. We worked together so well that I had only to make a quick phone call to contract without an outline or full manuscript.

Editors and agents have one thing in common. They want successful manuscripts. Write and revise, and keep at it until you have a super manuscript that appeals to many. Whichever route you take is the right one for you. Write on!

REAL WRITERS MAKE TIME; AMATEURS WAIT TO FIND IT

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As a wife, mother of three, and a traditionally published writer, I often heard from others, “I would write, too, if I could find the time.”

I was never sure if that implied that I didn’t give my family priority, or if they thought that somehow I managed to “find” 48 hours hidden within the 24-hour day. There was no secret. I didn’t find the time. I MADE it. I pieced it together from a minute while the water boiled, a half-minute spreading bread with peanut butter, and fifteen minutes folding diapers or searching for the elusive matching sock.

It meant moving my desk to the window that overlooked the front yard to watch the two older kids with their playmates. [Hint: Being a touch typist helps.] It meant setting the playpen by my desk chair with one leg slung over the rail for my toddler to ride horsie while I typed a sentence, or an entire segment if I was lucky.

How I came to have a sentence to type is another problem. As I grocery shopped, stored and prepared meals, I mentally formed sentences, twisting the words until they seemed better than the alternatives. Then quickly, I jotted it in the food splattered notepad on the counter. I stashed pencils and pocket-sized notebooks throughout the house. When a spare moment availed itself, I gathered them and typed their contents into a whole paragraph—victory.

Carpool lines were opportunities to dictate into the tape recorder. Checkout lines added precious minutes to edit a sentence or two. Late afternoons, reading to my kids [and any neighbor’s kids who joined them] was an opportunity to research published stories and see firsthand what kept listeners’ attention and what didn’t.

Writers, who MUST write, find ways to match wits with time vampires: Can I have a drink of water? I’m hungry. I was not to be denied. I made sandwiches, chilled drinks, and snacks, and stowed them within reach on fridge shelves. “When you see me at that desk, I am not here. I am at work just like Daddy. You have everything that you need right here. Do not interrupt me unless you are bleeding.” I stopped short of adding bandages to the shelf. That worked for a while. I even spotted the smaller neighbor rummaging there because, as he explained, “I can’t reach stuff in my house.”

Then one day, I became aware of at least twice my number of kids, plus an unfamiliar dog, around my desk. Admonished for breaking the agreement, my oldest, all of nine, asked me how, since I was at the desk and therefore not here, could I be bothered?

The moral of these confessions is that we must exercise our imaginations in making time and at any moment be ready to adapt and adjust. I started out with five minutes “at the office.” I worked it up to fifteen minutes and finally to an hour. It is possible to write a 365-page novel producing only one page a day. When I worked on the newspaper, my immediate boss was David Westheimer, who wrote his award-winning, bestselling Von Ryan’s Express by writing a few pages every morning before he came to the office. He told me that he used the drive to and from the paper to think about what he’d say the next day. Only wannabees wait to find the time. Real writers make it.

No one is going to take you seriously until you do, especially until your time starts to pay off in contracts. Even then, few people understand what goes into writing a publishable story. Most think that what they see on paper is it. Whether it’s your family or friends, who are relieved to find out that you are “only writing, so you’re not busy,” will try to coerce you into dropping it and coming over for coffee. This situation is where that thick skin you developed against rejections comes in. Use it. Learn to say no sometimes.

The best way to counter the distractions is to set a regular time and a minimum daily accomplishment. Writing is solitary by necessity. We need to feel successful to write on less fulfilling days. I have found that the best way to do that is to set small successive goals. I stop short of giving myself a gold star or a smiley face Imogi; a satisfied feeling is enough. At the start, I knew that I could write only one segment at a sitting. Now I can write anywhere from eight to ten pages a day that I am not ashamed to reread when I go back to cut and revise. But I set my goal for four solid pages a day, which I am confident, is achievable.

In the day square on the calendar, I make a diagonal line from the upper right to the lower left. On the upper left triangle, I write the modest goal [pages 1-4, 5-8, etc. or “plot chapter 1”]. In the bottom triangular space, I write the actual achievement.  On those days of unavoidable commitments or low creative energy, I have a visual reminder that I’m still ahead of my goal and don’t get paralyzed by guilt or anxiety, or miss out on something fun.

The system works if you are unwilling to fall behind your goals. It is a commitment. I can’t say often enough that writing is a pleasure; selling is a business. We must factor in time for experiencing life or else we have little to write. Only we decide if we want to make our living with writing or if it is a hobby. If you choose it as a pastime, that’s fine. Then you are free to “find time” to write. But if you NEED to write, and you want to quit your day job eventually, then you must approach writing as a full-time job with at least six hours a day in some phase of writing—research, plotting, marketing, writing, etc. It gets harder to adjust your time when you achieve the success you want. You’ll have to work in travel, guest appearances, video visits, etc. That’s why it is best to set low, achievable goals daily.

That’s when someone is bound to come up to you and say, “I could write too if I could find the time” you can smile knowingly. Time is elusive, but it is right there, hiding in the darnedest places. Write on!

Writers, Beware of the Tell

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For me, a side effect of writing is the inability to read for pure entertainment. Every novel becomes a lesson in the subtleties of plot, or in some cases, the lack of subtleties. Readers have certain expectations. If the story is a romance, we feel sure that the main character, despite the bumps and potholes she goes through on her journey, will find love in the end. Rarely are two males of equal “value.” We root for her to pick the one or the other.

In every day stories, we presume the main character will reach some recognized goal or an acceptable substitute that is better. In crime stories, we expect the seasoned detective or amateur sleuth to uncover the criminal. Further, we try to beat the main character to the solution or enjoy the shock of the unexpected. This is especially true in mysteries, my favorite genre for pastime reading. Like many readers, I select a few favorite authors because I prefer the slow uncover of clues to unspeakable violence every other page or psychotic killers. Motives may seem illogical to us, but they are reasonable in the criminals’ minds.

I find that some authors in book after book, have a Tell like poker players that points out the villain early on as surely as if he had a tattoo on his forehead that said GUILTY. I know that if a particularly ugly man or woman sporting a grotesque mole somewhere on his or her face enters the story by chapter two, it’s only a matter of a few pages before that person commits a dastardly deed. If his teeth are yellow or crooked, the deed will be particularly horrid. In another series, I realize that if a character is snarky to the hero, scowls all the time, and is disagreeable and demanding, whatever the crime is—that’s the culprit. One author no later than page 20 in every story brings the lonely heroine and mysterious stranger together like two ships colliding for no other reason than they just felt like it. She has even lifted the entire scene from one book to the other, word for word. I can’t cast any stones. Reviewing some of my published books, I find that often my character names are a dead giveaway. Of course, Grossman is guilty in The Double Double-Cross. Only my main character is surprised.

Perhaps it is time to reflect and regroup. Recall those news clips when some serial killer is finally caught? Neighbors and friends all exclaimed shock. “He is such a quiet man. He never causes any trouble; we barely knew he was there.” Or, “I can’t believe that she murdered her children. She babysits my kids. She bakes cookies for the neighborhood.”

Criminals’ goals are directly opposite to those of our hero, who wants to find and expose them. They want to get away with whatever crime they commit. They blend in, appear just like everyone else. Unless they are bat-crazy, they hold their snarky comments inside. They may help carry your groceries, bake cookies, and repair that loose picket on your fence. Most are ordinary-looking, or perhaps even beautiful or handsome. The Venus Fly Trap catches flies by offering them what they want. If Evil were ugly or insulting, we’d avoid it.

I am more aware now of my own Tell. A review of the manuscript in progress revealed that I made the killer too unlikable. That tendency we have may stem back to our fairy tale days with Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters. If I were retelling that story today¸ I would make them beautiful. Only their behaviors are ugly. So I’m rewriting my perpetrator’s role.

In real life, not all heroes are drop dead gorgeous. Maybe they broke their noses in high school football, or they limp from an old car wreck. The females may be unable to control their weight or have bad hair days every day. We must fight our cliché characters as we fight cliche text.

Some writers have the faith that their story will eventually reach a desired destination, even if they don’t plot it out first. I’ve done it that way too. The anxiety was agony. Some plot backward. They know the solution and plant clues as they work toward the beginning. I tried that and felt it was too obvious for me. I like to be surprised. The same holds true for stories of possibility. I always know where I need to end, and it’s only a matter of how to get there with the fewest detours. A loose plot gives me confidence.

There is no one way to plot a story. My method may not appeal to you, but this is how I try to avoid telescoping the denouement up front. I honestly don’t know which of the characters is guilty. I plot my story right up to the last two chapters and stop. Then I read through what I have. I find that I have subconsciously revealed clues [real ones, not cosmetic ones]. I see that, without realizing it, I have pretty much eliminated most of the suspects. I’m lucky if I narrowed the list to only two suspects. Did I miss something? Which one is it? How can I make the least likely one be the answer? If I’m surprised, perhaps the reader will be too. I know it isn’t going to be the ugly, snarky one. He’s much too obvious.

I recall from criminology classes that the perpetrator’s conscience, assuming that he is not a sociopath with an inactive one, causes him to make mistakes. Perhaps after cleaning up a chaotic scene, he neglects to wipe his fingerprint from the underside of the light switch. Or the clever hero views photos of the party before and after the crime and notices that the lapels on the perp’s shirt are slightly different or perhaps the buttons are sewn on one shirt with the crisscross pattern and the other shirt’s buttons are stitched like prongs. Perhaps one had cuff-links, the other one buttons. A quick search uncovers the telltale clothes. When we avoid Tells, we give the main character the opportunity to be smarter than the criminal. These details may not be enough in a real court, but the writer’s job is usually to point out the culprit and end the story. It is a matter of slipping the clue somewhere into the story.

It’s the same with any story. It doesn’t have to be a mystery. Whether we write every day possibilities, probabilities, or raw realism, the solutions are hidden somewhere in the observations or dialogue that bring about a satisfying denouement for our main character. And we don’t have to brand it with a Tell. Write on!

SUCCESSFUL WRITER: How Do You Define It?

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An aspiring writer, when asked what her goals were, replied, “I want to write a bestseller so that I can live on the beach and donate millions to the less privileged.” Ambitious and benevolent—you have to admire that combination. She was about three planets away from the real world, though. About two weeks into the class, she presented me with three typewritten pages and said that she had finished her novel. Stunned when I asked where the rest of it was, she said that was the entirety. I told her that she was about 375 pages short. She tossed the pages in the trash can on her way out of the class, and I never saw her again. As with a few aspiring writers, her goals were beyond her willingness to put in the time and work.

Most novices have a more grounded notion about what it takes to be a seller, let alone a “best” seller. None of us start out saying, “I want to write a mediocre manuscript that no one will read.” We want to feel successful. Defining success is more elusive. To one it may be to salvage three strong pages from the ten produced that day. To those who wish more than they work, you are impressive if you received a complimentary rejection.

A sure way to sabotage your idea of success is to compare yourself to someone else without realizing that there were many rungs on the ladder to get there. Only imaginary superheroes can leap to the top in one mighty bound. It helped me to set small goals, plateaus of minor successes, little rungs on the ladder to feel the least bit successful:

  • To study the best writing examples and learn from professionals
  • To stop apologizing for being an unpublished writer
  • To write the best manuscript possible
  • To research the best potential publishers still open to submissions
  • To list at least five potential publishers and to submit to the firsts on the list
  • To get a favorable comment, even buried in a rejection, by an editor
  • To revise a manuscript according to an editor’s suggestion
  • To sell a manuscript
  • To have my title featured on the catalog cover
  • To be reviewed by a major magazine or newspaper
  • To be invited to speak locally
  • To be invited to speak elsewhere
  • To sign books at a national conference
  • To receive fan letter [that is not a class assignment]
  • To be reprinted in paperback and foreign language or short film
  • To achieve name recognition

My list of baby steps follows one title. Think of it as a round-robin song. The best plan is to continue to write the best manuscripts possible and to follow all of the steps with each one. The moment you send out one manuscript, you begin another.

You’ll notice that there is no mention of winning awards, bestsellers, or dictating that next novel beneath the shade of a cabana on the beach. They came, but I was surprised at how short-lived the feeling of success was. My thoughts were always on the current manuscript. “Success” is addictive. One taste and it becomes the white whale in your life.

Ask any writer that you consider the epitome of success, and you will find that they have traits in common:

  • They strive daily to improve
  • They are not easily discouraged but see failures as a learning experience
  • They find their own voice instead of following what’s currently “hot”
  • They accept constructive criticism as a tool to better their writing
  • Although they have long-term goals, they have mini-interim goals

There might be a few success stories that make you want to skip some steps. I doubt seriously that more than a handful of authors were ever an “overnight success.” Rowling had 13 rejections before she sold her first Harry Potter. But if you make that first goal to write the best you are capable, good things can happen. Good luck!

 

ONCE MORE WITH FEELING: Check Points Before You Send Your Manuscript

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Before you submit your manuscript, here are some points you can check for yourself:

Title: Is the title provocative? Aside from your cover letter, the title is the first thing about your manuscript that the editor will see. A dull, unprovocative title doesn’t bode well for your style. The editor that bought my non-fiction book, Hats Are for Watering Horses, told me that she fell in love with the title immediately. “Only a poor manuscript would have prevented me from my instant decision to buy it based on the title alone.”
Put as much thought into your title as you do in your plot. List the possibilities, and wait until you are satisfied with your manuscript before you make your final selection. It should give us the essence without telescoping the story, i.e. “Suzie Goes Shopping.” Perhaps something like “A Bag of Surprises” would tempt the reader better.

Introduction: Is the opening sentence a strong one? Do the first few sentences or paragraphs let the reader know who, what, when, where, and why of the story? Does the story begin too far back? Start with the moment the situation changes. We don’t need to get up, bathe, brush teeth, dress, eat breakfast, pack, etc. to go to Grandma’s. Start with the arrival, or better yet, start with the first time the protagonist stomps off angrily.

Character: Is your main character [protagonist] the most important one in the story? Is he/she interesting, likable and well-rounded [believable]? Is he/she the correct age for your readers? Can your readers visualize the protagonist through his/her actions, description and dialogue? Would the story be the same even if he/she were not in it? You need to rethink your cast of characters.]
Does the protagonist have a real problem that is appropriate for his/her age? Is it one the readers can recognize? Can he/she solve the problem without help? Have you kept to a single viewpoint? Review the manuscript to be sure that ONLY your protagonist’s thoughts and senses are overt. Show all other characters objectively, i.e., what you observe within your main character’s sight and earshot. Verbs like “thought, heard, saw, etc.” are for your main character only.

Style: Have you used strong action verbs? People don’t just walk. They amble, pace, totter, or stomp, according to their mood. Are the tone, style, and general feeling, portrayed in keeping with the time and setting? Does it move quickly toward the climax? Is the ending satisfactory with no loose ends, pat endings or coincidence? Did you omit obvious and extraneous explanations? Do the last several sentences wrap up logically? Does it leave you with a feeling that “justice” or that there is at least hope, if not a happy ending? Is it clear in unhappy endings that it was the character’s choice?
Is your dialogue natural? Does it move the plot forward? Does the story flow smoothly between scenes? [A simple “Back home,” or “Later” moves the protagonist from school to home. We don’t need the bus ride.] Have you kept the moral from hanging out there in plain sight? [SHOW the change in your character; don’t just tell us.]
Did you find weak spots that need to be deleted or strengthening? Are there gaps that need transitions or explanations? Is there variety in sentence structure? Do you have passive sentences [“started to,” “began to,” “was walking.” Did you eliminate verbatim greetings: “Hello. How are you? I am fine,” etc.]

Length: Editors reject beautifully written stories because they are longer than the magazines stated length allowance. Even books have limits for financial reasons. Check out the magazine markets for limits. No story truly suffers from cutting, and I’ve yet to see one bleed. Go through your story. Are there whole scenes that can be cut and the story still make sense? Is it still too long? Check for whole paragraphs, and then for sentences within the saved paragraphs. Look for unnecessary words within the saved sentences [So, well, really, very, just, even, at all, certainly, definitely, exactly, anyway, some, all of a sudden, there is, it is, forms of to be.]

There is a time to let go. When you have done the best you can at that moment, follow the publisher’s guidelines for submissions. Not many publishers have the courtesy of saying “no thanks” anymore. Mark your calendar for when you should move on to the next. Put it out of your mind and start a new story. If the recipient publisher lacks the foresight to purchase your baby, take the opportunity to reread your manuscript with a fresh eye. Chances are, you’ll find a few things you want to change before sending it to the next. That’s a good indication that you are growing as a writer. Celebrate!

When setting scenes, Writers can learn from the Movies

Whether our characters are floating in space and tethered outside the space lab, living in a sod house on the prairie, or peering through a skyscraper window at the city below, readers shouldn’t have to guess. Settings are a part of the story. The location is the background that helps reveal our main character. A mountain man might be at home in the wilds of the forest but miserable in the noisy, crowded city. A type A ambitious corporate woman could find a one-lawyer small town boring. The setting is to the character and story what the dark velour jeweler’s cloth is to a diamond, highlighting our attention on the one with whom we identify. We can take our cue from Hollywood about the best way to bring the reader into the setting.

I like the way we get the broad landscape view first. It might be from atop a hill with a view of the town below. Then we get a closer view of a house with smoke rising for the chimney. The next shot is inside with a woman shoving a pan of cornbread batter into a wood stove. It is peaceful, and we settle back, knowing exactly where we are, curious about the woman and ready to follow her movements.

The pattern is so simple. Start with a broad view, and keep narrowing the focus. It’s possible to change our focus and increase the tension if we reverse the process. We start with the woman preparing to bake the cornbread. Maybe we show the exterior of the town with the mountain in the background. The next description moves to the top of the mountain, where a dark-clothed, his black hat shadowing his face, sits astride his ebony horse, rifle in hand. Our heart beats faster. Who is he? Does he mean harm to the woman?

If we mix the order, we generate a panicky feeling. It could be effective in showing someone looking where to escape. It’s our story, and we can break from the norm if it serves our purpose. The secret is to master the norm so that when we break it, it is to serve the effect we want, not because we didn’t know better.

One other tool we might learn from the visual arts: brevity. Time the changes in the camera angles and focus the next time you’re watching a show. Every 2-3 seconds, the screen changes. We don’t need to describe every log in the woman’s house or the variety of weeds on the mountaintop. Extraneous description bogs down the action, and we lose the purpose of writing in the first place—readers.

Here’s an exercise to try next time you need a break from your story: Describe a place of your choice on a sunny spring day. Now imagine that same scene on a moonless night, in the pale moonlight, and finally as a distant storm approaches. Go back to each description and describe your sensory reactions. One day you’ll thank me. Write on!

RAIN, SLEET or SNOW: Weather sets the mood, affects the clothes and activities, and creates suspense

Weather is sometimes the neglected element in our stories. I’ve read through novels without a single reference to the time of year or time of day. Yet it is an important tool in our writer’s box of devices to show more about the characters. Rain, sleet, snow, drought—these elements affect mood and behavior. They cancel or create opportunities for events.

You can’t live on one of the three coasts without the specter of hurricanes, storm surges, floods, or tornadoes. You have only to look at the news to see how lives change. One character might discover the strength and determination that your heroine never realized she had. What will she do with that newfound courage?

Another character might take advantage of the confusion and uncertainty and the destroyed records to disappear and adapt a new persona with opportunity without the baggage of his past. Will he move on to a better existence or revert to the old ways? On the flip side, will those who loved him not rest until they find him or live with unresolved questions?

Does snow brighten one’s outlook or turn one sour because it spoils important plans. We can contrast our character to the weather background or make the character reflect the weather so that the reader dreads a dark overcast, anticipating his mood.

What we consume reflects the weather. Does your character put on a pot of chili or soup, or does she invite a good listener over for hot cider and confessions? Might she go into the garden and pick a sprig of mint for some ice tea? What she serves with that, and whether they sit at the kitchen table or in the living room with the silver service set she inherited from Grandma tells us a lot.

Weather affects what our characters pull from the closet for that shopping trip. Does she choose that tartan skirt and woolly sweater, and then stand in front of her mirror trying to decide her jewelry accessories in case she might want to impress someone with her good taste? Or might she throw on yesterday’s tee and stained pants figuring it’s just a quick run to the store? That reveals a lot about attitude, doesn’t it? We didn’t have to explain any further.

Weather is a good tool for transitioning passing of time. Use rain on Monday and clear skies and sun to show the change. Or if you want the rain for a long period of time, you might use the rain gauge on the outside of the window or the rising water with the bird bath spilling over.You can find the site for any area on any given time of the year, and the weather is covered. You can also look up how a storm builds if you one of the lucky ones with stellar weather all the time.

Our characters’ lives are not hermetically sealed in a domed city that is always a perfect 72°. Using weather to your advantage, you can create characters that form sweat beads above their lips while jogging or develop goose bumps when stepping out into a brisk snowy day. Readers have experienced these simple things, and they bond with your characters, following them and rooting for them until you write “the end.”

Location, location, location—Settings Influence the Story in Unexpected Ways

Where am I? That’s the question readers want to know. A few words about the scene changes within a story anchor the reader whether your character is moving from room to room, past storefronts downtown, or across the country.

For me, a detailed segment with objective description doesn’t work in my own projects of in others’ published works. I confess, all that purple haze around the moon kind of descriptions in Hemmingway novels was a big turnoff. I want to know what my character reacts to the place. Do the huge convention of vendors in a closed coliseum and the noise it creates, quicken the pulse or sends her racing toward the relative silence of the stairwell to recover now and then?

If a setting really needs a well-edited, succinct detailed description consider leading with it and then bring the character onto the scene. Does that work better for you?

Another way to let us know the details is to have the character show us by action: Agnes used her handkerchief to clear a peephole from the steamed window. [We even learned that Agnes uses real handkerchiefs and not tissue. What does that tell you about Agnes’ personality?] The cabin door gave way to Trey’s shoulder, stirring a thick layer of dust on the floor. He sneezed as he cautiously tested the floor with one cautious step. His flashlight’s narrow beam sliced through a jumble of broken furniture. At the sight of occupied cobwebs not even a foot from his face, he grimaced.[We don’t need to be told that this is an abandoned place or that Trey would rather be somewhere else.]

Writers sometimes use locations of their own imaginations. When I realized that The Goosehill Gang was turning into a series instead of a loner, I drew a map of their neighborhood and town, naming the streets and storefronts that they would be. That way little details like turning East or the sun hitting their backs or faces was consistent in the 14 titles. Sometimes writers use real locations and their official names, or they use real places but rename them. That’s especially true if you are going to have something terrible happen at a business. Some take that personally.

If we are using a real place, there is no better way to capture the nuances than to see for yourselves. The problem with that is we might visit in one season, but the story takes place in another season. When I wrote Singin’ Somebody Else’s Song, The photos and postcards did not tell the reality of Music Row in Nashville had I not driven and walked that short but exciting strip dedicated to the entertainment and business of country music. I might have missed the nuances like the stinging assault beer aroma to my nostrils as doors swung open to the sidewalk or the cacophony of the different bands spilling simultaneously into the street.

My trip was in the winter when the snow covered the ground, the ice crunched beneath my feet, and the cars spewed fog as their exhausts met the frigid air. But my story takes place during summer vacation when Gideon is out of school.

For Growin’ Pains, I chose the country setting that I knew well from the many visits to my grandparents’ home. That was decades before. By the time I was writing the story, the town had either vanished like many small towns, or it had flourished and expanded beyond recognition. Although I gave the tiny town a new name and walked that dusty red path between the house and the four-building “downtown,” the story covered a year in my main character’s life, and seasons greatly affected the lives of the farming town. My visits were in the summer.

For both of those novels, I had to do what I call forensic research to “see” what Nashville looks like in the summer when it is in full bloom and hot or what the rural town was like when the fruit-packing company was inactive, and the people hunkered down from the cold.

It is a good reason to carry a small recorder or notebook wherever you go. Pause and look around you. What do you see? What species of trees are abundant? They may be green now, but in a different season, there might be acorns to crunch beneath your feet, or pinecones or gumballs that are hazardous to your footing. What do you hear? Indigenous birds might whistle, tweet, or caw. Is there a train track near enough to rattle the windows, shake the ground? What are the aromas? Is a bakery close by? Sometimes, it is not what is there at your moment of observation. The combination of websites, and imaginations will serve well, even when you can’t be present during your target season. It is the forensic evidence that tells you the possibilities at a different time of day or season of the year. Write on!

WRITERS, NOTHING TO SNEEZE AT: Magazine Stories, Articles are Excellent Sources for Income While You Work on That Novel

When neighbors are busily sticking scarecrows in their yard and carving their jack-o-lanterns, some writers are thinking about Easter eggs and pancake races. While shopping for a back-to-school wardrobe, they might be researching the origin of fireworks or the historical variations of the flag. In March, with the aroma of corn beef and cabbage in the air, writers’ thoughts might be about the challenges of a new school, making new friends or fitting in. That’s the life of a magazine fiction or article writer.

Many novices aren’t interested in writing anything but novels, and that could rule out a source of income as well as other benefits that are not so obvious at first glance. It’s true that there are no autograph parties for magazine writers. [As many authors will tell you they are highly overrated.] However, there are practical reasons to start out with short stories or articles for magazines. There is a good chance if you are going to run into problems writing fiction, you’ll have them in short pieces too. Isn’t it better to find out where your skills need a boost before you invest months on a full-length manuscript?

Among the benefits are:

1. Book editors read magazines. They sometimes like a writer’s work enough to ask them to submit to the publishing house, even suggesting a subject.
2. Your byline becomes familiar, and you are more likely to get a full read instead of a cursory scan or first page only when submitting cold. You build a resume of success and demonstrate that you can produce publishable work.
3. Then there is the money. When you compare the advance for a novel manuscript and the hours you spent writing and revising to the magazine pay and the hour or so the piece took to write, you will find that the pay is not bad at all and is a lot faster. Depending on the magazine, you may get opportunities for reprints, adding more income with no extra effort. One of my articles in a newspaper Sunday magazine led to a series in the syndicate. Check to be sure that they bought first rights only.
4. With articles, the research you do might be a good background for a short story, or you might find entirely different slants that are acceptable to several magazines. For instance, an article about a local event with a different slant might be perfect for an airline magazine. Look for the airline that serves that area. See how many ways you can recycle research.

Back to the Future

There’s nothing like the smells, sights, and sounds of a season to give us ideas for stories. Keep in mind that it is too late for the current year. Jot them down and file them for the future. For magazines, the present is past, and the future is now. Magazine editors probably have their content selected two months before publication. That means that for writers, the best chance of publishing is to think about six months ahead. About Easter, think Halloween. At Thanksgiving, think May Day and Maypoles. That gives you time to market your pieces, even try other markets if you are rejected. The submission window is brief on seasonal and holiday pieces. It’s a good idea to consider how to adapt it to an anytime piece just in case. The alternative is to wait for the next season.

Creating a six months schedule gives you a month to come up with as many ideas as possible, the second month to write and a couple of months to market. For example, in November you’ll collect as many ideas that fit a May theme as possible while you write your April short stories and articles and market your March, February and January themed manuscripts.

  You might want to make a chart with the current month, subject idea month, the writing month, and the marketing months. It makes more sense on paper than trying to keep it straight in your head. Once it becomes routine, it is a lot easier. Some magazines publish their wish lists of subjects for the months on their websites. Don’t overlook the possibility of newspapers and their Sunday magazines with a narrower sale/publishing window. The pay in the general newspaper sections may be low or non-existent, but it does offer a credit to mention in your cover letter unless you want the manuscript languishing in your file.

You still have a week left to come up with ideas for October’s projects about April:

Easter: articles or short stories about customs in different cultures, bunny myths, how to decorate an egg, religious or pagan celebrations of spring, spring cleaning, April birthstone and where it is found, check out the astrological sign and personality. Create a main character with those traits for a short story.
April Fool day: How it came to be, some of the best pranks pulled by the famous; a short story on a prank gone wrong, how it turned around on the prankster
Arbor Day: Article on the endangered rainforests, an article on the role trees play in our ecosystem, the giant redwoods in CA—are they anywhere else? The mystery of how the only stand of maple trees in Texas came to be in the remote location. Write a short story about honoring a loved one with a tree planting, or Israel’s reforestation project.
Earth Day: The changing environment, what individuals can do, the fight against floods, the story of how the Grand Canyon was created by water, the layers and how they tell the geological history.

Check out websites [like https://www.brownielocks.com/.html%5D that name all the bizarre holidays for your inspiration.
I’ll try to make this an additional feature in the first week of each month.

NOVEMBER WRITER MARATHON: Are You a Turtle or a Hare?

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November is just two weeks away, which means that aspiring writers will take the challenge to write a novel of at least 50,000 words before midnight November 30th.
Pros and novices commit to a writing marathon. Some folks love it because it “forces” them to sit down and just do it. I guess some pros might work that way too. I recall meeting a successful writer who told me that she “rewards” herself when she finishes a manuscript.

I found that puzzling since there are higher paying and less emotional taxing occupations in writing. I thought the incentive was the love of the journey. Some pros and novices like the competition or perhaps feeling a connection to the great numbers of people who are probably doing the same thing at the same time. I saw an interview last year with one of the participants. She participated two years and planned to do it again. Pressed by the interviewer, she said that by December her hard copies were tucked away in a drawer—mission accomplished.

With weekends off for R&R, that’s around 2000 words a day. Writing is a lonely business. We seek out similar souls to commiserate about the process through local clubs and online pen pals or challenges like NaNoWriMo. The creators wisely suggested that participants start prepping in September. There is much to do before you start your race to finish the minimum wordage. That is a reasonable length for a juvenile novel. But even the lightweight, cozy mysteries are longer than that. Fifty-K words make a decent first draft. Price-conscious editors and agents keep in mind that readers expect to get a lot of story for the cover price. Given a workable plot and likable characters, you can go back to add sensory details, clarify descriptions, and add dialogue to improve and lengthen the manuscript considerably. If that isn’t enough, you can always give the main character some vocation or hobby that adds dimension to the character’s personality and bring in another character for a subplot.

If you are just now made aware of the challenge, you are already two months behind in preparation. Before you begin to write November 1st, you have basic decisions to make: Who is the main character that readers will care about and root for? Who are the “supporting cast?” You might want at least one who believes in and supports the MC, someone to whom the MC reveals thoughts, or mirrors the goals. You will want to consider an adversary, the reminder that goals might be out of reach. Every one of these characters has an agenda of their own, and they all have lived through accomplishments and failures, experiences and problems that make them who they are. Once you really know them, they all but write the story for you.

If you weren’t one of the early birds, don’t despair. What about that abandoned manuscript that remains unfinished in a drawer. It’s worth a second look. As Mark Twain said, “Take the fire; leave the ashes.” Find that fire in it that made you want to have a go at it in the first place. If you’ve read consistently and written all along, chances are you will have a new perspective this time.

You’ll need to think about the place and time. Historical or the Future requires preliminary research to avoid anachronisms. The location and time of year affect the weather, the length of days and ordinary things like cutting grass or shoveling snow, drought or hurricane. Avoiding these details for a generic anytime, anywhere story denies the realities of life. It is a good idea to know where you’re heading before you begin. Not every writer creates detailed chapter outlines. Some prefer a stream of conscious or seat of the pants style. But knowing at least what you expect the MC to accomplish and/or understand, you might avoid a lot of side trips. Wander off the road, and you might bog down in quicksand.

I haven’t participated in NaNoWriMo in the past and don’t plan to this year either. November is my time to prepare for the holidays. I use the baking, decorating time to prep and create in my head. I am much too slow and deliberate in my preparation and give it at least three months before I start to outline a story. I would wind up failing to complete and feeling like a failure. Without positive feedback, we get enough of that feeling on our own. Some days I can write a complete, often poor chapter. Other times I might create only 300 satisfying words. I’m not saying that I don’t set goals most days.. I’ve had to write a chapter a day to reach deadlines. I might even try the first draft in a month too. But I’ll select a short, miserable month like February, where inside with my computer and a steaming glass of hot cider seems smart.

Writers are as different as fingerprints in our processes. If you are incentivized by the competition, go for it and when the clock strikes midnight on November 30th, take a moment to congratulate yourself. Let the story germinate in the computer and your thoughts over the holidays, and then set your own timeframe to reread, revise, and recreate. I’ll be right here, cheering you toward the goal. Write on!

If your questions involve a manuscript critique, please use QUERY in the subject line.

WRITERS’ CONFERENCES AND WORKSHOPS: MAKING THE MOST OF THEM

The bulk of writers’ conferences are in the spring or summer, but some nifty ones are soon coming up. I recently read what I thought might be lousy advice to first-time attendees. That awakened me from my lengthy sabbatical. It seemed time to offer an alternative point-of-view since I’ve been both attendee and speaker.
An obvious task is to read what the writers and/or editors have published. How else do you know if they fit with your interests or ask intelligent, relevant questions at the end of their talks?
The advice I saw suggested talking points in the event you happened on an editor or writer alone on a break. No matter how tempting it might be to talk to them, don’t. Smile, say thanks for a good workshop, and move on. You’ll thank me later. Here’s why:
Chances are she has already spoken several hours, had question and answer periods, read a plethora of attendee manuscripts, and given each author a 15-minute face time to discuss her written comments about them. She needs that alone time to recover and regenerate. If you intrude and bombard her with questions, she’ll conclude that you opted to attend someone else’s workshop but still want to impress her with your professionalism.
Annoying the editor will impress them, but not how you planned. Those aggressive attendees that behave like hungry attack dogs have already shown how demanding and difficult they might be to work with. Some have even followed the editor [even one of the opposite gender] into the restroom, sliding their work under the door. Yes, it happens more often than not.
Conferences offer that one-time-only pass to submit to an agent-only publisher because a caveat to speaking is an agreement to read manuscripts by attendees. It might be worth the $300-500 cost of the conference plus transportation, room, and meals. Of course, you want to get the most benefit for your money.
There are alternatives to pestering the speakers for the personal time they don’t have. Why not volunteer transportation for the speaker from or to the airport, or to the television studios for arranged interviews? Or sign up to be their hospitality aide, keeping them on time, supplied with requested props, bottled water, and prepared handouts, offering whatever help that will make their stay easier.
They will remember your name in the best way possible. You’ll have plenty of time after they have returned to the office to impress them with your manuscript [especially if you’ve revised it according to their lectures].

If you are interested in a critique, please label your email with QUERY. If you have subjects that you want to see let me know.

Build a Better Book One Step at a Time: Step 3: Who’s in Charge?

Writers’ best tools of the trade might be our uniqueness. We see everything through our own experiences created through living in our particular circumstances and personalities. At this fork in the writing road, we each choose our own travel mode.

Some choose the “seat of the pants” method and start writing with no idea where it will go. I tried that and wound up throwing out two completed manuscripts before the third rewrite was successful enough to find a publisher. My worst mistake in the previous two was to start the story too soon. They weren’t a waste, however. They provided me the backstory that drove my character. The readers didn’t need to know it up front but I did.

Other writers like to plot so thoroughly that they need only to add dialogue, settings, and transitions for a first draft. That doesn’t always work for me. I never start on a journey without a destination in mind and a roadmap in hand. Otherwise, I get sidetracked by every irrelevant side trip to see the tap-dancing chicken or two-headed Gela Monster.

My approach to telling a story falls somewhere between the two. I do need to know where I want to be at the climax, even if I don’t know how that climax will turn out before I get there. Knowing that helps me decide where to best begin and keeps the focus on a succinct, believable story. The most suspenseful stories start as near the end as possible and fill in details on a need to know basis. The end needs to be satisfying, even if it is a disaster for the main character. It is believable because it comes from the main character’s actions and not from me forcing a happy ever after. The character must enter the story with all the tools necessary to forge a happy ending. Because as we write the end, the person we rooted for is writing the beginning of the rest of his or her life.

Recall that I was intrigued by that article about a parrot that testified in a murder trial. Research brought up other parrot stories. Here is where I get to the “chicken or the egg” dilemma. The experience can’t happen without the best possible character. A character won’t be at his or her best without the perfect challenge. To meld perfectly, the character and situation might need to move to some distant future or back in time, from Earth to another planet. We aren’t bound by anything but the limits to our imaginations.

For a children’s story, I might use the parrot-smuggling idea and create a child who observes the mystery thin man who goes to Mexico in the morning and returns plump beneath an overcoat on a hot day. If I did that, I might choose a boy that is often scolded for not paying attention in class or who is often in trouble for making up stories to get attention. When he finally solves the crime he could be the hero. One success is life-changing and creates a new pattern of success. Or I might choose a middle-grade story and have a girl helping in her parents’ pet shop and overhears a talkative parrot midst the new arrivals. Her curiosity could put her in jeopardy where she must join forces with someone she intensely dislikes.

If stopping the parrot smuggling ring is the main experience, it will take place along the US-Mexican border at one of the legal crossings. As I am more familiar with the Texas crossings I might select El Paso to Juarez, or Brownsville to Matamoros. The flavor, the attitude, and the atmosphere would be different than if it was in New York, where cargo ships arrive daily. The main character would have different circumstances.

But I can’t stop thinking about the tattletale parrot. Who could resist a scene like that? The courtroom is hushed, except for the coughs and throat-clearing that takes place in pauses. The jury returns, shuffling into the box. They were removed while opposing lawyers presented arguments about admitting a special witness. The judge gavels the court in session. The door bursts open, and a bailiff enters with a covered birdcage. Murmurs and muffled snickers erupt as the bailiff sets the cage on the witness chair and removes the cover. The accused perpetrator pales and quickly whispers to his grim-faced attorney. The parrot squawks and screeches, and then begins his “testimony.” Nope, I can’t give that up. This calls for a different genre.

The main character in a story carries the burden of making the story believable and entertaining. The “supporting cast” includes allies and antagonists. Right now, they are all strangers. As I get to know them, they will fit into one of those categories.

Each of them has goals and agendas. They have different backstories. They have different definitions of success. The threads of the story will be unique and the parrot might be only a consequential focus. The possibilities are endless:

The prosecutor, charged with convincing a judge that the parrot is reliable.

The investigator, frustrated by the lack of physical evidence.

The veterinarian paid to put the parrot down and shut him up forever.

The reporter, assigned to cover the story.

The neighbor who makes it her business to know everyone’s business.

Someone I haven’t even thought of yet

 

Their genders and personalities determine where the story starts, how it will progress, even how the story ends. I need to create each one’s backstory, its depth depending on how big a part they play. I need to live with them a while to see who’s in charge.

There is no right or wrong way to create a story as long as it has an intriguing beginning, interesting twists in the middle, and an unanticipated but believable end. You may do all of the above subconsciously. Sometimes it takes me a full first draft to know what I’m doing since every change in the action means everything after that might be affected too.

I intend to live with my list of characters a bit to see which one is going to take over the leading role. Whatever your method, I hope that you have as much fun as I am. Let me know how it is going.

 

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Use “MSS QUERY” in the subject line of emails regarding critique questions for a quicker response.

 

Build a Better Book One Step at a Time Step 2: Is the idea Workable?

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It was fun gathering up bare-bones ideas last month. The task is to select one that is universal enough to appeal to a wide range of readers but unique enough to feel fresh. Where did you harvest yours?

Characters? I saw a grandmother with a sweet smile and a halo of snow-white hair charged with murder.  Creating a fictional granny who commits a murder might be a challenging story to tell. Who did she kill and why? What was her motive? What sort of person is she? Was this a desperate means for survival? How does she do away with her victim? Will the story take place in her viewpoint so that we understand, even if we don’t approve of her actions? If not, will we use a professional detective or an amateur sleuth? If the latter, will it be a family member of hers or the victim?

Settings? I remembered a photo that I tucked away in my files years ago. It depicted a mansion and tombstones submerged when they built a dam along the river.  What are the secrets hidden beneath the water? How might they be revealed? Did a long drought drain the lake? Perhaps an amateur archeologist or a college student choose it for a dissertation subject. Could a treasure hunter hear rumors that artifacts are priceless?

Situations? What is bizarre event whetted your curiosity? It was an unusual court trial that haunted me. The spouse is on trial for murdering his wife. That alone isn’t unusual. Unlike most domestic murders, this one had a witness—a parrot. I’ve read of dogs attacking a killer and collecting evidence like a swatch of clothing or DNA from a bite. But a parrot would be a first. The bird was a living tape recorder, apparently replicating both recognizable voices: the victim begging, screaming her killer’s name, and the murderer in a threatening rage.

How many times has an editor said that your story is unbelievable although you know that it happened? Some realities are so freaky that they don’t easily work in fiction. How can this idea work?

I recalled several other articles from years ago. One was about a smuggler hiding rare parrots beneath his overcoat. An alert guard remembered that he was thin that morning but fat only a few hours later. Another article was about the police called to a home where “Someone” was screaming for help. The “someone” was a parrot. My personal experience was with particularly annoying parrot next door calling my name to come in from play.

One article might be too slight to inspire a believable story. None of the ideas are strong enough to stand alone. But combining the information with research on parrots, how to train, and care for them might help me create a plausible plot. I have a vague idea now. But every plot must contain who, what, when, where, why, and how. There is no one way to develop an idea into a plot. For me, I must create my main character before I take another step. The main character has the burden of carrying the story and making it believable. I can’t resist the parrot as a viable witness to a murder. That’s what I’ll work on this week.  For a working title, I’ll call it THE CASE OF THE TATTLETALE PARROT.

I hope that one of your ideas has you eager to begin your process too. The best journeys are in our imagination. Ready, set, go!

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I welcome your comments and questions. Submit Queries regarding critiques through mblountchristian@embarqmail.com. Use QUERY in the subject heading.

 

BUILDING a BETTER BOOK ONE STEP at a TIME: Step 1, The Idea

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Some authors give the impression that their fully-developed story appears in a lightning flash and flows through their fingers onto their keyboards to their editors who passed it to the printer. Made-for-TV movies perpetuate that myth with editors or agents coming to the author’s house, sitting around waiting for the author to finish the story, or a newbie being told, “You belong to the world now.” Yeah, right.

If you are out there, please tell your secret to me. I want to live in that world too. In my experience, ideas sneak into my thoughts like Trojan horses where they languish until curiosity and hard work breathe life into them. Or I dig through old newspaper clips and bits of paper with a few inscrutable words that once meant something. Writers must find their own best method. There is no right or wrong way. No matter how we get our ideas, we recognize that they are only the first step to telling a story.

Ideas are everywhere. Strangers might catch our attention, and we briefly wonder what in their lives inspired their behavior or unusual wardrobe. We see a sad-looking, neglected building and imagine that its walls, like Dorian Grey’s portrait, absorbed terrible secrets. Or we might see on the news the devastation left by nature. We might stop to consider how something over which we have no control changes each person’s life. Like the ripple of a single drop of water, their reactions spread out to affect and change others.

I collect ideas like dandelions. Foolishly, I worry that I will run out of ideas before I run out of heartbeats. In my writer’s notebook, I jot down possibilities for the next story even if I am working on a story at the moment.

A physical notebook sounds old school, but there is something about the sensory detail of touch that I need more than speed. I feel more invested and connected to the subject when it is a physical thing like a photograph or news story. We keep our writer’s eyes and ears tuned to our surroundings. We dig into our pasts to remember ordinary or traumatic moments that impacted our lives then and now. Some writers travel to exotic places for their ideas. Others, like Eudora Welty, get inspired by the local events and people.

Reading other books, especially unsatisfying ones, stimulates ideas. The moral of that is to keep your favorite note- taking method handy. Ideas that hit like lightning disappear as rapidly. Jot enough to help you remember, or else a couple of disjointed words might as well be “buy bread.”

When you hit a fallow period, ignore it and just write about your day. Ideas are like seeds. We nurture them into plots. Impatience is to an idea what blight is to seed. If we rush in too fast, we are in danger of the story being slight or ordinary. No matter how fresh an idea feels to us, there is little chance that it does not exist in already published books. Or it might be on the editor’s desk. When I sold my first novella, the editor told me that my manuscript was one of five with a similar idea. In one of them, the main character had the same name. I was too happy that she chose mine to buy to worry about the whys and what ifs. Many writers are empaths, or we wouldn’t need to write. With so many manuscripts floating out there at any given moment, it is inevitable that we occasionally bump into each other.

No two stories are exactly alike. Our philosophies formed through our life experiences is the difference. Our group of mystery writers met monthly to hear experts in law enforcement. One particular month we heard from a hotel detective.We heard the same information at the same time. One writer wrote an adult mystery romance set in Florida; another wrote a teen mystery set in a Houston hotel, and I wrote a juvenile mystery set in a ski resort solved by my series character, Sebastian.  Each of us sold our manuscripts using information from a guest lecturer.

The willingness to dig beyond the first idea that comes to mind pays off. We should consider as many alternatives as possible. If we eventually use our first idea, it should be because none of the alternative ideas worked as well.

If we find published books with our idea, it shouldn’t discourage us. That alerts us to find a different approach. Consider writing it for a different genre or location, or a different main character. Inspiration is everywhere when we live every day with our eyes and ears tuned to that around us—electronic and print news items, letters to the editor, eavesdropping, old photograph albums, estate sales, or injustices that make you want a do-over. Recall the unique people, past and present, that made you curious.

In keeping with my resolution for this year, I plan to take time away from my current project this week to jot down some ideas: interesting people, situations, and locations. That gives me the bonus of coming back to my work in progress with a fresh eye, plus the comfort of knowing that I have some other ideas waiting. Why not join me?We’re on our way to building a better book, step by step.