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.

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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!

THERE’S A STORY IN EVERY SITUATION

This one is going to be a short reminder that every situation we are in gives us fodder for stories and inspiration for characters. I just returned from a thankfully brief hospital stay, ER and all the drama that goes with that. I am struck by the human response to walk if we can’t run, crawl if we can’t walk, and swing by our teeth if it comes to that. Behind every curtain there was crisis and trauma, and a different mix of personalities, yet in every case, we were concerned for each other, offering comfort, courage and support. There was even the one obligatory character in everyone’s lives, the drama queen who was convinced that the entire hospital was there to serve her alone.

The overwhelmed nurses and staff, some of them now homeless thanks to Harvey, had too much on their plates to think about their own problems. A few had been there for days without knowing if they had a home to return to. As each of us struggled with our own problems, we bonded. These are the same people that we might not look at if we were in an elevator, staking out our space and staring at the number buttons. The observation tweaked my writer mind.

There were a few who had lost everything in the flood. There was another anxious to be released so that he could continue helping victims clean up and regroup. And there was the laughter in counting nine babies born, noted by the lullabies played over the speaker each time. It was like a message of hope in the midst of despair. I was struck by all of the parallel struggles going on simultaneously and how each one is the most important one in that life at the moment. It was a microcosm of the human comedy/tragedy.

Every life is a novel of overcoming challenges that we count in chapters. We’ll never run out of stories. Whatever situation you are in, be alert to the stories there. Eavesdrop, make mental notes of everything around you. Write on. I’ll write in my head awhile and be back soon. Hang in there, and I will too.

!

Sometimes, it happens …

You may have noticed that the most recent post was removed. Any other time, it would have been a legitimate subject for this site on writing. Call it poor timing on my part. Out of respect for my fellow Texans and Gulf Coast residents, I have removed the article and will reissue it at a more appropriate time. Weather is certainly a legitimate subject for our fiction, but while those less fortunate than I are struggling to survive and maintain, still stunned at losing everything they had, I felt that my article was inappropriate.

There are many real life stories of pathos and heroism ongoing. Those are the stories we will pay attention to now. We see the best of humanity on our screens for the moment blotting out the worst of it. It is a good reminder to us that human endurance and a faith in the future drives all of us forward. With the great percentage of the news about Harvey and its devastation and suffering, we are so overwhelmed by the sheer volume that we fail to comprehend it on a deep level. Perhaps it is our brain’s ways of protecting us from overload. Emerson said that we cannot begin to understand the universal until it is housed in an individual. That is the writer’s job now. To tell individual stories that will touch one’s soul. Write on!

Emerson said, “We cannot begin to understand the universal until it is housed in an individual.” That is the writer’s job now. To tell individual stories that will touch one’s soul. Write on!

HOW TO MURDER A MANUSCRIPT: Or What Are Friends For?

Writers sit at our computers, thinking, planning, plotting, writing and revising until we have exhausted our abilities to improve our story. Maybe there is a little nagging voice in our heads telling us that it needs something, but we aren’t sure what. Or maybe the voice is silent, leaving satisfaction that it is well ready to submit for publication or at least share with our friends or fellow writers. It is such a lonely business, and we seek out and need encouragement from fellow writers or readers. I can still remember the first time I attended a writers’ club after I had felt isolated and rudderless for the first three years. Two other wannabees and I were invited to this exclusive club after meeting at a workshop.

Nervous to be among such accomplished folk, I left sweaty fingerprints on my sample manuscript as I clutched it tightly. The routine was for a volunteer to read aloud to the group. One of the fellow newbies volunteered, something I learned never to do in school even when I knew the answer.

I was acquainted with fellow novices’ co-written manuscript from the workshop. It was a picture book, well written and funny. At least a full minute of dead silence followed the reading before the first member spoke up. It was like opening the dam. One after the other challenged the anthropomorphic fantasy, and by the time they had all questioned its validity, they had destroyed the story and the writers. They never returned, and I heard that they took up needlepoint to relieve the need to create.

I crumpled my manuscript into my purse. My years as a news reporter toughened my resistance to adversity, and I stuck it out long enough to learn that among the 15 or so members, only one had sold anything for publication, and that was not in the unique genre of picture books. Nor had they read a picture book since Little Red Riding Hood.

There is a moral to this cautionary tale. Group critiques have the potential to become a genteel equivalent of a mob with torches and pitchforks, even if the participants honestly believe that they are helping. Just as “too many cooks spoil the soup,” too many opinions can ruin your hard work. There are ways to get around the traumatizing tradition of group readings. The simplest one is to tell the group before you read exactly what your concern is. When you limit the comment to a specific problem, i.e., does the dialogue sound natural, or did the character’s reluctance to go along with the adversary come across?

One of the best tests is to ask someone else to read aloud your story. When it is our story, we tend to read dramatically where someone unfamiliar with it will stumble through the passage. As a listener, you will hear the difference.

Another drawback to group reading is that you are among such close friends that they will tell you that it is wonderful when it is not.

Also, if you are limited to reading a chapter per meeting, the group will judge each chapter as its presentation. They will miss the flow or lack of flow between chapters and fail to recognize whether or not you carried every thread of the plot to its conclusion.

We need feedback that we trust. There are always professional critiques. But there are also others out there in the same situation. Consider trading critiques with someone in the same genre and in or above your stage in writing. For groups, consider silent reading instead of reading aloud. An editor will read your manuscript silently.

We eventually changed the group routine. We printed out three copies of passages. That way, only three commented. The reader wrote comments on a blank page at the end with no knowledge of the others’ comments. They couldn’t build momentum, and if all or a majority made the same comment, you could be sure that you needed to revise that portion. It was private so that no writer felt as if they were the honored guest at a public hanging.

However you share your manuscripts, remember that when it is published it will have only your name on it. You are the final word. If you believe enough, hang in there. Write on!

WHO SAID THAT? When Characters Speak, They Should Have Something to Say

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Dialogue gives life to our stories. It speeds up the story and adds spice and action. We learn a lot about the characters from how they speak to others. How the characters speak is as important as what they say. A whispered phrase might be sinister or a confidence shared. We have more than our outside or inside voices. Some of us speak differently to children and older people. We speak to the boss that can hire or fire us differently from how and where we talk to our peers. We may sound one way when we are meeting someone for the first time as we cautiously decide how we feel about that stranger.

We would much rather read one character’s fiery accusations and the recipient’s red hot retort than learning in exposition that Sue and Jeff argued. Readers like being eye witnesses.

Putting words into someone else’s mouth might seem daunting for writers, but it is essential to making the characters come alive for our readers. To achieve that, we must give them voices that are uniquely theirs.  A five-year-old doesn’t sound like a college professor unless we are portraying a precocious child. I once worked for a professor who greeted us in the small office as if he were at the podium of an amphitheater. I often wondered how he spoke over his morning coffee with his wife. Since she called him “Doc” instead of his given name, I imagine it was no different. I filed him away in my writer’s notebook alongside the boisterous airport waitress who called everyone honey. I used her in my novel, Singin’ Somebody Else’s Song. I’m still looking for a story the pompous prof will fit.

One way to make your character’s dialogue unique is to consider his background and interests. A man who made his living on the sea, when pushed to do something he doesn’t want to do, might refuse by saying, “Thanks, but I sail my own ship.” An aviator in the same situation might say, “I’m never too proud to turn back. I’d rather be laughed at than cried for.” An artist sees life in colors, form, and composition. You’ll find plenty of help with those on the web by typing in an occupation or ethnicity and add “sayings.”

Imagine yourself chatting with your friend over a cup of coffee. If you wouldn’t use a word in that conversation, don’t put it into the mouths of your characters.

We strive to give the essence of natural dialogue without getting our readers’ tongues twisted, in the same way, we offer the essence of real life but without the disorganization. We pick up expressions and idioms common to the regions we live. It helps make our character identifiable and colorful. “He’s as common as pig tracks” might be foreign to a native of Queens, NY, but it is as natural as barbecue to a rural Texan. In a mystery, a linguist or astute detective might suspect that a character is lying if he swears he has lived in a region all of his life.

Only someone unfamiliar with the expression would use “y’all,” or worse yet, “yall,” for a singular reference.  It is plural, with the apostrophe subbing for “ou” the same as it subs for the “no” in cannot.  And although some Texans omit the t or g sound in pronouncing some words, and some Bostonians might say Linder instead of Linda, readers get annoyed when we must struggle through a lot of phonetically-written dialogue.

It might be better to try it once and then revert to the correct spelling. No matter what the differences are in our pronunciations, we spell words the same. It also applies to depicting characters for whom English is a second language.  You might check the online dictionaries and perhaps adapt the native speech pattern briefly using it before reverting to easily readable dialogue.  Throw in a foreign word familiar to the speaker as if he were struggling to recall the Anglicized word, and we get the message. For example, “I go now to the supermarché.” Or “Telephone me, s’il vous plaît.” It doesn’t take much to put the idea across.

Tags for some reason are troublesome to new writers. Tags help readers know who is speaking and more importantly, how they say it. Words are spoken, articulated, nattered, expressed, told, stated, voiced, declared, and communicated. They are preached, lectured, chatted, yelled, whispered, etc. Some of these verbs depict a calm exchange of ideas. Others indicate an attitude. That doesn’t mean that we have to use all of them.  Too much variety becomes comical and distracting.

There is nothing wrong with the word, said, in ordinary dialogue. For the most part, it is unobtrusive [as long as you don’t reverse it to “said she”]. After a few lines, it fades away from the reader’s consciousness, and they treat dialogue almost like a play script.

That is a good indicator that we can forego tags in many circumstances. When only two people are conversing, and you establish that they respond to each other, you can omit the tag.

Another way to do it is to initiate an action. For example:

Angela slammed her book down on the table. “You are breaking up with me?”

Benson crossed his arms and returned her glare. “It should come as no surprise.”

Punctuation in dialogue is inside the quotation marks.  I see that violated in many manuscripts that I critique. Another common error is an abuse of the exclamation point. More than one can’t make the dialogue any more emphatic. While I’m at it, we never use exclamation points in exposition. And we rarely use them in dialogue. Exclamation points are the equivalent of yelling. Nor do we write the dialogue in capital letters to indicate loud voices. The exclamation point loses its credibility when overused. Let the words carry the emphasis.

We use dialogue to move the story forward while revealing something about our characters.  If you contrast what your character says to what she thinks, it doubles the impact. For example:

                Sarah stared at her feet. “Yes, ma’am. I understand.” I understand you better than you think, you old bat. “It won’t happen again, Miss Summers.”

Above all, keep dialogue natural and to the point. A lengthy conversation about how windmills generate power is far from subtle. It is better to use a brief sentence of exposition.

And this final thought: Sentence structure can convey the mood. Full sentences are leisurely and in calm times. Fragments are okay when the character under duress. For example:

Jacob grabbed the phone and dialed.

The voice on the other end was calm. “911. What is your emergency?”

“Help! My dad! He’s not breathing!”

“The address according to Caller I.D. is 819 South. Is that correct?”

“Wha- uh, yeah.”

“I am dispatching an EMT to that address. Do you know CPR?”

“I-I”’

“I can talk you through it. Put the phone on speaker.”

The contrast between the frantic boy and the calm operator adds tension and emphasizes Jacob’s fear.

When your characters speak to one another, we hear them too. If the conversation is mundane, we tune them out and lose interest. Sometimes it not what they say but what they don’t say. Readers look for the body language, and subtleties as the characters talk—that steely stare, that tick at the corner of his mouth, or the side glance over her shoulder, tell us more than their words. They are like subtitles to the conversation.  There is a bit of magic in dialogue. What can you pull from your top hat? That’s how I approach dialogue. I welcome your comments and helpful hints about how you deal with dialogue.

TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING BEFORE AND AFTER MODERN TECHNOLOGY: What Writers Have Gained and Lost

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I read an online article last week in which the author said that agents or perhaps it was editors, read manuscripts hoping to find flaws because they just couldn’t wait to toss it in the trash and be done with it. I don’t recall who wrote that. His name was not familiar, and I could barely see it anyway for seeing red. It struck me as utter nonsense. If I had believed that they considered themselves guardians against submissions, I would never have submitted my first manuscript decades ago.

There was a time when traditional publishing was easier. In the 1960’s the government had a program that funded textbooks and library books. I believe it was called Title II. It brought on an onslaught of books, many of them pretty poorly written. I entered the field just as the program ended, and the consensus was that the heyday was over for picture books. I sold six the following year. So much for that prediction. One of them required shortening by half. Another one needed the first person viewpoint changed to third person viewpoint. So both were flawed, but the editors saw something in the manuscripts that made them willing to take the time to help me make them publishable.

Editors and agents would be out of work if they had no manuscripts to edit or sell. New editors are anxious to acquire their stable of reliable, producing writers. One editor described it this way:

The slush pile [unsolicited manuscripts] sits at the edge of the desk. Every spare moment, including the commute between office and home, he opens a file to read. He takes a bunch home to browse on the weekend. He described how he reads the first page. If it had merit, he places it face down on his ample stomach and reads the second. Faster and faster he flips the pages and realizes that he is smiling. This one goes in the pile to consider. Most go in the pile of thanks but no thanks. Another goes into the third stack, to suggest revisions. That doesn’t sound like someone anxious to toss, does it?

Another editor told me that she read the title in the cover letter and wanted the story to stand up to it so that she could buy it. But that was then when editors took the time to tell you why they were rejecting or making suggestions for changes and resubmission.

It’s my opinion only, and you may disagree, but I think that impatience and misused technology is the reason so many publishers have closed their doors to all but agent submissions. When I first began, it was either manual or electric typewriter. The unwritten rule was that you should have a completely clean first page and no more than three typos corrected in pencil or white-out on the remaining pages. It meant a lot of retyping, and each retyping brought about revisions and a better manuscript.

Along came computers. How grand that we could correct and rewrite to our heart’s content before committing another tree’s worth of paper. But now we could make as many copies as we wanted with no effort at all. Enter the multiple submissions. Writers flooded publishers with submissions. The first readers could not handle the volume. Poor manuscripts multiplied like algae. Good manuscripts took valuable time while the editor explored potential illustrators, priced paper, glue, ink, print, binding, etc. to see what she could offer a newbie as an advance. At least one author I know of snapped up the first offer. The second, more attractive offer from a more prestigious publisher, arrived later. That publisher had invested a good bit in preparation and wasn’t likely to do that again.

So now we deal with closed houses. Those that do read unsolicited manuscripts tell us to wait, and if we don’t hear in six months, they aren’t interested. They probably tossed it months ago. My southern heart is incensed by the rudeness as I recall the days of adding a stamped address postcard to my manuscript where the reader could simply put it in the out box so that I knew it arrived. A SASE meant your manuscript would be returned for revision or sent elsewhere.

I still send a manuscript to one publisher at a time and tell them that it is exclusively theirs for consideration for three months, after which I will feel free to send it elsewhere. My method isn’t for everyone. But I want them to know that I chose them because I believe we are a good fit. I pay little attention to mail addressed to Occupant. I wonder if editors give much thought about multiple submissions.

NAMING CHARACTERS: Rose May Not Smell So Sweet

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“A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” That may be so in Shakespeare’s world, but not so much in our writing. Imagine reading the classic novel, Gone with the Wind, if the heroine was not Scarlett, but Pansy. I read that was her original name until a wise editor suggested to change it. As strong as the story is, I can’t imagine it affecting us the way it does if Pansy had been the heroine, can you? How would To Kill a Mockingbird affect you if Scout were Agnes, or if Bo was called Clark or Rhett? In this age when celebrities name their offspring Apple, Blanket, and every other imaginable inanimate object, it might be tempting to come up with unique and presumably unforgettable character names. In most cases, that might not be the best decision.

Personally, I am no more impulsive in naming my characters than I was in naming our offspring. They were going to carry the name through life, and the females would have the option of adding their spouse’s name should they marry. My first newspaper job was writing the nuptial news, and I came across some pretty ludicrous combinations. Unless we writers want to make the name a point of contention in our story, we need to consider our options carefully. I start out with a general idea of my characters, but it isn’t until I’ve done a lot of agonizing soul-searching to find the perfect name that they grow flesh and bone. Some names are common to a region, socioeconomic status, or even faith. Others sound different in Brooklyn, Los Angeles or Providence. Consider how they might be shortened or turned into a nickname.

It is often tempting to name characters after our friends or relatives. I know of one writer that lets someone pay to have their name in her stories and then donates the fee. I can’t see myself doing that. We writers must give our characters flaws and challenges. When it is someone we know, we might be cautious not to offend and wind up creating a character that is too blah to be interesting.

Given names sometimes blend or clash with the character’s personality and appearance. If we want a touch of humor, we might name a klutz Grace or an underachiever Les. But mostly we look for names that fit so well that we cannot imagine any other choice, a name that doesn’t outshine the personality. In some ways, it defines the character.

I needed a strong name for the teen boy in Singin’ Somebody Else’s Song. He was ranch-born, sturdy of spirit and body, morally incorruptible, so I browsed the dictionary of Bible names for a week, saying the names aloud until Gideon clicked and an image of him formed. I needed something rural for a surname and rummaged through my vision of ranch life until Bullock seemed a perfect fit. Gideon Bullock came to life.

We have some great resources online and in specialized books to help us come to the important decision. If you are writing a contemporary story, a quick check on the web will reveal the most popular names in descending order in any given year. Other sites give you names common in other countries and other eras. You can find surnames and their meanings and origins. If you are writing science fiction or myth, the dictionary of new age names is helpful. I won’t list addresses here. They are multitudinous and often change in the web search.

As we expand our cast of characters, we might keep in mind that too similar names become confusing to our readers. I got completely lost recently in a story with two Ed’s and a Rick, Nick, and Dick. I had to keep flipping back to when each was introduced to keep them straight. If readers have to start jotting notes, we’re in trouble. It’s a good idea to make an alphabetized list of your entire cast, including those walk-in’s that say their piece and disappear from the story. Look for and consider changing rhyming names [Harry and Larry, etc.], and names that start with the same letter or sound. Can you see your way clear to rename one of them? Make sure that not everyone has one-syllable names [Sam, Bill, Tim]. Consider an alternative to names that are difficult to pronounce or spell.

For those who write for children, it is especially important not to get too cutesy with names, especially when it comes to anthropomorphic stories. Editors find Barry Bear and Perry Parakeet and the like a big turn-off. I once made an exception to that in my Penrod and Griswold early reader series. There was no better name for the little porcupine, the grumpy old bear’s nemesis. I could get away with it because once I gave their full names only once. After that, their ID is established and not only unnecessary but annoying and wordy.

Sign up to be notified about new articles. If you joined after August 2013, see my archives for articles that you may have missed. I’m interested in your feedback. Here are a few sites by fellow authors, where you’ll find additional inspiration and discussions on subjects vital to writers:
Vijaya Bodach: http://www.vijayabodach.blogspot.com
Kristi Holl: http://kristiholl.net/writers-blog/
Christine Kohler: http://www.christinekohlerbooks.com