Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Theory of Story Drivers

Writing Wednesday

I've often heard that readers' worries drive the story. I take "worry" to mean the degree to which a reader thinks about the story and is anxious to get back to the book when they aren't reading, and are reluctant to stop when they are reading. You might also call it, "getting pulled into a book."

Stories are a mix of character, plot, and setting. Each of these is compelling to the degree that they are vivid, necessary, and purposeful. While I'm sure we can think of examples of compelling stories driven by a single element, I suspect the best books are compelling on a number of levels. To that end, I propose definitions of vivid, necessary, and purposeful for each of character, plot, and setting:

  • Vivid--Are the characters distinct, interesting, and memorable?
  • Necessary--Does each character have a reason for being part of the story? (i.e., no red-shirts or Mary-Sues)
  • Purposeful--Does each character go somewhere (i.e. grow or change) in the story? Are they affected by the events?

  • Vivid--Is it clear what's going on? and why?
  • Necessary--Do the plot points make sense? Do they matter? (i.e., it's not a plot point if the character could clear up a misunderstanding with a five minute conversation.)
  • Purposeful--Does the plot go somewhere that rewards the reader for the time they've invested? Does it end in a place that feels both surprising and inevitable?

  • Vivid--Can you see it? Do you want to be there?
  • Necessary--Is it clear that the story couldn't happen anywhere else?
  • Purposeful--Does the setting feel natural and not contrived?

What do you think? Does this framework help clarify your story drivers?

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Simon Howden /

Pretending to be All There

Ok, so I've been such a major slacker lately at blogging. A year ago, I felt like my life was not too busy and I had plenty of time for everything. A year ago I attended my first writers conference. It was the first annual "Book Academy" at Utah Valley University. It's being held tomorrow and I couldn't be more excited to go. Ok, maybe I could be, but I haven't had enough caffeine yet this morning to be fully awake....where's that Dr. Pepper.

Anyway, the Book Academy was my first conference and it will be interesting to see its growth over the next few years. At least, I hope it grows. I want to be able to say that I've attended it every year. As of right now, I have. And I plan on saying the same thing tomorrow night.

I'm a big fan of writers conferences. It's actually the only place I feel normal. I met the awesome Julie Daines at a writers conference. We were actually in the same boot camp group at LDS Storymakers in April. And even though I haven't talked to her once since, she's still someone I consider a writing friend. (Only a friend would come up to you and punch you on the arm and say "You missed (me winning 1st place in that one category in that one contest)." (Something that made Julie cool was her obsession with skulls and

The point is, that anytime authors are grouped together, as long as you're an author, you can feel comfortable. Believe me, I do. I didn't at first, but I've met people that I feel comfortable going and sitting with at any time during a writing-related gathering.

And yeah, a lot of people attending these things are wannabes. Shoot, if I want to see the biggest wannabe at tomorrow's conference, I just need to borrow someone's compact and look in the little mirror. Yeah, I'm a wannabe, but I'm more than that. I'm there to network, to socialize, and, most importantly, to learn.

So, if you're a wannabe like me, go to a writers conference. Learn. Absorb. Grow. That's the point. And meet awesome people, that's a side benefit.

If there were ever advice to give to a beginning writer, this is mine: find a local writers conference and enjoy.

Alien abductions are involuntary, but probings are scheduled.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Too Close to the Edge?

By Julie Daines

There has been a lot of talk lately about “edgy” young-adult literature.  Read the blurbs about what many agents are looking for and it will include the word “edgy.”  Manuscripts are rejected because they aren’t “edgy” enough.

Edgy is generally defined as books that push the boundaries of what is socially acceptable.  One definition said that there are no forbidden subjects in edgy young-adult fiction, but they are “written with sensitivity and care, not gratuitously.”

Critics opposed to edgy YA argue that the novels encourage destructive or immoral behavior.  Those in favor claim that fictional portrayal of teens successfully addressing difficult situations and confronting social issues helps readers deal with real-life challenges.

I looked up an agent’s list of edgy books, and one that caught my eye was about a teenage girl who falls in love with a boy from her apartment building.  The girl’s feelings for the boy become confused when she discovers that he is actually a girl who has had a sex change.

Is that edgy?  Is it gratuitous?  Or does it help teens confront real-life challenges?  How many teens will really have to face that kind of situation?

Another recent book is written entirely in text message lingo and deals with a group of teenage girls who discuss boys, gossip, sex, clothes and getting drunk.  A book geared for grades 8-10.

One reader left her comment regarding this book on Amazon:  “This book offends me and makes me ashamed to be a teenage girl…is this what people think we’re like?  AHHH.  No.”

Are we underestimating our youth when we push edgy too far?  Are we selling the rising generation short when we appeal to the lowest common denominator?

Many books that were once considered too edgy are now taught in our schools.  Lord of the Flies, The Outsiders, and Speak.  What’s the difference?  What makes these books worthy of study?

What is the boundary between “edgy” and “trashy”?  Where is the line for taboo subject matter?  Do we compromise ourselves as authors when we cross those lines simply for the chance to make money or get our work published?

All teens deal with challenges, heartache, and a huge range of deep, serious, emotional issues.  It seems to me that books that actually do help them cope with these “real-life challenges” are uplifting, not gratuitous, and carry a message of safety and hope.  They stretch the teenage mind into a positive, new way of thinking that inspires them to want to be better, lifts them up rather than pulling them down, and does not simply shock and tantalize the senses.

What do you think? 

Friday, September 24, 2010

Celebrations: Theodore Geisel

It's hard to believe it's been 19 years since the death of Dr. Seuss (March 2, 1904 – September 24, 1991).

There's nothing I can say that pays tribute to this man as much as his own work. The first book I ever red by myself, like many of you, was Hop On Pop. The next several were also most his, including One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, The Cat in The Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and on and on and on. How many of you, like me, remember sitting down as a beginning reader and puzzling through the progressively harder pages of Fox In Socks, a book that continues to push early readers to increase their skills?

He was also influential in media besides books. One of my first records was a read-along LP with Bartholomew and the Oobleck on one side and Myrtle the Turtle on the other. And those of us who are part of the first generation to be raised on TV remember the excitement of each new televised special.

I dare you to name a more influential children's writer than Dr. Seuss.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Wake Up Call

I’m working on a book right now where I personally like a certain secondary character more than my MC. The character has her own major subplot and I’m always anxious to get to a point where I can further her story. My critique group has all said that they too believe her story is more interesting to them than the MC’s. It seems that my love for that character and her story has subconsciously made her sections better overall.

I’ve heard that if you’re kept up late writing it chances are you’re reader will be kept up late reading it. This subplot turned out better than the main plot because I personally loved it and worked harder at it. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with liking a plot or character more than the main one and it’s great for suspense when a reader’s waiting for his or her favorite POV, but if no one cares about the MC, there’s a problem. I’m now going back and strengthening the MC and his storyline, putting my heart into his plot as well as the other particular subplot. Look over your stories. Are you also favoring another character enough that they’re upstaging your MC?

"Name That Book: Can you hook an editor in one sentence?" By T. Lynn Adams

Name That Book: Can you hook an editor in one sentence?
By T. Lynn Adams

In an earlier blog, I mentioned an editor friend who said she was so busy she wanted to be hooked by the very first paragraph. Some writers may feel a bit overwhelmed, wondering if that is possible.

Not only is it possible, some of the greatest authors in the world have managed to hook their audience in the very first sentence! Check out these opening lines from some of the 100 best-selling novels for children and teens. If you were an editor and these opening words met your mind, would you keep reading? (Just for fun, see if you can identify the book.)

1. “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

2. “I’d never given much thought to how I would die—though I’d had reason enough in the last few months—but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.”

3. “Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing…”

4. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

5. “It was a dark and stormy night.”

6. “First of all, let me get something straight: this is a JOURNAL, not a diary.”

7. “When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.”

8. “The creature stared through the glass, its thin brown lips drawn back in a muted scream or a mocking smile—Jonathon couldn’t tell which.”

Okay, now that you know it is possible to grab someone’s attention in twenty words or less, go to your manuscript. Call up your very first paragraph—your very first sentence. Read them both…critically. Do they grab your attention--wrap their inked fingers around you and absolutely refuse to let go? If not, you may want to juice up your opener a bit (just in case your submission is read by my very busy editor friend).

After you have crafted a rattle-your-mind beginning, keep that energy flowing through your entire first page, then your entire first chapter, then…well, you get the idea. If you can keep that page-turning style going to the end of your book, you will have a sale.

P.S. If you identified all eight opening lines, I am your biggest fan! Answers: 1= Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White; 2= Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer; 3= The Call of the Wild, by Jack London; 4= The Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling; 5= A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle (Isn’t it nice to attribute this line to something other than Snoopy leaning over his typewriter?); 6= Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney; 7= Stormbreaker, by Anthony Horowitz; 8= Tombs of Terror, by T. Lynn Adams (Alright, I admit it—line #8 did not make the top 100 list, but it did manage to catch an editor’s attention. If you knew it was from my book, I’ll autograph your copy!)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Pictures of Fire Petal Bookstore!

Check out a slide show of the inside of Fire Petal book store on Flickr.

Revisions: Mixing and Enriching

Writing Wednesday

I believe most of us hear "revisions" and think generally of error correction. I don't deny that's a part of the process, but there's an important (and I think underrated difference) between reworking material to correct problems and reworking material to make it better.

Surely you've heard something to the effect that what we do shouldn't be called writing, it should be called rewriting (and rewriting and rewriting ...). Before the thought of all that extra work throws you off, think about the pleasure you get from rereading a beloved book and finding something new each time.

I've heard of people who read more complicated works topically. For example, I know people who have read the Bible looking for everything it says about love, and then read it again, focusing on forgiveness. Because there's a limit to the number of different things we can keep in our minds at any one time, the writing analogy would be to make separate passes through your manuscript focusing on each of the major characters, on scenes and pacing, on dialog, on adverbs, etc.

BBC Local Radio Mark III radio mixing desk (Wikipedia)
Consider an analogy from the music business. After the artists have recorded their songs, the producer goes through all the material to make sure the music is as good as it can be and determines the order of the songs in the album. Then, the album goes to a mixer who adjusts everything further so that the songs play well together (e.g., that the levels of the songs match so that you don't turn up the volume to hear a quiet song only to be blasted by the loud one that follows).

Of course there will be errors of usage and craft to correct, but I find it much more useful to think of revisions as basically a time to mix (i.e., balance all the elements to best support the overall story) and to enrich the novel.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Celebrations: The Hobbit

The Hobbit was published on September 21, 1937, changing fantasy stories forever.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Fire Petal Bookstore in Centerville

I had the opportunity to check out Michelle Witte's new Fire Petal bookstore yesterday while I was in Centerville. It is amazing! I wouldn't call it a bookstore-- it's really more of a book boutique. You're not overwhelmed with 4,000 books on multiple shelves. You can browse through the brightly colored and nicely decorated rooms and look at the books as if you were browsing a friend's shelves. I loved it!

If you get a chance to be in Centerville, check it out. It's at the south east corner of Main Street and Parrish Lane, right next to Papa Murphy's.

Reading about Writers: "Knots in My Yo-Yo String"

After reading almost every book written by Jerry Spinelli, I decided to read about the author himself. "Knots in My Yo-Yo String" is his autobiography written for his young readers. A question posed by an elementary school student asked him if being a kid helped him to become a good writer. His book is a collection of memories growing up that inspired him in writing his books from "Maniac Magee" (his Newbury winner) to "Milkweed" (a book about the Holocaust). "Knots" reads just like any one of his stories and is a fun trip down Memory Lane (especially for those of you who were born after World War II.)

"Knots in My Yo-Yo String" may not be a great discourse on how to be a great writer, but it certainly shows you how being a kid can give great fodder for being a children's writer.


From Publishers Weekly

In this montage of sharply focused memories punctuated with b&w photographs, Spinelli (Maniac Magee; Wringer) reconstructs the experience of growing up during the '50s. His descriptions of his childhood universe (which does not extend beyond Norristown, Pa.) elicits the use of all five senses. He invites readers to gaze upon the same stars he studied as a child; to listen for the "not-very-loud" whistle of Mrs. Seeton calling not only her own brood but all the kids home to their suppers ("for a mother's call somehow touches us all"); to smell the "sour, vaguely rotten" aroma of the Adam Scheidt Brewing Company; to savor the taste of Texas Hot Wieners ("They had spunk. They fought back"); and to feel the "clack" of colliding teeth during his first kiss with Kathy Heller (in a game of Truth or Consequences). The audience might be content to bask in the warm glow of post-WWII reflections, but the author has other plans: he shows readers how the seeds of a writer were planted in his youth. Wedged between sometimes painful, more often hilarious scenes of preadolescent and adolescent angst are quiet, contemplative moments when young Spinelli develops his artistic imagination replaying the days' events and pondering such mysteries as time, space and the origin of knots in his yo-yo string. As Spinelli effortlessly spins the story of an ordinary Pennsylvania boy, he also documents the evolution of an exceptional author. Ages 10-13.

Friday, September 17, 2010

At Their Peril

by Scott Rhoades

Characters enter the fictional worlds of our stories at their own peril. The moment a character finds himself in a story, his life is at risk. At the minimum, his life is about to change and become impossibly difficult, and something vitally important to him is about be shattered.

Often, we writers fall so in love with our characters that we don't want anything bad to happen to them. We want them to be safe and happy. If you feel that way about your character, keep him in your notebook and write about somebody you don't like so much.

Most readers enjoy a happy ending, but we want the characters we read about to suffer on their way to that ending. We want to worry about them. We want to feel anguish. We want the author to tease us, to make us believe there's a chance that our hero will fail, and that he might not even survive.

I recently read a well-known book by a popular middle-grade author who made sure to let the reader know that the lead character was going to be OK. That was disappointing. I wanted to believe he was in jeopardy soon after page 1 until as close to the last page as feasible. Instead, I was left dissatisfied at the end of this classic MG/YA fantasy because I never believed the protagonist was in any danger at all. I almost gave up on the series.

Think of the Harry Potter series. Once J.K. Rowling started killing off characters, we worried about the rest of the characters. As the series progressed, the deaths reached deeper into the characters we cared about, reaching even into the inner circle of important characters. (I'll avoid spoiling it for the two of you who haven't read the series but are thinking you might. The rest of you know exactly what I mean.) Once vital characters started being killed off, we feared for the rest of them. We couldn't even be sure Harry would survive. We figured he would, but Rowling keeps us just off balance enough that we can't be 100% sure. And we loved her for it.

The reader needs to worry, and the reader needs to worry most about the main character and any important secondary characters.

The best way to cause serious hand wringing and steady page turning is often to do in one of those secondary characters, or at least an important tertiary character. so we worry about who else is going to be offed. If you can do in Johnny's best friend, how safe is Johnny?

I've heard so many people say that there should not be deaths in early readers and middle grade novels, and maybe even not in YA books. I disagree. Creating a safe little fictional world might be pleasant, but it robs the reader of the fear and trepidation that so often makes for a good read. Of course, who dies and how the deaths are handled must be age=appropriate.

Even if you choose not to kill off any characters, you've still got to create as much stress and tension as you possibly can. If a character does not physically die, something terrible needs to happen to your protagonist. Something should die within the character, his ideals, his faith, his hopes and dreams, something important, something that means more to him that life or death. He can win it back in the end, but it will never be the same.

Look at The Princess Bride. Westley comes as close to death as a character can come, closer than any other character I've ever read about. His entire story is one of misery, danger, and torture. Buttercup seems to get off a little easier, but does she really? In fact, she suffers a fate that, for her, is worse than death. She has to sacrifice herself and her ideals to marry somebody who is not her True Love. That choice beats her down so much that, once she realizes her True Love can't return to save her, her idealistic world is shattered. Her dreams are destroyed. For her, it's better to be dead than to live without her dreams. She picks up a knife to check herself out of a cruel world where her idealism is meaningless. And this is in a story best known for its humor.

Don't play safe with your characters. Don't keep your characters and your readers comfortable. Change their lives. Make them go through horrible circumstances that grow continually more dire as the story progresses. And don't be afraid to let those dangers prove to be unsurvivable for a major character or two so we worry even more about the main character.

Your readers might hate you until the story is over, but they won't be able to put down the book, and they'll love you in the end.

Celebrations: Oliver Butterworth

Chances are probably pretty good that you've never heard of Oliver Butterworth (May 23, 1915 – September 17, 1990). He didn;t write as many children's books as others I pay tribute to in this series, but his first book, The Enormous Egg, opened a door in my mind, showing me a whole new aspect of the imagination.

The whole idea of a chicken laying a dinosaur egg, and a boy about my own age raising a pet triceratops, as well as the struggles little Nate Twitchell had to endure against adults who wanted to claim the dinosaur for their own purposes, created a new world full of magic and interesting characters and conflicts.

I re-read The Enormous Egg a couple years ago and discovered something that went completely over my head as a kid. When Congress is debating whether Nate's dinosaur should be placed in the National Zoo, one congressman's blustery speech is one of the best pieces of political satire I've ever read. That this bit is hidden in a children's book helps to show the value books for young readers have in our society, and what adults miss when they grow "too old" to read kids' books.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Your Characters

Writing a story can seem easy until you have written one and it stinks, at least to you. There are some questions and elements to writing that might help in your journey as a writer.

Where is your story going? This seems like a common sense question. Sometimes we write and write and then read what we have written and wonder where the story is taking us.

How do you hook your readers? The protagonist needs a conflict. The main character is known as a protagonist.

The main character needs to have a problem (conflict) which they want to resolve so this leads to a goal. A goal helps the reader root for the character.

But to reach the goal, the main character needs to overcome obstacles. Don’t use convenient coincidences to get the character out of trouble. It rarely happens in real life.

The antagonist in the story is the one who opposes the main character. An antagonist can be man vs. nature, man vs. self and man vs. man. The stronger your antagonist, the stronger your story. The more pages your reader will turn!

What are the consequences of failure to your protagonist? Your main character can not give up. Different consequences might be: the world coming to an end, death, loss of true love or family, etc.

Here’s a exercise that might help:

In each scene find:

  • The goal/s of the protagonist or main character
  • The goal/s of other characters
  • The obstacles
  • The consequences of failure

What is the biggest obstacle for your main character?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Theory: Story as Model

Writing Wednesday

When we make a model of something, it emphasizes some aspects of reality and suppresses others. That selective representation is an essential property of a model: if the model were a perfect representation of the thing being modeled, it would be a copy, not a model.

Why would we prefer the imperfect copy that is a model to the full fidelity of reality?

A columnist in Scientific American wrote,
“When the hard-nosed behavioral scientist James March taught his famous course at Stanford using War and Peace and other novels as texts, he emphatically was not teaching a literature course. He was drawing on works of imaginative literature to exemplify the behavior of people in business organizations in a way that was richer and more realistic than any journal article or textbook.
In other words, the very function of a model is to make something clearer than it might be in reality.

Speaking on a panel at the 2010 Provo Library Childrens Book Festival, Brandon Sanderson said, "Fantasy is like an experiment: human characters are the control, and the fantastic (world) is the experiment."

In other words, speculative fiction, for which the fantastic setting isn't just that--a setting, is a model, to one degree or another, of reality. And the function of the fantastic is to make some element (presumably the subject or theme of the story) clearer.

But it's not just speculative fiction. Stories depend upon a selective narrative. That is, we don't want to hear about all the ordinary things that happened between the interesting sequences. Imagine how tedious a first person narrative would be if we had to slog through everything the character did and thought during all their waking hours. Instead, we like to hear the heroes realize they can cut the bad guy off at the pass, skip the twelve hours it took to actually get to the pass (unless we get a quick shot of them riding through a dramatic landscape), and get on with the showdown at the pass.

As I think about the story I want to tell, I find it helpful to think of the story as a model and consider what I should emphasize and what I should omit to make the story clearer.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Celebrations: Robert McCloskey

It's hard to think of many writers or illustrators, with the exception of Dr. Seuss, who influenced picture books for the last three generations more than Robert McCloskey (September 15, 1914 – June 30, 2003).

A list of the books he wrote and illustrated pretty well describes my childhood library checkouts, and then my own bookshelf. Starting with Lentil in 1940 (one of my first Scholastic Book Club books), and then continuing with Make Way for Ducklings, Homer Price (still one of my favorite books), Blueberries for Sal, Centerburg Tales, One Morning in Maine, Time of Wonder, and Burt Dow - Deep-Water Man, McCloskey set the bar high for writer/illustrators, with two Caldecott Medals and two more Caldecott Honors awards.

That would be more than enough to make his birth worth celebrating, but there's more. In addition to his own books, he also illustrated several books for other authors, including one of my favorite childhood reads, Journey Cake, Ho by his mother-in-law, Ruth Sawyer.

Not bad for somebody who described himself as an accidental writer. McCloskey's early dream was to be a musician (reflected in Lentil), and he played several instruments. He was also a life-long mechanical tinkerer and inventer. As a child he invented a machine to whip cream. Unfortunately, just like with Homer Price's doughnut machine, something went wrong when he tried and he sprayed cream over all four walls of his mother's kitchen.

Finally, he developed an interest in illustrating. He wrote that he had never intended to write, but when he drew, stories came out between the pictures.

Celebrate this great author's life today by digging out one of his books and reading it to your kids, or just curl up and read it to yourself.

Monday, September 13, 2010

What's the Big Idea?

I once read that if you can’t state the theme of your writing in one short sentence, your story has serious problems.  So, I’m looking over my writing and asking myself, “What’s the Big Idea?”

What is the basic theme to what we write?  Is it “Be yourself?”  That’s certainly common enough in children’s literature.  Is it “Everyone deserves a second chance?”  Or is it “Anything worth having is worth fighting for?”  Or maybe even “Love is blind?”

A theme can strengthen our writing in two important ways: first, it helps to focus the plot, and second, it gives our story added depth.

Fiction is a place where broad ranges of experience can be brought down to the individual level.  In the end, that is what readers care about anyway—the struggles, experiences and growth of the individual.  Fictional writing is a place to explore what it means to be human.

Most of our writing has a theme, even if we didn’t do it intentionally.  Taking the time to recognize those themes and then build on them throughout the plot will transform our writing from a “fun story” to something that has universal and lasting meaning.

Deborah Perlburg gives us three questions to help us dig deeper and find the big idea.

1-What is the overall point of my story?
2-What do my main characters learn?
3-How do my main characters change at the end of their journey?

Don’t worry if your theme sounds the same as so many others.  That’s the beauty of universal concepts; they can “generate countless different plots and stories.” 

Stories that make good use of a theme linger in my mind for days after I’ve finished the book.  When I read books that have won awards, such as the Newbery, I find that these are the authors who have taken a universal idea and brought it down to the individual level in a masterful and meaningful way.

We can take our writing up a notch by using themes as a foundation to give our stories added strength. 

Celebrations: Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl was born on September 13, 1916.

There are very few children's writers whose accomplishments are so great, that there's no need to list them. James and the Giant Peach has always been one of my favorite books for any age group. Even now that I'm old enough that even my kids' childhoods are behind them, James is a great read. If he had written nothing else, Dahl's birth would still be worth celebrating. Of course he wrote more. A lot more.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The Witches--it's a long list: 17 children's stories, three volumes of children's poetry, two adult novels, 19 short story collections, several non-fiction books, a play, six movies (including the screenplays for "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and the 1971 version of "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,"and a bunch of TV episodes including several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Tales of the Unexpected, and his own series, Way Out.

But Dahl was more than a writer. A fighter pilot for the RAF in WWII, Dahl's victories earned him the title of Flying Ace. He also became known for his controversial stance against Israel (although, he claimed not against Jews).

Dahl was truly a transformational author. His influence on other writers is obvious. It's possible that no author has influenced current writers, especially middle grade authors, as much as Roald Dahl.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Pitching Your Book with VS Grenier

Knowing how to pitch something so it catches a publisher or editor’s attention is key. The best examples in how to do this is by looking at how companies advertise. There are many different tools companies use, one of the most common is the five one minute commercial. We see them every day while watching TV, movies and hear them on the radio. Print ads are another form of advertising companies use. You see them in magazines, newspapers and on the internet. You may even see them if we live an area where there are signs posted on the road such as Billboards. Lastly, promotions and coupons are the other tool companies use to advertise their goods and services, but did you ever stop to think what an ad really is? It is a pitch . . . to you the customer.

I know what you're thinking, "But I'm not going to be placing T.V, and/or Radio ads, posting a Billboard, giving away coupons or should I dare think it . . . do an infomercial."

The thing is you will be, but your pitch will be done through phone calls, media/press releases, book convention blurbs, conference handouts if you’re a guest speaker and/or teaching a workshop, and maybe even during an interview on T.V. or the radio. Therefore, knowing how to pitch something is really important and the thing is . . . you've already been using the techniques in our cover, query, and book synopsis letters. Now we just need to add that “WOW” factor so when you are in person, or writing a media release or blurb, it catches the right people's attention.

Okay, let's say we're face to face and you can walk right up to me, and talk to me about this great idea you have for an article, story, or book. Pitching to an editor, publisher, or agent in person is no different from pitching to them via a book proposal. The only real difference is now you are face to face and you have to cut down on the detail a bit. Unless they are interested and starting asking you questions about the book. The problem is . . . most people will choke at this point. I mean who wouldn't? Here you are, face to face with someone who could just turn you down flat in front of a crowd of people. Awful as it sounds, it is something you have to get past. This brings me right back to Selling 101. As a sales person, you go to work each day knowing you will have more hang-ups or people walking out of your store than successfully closing a sale. So why do these people keep doing what they are doing? Because they believe in what they are selling and so should YOU!

A proposal in person, on the phone, or in a letter is an extension from your query letter and book synopsis. Now you see why I talked on these key points earlier in my blog postings. It is because everything builds upon each other. Just like your writing: first you learn how to hone your skills, then you jog down some ideas, write an outline, sit down to write whatever it was you were inspired to write, revise, get a critique, revise some more, let it sit, revise some more and then prepare to send it out.

Each tool is a building block for success and so it is in selling and marketing.

Unlike a query, a proposal may be four or five double-spaced pages when typed. In person, it needs to be tight, to the point, and have the “WOW” factor to get the person you are pitching asking questions and wanting to see more of what you have to offer.

Your pitch needs to detailed like your outline of your book, it should describe the sort of illustrations you plan to gather or would like to see, and just maybe . . . you even have some samples to show the person on you. Hint . . . hint.

A few things to keep in mind when giving a pitch:

  1. Keep your pitch to four lines.
  2. Practice giving your pitch in front of a mirror.
  3. Always have back-up answers in our mind for possible questions.
  4. Try your pitch out on a writing friend or family member. Have them throw questions at you.
  5. Keep every sentence tight and to the point. You do not want to give away all your plot details or the ending of your story.

Pitching is not something to fear. It should be something you cannot wait to do. Let your excitement show through and your passion. Just don't over kill either. Be willing to listen to criticism as well when pitching. Then find a way to turn those negatives into features and benefits as to why they need see your book.

To learn more about VS Grenier visit her websites at and or her blog The Writing Mama.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

"Writer’s block can be more fun than you think" by T. Lynn Adams

Writer’s block can be more fun than you think
By T. Lynn Adams
Call it mental constipation, arthritis of the mind, or just plain writer’s block. In all cases, it turns mental acuity into sludge.

Sometimes it only slows the mind for a few hours. Other times blank screens can stare at us for days, even weeks. Few things are more discouraging and defeating than writer’s block.
Few things can be as fun, too.

Let me share with you a favorite solution I’ve used for years. It only takes 15 minutes. Best of all, it is a crazy way to squirt mental oil through your thoughts.

So, set the timer for 15 minutes.

Now, quick--jot down the first three nouns that pop into your mind. Don’t think about them, just write them as they come.

(The first three that came to my mind were feather, radiator and Twinkie. Yours may be piglet, house, and bracelet.)

As soon as you have your three nouns, start writing a story with them. Don’t stop to think about your choices. Don’t stop to develop a plot line or characters. Just start writing. You only have 15 minutes to create and complete a very, very short story incorporating all three of those nouns.

And you must finish it before the timer stops. No novels here. Only one story, fully contained in a few paragraphs.

Don’t worry about style, punctuation or anything else. Just determine to spit out a complete story in a few minutes. And no fair changing a single noun! That is the fun of it. Just go with whatever popped into your head—no matter how unrelated they seem. You will be surprised at how you can weave them together.

When you're done, if you want to see what I did with a feather, radiator and a Twinkie, hop on over to my author’s blog at It took me seven minutes to write the story, though I did cheat and punctuate it before posting it on the Web.

Now that you are mentally flowing again, go work on your own stuff. And have fun!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Writing Action Sequences

Writing Wednesday

In a recent episode of the Writing Excuses podcast, L.E. Modesitt talked about writing action sequences in an episode dedicated to practical fantasy.

Practical fantasy, by the way, means paying attention to the structural relationships in your fantastic world. For example, Lee mentioned a story in which two armies of 10,000 knights each met in battle, and pointed out that in this world it takes 1200 acres (or about 2 square miles) of cultivated land to support a knight and that it would be very difficult to maintain the political cohesion of that much territory with only horse-based transportation. In other words, if your story violates economics as we understand it in this world, then you're going to have to take the time to establish how it works in your world.

1944 USS Mount Hood explodes
You've got similar structural issues with actions sequences. I think of action as the flow and collision of opposing forces. There's a rhythm, pacing, and a certain inexorability to the action sequence. (If not, the characters could simply side-step the unpleasant consequences.)

Lee pointed out that most people don't realize how quickly real action happens; that there's a long wait before something happens, a moment of chaos, and a lot of work afterward to deal with the consequences. He said war is 99% boredom and 1% terror.

Lee also said that big action is made up of smaller action. I was reminded of J. Michael Straczynski's comments about the logic of a space battle between the Narns and the Shadows in Babylon 5. He broke the action down into more or less the following phases:
  • detection,
  • deploy long-range weapons,
  • close to effective range
  • major and minor encounters,
  • break off or destruction
  • aftermath
It's tempting to think about cool action--guys flying through the air, things exploding, etc.--but eye candy, whether in print or on the screen quickly grows tiresome it if doesn't arise from an inevitable underlying structural logic.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Simon Howden /

Friday, September 3, 2010

On Writers Reading Widely

by Scott Rhoades

Nobody has to tell a writer to read. Most of us started writing because of our love for books and stories. Just about every writing course tells us to read, especially in our genres, but that instruction is usually not necessary because we write what we like to read.

What they don't always tell us is to read widely, to read what we might not usually read.

Do you write romance? You can learn to keep your readers reading until late in the night if you learn the tricks used by suspense and mystery writers. Fantasy/Sci-Fi writers will find they have much in common with westerns, and can benefit from classics. Macho action novel writers can broaden their audience if they learn how to add elements that attract women. Mainstream fiction writers can learn a lot from YA and middle grade.

But don't stop with genre swapping. If you enjoy popular fiction, leave your comfort level and explore literary fiction. Sure, you might not get the fast-moving plots you love, but you might learn to improve your writing and delve deeper into character,

Read the classics. Those same books you found bitter when you had to read them in school have a completely different flavor when you read them on your own. And the classics are a great place to find plot elements. They've been mined by writers since Shakespeare borrowed heavily from them. Oh, and make sure you read Shakespeare too. It never ceases to amaze me how many plots in modern books and movies are taken from Shakespeare. And many titles too. Plus, you'll learn some things about turning phrases and playing with language from the Bard.

Fantasy writers should check out Homer, the medieval Arthurian romances, and the Icelandic sagas. So should action writers. Did you know the classic western novels owe more to the Icelandic sagas than to any other literature? Both are about settlement and feuding, with bigger-than-life heroes. If you don't write fantasy or action, reading those same books will expand your horizons and give you ideas you can borrow or modify.

I can't imagine any writer not learning from our American classics, like Twain, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. Humor, biting satire, and brilliant use of the English language in three very different ways. Not to mention just plain good old stories that are still relevant today.

Check out different cultures, books that are translated from other languages. You'll rarely go wrong with great Russian or Latin American authors, and there's a rising tide of Middle Eastern and Indian writers in the U.S.

Setting your story in a particular place or time. Read books written there, in the same period you're writing about. Especially books you might not usually read. They'll give you a richer perspective.

If you're a staunch conservative, read books with Socialist leanings. If you're an atheist, read religious books. If you're religious, read Twain's religious satires or post-modern, non-religious writers. Read what you disagree with. You don't have to like it or change your mind, but it will help you write characters who have different points of view in a way that they become believable, rather than being the kind of one-dimensional caricatures that bog down works by people who don't understand how their less-sympathetic characters think.

Only read fiction? Check out some science, history, or philosophy. They'll make your stories richer and deeper.

Write realistic fiction? Check out some world-building fantasies to help you make your realistic world even more believable.

Some of the books I've read recently that I might not have picked up without suggestions from friends or other connections include the first three books of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, a gift from a friend, and The Chosen One by our own Carol Williams. Loved them all, although I didn't expect to. I learned a lot about characters from the Detective Agency books, as well as more about African cultures. Carol's book, which I really wanted to read because I like Carol, almost scared me away because it has a very feminine cover. But the book is dripping with suspense, has great characters, and includes one of the most horrifying scenes I've ever read. Which reminds me: Write happy, feel-good books? Read horror.

Read true crime. Read biographies, even of people you might not think you're interested in. They'll deepen your stories in obvious ways.

I could go and on. (Some of you probably think I already have.) This is one of the easiest blog posts I've written here. It seems like a no-brainer to me, and yet I know several writers who read a ton, but always within strict genre limits.

Sure. You'll find stuff you don't like. You'll find "great" or "popular" books that you can't finish. (If you're going very far out of your comfort zone, use a library or borrow from a friend so you don't waste money on something you don't like.) But, if you read widely, your writing will benefit.

Perhaps more importantly, you'll benefit too. You'll learn more, become wiser, broaden your horizons (or fortify them by understanding more about the other side), and you never know, you just might find out that you like more kinds of books than you thought, which will open up whole new worlds for your reading pleasure.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Ideas To Finding An Agent

Finding the right agent is like doing your homework.
You have to research and know your subject.

Find your favorite book.

Look inside the front cover or on the spine of the book for the publishing house.

Most publishers are online now so you should have no problem Googling them.

You should be able to find a list of agents on the website. Read through them.

(If you already know an agents name, find them online).

Ask these questions about the agent:

What are the submission guidelines? (follow them exactly!)

What are the recent sales?

Who is on their client list?

Do I want a new agent?

It is acceptable to write their writers and ask about the agent and company. You are the one who has your book’s best interest at heart. Do your homework and you will be rewarded.

If you send out your work simultaneously to different agents and get a response from one, send a note to the others letting them know; it will peak their interest.

If you haven’t heard from an agent in 2 months, it’s acceptable to check with the agent to see if they received your work and if it’s been looked at.

Any tips you have on finding an agent?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Middle Grade Bullies? Just Say No!

Writing Wednesday

Now that it's time to go back to school, I have a plea for all you middle grade authors.

I picked up a newly published middle grade novel after the agent who represented it said the book was the one that really got him excited about children's literature.

I was eager to dive into the story and see what made this book special. And much like diving into water that's shallower than it appears, I ran smack into a child of destiny being tormented by bullies among both students and faculty in an oppressive institution.

Eddie~S at Wikimedia
It seems as though most of the middle grade books I've read during the last few years begin with bullies. I'm beginning to think I missed the memo saying that such things are required. What's worse is that the bullies generally have nothing to do with the main story after the child of destiny transcends the oppressive institution (i.e., we never see the bullies again after they've done their scene-setting work at the beginning.)*

I know school isn't rainbows and unicorns, and kids can be mean to each other, but this is becoming a tired trope. So I'm calling for an end to bullies in middle grade novels. (Unless the novel is actually about bullies at some level and those characters are in the book to do more than simply set the starting scene.)

I know you middle grade authors are creative, so let's step up and find something other than the overdeveloped brute who takes senseless pleasure in pounding your protagonists. How about a rival? An enemy? Another kid so focused on what he or she wants that they run over your protagonist and don't even notice the bump?

At a minimum, please don't use a bully simply because almost everyone else has.

* At least C.S. Lewis had the decency to let his protagonists go back to their dreary new school at the end of Voyage of the Dawn Treader and give their tormentors a proper comeuppance.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /