Archive for the ‘The Writing Craft’ Category

Craft for a Conference: Part 5, The Art of Being Memorable

June 30th, 2015 | Conferences, Proposals, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wWelcome to what will probably be the conclusion of my “Craft for a Conference” series (unless someone asks a question about an aspect of conference materials that I haven’t addressed already). Through my last four posts on conference craft, I repeated one mantra: that the purpose of any material you take to a conference (including spoken pitches) should be to gain the interest of the person you’re talking to as quickly as possible and to make yourself stand out from the crowd (in a positive way) as much as you can. When I meet with authors at conferences, the thing I see missing from pitches/conference materials more than anything else is that memorability factor– I read a lot of good hooks, some nice one-sheets, but at the end of a day where I’ve taken 20 appointments plus heard pitches at lunch and dinner, I’m often hard-pressed to recall ONE story idea without looking at my notes.

Now, obviously, there’s an element of information fatigue at play there; even a great, memorable story can get lost in the annals of memory if I heard ten forgettable pitches after it, and that’s what my notes are for. But when I read those notes, I want to go, “OH yeah, this one!” because I recognize the unique elements that stood out for me when you pitched it. I want you to have made it easy for me to remember it by pulling out everything that is most unique and most characteristic of that story in your one-sheet or your pitch. The fact that this doesn’t happen more often tells me not that authors aren’t writing memorable stories, but that they don’t always know how to make themselves/their pitches or materials memorable, that they don’t know what elements of their book stand out from the crowd and how to highlight those.

With that in mind, here are some places to start in your quest to make your book or story stand out at a conference (or in a query letter):

  • Identify what makes it unique. What are the elements of your book that are unusual or fresh? What do you bring to your cookbook/memoir/mystery novel/romantic suspense that I haven’t seen in others? One way to identify these unique elements of your book is to ask your beta readers what stood out to them/what elements of the book they found most interesting or exciting. Though readers tend to read within the confines of certain genres, they still appreciate and are drawn to novelty within those genres– that’s why people read more than one of the same type of novel, after all. Do romance readers really want to read the same story over and over? Well, yes, in the sense that they want boy to meet girl, boy and girl to overcome problems, and boy and girl to live happily ever after, but the unique details of each basic romance story are often what determine which novel a romance reader will pick up next– if a reader has a choice between nine romance novels in which a nanny falls in love with the widowed father of one child and one in which a nanny falls in love with the widowed father of eleven children, they’ll probably pick up the one that’s a little more unexpected, a little more surprising, a little less familiar.

    That doesn’t mean that you have to change the story you have written: if you wrote a nanny-falls-in-love-with-father-of-one story, figure out what DOES set it apart from those other eight, and highlight those elements in your pitch and conference materials. Does it have a unique/unusual setting? “Katie Nana isn’t sure how she ended up providing childcare on an archeological dig in Egypt.” Memorable. Does one of the major characters have an interesting/unusual vocation or workplace? “Katie’s mom, a former soap opera star, spends her weekends reminiscing to Katie about her glory days and spends her weekdays gambling away Katie’s inheritance.” What about some quirk or characteristic on the part of a major character that adds color to the story? “Katie Nana’s photographic memory makes her a great lawyer but a lousy girlfriend– who wants to be in a relationship with a woman who can always conclusively prove that she’s right?,” or “Katie’s best friend Valerie, who’s always claimed to be psychic, says that Katie and Clint are destined to be together, but it’s going to take a lot more than that to convince Katie.” Mine your manuscript for pieces that stand out or that you feel add color– a talent or hobby of the protagonist, an unusual pairing, etc. If you’re having trouble determining what parts of your story are unique, take a look at what else is out there in your genre– the more you read in your genre, the more you’ll pick up on what elements stand out.

  •  Make modified or combined comparisons. One of the best ways you can communicate a lot about your story to me in very few words as well as making it memorable is to make a comparison to something I likely already am familiar with. “It’s like ________ plus ___________,” (“It’s like Pride and Prejudice plus vampires”) or “It’s like ________ meets ___________,” (“It’s like Robinson Crusoe meets The Bachelor”) or “It’s like ___________ in _________” (a different setting– “It’s like Romeo and Juliet in outer space”) or “It’s _________ if ________ were different” (“It’s Bruce Wayne’s story if his parents had never been killed and he’d never become Batman)– etc. Hang your story on a story or franchise that is already in my memory and then tweak it so I remember your part, too, not just the big name. Obviously, you’ll still need to do a little more explaining– “It’s like Robinson Crusoe meets The Bachelor; a sailor is shipwrecked on an island and lives there alone for years until a second shipwreck brings five sheltered New York debutantes on their way to tour Europe to his island.” Beware unrealistic comparisons– don’t drag in a hugely successful franchise just because you think that makes your project sound more salable. It mostly just makes you sound naive. Make sure a comparison is actually justified and that it actually helps describe your book before say that your book is “like Harry Potter meets Lord of the Rings,” which doesn’t really tell me anything and makes you sound a bit like a raging egomaniac (and is an excellent example of being memorable for the wrong reasons).
  • Tell me the twist. Think about some of your favorite books or movies with surprise endings or twists to them– chances are, those twists would be some of the first things that came to mind if you were telling a friend how great such-and-such was. No one left “The Sixth Sense” and told their friends that they should go see it because “the single mom storyline was very touching and honest.” The word-of-mouth on that movie was, “YOU WON’T BELIEVE THE TWIST AT THE END!!!” If you’re hoping to make a lasting impression on an agent or an editor and your book has a great twist, a great “wow” moment, tell them about it. I’m not going to remember your cryptic, “There’s a surprise at the end,” I’m going to remember, “My main character is actually dead the whole time!” or “The narrator is actually the murderer!” Tell me right away that cool thing about your story that I would remember vividly after I’d read it, because it will also help me to remember it before I’ve read it.

Craft for a Conference: Part 4, The “Why?” of a Writing Sample

June 17th, 2015 | Conferences, Proposals, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to my series on crafting effective pieces for use at a conference. Today, I’m discussing the value of bringing a writing sample with you to a conference and how to make sure it represents you effectively.

Like I said the first week of the series, there isn’t one hard-and-fast rule as to what you should bring to your editor and agent meetings at a conference. Some editors are happy to glance through a full proposal, some agents love to see a one-sheet on your project, and some people don’t want to look at anything on paper, preferring to hear you talk about your project and ask you questions instead. NONE of us wants to leave with a big stack of papers, and word is starting to get around that it’s increasingly difficult to get us to leave with any printed materials you bring us, so the practice of authors carrying around their sample chapters or first 50 pages or, heaven forbid, their full manuscript, has become much less common at conferences.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad fewer authors are trying to send me home with ten extra pounds of paper, but I have been disappointed, on many occasions, when meeting with an author who’s done a good job of hooking me with their story or concept through their one-sheet or pitch, to ask if the author has a writing sample with him and be met with a blank, slightly panicked stare and the stammered apology, “I– I didn’t know– I’ve heard you don’t want– I don’t have–” by which they mean, “No, I don’t have a writing sample, either because I didn’t expect to get this far, or because I’ve been told not to bring a big stack of paper to a meeting like this, or because I thought you would only be interested in hearing about my platform, and now I’m having a heart attack because you’re asking for something and I don’t have it and how could I blow my big chance like that, please excuse me while I go jump off a cliff.” The lesson here is that, while some editors will never ask to see a writing sample in a 15-minute meeting at a conference, some will, and you want to be equipped with a dynamite writing sample in case that happens.

There are several advantages to having a writing sample with you at a conference. As an agent, there are several scenarios in which I’ll ask to see the writing. First, I’m trying to determine whether or not I’ll be able to sell your project, so obviously, the quality of the writing is a factor there– I can’t sell a great story if it’s terribly written. Having a writing sample to show me right away adds to the impression I’m forming of you: when I get home after the conference and look over my notes from the meeting, they say “great idea, solid writing” instead of just “great idea, dot dot dot question mark,” and you have a better chance of standing out from the crowd in my memory and in the flood of material coming in after a conference.

I also want to know whether I connect with your voice as a writer– whether the way you tell your story resonates with me, whether I think I could champion you and your work to a publisher. There have been several times that I’ve met with an author at a conference and been pitched an idea that was only so-so in terms of uniqueness or saleability, but because I loved their writing/voice so much when skimming the writing sample, I’ve requested to see more/talked more with that author after the conference. I made the decision to stay in contact with those authors on the strength of their writing more than on the strength of that one idea/project.

It’s also a possibility that I’ve asked all the questions I need to about your story or your platform and already know your project isn’t going to be a good fit for me, but there’s still 7 minutes left of our meeting– in that scenario, seeing your writing can give me something constructive and concrete to offer you in terms of feedback/suggestions, so that I don’t send you away completely empty-handed. Obviously, this isn’t the ideal result of a meeting with an editor or an agent, but if you have 15 minutes with an industry professional, by all means you should be ready to take full, blatant advantage of having that opportunity to pick their brain/get their feedback on your writing, and having a writing sample with you in this situation could mean the difference between leaving disappointed 8 minutes early, and leaving still-disappointed but with some constructive pointers or specific encouragement– something with takeaway value– because they had the chance to take a look at your writing and give you their initial thoughts/suggestions.

So, you’re going to bring a writing sample to your next conference, “just in case.” What should it look like? Remember (also from the first post in this series) that the purpose of anything you bring to a conference is to get the attention/interest of an agent or editor as quickly as possible and to make yourself stand out from the crowd as much as you can. With that in mind, here are some things to consider when polishing and selecting a writing sample to take to a conference or include in your proposal.

  • Proofread within an inch of your life. This is where a misused word or a poorly-placed comma has the power to break you. We’re using these pages as a representative sample of your command of the English language in print, and we don’t have to find too many errors or typos to conclude that your writing isn’t ready for publication yet.
  • Demonstrate your storytelling ability. Stories are told in action and dialogue. Writing samples that start out with a bunch of descriptive, biographical backstory don’t show us that you can effectively draw the reader in to the current action/conflict, and doesn’t demonstrate your ability to bring your characters to life and make them speak and interact naturally with their environment. This is a big reason to avoid beginning your writing sample with a prologue or a scene-setting chapter– even if this is where you believe your book starts, it’s not necessarily the most effective place to start your writing sample. Show us how quickly you can immerse the reader in your story.
  • Make sure your writing voice is in evidence. Figure out what makes your writing sound like you, and then make sure the sample you’ve picked is full of whatever combination of things comprise your voice– beautiful imagery, conversational tone, dry humor, clever wit, larger-than-life characters, evocative description, raw style, etc. I want a writing sample to excite me and to stand out from the start, so don’t wait until four or five chapters in to really hit your stride/find your voice– I might not make it that far. Show me right away what makes you stand out.

Remember (also from the first post on this series) that the purpose of anything you take to a conference is to catch the interest of the reader and stand out/make a positive impression they’ll remember. Your writing sample is no exception; don’t miss out on an opportunity to give someone more reasons to remember you and your book!

 

The Danger of Over-Editing (a guest post from Gail Gaymer Martin)

June 12th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 4 Comments

One of the plights of a novelist or writer is wanting to perfect your work so completely that you can’t move forward. I’ve known numerous authors who’ve never completed a novel because they continue to rework the first three chapters until they literally take the life from it. Though editing is necessary to create a story that moves forward with every page and every paragraph, over-editing can be destructive by adding too much unneeded description or pages of dialogue that becomes chitchat. Cutting too much causes a novel to become bare bones as it loses reality, emotion, and depth. So what can you do? This is the question I was asked by a reader who follows my Writing Fiction blog.

The question:
Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed! I’ve written my beginning over and over again. I have even gotten to 15,000 words but keep getting frustrated. How do you move on without going back and constantly editing? I am a perfectionist but that seems to be hindering me in my writing. Any tips?

My response:
Over-editing can hinder a writer’s progress and allow someone with talent to fail finishing a book. A novelist’s voice is important. Readers come to know the tone and rhythm of your writing and connect with it. When you strip the bones raw or pile on needless fat, you’ve changed your style and voice and readers can disconnect.

Editing is needed to make the book the best it can be, but being too close to it, you will reach a point where you lose judgment and end up doing more damage than good. Time spent tweaking stops you from moving forward. You can become stagnant and get nowhere.

Yes, all books need an editor whether traditional or self-published. You want your book the best it can be, but consider it a first draft and know that if the book is to be traditionally published, an editor will help you polish your work with fresh eyes. Self-publishing means hiring an editor to work with your book, and traditional publishing means numerous editors, your acquiring editor plus copy and line editors will go over your book with you at no cost.

Over-editing not only takes the life from the book, but it also steals energy and creativity from the writer. The book can become boring and loses its spark. Instead, here are some ways to help you move forward.

Techniques to avoid over-editing

Set A Deadline – Traditional writers sell a novel and then are given a deadline which is part of the contract. This means authors work with the deadline in mind to make sure the book is on time. Even if the book isn’t sold, make a decision when you want the book to be completed or when you want the proposal to be ready for submission to a publisher. Deadlines help move the book along. Assign so many words a day or hours a week. If you spend the time editing, you will have to work longer hours to meet the timeline you set. Give yourself a penalty if you don’t meet the deadline. No chocolate the next day. No TV in the evening. When you lose something you enjoy for not making the deadline, you will think twice about over-editing.

Read your Work Aloud – Aloud is the key. Listen to your novel either by reading aloud or by using a text to voice program. Many software programs have them. I use Natural Reader and find it very helpful in not only catching typos or the wrong word (meet instead of met, slide instead of slid) but also spotting overworked phrases or words, awkward sentences and redundancies. I highlight the area I want to look at or make notes on the page and then look at only those sections later.

Use A Critique Group – While the group is only as good as its members, hearing others’ opinions can help you discover areas in your work that need clarifying, cutting or reworking. What’s clear in your mind can be confusing in someone else’s. Ask them to view the action and dialogue of your character’s personality, values and beliefs in mind. Is it realistic and consistent. People change but only in time. Input on your work is important but not from your mothers, siblings or good friends. They aren’t always good judges unless they are also successful novelists. And we know moms and friends don’t want to hurt your feelings. . .or their opinion is skewed because they care about you. Critique groups are best when they are fellow authors. When readers don’t find an error or problem in some of the scenes, don’t change them.

Make A List of Common Problems -When you’re working on a list of specific problems, you will not get stuck in a rut. As you discover areas of weakness, such as: too much backstory, lack of or too much description, overuse of dialogue tags or not enough white space on the page, focus on those and once you’ve made the changes, let it be. To resolve a problem with redundancy, for example, keep a list of words you overuse. As you listen to the novel or skim the pages, notice words that jump out at you because you’ve used them over and over. Use a thesaurus and find alternatives for the same idea and use them. Cut as many adverbs as possible. Adverbs are a weak way to make your character come alive. Avoid adverbs in dialogues tags. Make the sentences come alive with the words you select rather than telling the reader if the character is excited, suspicious or angry and don’t use too many adjectives in your descriptions, but don’t cut them to bare-bones.

Walk Away – Give yourself a break from the novel. Put it aside for a few days and allow yourself to un-attach from the story. When you go back you can look at it with new eyes. What looked bad might be fine. What seemed amazing might be so overworked that it’s lost the spark.

A Final Thought
Editors will overlook correctable writing problems if you send them an amazing, unique story. Work harder on creating a fresh idea with real life characters and spend less time chopping up your writers voice. I received a contract offer on my third novel, but it needed a different ending. I wanted the sale and accepted making the change. Guess what. I loved the new ending better. The original had been too predictable and too coincidental. The new ending added a richer meaning to the story and added strength to the story’s theme. Even great novels need editing.

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Award-winning author Gail Gaymer Martin writes romantic suspense, romance, and women’s fiction, and has sold more than 4 million books. Her titles have received numerous national awards including the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice and the ACFW Carol Award for romantic suspense. Gail’s novel The Christmas Kite, a Holt Medallion finalist, was optioned for a Hallmark television movie. She was awarded the 2009 Heartsong Author of the Year, and CBS News listed Gail as one of the top four writers in the Detroit area. The author of Writing The Christian Romance, published by Writers Digest Books, she is a cofounder of American Christian Fiction Writers and a popular keynote speaker.

Craft for a Conference: Part 3, Common Synopsis Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

June 9th, 2015 | Conferences, Proposals, The Writing Craft | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on crafting effective pieces for use at a conference, I’m talking more today about the synopsis and how to make sure it’s doing its job for your proposal. We’ll look briefly at format and then look at ways to avoid several common synopsis mistakes.

Synopsis format 

A synopsis is similar to a proposal in that there isn’t one “correct” way to format it. While there are elements that every synopsis should have in common, rarely are you going to be “disqualified” from consideration just because your synopsis isn’t formatted exactly the way that agent or editor prefers. That said, there are still a few fairly standard conventions you should be aware of:

-Synopses are often single-spaced. This may seem strange, since your sample chapters/manuscript should be double-spaced, but remember, an agent or editor is reading your synopsis to get a complete picture of your story from beginning to end– having all the info contained to a single page (as you should 9 times out of 10 be able to do for any book shorter than 100,000 words– see more below) helps us think of the book as a whole because we literally “see” it all in the same place.

-Names are often written in all-caps the first time they appear in a synopsis. Again, this is a way for the reader to visually track when a new player enters the story, and tells them to pay attention, they need to know who this person is.

–Synopses are always written in third-person present tense. Tense discrepancies in a synopsis (such as switching back and forth from past to present) interrupt our experience of the story.

Common synopsis mistakes and how to avoid them

I mentioned last week the mistake of being too vague in your synopsis (writing that “tragedy strikes,” rather than “Helen dies of the fever”), but here are a few more repeat offenders from the “synopses I have known” archives:
Too long. Synopses should be comprised of two things: people, and the stuff that happens to them. The vast majority of 80,000 word books can be synopsized on ONE single-spaced page. If your book is truly non-stop action and your plot truly has dozens of twists, you may need more than one page, but we can usually meet your main players and follow the plot from beginning to end in a single page. Common culprits in a synopsis that goes longer than this are description and commentary– this is not the place to elaborate on the characters we meet or to provide extensive insight into their psychology. “JANE EYRE, a sensitive, solemn child whose parents died of typhus when she was very young, has lived all her life in the shadows of her AUNT REED’s house, starved for affection and greedy for books. Her widowed aunt resents the way Jane’s uncle seemed to love her more than he loved his own children and has hated and abused her since his death.” This is all true, but in a synopsis for “Jane Eyre,” all we NEED is “JANE EYRE, an orphan, has lived with her cruel AUNT REED since her parents’ death.” No extra adjectives, no explanation of why Aunt Reed has it out for Jane– just introduce important characters and lay out the plot of the book logically and clearly.
Too confusing. A common method for creating your synopsis is to write a brief summary of each scene in your book, in order. While this is a good place to start, it often results in a synopsis that switches back and forth from different points of view too often, includes an excess of information about minor characters or subplots, or include scenes which require more explanation than belongs a synopsis. Your synopsis doesn’t have to follow the exact structure of your book– consolidate three or four scenes of one storyline that, in the book, appear spaced out in between other scenes into a single summarizing paragraph in your synopsis. This makes for a more readable and more streamlined synopsis. For example, if your book goes back and forth between a man trapped on a desert island and the woman he’s supposed to marry in a month, summarize a week in her life in one paragraph and then a week in his in another, rather than summarizing each character’s individual days in 12 paragraphs alternating between events in the man’s life and events in the woman’s. The same applies for your subplots– provide occasional summary updates rather than trying to track each subplot parallel to the main story all the way through the synopsis.
Too aimless. Like I said, a synopsis should speak to your ability to tell a whole story, and part of that ability includes demonstrating how the events of the plot are moving the story along to the climax. A common side-effect of writing strictly in action is that the events of the plot can start to read like a list of stand-alone, unrelated snippets. Though you want to be careful not to add too much length to a synopsis with too much commentary/framing, it is okay to use a little of your space to identify the growing tension and point the reader toward the coming climax. For example: “Jane and Mr. Rochester discuss Adele and Jane learns that Mr. Rochester had a French mistress years ago. Jane learns from Mrs. Fairfax that Mr. Rochester is supposed to be courting BLANCHE INGRAM. Mr. Rochester leaves Thornfield to spend some time at a house party where Blanche is also a guest.” This list of events is fairly directionless, and I can’t tell from reading it what the point is of all these revelations– they’re just a series of facts to me, and therefore not very engaging. Without taking up too much more space, I can hint at the significance of these events and give the reader a better sense of what to expect from the story and the direction it’s headed and create some interest in finding out more. “Jane and Mr. Rochester discuss Adele and Jane learns that Mr. Rochester had a French mistress years ago. Mr. Rochester then leaves Thornfield to attend a house party where BLANCHE INGRAM is also a guest. Mrs. Fairfax confides in Jane that Blanche and Mr. Rochester are popularly supposed to be courting, and Jane is reminded of the contrast between herself and the worldly women Mr. Rochester seems to prefer.” I don’t have to delve into tons of detail about Jane’s feelings or spell anything out, but now the reader’s radar is tuned to pick up on further evidence that Jane loves Mr. Rochester and has some anticipation about where the story is heading.

Come back next week when I’ll be talking about how to choose and polish a writing sample for a conference. Thanks for reading!

 

Showing Emotion in Writing (a guest blog by Robin Patchen)

June 5th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 17 Comments

How do most of us (note—I’m one of the us) show emotions in our stories? Often, we use physiological responses. Here are a few:

  • Sad—eyes filling with tears
  • Angry—fists clenching or slamming stuff
  • Worried—gut twisting
  • Happy—smiling, grinning, laughing, chuckling, giggling

It works, it’s easy, and it makes the point. It’s perfect.

Maybe not.

It has been said that the purpose of fiction is to evoke an emotional reaction. So let me ask you, when you read the words, “Her eyes filled with tears,” do yours? Because mine don’t. And I don’t even know what a twisting gut feels like. Those phrases may show us how your character feels, but they don’t evoke any emotions. So how do we make our readers feel along with our characters?

I don’t have a step-by-step plan. However, I have recently had an epiphany. Counselors tell us that thoughts lead to emotions, and emotions lead to actions. So what happens if you show us your characters’ thoughts and actions? Seems to me their feelings will be obvious, and you won’t need to tell us about their rumbling guts and teary eyes. And if you do it right, you can make the reader feel what your characters do. An example:

John hefted his bag and limped down the metal stairs, forcing himself not to rub that sore spot. Plenty of guys had worse injuries than his. He stared across the tarmac. A band played on the left. An array of dignitaries stood in his way. He scanned the crowd. They held signs that read Welcome home and God bless our heroes.

It was time to be a different kind of hero.

She stood beyond the suited politicians. His wife had curled her hair that day, just like he liked it. A year had passed since he’d seen her last. A year of dust and death, of protecting the innocent and chasing the guilty. A year he’d never get back.

He circled the official greeters, ignoring the protest from his colonel, and approached her. He stopped a few feet away and peered at the bundle she held in her arms. His wife shifted so he could look. Three months old. Blue eyes that looked so much like his own. Curly brown hair. The baby smiled and then turned away. John returned his gaze to his wife. “He’s perfect.”

“He looks like you.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t—”

She stepped into his arms. “You’re here now. Home and safe. That’s all that matters.”

 

In that scene, we read the man’s thoughts, and we see his actions. His gut didn’t twist at the sight of those dignitaries. His heart didn’t speed up as he scanned the crowd for his wife. His eyes didn’t fill with tears when he saw his child for the first time. But he did feel something. Did you?

So how did it work? A few observations:

1-Start with a character your readers care about. I took the easy road and created a wounded hero, but I only had 200 words to work with. With an entire novel and some skill, you can make your readers care about almost anyone.

2-Let the character’s thoughts reflect his feelings. He thinks about his time overseas—“A year of dust and death…” and follows it up with, “A year he’d never get back.” Do you hear regret?

3-Give us a glimpse of the character’s desire. In this case, I added that one remark—“It was time to be a different kind of hero.” Life as he knew it was not enough for John. He wanted something more.

4-Use compelling dialog. He could have said, “Hello.” She could have responded with, “How was your trip?” But while those ordinary expressions are realistic, they don’t mean anything. Instead, dump all the banal stuff and make your dialog reflect your characters’ emotions.

5-Use snapshots to set your scene. Show the scene through the eyes of your character, so his description reflects his feelings. The dignitaries weren’t just in front of him, they “stood in his way.” He immediately looked past them to scan the crowd. And if you can think of a snapshot that resonates with readers, use it. In this case, I used a welcome home reception for soldiers. I think that touches a lot of us.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of how to charge your scenes with emotion, but it’s a start. I challenge you to go through your manuscript and find every place you’re showing emotions through physiological responses. See where you can use description, thoughts, actions, and dialog (another form of action) to evoke that emotion instead. You probably won’t be able to rid your manuscript of every tear, but maybe if your characters cry less, your readers will cry more.

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Robin Patchen lives in Edmond, Oklahoma, with her husband and three teenagers. Her third book, Finding Amanda, released in April. When Robin isn’t writing or caring for her family, she works as a freelance editor at Robin’s Red Pen, where she specializes in Christian fiction. Read excerpts and find out more at her website, robinpatchen.com.

My website: http://robinpatchen.com/

Robin’s Red Pen: https://robinsredpen.wordpress.com/

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Finding-Amanda-inspirational-Robin-Patchen-ebook/dp/B00VN0STLI/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1428171089&sr=8-3&keywords=robin+patchen

 

Craft for a Conference: Part 2, A Synopsis that Tells, Not Teases

June 3rd, 2015 | Conferences, Proposals, Quick Tips, The Writing Craft | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wThis week, I’m continuing my series on how to best channel your craft in your conference materials by talking about your novel’s synopsis. A synopsis is an important part of any proposal– sometimes an agent or editor will read it at the conference when taking a look at your proposal, other times they won’t see it until you send them the requested sample chapters or full manuscript, but whenever they get around to looking at it, they’ll be expecting certain things from the synopsis, and if yours doesn’t deliver, you risk frustrating or confusing that important reader. Remember, agents and editors are looking for reasons to say “no” to a  project– not in a jerky, we-can’t-wait-to-stomp-on-your-dreams kind of way (well, not most of us…), but in a realistic, we-hear-pitches-all-the-time-and-have-trained-ourselves-to-listen-for-certain-dealbreakers-so-as-not-to-waste-our-or-an-author’s-time-by-pursuing-a-project-that-doesn’t-fit-our-guidelines/preferences/areas-of-interest kind of way. A synopsis that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to creates a potential place for us to say “no,” so make sure you understand the function of a synopsis in a proposal and how to make sure it provides what an agent or editor is looking for in a synopsis.

What is the purpose of a synopsis? When an agent or editor looks at a synopsis, they’re looking to get a feel for the WHOLE book, beginning to end. If they’re reading the synopsis, you’ve most likely already “hooked” them with a dynamite paragraph or pitch giving the main idea of the story– “some particular big thing or big problem happens to a main character or two in a particular setting and hijinks ensue as colorful secondary character’s arc or additional subplot unfolds in tandem with the main character’s journey to learning something.” This hook paragraph has given them the basic premise, a hint of your voice, and a feel for the most unique elements of the book, but now they want to find out more. Sometimes, they’ll read the synopsis first; sometimes, they’ll want to look at the writing first, but either way, before an agent or editor commit to reading a manuscript in its entirety, they usually want to find out where it’s going and what’s going to happen.

“Where it’s going,” or the way the plot develops from beginning to end, lets us glimpse your ability to construct a story arc that makes sense, that builds, and that resolves in a way that feels earned. The synopsis is the first impression we get of your storytelling ability. Your writing might be great in those first few chapters, but your ability to tell a story really can’t be proved until we’ve heard the whole story, so it’s to your advantage to tell the whole story in the synopsis. A common mistake I see in synopses created for use at a conference is when authors try to maintain suspense/keep plot twists a secret in the synopsis– this is not the place to perpetuate your aura of mystery. You know what we do when you essentially say (with a vague or teasing or nonspecific synopsis) that we’ll have to read the book if we want to find out what happens? We say, “Okey doke, thanks anyway, here’s your proposal back.” When we’re looking at your materials at a conference, we have time to read MAYBE 5 or 10 pages of your writing. While this can give us a good feel for your voice and let us know whether or not you can put a sentence together, it doesn’t tell us whether you can tell a story— whether you know how to keep the action moving, raise the stakes, develop the relationships, surprise the reader with twists or interesting developments, and tie up all the loose ends. Without knowing where the story is going, we can’t say very well whether we want to follow it there, so fill in all the blanks when writing the synopsis. Spoil the surprises.
“What’s going to happen” differs from “where it’s going” in that, while the latter refers to the overall direction and end resolution of the story arc, “what’s going to happen” refers to the specific events/scenes of a book. Agents and editors are (hopefully) going to be very familiar with the rules for the genre your book belongs to, and before they spend time reading a full manuscript, they want to make sure that you’re playing by those rules. If you pitched romantic suspense and your hook paragraph promises romantic suspense, they’re going to be looking for the “suspense” parts in your synopsis– where are the scenes of danger, the chases, the close calls, the scary parts, the climax? If you pitched Christian romance, they’re going to be checking to make sure your characters’ behavior is appropriate for those publishers’ publishing guidelines. If they personally are not interested in or not accepting certain elements/plot devices, such as teen pregnancy or cancer stories or widower-with-kids-falls-in-love-with-the-nanny stories, it’s better for you both that they are told about these elements in the synopsis as it can save you both from wasting another month waiting for them to run across them halfway into the manuscript. So, again, be specific in the synopsis about the action/events that take place in your book, especially those that really identify your book as belonging to the genre you’ve labeled it as. Be familiar with the characteristics/expectations of the genre you’re writing and make sure that your story’s “credentials” for belonging to that genre show up in the synopsis so the agent or editor doesn’t have any reason to question whether or not the project fits where you say it does.

Next week, I’ll be talking a little about synopsis formatting, as well as discussing common synopsis mistakes and how to avoid them. If you have any other synopsis questions you’d like me to address, let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!

Is it possible to over-edit?

June 2nd, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 7 Comments

This question came my way via an email: I’m midway through an edit on a novel manuscript, and find myself wondering if it is possible for an editor to clean up a story to the point that it becomes too clinical and loses the author’s unique voice or writing style. I can appreciate the way the text is getting more fluid and easier to read, but wonder if I am losing something in the process.

Sure, that’s possible. For all the crud being released via indie publishing these days (and trust me, rsz_9780060545697while there are plenty of good books getting self-pubbed, there is a LOT of crud), there is an argument to be made that books with traditional publishers may in fact be over-edited. I had a discussion with a publisher about this recently. He argued that nobody edited Charles Dickens much at all; that Mark Twain had very little editing; and that more recent novelists like James Michener had only a bit of editing done to their work. He said he believes our desire to edit manuscripts to make them stronger is the result of three things: the big egos involved in publishing that require too much control and therefore demand manuscripts be edited; the rise of an educated populace that wants to believe all errors have been removed from a manuscript; and the inherent need editors have to be editing, and therefore keep their jobs.

I’m not sure I totally agree, but it’s an interesting thought. Basically he’s arguing that self-published books are under-edited, and traditionally published books tend to be over-edited. To get back to your question, I’ve certainly seen editors take over a manuscript, forgetting that their role is to help the author polish and produce the best book they can. When that happens, the author (and the author’s agent) have to stand up and reject some of the changes.

I’ve had this happen numerous times. Once an editor wants to remove every contraction from a novel, apparently because his English prof had told him contractions are only for the uneducated. Another time an editor wanted to change the story completely, since she felt the author’s take on history was incorrect (forgetting the fact that this is a novel, and the author can change history as much as she wants to). And sure, I’ve had editors who wanted to over-edit to the point that we lost the author’s voice.

Look, I respect editors, and tend to remind authors that they need to shut up and listen to most editorial comments. Why? Because there are a bunch of good editors in today’s publishing world, and the bulk of what they say is probably correct and will help improve the manuscript. But not EVERYTHING they say will be correct. So you, as the author, need to be strong enough to say, “No, I don’t think that works.” There’s a balance between listening and ignoring advice. Sure, newbie authors tend to ignore too much, and produce a lot of bad manuscripts. But the opposite can sometimes be true as well – that an experienced author needs to reject some silly editorial comments and be brave enough to put out the book they wrote.

If you’re one of those who appreciate the history of publishing, by the way, you need to learn the name Talcott Parsons. In days of yore, Talcott Parsons was the head of the sociology department at Harvard, and an influential American educator. We largely know about the works of Vilfredo Pareto, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber because of writings Parsons did about his sociology predecessors in other countries. However, Parsons is also the guy who wrote with such a flat tone, using confusing educational jargon (he brought us “structural functionism”), and making “educational” writing sound so bland, that nobody wanted to read textbooks anymore. When I began working in the business, people would make jokes about a boring manuscript by saying things like, “All the charm of a Talcott Parsons essay.” That’s what over-editing can do.

My two cents.

Craft for a Conference: Part 1, Where to Look for Your Hook

May 27th, 2015 | Conferences, Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to Erin’s Tuesday blog on craft! After a few weeks off to accommodate back-to-back conferences on my part and an extremely important Bad Poetry Contest, I’m back to blogging and, inspired by my experiences at the aforementioned conferences, am starting a new series on the aspects of your craft you especially need to hone before taking your work to a conference. To kick things off, we’re talking today about finding the “hook” in your project so as to be better prepared to get an agent or an editor interested in seeing more.

You’ll hear a lot of different advice about what pieces and parts you should take to a writer’s conference– one-sheets, proposals, writing samples, your “elevator pitch,” etc.– and there’s really not one right answer as to what’s appropriate. Some agents want to see your one-sheet, others are only interested in the writing; some editors want to see the full proposal, while still others only want to talk about your platform. Whatever you decide to take to a conference, either on paper or as a prepared spoken pitch, the purpose of it should be 1) to gain the interest/curiosity of an agent or editor as quickly as possible and 2) stand out (in a positive way) from the crowd as much as possible. The “hook” of your project isn’t some elusive, magical tagline that you have to get exactly right or else you’re doomed– don’t get distracted by the jargon. When someone says they’re “hooked” on a book or tv show, they mean that they feel compelled to find out more/keep watching that story, so the trick with conference pitches or materials is to highlight all the most compelling/memorable elements of your project in order to gain an editor or agent’s interest to this extent. Hooks are going to be pretty short, sometimes one or two sentences, sometimes a short paragraph, but focus on keeping it tight and purposeful rather than on keeping it to an arbitrary word count or sentence limit. As long as it’s interesting from beginning to end and they can read it or you can speak it in a minute or so, it’s not too long. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the most common mistakes I see people make in their conference materials/pitches.

1. Too much background info. Just like the beginning of your book, the beginning of your one-sheet or proposal or pitch should not be an info-dump of backstory and detail. That’s all old news– you’re trying to sell me the story of what’s happening now, so why would you make me read three or four sentences about what’s happened in the past and risk losing my attention before I get to the really interesting part/what the story’s actually about? The here-and-now of your story needs to be front and center of your conference pitch. A good rule of thumb to finding your “hook” is to find the place the story actually begins by finishing the sentence: “When ___(something happens)____, ____(so what?)____.” “When” pulls us into the story immediately by fast-forwarding directly to your inciting incident.

For example, if I were writing a “hook” paragraph for Toy Story 3, I could start out by summarizing the events leading up to the third movie: “For 18 years, Andy’s faithful toys have stood by his side, helping him navigate the perils of childhood (such as sleepaway camp and moving to a new house) and sticking with him through adolescence, even as his interest turned to other things. Now, though, the toys face their biggest challenge yet as Andy heads off to college. Will he take them with him? Who will be left behind? Can the toys find a way to help their favorite boy one last time?”

The problem with this description is that the first half of it is telling my reader about a different story without saying a word about the actual events of THIS story. If I start out instead with a “when” statement, I can get right to the inciting incident and tell the reader about the action right away. “When Andy’s toys are mistakenly donated to a maximum-security daycare center…”  BAM, right away we know what kicks off the action in this story.

The “so what,”or second half of a “when” sentence gives the reader (who in this case, remember, is an agent or editor) another important element of a “hook” sentence or paragraph, the stakes. Make them care about the outcome of the plot right away by telling them what the danger is/why the struggles of the characters matter. “When Andy’s toys are mistakenly donated to a maximum-security daycare center they have to overcome feral preschoolers, gangs of evil toys, and childproof doorknobs to get back to Andy.

2. Too vague. The hook is not the time to be coy about what happens in your book. You’re trying to convince someone who already has 20 manuscripts to read to add yours to the queue– they’re going to be more interested in reading yours if you tell them about the twists/surprises/major events right off rather than trying to entice their curiosity with vague language and allusions. Tell me what’s interesting about your book, don’t just hint at it.

Continuing with our Toy Story 3 example, the description could continue: “But Andy is going through a crisis of his own, and when the toys finally find their way back to him, both the toys and the boy they love will have to reevaluate everything they thought they knew about their priorities and the future of their relationship.” Yech. This sounds melodramatic and high-stakes without actually telling me anything about what happens, the result being that I read this sentence mostly as “blah blah blah.” “A crisis of his own,” “everything they thought they knew,” “their priorities;” these are all empty words! They pull me out of the action and events of the story and into nebulous territory where each of these phrases raises a question mark in my head, and not in a good, “oh, I can’t wait to see what happens!” way, but in a, “now there are a bunch of blanks where I’d prefer there to be a clear picture of what this book is about and what makes it memorable” kind of way.

Remember, I don’t know your characters or your story yet, so it’s going to be hard to make me curious about internal conflict or personal struggles– you’re better off telling me about the unique events and actions of your story and letting my interest in those draw me in to the extent that I will read your manuscript and discover the rest for myself. “But even if they make it back, Andy is headed off to college, and only a few toys can go with him, if any. An encounter with a daycare girl with a big imagination causes the toys to consider how much more they have to offer to a child than to the man Andy has become. Together, Andy and the toys have to figure out, when is it the right time to say goodbye?” This description gives me the specifics of the personal crises the characters encounter while still framed in the context of the events of the plot, keeping things concrete and interesting.

3. No hint of voice/uniqueness. Now, “voice” and “uniqueness” don’t necessarily speak to the same quality in a manuscript, but both speak very clearly to how memorable a book is, and since one of the questions I’m asking when I read a hook paragraph or listen to a pitch is what makes this book stand out from the other manuscripts I’m reading in this genre, it’s to your advantage to be memorable/stand out right from the hook paragraph by alluding to what’s going to stand out about your manuscript. If you have a really interesting setting, someplace that hasn’t been seen in a lot of books before or that you think readers will find intriguing, I should hear it mentioned in the hook paragraph. If your main character has a crazy, quirky family that features largely into the subplots, introduce me to a few of the most memorable folks in the hook. If your writing is hilarious, there should be some humor in your hook paragraph. If you have a beautiful literary voice, there should be some artistry evident in your hook. Take stock of your story, make a list of all the most memorable or most unique elements of your story– characters with unusual professions, interesting places/hobbies/situations featured, fun or surprising plot twists– and of what elements you believe best define your voice, and make sure your hook paragraph includes several of these.

In our Toy Story 3 example, my reference to a “maximum-security daycare” gives the reader an immediate picture of the kind of setting we’re dealing with– a kid-friendly takeoff on a prison, fairly unique and, I’m hoping, memorable to whoever’s reading the hook. The list of “feral preschoolers, evil toy gangs, and childproof doorknobs” communicates a sense of “my” (in this case, the filmmakers’) voice by making what’s obviously supposed to be a humorous description of preschool children as “feral” and wryly including “doorknobs” in a list of the dangers facing the toys– this communicates the tone of the film, the tongue-in-cheek nature of the “perils” involved, etc. Finally, my last sentence about “the man Andy has become” and “the right time to say goodbye” lets the reader know that there are some deeper themes to this story even though it’s going to be funny and clever along the way, ensuring that I’m not underselling or overemphasizing any one aspect of the book and causing some editor who wanted funny and fluffy from beginning to end to be disappointed when they encounter deeper content upon reading the manuscript.

In the end, your hook paragraph or “elevator pitch” should be dripping with color and driven by action, without wasted or empty words, and should give an editor or agent enough information to know whether or not this is a story they want to read, as well as help them decide right away whether your story is going to stand out in its genre/the market– why an editor or reader is going to buy THIS cozy mystery or historical romance over THAT one. Give them current action, concrete information, and voice/uniqueness, and they’ll be better equipped to know whether they want to read the rest of your book.

As always, this series will last until I run out of material, so if you have a craft question specifically related to conference materials or preparing your writing for a conference, let me know in the comments and I’ll try to answer it in the next few weeks. Thanks for reading!

Who are the humor writers you enjoy?

May 19th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 6 Comments

I recently got this question in my in-box: “How about tossing a few crumbs to us humor writers on your blog? Do you have a favorite book on humor writing? How different was doing stand up comedy compared to writing humor?”

 

My favorite books on humor writing probably include:

The Comic Toolbox, by John Vorhaus

The Hidden Tools of Comedy, by Steve Kaplan

The Deer on a Bicycle, by Patrick McManus

Stand-up Comedy, by Judy Carter

There are a bunch of others that have value. Gene Perret has several good books on comedy writing. Greg Dean and Jay Sankey offer great pointers in their works. And Judy Carter’s book is there to help you be able to tell funny stories, more than write comic novels, but I find it’s a book I used to go back to time after time.

There are similarities with these books, by the way. You create a script. You establish a character. The words you choose are important. But writing a humor piece is very different from performing standup comedy. When I did standup, it was all about timing and attitude. Pauses (silence) were crucial. The energy I brought to the stage was important. And, of course, the single most important thing to success as a standup comic is that the room has to LIKE you. If they like you, then you can do anything, and they’ll find it funny. If they don’t like you, no matter how great your material is, the performance won’t work. In writing, on the other hand, there’s no facial expression or tone of voice or obvious attitude for people to pick up on – all that matters is the word on the page. And it better be VERY good, because people who want humor don’t want to just smile once in a while… they want to bust out laughing while reading. That’s incredibly hard.

It’s easy to tell a story and get the occasional smirk out of the reader, but really tough to create a belly laugh. That’s why these are books on “how to create humor in your writing,” as opposed to actually being “funny books.” There’s a difference. Kurt Vonnegut used to make me laugh out loud. Dave Berry does. Jenny Lawson is a brilliant comic writer. And the memoirs of Tina Fay and Haven Kimmel and Ellen DeGeneres have all been very funny. But in my view, it’s a short list.

Who are the funniest people writing, in your view?

How to Ruin a Book at the Last Minute: Part 5, The Bait and Switch Ending

April 29th, 2015 | Questions from Beginners, Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI’m nearing the end of my series on how to write great endings, and am talking briefly today about one of the most frustrating types of endings to read, for an agent, editor, or any other reader, the “bait and switch” ending, particularly in terms of the tone of a story.

I’ve talked several times throughout this series about the importance of being fair to your reader in your endings– that you satisfy their sense of justice, that you’ve laid some groundwork for any surprises, etc.– yet I’m constantly surprised by the number of manuscripts I read that end in a way that is completely dissimilar to the tone/story universe/set of expectations the author has spent the entire preceding manuscript establishing. If you’ve spent 200 pages developing a nice, sweet, wholesome romance, don’t try to get all depressing and cynical at the end. If your comedic cozy mystery stayed on mostly “safe” ground for the first 3/4ths of the book, don’t turn it into a chilling, violent crime novel at the end. If you spent the majority of a book developing deeper themes and a more literary voice, don’t just slap a conventional romance ending onto it and call it a day.

I want a book to end with the same “flavor” that compelled me to follow the story through to completion. It’s as if someone ordered a mint-chocolate-chip ice cream cone but the soda jerk decided to put a dollop of lemon sorbet at the bottom– even if the lemon sorbet is good, it’s not what the customer was expecting, and it’s not going to compare favorably to the mint-chocolate-chip, coming as it does when they’re not expecting it and have their mouth all set for something completely different.

There are a number of reasons this happens, even to experienced authors. First, writing is largely a solitary profession. Even if you have a critique partner/group to bounce ideas off of or solicit feedback from on certain scenes, the majority of your writing is done in a vacuum, with no eyes but your own seeing your work until it’s done, and no voices but yours chiming in to offer perspective. This solitude can lead to a bit of tunnel-vision where your story is concerned– after living up close and personal with your story and characters for so long, it’s no wonder that you can lose track of the big-picture arc of your story, especially if you’re the type of writer who prefers to let the story develop organically (i.e., “see where the characters take you,”) as you write rather than plot it out in detail at the beginning of the process. As I’ve said before, there is nothing wrong with this process, but you do have to stay true in the ending to the rules you made/tone you set throughout the rest of the book, otherwise your reader is going to feel cheated when the ending is dramatically different from what they had every reason to expect based on the first 9/10ths of the book. (And no, this doesn’t mean that you can’t have surprises at the end, or that your ending has to be predictable, but readers who pick up a thriller don’t want to read 100,000 words to get to a cozy mystery ending.)

Another reason authors can sometimes struggle with a tone change at the very end of a book is that they’re trying to make their book fit into a segment of the market it doesn’t really fit into, usually in the interest of making the book more commercial or more “timely.” Hey, someone dies at the end of The Fault in Our Stars and that book was a huge success; if I slap a sad ending on my otherwise lighthearted YA, it might sell! This sounds silly, but I’ve definitely seen this phenomenon in my inbox as different trends or themes spend time in the market spotlight and authors attempt to tweak their manuscripts to follow a trend, especially by messing with the endings. It’s a pretty well-established rule that you shouldn’t try to tailor your writing to fit the current trends– trends come and go, and publishers acquire so far out that a trend that’s hot right now might be dead and buried in a year when your book would be coming out, so you’re always better off staying true to your voice and your story and trusting that editors (and, eventually, readers) will appreciate your work for what it is rather than for the mold it fits into.

In the end (pun intended), you want to be true to the story you have to tell, but you also want to be sure that you’ve presented it in such a way that the tone of the ending matches the tone you’ve been writing and rules you’ve been playing by for the majority of the book.

Have you ever read a book in which it felt like the author pulled a “bait and switch” at the end? Are there any other types of disappointing/bad endings I should address before I wrap up the series? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!