Optimism is NOT Arrogance

Arrogance is the belief that you are BETTER than others. Optimism is the belief that you have the same CHANCE as others. We all have the chance to achieve our dreams. Don't ever let anyone tell you differently.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

MS Word Tip II: What's Your Reading Level?

Ever see this before?  If your a writer and a MS Word user, you should've.  If you are and you've never used it, now's your chance!

To get it to appear, you have to set up the preference under SPELLING AND GRAMMAR.  You should see a check box for READABILITY STATISTICS.  Check that box.

This box appears after you do a spell check, and there are several great points of information presented.

1)  The Word Count.  Everyone needs that for queries, questions and general tracking.  I actually use it on a chapter by chapter basis to ensure no chapter is too long without some pause.

2)  Passive Sentences.  How great is that?  The only problem with MS Word is that there isn't an easy way to find the passive sentences.  It can get pretty maddening.  Again, I do it on a chapter by chapter basis so I can at least narrow down where the passive sentence may be.

3)  Flesch Reading Ease - I won't bore you with the detailed formulas, but it's suffice to say that the RE translates into the Grade Level below.  Now, there's a few things to keep in mind when looking at the grade level.

  • The percentage is roughly the percentage of the American population that would understand your writing.  The grade level is obviously the grade level and above that would understand your writing.
  • While I'm no expert, I would venture to say that for fiction, the FRE should be LOWER than the grade you're targeting, but not too much, and obviously not higher.  For example, Green Eggs and Ham scored at a -1.3 grade level.  Way too simple for middle grade and above, but perfect for beginner readers and picture books.  Harvard Business School scores at about 30%, WAY too complicated for Middle Grade and really anyone without a PhD.  
  • So, depending on your work, watch the readability.  I don't have any other examples, but I'd be willing to be even the best adult fiction scores in at no more than 8th grade level.  Why?  Because to reach a mass audience you have to cater to the lowest common denominator, and not everyone has a college degree.  As for kids, it's even more important.  Kids don't want to read a fiction story and have to look up every fourth word, even if it was a vocabulary word they should know.  They want to be entertained.
Hope this helps.  Any thoughts?  Examples?  I'd love to hear them...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

MS Word Tip: Find is Your Friend

T-minu six days and counting.  That's how long I have until my insurance runs out.  I've already received my last severance pay check.  Looks like this gamble I've taken isn't panning out as I would've liked.

STILL!  The site is OPTIMISM ABOUNDS, not HOPELESSNESS MAKES AN APPEARANCE.  So, I shall remain optimistic and trust in the universe to deliver exactly and precisely what I need when I need it.  And I shall continue to pound out the resumes.

Incidentally, if given a choice between writing query letters and cover letters I'd take query letters every time.

SO!  On with the MS Word Tip.

Ever use the CTRL-F or FIND feature?  Probably the most used feature for me because I look for recurring patterns, overused words, and passive sentences.  It's really easy, and it's a lifesaver if you ever want to nit pick your manuscript and clean up the word choices.

See, for me, I tend to write the first draft quickly just to get the story lines down on paper, and most importantly, to FINISH the dang thing.  Then I go back and revise.  That's where FIND is my best friend.

Here's what I look for:

WAS and WERE - I scan this because I'm writing in first person, and I have a tendency to tell the story with a lot of passive verbs, like "we were sitting on the rock", instead of "we sat on the rock".  This also helps identify passive sentences, like "Bobby was hit by the bully".  I can see lame use of non-exciting verbs and might change the above sentence to "The bully leveled Bobby with one swift left hook".

JUST and PRETTY - Seems kinda random, right?  But I found these to be probably the most overused words in my manuscript.  "We just sat on the rock" isn't a bad choice for depicting voice, but it's not essential and boy did I over use it.  Pretty is also a way to describe things that is just as useless and overused - "She was pretty mad" is flat.  "The cartoon version of her would've had smoke pouring out of the ears and a face lobster-red" is more descriptive.

Click here to see the total list of things I look for - it's from Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen and I have it printed out (and laminated if I could) for use every time I revise.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Lost: Sacrificing Story for Theme

SPOILER ALERT!  I stayed up all night to watch the friggin' last episode and I'm gonna blog about it, dammit!

Ok, here's a great example of something that authors can run the risk of but should avoid at all cost:  when the story gets too complicated and there are too many threads.  If this happens you run the risk of throwing up your hands and saying "so everyone be nice to each other so there will be peace!"  But resolving nothing.

Resolution is the NUMBER 1 REASON people turn a page or tune in next week.  The HOPE of resolution is what drives us to continue.  As someone once said regarding films, "if you show a knife on the mantle in the first act you damn well better have it used in the third act."  Meaning?  If you open up a can of worms at any point you damn well better use them.

Lost failed in that regard.  Big time.

Now, I'll admit I was a LOSTIE, like a TREKKIE only without the gadgets.  I didn't start in 2004, I started a year ago and watched all the episodes in sequence.  Like millions of others, after the first one, I was hooked.  And why were we hooked?  Because we had to see how it all fit together!

Now, to the writers' credit, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, they did answer some questions.  But all along I got the feeling that they had dug themselves in such a whole trying to be clever that they would never be able to make them all resolve.  And what did they do to wrap it all up?  They made some fabricated heaven where all the characters met like a Lost - The Christmas Special episode.

And they're all dead.

Cuz we all die sometime.

Yeah, no kidding!  We know that, we all know that, but we just spent six years waiting to see what the purpose of the island is.  Why does it need to be guarded?  Especially after the Man in Black died?  What are you protecting it from?

Here's the bottom line.  The main character of the story, whether the writers intended it or not, was the island.  Not Jack, not Kate, not anyone else.  It was the island.  They even started us off with that concept:  "The island's not done with you yet".  

But they ended without telling us who the island is!

So here's the lesson I'll leave you with before I get back to revising:  Don't ever EVER lead your readers down a path that you don't intend on having them complete.  Don't try to be tricky with so many twists and turns and surprises that you can't resolve them.  The writers of Lost will never have to worry about working again.  If they did this in a novel, however, it'd be the last book they sold.

By the way, why were they successful with such a horrible process?  Because they held the ending close to their chest and controlled how people "read" their book.  Imagine if it was a novel - and someone read it all the way through before you did.  Would they hand it to you and say "read this!  You'll never believe the ending!"  I don't think so.

They'd say "don't waste your time.  It's not a bad story, but it's confusing, complicated, and doesn't resolve itself."

Don't make the same mistake.

Ok, off to editing.  Gotta get the revised script to Special Agent CB this week!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Sorry - deadline pushing...

Sorry I haven't written in a week, but I set a deadline for myself for today - get the second half of the book done.  No easy feat, considering the notes from Special Agent CB were pretty thick.  A lot of what I had to change weren't just edits, but major re-writes, which isn't easy.

But it raises a pretty good opportunity to talk about Deadlines.  As a writer, if you haven't imposed deadlines on yourself I suggest you do so.  Make 'em up, make 'em realistic, and then make yourself OPTIMISTIC that you can hit them.

We'll have deadlines when we get published or get an editor, even if your agent doesn't put one out there.  CB has never told me to "get it done by xx date".  In fact, in this last go round she told me specifically to take my time.  But I don't want to wait forever, and I certainly don't want to get in the working habit of taking my time, so I set up goals and deadlines.  Even if I miss it (as you saw in an earlier post, *ick*) I can at least say I tried and then make adjustments for a new goal.

PLUS, I'm still trying to get a job.  Had a rough time of it this week, but thanks to the millions of readers of this blog (ok, sorry, optimism has turned to delusional), I can write about writing and get optimistic again.

It'll all work out.  By next Friday.  (See?  Another deadline!)

Friday, May 14, 2010

Keeping in a Character

Well, this is gonna be fun.  My agent asked a simple question in the second half of my book:  "Why would Pinchbeck leave the kids?  Why isn't he staying to help?"

Well, it's a good question, and it raises the latest of my challenges:  how to do a re-write keeping in a character you originally had out of the scene.

Now, I don't necessarily HAVE to put him back in, I could argue with my agent about it and try to keep him out, but when I look at it logically, it doesn't make a lot of sense.  So I either do a re-write, or try to explain it away (which always sounds like the author is trying to explain something away that was a question from a test reader).

I'm going to do a re-write with Pinchbeck in.  Pinchbeck, by the way, is the MENTOR character to the kids.  This being a middle-grade book, you never want an ADULT to be the main character, but they can help the kids along.  I wanted to have the kids take on the final challenges alone, but there may be merit to having the mentor along for the ride.  In STAR WARS, they killed off Obi-Wan, but kept him around to provide a little guidance and some support.  Dumbledore is ALWAYS around for Harry Potter, so why not Pinchbeck?

You'll notice, however, that none of these are DOING anything for the main character when the final battle is drawn out.  In the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore may enable Harry in some ways, but when it comes time to face Voldemort or whoever the bad guy is, Harry HAS to do it on his own.

So that's what I'll try to do, set up Pinchbeck to help the kids, but somehow lose him when the final battle comes around so that that confrontation is mano e mano, Jeff and Ferguson (the bad guy).

How?  No idea.  The only thing I can do is start.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Voice - Telling the Story

Fortunately, one of the things I had going for me, and the thing that interested my agent the most, was the voice with which I told the story.  I used two voices, which is tricky, but they were distinct enough and related to their characters enough that I think it'll work.

What is voice?  Well, Mary Kaley at Kidlit (see sidebar of places you need to visit), gives a brief overview, and has a link to more detail.

I'll try to sum it up here - it's the voice of the person telling the story.  Literally.  Their voice - how they speak, how the act, react, emphasize, de-emphasize, etc.  My favorite voice writer?  Stephen King, hands down.  Each of his novels sound like they're being told to me by someone, either a spooky old neighbor, or a cool hero.  Even if it's written in third person, the voice fits.

In my book, when Jeff is telling the story, it's pretty straight-ahead, no b.s.  Ben?  Well, he's a bit of a character and likes to throw in more opinions.  And it's important to keep them separated.  On notes from my agent she pointed out several instances where the writing doesn't fit Ben's voice or Jeff's voice.  And it's remarkable that it stands out like that because on those occasions I just switched the same words to italics making it Ben's voice, but didn't change the words.

See the voice pages for more detail.  You should be able to get a good idea of how they can be very different even in the same story.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Story Review - The Men Who Stare At Goats

Ok, now for the opposite example.  I watched this because the trailer was funny, and the premise seemed interesting.

It was, but it wasn't told well, IMHO.

1)  Plot:  The plot went all over the place, largely because I don't think it was clear whose story this was - was it George Clooney's?  Ewan McGregor's?  Clearly the authors wanted it to be Ewan's, since the story begins and ends with him and there's some semblance of an arc to his character, but it's never really clear.  Why?  So much time was spent on BACKSTORY, which is not a good thing for movies, and if the backstory relates to OTHER non-principal characters, it's even worse.

When writing, especially for middle-graders, backstory has to come quick and go quick.  Too much time on it and you lose the reader's interest.  Especially if the backstory is about the secondary characters.  This made the plot in Goats too muddled and not flowing.  It was like riding in a car that kept jerking you from forward to reverse.

2)  Characters:  Again, the focus here should've been on Ewan McGregor's lead character, but in this instance the movie was about his character RELATIVE to the other characters.  This is a tough thing to pull off, because it takes away from the hero's journey.  In this case, the journey wasn't significant enough that I actually cared.  I liked the secondary characters more than the lead.  Same thing with the villain.  Kevin Spacey's character came in way too late in the movie to build any kind of deep seated hatred, and more importantly, the villain had NOTHING to do with the lead character!  The conflict was between George Clooney's character and Kevin Spacey, leaving Ewan to just hear about it and marvel at it.  Which lead me to not really give a *@!#.

3)  Movement, Connection, Pace:  Nope.  There was a little bit of a connection, but it was haphazard.  The pace was constantly interrupted by flashbacks and backstory, so again, it felt like I was being jerked around.

I think over all this is a movie that relied on star power, one-liners, and a quirky premise, but forgot the key elements of story.  I don't think it was highly regarded by the critics, but from my perspective, it just didn't tell a story engagingly enough for me to care.  It was a challenge to watch.

Have you seen it?  Any differing opinions?  By the way, just cuz I panned it doesn't mean you shouldn't watch it.  Sometimes it's good to see what doesn't work.  And remember, just because it's a movie doesn't mean the elements of story telling aren't appropriate for fiction.  They are.

Write on, my brotha's and sistah's!  Remember, Optimism is the wave of the future!  I hope...

Monday, May 10, 2010

Story Review - Iron Man 2

I'd say Film Review, but for the purposes of this blog, and to appeal to all you fellow authors, we're interested in story, right?  I mean, we're not going to be too concerned with lighting, special effects, direction, etc.  Heck, we control all of that but we're totally reliant upon our readers to interpret it, build the stage, and roll the cameras.

So, here's a review on the Story that Iron Man 2 presents.

Ok, for those who missed the first one, go watch it because it was awesome.  For those who have, here's what I have to say about the story:

1)  Plot - pretty good.  Not too intricate with a lot of twists and turns, just a good guy vs. bad guy.  Gotta have that simplicity for what Hollywood calls a Tent-pole film, right?  Too complex and you turn off the teens.  Anyway, straight ahead plot.

2)  Characters - Very good for the most part, but some were a bit thin.  They gave Tony Stark a lot more to worry about, and a good past that many people will associate with.  That rounded him out from being just a paper-thin "I've got everything so what could be wrong" superhero.  As for the antagonist, I like that they paralleled his story with Tony's in terms of fighting based on father/son relationships.  Again, a very approachable story that we can all relate to.  He was evil enough that you wanted him dead, but had a reason for being evil so that you had some sympathy.  That's critical for a good villan.  Too evil and he becomes unbelievable.  Give him a little backstory, and he becomes more real, which, of course, allows you to hate him more.

On the thin side, the supporting characters were pretty cement-like.  They all seem to have one characteristic (worried, amused, annoyed, etc.) and therefore felt a bit thin.  A common approach to secondary characters in film, because you just don't have the time to show the backstory or give the third dimensions to EVERYONE.  Especially for something as fast paced as this.

3)  Story line - Exciting, moved along at a good pace.  There were only a few scenes that slowed things down a bit, but for the most part the story moved from point A to B to C well - everything was connected, made sense, and progressed nicely.

Now, remember, this IS a comic book adaptation, so I'm not going to judge the story for its realism.  Sure, Tony creates a new element in his basement in a matter of a fifteen second montage, but it was necessary for the story, so I don't mind.  Suspension of belief is a requirement anytime you watch a comic-book story.

The important thing was that there were no sudden, sharp turns that made you say "huh?".  It all seemed to flow, which is important in story telling.  If your reader has to flip back several chapters to understand how the heck this guy got there, or why they're discussing whatever they're discussing, THEY'RE NOT READING ON!  And many people will put down a book rather than investigate how the heck you moved the story forward.

So think on it.  Take a look at Iron Man 2, and if you disagree with any of my comments feel free to share!  I'd love a second opinion!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Query Letters are up!

Check 'em out.  I have no shame.  Five iterations, landing four partials.  One ended up being my agent at Liza Dawson.  Have I mentioned how awesome she is?

Anyway, take a look and feel free to leave any comments or questions here.  Later on I'll post the spreadsheet I used to track them in case anyone wants to duplicate it.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Real World Intrudes...

Can't write much this morning, I have a *gack* interview with a corporation.  Ugh.

Well, ya know, it was inevitable.  I mean, my severance package is running out next week, we have a little saved up to last until the end of May, and God Bless Special Agent CB, she can't get my manuscript sold, the movie rights sold, and all of my bills paid off in the next three weeks.

So I have to look for a job.

Well, here's what I have to say about that (oh great, now I sound like Forrest Gump):

If I'm gonna work in the corporate world - it's gonna be doing something I like.  Something I care about, something that makes me feel like I'm connecting and contributing to the world.

I've got three areas lined up, two of which are exactly like that - providing health care for the uninsured or poor.  The third one is simply a money grab.

But I need time to write, so folks, this is where the boots hit the ground and the stroll becomes a march.  I'm talkin' discipline.  As the Dali Lama said

“Self-discipline, although difficult, and not always easy while combating negative emotions, should be a defensive measure. At least we will be able to prevent the advent of negative conduct dominated by negative emotion. "

I'm not sure what that means, it was the first thing that Google returned.  But anyway, I'm gonna have to buckle down to get this done. 

But rest assured, my friends, you will still be along for the ride!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Suspense vs. Action

Ok, big thing I'm working on now - a recurring theme in Special Agent CB's notes:  action alone does not a page-turner make.

In my book, the boys (Jeff and Ben) go from point A to point B and fight soldiers and the bad guy and escape a nuclear bomb and all sorts of good stuff.  Thrilling, right?


In order for any action sequence to really mean something, there has to be a reason at the end of it that drives the hero forward.  In screenwriting they call this a TICKING CLOCK.  Dan Brown does this well for adult fiction, and I didn't in mine.

A ticking clock can be one of several things (as examples):

  1. Exactly that - a ticking clock.   The hero has 24 hours to figure everything out, explode the bomb in a safe location, and return home to her dying puppy in time to watch CSI.
  2. A chase - although having a chase with a point is even stronger.  This kinda falls into the "Will they make it" type of suspense, and includes races, saving people before they die, that kinda thing.
  3. The "Reader knows something the hero doesn't".  Alfred Hitchcock once said (and I'm paraphrasing here) that if you show a man walking into a room and a bomb goes off the audience gets a few seconds of shock, but nothing more.  If you SHOW the bomb to the audience BEFORE the man walks in, and then show the fish-wire on the door knob that he's slowly turning  and someone is running to stop him from entering before he goes in because the someone knows there's a bomb inside-....you're waiting to hear how it turns out, right?
Page turners.  It's not enough to throw action at middle graders - they have to know what's at stake, and be reminded of it constantly so that they feel they're in the thick of it, holding their breath right along with the hero.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go ratchet up the suspense in my book, like four or five times.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What Your Agent Should Look Like

Nothing like a pool opening to slow your writing down...although I did have a great conversation with Special Agent CB yesterday about the manuscript.  She's everything I could've asked for in an agent, which would lead to today's topic:


Ok, there are probably a million blog posts out there about this, but let me give you a newbie's perspective, having only talked to my agent twice, having never met her, and having only her revision notes to go by...

  • A love for your GENRE and your PROJECT.  My agent happens to love science fiction / fantasy and was looking for middle grade books for boys.  I hit both and she wanted to see it.  Many agents will list what they're looking for, but only a handful on that list really point to what they're totally into.  I think it's probably the first one or two listed.  Like you may see an agent looking for Romantic Fiction, blah blah blah, and oh, yeah, Young Adult.  They have it listed, but chances are if you'll query them you'll get a "not for me" rejection letter.  The ones who will want to read what you're selling will be those totally interested in your genre and project.

  • She's AVAILABLE!  Now this is tricky based on the agency you land in, but you'll hear it all the time:  I landed with ICM!  They're huge!  They rep Danielle Steele and Dan Brown (not sure if they do, just pretend with me here).  Well, congrats to you, but beware that it's a large house with a lot of clients to keep happy.  Agents will focus on the moneymakers first, and THEN try to mentor you along in your career.  Which means, they may not be available to you.  Every time I write to my agent I get a response, and she's open the door to call her anytime she can help me revise the book.  That's awesome.
  • She's HONEST.  She loves the project, she's friendly, she's available.  But when it comes down to business, she doesn't pull any punches.  She's not rude, like "oh this sucks", but she knows what'll sell and what won't.  With that in mind, and with that honesty, comes TRUST.  I don't argue with her too much about her recommended changes, and she doesn't try to write the book for me.  I trust that she knows what she's doing and she trusts that I'll take her recommendations and implement them as a writer should.  Honesty promotes trust, and trust is essential for any teamwork.  And believe me, having an agent is all about TEAMWORK.  You are collaborating with them.  It's not like two writing partners, but it's damn close.  
So with these three big things in mind, even AFTER you've landed an agent or have gotten a bite, don't be afraid to pull out if these things don't exist.  It's YOUR career, YOUR mega-huge movie deal.  Don't throw your life into someone else's hands hoping they'll nail it for you.  Take control and find the right fit for you.  

Too bad they don't have an eHarmony for writers and agents....hey...now THAT'S an idea!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Writing Middle Grade Time Travel

So I got to Chapter 7 where the watch and how it manipulates time is explained.  I'll be talking with my agent today about it and some of the other changes, but my big question throughout all of this was "How much is too much?"

We're talking six-grade readers here, not Stephen Hawking.

I've heard various opinions about this, and I think it depends on the story itself, and must be true to the story.  If you're writing a hard-core science fiction novel, even for middle graders, you can probably go into some detail about wormholes, etc.,  but not too much.  Too much explanation in middle grade fiction will turn off the reader immediately.  On the other hand, if it's too ridiculously simple - like the hero simply turns around three times and clicks his heels together - you lose some credibility there.

Not to mention my particular issue - what I call the Sound of Thunder Time Conundrum.  Read Ray Bradbury's short story "A Sound of Thunder" to see what I mean.  Basically, I wanted to send a message that everything happens for a reason, and the world is as it is even with the tragedies we experience.  If we go back and change one little thing, the ripple effect could be huge.  For example, I know a lot of people would want to kill Hitler if they could go back in time.  But what if they did?  Sure millions of Jewish people would live, plus countless American soldiers.  Sounds good, right?  But what about other changes:  would there be a state of Isreal?  Would the Middle East conflict rise quickly to the point of nuclear war?  Would the Cold War escalated to a nuclear war?  We don't know, and the point of my story is that we should NEVER know.  It's too risky.

Dan Gutman does a great job balancing both of these fronts, having his hero travel back in time via baseball cards, and seeing famous baseball players without going into too much concern about changing the present.  I've read a couple and I highly recommend them for a great way to tell a story without getting bogged down in the "what if's" too much, or the complexity of time travel.  It just is, and for middle graders that's enough.

So we'll see what happens today when I talk to Special Agent CB.  I've set up the analogy that time travels onward like a train on a track - if you could go back in time and throw a switch, the train goes down a different track.  Sometimes that may be ok, but other times, there may be a train heading right for you.

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