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, July 29, 2010

Ahhh-the Big Easy

Well, here in New Orleans it's hotter than...um...

hotter than...

Damn!  You ever have that problem when you're writing where you're trying to avoid a cliche and come up with something original but you can't?

Happened to me the other day.  "She dumped him like..."  and hell, I can't say "a hot potato".  I mean, that's so old.  Or "yesterday's news".  Ick.

So I thought about the character and what they're about to say...who are they?  What do they know?

Well, the character was Ben, an eleven year-old, and he likes to eat.  What do kids who like to eat need to dump?

"She dumped him like a half-eaten bowl of cereal".  Whadda ya think?  That ok?

It's tough, but don't spend too much time on it.  If you're truly stuck with a metaphor or simile, and can't get the cliche out of your head, use the cliche, but mark it for future revisions.

Always remember the goal of the first draft:  FINISH THE FIRST DRAFT.  Don't let nothin' stop ya.

Otherwise, your manuscript could end up old and crusty like a sandwich under a teenager's bed.  (Ok, that one might've been a little gross)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Off to New Orleans!

Takin' pictures.  The third book in the series takes place down there, so I'm hoping to gather a lot of information, but more importantly a lot of pictures.  When you're investigating a setting for your book, and I do recommend actually visiting it, take care to notice the little things:  the sounds the birds make, is there traffic, what does the air smell like, what are the people like.  These details will help your book shine, because the best way to connect to the reader is through the five senses - not just visually describing a setting, but describing the other senses mentioned above.

Justin Cronin's doing a great job of this in "The Passage".  "The room smelled of dust and dead animals" for example.

Anyway, I'm off for fun and adventure, and of course, making updates to Book 1 based on Caitlin's suggestions.  I'll try to blog again while down there.

Take care!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Received the Manuscript! And the ending needs to change...

For those of you keeping score - this is the THIRD revision I've gotten notes back on from Caitlin the Agent.  The first one, I had to change the entire second half:  was too text-booky (and if that's not a word it is now).  The second one, good but needed more suspense.  Got it.  Ramped up the suspense and now got these notes:

Great job on the suspense - each chapter is a cliffhanger (a requirement for Middle Grade fiction.  Well, actually any kind of fiction.  You want the reader to continue right?  You know how many times I've cursed Dan Brown for ending a chapter that way because I'd HAVE to read on?)

Anyway - she doesn't believe the ending!  So, here's today's lesson:  the ending, the actions of the characters in particular, HAVE to follow suit with the rest of the book.  The ending has to leave the reader thinking "Of COURSE that's what happened!  He wouldn't have done it any other way."

In that, I have failed.  My protagonist's father, a brilliant historian, great dad, and all around wise and wonderful human, destroys the timepiece and looks like a complete doofus.  Not quite consistent.

So, I have to go through and rethink that.  The trick is, it's supposed to lead to a second book, and I need the watch gone to ratchet up the stakes, so I gotta figure out how to do that.

More on the overall lessons I'm learning later.  I'm excited by the feedback, and encouraged that it wasn't a step backwards.  We're making progress, and I'm hoping that this last go-round will be the LAST go-round.

At least, until a publisher gets their hands on it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Getting Started...the Opening Line

So you've opened Word and are staring at a thin line blinking on and off; it seems to say to you YOU. CAN'T. DO. THIS. YOU. CAN'T. DO. THIS.

How do you begin to tell the story that is already finished in your head?

Well, first you have to type something so the cursor will shut up.  YES I CAN.  Something like that.

But when it comes to the opening line of the story we've all heard it's gotta be a GRABBER.  Gotta get them hooked!  Call me Ismael, something like that.  So you think.  And think.

Well, there are two things I'd suggest here that have helped me.  One is to start typing more.  Anything.  Remember, you're not being watched and you aren't going to submit this first draft to anyone.  Writer's block, especially at the beginning, is very common and can be easily erased by just typing.  "John went to school.  It was a dark and stormy night."  Whatever.  Just include your main character doing something, even if it's totally irrelevant.

See, that will get your mind into the world of your character.  Your hero's journey.  It's like entering a time portal - you have to step through it.  Before you know it, you'll have a thousand words written and your hand'll be cramped.

Now, the OTHER thing I'd suggest here is a little more creative:  imagine your hero sitting down with his or her grandkids, or maybe a set of someone else's kids, or maybe your own kids;  doesn't really matter.  And they're all clamoring for him to tell them that story - the one in which he [insert story line here].  He laughs, sits them down, and looking over them begins.

Now does he begin with "It was a dark and stormy night?"  No!  At least, I hope not, otherwise the kids'll be asleep before he gets to the next sentence.  No, he'll begin with something that will make them lean forward - something that happened to him, or something that he heard, or something mysterious.  "I awoke to the snap of thunder just outside my window, and barely managed to escape my room as the tree fell through the roof."

Now THAT'S a dark and stormy night.  And it involves the hero immediately.  When I was stuck with mine, I didn't know how to grab them, so I just started telling the story.  Then I thought about what Jeff, the hero would've said in the beginning as he was retelling the story:  "I wanted to call the police."

Anyway, think of what works for you as a listener to a good storytelling or as a reader.  What do you want to hear/read when you start off?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Story Review - Inception

Mastering the Three Act Structure - always important.  Christopher Nolan, writer of "Inception" loves to actually play with it.

If you're not familiar of Christopher Nolan, check out his numerous films and you'll see why he's my favorite visual storyteller.  He's particularly appealing to me for one very big reason:  he knows the three act structure so well, he can actually manipulate it and / or bury it.  Meaning, you're so engrossed in the story that the transition from one act to the other is seamless, fits perfectly, and leads you directly to the story's conclusion before you know it.

If you're not familiar with the three act structure, check out Robert McKee's STORY:  Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting.

Yeah, I know what you're saying, you're saying "Dude!  I thought you were talking about fiction!"  And I am - screenwriting is a different way of storytelling, that's all.  McKee's book is perfectly relevant to the craft of novel writing as well.

Back to Chris Nolan (I call him "Chris".  We're that close.


Anyway, Chris's stories all follow the three act structure:  Act I is set up and segues to Act II via some decision that hero has to make to go on his journey.  Act II is the fun stuff that occurs while on his journey and segues into Act III via some life or death decision the hero has to make to face the bad guy, and Act III is facing that bad guy.  Very straightforward stuff.  But Nolan does is in such a way that it's actually a PART of the story.

Case in point:  Memento - a brilliant Indy film that he filmed in reverse - the three act structure in reverse, but still coming out in a standard three act structure.  Inception?  Smooth transitions, leading to the third act actually being the third level of sub-conscience that the hero has to enter into.  By the time the films done, you actually feel as if you've floated through the act structure without even thinking of it, even if you knew to look for it.  The transitions are smooth and the contents are exactly what is needed to move the story forward.

And that's the point of the three act structure:  progression forward.  The hero decides to go on a journey and finally needs to face something to complete the journey.  It's that simple, and that should be the basis for any story you want to tell.

To see it in action, rent any Christopher Nolan film...


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Middle Grade Word Length - Part II

Well, I received a couple of responses to my query about word length from agents, and wouldn't ya know it, they differed in their opinion.  Go figure.  Probably would get 100 different responses from 100 different agents.

The first agent I wrote to was Mary Kole from the blog Kidlit.com.  Very insightful agent and if you don't subscribe to her blog I suggest you do - lots of great tips and advice for new writers.  Of middle grade fiction length in a series, she said

"As a series progresses, the characters age and the books usually get longer, even in MG.  However, I'd be wary of thinking too much about the last book in the Harry Potter series until you're in a situation where you have a multi-book contract. That's a "if and when we get to it" type of question."

So she thinks the books usually get longer as the heroes age, but don't get ahead of yourself in thinking of a series before you've published the first book.  That's good advice, but in my case my agent and I have already decided to make it a series.  That's important because...

...how the heck do you end the book?  Mine ends with a bit of a cliffhanger, so it kind of has to be a series.  That's how Caitlin's going to push it and why she wanted me to write up the summaries to begin with.  BUT Mary's right in that it's better to focus on the first book.  Once I told her about our plans, she left me this little nugget:

"One thing to watch out for is saving the good stuff for book two. If book two seems really imbalanced in terms of complexity, compared to book one, you may want to add a few threads to book one."

Not really relevant to the discussion on word length, but good advice I thought I'd throw in anyway.

Now Caitlin, my agent, had a different take on MG word count in a series:

"...editors want to keep the series at the same level.  Aim for 40-60,000 words.  Harry Potter was an exception."

In other words, shut up and get writing.  (Ok, Caitlin would never say that...)

I get the feeling that agents (and probably editors) don't like to hear "but Harry Potter did this", or "Twilight did that".  Don't try to jump on the bandwagon of the exceptions.  They're called 'exceptions' for a reason.

Not to say that you couldn't be an exception... ;)


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Update from the Agent - Middle Grade Word Length

So I sent off the novella that would be the second book synopsis.  Obviously I didn't pay attention to my previous post on Summing up.  Like Alice, I give myself very good advice, but very seldom do I follow it.

Ok, so I have some cleaning up to do, but the feedback I got back from Caitlin (I'm tired of calling her Special Agent CB - besides you all know her now anyway thanks to Guide to Literary Agents) was that it was "too ambitious".  Specifically she asked "do you really think you can fit that all into 50,000 words?"

Which made me think - something I don't do much of lately.

We all know the word count required for middle grade, YA, adult novel, etc., right?  If not, google it - there's plenty out there.  BUT, for a series, can that word count fluctuate?  Surely J.K. Rowlings did that with Harry Potter - the last book is about three times the size of the first book.  Couldn't a book expand the further they get into the series?

I don't think so, at least for middle grade.  YA, yes.  Middle grade, doesn't look so.

Take Rick Riorden's Percy Jackson series.  Definitely middle grade.  I'm looking at the first three books and they're all nearly identical in length.  Diary of a Wimpy Kid, same way.  Dan Gutman's &Me series?  Same way.  Interesting phenomenon, and here's my theory on it.

Mind you, it's just a theory.

Middle grade readers move through series quicker, and are rarely shared with adult readers.  YA can spill over into adult readers, as Harry Potter and Twilight showed us.  Adults and older YA readers don't mind increasing complexities and taking their time with a good novel.  More subplots added, more complex situations to get out of as the series progresses, all make for thicker books.

Middle grade readers, however, finish books quicker and move right onto the next one.  They could finish an entire series in the time it takes to read one Harry Potter Book 7.

Now, another question I have, and one I'll pose to various agents to see what they think, is - what about cross-overs?  What about 11 year olds who through the course of the series being published become 14 year olds?  Can/should the book change with them?  Will they even maintain interest in the series?

Inquiring minds wanna know.  And I'll find out.

Till then, gotta trim down the synopsis and take out a subplot or mid-section goal or two.


Monday, July 19, 2010

Summing it up - Part II

Ok, so I got Chuck's comments back which you can read about over to the right.  Click on Book 1 Summary - it should also give you an idea of what my whole purpose here is about!  Anyway, it seems a good example of what to do to sum up a novel.  I just have to address one or two things, but that shouldn't be too difficult.

Use it as you see fit.  Tomorrow is a new story review - INCEPTION by Chris Nolan, my favorite visual storyteller!


Friday, July 16, 2010

Optimism is the Foundation of Courage

So said Nicholas Murray Butler.  Don't know who Nicholas Murray Butler is?  'Sok.  Neither do I.

See, I work out at the YMCA once every blue moon, and when I leave, they have a basket of sayings that you can draw from at random.  This is the one I picked today.

Pretty wild, huh?  OPTIMISM is the foundation of courage.

So today, I'm going to break away from the writing tips and tricks and stuff and get a little serious.

a LITTLE serious.

This quote really hit home to me and I hope it does to you too.  What we're doing - writing and sharing our writing with others - is EXTREMELY courageous.  These aren't just characters, they're our kids.  And when we tell our stories to others we might as well be lifting our shirt and showing off our belly-buttons.  Which, if you're like me and your belly button is a smiley face, is pretty embarrassing.

Optimism is what allows us to do that courageous thing.  Without it, we might as well wad up our story and feed it to goats.  If you don't believe you have the same chance as everyone else, stop.  Just stop.

If you do believe that (and you DO have the same chance as everyone else), then write.  WRITE DAMMIT!!!

...sorry, didn't mean to yell...I just get passionate, ya see.

Write like you don't care if you ever get published.  Submit queries (intelligently, of course) like you don't care if you get rejected.  Hold your head up high and talk of WHEN you'll get published, not IF.

And for the naysayers, store it all up in a big box marked "I TOLD YOU SO".  When publishing occurs, break it open and smack 'em in the face with it.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

To Sum Up

First of all, thanks to everyone who wrote or commented based on the Guide to Literary Agents article.  I'm thrilled that so many people have seen it, and I'd love to help anyone out as best I can, so if you have any questions or queries you want me to look at, feel free to send them along at kpsheridan@verizon.net.  I'm not an agent so I can't promise anything, but I'll help out with what I know having gone through the process.

Now - to Sum Up.  Just went through a webinar last week with Chuck Sambuchino and Writer's Digest regarding writing a summary or synopsis of your work.  Good stuff, and I'll highlight the bullet points below, and then after I get my summary back from Chuck I'll post it here so you can see the good, bad and ugly.

So here's what I learned:

  • Synopses can be dry - they're not meant to be flowery, funny, or literary.  They're strictly there so that the agent or publisher can figure out how your hero goes from A to Z.
  • Always use active voice.
  • Skip details and subplots - they'll come out in the story.  Again, think main thread:  how does the hero go from A to Z and what does the villain throw in his/her way.
  • Keep names to a minimum.  Too many characters can cause confusion.  You want to keep it to about a page, so anything longer than that is probably extraneous.  Talk about the hero's father rather than mention him by name if you have to bring him up.
  • Summarization is ok - "Johnny has several experiences on the train to Mordor" kinda thing.  You don't have to outline every single person he meets and all the conversation he has.  Keep it light!
  • Here's the one time you can tell, not show.  You don't have enough time to show - you'll lose their interest.  See first bullet point.
  • Don't be vague!  I know this kinda contradicts the details - but there's a difference.  Saying that "Johnny was saved" is too vague.  The publishers or agents want to know if his saving was realistic and plausible or a Deus Ex Machina.  Spell out how he was saved.  But don't go into too much detail.
  • Capitalize character names the first time you use them.  Helps the reader understand who the story's REALLY about.
  • Check spelling, yadda yadda yadda.  I mean, c'mon.  You're a writer.  EVERYTHING you produce with your name on it should be the utmost quality.
  • Important!  Don't EDITORIALIZE!  See point number 1.  Don't describe something as "the most exciting part of the book" or "Johnny learns a life lesson".  Stay in the story, and just get the hero from point A to Z.
  • 4 Must Haves:  1)  Core conflict of the story.  2) Characters we care about.  3) What's at stake.  4) How the conflict is resolved.
  • Have a good strong opening paragraph.  You have to grab the reader as to why this is a cool story.
  • NO rhetorical questions.  This isn't Batman.  "Will Johnny survive his train trip to Mordor?"  Just answers.
That's the gist of it.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to trim my synopsis for Book II of the Timepiece Chronicles down from 7 pages to 1.  

Wish me luck....

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What Scares You?

I'm in the middle of reading Justin Cronin's The Passage which is about a vampire virus that causes the end of the world, and I got to thinking "what is it that really scares me?"

Cuz it ain't vampires...

Horror is a tough genre to write for and define, because it's so different for different people.  I think, however, there is one element that defines horror that you can keep in mind while you're writing:


Think about it - the scariest thing about any story told is whether or not IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU!!!

That's why ghost stories are always so popular, because everyone hears something shift in the house when they're all alone.  A board creak, a rustle of leaves outside the window, maybe a branch scraping against the siding.  Everyone knows that they could have a ghost in their house, despite any lack of real evidence that ghosts exist.  Or maybe BECAUSE of the lack of evidence that ghosts DON'T exist.

Think about the stories you told (or were told) around the campfire.  They had their shocking moments, depending on the storyteller, but for the most part they scared the crap outta you if they took place IN a camp or a forest.  Like the one you were in.  The guy with the hook for a hand.  Jason Vorhees from Friday the 13th.  As a friend of mine used to say, "that shit could happen!"

We're less inclined, now-a-days, to believe in vampires, werewolves, the mummy etc. than before, like say, in the twenties.  "So wait, dude," you might be saying, "why are vampires so hot right now?  Why are werewolves on the rise?"

Well, honestly, consider this:  are they really "horror" stories?  I view the Twilight series as Romance.  Chick-lit, almost.  And Zombies are coming out left and right AS COMEDIES.  Werewolves?  Never really had a market because their not romantic AND not believable (just don't tell my daughter that).

No, horror writing, I think, has more to do with the unexplainable AND plausible aspects of our lives.  If you put the book down worried that what you just read MAY happen to you, that's horror.  And it'll stay with you for a loooong time.

And with that, I've got to go back to writing my own summaries.  Two weeks and no word back from Special Agent CB!  I hope she's ok!

Take care!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Story Review: Despicable Me

Wow - it's been a while since I've posted anything, hasn't it?

Well, I gotta get moving now.  If you haven't had a chance to check it out:  I'm on Guide to Literary Agents!  Thanks to Chuck Sambuchino for posting this for me.  Very excited.  See the links to the right for his blog...

I realized the reason I haven't posted anything is that I've been LOOKING FOR A JOB.  Optimistically, of course...well, actually Optimism can go out the window when you have to earn a living and NO ONE WILL RESPOND TO YOUR APPLICATIONS!  *ahem*

Ok, enough bitterness and what-not.  On to the Story Review.

Question:  When is a bad guy NOT a bad guy?

Answer:  When there's a BADDER bad guy!

Despicable Me has just such a hero - a hero that you would normally hate, but grow to love.  You've seen them before - Scrooge is the prototypical anti-hero, but there are many others.

However, in Despicable Me I felt the transformation was too quick, and the despicable part wasn't quite despicable enough.  Take Scrooge for example.  In every representation I've seen and in the book Scrooge is the prototypical jerk-face.  I mean, you really root against him until the first ghost appears and he shows a bit of a weakness.  Until then, he's, well, Scrooge.

Why is this important?  Because the character arc has to be dramatic in order to be felt.  When Scrooge switches at the end (sorry if I've ruined that for anyone), you REALLY feel happy for the guy.  The transformation is SO obvious that it makes you feel really good.

In Despicable Me, Gru jumps ship to the good side way too fast, for my taste.  The transformation was nearly immediate and thus the rest of the movie was kind of a downer.  It became a "cute" movie with a few good laughs and not a great story about the power of transformation that we can all have.

I'd recommend it for home viewing, but not necessarily for the $8-10 you'd pay in the theater.  The minions are terrific, of course, but again, too cute and Gru is too nice to them to get us all riled up about him.  Scrooge never had minions.  He didn't need them.

Anyway, that's all for now, until the next time, Keep Writing with your Head Up!

Popular Posts