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.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Partial Book Review - A Confederacy of Dunces

Ok, I may get slammed here, but I'm gonna throw my two cents around on this book even though I haven't completely finished it.  I'm actually having trouble finishing it.

I picked it up based on the recommendation of family and friends.  They thought it was one of the funniest books they've ever read.  Now, I'd like to think (to quote Bruno Kirby in Good Morning Vietnam), "I know funny".  I love a good comedic read and thought Douglas Adams was probably the best at it that I've ever come across.

I don't get this book.

The main anti-hero protagonist is a jerk.  Ok, I can understand that, but he's not (to me), a funny jerk.  He's educated, arrogant, but acts incredibly childish, and the humor just doesn't play with me.  He sounds annoying.

More importantly, however, is the complete lack of any story.  So far (and I'm really not that far), he's been accosted by the New Orleans police, and then sent on his way.  Then his mother and he hang out in a bar.  And talk.

Where's the story?  What's he trying to achieve?  What journey is he about to go on that I want to follow him on?

The reason I'm having a tough time reading it, staying with it, is because I'm not INVESTED in it.  I don't really care what happens.  That can be a killer for any book, and it's one reason why boys don't read YA books and why classics don't fly with teenagers.  They just DON'T CARE.  How do you make them care?  I think you hook 'em with a character they can relate to.  Someone they'd want to be friends with, they care about, they think is pretty cool, or is just like them.  Once you've got that, then you throw that character into a world of hurt trying to do something, and now you've got the reader hooked.  Now they want to see if their friend is gonna make it out...

Otherwise, they'll drop the book like I dropped "A Confederacy of Dunces".  I just don't care what happens to this guy.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Get a little help from your friends...

I'm going over the latest draft of my manuscript, and I'll be perfectly honest with you - I'm getting a little sick of it.  So then I'm wondering, "Is that right?  Shouldn't I love it?"  But to read the same thing over and over again can get tiresome for even the best novels, I bet.  I can imagine Stephen King begrudgingly pulling up a chair to re-read The Stand for the hundredth time hoping that Carrie puts him out of his misery.    I can't imagine it gets any easier when you have an editor watching over you and waiting for a final draft by Friday and it's three o'clock in the morning.

So here's a simple list to help me get through this that I thought I'd share with you:

1)  Get a little outside views.  Now granted, your test readers may get just as sick of the manuscript as you are, so try to vary it up a bit.  But whomever you get to read your manuscript I'd suggest you ask very specific questions:  Is the voice clear?  Is the objective and obstacle clear?  Was there suspense or did you know what was going to happen?  That kinda thing.  Otherwise, you'll likely get a "it was good" or "I loved it!" response.  Nice, but not helpful.

2)  Remember one thing as told to me by the great William Goldman (of "The Princess Bride" fame):  No writer EVER likes his own writing.  You may think there are parts that are really good, but you may find more parts that you just don't feel great about.  That's normal.  Don't shoot for "perfection" when revising, shoot for "the best you can", because you'll always find flaws.

3)  Don't drive yourself mad with long, olympic style marathons.  Take a break when the words start blurring together.  You may actually end up missing more than you want if you press on.

4)  I like to print out revisions to review them for one simple reason:  I want to read them like a reader would, meaning if I have a question I can turn back a page or two and remind myself what happened.  Sometimes in doing that I'll see inconsistencies in the story or something I've already mentioned get mentioned two pages later.  Unnecessary words.

Remember, a novel is a big beast.  There's a lot of words there to navigate, and sometimes as your boat rocks on the waves you may miss something floating by.  Try to calm the waters and keep a keen eye out for things that don't make sense, repetitions, your writer 'tics', and so on.  It won't be long before you'll have a clean manuscript ready for submission and can dock that boat for a well-deserved rest!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Updating Your Query Letter

Ok, I'm back.  Sorry for the non-optimistic rampage on Monday, but times are tough, and everyone needs to vent once in a while. I, ya know, need to vent, um, a little more than most.  Lately.

BUT!  I'm back!  I won't let any job setbacks derail me from my dream, nor should you!  So, today's tip is applicable to both of us in terms of finding an agent AND finding a job.


Have you gotten the fifteenth rejection letter in a row, using the same query letter?  Well perhaps it's time you tried the NEW AND IMPROVED Query Letter!

And in case you're wondering, yes, that's why companies introduce new and improved products.  Cause the old one's ain't workin'!

Take a good hard look at your query letter.  Compare it on-line to others.  Does it seem to be more like the successful ones or not (and you CAN find successful ones out there).  Or, more importantly, is it true to you and the book, or does it sound like something you copied out of a "World's Best Query Letters" book?

Now, be honest.  And be ready to change it.  As you can see to the right, I changed mine five times before I got it right.  And now I have to do the same thing with my resume (which is essentially a query letter).

It's ok to live and learn.  The past is the past.  Hope is for the future, but is built in the present.  Go to it!

Oh, and if you'd like me to take a look at the query letters, feel free to comment here and I'll help out in anyway I can.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Oh how I Love Query Rejections!

Ok, for those of you who are currently bemoaning the querying process and the rejections you're getting (hopefully more acceptances than rejections), here's a quick list of why searching for a job is ten times WORSE than looking for an agent (and not just because your entire ability to live rests on looking for a job)

5)  Query letter responses are quick, even if they're negative.  They're the equivalent of a great phlebotomist knowing how to give you the shot and get out quickly.  Still sucks, but it's fast.  Job hunting is like a phlebotomist driving a needle in, searching for a vein, twisting the needle, pulling it out, trying a different arm, twisting it around some more, and finally hitting a vein to pull a pint or two of blood.

4)  Query letters are cut and dry - you either have a good story and present it well or you don't.  Interviewers for a job like to trip you up with goofy questions and absurd situations.  Imagine an agent saying "ok, tell me about the one time you completely screwed up a chapter and had to revise it.  What would you have done differently?"

3)  There are thousands of people who can tell you how to write a query letter, but thanks to the blogosphere most of the advice is free and some will even critique it for you for free.  Contrarily, the internet is filled with vampires preying on the exposed throats of those without a job, and thus, no money.  And they want to be paid.

2)  Query letters usually get a response.  Job apps and submissions get sucked into a black hole, sent backwards in time to the Jurassic period, are fossilized and then reviewed by a neanderthal man who then buries the results only to be dug up by your email server millions of years later...   Ok, that might be a slight exaggeration.

1)  Query letters and stories can be revised to be more appropriate.  Heck, novels can be entirely rewritten if necessary to land an agent.  You can't go back in time and redo your entire career.  If I could, I'd go back and be an agent.

Oh, and I'm NOT bitter.  I'm very optimistic.  Seriously.  :D

See the smile?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Meeting Agent CB tomorrow!

Very excited.  I have to go to Connecticut and on the way I get to meet my agent, Caitlin, face to face for the first time!

I'm also starting to edit my other non-fiction book, "Dealing with Dudes and Chicks".  It's a kind of spiritual guide for teens based on discussions I've had with my daughter about the teachings of Neale Donald Walsch.  He wrote the "Conversations with God" books.  HIGHLY recommend them if you haven't checked them out yet.

Anyway, won't be writing tomorrow as I'll be on the road, so have a great weekend, and STAY POSITIVE!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Magic of Walt

There are countless books on him, numerous quotes from him, and endless movies and stories by him.  But the one thing I can bet Walt Disney would want us all to remember is this:  he's human.

He's not especially gifted, not the second coming, and not flawless.  He could draw, sure, but the way he was successful was simply determination and optimism.

"All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them."

Courage is the basis for optimism, remember?  

"I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter. "

True enough.  Life is complex, as you've seen on this blog.

"You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you. "

That's what I keep telling myself everytime I get rejected or can't find a job.  I don't know why as it's happening, but it must be happening for a reason.

Why am I telling you all this?  Because I want each and every one of you to believe that you could very well be the next Walt Disney.  Or JK Rowling.  Or whomever you wish.

You CAN be!  Your character could spawn an entire enterprise.  Your story could be told for generations.  Your legacy could live forever in a book.

"if you can dream it, you can do it"

Walt wasn't given any breaks.  He wasn't born into riches.  He wasn't handed the keys to a Disneyland.  He built that all from the ground up - with his imagination, his belief and his determination.  

He never gave up.  Neither should you!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Next Steps in the Process

So, the revised manuscript is complete.  I've made the changes my agent wanted, including a new ending which was easier than I thought, surprisingly.  Now I've got to review it carefully, have a couple of kids read it (including my own), and the back to the agent it goes!

Now, I'm not sure if I've mentioned this before, but she said she wants to send it out to publishers in mid-September or so.  Seems August is a bad time to try and get something to vacationing editors and is a sign that it's not really something too hot.  September and October they're coming back from vacation and ready to start loading up for next summer, I guess.

So, we may go through a few more small corrections or changes, but basically I'm feeling like this is the last go round before we start shopping it.

I'm very excited!  Especially because this time I have a new reader checking it for me - Ethan Lower, a friend's son.  He's good because he's brand new - doesn't know the story line, doesn't know the area, doesn't know the history.  Should be interesting to see what he thinks.

Anyway, that's all for now.  I've got to get reading - my goal is to have it proof-read by end of week.

Tomorrow, I'll talk a bit about my hero and his life that I'm reading about now:  Walt Disney!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

You as a Writer

We've got out-of-town guests today for the weekend so I won't be updating this for a few days.  Given that, I wanted to leave you all with something I've learned - and it's only taken me fifteen years to get through my thick skull.  I would love for you to learn it faster.

What did I learn?  That I am a writer.

Easier said than done, believe me!

For the longest time I was TRYING to be a writer, or I HOPED to be a writer.  But long before I got my agent I realized something:  writing isn't a job, it's a state of being.  It's not an accomplishment, it's a way of life.

Now I know you've all heard this before and are probably thinking "Duh," which, apart from sounding like my sixteen year-old daughter, would be right on the mark.  It is obvious.  But be realistic:  how many of you are thinking you won't be a writer until you publish something?  Until you get an agent?  Until someone who is NOT your mother, brother, sister, or pet goldfish absolutely LOVES your work?

No.  You're a writer the minute you decide to be one.  How good a writer you are is a different story:  we all have room for improvement.  Heck, most critics will tell you that J.K. Rowling's last Harry Potter book is much stronger than the first.

But if you have a dedication to putting pen to paper (ok, well, finger to keyboard), and it drives you to complete stories, essays, opinions, biographies, whatever, you are a writer.  If you long to convey some kind of emotion through the written word, you are a writer.  If you love to inform and education and take people on a path of discovery through description and narrative, you're a writer.  Doesn't matter if no one likes it, or if you're six years old.

It's who you are, not what you do.

Oh, and if you love to doodle, you're probably an illustrator.

Have a great weekend and remember:  Write on!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Your Writer's Tics

Hey hey.  Still cleaning up the manuscript here, hopefully for shopping around in September or October.  Here's another example of something that's come up time and time again:  my writer's tics.

Every writer has 'em.  Mine are kind of annoying when they get called out to me.  These are the styles of writing that are particular to you that may or may not be too good for your manuscript.  They're phrases, words, descriptions, or other repeating styles that stand out.  They're not necessarily cliche's, except in the context of your own writing.

Mine?  "Ya know".  I know I'm writing a middle grade fiction book, and I know that phrase is popular with kids, but DA-YUM.  I found myself using it ALL the time.  Not cool.  That's one of my tics.

See, my agent told me that publishers want kids books, even when narrated by kids, to be grammatically and syntactically correct.  So while 12 year-olds may say "ya know", or sixteen year-olds may say "like" in between every other word, it seems publishers don't really want that.  In other words, we can't write non-dialogue like we hear dialogue.

So that's one of my major tics I have to get over.  Gotta make the narrative sound less informal, even if it means sounding less like an eleven year-old talking.

What are your major tics?  Feel free to post!  We won't, like, ya know, make fun of ya, or anything.  ;0)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Exposition - Getting the details across without BORING THE READER TO DEATH

Anyone seen Austin Powers? Remember the character Basil Exposition? Michael York played him - very funny role because all he had to do was to give us all the backstory and detailed updates of the plot.

Here's an example from the script:
(on picture phone)
Hello, Austin. This is Basil Exposition, Chief of British Intelligence. You're Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery, and you're with Agent Mrs. Kensington. The year is 1967, and you're talking on a picture phone.

We know all that, Exposition.

I just wanted to be extremely clear so that everyone knows what's going on at any given time.

And that, my friends, is Exposition. Now, in a story, some of the biggest killers in reading is when exposition grows TOO much and seems forced in. There are Tom Clancy novels where pages upon pages are devoted to weapons. Nothing about the story. Same thing with even the greats, like The Grapes of Wrath, with tons of detail on corn. This stops the story progress and is the point where 95% of your readers will decide to take a potty break.

So how do you get across the information you need without losing the reader? Check out Dan Brown, who has a TON of exposition to get out there, but does so with a little bit of action, AND a little bit of debate.

Action - that's the key. The late, great Blake Snyder, whose link I've added to the side bar for his Save the Cat book, wrote about "The Pope in the Pool". Basically a distraction gimmick to get the audience to hear exposition without KNOWING that they're hearing exposition. Austin Powers did it in the example above by actually calling it out - YOU'RE GOING TO GET HIT WITH EXPOSITION HERE, BE READY.

Me? Somehow I've got to get the whole basis for the story - Patrick Ferguson nearly shooting George Washington - out there without dropping it in like a lead balloon. Here's what I did.

Two guys appeared in the attic, and Jeff thinks:
"I thought one of them might be Patrick Ferguson – a captain in the British Army. See, Patrick Ferguson almost shot George Washington near here, so I figured he was haunting the place, regretting his decision. If he had, that would’ve been HUGE, changing the whole course of history. I guess you never know when you hold the future of the world in your hands, huh?"

Double whammy here: exposition for exposition's sake - totally inorganic to the story - and TWO: hitting the reader over the head with the theme of the novel. BAD KEVIN! BAD!

So, I'm gonna re-write it to throw the exposition out while the boys are running away from dropping bombs and so on, and leave the theme out. Or maybe try to hide it in there better with a word of advice from Jeff to Ben. We'll see.

Anyway, that's Exposition. Good luck finding a good spot to bury it. Think Jimmy Hoffa.


Friday, August 6, 2010

Writing Action - Part II

Ok, I didn't do what I wrote yesterday.  Too complex.  Keep it simple, I thought.  This is a kid's book after all.

"We jumped down the last flight of stairs just as the guard came out of the office.  He pointed his bayonet at us and yelled at us to stop.  Oh crap, I thought.  I looked at Ben.  He looked at me.  We looked at the guard.
“Dude,” Ben said to the guard, pointing down, “your boot is untied.”
The guard looked down long enough for me to give him a swift kick between the legs.  He let out a grunt and double over.  Ben pulled his hat down on his face and toppled him over."

Nothing too elaborate for middle grade fiction.  We'll see what the agent says!

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Ok, so here's where I'm struggling right now:  writing a good, quick fight scene.  I know there are rules:
1)  Short sentences are better - emphasizes the quickness of the action
2)  Action comes before consequence:  don't write "She fell back after I kicked her in the face," write "I swung a round kick to her face and she collapsed on her back." or something like that.  And quit pickin' on the ladies!

But the passage I wrote was marked as "seems a bit much - can't be more plausible?"

Here's what I wrote:

"We jumped down the last flight of stairs just as the guard came out of the office.  He pointed his bayonet at us and yelled at us to stop.  I slid between his legs and while he hunched over to find me Ben jumped over his back and slammed into the wall behind us.  I stood up and Ben kicked the guard in the butt, knocking him down."

So here's what I need to do (and I'm doing this as I'm writing it - so you're fully a part of the editing process!):  Sentence by sentence, imagine the action and act it out if I have to, to see if it makes sense.

a) "...jumped down the last flight of stairs."  So the two of them are on the ground level.  "...just as the guard came out of the office."  which I know is to the right of the stairs.  So, the kids are at ground level and the guard just came out of the office.  He's seen the bad guy down and out, so he's probably on his guard.  The next sentence is probably pointless then.

b)  "...pointed his bayonet..." well, if he's on his guard, his bayonet would already be raised, right?  So maybe he just needs to yell "Stop".

c)  "I slid between his legs and while he hunched over to find me Ben jumped over his back and slammed into the wall behind us"... ok, first I think this is kinda cluttered, now that I read it.  It's just not smooth, and with action you NEED smooth.  Secondly, Ben jumped over his back and slammed into the wall behind us?  What's that?  It's confusing.  Plus this is all happening with a guy pointing his sharp bayonet at the kids in front of an office.  So here's what I'm gonna have happen:  the kids stop, because they're surprised, they drop to their knees in a fake plea for mercy, and get the guard to lower his bayonet.  When he does, Ben leaps up and does a "hoo-ha" karate type of move, while Jeff scurries around the guard to the office.  The guard twists to follow Jeff, Ben takes the opportunity to land a kick right between the guards legs.  Drops him like a lead musket ball.

Now I just gotta write it!

Blogger's Block

Wow.  Can't think of anything to write.  I've got to get my revisions done, meeting with Caitlin on Friday to discuss a new ending.  It's hotter than a blacktop in Texas, and I've got no air conditioning.

So I'm moving kinda slow...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Weak Writing

Home again, home again.  And the first thing I've noticed is the QUIET.  Bourbon street's noise doesn't stop until about 3am, for those of you thinking of staying in the Big Easy.  But it was fun.

I'm reviewing the notes on my manuscript from my agent, and I'm seeing an embarrassing theme:  weak writing.  She didn't call it such, but I can tell through the different patters of what she wants changed that that's what it is.

Weak writing is not just using passive verbs or cliches, it's how you present your character's voice.  It's how your character or narrator describes things.  My problem?  I use a lot of "sort of", "about", "I felt", and "I thought".

For example, I wrote "I felt a bullet whiz by my head".  Well, if I had just written "A bullet whizzed by my head", whiz becomes the active verb, not felt, and the reader can kind of assume that the narrator FELT the damn thing, right?

Thoughts too can slow down a manuscript and make it weak.  Here's a great example of a chapter ending that demonstrates that less is more.

ME:  "My eyes grew wide as I tried to soak it all in.  I thought I was dreaming and my whole body went numb.  I was staring into the eyes of my father."

CAITLIN:  "My eyes grew wide.  I was staring at my father."

Less is more here because I'm TELLING too much and not letting the reader use his or her imagination. Blunt, to the point writing has a much more powerful impact, especially at this kind of a revelation.  More words drag it out and make it much weaker.

So when you're thinking of strong writing, don't just think in terms of the verb "to be".  Think in terms of hearing the story yourself around a campfire.  Would you yawn at this point and shout "get on with it!" or would you get hit in the gut and say "whoa."?

Hopefully the latter.

Anyway, back to revisions.  Gotta get this done before Friday's meeting with Caitlin!

Write on!

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