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, September 30, 2010

This is gonna be tough...

Wow - so new job, new responsibilities, getting home at 6:30ish.  This is gonna be tough balancing that plus the need to write.  I'm trying to set aside some time after the kids go to bed, but at that point I'm pretty bushed too.  But I can't let it stop me.

Gonna write some more "The Strength to Stand Up"

But enough about me.  More on the conference.

Some pearls of wisdom from Lindsay Barrett George Barrett, again very relevant no matter what you're writing, and some things I'd never really thought of:

A book is more than it seems, and a good writer has Honesty, Emotional Connection and Depth to anything they write.  Honesty in terms of the subject matter - it has to mean something to you.  Even if it's just something you're really interested in.  I couldn't write about a Victorian Romance because quite honestly that bores me to tears.  But others can, and do it well.

Emotional Connection - the characters have to have something in common with the writer.  You have to have an emotional connection to your hero AND your villain in order to keep that level of honesty.  Do that, and your readers will feel that emotional connection.  Jeff is basically me at age 11.   Except a little smarter.  Professor Ferguson, the bad guy, is the smarmy know-it-all that I used to hate growing up.  Still do, as a matter of fact.

And depth?  Well, it can't just be a story about x meets y and lives happily ever after.  If you write a cardboard cut-out of a novel, where you're writing to make money, it'll come off as stale as it sounds.  If you are writing for a purpose, a theme, a message you want to get out, it'll have more undertones that readers will pick up on.  That's also what will make it stand out.  My book's not just about time travel, it's about learning the lesson that you can't change the past and have anything good change in the present.  That everything's connected, and things happen for a reason.  Don't regret what's happened.  That's a very important lesson for kids, but also an important lesson that I learned myself.

So keep those three elements in mind while you're writing.  Am I being honest?  Do I care about the hero?  Is there more here than just the action and words?  If so, you're on the right track.

More later on character changes.  Another great insight from Ms. George!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Publishing Truth

Got word from Caitlin - she's halfway through the manuscript and it's looking very clean.  She hopes to have the annotated manuscript back to me next week, which means ONE MORE ROUND OF CHANGES!  Ugh.  I thought for sure I'd have this ready to go out to editors, but hey, if Caitlin wants to be  a perfectionist on this, I'm not gonna complain!  As a wise man once said, "GIT 'ER DONE!"

Ok, a semi-wise man.

Anyway, back to the SCBWI conference.  The first speaker, as I mentioned, was Lindsey Barrett George.  She did a great demo of how the publishing process works, more so from a picture book perspective, but it was still pretty applicable.

I won't go into details, but one thing did strike me as an eye-opener.  Now this site is OPTIMISM ABOUNDS, so take this as a nice problem to have, not something to dissuade you:

There ain't a lot of money to be made in just writing a book.

SHOCKER!  I know, I know, I should've put SPOILER ALERT at the top.  Seriously, though, you probably already knew that, right?  I mean, nobody really writes to become rich and famous anymore because so few people actually DO become rich and famous.  Oh sure, you have the Stephanie Meyers story, or the J.K. Rowlings of the world, but for the two of them there are hundreds of thousands of authors who've written really good books that are available at your local bookstore.

$.25 for every book sold - that's what you're getting...maybe...if you're published.  So if you were a blockbuster and sold a million copies, you'd be getting $250k.  Not bad, but not something to sustain you the rest of your life.

Why am I berating this point?  Because writing isn't about the dollars.  Even if you luck out and get a ton of cash, the story is the real thing.  It's the only thing.  If it makes it into a movie or is just a small seller, you've done something that very few people can ever say they've done:  you cemented your legacy in history.  Your book will always be available in the Library of Congress.  One hundred years from now, your future generations can still read your words.  Your story will continue to be told.

That's pretty cool.  So if you get the "harsh reality" talk about publishing and how little it pays, remember:  we're talking about something much more valuable than money.  We're talking immortality - for both you AND your characters.

...but if you want to dream about millions, go for it!

...I know I will!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Update from the Eastern PA SCWBI Conference!

Great time had at the SCBWI conference on Saturday!  And a big hello to my friends from that conference who've hopefully joined us here.  Lots to cover, so I'm going to split it up this week to give you an overview of what I've learned.

First of all, for those who may not know, SCBWI stands for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and it's a GREAT organization to belong to if you're into writing for kids - YA, Middle Grade, or picture book.  Twice a year the Eastern PA chapter has a get together with editors, agents and authors presenting to the group.  Once a year the entire Eastern region gets together in New York or something.

This fall's event took place at a Country Club that could've easily been a stand-in for Bushwood in the movie Caddyshack.  I wanted to jump into the pool but was afraid I'd find a floating Baby Ruth bar.  However, the list of presenters was impressive, and they all did a great job with their content:

First up was Lindsay Barrett George, an author/illustrator who was written and illustrated several picture books (her realism and attention to detail were stunning) talked about the publishing business

Then a trio of authors, Jeannine Norris, Nan Marino, and Jennifer R. Hubbard, spoke about first time out writers in YA, Middle Grade and Picture Book genres

Wendy Mass followed them with a great overview of her history, including an option on her book Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life (she's my new hero.  She's written over 10 middle grade books and had one made into a movie!  She's also incredibly nice and down to earth.  Very approachable.)

Then Harold Underdown gave a great talk about the present state of publishing.  Harold is a children's book editor and maintains one of the most comprehensive children's book publishing sites on the web (I've added it to the side bar).  Check it out if you're in this genre!

And finally, Erica Rand Silverman, a beautiful agent with the prestigious Sterling Lord agency, gave tips and answered questions on getting an agent.

So there was a lot to do there, and I had a great time meeting fellow authors and also volunteering for a demonstration of the travails of writing (a check for $1.95 as an advance!  Ok, it was a pretend check for $5000, but I had some fun with it!)  Can't wait for the spring get together!

More this week about the details.

One final note:  I've GOTTEN A JOB!  YEAH!

C'mon!  Say it with me!  OH YEAH!  OH YEAH!  DO THE DANCE!  DO THE DANCE!

Ok, if you could see me now I'd be frightfully embarrassed.  Anyway, this will affect my blogging time somewhat, so I may have to hit it up later in the evening when I set aside my writing hour.  More on that to come.

Have a great day!

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Strength to Stand Up

I'm starting a new book today with that as the title.  "The Strength To Stand Up.  Memoirs of an Unemployed Man."  People have been hounding me to put my ordeal into words, so I'm going to, with the specific bent on being the ANTI-"Secret" book.

In case you're not familiar with it - "The Secret" is a book that started a big craze centered around getting what you want.  Some of it made sense to me, some of it seemed like snake-oil salesmanship.  "You can have anything you want if you just buy my book so I can have anything I want!"

It centers around the concept of quantum physics, which basically says we're all made up of the same matter and therefore all connected and therefore manipulated by primal forces.  Once we learn to be positive, think positive, etc., we draw those forces towards us and BOOM, instant happiness.

Except it doesn't always happen.  Which leads the reader to think "What the heck am I doing wrong?  I must not be thinking positively enough!"

I'm bringing this up now because there's nothing more disheartening than rejection letters, whether they're form letters, a nice personalized note, or no response at all.  It leaves us thinking that there's something WRONG with us or our query letter.  While the latter may need revisions (see my side bar over there), there's nothing that we're doing WRONG or anything WRONG with us for being rejected.

What we need is not to be found in a book, or a blog, or some "secret".  It's internal to each and every one of us, and it's different for each of us.  It's the drive and the strength to STAND BACK UP.  I've learned the hard way over the past nine months that life will knock you on your keister without a moment's notice at any time.  Things you hadn't thought about for years may suddenly go wrong.  And that's just the way life is.  We don't know why it happened, there's nothing you can do to avoid the next big thing.  All you can do is recognize your own strength.

So when you get that rejection letter from someone you thought for SURE was going to be your agent, or you've followed the Secret and STILL don't have representation, just remember your own strength.  You can stand up again.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Summing it all up

You're at a writer's conference, and as you take the elevator to the twelfth floor for your afternoon nap, you find yourself standing next to the editor that just got through talking about how desperate his company is looking for THE EXACT BOOK YOU JUST WROTE!

You strike up a conversation about how you loved his talk, and how he described your book perfectly.  "Oh, really?"  He says.  "What's it about?"

You go into your prepared elevator speech, get to the main conflict of the story when "DING", the door opens and the editor shakes your hand, thanks you, and offers to have someone's admin read your query letter.

Did you sum it up or go into the character development of the main character and why the conflict she faces is so true to life?

A couple of days ago I talked about creating a sense of urgency.  That conflict is the heart of your hook - that which is going to make the editor's ears perk up and say "hey, that's kinda cool."  It's easier than you think, as long as you don't over-think it.

Now granted, there are hundreds of pages of advice on writing a hook or summing up a book (in screenplay terms it's called a LOGLINE).  And each of them may be slightly different, so here's my take on it for free.

1)  The character(s) must do x before y creates z.  That's the basic algebraic formula.  Now you can fluff it up with descriptions and so on, but that's basically what the listener wants to know:  who's in trouble and what's at stake?   For example:  "Two eleven year-old boys must use a time travel pocket watch to stop an evil Professor from changing the past before he destroys their future."

2)  Keep an eye out for the following, they may indicate you going off in an unnecessary direction:  "Only to find" or "BUT".  For example, "Two eleven year-old boys must use a time travel pocket watch but are trapped in an altered present because their arch-nemesis has changed the past and now they must find him and stop him before the new present becomes a permanent reality."  That was an earlier version.  Too long.  Why?  Because I threw in an OBSTACLE.  Editors and Agents will assume there are obstacles, otherwise there'd be no story.  "Only to find" or "But" tend to lead to an obstacle, and that will bloat your summary.  I say, leave out the obstacles.  That's for a detailed synopsis or for when the editors read the actual manuscript.

3)  Keep it focused on the protagonist and antagonist.  In my example above, I probably could've gotten away with just saying "An eleven year-old..." but since the book is written in dual first-person, there's really two protagonists.  But notice I didn't mention their sister, father, or the mentor character at all.  Superfluous.  There's no time.  The two characters you describe are also probably the two characters that face off in the final act.  Harry Potter and Voldemort.  Percy and Hades.  That kinda thing.

Now, one final note:  this applies to commercial fiction only.  I haven't studied literary fiction, where the conflicts or urgency may be more internal and may be a harder log line to write.  If you're interested, I'll take a look and see how you could sum up "The Great Gatsby" or "Catcher in the Rye".  Those senses of urgency aren't as obvious and may make the logline different.  Till then, if anyone would like me to read a summary or two, feel free to pass 'em along...

Hope this helps!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What's the Rush? Creating a Sense of Urgency

I'm reading a book now (I won't mention the title out of respect for the author), that keeps me asking one question:


Needless to say, it's not an easy read.

See, I'm on Chapter 17 and I'm still struggling with what the sense of urgency is.  If the hero fails in doing whatever they're supposed to do (and I'm still not sure - the hero's mentor is really the hero so far), what's the big deal?

Will the world end?  Will people and characters I care about die?  I dunno.

Any good book, as I mentioned before, will have a sense of urgency as it relates to either the reader or the hero or some other characters.  They absolutely HAVE to get something done or their life will be for naught.  In some instances that urgency is around an accomplishment.  In others, it's danger - depends on your genre.  In my book, the United States stands to be completely altered by a change in history.  If the hero's don't correct that change, everything they know about 2009 will be different.  And not just different, but horrible - nuclear wars, poverty, and so on.

Again, some stories are based on a character accomplishment - and the driving need to achieve it or else the main character's life is pointless.  Moby Dick finding the whale at all costs.  Ordinary People by Judith Guest is about a hero trying to reconcile with his family before he completely loses his mind.

But all good stories have a "pace" to them that is based on a sense of urgency.

And by the way - this urgency, this singular drive of the hero, if you can identify that and it's strong enough, you can summarize your book in one line.  More on that tomorrow!


If there's no point to the story, there's no point in reading it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Fun Books for Inspiration

Not like spiritual inspiration, but cool books to get your mind going if you need a new story.  The first, most obvious, is The Pocket Muse by Monica Wood.  In it are some great quotes, teasers, thought-provokers, and pictures that are sure to get the creative juices flowing.  For example, one page has "Imagine a coat.  Imagine the pocket of the coat. Imagine what's in the pocket."  And it's not just for starting a story - if your story needs a kick start, they have other suggestions there too.  Like one page just says "Your character is being followed."  That got me thinking about ratcheting up the tension in one scene.  I actually have to put it away after I get something because if I scan through it, I'll have a hundred novels running through my head.

Another fun book to get you thinking, especially if you're trying to write a comedy or need some really whacked out characters, is The Dumbest Crook Book by Leland Gregory, or something like it.  These types of books are just filled with characters who do stupid stuff, and while you can't use their actual names, you can start to think about them as people.  Why would they do stuff like that?  What was their upbringing?  What would drive them to take such a chance?  Here's an example:

"Robert Palmer was arrested and charged with burglary in Savannah, Georgia after removing a windowpane and entering the residence of Joseph Palmer.  When the police detained him, he claimed he hadn't planned to rob the place; he was only curious as to whether he and Joseph Palmer were related.  They're not."

A great example of a character so driven for family he'd do something like that.  There's DEFINITELY a story in there.

So go check 'em out.  They're a lot of fun if you're between books, or wanting to do something completely different.  I'll have some other book reviews for ya soon.  Have a great weekend!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Optimism Continues!

Welp, had a great interview yesterday and another interested party today, so it seems this struggling writer might not be struggling much longer.  It's been a long road, but I sure hope it ends soon!

Nothing new to report on the book side, though.  I've sent the last revision to my agent, but haven't heard back from her yet.  As soon as that process starts again I'll be sure to let you know.  Hopefully the revisions are good enough to send it out to the publishers for their review.  I'm OPTIMISTIC!  (catch the key phrase there?)

Anyway, off to write some more.  Gotta think about the next book in the series...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

An Author's Dream Come True

Hope everyone had a great Labor Day.  I know I did - went to a fantastic Renaissance Faire in Southeast PA (yes, I am a geek that way), and did a lot of labor around the house.

I thought I'd share this link with you to get you all riled up about the possibilities of your work.  Now, I know that you may or may not have an agent, and that you may or may not be published, and perhaps those things are your next steps.  Getting your book out as a movie probably isn't even a glint in your eye right now.

Perhaps that's ok, but when I dream, I like to dream big.  Now I may have mentioned one of my favorite novels, The Pillars of the Earth, here before, and I was ecstatic when I heard it was coming to TV.  Then I looked at this site with the eyes of an author.

What a dream.  Imagine your book being made into a film - the characters that existed in your head for so long suddenly coming to life.  The location, the words, YOUR words, being spoken and visible for all to see.  What a thrill that must be.

That's my goal.  No, I'm not writing for the big screen, I'm writing a novel.  But for me, a history buff, technology in film has made our history much more accessible than its ever been.  I've seen the Titanic sink, William Wallace fight, and a medieval cathedral built.  Now I want to see Jeff and Ben, the heroes of my book, actually fight in the Revolutionary War.  If it ever comes to that, I'll be a complete mush-head, I know it.

So dream big.  Don't be afraid to go for whatever brass ring you've got in front of you.  Some may be happy with a small advance check, some for a Newberry Prize, some with just the words of an agent that say "they want to buy your book".  Whatever it is, keep that end in mind.  As a great man once said, "If you can dream it, you can do it."

Friday, September 3, 2010

Passive Reading

Welp, the manuscript is away, and back in Caitlin's hands for review.  With any luck, she'll begin shopping it around over the next month and a half.  According to her, the back-to-school time is a great time to get publisher's interested as they update their catalogues for next summer reading.  So here's to an OPTIMISTIC turn around time and good results!

On to other things - saw a great blog blurb about good writing being invisible - meaning the best writing is when the reader doesn't recognize it as great writing.  The chapters flow from one to another, the scenes are seamless, and there isn't a lot of looking up words or floating backwards to try and remember what the heck happened.

Dan Brown's books are like this - that's why they sell so great.  But it's a very difficult state to achieve, needless to say.

For one thing, everyone's tastes are different, so what's really easy to read for one person may be impossible for the next.  Ken Follet's "Pillars of the Earth" is a great example of good storytelling, but I get thrown out of the story every time he goes into details regarding the cathedral.  Moby Dick, the same way - how much do I really need to know about whaling to get to the story?   Even my own book, The Timepiece Chronicles had to be parred down because I had way to much info about the Revolutionary War to keep kids interested.

The challenge is this:  when we write, we know the story and can see it clearly in our head.  And its usually about a subject we've researched, fallen in love with, and want to share with the world.  This leads to one of two things that can throw the reader out of the story:  1) a lack of detail and a lot of unintended assumptions that the reader knows what we're talking about, or 2) TOO much detail trying to get across absolutely everything.  In either case, the reader stumbles upon something that throws them out of the story, and rather than being an observer to a great adventure they're now an interpreter.  That makes it too much work to read.

Check out KIDLIT.com (the link's to the right) to see more.  It's interesting stuff.  And keep in mind when you're writing that I haven't the foggiest idea what's in your head, so you better tell me.  Just not too much.  ;0)

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