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, November 30, 2010

Got a secret? Dropping hints on your reader...

Well, it's about time we all got back to work, right?  Thanksgiving break is over, gotta get that manuscript ready.  I've gotten the last of the reviews from Caitlin, so now I'm going over the manuscript one more time with a fine tooth comb before I send it back.  I like to read a chapter, make any adjustments, and then re-read it with Caitlin's notes just to make sure I've covered everything she's pointed out.  Nothing will tick off an agent more than if you ignore their marks.

But this blog is about secrets.  I'm reading Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane, and I gotta tell ya, it's some amazing writing.  Not only does he have the basics WELL covered (dialogue, character, plot movement, etc. etc.), but after seeing the movie FIRST, and knowing how it ends, I'm reading the book knowing his secret, and boy, does he do a great job dropping hints.

Now I won't go into too much detail about this book other than to say READ IT, but I wanted to touch on how to drop hints, especially if you have a major twist in the end you're going to drop on the reader.

Lehane does this expertly.  His hints, and I think this is absolutely necessary if you're going to shift gears at the end, are subtle, but once the ending is known, are CLEARLY relevant.  In other words, they're so well placed that by the time the twist happens, you subconsciously knew it was going to happen, and thus leap up saying WOW!

How do you do that?  Well, Lehane uses the actions of the characters, the SECONDARY characters, to convey subtle hints.  Let's say your main character is a woman, but really a man.  Simple, if not overused twist.  Like the movie Tootsie, only coming into it without knowing the first part.  How can you subtly drop hints about that?  You know the secret, and you want to tease your reader with it.

1)  AVOID the obvious.  If your hero loves dolls, boom.  The reader will get it right away.  And if it's too obvious they'll drop the book - they've already figured it out.  If it's subtle and they THINK they've figured it out, they'll continue reading to see if they were right.  But the best, is when the hints are so subtle they don't even think there's anything TO figure out.  So, in this instance - how do you avoid gender related hints in our example?  You could make remarks that the hero has to put on her own makeup, and casually talk about her fear of someone else touching her face.  You could talk about the amount of time it takes her to get dressed in the morning.  Or her deeply rooted need for privacy.  These are character traits of any person, but when you realize she's a man, you realize WHY she doesn't like anyone touching her face, and why it takes her so long to get ready.

2)  DO write with your secret in mind.  If you throw it out there with NO hints, your reader will feel cheated and will hate you for pulling that outta your butt.  "WHAT?  That makes no sense!" is something you never want to hear.  Make sure you're consistent throughout.  If she doesn't like having anyone touch her face, don't have her stopping in a mall to get a quick facial.

3)  DON'T lie to support your secret.  Again, if you make it too fake your reader will feel cheated.  Don't have your heroine make out with a man just to convince the reader she's a woman, when the REAL man is a tough as nails womanizer.  That wouldn't make sense.  Just like #2.

These are just my ideas, and I'm sure there are more, but you get the gist of it.  If you can keep a secret until the end of the book, make sure it's a good one, and drop little hints or clues that at the time seem innocuous, but will pack a wallop in the end.

Ok, off to bed with me!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Story Review - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

*yawn*...right?  I mean, who the heck ISN'T talking about the latest installment in the series.  So I gotta come up with a new angle.  It's a great movie, great book series, yadda yadda yadda.  There's not a whole lot else to say.

So I'll focus on...location.

Story Setting.

In the Harry Potter series, of which I am a great fan, J.K. Rowling has probably created one of the most intricate and comprehensive worlds since the Star Wars saga.  Star Trek, Middle Earth, these are stories that fit into a world so detailed and well-thought out that if the writers were going to a shrink, they'd be the most complex delusional cases ever.

The writers could describe every aspect of those worlds.  Down to the names of the little creatures that crawl into one's ears like the ones on Seti-Alpha-Six (see Wrath of Khan.  And then tell me what those things are called - I don't feel like looking it up).

J.K. has done the same.  She didn't just make up a world, she transported herself into it.  She probably had dreams of the Hogwarts world, and could, from memory, tell you how many left turns you had to make to get from Professor Snape's class back to Gryffindor.

And that's PRECISELY why the series was such a huge hit.  Not the only reason, for sure, but a big part of it.  Because, as I learned after watching this movie, it all fits.  And readers or audiences HATE it when a story doesn't fit.  When the rules of the world they're investing themselves into are violated.

It's the most critical point of fantasy / science-fiction writing.  If you violate one rule you'll lose the reader.  They'll know.  They're not stupid.

In my book, which deals with time travel, Caitlin and I have worked hard to make sure the rules of time travel are not only known and understood, but are consistent throughout.  How often can they travel back in time?  Why doesn't one trip totally disrupt the time/space continuum?  Why does one watch take them wherever they want to go but the other doesn't?  These are questions that a good agent will ask, because he or she will be reading your book as a regular reader would.  Even if they've read it before, they will look at it each time with new perspective and perhaps even ask new questions.  And your answers better be consistent with your world.

You can't fake fantasy.  One slip and the reader will know you're dodging.  One sudden appearance of something that couldn't possibly have been there before and they'll feel cheated - like you're making it up as you go.

CAUTION:  Not all of these details have to be spelled out immediately or even explained.  YOU have to know them.  You can reveal them as you wish, but don't bog your reader down with the details.  Just have them ready.

That way, when your reader enters your world, as we have all entered the world of Harry Potter, even if it's never been seen before, it will all make sense...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Real Characters - Film Review for "The Kids Are All Right"

I don't know about you, but when I see one little thing a character does that seems unreal, I lose it.  It takes me completely out of the story.

Now I know I do a lot of film reviews, and I should be doing book reviews and blah blah blah.  But films are writing - they're books in visual form, complete with stories, plot lines, and yes, characters.

And just like in books, if I see a character in a film act in an out-of-left-field kind of way, I get thrown out of the story completely.

But in "The Kids Are All Right", written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, the characters are so real they're almost scary.  I mean, apart from the fact that they're lesbians, and they only had two kids instead of three, their trials and challenges with marriage were so close to home it actually hurt to watch.  

Now granted, the big difference between film and written stories are the actors that bring them out, but I believe that just reading this script I would've fallen in love with the story.  But Annette Bening and Julianne Moore do such a fantastic job bringing their characters to life that I lost myself completely in their story.

So what made their characters so real?  The fact that they cried (a lot)?  No.  Here's what I liked about their characters, and it's something I'd say to keep in mind when you write yours:  they're not perfect.  Not even slightly perfect.  They're not flawed to the point of being idiots, but they are definitely, positively, 100% human.  However - and this is important - their RELATIONSHIP is perfect.  And I say that because it requires work, but it lasts.  It's there, beneath everything they do - even when they argue.  You can feel it, because their feelings, positive or negative, or so fierce and strong.  It makes their emotions that much more real.

So when writing your characters, give them tears.  Let them cuss.  Free them from the bonds of your perceived "perfection".  Even if you're writing Superman, you have to have the perfect man have a human side.  That's why Spock was such a loved character.

While we don't want to see complete reflections of us in the books we read, we do want to see some aspect of us.  Because ultimately the hero of the story triumphs.  Love conquers, or they conquer their fear, or the recognize their mistakes and move on.  And when we can associate ourselves with those characters, when they seem like regular people doing those things, it gives us hope that we can do them as well.  We can forgive.  We can love.  We can move on.

Breathe that into your characters, and I guarantee you'll catch the agent's eye.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Is an agent worth it?

I've posted a couple of things about the joys of having an agent, but I'm not sure if I've talked about the one thing that means the most to me when it comes to having an agent.  Why I'm more than happy to work with her and feel honored to have her input.

Having an agent legitimizes me as an author.

Now I know a lot of people may roll their eyes at that and say "c'mon, you're an author the minute you write something", and that's true.  But to me, my biggest hurdle I had to get over after all those screenplays, all those short stories, was that no one was taking me seriously.  In my mind, I was still a hack typing away at a computer with no idea how to make a novel work.

And I may be alone in those thoughts.  Perhaps my self-esteem was low because I was raised to not think of writing as a "real job" and was always hard on myself when it came to my own words.  I'd read about other writers making it big and think "That'll never happen to me".

My dad has self published seven or eight books.  And he's thrilled and very happy to have a hundred or so copies ordered from Amazon.  He's the definition of writing for himself.  Retired, age 70, with an imagination and experience to last the rest of his days.

Me?  I always had to have something more.  Someone I didn't know from a hole in the wall saying "hey, this is pretty good".  My wife loves my writing and would tell me so, to which I'd respond "yeah, but you're not in the business, are you?"

Now I have someone who is.  Someone who's job it is to get authors published.  She makes money off of the sale of my book, and she thought highly enough of it to take it under her wing and help grow it.  And she has - she's pointed out inconsistencies, word choices, and alternate endings to make it a much more sellable product.  And I'm grateful.

But most of all, I'm grateful that someone has invested themselves in my writing.  That makes it all worth it, and I appreciate that more than anything on a daily basis.

So you could self-publish, or go right to editors, or just stick the manuscript in the drawer.  But I wouldn't change a thing for me with getting an agent.  I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.

Monday, November 15, 2010

And it's off! Part I

Sent out the changes to my agent for the chapters that had the most differences.  There were only 4, the rest was minor word changes and questions she had that I probably needed to answer.  I emailed her the chapters for her to review so that I can make sure I'm on the right track before printing the whole blasted thing out again.

When revising, I highly recommend printing out the entire manuscript when all your changes are done, and then reading the book as if it were a book, not yours, but someone else's.  This will allow you to think somewhat objectively and things that are awkward will stick out like a third grader's treatise on the sociological impact of newer social media outlets.  It just won't make sense.

I also check for spelling and stuff, but that sticks out with me on any document I read.  Grammar tends to get lost with me though, because I write in a certain voice that I hear in my head (see, I told you those voices in your head will come in handy) and so what I'm reading sounds perfectly normal to me, even conversational.  BUT, that's where the objectivity breaks down - someone else will hear a different voice.  So I have to go slow there...

Finally, when you get an agent (and you WILL get an agent!) pay attention to their little pet peeves.  The more you nail those and avoid them after they tell you what they are, the more professional you'll seem to them.  That's really important, because they are in the business of making money off of you.  They need to feel confident that you'll take their recommendations seriously.

So - now I wait again for Caitlin to review the changes, then I'll print the whole thing out and re-read just to make sure I didn't change something in Chapter 2 that'll come up again as something different in chapter 5.  Continuity is key.

Then she'll love it, send it out to the five or so publishers she has in her back pocket, and BOOM!  My Christmas/Birthday present (the days are one and the same, sadly) will be a HUGE bidding war amongst all five publishers!

OPTIMISM!  It's what's for breakfast!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Using the Weather - It can help! (SPOILER ALERT!)

The ending, according to my agent, needs to change.  The bad guy faces off with the good guy, and the good guy gets away to a new time (it's time travel), but my agent wanted me to leave the ending open but not TOO open.

Ok, that probably doesn't make a whole lotta sense.  Here's the thing.  When writing a series, or what you hope will be a series, the advice I got from my agent is make it open ended enough that it could seem like a series, but not so reliant upon a sequel type ending to make it HAVE to be a series.  Often time publishers will only option one book, see how it sells, and if it tanks, leave it alone.  If it does great, terrific, they'll publish a series.  But remember, once the ending of the first book is published, it's out there.  You can't change it.

So, in my original ending, the hero goes back in time leaving the bad guy obviously alive and in 1862.  Perfect set up for the sequel.  But now we needed to have it be ambiguous as to whether or not he lives.  That way, if the book doesn't sell, we didn't leave a lot of people hanging, and if it does, we can write the next one saying "AH HA!  You thought he was dead!" without really cheating people.

SO!  Round two - I had the good guy and bad guy square off, and there's a FARMER!  He points his gun at the bad guy, tells him to leave the kid alone, and just as the bad guy leaps towards the hero, the farmer shoots.  The good guy disappears just after hearing the gun-shot, and we assume the bad guy's dead, BUT, nobody knows for sure.

To which my agent replied (roughly) "Farmer?  Where the heck did HE come from?"

Too coincidental.

So - back to the drawing board.  How do I make the bad guy seem to die, but not tell for sure, while the good guy gets away, but NOT have it seem like I'm writing it this way 'cause my agent told me to.


They arrive in the 1862, square off against each other, in the MIDDLE OF A HURRICANE!  High winds!  Rain!  Massive Lightning!

And because the watch that teleports the user through time uses electricity, it only makes sense that the lightning would be even more intense around the hero.  So!  They argue, they square off, the boy sets the watch, and lightning splits the massive oak they're fighting under, knocking a big, massive branch towards them, and just before it lands - POOF, the hero disappears.  The bad guy lives?  Dies?  Who knows.

But the key here is that arriving in the midst of a torrential downpour is a LOT more plausible than having Joe RandomFarmer just happen to be nearby.  I mean, it does rain in Chadds' Ford, PA, right?  Especially in September?

So I'm gonna try that.  If anyone has any suggestions or comments, I'm more than open to them!  Otherwise, we'll throw this donut against the wall and see if it sticks...


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sub(versive) Plots

This is a great big mess, one that I'm challenged with as I write the first of a potentially long series:  how the heck do I keep tabs on all the subplots?

I mean, I don't wanna go crazy like some books, where the reader has to keep track of fourteen "main" characters having fourteen different lives, but subplots are a great way to expand a novel and keep interest in the main plot from waning.

In my book, there are several subplots brewing, one for each of the other families that know about the secret to time travel.  Each of them have some form of interaction with the protagonist, as well as within themselves, but they're all in the background, obviously, to the main plot:  trying to destroy the time traveling watch and prevent anyone from ever knowing how to time travel again.  But I feel like I've created a massive web and I have to know the details of each strand!  Where did the families start, where did they come from, who knows who, how does family A feel about family B, etc.  It's a little like the diverse characters supporting Voldemort in the Harry Potter series.  Voldemort is obviously the bad guy, but he's got a ton of henchmen who each have backstories, characters, arcs, etc. etc.

Man.  That's a lot.

So what am I gonna do?  Well, for one, I'm gonna try the freeware that Stacy recommended on an earlier post.

Next, if that doesn't work, I'll try outlining the J.K. Rowling way, but boy that was a challenge.  I hate outlining and prefer just to write, but I can't really get away with that with the complicated subplots.

Lastly, if nothing else works, I'll devise something of my own on my big board.  That's the corkboard over my desk with a ton of notecards on it.  It's messy and manual, but I'm a visual guy, so it helps me see the plot lines.

Any other suggestions or tips?

Friday, November 5, 2010

I have a confession...and a book review...to make

I scraped the metal folding chair along the linoleum floor to plop myself down in the circle.  Fifteen eyes (The homeless Santa character across the circle had a glass eye) watched me as I straightened myself up and let out a sigh.  This was gonna be tough.

"Kevin," the moderator said with a hideous, bogus smile.  "Would you like to begin?"

I closed my eyes.  I can't do this!  I thought.  Run!  A voice echoed in the room:  "Please?"

I had to do it.  Without opening my eyes, I stood up.  I couldn't bear to see them laugh, like everyone else.  But I had to get it out.  I had to come to terms with it.

"Hi," I started.  I opened one eye just enough to see their blurry outlines.  No one spoke.  "My name is Kevin," I said.  Still nothing.  I closed my eyes tighter.

I inhaled.  I winced as if someone had a grip on a nasty splinter in my finger and was about to pull.

"...and I'm the victim..."

Another squinty-eyed peek.  Still nothing...

"...of a garden gnome attack..."

Dead silence.  I let out a breath.  And then?

Applause.  The group applauded!  After eighteen months of showing up and saying nothing, I'd done it! I'd admitted and expressed my horrible nightmare.  I felt the weight of the world lifted off my shoulders.

I sat back down, felt the congratulatory claps on my back, and heard the various words of encouragement like "I hear ya, man," or "we're here for ya brother."

Yes.  I was the victim of a horrible garden gnome attack.  I can speak about it now because of my Survivors of Garden Gnome Attacks group (SOGGA).  I can hold my head up high and say with a clear conscious that there is no shame in being brutally beaten by five, grinning clay and porcelain half-pint hellions.  In fact, my survival has become a source of pride.

And I owe it all to one book:  "How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack: Defend Yourself When the Lawn Warriors Strike (And They Will)" by Chuck Sambuchino.

I read this book not too long ago and found it informative, educational, and funny - yes, it has allowed me to laugh at my own experiences in bush-hidden brutality.  While I still have trouble viewing the horrific pictures (Thank God Chuck was able to get the film from the poor, presumably dead photographer), and I still wake in the middle of the night with the feel of their cold, hard beards on my shins, and the feel of their razor sharp rakes across my back, I know that thanks to Chuck's book, others may not have to suffer the same fate as me.

So please, do yourself a favor.  Get this book.  Protect yourself.  Or else you may find yourself attending a SOGGA meeting yourself...

...if you're lucky...

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

So...The Bad Guy

Again...now see, for those who have been following me, you may have heard me talk about the antagonist and how to balance making him too evil versus making him somewhat relatable.  It seems that's a little different for middle grade books, which is the genre I'm writing for.

In my book, the bad guy, towards the end, wants the children following him dead.  Just flat out, dead.  He's even willing to shoot one (and does, in the leg) to get what he wants.

Too violent, my agent says.

And she's probably right - and here's why.  When your antagonist is an alien, a monster, a wizard or any other kind of fantastic creature, they can be as bad as you need them to be.  Why?  Because they're NOT REAL.

My bad guy is a human guy.  A regular guy.  A professor.  So if he's really really bad, that could be TOO realistic and scary.  See, the fantasy realm, especially for middle grade and YA, allows the bad guys to have no morals, to be truly evil, because they're not real people.  But to have a real person display those characteristics to modern day eleven year-old boys, well, that's just a little close to home.

So, instead of wanting them to die, and shooting the one in the leg, my agent suggested the shot be accidental (which is fine because I make that into a suspenseful but still funny scene) and later on to leave them tied to a tree so that they'll be arrested as spies, rather than killed in the war.

Subtle differences, neither of which I think diminishes the bad guy's bad-guyness, but not so harsh as to make teachers and parents gasp when they read it to their class or their kids so them what they're reading.

Tomorrow I'll talk about the subplot changes...that's gonna be tricky...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The editorial comments from my agent are here! The editorial comments from my agent are here!

Apologies to Steve Martin in The Jerk.  But hey, I'm excited!  Ok, they weren't as huge as "SONY BOUGHT THE MOVIE RIGHTS" but they weren't as bad as "I've decided to use your manuscript as birdcage liner.  Hope you don't mind".

So, here's what Caitlin had to say:

First of all - she starts out very sweet and optimistic - I won't quote her word for word because that wouldn't be fair to her - she wrote the email assuming it'd be private, and that I wouldn't share all the horrible things she said about me to with the world.

Anyway, she started out like any good critiquer (is that a word?) should:  positive.  Here's what works.  You've worked hard, kept the original characters voices true, great story and so on.

Then they hit you with the BUT.

Three things need to be fixed:  the antagonist, who seems a little harsh for middle grade fiction, the subplot regarding another family from the 18th century, and the ending.  None of which are major show stoppers, but I do want to speak to her about the antagonist.  I mean, he's been a really mean jerk since the beginning, so I'm not sure why now all of a sudden he's TOO rough.

I'll let you know what I find out.

The subplot I'm not worried about.  I added that on the last pass through, so I expected some changes.  The ending is a tweak, nothing major, just something to make it more suspenseful and ambiguous (does he die or doesn't he).

Overall, I'm thrilled to hear that she's ok, although she didn't offer any explanations as to why it took so long to get back to me (I suspect there may be another writer in her life.  I'll have to have her tailed to find out for sure).

But most importantly - it means I've got work to do!

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