Saturday, September 27, 2014

Let it go

As if my writing needs any more diversions, Writer’s Digest lights up my inbox. Daily. Three or four times, daily. Being the distractible type, I click on it, especially when the writing is fighting me. Though a lot of it is stuff they’re trying to sell, they regularly put out informative articles on craft. One such, by Jack Heffron, is titled, “How to Destroy Your Initial Idea (& Make Your Story Better)”

Heffron starts with a Pablo Picasso quote: “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” He readily admits he has no clue what Picasso means, but applies the quote to writing. “The generative idea for a piece,” Heffron says, “is more an avenue to richer ideas than an end in itself. At those times, we must be willing to let go of our initial premise.” We sometimes need to destroy our initial writing idea for the good of the story. 

He cites an example from his own writing to illustrate. He had written a piece and put a lot of time and effort into it. For the first 24 pages, two women converse in a doughnut shop until two men enter, have a brief encounter with them, and all four leave on page 25. Readers looked at it and told him the story starts on page 24. Heffron was frustrated. He had labored for hours perfecting the dialogue, developing each woman character and produced a ton of good lines. Was such an effort to be a mere prelude to the real story?

Sometimes the answer is yes.

He shelved the story for a while and when he came back to it, he realized they were right. (That little writer’s group - there’s a reason we keep them around.) He revised and brought the two men in by page 2 and had the four of them leave by page 7 and his story was better. Yet the weeks he invested initially was not a waste. Heffron spent the time intimately getting to know his characters. His rounded understanding of them allowed the story to surprising turns, twists he wouldn’t have imagined if he didn’t know the characters so well. He says he wouldn’t have achieved the real start of the story if he hadn’t written what came before. His initial premise led him to literary gold, even though it was eventually discarded.

How liberating, yet how unnerving. We’ve all been there before. We’ve put in time and effort honing and crafting paragraphs or pages. Then our finger hovers over the delete key as that inner writer’s voice tells us to let it go.

Im getting better at it. I have a need to save those little nuggets of writing gold in an idea file, but once they are removed, the story is cleaner. 

There are times, in mid-story, I’ll stop and write a note to myself that will get dumped. I do this often with characters, especially when they act in a way contrary to how they should. I’ve written a multi-page backstory on a character, expelling why they would do such and such. It is not germane to the story, but it is vital to me. I need to deeply understand these people. 

Back to Heffron’s premise. Sometimes an initial idea takes off in an unintended direction and it must be discarded. He ends by comparing breaking up with an idea to that in a relationship. You’ve tried different strategies. You’ve sought counseling. But, says Jack Heffron, “at some point, we need to tell the piece to sit down. We need to summon the courage to say, “Honey, we need to talk.”


(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

Friday, September 26, 2014

When Only THAT Childhood Story Will Do

I have been AWOL lately, so I apologize, my friends.

But my eight-year-old has been in the hospital. Oxygen, I.V., the whole nine yards.

Primary Children's Hospital is amazing. My daughter kept her spirits up by noting that she got to have room service, video games, and all the movies she wanted to watch!

But as night came on and energy to stay positive waned, as she was continually wakened for treatment after treatment, there was one thing she wanted. One thing that comforted her.

Her favorite old book. "Winnie the Pooh" by A.A. Milne.

And as the early morning hours set in and we both needed rest between treatments, I turned on Peter Dennis' amazing reading of the original book and the classic lulled us both.

It is there in those stressful moments that our favorite childhood stories, the really dear ones, still give us comfort. Perhaps it is because the stories evoke a visceral memory of that safe place, in our mother's arms, when all was well and we could rest knowing that we were watched over.

Because as my daughter and I listened to Pooh and Piglet try to devise a way to outwit the Heffalump when he came to collect them from The Pit, the beeping of monitors and buzzing lights seemed to melt away. We were whisked away to that wonderful Wood.

And with the comforting sound of Pooh's soft voice we both felt we were in that place: safe, able to sleep, knowing we were being watched over.

(A huge thank you to the amazing doctors, nurses, and staff in the Gorilla Wing at Primary Children's for taking such wonderful care of my daughter.)

Monday, September 22, 2014

Guess the Book Emoji--And Win!

By Julie Daines

Winner: Liz Sorenson! Congratulations! See the comments for how to claim your prize.

Great game everybody!!

Ladies and Gents, I think it's high time for some fun and games. How about a nice round of Guess the Emoji?

Each emoji below is a clue to a book title. They are all works of literature ranging from middle grade to adult, classic to modern. Remember to think outside the box.

Here they are:

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

9.

10.

Leave your answers in the comments. You have until Friday midnight to enter, I'll post the answers and the winner on Saturday, September 27.

Good luck!

And since I happen to have a stack of extra books lying around, anyone who makes a guess will be entered into a random drawing to win a book of their choice. If you guess them all right, you will be entered twice. Yippee!

The choices are (And just for clarification, these have nothing to do with the emojis.):


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Querying

A year ago I had my MS done and all ready to push to the publishing world. Carol Lynch Williams offered to give it a final look-over.

As if that wonderfully crafted piece could be found to be deficient.

It was.

My writer’s group has been poring over it ever since and I now find myself ready to share it with the world. As I’ve learned a bit on this next aspect on the writing adventure, perhaps others would like a primer on querying.

The information below applies to agents more so than editors. I’ve come to understand that most editors would prefer to work with agented writers and thus, I choose to concentrate my efforts there. I assume the same suggestions would likewise apply to publishers. 

Rule number one is to write a killer book. That’s a tough one. There is some very good kid lit out there. Is mine Newbery award caliber? Okay, at least it’s a darn good story and I’m proud of it. I think I’ve got voice, good characters, and a nice story arc. I am biased, but think it is worthy.

Rule number two is to write a killer query. That, too, is a tricky one. It doesn’t take nearly as long to write as the book, yet many writers cringe at the thought of it. There are differing opinions on the format it should take. AgentQuery.com has a three paragraph formula and they say “don’t stray from this format.” Interviews with agents suggest straying. Some like cutesy and clever (you do want your query to stand out from the multitude), others want it to look professional. 

As Nathan Bransford says, “A query letter is part business letter, part creative writing exercise, part introduction, part death defying leap through a flaming hoop… In essence: it is a letter describing your project.” What most agents want to see in a query is the genre, word count, a short summary, and information on your writing credentials. A hook, or teasing information similar to a book’s jacket cover is not uncommon. A synopsis would cover major plot points and how they are resolved. The goal of the query is to pique the agent’s curiosity and get them to ask to see more.

Research, a vital step in the query process, should not be skipped. It is important to know if you and your work will mesh with the agent and agency. Before wasting an agent’s time with something they are not interested in, learn what it is they and their agency represents. Determine what their submission policy is. There is variety within them. Along with the query, they may request a synopsis, the first five pages, first three chapters, first twenty pages, a writer’s bio, a book proposal etc., either attached or pasted into the body of the email. You don’t let the great American novel never see light of day because the query, unread, hit the trash folder on a technicality. Representation is a business decision. You want get a feel for how you and the agent will work together will move the project along toward publication. 

This a scant look at the query process. Below are sites one can go for in-depth understanding. Don’t fail to follow the links found on these pages. Sites, in addition to those mentioned above, include: Query Tracker, Preditors and Editors

Once you’ve written the perfect novel, Nathan Bransford says to “write the best letter you can, be yourself, don't overthink it too much.” I believe I’ve done that.

Except for the overthinking it part.


(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

Friday, September 19, 2014

From the copyeditor's desk

For the last 29 years, I have worked in the word business. I've been a staff editor at a diabetes center, a proofreader at a direct mail company, and I have done freelance work in every conceivable genre--magazines, newsletters, business communications, non-profit press releases, creative writing, poetry, web content, sports books, and more. Sometimes my work involves being mostly a writing coach, a cheerleader. Sometimes I have to tap into my inner mystic. Other times, it involves being a very nit-picky critic. Copyediting falls into the latter category. This is no time to be nice, just precise and thorough.

My current client is a copyediting project. And I thought I'd share with you some reasons we even care about seemingly stupid stuff like punctuation.

Let's look at exclamation points for now. Why do copyeditors always want to suck the life out of our writing by deleting exclamation points? Well, dear writer, because they are lazy writing and they make the reader feel like they're getting a sales pitch. How so? Time for an example. This one is a made-up piece of non-fiction:

In the 1950s, many women were frustrated by being expected to return to their more traditional roles as housewives, after having spent the war years immersed in the world of working to support our troops in the war effort! Some felt resentment and oppression! However, some were glad for the new, more technological home, complete with machines that washed dishes for them, vacuums that rid the home of nasty dirt in such a sanitary way, and machines that made light work of the stacks of laundry! 

(None of this is factually true to my knowledge. I did no research. Let's just pretend I did, though, and look only at the paragraph for the purposes of examining punctuation.)

There are merely three exclamation points in this piece. Which in my opinion is three too many. But let's look at how they create lazy writing. The author is expecting the reader to look at the exclamation point and bring a level of emotion to the writing that isn't present in the words. That's lazy writing, when you expect the reader to fill in emotion or something else that you, the author, are too lazy to put into words.

In addition, exclamation points are all the same, but the emotion or feeling the reader is expected to bring to each sentence is not. What does the exclamation point at the end of the first sentence want us to infer? Perhaps that women found working during the war exciting. Or perhaps that women were mad about this freedom to earn money of their own being taken away. Those are very different expressions, and the writer should use words to convey exactly what he/she means to say, not leave it up to the reader to figure it out. What about the sentence after that--is the reader supposed to feel horrified that women felt oppressed? Or excited? Or perhaps the author wants the reader to really feel the oppression along with the women in the piece. Who knows? The reader certainly doesn't. This is lazy writing, expecting the punctuation to do something it cannot do.

Now, I realize I might be preaching to the choir, but this is why copyeditors pay such close attention to these seemingly little things.

There's another component that is a little harder to nail down, and that is a reader feels manipulated by so many exclamation points. Especially in fiction, you as the author want to make the reader work for it a little bit. We want to throw in clues that help the reader anticipate where we're going with a thread. We want to let the reader ponder what a character will do to get herself out of this seemingly impossible situation. But we don't want to manipulate the reader--at least I don't like being manipulated as a reader. When I see an exclamation point, it feels to me like I'm reading a sales letter. Maybe that's from my days in direct marketing in which every other sentence has an exclamation point. And it's used on purpose to manipulate the reader in buying whatever you're selling.

Let's look at an example in fiction:

"That's great!" exclaimed Peter.

A short example, but it shows everything I need it to demonstrate. This is lazy writing in so many ways. First, it's pretty redundant to have an exclamation point and the word "exclaimed." Even more than that, it doesn't give the reader any satisfaction, any sensory experience to connect to, any way to relate to the character. How would this particular character express his emotions with his body? Maybe jump into the air and do a flip. Maybe pump his fist. Maybe it would be more subtle, like get teary eyed. Or maybe he is being saracastic, and he lets out a raspberry.

Another thing exclamation points can affect in a piece of writing is the tone and voice. Do you want your narrator to sound like a salesperson? (Or like a football highlights sportscast or a car commercial.) That's the effect of exclamation points. Of course, at times, maybe you do want a narrator or a character to come across this way, and that might be an appropriate time to use this particular punctuation. But use it purposefully for effect, not lazily because you aren't willing to work at your craft. If your exclamation point usage is aimed toward making the tone light and friendly, then look for ways to do that with your words rather than your punctuation. Use conversational language and structure. Don't use jargon and highly specialized vocabulary. Don't use formal punctuation like semi-colons and colons. Maybe use second person. These tactics will make your writing lighter without being lazy.

Copyeditors are not here to make your life miserable. We are here to make your writing  precise and to help you do what you are attempting to do in the most effective way possible.

by Neysa CM Jensen
Boise, Idaho

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Banned Books Week: September 21-27, 2014

Next week is the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, so it's time again to celebrate the freedom to read and the free flow of ideas.

Let's start with a list. In 2013, based on 307 challenges reported by the Office for Intellectual Freedom, the following are the ten most frequently banned or challenged books of 2013:


  1. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey
    Offensive language, unsuited for age group, violence
  2. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
    Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence
  3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
    Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  4. Fifty Shade of Grey, by E.L. James
    Nudity, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
    Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
  6. A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, by Tanya Lee Stone
    Drugs/alcohol/smoking, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit
  7. Looking for Alaska, by John Green
    Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
    Drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  9. Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
    Occult/Satanism, offensive language. religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
  10. Bone (series) by Jeff Smith
    Political viewpoint, racism, violence

I always find the reasons interesting, mostly because they are so subjective.

Let's look at The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which I read for the first time this past weekend so it's fresh in my mind. I absolutely loved the book, and intend to buy it for my 16-year-old son, a reluctant reader who I think will enjoy the book and benefit from it. This book is an interesting one to look at because it made the news in April of this year when it was banned by an Idaho school district. When a student in that district who loved the book passed out copies to others, an indignant mother called the police on her. Just this week, they decided to allow the book in those schools, but with conditions.

Drugs/alcohol/smoking
Yes, there is a lot of drinking in this book. However, that drinking leads invariably to the strongest possible negative consequences, including death. As a result of the bad things that happen to people who drink too much, the main character promises his mother he will not drink, ever. The way I see it, this is an important positive lesson, and using it as a reason to keep the book away from kids is counter-intuitive.

Offensive language
Based on descriptions I had read of this book, I expected it to be laced with frequent, strong profanity. What I found was a few swears, mostly mild, and none of them gratuitous. There was nothing you won't hear more frequently on a sixth-grade playground anywhere in Utah than in this book. In fact, there were probably more instances of words like shoot and friggin' than there were of actual curse words. Of course, there are people who object to any swearing in a book. If you are sensitive to swearing, you might object to this book. I personally didn't find it excessive, but what is excessive and what is offensive is really a matter of personal sensitivities.

Racism
Yes, there is racism in this book. Of course there is racism in this book. It's a book about racism. A boy from an Indian reservation transfers to a white school outside the reservation because he believes he'll improve his future by doing so. He deals with racism from white kids for being different and, even more, from tribal members who object to his "turning" white. He is also forced to confronts his own racial assumptions and prejudices toward both groups, and the discovery that it is often strongest from his own cultural group. Without racism, this book doesn't exist, and doesn't carry much of its powerful punch. The book does not promote racism. It confronts it. It examines it. It exposes it. It tears it apart. It is honest about it. The lessons about racism are positive. But, like many other books that deal with racism, exposing racism so it can be torn down results in charges that it is a racist book. This is one of many ironies in the world of challenged books.

Sexually Explicit
The book is about a 14-year-old boy who thinks and acts like a 14-year-old boy. Like all 14-year-old boys, whether we want to admit or not, Junior is dealing with the changes his body and mind are going through, and these struggles are told from a point-of-view that is deeply internal and honest. As a result, there is a certain amount of sexual content. Explicit is in the eye of the beholder, of course, No sex acts are actually depicted. Masturbation is mentioned a couple times but never shown, even off-screen. One erection, described by a term kids often use, at an inappropriate time--a fear of all teenage boys, because it happens, sometimes for no reason at all--causes the main character great embarrassment, regret, and horror. If you prefer characters in books to be completely sexless, there are a half dozen or so places in this book that might bother you a lot, and a few other places where he notices physical attributes of girls that you might find inappropriate, although they are also very real and normal. This is another area where boys can be made aware of how they think and how inappropriate those thoughts can be by watching a character in a book think them.

Unsuited to Age Group
This is a catch-all that is almost always used when a parent challenges a book. It is nearly meaningless because of its overuse. Sometimes, there's a good case for this. Fifty Shades of Grey contains material and themes that are most likely inappropriate for middle school classes. Sixth graders might not fully understand the significance of Animal Farm or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. More often than not, though, this category is unfair to kids and underestimates their knowledge and ability to think for themselves. This criteria for challenging a book should almost never be applied to a high school class, especially an AP lit class. In general, I think educators do a good job of choosing books that will interest and challenge readers of a particular age. In the case of this book, I don't think it's inappropriate for strong readers 8th grade and up. In fact, I believe it would be very appropriate for my 16-year-old, who I think would learn valuable lessons about people, including himself, from these pages.

Which brings me to my next point, maybe the biggest point I have to make when discussing this issue. I firmly believe that a parent has the right to use his or her own judgement in deciding whether a book is appropriate for a particular child. Nobody knows the child's sensitivities better than a parent. And, some parents may choose to shield their kids from certain challenging realities. It doesn't matter whether I disagree. A parent's rights when it comes to his or her own child are nearly absolute, given up only in cases of abuse and other criminal activity that hurts or otherwise affects the child. And while I think parents should trust the school's judgement a little more, I also believe that if a parent believes a child should not read a certain book in class, that's the parent's call.

Where I have a problem is when a parent extends the decision to take that book from their own child's hand to all children in a class, school, or district, or to all patrons of a library. Parents have a responsibility toward their own children, and should allow other parents to exercise that same responsibility for their own kids. By attempting to take books out of the hands of other people's kids, they are denying other parents the right to choose what their own children read, the same right the book challengers demand for themselves.

Sherman Alexie, the author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, reflected my feelings almost perfectly when he said, "I certainly respect any parent's right to determine what their child is reading. They don't get to determine it for a whole school or community, but that said, I was the only Democrat in my high school. I went to high school with a bunch of extremely conservative Republican Christians (in other words, the kind of people who generally seek to ban my book) and let me tell you--those conservative Christian kids and I were exactly alike. I was publicly inappropriate, they were privately inappropriate. All this stuff that is controversial is stuff that kids are dealing with on a daily basis."

These are things our kids know about. They are part of their lives. Protecting them from their own reality only reinforces the feeling adolescents have that there's something wrong with them, that their issues are theirs alone and should be kept hidden as shameful secrets. It also teaches adolescents, young people who are increasingly aware of real-world issues, that books are dishonest and irrelevant.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Reading reading reading





I cannot deny that I’ve been doing a lot more reading than writing these past few weeks. I feel kind of guilty when that happens, and I have to remind myself how much my excessive reading is necessary to my writing. It’s how I got into writing in the first place, which I think is true for almost everyone. These days I can count it as research—bonus points if it actually is a nonfiction, informational book about the time period my historical fiction novel is taking place in (I did read one of those last week! Ten points for Gryffindor!). I struggle with research. I feel guilty unless I’m writing. I take comfort in the fact that the author of The Book Thief, Markus Zusak, felt similarly and his historical fiction novel is light-years beyond I could dream of mine being. I try to give myself permission to just read. I would be nowhere without the countless examples of other authors. They constantly inspire me to keep going.
On that note, you’ve possibly seen going around Facebook a chain-letter type post where you list the top books that have influenced your life and then tag other people to do the same. My aunt tagged me in one of them recently, and I eventually decided to play along. When I think along the lines of what books have “influenced my life,” I automatically think of what books have most influenced my writing. It’s really hard to pick, so I changed it to favorite authors as well as books (I’m a cheater). It brought back great childhood memories of when I first start scribbling down my own stories, shamelessly plagiarizing every tactic I saw my favorite authors using (You’ll have to forgive my taste back then. I was about 8 or 9 probably). So, I thought I would share that list with you and invite you to make your own if you haven’t.
Disclaimer: This is potentially one of the most gut-wrenching, awful decisions ever. It’s like picking favorite children. To quote Ever After (best movie): “I could no sooner pick a favorite star in the heavens.” So, here they are, in no particular order whatsoever, and I’ve definitely left some great ones out:

  • 1.       Jane Austen- all 7 of em
  • 2.       J.K. Rowling- Harry Potter
  • 3.       Virginia Woolf- “A Room of Her Own,” Mrs. Dalloway
  • 4.       Marilynne Robinson- The Gilead, Home
  • 5.       Barbara Kingsolver- Poisonwood Bible
  • 6.       L.M. Montgomery- actually more for the Emily of New Moon books than Anne of Green Gables. Sorry everyone.
  • 7.       Tamora Pierce- the Lioness Quartet, the two Trickster books, etc.
  • 8.       Ann M Martin- Babysitter’s Club. I have to put it. She got me writing when I was a little kid.
  • 9.       Deb Caletti- Honey, Baby, Sweetheart got me through my teenage years!
  • 10.   Louisa May Alcott- Little Women, and also the biography about her and her dad that’s not at all written by her, but it’s awesome!