They make it sound so easy… so off-the-cuff, so matter-of-fact. “In one sentence, what’s your book about?” HUH?! One sentence? Really? Okay, here’s what I’ve realized. If you are looking for an agent or romancing an editor, these people want to figure out in a millisecond whether they should spend the next millisecond considering your work. That’s why you need a good pitch or hook. That one (or two if you have enough hubris) sentence that will snag them on the end of your line.
Having been a reporter I know all about hooks – or ledes as we call them in the business. I spent a lot of time poring over these precious sentences, making sure that they grabbed the reader’s attention and made them beg for more. And now that I’m writing fiction, I can thank my editor at the paper for helping prepare me for this next stage of writing.
Have you perfected your hook? Is it polished and does it sing? Make sure you spend time doing this because it might be the difference between the trash can and a phone call.
Write on everyone.
Protagonists, antagonists, supporting characters… Where do they come from? Our heads of course. We can shape them, manipulate them any old way we choose. And by adding bits here and there we eventually leave our readers with an impression of the person we’ve created. If it’s our protagonist, we usually want our readers to feel empathetic towards him or her so maybe we make them vulnerable. If it’s the antagonist, we often imbue this character with traits that conflict with the protagonist thus creating tension.
We can get lots of mileage from physical attributes as well. Take Captain Hook for instance. He was mean and menacing and what could be scarier for a child than a villain with a silver, pointed hook for a hand. Or how about Fantine in Les Miserables? We see her beauty fade as she first sells her hair, her teeth and then her body.
Right now I’m creating characters for my next novel. Piecing together parts from people I know or characters from movies, books and television. Kind of like a quilt of granny squares. The eyes for one of my main characters, a 13-year-old Jewish girl, I got from from the cover of a book. It’s pinned to my bulletin board. Her friend looks a lot like Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver – tough and lanky. And the Jewish grandmother is soft and round with an ample bosom just like a dear friend I once knew.
And if we’re really good at it, creating a character, sometimes that fictional being takes on a life of his or her own. One such character for me is Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Francie sang to me. I loved her spunk, pluck and tenacity. I found myself wishing that I had known her for we’d surely have been best friends.
So what characters have left a lasting impression on you?
Write on everyone!
By now I’m sure you’re getting sick of me saying writing is such a solitary endeavor – how we sometimes need to reach out and find camaraderie. Well I did just that the other day. Or rather I didn’t go looking for it, it just kind of jumped off the shelf!
I was in this little knick-knack place not far from here. It was a Sunday afternoon and I just had to get out of the house. You know the feeling… Anyway, I was meandering through this store with it’s surplus supply of winter slippers and live bamboo shoots thinking that there wasn’t really anything I needed and that I was just killing time so I didn’t have to go home and fix dinner, when my eye was drawn to this odd figurine. The strangeness of it caught me off guard. I mean just look at it. It took a moment for my head to get around that fact that there sat an orangutang with eye glasses reading a book. And looking rather engrossed at that. The more I looked at it, the more I felt like I was intruding – that I was invading his private space.
That’s when I knew I had to buy him. And that he would sit on my desk, day in and day out, forever reading his book. He won’t disturb me. He requires nothing, except for perhaps a little imagination on my part. So when I think I can’t write anymore, I’ll look up and see him with his somewhat irritated look, as if he’s saying, “Get back to work and stop bothering me!”
We all need that little nudge sometimes. For some it’s a mug with a special saying. For others it’s an inspirational poster or a special piece of music. I found what I needed Sunday on a shelf.
By the way. He has no name. Any suggestions?
You guys are awesome! This blogging thing is going to my head. The lovely Kate Loveton of Odyssey of a Novice Writer just nominated me for the prestigious Lighthouse Award. And I want to publicly thank her for her support. Sometimes we wonder if anyone even cares out there and so getting these little bits of affirmation really helps. So that’s why I’m paying it forward by in turn, nominating a few other blogs that I feel deserve mention.
First off, of course, is Kate’s. She is crazy about books, writing and is very witty. She likes to review novels and is into contemporary adult fiction feel-good kind of stories. So click the link above if you’d like to see her stuff. (Or see what she had to say about my blog.)
The following are some other blogs that I think you might find interesting and helpful:
Ok. There they are. The newest list of Lighthouse Award nominees! Please check out their work. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed. That’s one of the things that blogging allows us to do. Spread the love. If there’s a particularly informative or inspiring blog I like, I pass it on. Especially for my fellow-writing friends out there.
Also by blogging, I am able to use my experiences to help others in similar situations. I mean, let’s face it. Writing is a lonely occupation. And sometimes we just need someone to listen. Or sometimes we need to feel someone else’s pain. That’s what the blogging community can provide.
And lastly, I want to entertain. I guess that’s the true test of a fiction writer. We want to tell a story. We don’t want to teach a lesson. I remember reading that somewhere in On Writing by Stephen King. He said for most of his novels, he simply wanted to tell a story and scare the shit out of people. Yup. My kind of guy. So while I don’t want to scare the shit out of people I do want to elicit a reaction – good or bad. So hopefully, soon, there will be more posts of the fictional sort that will entertain and not just inform.
So I think I’ve fulfilled my duty as a Lighthouse Award recipient. (Thanks Kate!) Good luck to all those nominated and don’t forget to pay it forward!
The criteria for accepting the award are:
• Display the Award Certificate on your blog.
• Write a post and link back to the blogger that nominated you.
• Inform your nominees of their award nominations.
• Share three ways that you like to help others.
• Nominate as many bloggers as you like.
Write on everybody.
Writing by nature is a solitary endeavor. Ask any successful author and they will tell you that getting to the point of publication took countless hours of alone-time in front of a screen. Things can get pretty quiet; just you, a blank piece of paper and the ticking clock. And that’s one of the reasons some writers never become authors. It’s just too lonely out there.
That’s why we need to reach out to others like us and attending a conference is a great step. I just got back from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators annual conference in New York City. I was surrounded by people just like me! Writers who are almost authors. Artists who are almost illustrators. And of course those who have already found success.
While I didn’t come away with a lot of new tools for my writing box, I did leave with a renewed conviction that this is what I was meant to do. What I got out of the experience was validation that I am on the right track and that if I keep plugging away, success will follow. I just need to be patient. And I know we read this type of advice all the time. But when you pay good money for the advice, somehow it matters a little more. You are invested, literally.
In the Grand Hyatt’s ballroom on Sunday, I stood three feet away from Arthur A. Levine (publisher of the Harry Potter series) and was tongue-tied. This year I had nothing to offer. But next year? If he’s there, I’m going to give him the best break-out middle grade chapter book pitch he’s ever heard!
Now that’s the attitude!
Write on everybody.
Battles rage about this issue. When writing – especially something large or complex – are you one who flies by the seat of your pants (Panster)? Or do you carefully outline the story from beginning to end (Plotter)?
Take a moment to answer the poll. It will be interesting to see which one comes out ahead…
Myself? Well, I’d say I’m a Semi-Plotter.
It all started in grade school when my teacher, Mrs. Harding, made us outline our book-reports. You know I, II, III followed by A,B,C and then 1.2.3 yadda, yadda, yadda. Sometimes it got so convoluted that I’d forget where I was in the scheme of things. I’d draw arrows from III.C.4 to I.B.2 and then erase like crazy. By the time I was done, there would be holes in the paper and tears on my cheeks.
But over time, I realized that this kind of planning was good for me. To an extent. It helped organize my thoughts, figure out where I was headed and finally bring it all together in a neatly wrapped package. Years ago, when I wrote for a local paper, I would often jot down a rough outline to get a good feel for the flow of the story. Then I would fill in the missing pieces of information. Often, I would find myself surprised when my story simply concluded on its own as if by magic.
So I’ve taken this non-fiction type of outline and plan to apply it to my next work of fiction. But in a much more organic way.
I have the story in scenes written out randomly on my laptop. Yesterday I cut up a brown-paper bag like you would if you were going to use it as a book-cover. Next, I raided my daughter’s art cubby and scavenged a nice assortment of colored markers. I plan to sketch out a timeline of the scenes on the brown paper and use it as an “outline.”
So for those of you content to simply let the pen fly willy-nilly, I bow in respect.
But you won’t have a pretty piece of brown paper with rainbow- colored jottings to hang up on your wall now will you?
When No Isn’t Necessarily No – Some Useful Insights
Got two manuscript rejections yesterday. One in the mail the other in my email inbox. But I’ll tell you about these later.
When I first started sending out manuscripts and began receiving rejections I took them hard. I would vow not to do it again – not to put myself out there and be vulnerable. But invariably I would get over it and begin once more. The submission, followed by the waiting and then the rejection. Usually addressed to “Dear Author/Illustrator.” They were forms – mere slips of paper shoved into a SAS that I had provided. But with those I guess I was lucky. For it was when I didn’t hear anything for months that stung the most. My writing not even worthy of a stamp.
But things are changing. My rejections now appear on publisher/agent letterhead or are addressed to me personally via email like the ones I got yesterday. And while they both were a “pass” there still is hope. After getting over the initial let down of rejection, I reread the letters and both included invaluable insights into my writing and where I might improve. Both the editor and the agent suggested that I “tighten things up” and be more “succinct.” The tension needs to be increased.
I will take this generous editorial advice and put it to good use. Those thoughtful words will fuel cuts, rewrites and revisions. And when I think I simply cannot improve my writing any more, I will do it again.
Only then will I re-submit.
My advice to all receiving rejections: if the editor or agent takes the time to write something constructive about your piece you are SO CLOSE! Follow through and do what they say.
Sometimes the “no” is a “maybe”.
Getting ready to begin a novel is a lot like packing for a trip. There’s a lot of planning. An itinerary. Consideration of transport. Not to mention who’s coming along. It’s like when your finger hesitantly hovers over the enter button before you press it and commit to purchasing airline tickets. Did I get the dates right? Is this really the best deal I can get? Is this the right decision?
Committing those first words on paper (or screen) is a scary step. Either you are the craziest person on earth or you think waaaaay too much of yourself. At least sometimes that’s how we feel. It’s that little twinge of doubt that keeps us from typing that first sentence.
But sometimes we don’t start for a whole different reason. We simply aren’t ready. That’s where I am. I mean I have the story all here in my head – the plot, characters, story arc. It’s all there. But for it to be good (and I mean really good) I need to do my homework. Get it right.
That’s why I have decided not to start. Writing that is…
I’ve completed a novel already. It’s not the greatest. It’s not the worst. Do I think it’s good enough for publication? Maybe. But it’s no break out novel. It’s one to be tucked into my sock drawer and whipped out sometime in the future when my agent asks, “You got anything else?”
So for now I’m just packing my suitcase. I’m filling it with knowledge. Places, dates, fads, fashions, culture, religion. I’m taking that all-important first step in doing a period/historical story justice – RESEARCH. It’s going to take some time and effort but hey, that’s what we gotta do if we we’re gonna do it right.
So every now and then I’m planning on conducting a Baggage Check. Just to let you know how my progress is going. I also plan on providing some helpful information for fellow travelers.
So follow me if you are interested and I will do the same!