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Sum it Up in One Sentence

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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.

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Building Character

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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!

Say Hello to My Little Friend

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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.

He’s perfect.

By the way. He has no name. Any suggestions?

Rejection’s Evolution

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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”.

Are the 1970’s history?

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How often we find ourselves using that term – HISTORY.  If we want to make something that happened in our lives seem insignificant we say, “Oh, that’s history.” We’re over it. But what is history when it comes to writing? Some history teachers tell their students that history is anything that happened in the past. So yesterday, I made a broccoli and chicken casserole for dinner. So is that now considered “history?”  I don’t think so. But no one will argue with me when I say that in June 1815 Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo as Abba so poignantly reminded us. So where is the line between “history” and “not history”? There are differing opinions. And what about the terms “historical fiction” vs. “period fiction.” Yikes… This is getting complicated!

According to The Historical Novel Society, a novel is considered to be “historical fiction” if the story is written fifty or more years after the events described therein or prior to the writer’s birth. The American Library Association’s RUSA says that the events within the novel need to be at least a generation (25 years) before its publication. And yet, according to the veritable Encyclopedia Britannica, a historical novel need only have its setting be within a period of history with events and details depicted accurately.

So would the Sherlock Holmes series be considered historical fiction? According to the definitions above, yes. However, there are those that profess it is not because historic events are not the primary focus. The same with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. There are those that claim that these works should be considered “period fiction” – novels that occur within a specific time period but have no real focus on depicting actual historic events.

So this brings me back to the 1970’s – the time period for my next novel. Will I be writing a historical novel or a period novel? I guess it doesn’t matter right now because I’m just beginning. But come time to pitch The Summer Girl to agents I will need to be sure which genre I use. (Agents hate it when you get your genre wrong!)

What do you think? Is period fiction a sub-genre of historical fiction? Or is it a genre all of its own? Or is there an ever-morphing line between the two?

Food for thought…

Packing for the Trip

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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!

Bon Voyage!

 

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