Thursday, December 22, 2016

We'll Meet Again Some Other Day

I suppose 2016 couldn't end without claiming yet another life. My sophomore year English teacher died this week. In the midst of listening to the 90's week on my local radio station, I've been transported back in time, and then dredged into the future where I basically have to say goodbye to my childhood.

I remember back in English class, I vowed that one day I would write my own book, and I would preface it with a note to readers:

Dear Readers,
As you read this, please do not try to find any symbolism in my work. Sometimes a rock is just a rock. It doesn't stand for the injustice of government or the heroine's strong will. It is just a rock.


I then joked to my friends that Mr. Dant, and his life partner, Mrs. Kearns (my Freshman year English teacher,) would analyze the letter I had written saying not to analyze anything and somehow find symbolism in it.

Unfortunately, I did not get a book published before he passed. But I wouldn't have been able to put that letter in anyway. Because he was right. There are symbols all over my manuscripts and darn it if a pile of rocks doesn't visualize the hurdles my main character has to cross before reaching her goal.

I'm sorry I never got to tell him he was right, but I think he probably knew.

John Thomas Dant

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Your Author is Showing

There are several ways you can expose yourself as an author. (And I'm not meaning literally.) I mean in your novel, where someone might say, "I was really pulled out of the story." They say that because they can see the author coming through. The curtain has been lifted. They've opened the factory doors and gotten a peek at how the sausage is made.

I see this is a lot in drafts, my own included. I've also sadly seen it in published works. In my own work, I can usually spot these glimpses into the background by an extreme lack of tension.

Mary falls into the water. The cold wraps around her, and she's strangled by heavy, wet skirts. She's drowning. Is this how it ends, she thinks?

There's no struggle. No panic. She's not even trying to fight it...because in the next scene, a handsome male hero is going to dredge her from the water.

The author knows this. She wrote the story. But Mary doesn't know that. Personally, drowning is one of the most horrifying deaths I can imagine. Mary, not knowing she's going to be saved, should rightfully be terrified.

Corrected Example:
Mary falls into the water. The cold wraps around her, and she's strangled by heavy, wet skirts. She claws at the ocean, trying to reach the surface and only sinks faster. She hadn't taken a deep enough breath before she fell. Her lungs are at the limit of bursting. She pinches her lips together and kicks frantically toward the patch of light over her head. I can't die, she thinks, not now.

I think the difference is clear. In the first example, we're not really worried for Mary. In the second, we are at the edge of our seats, wondering what is going to happen.

As I'm re-reading my second drafts, I look for these spots that feel a little flat, and I stop and ask myself a few questions.

What does Mary know at this point? Does she know there's someone around to save her? Does she think she's all alone and no one saw her fall?

Once that's been determined. I ask...

Then how would Mary feel at this moment?

I guarantee if a moment in your story feels slow or boring, it's likely because there isn't enough emotion in it. And readers can see that.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

What the hell is high concept?

I remember asking myself this question when I began my writing journey. In fact, if you go back to some of my early posts, you can probably find it. But don't do that. Don't! There are many embarrassing things back there. Things that I don't want to relive and only keep myself from deleting them because I know they will incite much hilarity one day.

Today is not that day.

Anyway, the point is, high concept is one of those terms that agents and editors toss around, and every writer at some time in their career has no idea what it means except that it's the coveted grail you need to seek if you want a chance at getting published. It's the hook for your novel, the thing that comes long before your writing, your character development, and your plotting.

So what is it?

Publishing professionals often say it's X meets Y. Or it's something known with something new.


Really, examples work best, so I'm going to show you. Fairy tale re-tellings lend very easily to this.

Young woman is held captive by monstrous beast, only to learn he's not actually a monster. (Beauty and the Beast)

Something New: Tell the story from the beast's perspective and set it in modern day New York. (Beastly)

Poor girl with evil step family captures the heart of a prince with the help of a fairy godmother. (Cinderella)

Something New: Now let's make Cinderella a cyborg and set the story in futuristic China. (Cinder)

But your hook doesn't have to be a fairy-tale re-telling.

Known 1: A virtual reality landscape where people live and work in an imaginary world (The Matrix)
Known 2: Insane genius creates wild contest as a way to pass his business to a new proprietor. (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory)

Something New: Now mash those two ideas together and set it in a future landscape where the escapist virtual reality world is built around the 1980's. (Ready Player One)

Known: Middle aged man becomes exhausted with the status quo, seeks a way out. (The main plot point to about eighty-thousand novels)

Something New: Man invents alter ego of himself and starts an underground fight club that evolves into an anarchist movement. (Fight Club)

Is is starting to make sense? Obviously there have been vampire books before, werewolf books, romance novels, travel novels, cookbooks, books about monkeys, and princes, and middle-aged women who cheat on their husbands, who learn they have cancer. You're not going to come up with something completely new, and even if you do, the story will have already been told. The key to achieving high concept is to take those ideas and twist them, either by changing the players, the viewpoint, the place, the manner of telling, the outcome...something different. Everyone's read a teen vampire romance novel, but were the vampires gay? Was the story told in verse? Or did it take place on another planet?

Monday, September 19, 2016

I Made a Map!

Okay, you guys. I made my first map! I'm working on a YA fantasy, and one of my less-than-strong points as a writer is description. It's something I always have to add in later, so I thought it might help me to make a pictorial representation of my fictional land. I was in part inspired by this article in Writer's Digest, although my map is nowhere near as fancy as the example. I considered having my husband do it for me, who is a much better artist, but I'm not too shabby in Illustrator. I gathered some images on Pinterest for inspiration and used those to build my own map.

I'm super happy with the result, and it also helped me build my story. I knew how I had described locations, but then I had to put them into a physical space, and that space had to match what I had described. The river was really my focal point, connecting all four cities to one another in a line. I had a day journey from the palace to Chopek and another day to Pisek. I had to change the bend in the river to make that work, but now I have a much better mental of my world to build my descriptive.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Comp Titles

Ah, the grueling process of querying. It's fun, right? But let's talk about comp titles. This is when you take a book already on the market and compare it to your work. But it's kind of a double-edged sword. If you say, "my book is reminiscent of HARRY POTTER," the agent sees, "Oh look at me! I'm going to be a best seller! I'm the new J.K. Rowling. La-de-da!"

But if you say, "My book is in the vein of BOOK NO ONE'S HEARD OF," the agent goes, "What is this book? Does the author even know their market?"

Some agents like comp titles. Some don't. The point is, agents aren't just one cookie-cutter person. They're all unique human beings. To play it safe, I've generally opted to leave out the comp titles. If my work (and query) is good enough, it will speak for itself.

Dear Agent (where you of course put in the agent's real name,)

I see from your website you're actively seeking YA fantasy, and I am excited to present MY BOOK, a YA fantasy romance for your review. Told from the viewpoint of a frog turned prince, it's complete at 75,000 words.

From there straight into the query.

But if you do use comp titles, which I have, I think it's best to use them very, very carefully.

Dear Agent (where you of course put in the agent's real name,)

I see from your website you're actively seeking YA fantasy, and I am excited to present MY BOOK, a YA fantasy romance for your review. Told from the viewpoint of a frog turned prince, it's complete at 75,000 words, and I believe, will appeal to fans of Marissa Meyer's, CINDER.

Key words: I believe, will appeal to
In other words, I'm saying, "This is just my opinion. People who like CINDER might also like my book." It shows you have some knowledge of your market without coming off as someone with delusions of grandeur. 

You can also call out one of the agent's own books. 

Dear Mary,

I am a huge fan of your client, John Smith's book, THE RELUCTANT PRINCESS, and I am excited to present my YA fantasy romance for your review. I definitely took inspiration from John's work, especially in his fantastic world building. Told from the viewpoint of a frog turned prince, MY BOOK is complete at 75,000 words.

I always find a little brown-nosing never hurts. You've also shown you know your market, and you've done your research on the agent. But this could also backfire. If your work is too similar to John Smith's, the agent could pass simply because she already has a John Smith. Why does she need two?

I generally take it agent by agent. If you find a call out you can use, use it. If not, I've never had any issues with keeping things generic. If your writing is good enough, it will make it past the gates. If not, that's where you really need to focus your time.  

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Why I'm Almost a Vegetarian

Truth? I can't give up hot dogs. Which is the absolute worst meat out there, I know. You don't have to tell me the gory details. I do my best not to think about it as I bite into those savory meat tubes, usually slathered with cheese. Sometimes onions and good.

Everyone thinks that's odd. But my reasons for not eating meat are not the usual ones. I do care about animals. But I also wear leather boots. I use sugar in my coffee. Eat eggs. Cheese. Seafood. I don't like to lecture people on what they should do. I don't like to put myself in boxes. I really don't eat meat because it grosses me out.

I live in fear of that chewy piece of cartilage you find in your chicken salad. The bit of grissle on the edge of a piece of steak. That string of fat that gets caught in your teeth. The rubbery ends of a strip of a bacon that take hours to chew. That smell of a raw turkey. The juice leaking off of it, filled with salmonella. When I cooked with meat, I would have to wipe down my entire kitchen with Clorox wipes and went to bed worrying about that one missed spot, teeming with the animated on the bacteria on the Lysol commercials. I would take a bite of my dinner wondering, "Did I cook this enough? Am I going to get sick?"

You don't have to worry about that with tofu. It doesn't matter if zucchini is under cooked. You can eat it raw. I love the taste of veggie burgers. Veggie sausage. Tempeh. I don't feel disgustingly full after gorging myself on a salad. But I kept thinking, "Why don't I just go all the way. Why can't I give it all up?"

Then I met a woman at a party who said, "My new philosophy? Do it ninety percent. It's better than nothing."

I don't know why I needed permission to hear that. I think because we like to put ourselves into little categories. "I am a vegetarian. I am a heterosexual. I am a web designer." It leaves little room for you to do anything else. You've categorized yourself. You're afraid someone will judge you for breaking out of the category, which they probably will, and so you start lying, hiding, or criticizing yourself for reaching beyond your self-imposed box.

That sucks.

You can't expand if you've closed yourself in a cage. You shouldn't have to feel guilty if you want a hot dog. Or want to change careers, Or fall in love with a woman instead of a man. Leave that open door. That 10% (or more) that allows you to do what you want.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Ultimate 90's Alt Playlist

I've been building my iTunes 90's mix and decided to source my friends for the results, because ya know, we grew up in the 90's, and many of my friends moved onto college where we worked at the college radio station together and needless to say...I know a bunch of music experts. And they didn't fail me. So here it is, to share with the world, the ultimate 90's alt playlist. The only thing it's missing is a flannel shirt and Doc Martens.

10,000 Maniacs - These Are the Days
Alanis Morissette - You Oughta Know
Alice in Chains - Would?, Man in the Box
Beck - Loser
Belly - Feed the Tree
Ben Folds Five - Brick
Better than Ezra - Good
Bjork - Big Time Sensuality, Hyperballad
Blind Melon - No Rain
Blur - Song 2
Breeders - Cannonball
Bush - Everything Zen
Cake - The Distance
Cardigans - Lovefool
Catherine Wheel - Black Metallic
Collective Soul - Shine, December
Counting Crows - Mr. Jones
Cracker - Low, Eurotrash Girl
Dandy Warhols - Not if you were the last Junkie on Earth
Dee-Lite - Groove is in the Heart
Dishwalla - Counting Blue Cars
Elastica - Connection
Filter - Hey Man Nice Shot
Flaming Lips - She Don't Use Jelly
Garbage - Stupid Girl, Only Happy When it Rains
Gin Blossoms - Hey Jealousy
Green Day - Welcome to Paradise
Happy Monday - Step On
Harvey Danger - Flagpole Sitta
Hole - Doll Parts
James - Laid
Jane's Addiction - Jane Says
Juliana Hatfield - My Sister
L7 - Pretend We're Dead
Lemonheads - Mrs. Robinson
Lisa Loeb - Stay
Live - Lightning Crashes
Local H - Bound for the Floor
Luscious Jackson - Naked Eye
Machines of Loving Grace - Butterfly Wings
Marilyn Manson - Beautiful People
Mazzy Star - Fade into You
Nada Surf - Popular
Nine Inch Nails - Closer, Head Like a Hole
Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit, Lithium
Our Lady Peace - Superman's Dead
Pear Jam - Alive, Jeremy, Evenflow
Portishead - Glory Box
Proclaimers - 500 Miles
Radiohead - Creep
REM - Shiny, Happy, People
Sarah McLachlan - Building a Mystery
Screaming Trees - Nearly Lost You
Smashing Pumpkins - Tonight
Sonic Youth - Sugar Cane
Soul Asylum - Runaway Train
Soundgarden - Black Hole Sun, Spoonman
Spacehog - In the Meantime
Spin Doctors - Two Princes
Sponge - Molly
Stone Temple Pilots - Big Empty, Vasoline, Interstate Love Song
Superdrag - Sucked Out
Suzanne Vega - Luka
Temple of the Dog - Hunger Strike
The Cranberries - Dreams, Linger
The Presidents of the United States of America - Lump
The Verve Pipe - The Freshmen
They Might Be Giants - Istanbul, Birdhouse in Your Soul
Third Eye Blind - Semi-Charmed Life
Toad the Wet Sprocket - Walk on the Ocean, All I Want
Tool - Sober
Tori Amos - Cornflake Girl
Weezer - Undone (the Sweater Song)