Sunday, March 29, 2009

If you want to send a message, write a bumper sticker: The Decline of 24

I've been watching, off and on, the Fox show 24 since it started. This year's episodes made me think about why what was a must-see four years ago is excruciating now-- and why starting with a message so often destroys a story.

I'm not going to worry too much about the 24 producers' politics. Yeah, this is Rupert Murdoch's network, and he's a bit of a rightwinger, but I doubt he's actually intervening a lot personally in any show. (Then again, we don't see a whole lot of nice liberal warm-and-fuzzy shows on Fox... but nice liberal probably doesn't sell well... so little conflict, huh?) And anyway, the number one political aim of most rich CEO types is... making more money, so if 24's politics antagonized a lot of viewers, I suspect the show would stop with the torture right quick.

Anyway, the first couple seasons were pretty entertaining, very fast-paced and novel. The operating premise was that all the action took place in the 24 hours of one day. Every season had a new day and a new dilemma. But somewhere along the line, this became a show about torture. Torture torture torture. Poor Jack Bauer kept having to torture people to find out where the nuclear bomb was, to find out who was going to set off the virus that would kill us all, or to decipher whatever the dilemma du jour is. The first time he resorted to torture, it was subversively thrilling-- we weren't used to the good guy doing something bad. And we couldn't escape the intriguing echo of what was actually happening in the real world-- journalists and whistleblowers revealing the US (considered the good guy at least by, uh, the US) was engaging in acts that used to be considered torture. Okay, that was provocative, timely, even groundbreaking.

But then... I don't know if the writers were just attempting to recapture that jerk of a thrill we had with that first act of torture, or if they were driven mad by 9/11, or if they wanted to support the president, or .... I think maybe that what happened is they got addicted to the torture "conflict" (I air-quote that because the story then constantly undercuts the conflict) and couldn't give it up. I know the feeling-- I went through a time when I couldn't figure out any way to end a book that didn't involve kidnapping the protagonist. And it apparently didn't hurt all that much, because 24 is still on the air, still requiring torture and superhuman effort from poor Jack Bauer, still enthralling rightwing radio hosts who seem to think that Jack is not only real, but also a great role model.

But I'm not going to evaluate the marketability of torture, rather the dangers of deciding on a theme (in the sense of a moral message) and then building the story to "prove" that.

Since "torture" became Jack's dominant mode of action, 24 seems to be designed to show that torture is not only necessary but moral, and that torturers are actually heroes. I don't want to debate this (I'm agin torture, btw :), only to use it as an example of letting the message be the medium. The story should generate the message, should create the theme. Whenever you let the theme generate the story, your story is likely to end up preachy and monochromatic.

So using 24 as an example (and I have found it intensely boring the last couple seasons, so I will probably mess up some of the details), here is my suggestion:

If you want to send a message, write a bumper sticker. Write a blog post. Write a rant. Just don't write a story. If you want to write a story, write a story. Aim for an interesting plot, intriguing characters, a credible voice. If you have something to say, it should come out in the story... without your forcing it.

Here's the danger of starting with the message:

You lose the story.

1) Instead of developing a journey or plot, you start inventing events to push the theme. In the extreme -- like 24-- the whole story becomes an excuse for the theme. This season (and last, IIRC, and I probably don't, because it was sooooo boring) theoretically has some overall story arc, but mostly the terrorist attacks are used to set up opportunities for Jack to torture someone.

2) Ideally, the theme is "one-note"-- it doesn't develop throughout as a theme should, so that only when you've finished reading the whole story do you fully get the theme. Any story where the theme is presented straight out in a scene (rather than accumulating) is going to be unsubtle. And any story where that theme is demonstrated the same way several times is going to be repetitive.

3) Why does that happen? I think it's because you can't plan to develop a theme. That is, you can plan a plot, and you can plan a character-- you can outline those. But you can't outline a theme, not effectively anyway, because it should arise out of the story as a whole-- and out of you as a writer and you as a person and your worldview and your values-- and that can't be just generated. Also, the readers matter too, in effectively developing a theme (sometimes they actually come up with their own understanding of what the theme is), and you can't plan your readers. So rather than trusting the story to generate a theme, you might try to push the theme in various places-- causing repetition rather than accumulation. For example, let's say you decide you're going to write a story with the theme (I'm getting basic here :) that cocaine is bad. When you start with that as your aim, when you think about the purpose of your story as being to prove that, you are going to be wary of showing, oh, that cocaine is fun. You might start out with someone using cocaine and stumbling out into the street and getting hit by a car. (Cocaine is bad.) And the cop who comes to investigate the accident sees the little baggie of white powder fall out of the victim's pocket, and steals it and snorts it later and gets caught by his captain. (Cocaine is bad.) The captain pockets the rest of the stash and his daughter later finds it, snorts it, becomes addicted, and ends up a stripper. (You laugh, but isn't this pretty much how Reefer Madness works? And while that is a joke now, it was meant to show kids how bad reefer is... over and over.... You were never confused about the message there. The only question was-- why would anybody use this terrible drug? Oh, right, we can't ever show that drugs can be fun, because that wouldn't prove the theme in chapter 2.)

4) Events that are going to create a particular message are likely to repeat conflict, rather than developing it-- conflict starting in the beginning of the story (or TV season :), then rising in intensity and complication in the middle, and resolving in the end. Now probably terrorism as a major conflict would get repetitive anyway, especially when we cannot seriously (in this country) discuss it as anything but the embodiment of Satan, much less actually explore the motivations behind it. It becomes conflict without the purpose of change. So we end up with a conflict without any cause... just sort of free-floating evil. The motivation is: They're evil. So they do evil. And they'll always be evil and do evil because, well, they're evil. Yeah. Talk about one-dimensional villainy. But see, they have to be evil, because otherwise, we might have some qualms about Jack torturing them. In earlier seasons, a couple times Jack actually aimed his pain at innocents-- the child of an evil guy, the wife of another evil guy. But I think that might have been too morally complicated (though kind of interesting, especially when he shot the guy's wife in the knee and the guy STILL didn't give over). Better just to torture evil guys. No moral complexity then. No questions, no .... hmm. No conflict.
24 example: So far, most of the "terrorists" have been non-white, non-western-- Mexican drug runners, Muslims jihadists, African revolutionaries or whatever the heck they are this season. Now the "secret master villain" is often white, and seems to be played by Jon Voight every season (but I could be mistaken :), but the minions who do most of the dirty work are non-white. This is the show, lest we forget, that had not one but two African-American presidents before Obama, and I wonder if maybe someone got uncomfortable with the notion that we only torture non-whites/non-Christians (though I bet that's pretty close to reality). So there's usually a scene where Jack tortures some white guy-- usually one of his colleagues or a presidential aide-- just to show (well, I'm sure there's some intra-story reason :) that Jack isn't a racist. And that torture can be (even if it's not right this minute) equal-opportunity.

5) Just as the villains must needs become one-dimensional, so too the protagonist. Since the protagonist's role is sort of prescribed by the theme-- he's the "good guy", on the right side of the theme-- so his actions are required to proceed in the "right" way. So character action derives from the intended message, and the character only grows then in ways that reinforce the theme. 24 sometimes flirts with complexity, where Jack, the hero, actually tortures unsuccessfully. Once he tortured his girlfriend's charming ex-husband (so sue me... I'm a sucker for men named Paul with a British accent :), and it turned out he was wrong! Amazing! The ex was NOT the bad guy! Okay, that's interesting... Jack makes a mistake. Now this could deepen his characterization. First, we might see him realizing that torture can make anyone confess to anything... and wondering whether the other victims of his torture weren't guilty of what they confessed to. Second, we might have him wondering if he tortures because he, you know, sort of likes it, or maybe it has something to do with his need for vengeance, for 9/11 or with ex-husbands. Third, he might wonder if this whole torture thing was, you know, corrupting him, making him jaded and callous.
But no. The ex and the girlfriend both forgive him, and that's the end of that. If there's a dark night of the soul, if Jack rethinks his need to inflict pain on others, if he even wonders whether maybe he tortured Paul for some personal reason, and if so, if his judgment about who should be tortured is reliable... well, it doesn't have much effect on his actions, though he does seem to be getting progressively grumpier.

6) Shorn of the need to change that is brought on by a more organic story, the protagonist tends also to become a victim or a symbol or a martyr or a saint or whatever is best going to push the message-- a role, not a character. He becomes a flat character because he can't change much or the message might not get through (the ability to change is what makes a character "round" in Frye's terms). In fact, in 24, making Jack a victim (of torture, of kidnap, of imprisonment, of disgrace... and it's never his fault :) becomes subtextually rather interesting as it becomes clearer that he's supposed to represent the United States. Perhaps the US is like that, insisting that it is the victim when it is holding the instruments of torture, as poor depressed Jack is the victim of these evildoers who, for reasons unexplored, force him to hurt them.

In a story, it is usually actions and reactions that are the criteria for judging a character or the plot-- for plausibility, for morality, for power. But when the message dominates, action and reaction lose their centrality to whatever event serves the plot. If a "terrorist" does it, or "a traitor," it's perforce bad. But the same sort of action by the protagonist is regarded in a different light. The terrorist's torturing is unmitigated evil, and is needed to be regarded so to allow the protagonist to fulfill the demands of the message. So when Jack shoots an innocent woman in the kneecap, that's regrettable but moral. But when a revolutionary threatens to cut out the eye of the president's daughter (he doesn't actually do it), that is proof that he's evil. That is, the upshot is that it's not the action but the perpetrator that determines the moral content. This seems to me a dangerous ethical presumption, but it's really damaging to the story (though the "essentialist vs. existentialist" dilemma can be profitably explored in fiction, as the Buffy show demonstrates). The reader is actually discouraged from using her own judgment and value system-- what's good and bad is preordained when these characters were born (and woe to him who is not born in the United States!) If the protagonist's actions don't matter to how the reader is supposed to judge him, then the story is very likely going to be static-- everyone maintains the moral status held in the beginning. Essence cannot change unless action matters.

So... this is a lesson to us all. Don't write a lesson. Write a story. Write about situations and conflicts and people which interest you, doing things that change the plot and the world of the story. Trust that the theme, your message, whatever you think is important, will arise out of the story. Don't force it, or the whole story will be forced.

Getting Ready for April's Pitching Clinic

We're going to do a pitching clinic in April. To get ready for this, some of you might want to take a look at what we did last year with practice pitching. As with all things on this blog, it happened more or less organically *cough*by accident*cough*. I posted a dusty old article of mine called Parsing and Pitching, and several people used the method to try to create a pitch.

Then we broke five of them down. Each of these posts contains additional information about pitching.

Pitch #1 describes the physical aspects of pitching from my side of the table, including the arctic climates in pitching rooms and the way that the "speed dating" approach can impact how I hear what you say.

Pitch #2 used a difficult-to-pitch project to show why clarity is so important.

Pitch #3 expanded on the concept of clarity by reassembling a pitch to make it easier to hear.

Pitch #4 was a pop quiz. We let the commenters try their hand at receiving the pitch and thinking about what questions they would ask the author during a live pitch.

Then we did a post about the nature and purpose of questions during a pitch.

And finally, Pitch #5 pulled it all together. Commenters gave a thumb up or down on a practice pitch, and were asked to identify the pitch detail that led to their decision.

In April, we will also take practice pitches, but we're going to start with a lesson in how to craft a log line pitch. Get your hooks ready, because fishing season is about to begin!


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Theresa's FAQs

We get a lot of questions behind the scenes and, given the number of new commenters turning up lately, I thought it might be useful to do a FAQ post.

Who are you?

Ah, that age-old question, who am I. Well, I am not the walrus. Coo-coo-ca-choo.

You know, it never occurred to me that my full name doesn’t appear anywhere on this blog until someone pointed it out to me. So, for the record, my name is Theresa Stevens. I'm currently the managing editor for Red Sage Publishing, a post which was first offered to me exactly two years ago this month. Before that, I was an acquisitions editor just like my blogging partner, Alicia, who is a senior editor at the same company. Before that, I worked a stretch as a trial lawyer, and before that, as an attorney-agent for a boutique literary agency in Indianapolis. Besides my law degree, I also have a degree in creative writing from Purdue. Go Boilers!

Whew. That's all rather dull, isn't it?

What does a managing editor do?

Beats the hell out of me. Whoops! I mean, we do very serious and important things all day long. For example, at least once every day, if not once every hour, I frown at a calendar. In fact, this is probably the most important part of my job. After frowning at the calendar and muttering like a madwoman for the requisite number of minutes, I go off in search of people and things which will allow me to change the status of an item on that calendar. If I succeed, I rise up out of my chair and do a little ballerina twirl of joy. If I don't, then I just send more e-mail. My day revolves around e-mail. E-mail and the calendar, my twin obsessions.

Oh. You want a real answer. Okay. The duties of the managing editor vary somewhat from house to house, but in my case, I run the entire editorial department and coordinate all of our activities with the production and art departments. I supervise the work of the editors and copy editors and have final approval authority over everything we put under contract. I don't supervise the work of cover artists, graphic designers, typesetters, etc., and I don't have responsibilities for accounting or sales or PR. I have input, but not controlling authority. And that's as it should be because, contrary to rumor, I'm not the boss of everything. My boss is the boss of everything.

That probably still doesn't answer your question unless you have some understanding of how a publishing house operates. But that's a topic for another post.

And yes, I do acquire and edit manuscripts.

Why don't you post more often?

See the answer to question number two above. Alicia and I do this blog for fun and as a form of service back to the writing community. (Yes, I said fun. What, you don't think that bickering about commas for a couple of decades is fun? Sheesh. Spoilsport.) Time I spend blogging is time taken away from reading slush, sending out revision requests to potential new authors, and similar tasks. If you don't see me around for a few days, you can bet it's because I'm trying to clear out my inbox.

But we want more. How can we get more?

Um. Read the archives? There's a lot of material accumulated there. Also, I do occasionally tweet mini-editing tips, and those tips carry over into facebook when all the software is working properly. I twitter as theresastevens and my facebook ID is Theresa Stevens. Don't ask me how to link to my profiles, because I haven't been able to figure that out. (Can anyone help with that? When I try to cut and paste, the links go back to main home pages rather than to my pages.) On face book, my profile picture currently shows me hugging a giant tree at our editing retreat last summer. You’ll know it’s me by the absurd red and white hat.

Do you do freelance work? Will you edit my manuscript?

Maybe. I only take on this kind of side project when time permits, and frankly, time almost never permits. Alicia does a bit more of it than I do, so you might have more luck with her.

What's with the three-sentence openings?

I have no idea how this started. Was it one of our commenters who asked permission to send us the first bit of his opening scene? Ian? Wes? Bueller? Anyway, somehow we ended up with a brief flurry of people sending us the first three or four sentences from the first page of their manuscript, and us dissecting them. We still do them on occasion when an opening turns up in our inbox. If you want to submit your opening for dissection, send the first three sentences to:

You can also send editing questions there or things you would like to see us address in blog posts, but just keep in mind that we don't check the inbox as frequently as we ought to. (We read the comments far more frequently than the inbox.) When we do check it, we usually end up doing most of what's requested. For example, we got a bunch of requests last month to do a pitching clinic -- I think we did one last year, if memory serves. In any event, we'll do one this year, too, in April. Details will follow.

OMG. I just read your post about ______. Were you talking about my manuscript?

If I was, you would know it before the post went live. I don't blog about a particular manuscript without the author's permission. (Sending your opening to our edittorrent e-mail address is the same as giving us that permission.)

All other examples come from my twisted little brain. Sometimes these are inspired by what I see in manuscripts, but they are never drawn directly from the text. Even when I do "Tales from the Slush Pile" posts, I change the details so that I can make my point without making an example of someone.

There are no exceptions to this rule. Ever. I either get the author's permission or I make up my own examples. The end.

Are you willing to come to my conference and give a workshop or take pitches?

Yes. But in almost all cases, the conference will have to cover the cost of travel and lodging. I do have a small corporate travel budget, but I generally use that for the big national conferences. If you want more information, please e-mail me.

What other questions would you like us to answer?


Monday, March 23, 2009

First Three Sentences, and Then Some

We haven't done an analysis of an opening in a while. This one popped up in our blog inbox and caught my attention. ( in case you want to email us, but be aware we rarely have time to check it.)

Usually, we only look at the first three sentences, but the author provided more, and we're in an indulgent mood. Or, if you really want to know the truth, I spent all weekend rejecting manuscripts and setting people's shoes on fire, and now I want to restore some karmic balance. So we'll look at all nine sentences.

Assume this one is a middle grade novel.


The combination seemed simple. A few sideways steps, jump and switch feet, then back the other way. Yet when Melissa slid to the side, she stumbled in a small hole in the dance floor, straight into Her Majesty.

Of all people to bump into, why her?

"Hey! Watch it, klutz!" Her Majesty narrowed her eyes at Melissa and dusted herself.

Melissa stammered an apology while she backed away. What a way to start at a new studio, colliding with the reigning prima ballerina. Before class, Her Majesty had dismissed Melissa with a glance.


Okay, right off the bat, I'm thinking both yes and no on this one. Yes, because the writing is clean and active and easy to follow. And yes, because we're in a scene to start with. And yes, most especially, because we've got a strong voice and an author obviously in control of the manuscript.

But no, for three reasons. I'd be interested in knowing whether anyone else had the same reaction to any of these three points.

A dance studio's floor should not have holes in it, right? Am I the only one thinking that? I loved the vivid, active description of the dance moves, and I loved the pov even though we didn't get the pov character until the third sentence. That all worked.

But the hole in the dance floor -- is this, perhaps, meant to be a metaphorical hole? Is Melissa actually clumsy, and tripped over nothing? Kids do that. Paws grow faster than the rest of the puppy, and kid brains can't always coordinate all those bits and pieces. So tripping over air -- a "hole in the floor" -- is something a kid could probably relate to, but if that's what's happening here, I'd like it clarified.

Otherwise, I'm inclined to think this is a bad dance studio, and it's not such a crisis if Melissa doesn't get along with Her Majesty.

Her Majesty. Is this the best way to introduce Her Majesty as a character? Is she an important character? At first blush, my guess is that the conflict will have a lot to do with some kind of competition between Melissa and Her Majesty. If this is so, then I want just a bit more physical description of the character. We get a voice and an attitude. Give us something concrete to hang that on. Something maybe like,

Her Majesty narrowed her eyes at Melissa and dusted off her immaculate white designer leotard.


Her Majesty narrowed her eyes at Melissa and jabbed her with one too-thin, pointy elbow.

Or whatever. Something physical about the character so we can attach the voice to the body.

Before class. This is sentence number nine, and we're shifting out of scene time and into backstory. It's probably too soon to disrupt chronological time. No hard and fast rules, of course, but if the scene before class is important, if it establishes the baseline dynamic between these two characters, why not show it? This is presumably where Her Majesty earns her nickname. I'd sort of like to experience that moment.

What does everyone else think?


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Tales From the Slush Pile

We haven't talked slush in a while, mainly because I've been too busy dealing with it to take the time to comment on it. Subs are up, way up, and I'm told it's so across the board with most publishers and agents.

I first became aware of this one weekend near the end of January. In a 48-hour period, we received as many submissions as we would typically see in, oh, six weeks or so. Every now and then we get a burst like that. Numbers tend to even out over time, so usually a big burst comes in the middle of a relatively dry period. But in this case, January had been cooking along at a good bubble.

And February continued at a strong pace. It seemed like it might taper off in early March, but now we're back up to healthy, big numbers.

Given that subs are up everywhere, how do you make your submission count?

You're probably sick of hearing reminders to follow the guidelines. You'd be even sicker if I posted a reminder every time we saw a submission that ignored our guidelines. A good ten percent of our subs are auto-rejected because they're not what we publish. At all. Not even close.

But there's another subset of submissions, those that are what we publish but aren't submitted properly. Occasionally, we get a sub with a routing list that includes every erotic romance publisher in the business. We don't take multiple submissions, and so those subs get rejected immediately. Ditto for those that were previously e-published elsewhere, though we will take a look at works previously published in print when rights have reverted.

You might think this is harsh. Okay, but I want to work with authors who deliver material according to specs, who understand that the rules apply to them, and who can follow clear instructions. You're asking me to enter into a business relationship with you. Don't start off that negotiation process by making me doubt your ability to deliver the product I need.

And for the record, we do allow some wiggle room on some other bits of the guidelines. For example, if someone sends the wrong kind of attachment, we've been known to read them anyway. If attachments are missing, we ask for replacements.

/guidelines rant

Let's take a look at some specific examples of things we're seeing in the slush pile, and the reactions they get.

Submitting Multiple Manuscripts at One Time

This is a bad idea. It makes me think you have buckets of bad stories stashed in every corner, and you're shoveling them out in clumps just to try to get rid of them. If you want to impress me with your productivity -- and believe me, productivity is impressive, even if loads of unpublished manuscripts are not -- you can mention in your cover letter that you expect to have your next submission ready to submit by X date. (Bonus points for showing me that your work habits include keeping an eye on the calendar.)

Unemployed Journalists

Things are tough all over, and I don't mind at all when a newly laid-off journalist -- or copywriter, or speechwriter, or technical writer -- tries her hand at a short story. In fact, it shows a bit of gumption when a writer tries something new during a bad economy. And employment as a writer is a point in your favor because the skills set can transfer to our kind of publishing.

That said, not all of the skills transfer perfectly. Writing is always harder than it looks -- I nearly said "writing erotic romance," but really, that's true of any kind of specialized writing. If you're between jobs and looking for some freelance action, take a day or two to brush up on things like scene structure and dialogue before you dig in to a fiction spec project. Go to the bookstore and browse a few books in your target genre. A small time investment up front might pay bigger dividends.

Lashing Out

We know there's a lot of stress out there these days. Don't take it out on us, especially not in response to a rejection or a revise & resubmit request. We get snarky complaints covering every possible nuance -- I call them Goldilocks mail. Too fast, too slow. Too form letter-ish, too picky about the revisions. You name it, we've heard it. And we've heard it's opposite. Sometimes on the same day.

Will it count against you? Maybe, if I remember your name later (and remember why I'm remembering it, which is a whole 'nother thing). We see so much that it's hard to keep it all straight, and I prefer to err on the side of believing that people are not bitches.

But, you know, I do remember some of it. Alicia's bound to be thinking that I'd remember more of it if I noticed more of it. I tend to brush right past mean behavior. Anyway, I keep threatening to make lists of misbehavior so I don't forget it later, but who's got time for that? It would be much easier if it never happened in the first place.

The Good News

We're still acquiring manuscripts. Lots of publishers are. The economy is causing some pain in the industry, but doors are still open in many places. The upswing in subs is probably due to the slower rate of acquisitions at many houses, but good stories can still find good homes. So don't shy off from submitting. You can't win if you don't play the game.

whose current needs are for longer stories, not shorter ones, with unusual paranormal angles -- see Kitsune by Lila Dubois for an example

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

For St. Patrick's Day

I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
WB Yeats

I just love the rhythm of those names there-- and Ireland too.

Give gratitude for rejection!

JT asks why publishers so often seem to buy books with hooks and provocative openings... when the rest of the book fails to live up to that.

My sort of answer-- well, you know, quality is often not the primary consideration when it comes to publication of a book. :)

But... well, think about what makes YOU buy a book. I'm a blurb buyer, so hooks really work with me. I've trained myself to read a random page in the middle of the book to make sure I can stand the writing style (and that the mechanics pass muster), but by the time I get far enough to realize the plot doesn't fulfill the promise, well, I've already paid for the book. I don't doubt some publishers count on just that-- that the readers won't know there's a problem when they're ponying up the $7.95. Of course, disappointed readers tend not to buy another book by that author. But if short-term revenue is the most important consideration, the longterm reputation of the author (or the bad reviews, or bad word of mouth) doesn't matter all that much, does it? And how many of us have blamed the publisher? I have to say I've seldom thought, "Boy, I'm never going to buy another book published by --- House." Or "I'm going to find out who the editor was, so I can avoid all other books edited by him or her." Who do we blame? The one whose name is on the front cover.

So I guess the message to writers is: If YOU care about your longterm reputation, about whether readers are happy or disappointed with you, with what's being said about you and your book on the blogs and in the reviews... YOU are the one who has to make sure your book reflects your best ability as an author. You have to be the one who cares the most about that, and you have to be the one who makes sure that's true.

And if you have had the good fortune to encounter editors who reject your less-than-terrific-all-the-way-through stories, well, you should thank them profusely. :)

No, really, there are many reasons a story is rejected, and "the story doesn't live up to the first chapter" is only one of them. How can a writer know if that's the case, so he/she can improve it? What's great is if you know that's the problem, you can do something about it-- there's not a lot you can do about a lousy market or a dying line.

Pitch Party

Go here.

Really. It's fun.

Read the comment threads. And someone pass me a glass of water and wipe my forehead. Whew!


Hooks and the cart that goes before the horse

Hooks-- too many opening hooks seem designed not to open the story but rather just to have a hook-y first line.

But we all know that hooks sell.

The problem is, often the hook just confuses, because it's meant not to let the reader in on what's going on, but to be clever and cute and use buzzwords, or set up some ironic contrast, or... well, hook the reader.

Too often I read first lines that are "hooks" and then the story actually starts, and that hook just serves to confuse. It doesn't lead into the opening of the scene, or set anything up beyond the hook itself.


The first time Aragon saw his future mistress, he was knee-deep in naked women. (Hook) The victory celebration was held in the Headless Pig tavern on the outskirts of town. When Aragon entered, he saw two of his friends from the regiment standing at the bar, glasses raised-- (Opening)

Now notice that there's a break in continuity-- presumably the hook event (meeting mistress) happened AFTER the opening event (Aragon entering tavern). That's not necessarily bad (the hook might be sort of a topic sentence previewing the point of the whole event. But the discordance of sequence might matter, might confuse the reader, and so that should be something you notice -- there are always tradeoffs, and a common tradeoff to starting with a hook is that you mess up the chronological sequence of the scene.

Also how would you feel if you were the reader and you read that hook (where there's "mistress" followed immediately by "naked women") and assume sensibly that "his future mistress" means the woman who is to share his bed... but it turns out the "mistress" is actually his future boss (the mistress of the estate where he becomes head gardener or something)? Would that be fun for you, or annoying? Again a tradeoff-- misdirection can work to set up a theme of deception, or it can, um, annoy the reader by being deceptive. That is, you might think about whether this is amplifying or setting up something beyond just the cleverness-- and again, what are the tradeoffs?

Another danger is that you design the opening scene NOT to introduce the protagonist, set up the situation, hint at the conflict, all that good book stuff, but to provide an "answer" to the "cute question" the hook has set up. For example, that "knee-deep in naked women" is a good phrase, but if the scene is designed mostly to get the women in the bar to take their clothes off and lie down on the floor, the hook has actually harmed the coherence of the story. The opening scene should do more than develop the hook.

I think most of us can tell when a hook is designed just as a hook, when it isn't integrated into the story. That can work for some comic stories where you want to keep the reader off-balance. It might also work for some thrillers (oddly, I keep realizing that in many ways, thrillers and comedies are similar in structure, I guess because both are meant to provoke an involuntary response). But "begin as you mean to go on" is usually a good guideline. If the rest of the story isn't provoking, dislocating, deceptive, comic, clever (and most aren't, and aren't meant to be), a hook might be false advertising.

The best hook might not be self-consciously clever, but a first paragraph that intrigues in a more subtle way. (BTW, those of you who like to write in deep POV, hooks are seldom in deep POV. They tend to be more omniscient because they are often sort of an ironic comment on the situation-- and irony tends to be omniscient.)

If you must have a hook....
I'd suggest trying to write the opening scene to set up the situation, introduce a major character, start the conflict-- the usual opening purposes. Then, once that's done well enough, then read it over and let the hook derive from the scene. What's a major device in the scene, for example? Hooks often play off some opposition or conflict or unconventional take on the situations. Like if your protagonist is quite old, but will be acting like a baby (whiny, adorable, whatever), the hook might be something about: Tom was the oldest baby in the nursery. Okay, hooks are NOT my forte, so don't expect much in that line from me. :)

Sometimes you have a great hook and just can't help but use it. Heck, I've known writers who have come up with a hook-y first line, and then written the book around it. A couple thoughts then-- write the hook. Put it away. Write the book. Go back to the hook and make the hook and the book fit together. That is, make the book work without the hook, then make it work better with the hook.

Also, the hook, if you insist on using one, has to be honed. It's actually a bit of poetry, isn't it? It's impressionist rather than expressionist. Also, a hook will usually involve (like poetry) some word play, some language-pleasure, a pun or a twist on a cliche. You can't waste a single word in a hook, so experiment with different constructions and word orders. and don't forget the connection of "hook" with music (a lot of pop songs have a hook)-- balance and rhythm have to be perfect for a hook to work.

But you know, just as you have perfect pitch or you don't, you probably can either write hooks or you can't. Don't force it. Most stories are not going to benefit from a hook opening, so first make sure that the book should have one, and then make sure you're capable of creating one. (No shame in not being able to... hook-writing is a minor talent, not a major one.)

One other thought-- hooks can sometimes be used in query letters and the synopsis, even if they don't work in the opening scene.

Just never lose sight of what really counts- the story, the characters. Don't let any aspect, especially a hook, detract from that.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Shifting Interior Monologue

Puffing a bit as she reached the top of the stairs, Anita stopped to catch her breath. Maybe Nathan was right--she was getting a bit old. Since when had a flight of stairs been so daunting? For once, she wished she'd picked up one of those crazy neon sports drinks from Marty's instead of her usual coffee. Thinking of him, she tried to stifle a silly grin rolling across her face; trying to get her breath under control and stop smiling at the same time only led her to lapse into a terrible coughing fit.

She was so loud that she drew Peri to the doorway. "Anita, are you okay?" said the tall young woman, reaching out to pull her inside. "Gosh, you sound awful. Here, I'll take the drink; you go sit down in the office." Georgia looked over from where she was stocking yarns, worry all over her face. She knew Anita well enough not to make a huge fuss; still, she was watching the older woman's every move.

"I'm"--breath--"fine," Anita insisted, a wave of her hand as if to swat them all away. "Quit fussing." She let Peri take her to the back office, if only to avoid the prying eyes of all the customers. That was something that had been lost with her generation, it was true--the fine art of minding one's own business. Okay, okay, a sip of water. Why did everyone seem to think water cured everything? All it did was wet the throat. Still, she took the glass, nodded a thank-you to Peri, leaned back into her seat with relief when Peri left the office.

~~ from The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs

The parts highlighted in green are clean interior monologue, unmixed with other narrative elements like action or description. Take a look at how she brackets that interior monologue. That's fairly important when you're trying to keep some kind of narrative distance, but still want to dip into the thoughts of a particular character. You do things like bury the IM in the middle of paragraphs and surround it with other narrative elements, especially exposition that disguises itself as interior monologue.

Why especially that? "Telling" the character's internal state (rather than showing it directly with interior monologue) can serve as a sort of depth midpoint between the more distant feel of the omniscient and the more intimate feel of the interior monologue.

Let's pick apart that first paragraph as an example.

Sentence One:
Puffing a bit as she reached the top of the stairs, Anita stopped to catch her breath.

That's action. Action is dynamic motion of a character or object in the narrative world. So the dynamic movement is a body climbing stairs and a chest huffing for air. It doesn't matter that Anita "stopped" because stopping describes her activity (we all stop climbing when we reach the top of the stairs, right?) and allows her to engage in another activity (puffing).

Sentence Two:
Maybe Nathan was right--she was getting a bit old. Since when had a flight of stairs been so daunting?

That's interior monologue, a character's direct thoughts presented without any narrative filters. Anita is remembering something her son said, something she's been resisting. And she asks herself a rhetorical question.

Now, the next bit might initially seem as though it's also interior monologue:

For once, she wished she'd picked up one of those crazy neon sports drinks from Marty's instead of her usual coffee. Thinking of him, she tried to stifle a silly grin rolling across her face;

But it's not. We have a narrative filter in place here. This is "telling" the reader Anita's thoughts. The "telling" comes mainly from the use of the phrases "For once, she wished" and "Thinking of him." (By the way, we've already been given to understand that Marty's coffee is always piping hot, maybe too hot to drink.) If we were to recast this as a cleaner form of interior monologue without the filter, it might read something like,

She should have picked up one of those crazy neon sports drinks from Marty's instead of coffee. Marty. The silly grin rolled across her face. No way to stifle that.

Yes, this does change the voice slightly. This isn't an exercise in preserving voice, but in interior monologue and exposition and ways to use them to achieve certain effects. Can you all see the difference now?

If you're writing in deep third -- the limited or subjective form of third person -- you won't need these midpoint bits to transition the reader from the omniscient narrative to the interior monologue. In fact, you won't always need it even if you're writing in omniscient. In the third paragraph of this excerpt, the final sentence is a list of actions. It's not separated from the preceding interior monologue by anything at all. We move straight from IM into action, and it works just fine.

Anyone care to propose a theory on why that works in that particular spot? I think there's a reason, and the reason can be found in the final sentence.

One more thing about this excerpt. But I think I'm also going to pose this as a question for all of you. What do you notice about the middle paragraph?

For those of you who read this blog on a feed reader, here's a gentle reminder that we have really smart people making comments on the last Friday Night Knitting Club post. They all had worthwhile insights, and if you have a moment, it might be interesting to take a look.

One final note--
I've been invited to participate in a Pitch Party at Book Roast on March 17. See the Book Roast blog for details. It looks like a fun event.


Monday, March 9, 2009

Crazy English

First, thanks, Theresa, for Write or Die. It helped me get my quota done. :)

I'm theoretically on vacation, which means that I feel guilty when I work, and guilty when I don't work. The 21st Century is just that way.

But anyway, I bought some "seeded rye bread" and got to thinking about words that could logically mean different things. Like does "seeded" mean "with seeds" or "without seeds?" You know, "weeded" means without weeds, and "pitted" means without pits. But when a lawn is seeded, it means that it's got seeds. (The bread did have some seeds, but not many.)

Long ago, I worked on the history of a state's newspapers (it actually was pretty interesting), and we had to come up with a stylesheet for frequency of publication. Here are how newspapers described themselves:


Bi-weekly was used to mean that the newspaper was published twice a week. Or maybe it meant every two weeks. We decided to use bi-weekly" (two-week) to mean every two weeks, but then "tri-weekly" always meant three times a week, so.... (And don't even get me started on the whole hyphen issue-- several staff meetings held about that.)

We'd actually see all of those to mean every X weeks or X times a week/month, with no rhyme or reason.

I of course decided to punt, and said I would use "twice-weekly" and "thrice-weekly" and "every two months," etc., so that (I hoped) it would be clear, and you know, one man (or woman) can make a democracy, as someone once maybe said, and everyone meekly followed me (for the first and last time so far :).

So how would you use that? And what are some other examples of that sort of word-confusion? I remember when "inflammable" meant something you shouldn't light on fire because it was flammable. :)


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Subjective Omniscient

Being invited into a person's living quarters in New York City is a huge gesture of trust. Certainly their choice of art work, furniture, paint color, reveals much about their taste and style. But that's the case anywhere, isn't it? New York is different; it remains a city of neighborhoods built up along the lines of class and race: the Upper East Side for Old Money, the West Side for New. Downtown for the Trendies. And all sorts of strivers and dreamers and regular middle- and working-class folks sprinkled everywhere in between, snapping up any apartment that is bug-free (please!) and not too overpriced (pretty please!). But it's not necessarily the location are addressed that defines a person. You can lease a tiny, rent-controlled studio just off the East side's Madison Avenue -- or, one building over, own a massive multi-bedroom flat inherited from a wily old grandfather. In midtown offices, coworkers wonder if their peers are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps or are really just trust-fund babies. When impressions are everything, would you want any one to know the truth either way?

That's why regular, workaday New Yorkers "entertain" in restaurants. Cocktail bars. Meeting up at the museum. Oh, sure, you'll hear people say it's because of the size of their apartment. That the kitchen is too small to make a reasonable meal. But that's just part of the equation. Because unless you go out of your way to live hugely above or below your means, letting a friend, a colleague, a significant other into your home reveals everything: your attitudes, your sense of style... and the state of your pocketbook. It's one thing if your home is so grand as to intimidate, though in New York there is always someone who has more, bigger, seemingly better. Opening your apartment door invite envy or condescension. It changes the playing field.

The truth comes down to this: in a city obsessed with wealth and status, there are few gestures more intimate than being invited into someone's home.

So when Marty suggested to Anita that it would be fun to just stay in for a night, cook a meal together, and enjoy some wine, she panicked.

~~ from The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs

I've been thinking about doing little mini-units on some of the techniques employed in this book. She breaks a lot of rules, and she does it to good effect. Or, rather, perhaps rather than saying she breaks the rules, we should say that she's stretching the narrative with techniques we don't see much in genre fiction.

Here, for example, she uses a technique that Alicia discusses in her book on point of view. Those of you who have read Alicia's book might remember this. It's okay sometimes to start a scene in a more objective or omniscient point of view, and then gradually sink the reader lower down into the subjective third person.

So really, that's what the author is doing in this passage. Except her omniscient isn't exactly objective, is it? We get the sense of an actual narrator, a perspective being provided by someone outside the events of the book. This is sometimes called the intrusive author, but I've never liked that term because it implies that the author is doing something bad. Instead, let's call it subjective omniscient. The external narrator has a point of view.

One of the interesting things about the omniscient point of view is that it lends itself a little more readily to touches of formality. All the colons and semicolons don't jar in this passage, and I'm usually very sensitive to their presence. But because this passage reads in an almost academic manner, the more formal punctuation is less disruptive.

And yet the tone of the piece is anything but formal. Notice the way she incorporates an almost dialogue-like feeling in some of the prose. There are fragments, casual interjections like "oh, sure," rhetorical questions (who is asking what of whom, exactly?), and bits of slang to modernize this mini-treatise on New York apartments.

What else do you notice about this passage? Take a closer look at the way she chooses and organizes her words, and tell me in the comments what you see. And what effect it creates on the overall passage. This is highly controlled writing, and it's well worth a bit of your time to analyze it, even if this particular type of book isn't your first choice for reading pleasure.


Saturday, March 7, 2009

Three Things On The Web

Thing The First

Voting has opened in the Chase the Dream contest. This is a good, unique contest that lets you not only vote on your favorites, but also discuss the relative merits of each entry. Agent Laura Bradford and I have already made our official judge's comments in the comment threads. Take a look -- it might be useful to see how many people react to the same details in manuscripts, and how frequently we diverge. Reading is subjective, even when it's done by an educated reader.

By the way, this contest has a strong history of connecting writers with contracts. I asked for two fulls based on the manuscripts I saw, but one of the two will go to another editor here. It's so right up her alley. I just know she'll love the concept and the voice. Only time will tell if either of these manuscripts will go to contract, but so far, so good.

Thing the Second

Speaking of editors and agents publicly commenting about real work from real writers....

I don't want to get into a rehash of the #queryfail dramatics on Twitter and various other sites. This isn't the place to settle that debate. However, in the off chance that you aren't already aware of what happened, a group of agents and editors tweeted their responses to queries one day this week. If you haven't already read the actual tweets, go to Twitter and type #queryfail in the dialogue box. I thought there were many smart, educational posts made in the course of the day, and certainly, it might hammer home a few golden rules of querying. (Include the word count. Pretty please?) Could be useful to those about to query.

I'm not taking sides in the ethics debate that erupted over #queryfail. But this might be a good time to remind folks that we don't post specifics about anyone's queries or manuscripts without their permission. If we want to discuss something we saw, we make up details that roughly approximate what we saw but that don't resemble the actual submission.

Please don't take that comment as a criticism of the whole #queryfail process. It's not intended to be. 'Nuff said.

Thing the Third

We were talking the other day about writing fear and some of the ways people cope with that. Along the same thread, a friend told me about a pretty cool little widget called Write or Die. Do you guys all know about this? It's pretty nifty. I tried it out myself and had a lot of fun with it, but I was just writing notes. Maybe it's different if you're drafting an actual scene. I'd love to hear some feedback on it -- you know, I sometimes have to coach writers who are having a tough time with a manuscript, and I'm thinking this might be another useful tool in the toolkit.

But you tell me. Go try it out, and then let me know if it helped or hindered your process.


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Facing Fear

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Today is the 76th anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inaugural address in which he said that famous line. It's as true today as it was then -- and no, I'm not talking about the economy.

There's been a running theme in my correspondence with authors in the past week or two. One friend is having trouble writing a "black moment" because she knows how emotionally difficult the scenes will be. Another can't seem to write the climactic scene in a story because, as she puts it, she's too inhibited to write it as it must be written. A third complains that she's so conventional that anything beyond a chaste peck feels like a mad adventure to her, but bores her readers who, these days, seem to want sex scenes that swing from the chandeliers.

Same story, different authors, different details. It all boils down to one thing: fear is creating a roadblock on their path through the story.

Let's talk about some tactics for getting past those roadblocks.

The first thing to consider is ways to make yourself feel as safe as possible while you're confronting the scary writing. For many writers, this means solitude and a dedicated space for writing which nobody else may touch. But is that what you need right here, right now? Perhaps you would feel safer if you knew your big, strong, wooly bear of a husband was in the next room, ready to protect you if the monsters in your laptop attack. Maybe there's safety in numbers, and you'd be better off in a crowded coffee shop for this particular task.

Or maybe you have to put as much distance as possible between yourself and everyone who knows you. Nothing will do but an isolated cabin in the country (my personal favorite) or a hotel room hideaway with room service (eh, Alicia?).

Decide what will make you feel safest, and then give it to yourself. You deserve it. Your writing deserves it. This very scary scene deserves it, too.

But that's really only the first step. Once you've created a safe place from which to write, you have to actually write. You have to get past the fear.

There's an old trick in meditation practice to help clear the mind of stray thoughts. Meditation is all about empty mind, but our minds constantly cough up little bits of thought. New practitioners get frustrated sometimes by this, and one common bit of advice is to disconnect from the thought. If it arises, let it float in front of you like a butterfly, separated from you, and then watch it float away, leaving nothing behind.

When you sit down to write a scary passage, and you feel that block that keeps your fingers from moving, take that feeling and put it on the table in front of you like a lump of modeling clay. Acknowledge it. Separate from it. Look in front of it to the keyboard, or behind it to the monitor. It's there, and nobody's trying to tell you it's not. If it's in your way, shift it to the side. Put it on the floor. Actually visualize yourself doing this, and then write something.

You don't have to write something brilliant. You just have to make the effort to write the scary scene. If it helps, promise a solemn oath to your lump of modeling clay that nobody except the two of you will ever see this first draft. Set yourself free of any expectations or demands, other than that you will generate words. That's your only goal when it's scary. Give yourself permission to be bold, dull, wild, silly, outrageous, non-linear -- you name it. And I mean that! You name it. What is it that you worry the result will be? Shocking? Embarrassing? Give yourself permission to be exactly that. This is only a first draft. It's okay. You can screw it up to the worst degree possible, and it doesn't matter. The only thing that matters right now is that you do not let the fear control you.

Later, after you've got a draft, you can edit it or throw it out and start over or show it to someone you trust (someone safe) if you choose. But don't worry about that in the beginning. Just write.

You hear that?

Just write.

Forget about everything else.

Just write.