Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A sonnet for the aftermath of economic excess

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreath├Ęd horn.
William Wordsworth

Monday, April 27, 2009

Endings ironic

I'm trying to think of some ironic endings that work. Can you all help?

Like the first Indiana Jones film, where they battle the whole film to win the great Ark, and finally do, and the last shot is a guy stuffing the crate into some government warehouse where it will never be noticed again.

What else? Film or novel or story?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fairy Godmothers

I'm reading a book with a fairy godmother. No, not Cinderella. Let's imagine a poor hero who has a lot of bad things happen to him, and he makes a few mistakes, and he ends up losing his job, and he gets really depressed and instead of looking for another job, he starts building birdhouses in his backyard. Just because. Using his hands, hammering nails-- it helps him forget his problems and ignore his financial trouble.

Then a man comes into the yard and says he runs a chain of home stores and happened to be driving by and saw the birdhouses and loved them, and wants a thousand of them to sell in his store. And oh, here's half ahead of time to help pay for materials. (Nothing is ever said, by the way, about zoning ordinances and the need for business insurance. But then, in fairy tales, those things aren't factors.)

Hero can't believe his luck!

Neither can I.

Come on, come on, come on. The fairy godmother worked for Cinderella because that was a fairy tale. Magical things are supposed to happen in fairytales. But a realistic contemporary novel about the struggles of a modern man in a complex world?

It's not just that the fairy godmother reaching out and anointing him with the magic wand of wonderfulness teaches him nothing and in fact bypasses the whole struggle/conflict/pain/change process. Not every book has to be about changing in the face of adversity (though that's usually not a bad story), but the story should still be entertaining... and this isn't. The fairy godmother solves the problem in a moment, and that's not long enough for fun to happen in the story-- no chills, no thrills, no emotion, no anger, nothing much, because a moment just isn't long enough.

And in this case, the moment of exaltation-- "The fairy godmother saved me!"-- isn't much of a happy payoff for slogging through 300 pages sympathizing with this poor guy and his vicissitudes. the reader will want more of a buildup, more of a thrilling ride to a crisis, a longer climactic event. So why not try to make the resolution of the conflict the result-- direct-- of the actions and reactions of the protagonist? It's harder to plot that then bringing in a fairy godmother, but the story will be a better read if you work at it. :)

I know most of you would think this was cheating -- a deus ex machina. But I see it all the time in submissions and contest entries, so I think there must be a desire among many writers to show miracles happening.

Im vs. Em

The dh asked me yesterday-- yes, this is the sort of thing he knows I like to talk about-- when to use "imbed" and when to use "embed".

Well, I thought I knew. And in fact, my reasoning is quite good. And if google didn't exist, no one would ever know that I was... well. Not wrong. I think of myself as before my time. In centuries to come, I will be regarded as a prophet.

Here's my answer:

IMbed is transitive: I imbed the tulip bulb in the garden soil. (What? Tulip bulbs are supposed to be planted in the fall? That is crazy!)

That is, IMbed is preceded by a subject that transfers the action of imbedding to the object which gets imbedded.

(Note here: Most im-prefixed words are adjectives like IMmodest, and IM in that case means NOT. Here it means "in," and I think it was part of that big shift from harder Anglo-Saxon syllables to softer ones which are easier to pronounce-- "in" becomes "im" just because it sounds better.)

EMbedded is (or should be) intransitive, probably anticausative, where the subject is really the object of the action and the subject isn't known or extant, or it's irrelevant. That is, the word shifts from IMbed to EMbed when it becomes passive or reflexive. SO
The reporter is embedded with the troops.


Now isn't that logical?

But I checked a bunch of dictionaries-- curiosity is a terrible thing-- and they all seem to say that Embed and Imbed are the same verb, and used identically, and that EMbed is preferred.

Well. I object. I think IMbed should be transitive, and EMbed should be the intransitive or passive form. That makes a reason why there are two variants.

So let's make a note of this. When I become God, which should happen just about anyday now if I get back to doing yoga, that's on my list of things to make so. Oh, yeah, world peace, climate restoration, all that, I'll get to that. But IMBED/EMBED, first on the list.


RT09 Report

RT was a funny conference this year, somewhat different from years past. I heard of no conference scandal at all. Does this mean there was none, or does this mean that I was so buried in meetings that I missed half of what was going on among the attendees? You tell me.

But I tend to think that there was nothing really shocking going on with the attendees. I tend to think that this year, all the buzzing and whispering was happening on the other side of the fence. It was almost as if there were two different conferences occurring in the same venues with the same people on parallel tracks. In the conference that had microphones at podiums, everyone was talking about how great things are despite the economy. In the conference that occurred behind closed doors and whispered in corridors, the talk was all about the economy's impact on the industry. There was no real news in all those whispers, just confirmations of what has been known for months. Print has taken some hits. Digital chugs along on its growth curve. For anyone interested in knowing more about this, just remember the old adage: figures can lie, and liars can figure. If someone throws a number at you, try to figure out where that number is coming from. One good example of this is Amazon's X% growth recently announced in the media. When you look closer to see where that number originates, it's not books. It's electronics and other sectors.

But there is a general feeling that the market may have bottomed out, though happy days aren't quite here again. There is a general feeling that certain retail outlets and distributors, once teetering on the edge of big trouble, might be past the crisis point. There are flashes of hope here and there, and I'm proud to say that my company has been one of those flashes. We've been beating the market for our type of books.

Our Big Announcement

Last Monday night, after months of complex paperwork and negotiations, we finally got word that the ink on our big new deal was dry. What great timing, huh? We were able to leak the announcement to our authors on Tuesday and make the announcement at RT all week long.


Red Sage's stories will be translated and distributed in Japan!


For a small press that's not part of a conglomerate with a built-in funnel to foreign markets, this is a big deal. We had to get this deal the old-fashioned way, with a quality product and lots of tenacity. The books are already being translated -- or, I should say, the first batch of eight books selected by the Japanese publisher. We have only a rough understanding of their timeline right now, but expect the translated books to reach the Japanese market later this year or early next year.

Other RT Tidbits

So that's the general impression of what was happening at the conference.

In no particular order, here are a few other notes and details.

* There is no sign of slowdown in the paranormal romance arena. I had the opportunity to chat with Heather Osborn from Tor books, an acknowledged expert in this subgenre, and her feeling is that because so many of the younger readers grew up on these kinds of stories, the trendline on paranormal will remain strong for years to come. I tend to agree with her.

* But paranormal is shifting around a bit. In pitching alley, every time I had a moment between pitches and could eavesdrop, I heard the word zombies. I entertained myself by imagining a hot erotic zombie hero who has to eat lots of -- well, not brains. 'Nuff said.

* Larissa Ione was the star of this conference. Everywhere you went, people were buzzing about her. We're very proud that the industry's newest NYT initiate is part of the Red Sage family. She and Cynthia Eden, another Secrets alum to hit the bigs, signed books for hours at the Red Sage party. Those ladies are champions. They deserve all their success, and more.

* Big thanks to the RT volunteers, the Mr. Romance candidates, and hotel staff who worked so hard to make the Red Sage Poolside Party a huge hit. We're especially grateful that hotel staff let us stay an hour past our scheduled time so that all the partygoers could get their books signed. RT staff was very nice to us, and let me tell you, we noticed.

* Kathryn Falk looks amazing. I want to know what face cream she uses. Her skin glows.

* Gritty realism is less appealing to readers right now. (Think cop stories, romantic suspense, etc.) Escapist fantasies are driving sales in this economy. Some publishers (Avon and Harlequin, in particular) also report successes with the cozier family stories. Of course, these trends might not hold beyond the edge of the bad economy, so if gritty crime dramas are your thing, you might find some light at the end of the tunnel. Just wait it out.

* I've heard confirmed reports that two houses either don't copy edit at all or expect their editors to also do their own copy editing. No, I won't tell you which houses, and I doubt you'd be able to guess. Well, you can probably guess one of them if you've been paying attention at all. It just seems to me to be a questionable efficiency measure.

* Conference attendance was down, but you never would have known it from wandering the conference center. I attribute this to the weird layout of the place. Long narrow halls can feel crowded even if there are just a handful of people in them.

* People didn't like the hotel, not at all. The multi-building layout and lack of elevators was a real problem for some, and there was no easily accessible bar close to the conference hub. Bad layout. The Red Sage suite was lovely, spacious, and well-appointed. But my adjoining room was loaded with problems -- burned out bulbs, broken coffeemaker, no modem or other internet access. The modem thing was a big problem because the hotspots in the rest of the hotel were, well, cool at best. I never once managed to pick up a web signal with my laptop, no matter where I tried. The first thing I did at the airport was check email, and I almost cried when they called my flight and my inbox was still insanely packed with unread messages.

* I was asking around for three things: longer (over 40k, but especially 70-100k) stories for our e-books program, M/M of any length for our e-books program, and resumes for acquisitions editors. I need to hire some freelancers. Soon.

* I heard through the grapevine that a woman had scheduled a pitch with me, but due to a mixup, it wasn't on the schedule and I was released from pitching alley before she arrived. Still trying to find that woman and make a connection with her. Can anyone help?

I'm probably forgetting a lot because I have that post-conference hit-by-bus feeling. Anyone wondering about anything in particular?


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Ian's log lines

1. Three young mercenaries trapped in dead-end jobs get the opportunity for one shot at fortune and glory, so long as they can avoid getting killed in the pursuit of a fragile and highly-prized collectible.

I like this one better too, I think because the protagonists are immediately identified, and the first verbal is strong ("trapped"). I would suggest trimming and intensifying that "Get the opportunity"-- maybe "risk all" or "gamble all"? Go for high stakes terms to show the urgency, and be wary of the stacked verbs (can avoid getting killed). Try " ... so long as they don't get killed pursuing a ..."

Also, if it's important, maybe say what the collectible is?

Good work-- just watch those "wriggle words" in your verb phrases.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Log Lines #5

I'm exhausted from the mad dash to prepare for RT, but I faithfully promised Ian that we would post his log lines today. And there's still about 40 minutes left of today in my time zone, so we're getting it in just under the wire.

So, with no further ado:

1. Three young mercenaries trapped in dead-end jobs get the opportunity for one shot at fortune and glory, so long as they can avoid getting killed in the pursuit of a fragile and highly-prized collectible.

2. With only three collectible bottles left in the entire world, it will take the best wits and skills of three young mercenaries to retrieve one and destroy the other two when it seems like the entire world is allayed against them.

I really like the first one. We could say that "liking" something is purely subjective, but remember, I've heard a lot of pitches over the years. I'll sit through four hours' worth this week alone, and that's not counting the elevator-and-bathroom stalker pitches, the casual mingling-in-the-bar pitches, the you've-got-to-hear-about-my-friend's-book pitches -- really, there's an almost infinite variety of pitches at conferences. It's part of what makes a conference fun.

So I tend to trust my subjective responses because they've been honed by repeat exposure to the pitching process. That said, subjective responses are still, um, subjective.

But once we start to pick apart the sentences, we can see distinct differences between them that might give rise to that knee-jerk subjective response. The first one, for example, starts off with people. Most readers want a story about people, about characters, rather than about concepts or objects. (There are exceptions. Remember that movie that followed a dollar bill around for a day? There were people in it, interesting people even, but it was pretty much a story about the adventures of a piece of green paper.)

The second log line winds through 19 words before we get to the people. By comparison, it feels a bit disembodied and maybe even a little flat. This could be intentional, though.

I also prefer the verb choices in the first one. Not just the verbs, but the verbals. Look at how gritty they are and the way they set up a theme. Trapped, dead, shot, killed. (No, dead's not a verb or a verbal, but it fits the theme. These characters are in Oh Crap Big Trouble.)

In the second, what do we have? Retrieved. Allayed. Seems. Eh. Throw in some wits and skills (what kind?), and it begins to take on a mildly cerebral feeling.

In one sense, that almost detached feeling in the second log line works in its favor. I keep thinking about that bottle. It's the most concrete and tangible object in the log line, so it jumps out at me. Why a bottle? It's just an old bottle, and there are hundreds to be found in every landfill. Right? But then I realized that this sentence might be setting us up to understand that the bottle itself isn't all that important -- the sentence creates distance, right, so we can remain a bit detached from the bottle as a physical object and just accept it as a concept. Think of it like a plain gold ring. It's important because of what it stands for, and this sentence is already training me to think of that bottle as a symbolic object like a wedding band. So if this is a mildly cerebral book about a symbolic object, the second log line might be the better option.

But I still like the first log line better.

What do all of you think? I'm barely awake right now, so I could be missing some obvious details. And Ian needs our help. He'll be pitching this book soon. Let's help him get ready.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Log Lines #4

Here's a single log line from Wes. Some of you may remember Wes's powerful and evocative opening paragraph from previous exercises. He's definitely got a way with words.

A young man from Missouri must survive the alien ways of New Mexico in 1821 to become a Santa Fe trader and marry his love, a provocative Mexican woman.

This is clean and tight and I don't get lost in any confusing phrases or unclear terms. So right away, I'm inclined to like this sentence. Remember, when you pitch, I have to process the information with my ears. If I have to pause to untangle a strange phrasing, I might lose the next few words from your pitch. Neither of us wants that.

So insofar as this is lucid and linear, it's a good opening sentence. And it's got a few other things going for it, too -- clearly delineated time and place, a hint of a story arc, a suggestion of world-building.

That said, it could be improved with a few tweaks here and there. I'd like something more evocative than "a young man," which is a bit generic. Well, maybe it hints that this is a coming of age story, but even so, we could do with a more vivid character tag. Untried idealist? Scrappy runaway? Either could be true at this point because we don't really know anything about this character other than that he is young, male, moves from one place to another, and eventually creates an adult life.

Also, I'd like a stronger sense of obstacles or conflict. Must survive the alien ways isn't all bad, especially with strongly dramatic words like survive and alien. But it's not concrete, is it? Maybe this is just me, but one of my first thoughts was that in 1821, Missouri and New Mexico were both more or less frontier areas. New Mexico had a bit more Spanish and native influence, right? So is that what makes it alien? That it's got different cultural influences?

I don't know. What does everyone think? Should he replace must survive the alien ways with something like must learn a new language and a new culture? It's more concrete, but these things feel more like tasks than obstacles.

Wes, what are the obstacles? What is it in the beginning that keeps the young man from becoming a trader and marrying the Mexican woman?

One other point. I assume this is a coming-of-age tale because this log line sets up that notion. In fact, this is one of the purposes of using a broad summary statement like this to open your pitch -- it gives us a frame through which we can view the details presented in the rest of the pitch. Between this line and what I remember of the opening paragraph we saw, er, last summer or so, I'm already thinking in terms of a more genfic version of a Cormac McCarthy story. Fewer literary fillips, more straightforward storytelling, with strong and clean language. Is that accurate?

The reason I ask -- and this may be obvious, but sometimes the most obvious points could use an airing, too -- is that everything you say to me during a pitch softens the soil for your later submission. If you pitch a "Cormac lite" coming-of-age tale, and submit a High Noon-style sheriffs-and-posses story, it's going to shade the way I view your viability as a career writer. I may love the book you submit. I may even buy it. But I'm going to wonder if you understand your own writing well enough to deliver a second publishable manuscript. (Not you specifically, Wes. Though I do specifically want you to tell me if this is a bildungsroman, and what form the obstacles take.)

A special note to commenters and lurkers

I had a private conversation tonight with someone I respect who confessed to being a bit shy about posting in the comments here. I hope this is an isolated case! Honestly, I think the comments are a key part of this blog. Please don't be shy about speaking up. We like a workshop environment around here, and this means everyone is welcome to participate. Our commenters are respectful, smart, insightful, witty, gracious people -- believe me, this is a group you can be proud to join.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Log Lines #3

Here's a pair from Julie.

As prominent and powerful figures in the world of magic – both human and non, good and evil – are assassinated, a chaos witch finds herself caught in the crosshairs with only the protection of a demon standing between her and death.
When a hit list targeting the most powerful names in magick - both good and evil - falls in to the hands of the dark realm, a demon relic hunter is assigned the task of finding and retrieving the only human on the list -- a chaos witch whose untapped power will either be the key to stopping the slaughter... of the very thing that destroys them all.

First impressions: I think the first one would make me predisposed to request a submission, and the second one would confuse me.

The first one gives me a strong sense of conflict and connection between the hero and heroine. I like the notion of a chaos witch, though I'm not sure what it means. But I would like to find out. It's intriguing. The phrase is also used in the second pitch, but it stands out a little more in the first. I also like the idea that this evil force is indiscriminate and that the demon is the protector -- these bits, coupled with the phrase chaos witch, makes me think this book will really dig into our preconceptions of what is good and what is evil. That could make for an interesting read, even a challenging one.

The second one gives me a lot of questions. Who made the hit list? Someone evil, right? So does it start in the hands of one evil creature and "fall into" another's? The phrase, the hands of a dark realm, confuses me a little. Are we talking about henchmen or kingpins? And notice that the demon is now a demon relic hunter. What does that mean? Is it a demon who hunts relics? Or a hunter of demon relics?

So I get a little lost in the second log line. But there are a couple of ideas contained in it that strike me as important, and that ought to be included somewhere in a pitch. First, she's the only human on the list. This seems important. Second, her power is untapped, which hints at transformation plot. Third, her power is unknown, yes, but more important, the ultimate effects of her power are unknown. Could be good, could be ultimate destruction. Again, this plays with the theme of preconceived notions of good and evil. You would think discovering latent powers would be a good thing, right? Maybe not. Maybe it's catastrophic. And I really find this entire theme intriguing.

So what does everyone else think? Do you want to reshape that second log line, or just toss it and recommend using the first one? Are there any holes in the first one that need to be plugged?


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Log Lines #2

Here's a pair of log lines from Murphy.

Threatened, a highly principled lady must go against her beliefs and blackmail a dangerous man brought down by grief, who is the only one that is strong enough to protect her.

or longer version

Desperate but determined, when she discovers her step-brother’s incestuous plans for her, she seeks out the much feared ‘Terror’, a man rumored to be ravaged by grief over the disappearance of the boy he pledged to protect, and boldly blackmails him into agreeing to sire the heir she needs to secure her lands - as barter for the information she holds regarding the missing boy’s fate.

Hmm. These are good starting points, but they're not quite there yet, are they? They show why it's so hard to write log lines. If they're short enough to follow easily, they might not give enough information. If they're long enough to provide good information, they can get a little tangled.

But let's tackle these from a different angle this time. As we discussed in last year's pitching clinic, one of the things I do during a pitch is listen closely for the story questions. A good, complete pitch will answer most of the big story questions, but there are almost always one or two details left unresolved. This is not a problem. I like it when I can ask questions and keep you talking about your story. I like listening to how you respond, because the manner often tells me as much as the content. Can you give a succinct and complete answer? Have I stumped you?

If a log line is meant to capture my attention right out of the gate, and if questions are a natural response to a pitch, then a good log line not only delivers a capsule summary of your story, but it also gives me a hint of the questions that might be answered in the rest of your pitch.

Let's take a look at the two sentences and see what questions they might prompt.

Threatened, a highly principled lady must go against her beliefs and blackmail a dangerous man brought down by grief, who is the only one that is strong enough to protect her.

My main story questions are:
1. What is the threat against the principled lady?
2. Is the man made dangerous by grief, or was his danger nullified by grief? (The sentence could be interpreted either way.)

That's not a lot of questions, but that's okay. There don't have to be a lot of questions, just enough to keep my mind actively involved. I get other important details from this log line that perk my interest, such as, the hint of inner conflict suggested by "highly principled" and "go against her beliefs." And I really like the way this sets up a contrast between the dangerous man who protects the lady from external harm, and the dangerous man who causes inner discord in the lady. There's a good balance of tension in this sentence.

So, not bad, but the end result is that this one is a tiny bit vague. Are her beliefs religious or ethical or other? Go against isn't very strong -- try a more dramatic verb like violate. And maybe just a teaser about the threat to the lady. Let's see what happens when we get rid of the relative pronoun, too, just for kicks. But we still want to keep it short and clean, so maybe something like,

Threatened, a highly principled lady must violate her moral code and blackmail a man made dangerous by grief but strong enough to protect her from her incestuous step-brother.

I don't know. What does everyone think? This version seems more linear and more concrete to me.

Let's take a look at the second now. It's really long and could probably stand a nip and tuck, but we'll leave that for the moment.

Desperate but determined, when she discovers her step-brother’s incestuous plans for her, she seeks out the much feared ‘Terror’, a man rumored to be ravaged by grief over the disappearance of the boy he pledged to protect, and boldly blackmails him into agreeing to sire the heir she needs to secure her lands - as barter for the information she holds regarding the missing boy’s fate.

I have a long list of questions in mind at the end of this sentence. I bet the rest of you do, too. Let's all help Murphy out here. Post your questions in the comments. I'll get the ball rolling with what seems to me to be the biggest question:

How is this blackmail?


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Log Line #1

Jordan sent us these two log lines.

Undercover as a priest, an FBI agent must root out the mob in a Catholic parish before his feelings for the parish secretary blow his cover.
(protagonist + goal + deadline/ticking clock)

When her priest is murdered, the parish secretary didn’t expect to fall in love with his handsome replacement—or to discover the new priest was really an undercover FBI agent.
(inciting incident + obstacle + black moment)

They're both fine, strong sentences, packed with juicy details and easy to follow. This makes it harder to choose between them.

The first thing I notice when comparing them is that one focuses on the hero, the other on the heroine. (By the way, can you spot the ellipsis in the preceding sentence? Pop quiz!) So perhaps the first thing to establish is whether the book is more about the hero and the heroine, and let that establish the ultimate decision.

Except, well, the bit about the murder in the second log line really snaps, doesn't it? What kind of person would murder a priest? That's a one-way ticket to hell, for sure. Anything that shocking and dramatic deserves a first-row seat in your pitch. So I want that tidbit in the log line.

I have the same inclination about the reference to the mob in the first sentence, but this could be due to my abiding love for mob stories. I don't know that others will perk up as I do after hearing that. Anyone? Or is it just me?

So part of me wants to move that mafia reference down into the second pitch, but there is one possible drawback. When I think of mafia stories, I automatically expect a certain structure. Antihero protagonist, mafia activity shown from the pov of one or more mobsters, strong mafia world-building, themes of redemption figuring in the crisis and denouement.

That's probably not what we've got here. And that's slightly problematic because mafia stories allow us to have mixed feelings about criminals. Drug cartels, gangs, and the like are almost always true villains. Mafioso? Eh. There's room for charming rogues there.

So if the mafia is meant to be a pure villain, I want this signaled in the log line, front and center, before I hear the rest of the pitch. Otherwise, I'll listen to the rest with an eye -- or, to be precise, an ear toward figuring out the way the mobsters will be presented in the text. One possible solution would be to use a different term. "Crime syndicate" might be a good option.

This leads us to something like:

When her priest is murdered, the parish secretary didn’t expect to fall in love with his handsome replacement—or to discover the new priest was really an undercover FBI agent investigating a crime syndicate that secretly operates out of her church basement.

It's longer, but it gives us a clear premise, at least two functional characters, the romantic conflict (forbidden love), a nice "secret identity" hook, even a slice of plot. I assume the heroine will have some trust issues she'll be forced to resolve after she discovers the hero's duplicity, so I already suspect I know something about the internal conflicts.

I have no idea, by the way, whether the mob is operating out of the church basement. That's my own insertion because I also wanted some hint of how the mob was connected to the church. The priest's murder may have been accidental, but the plot is stronger if it's not. Indicating a connection like this right away leads me to a question: did the first priest know the bad guys were right underfoot? Was he an accomplice or an interloper?

So what does everyone else think? Got any reactions/suggestions for this one?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Hyphen NOT example

Almost finished with the big article. In fact, I wrote the last line (replaying a motif that had been brought up elsewhere-- no limit, no net):

No limit, no fear, and no net fiction.

Hmm. I looked at that and knew that those "no" adjectives all needed hyphens ("What's net fiction? And why should we have none of it?"). But I didn't wanna! I just knew they'd visually detract from my point that this is fiction with anarchy. Hyphens sort of, you know, deny anarchy.

And if I hadn't just done that damned blog entry about compound adjectives, I might have just neglected to fix them. But I kept hearing, "Heal thyself, and all that."
But I still didn't want hyphens.

You know, the next time some writer tells me how "constricting" grammar is, I'm going to point to this. When I started looking at that line and trying to get around the whole hyphen thing, I realized that the terms that were most interesting, most exciting, most intense were buried as compound adjectives. Yeah, buried. Anything in the middle of a sentence is buried. It's the beginning of the paragraph (and this was at the end), and the end of the sentence where there's power. And I was wasting that powerful final real estate on an important but not very interesting word, fiction. So when I contemplated how yucky hyphens would be, I understood why they'd be yucky-- because they would call attention to the marginal position of what ought to be the big culminating terms.

Once I realized that, and realized that I wanted to END on one of the "no" terms (I'm still debating which one... probably "no limit" because it's the longest), I immediately came up with a STATEMENT, yes, a point, a sentence (with a colon, but this is academic writing-- I mean, colons and semicolons rule) which didn't just present my pretty terms, but put them in the context of the whole paper:

This is fiction at its most elemental: No fear, no net, no limit.

I'm still fiddling here, as "this is" is sort of lame, and I really prefer "story" to "fiction," as "fiction" implies prose and print, and I mean film and TV too. But that can wait (I'm presenting just a short version of this, not the long version, which isn't really done :). I have solved the hyphen issue by analyzing what I really want to mean.

Limitation is liberation, and that actually is sort of the message of my whole paper, though it has nothing to do with hyphens.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

We Did the Mash

How's the homework coming?

By now, you should have several possible log lines mashed together from the pieces of your worksheet. Would you like some feedback on them? If so, send two -- just two, please -- to

In your email, please also indicate if we can use your first name when we give you feedback on your log lines. We'll be posting them here and allowing others to comment, too.

*who should have picked a different title for this post, because now I have "Monster Mash" as an earworm.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What Shakespeare advises writers

Rebecca sent me this--

William's Ten
Ten Things I Learned From Shakespeare About Being a Writer

He jests at scars that never felt a wound. (Romeo and Juliet.)

I scorn to change my state with kings. (Sonnet XXIX)

If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow
and which will not. (Macbeth)

Kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight. (Othello)

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; and therefore is
winged Cupid painted blind. (A Midsummer Night's Dream)

No profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en. (The Taming of the Shrew)

Not mad, but bound more than a mad-man is. (Romeo and Juliet)

To hold, as ’t were, the mirror up to nature. (Hamlet)

We must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures. (Julius

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, haply I think on thee.
(Sonnet XXIX)

Monday, April 6, 2009

Very small picture comment

Well, Theresa's doing all that great big-picture thinking again, and here I am, worrying about hyphens. :)

But boy, this got to me, especially since it came from a publisher:
The End to End eBook Solution

I puzzled over that. Made me think of "The war to end wars," and Churchill's "This might be the end of the beginning." But that's not what it means, surely, that this product, whatever it is, is the END of something, that something being, I guess, the "End eBook," or maybe "End eBook Solution". But that's what it's saying. The End. And what is it the end to? End eBook Solution. It's sort of scary, isn't it, that somewhere out there is an "End eBook," the last eBook, maybe? Sounds apocalytic, and adding "solution" only makes it more resonant with finality.

Oh. That's not what it means. That can't be what it means. So what does it mean?

Read over your sentences. Read like a reader would read. Is the reader likely to know what you mean without having to read over and over and discard possible meanings and then, reluctantly, deciding that some meaning is maybe more plausible, given the context and common sense? It's your job to make your meaning clear, not the reader's job to figure out what the hell you're talking about.

Anticipate problems as you write sentences. For example, "end" is especially complicated because it can be a verb or a noun... or an adjective. And "to" similarly can play different roles, as a preposition or as part of a verb-infinitive. So "end to end" meaning from one end to another uses "to" as a preposition (positioning the two ends), while "the war to end wars" uses "to" as the beginning of the infinitive "to end". So, really, you almost couldn't choose a phrase more calculated to confuse.

Fortunately, there's something called a "hyphen" to help.

What goes with what? Don't make the reader guess. This is why hyphens were invented, to indicate when something is a compound, to be read together, usually as a modifier. So probably the compound is "end-to-end"? Like the two cars parked end to end? I'm not sure what it means in this context, and why it's not "beginning to end," but I do know that with hyphens, we know that "end-to-end" is a compound modifier, and while we still don't know if it modifies "eBook" or "solution" or (most likely) "eBook solution," we are at least in the ballpark of meaning and we're not thinking grim thoughts about the end of days and final solutions.

So the rule is:

Compound modifiers before the noun modified are hyphenated. (What's a compound, of course, is up to some debate. Some writers hyphenate "dark blue" before "sea"-- "dark-blue sea," and that's maybe overkill. :) Whether the compound is hyphenated when it's NOT before a noun (like "the solution was end to end/end-to-end") is more a case-by-case (g) determination.

Bring back sentence diagramming, that's what I say. If the person who wrote that advertising tag had spent fourth grade diagramming sentences, well, this travesty would not have happened. And somewhere up in heaven, Sister Evarista is smiling. (I might be presuming too much with that "heaven" thing-- ouch! Okay, okay. Sister Evarista must be in heaven, because that's where the thunderbolts of rebuke are launched.)

Sentence diagramming site (the author apparently had his own Sr. Evarista)


Sunday, April 5, 2009

How to Put It Together Into One Neat Tweet

In our last post, we gave you homework. You all did your homework, right? Of course you did. You are all prodigies and wouldn't slack on such a thing. (Secret message to Laura: This means you. *ggg*)

I'm going to pretend I'm pitching something and will craft a fake list for us to use as an example.

The protagonist:
Heroine: Laidback earth-mother
Hero: meticulous craftsman

The goal/reward:
To convert the heroine's garage into mother-in-law quarters.

The obstacle(s):
She needs $10,000 as a down payment.

The antagonist:
Crappy economy and frozen credit.

Consequence of failure:
Mother-in-law will be in spare bedroom, and heroine will lose her workspace for her art.

Heroine promised dead husband she would always care for m-i-l.

Challenge to self-image:
Until this all happened, my character used to think he was: family-oriented and generous.

Inciting Event:
Nursing home kicks m-i-l out because she keeps stealing the other patients' candy. She's a handful, that one.

Ticking Clock:
Nursing home is paid up for six weeks. After that, m-i-l is out.

Important steps taken:
Heroine hires hero to do the rush build.
Heroine tries/fails to get financing.
Heroine tries/fails to get dead husband's family to help.
Heroine tries/fails to get hero to cut corners on plans.

Final reversal :
Hero pulls out of job because he can't work like this and because he secretly thinks heroine should extricate herself from dead husband's family affairs.

She finally finds closure on her marriage, free to love the hero, sends m-i-l off to live with other family, and converts garage into art studio. Meticulously crafted by hero, of course.
He learns that he can't control every detail, no matter how hard he tries, and that sometimes a man has to give a little to get a little. *wink*

Now, here's what you do. Pick any two or three items on the list, and mash them together into a single sentence. Then pick a different two or three items, and mash those. Lather. Rinse. Repeat until you hit on a combo that sizzles.

And there's your log line. Lead off a pitch with a sizzling, story-specific log line, and whoever is listening will have a "hook" to hang the rest of the pitch on. (I don't mean hook in the secret baby/amnesia/billionaire way, but in the sense that this is the piece which will prop up all the other pieces.)

Added bonus: You can use the rest of the worksheet to draft the rest of your pitch. Why not? You've basically just created a handy little structural road map for your story. Might as well use it to get where you want to go.

Let's try a few, shall we?

When a laidback earth mother gets a six-week eviction notice from her mother-in-law's nursing home, she has to choose between finally letting go of her dead husband and honoring her deathbed promise to him to always take care of his mother.

Eh. OK. But where's the hero? If you use a line like this for a romance pitch, bring the hero in quickly after it.

When a laidback earth mother must take her dead husband's mother into her home, she hires a meticulous craftsman to build a garage apartment, and instead they end up building a new life together.

A little hokey, but it definitely conveys the premise.

When a laidback earth mother hires a meticulous craftsman to construct a garage apartment, the two of them battle over everything from appliances and color choices to their growing attraction to each other.

When her dead husband's family refuses to care for their ailing matriarch, a laidback earth mother must come to terms with her widowhood and find a way to love again.

As you see, once you start playing with piece, you might find yourself riffing in ways that leap off the worksheet you filled out. That's okay. The worksheet is meant to inspire, not to limit.

Now it's your turn. Mash away! Keep going until you find an opening sentence that really speaks to you.


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Log Line Pitches, or, How to Tweet Your Novel

I've been mulling over the best way to present this topic because, to be honest, I have mixed feelings about log lines in pitches. When they've worked, they've worked very effectively. When they haven't, well, the results are usually confusion and distraction. Probably on both sides of the table.

So that got me thinking about what makes a log line pitch work effectively, but before we get into that, I want to make some attempt to define a log line.

Log lines come to fiction by way of dramatic writing -- tv and movies, that is, where pitching is a regular business activity. My exposure to this corner is a bit limited, so I might have this wrong, but my understanding is that they call them "log lines" because somewhere in a production corner, assistants keep logs of works in development, and those logs generally contain one-line summaries of the story in a page header.

Chances are, if you can encapsulate your entire book in a sentence, you've got a good handle on that book. If you start talking about your book and get lost in details, subplots, secondary characters, ideas for scenes you've cut -- well, that feels a bit uncontrolled and makes me wonder whether the finished product will be coherent.

So that's the first reason log lines are good. They can convince me of the coherence of the finished book. The second reason? They can provide a convenient frame through which I can view the rest of your pitch. In other words, present the log line first and use it to highlight the key aspects of your book. It can be my road map as I'm listening to the deeper details of your pitch.

But which details should you choose for the logline? That's the tricky part, isn't it? Someone, somewhere, got the idea to use a "this meets that" format as a way of shorthanding the process.

I really hate those.

For one thing, it presumes we've seen the same shows -- these almost always draw on movies and tv shows as examples, rather than books, which strikes me as odd because you're pitching a written story, not a filmed one. And you're pitching to literary people, and most of us are women, and frequently the family's entertainment needs trump ours. This creates some little anomolies. For example, I can sing the words to SpongeBob SquarePants from heart, but I haven't been to the movie theatre yet this year.

DVD rentals? I have what I call my Blockbuster mantra. No soldiers, no chainsaws, no jokes about vomit, no severed limbs, no car chases, and especially, please God, no World War II. I reserve the right to ignore any part of this mantra based on the whim of the moment. But I hardly ever do, because who's got time to watch movies you only halfway want to see?

TV shows? Good luck pitching to me on the basis of a tv show. I watch The Office. Jim's a classic beta, but we don't publish many beta male heroes. Beyond that -- honestly, it just dawned on me recently that The Gilmore Girls and The Golden Girls are two different shows.

Do you see where the problem lies? Unless you want to draw comparisons to Chowder's attempt to cook Sing Beans or Squidward's love for his clarinet, we might not be speaking such a common language, after all. Not all editors are quite this out of touch, but I'm willing to bet that as a group, we log fewer than average hours of tv and movie watching.

When it comes right down to it, you're better off with a log line that is specific to your book and doesn't draw on material generated by other people.

And it's a lot easier than you might think.

Here's the first step. Take out a sheet of paper. We're going to start with a homework assignment. Your job is to fill in these blanks. I'll provide you with a few tips along the way.

The protagonist: ________________
(Use an adjective plus a common noun rather than his name. "Laidback wanderer" tells me more than "Bob Gomez.")
(Romance writers need to do this twice, once for the hero and once for the heroine.)

The goal/reward: ________________
(What's the best, biggest thing the protagonist wants to happen? Aim for something tangible. "Find true love" is less compelling than "convert her garage into mother-in-law quarters.")

The obstacle(s): __________________
(Again, be concrete and specific. "She needs $10,000." Not, "she has low self-esteem and is afraid to love.")

The antagonist: __________________
(Doesn't have to be a person. Should be tangible. Snidely Whiplash or a blizzard.)

Consequence of failure: ___________
(If she doesn't get ten grand to build separate quarters for her mother-in-law, then That Woman will be in her house. All. The. Time.)

Motive: ________________________
(This can be a bit more abstract. Motives are often based in emotions.)

Challenge to self-image: __________
(How does all this make your character question his character? Put another way, fill in this blank: "Until this all happened, my character used to think he was______.")

Inciting Event: ___________________
(The first event that kicks everything off. Nursing home kicks m-i-l out because she keeps stealing the other patients' candy.)

Ticking Clock: ____________________
(What do you mean, your character doesn't have a deadline? Give her one.)

Important steps taken: ____________
(Three things the protagonist does to achieve her goal. Take out a bank loan, hire a contractor, pick out appliances.)

Final reversal : __________________
(The last bad thing that happens before everything flips around and becomes happy again. Sometimes referred to as the black moment.)

Outcome: __________________________
(What does your protagonist get in the end? Might not be what she wants. Scarlett wanted Ashley for like eleven thousand pages, but in the end, she wanted Rhett.)

If you have questions about particular items on this list, fire away in the comments. But save your list for later. We don't need your answers just yet. Only you need them now.