Sunday, May 31, 2009


Epilogues are almost always a sign that you don't think you proved your case.

That's my categorical judgment. What do you all think?

I'm talking about the sort of epilogue that is not a twist (like the ironic epilogue in Indiana Jones, where we see that the Ark that Indy and the Nazis were fighting to the death over is going to lie forever forgotten in some government warehouse) or a poignant bittersweet moment of completion (like in the final Prison Break, where the conspirators all gather, and only Michael is missing, and we realize it's for the dedication of his tombstone, and he has died). I'm talking about an epilogue that is really about reassuring the reader that yes, this couple ended up married and pregnant, so of course they love each other; or the one the detective outed as the murderer is convicted, so see, he must have really done it! That is, it's giving the reassurance that the story question was answered appropriately... however, it indicates that you think the reader NEEDS that reassurance. Why? Because you don't think your actual story events and resolution scene did the job.

Now, see, I think prologues often have their uses, but I think epilogues are seldom necessary (except maybe to provide a final twist), and if the epilogue IS necessary, I would take another look at the final scene before that-- what was insufficient about that, and can that be fixed?

So what do you think? What do you think would be an effective epilogue, and when do you think an epilogue should be extraneous? What works and what doesn't? Have you ever written an epilogue, and why?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Your turn!

What are your favorite films that no one else ever notices?

For me:
Groundhog Day

I just realized both have non-traditional timelines. (GD is one day over and over, and boy, that is really an achievement, that every minute feels new; Frequency takes place in both 1969 and 1999-- hey, come on, the aurora borealis causes time travel, don't you know that? Or maybe it's the Mets winning the pennant, though they only did that in 69.)

I love It's a Wonderful Life, but everyone knows that one.

What are yours? Hmm. I love Lion in Winter too, but that might be everyone's favorite. Kate Hepburn! Plantagenets! Peter O'Toole! Castles! Dialogue!

Come on-- favorite films no one else will mention. You cannot say:
Godfather 1 or 2 (you can say 3, but I bet you won't)
Citizen Kane
Gone with the Wind
Anything French or Japanese that none of us have seen
Lawrence of Arabia

I remember one of my kids (now a film student) saw Independence Day probably 200 times, and I'm not kidding. I can probably recite most of it. Judd Hirsch was great in it. :) I wonder now that he's been watching Bunuel and Godard if he will admit to loving that movie.

If you're a woman, you can't say Princess Bride.
If you're a man, you can't say Cool Hand Luke. :)


Friday, May 29, 2009

Scene agendas (I bet this connects with voice too... doesn't everything?)

I'm working up a class on scene pacing, so I've been looking at problem scenes and seeing how the pacing can be improved by intensifying the conflict. So right now I'm thinking that a little mind-shift can help as we structure and revise a scene:

Scene agenda. There are scenes which can be fun-- heroine and her friend dissing the ex-boyfriend, or hero sitting in a meeting and cynically making mental bets about which of his colleagues is going to say something stupid or offensive. Those can be fun and funny. However, does the character has some goal beyond, you know, just sitting there being funny? There's going to be more urgency if there's a goal, and a goal is going to change the way the character acts and thinks in the scene.

For example, here you have two friends sitting in the living room with, I don't know, a Johnny Depp DVD going, and the wine is flowing, and they're trading confidences about their old boyfriends. Fun, right? (Yeah, guys, women readers will eat this up. :) Now imagine how the presentation and intensity of this will change when I add this in. Heroine has had a secret crush o friend's last ex, and now that he's available, well, she's thinking that maybe she'll go after him. I mean, just give him a call, nothing too stalkerish.

Whoa. Suddenly the fun ex-dissing scene has more reason for being, huh? And it's got more of a narrative purpose, and the heroine Mary has something to do besides making sure she gets the last glass of Malbec and remembering the name of the guy who dumped her (and totally broke her heart) in 11th grade. Now maybe she'll focus her attention. What's she want? She wants to make sure that friend Jane didn't break up with him for a really good reason, like he ships his laundry FedEx to his mother, because she's the only one who can do his underwear so it doesn't chafe. And she wants to know that Jane is totally over him and Mary can go after him without violating friendship ethics. See how that goal creates an agenda for her actions in the scene? Now maybe Mary's comments will have a little bit of an edge, because they won't be idle man-bashing comments, but pointed towards learning more (without maybe tipping her hand). She'll kind of casually prompt Jane to tell more about the breakup (and how good to learn that the problem is that Jane doesn't want to settle down and John is the type of guy who wants to commit), and maybe also make some feelers about whether Jane has moved on to another relationship and emotionally left John behind.

Another problem I see in scenes is that the writer loses track of the character's goal while creating the scene. This is actually more of a problem in "fun scenes" that showcase the author's (and/or character's) imagination or humor or prose. Here's a great scene of the protagonist landing on a new planet and exploring the landscape! What an opportunity for description, world-building, even adventure (as he is attacked by native beasts or runs from a sandstorm). But ... all that fun stuff will have more propulsion, thus more intense pace, if the character not only gets to observe and walk around, but has some purpose for doing so. And often the character does-- he's not on this planet just for fun, but to see if his shipmates can land here for some needed shoreleave. Or he's searching for a specific type of foliage with the right vitamin to cure the epidemic of scurvy on the ship.

Sometimes, the writer loses track of what the actual agenda of the scene is, what the scene protagonist is trying to accomplish. Let's think about the hero sitting in the meeting at work. Well, of course, he comes into this scene with the goal he started the book with, maybe getting a promotion. That is going to change the way he responds to his colleagues. He's not just going to mentally laugh at something stupid said by a rival for promotion, he's going to maybe even try to subtly goad the most annoying one to say something particularly dumb or racist or sexist, to reveal his/her unworthiness for the position.

So every scene should in some way show the character (I mean, the scene's protagonist or central character) acting and reacting with the motivation or goal in mind. Their ambition/desire doesn't take a vacation. And if he should find himself going several hours without thinking of the goal or acting to fulfill the motivation, then it should be a conflict. For example, let's say our ambitious young employee finds himself taking an afternoon off to go see some young woman play on the company softball team. Sometime during this scene, he should probably note that he's lost his focus, that he doesn't know what's come over him--- something that indicates that the goal hasn't disappeared even if something is beginning to distract him. He should notice that he's being distracted from what before he considered all important.

This is probably more common with character-oriented and/or relationship novels, because often the whole point of the book is to change the priorities of the protagonist-- but the initial goal still matters, even if-- especially if-- he's going to sacrifice it later.

And in individual scenes, characters can have goals or motivations that are specific to that moment. Let them act and react with that in mind. If you're worried that your story has gotten too episodic, that there isn't enough narrative thrust or forward motion, go back to your scenes. Does the character have an agenda that connects to some arc or journey? Make sure that the agenda is part of the scene.


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Ted's logline

From Ted:
After reading your blog post on creating loglines, I had a ton of fun introducing the idea to my monthly writing group. Within a few minutes, the group helped me come up with this logline for my most recent manuscript:

A brilliant neoclassical composer is lured into a shadowy underworld of corrupt implant software and drug-induced raves, revealing ominous secrets about his employer that threaten to ruin his career and force him to take drastic steps to protect the woman he loves.

I'd enjoy getting a few words of critique from you. Thanks!

You're right-- crafting log lines is a great group activity! Now I'll bet they'll all want your help on their log lines.

This is a one-sentence log line, very packed. I probably wouldn't be upset if you went with two sentences. Or you could trim out the words that aren't needed and see if it's shorter then. I really enjoy stories where some innocent is pulled into a honeytrap or whatever, and ends up triumphing over the bad guys.

Let's take it in pieces:

A brilliant neoclassical composer

I'd probably cut "brilliant"-- I at least assume if you're a neoclassical composer, you're probably brilliant. :) But also, it's not interesting, and feels like padding/bragging. As he's going to get lured into something nefarious, I'd think of setting up a conflict with an adjective, like "naive" or "introspective," something that actually says something about who he is that he might get lured into something.

is lured into a shadowy underworld of corrupt implant software and drug-induced raves,

I like the word "lured"-- that really is precisely the "luring" word, drawing the reader in and hinting at the process that will be developed more fully in the story. Also I think it indicates a more cerebral villain, which is a plus.

into a shadowy underworld of corrupt implant software and drug-induced raves,

Okay, here you lose me. I don't know what you mean. I'm with Jewel Tones (commenter) on this-- "implant" means breasts to most of us. What is a term that non-technical types (that includes most editors) can understand? Computer viruses? And "drug-induced raves" -- you mean raves like a music rave? Or a crazy person ranting on the street corner? And what does his being a composer have to do with it? I wonder if it might be better if you could actually write out what happens to him and then start to boil it down. It's the right idea, but how software, raves, and neoclassical music link up isn't clear and can't be explained in a log line. What's his conflict? He's lured into something bad by bad guys. It might actually be more important what about him-- his naivete, his vanity, whatever-- makes him vulnerable to this, or maybe why they bother. I mean, I value neoclassical as much as the next guy, but it's hard to believe a composer is worth much to a villain. What is it that makes him valuable to the bad guy? That's important,and we don't get anything about that.

(I know it sounds like I'm telling you to add to an already long sentence, and I am, but when you have a complex plot, I think you should explain it all and then boil it down. Remember what Hitchcock called "the McGuffin," the object of desire-- he didn't think he had to explain what it was. There was a priceless moment in his Notorious when finally Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman locate what they've been looking for, and she asks what is it, and he replies, "Some kind of ore." That is, the details don't matter much when the action is hot and the emotion is intense.)

Also, I'd probably just go with "underworld". I like "shadowy," but I think you really have to trim this if you want to have it all in one sentence.

revealing ominous secrets about his employer

Do composers have employers? I know, you probably mean his day job. I actually knew a neoclassical composer once, and he made his living as a computer programmer. He did say that a lot of composers did find work writing music for cartoons. (Now I guess it's videogames.) Anyway, I assume you mean his day job employer, but the only profession we've heard of is the composing. Do you need to make that clearer? Is it important who the employer is? I mean, say it's the CIA. That's important. But you might want to hint at what the secrets are. I think you're using modifiers instead of information-- ominous secrets-- and it might be that the information, or at least a hint of it, is what we need here. Not much-- "national security secrets" or "sexual secrets" or "criminal secrets" or "corrupt secrets" or "industrial espionage secrets"-- just something that hints at what the nature of the secrets is.

I'm all for creating an atmosphere with words. But you don't have much room here, and you don't want to be redundant. If the noun says it, you don't need to replicate it with a modifier (brilliant composer, ominous secrets). I wouldn't have any problem with that except I think you're skimping on the important stuff, like what is happening.

that threaten to ruin his career and force him to take drastic steps to protect the woman he loves.

Here are the stakes, which is good, but they're not actually equal-- his career (which one? composing or other?) and the woman he loves. The first kind of feels trivial after such a big buildup-- you mean, it's just his career at stake? I'd probably delete that and go with the woman he loves-- that's more high-stakes.

Watch for cliches that don't say much, like "take drastic steps". What does he have to do? I don't mean actual actions, but can you characterize what he has to do, like "betray his country" or "turn the tables" or "betray his values" or "risk all"?

So... the story sounds really intriguing (of course, I do love this sort of story), but I'd suggest trimming the extras from this and then getting more informative. I truly don't know what the danger is or why he's in danger, or what about him gets him into this situation.

And remember-- two sentences, okay. :)


Voice example here-- opening-- C.P.

Here's something different, from an exercise we posted a long time ago, so don't flood us with more, everyone! I have to get back to paying work. :) But this is an opportunity to talk about voice, and I promise, I'll finish later my thoughts about voice being more about character and world view than word choice.

Thank you so much for blog! It's by far the most helpful one I've seen.
I would like to submit the opening of my young adult novel, Shifter, for dissection. It is posted below.
C. P. Dotson
I stood in front of the water-spotted bathroom mirror and shifted myself into a supermodel, a tall one with sexy lips and a juicily curving figure.

If there were other shape-shifters in the world, they would probably despise me for being so shallow. But I live in the land of cow patty bingo and weekly Two-Step Night, so I have to find entertainment where I can.

I like how quickly you got to the point and the intriguing aspect of shape-shifting. Now I'm wondering why she (he?) didn't know if there were other shapeshifters. I'd suggest making that a bigger point, which means maybe trying it as a separate sentence.
Also, you are in first-person narration, in a young adult novel, so I'd read every single paragraph aloud to make sure the voice sounds right. I'm thinking that your sentences might be a little long, with too many elements, for a narrative that is probably supposed to sound conversational. I'd suggest reading aloud, because the reader will be able to sense when a sentence is too long to be read in a breath. That doesn't mean that every sentence has to be that short, but I'm counting three sentences there, and they're all long.

So see if you can break one of those sentences. It's pretty easy when you have two-clause sentences like the last one (just a period instead of comma and conjunction).

First-person narration can be dicey because you have to decide how colloquial you're going to be. But of course, what counts is that this is the character's voice. A repressed George-Will-wannabe high school chessplayer might speak in long sentences and complex paragraphs. A Jane-Austen addicted teenaged poet might use high-flown constructions and poetic metaphors. Most YA narrators talk, well, like teenagers (only without all the "you know what I means" and "and, like, so I'm going I kinda love you, and like, he's going I sorta love you too, and then we're going kissy-huggy...." although actually, that might be kind of funny). If you establish that this voice sounds like your character, that's what's important.

However, IF you have a more verbose narrator, go with it-- don't just go with long sentences. Work on the diction too. What words would this person use?

It could be fun to vary the voice with the shape he/she has shifted into also. The supermodel shape probably has a different voice!

Anyway, let me parse your opening, at long last.
I stood in front of the water-spotted bathroom mirror and shifted myself into a supermodel, a tall one with sexy lips and a juicily curving figure.

In these crucial opening moments, sneak in information when you can do it subtly. Is it "my water-spotted mirror"? Or the water-spotted mirror in the Dew Drop Inn's bathroom? (Notice that going with shorter sentences lets you add more detail.) I think we need to get an idea quickly of where we are, where this mirror is, because-- and this could just be me-- by the end of the second paragraph, I've already decided this is a honky-tonk bar, and I'm not sure that's what you want me to think. (It was the Texas two-step that made me think honky-tonk, btw.) If you want to cut short my probably incorrect speculation, put some quick unobtrusive setting info in the first paragraph. And it doesn't take much. If you have "my mirror," I'll know she's in her home.

I liked that verb "shifted" and the ease there-- no big deal, I just shifted into a supermodel. The syntax is just odd enough to make me know that something unusual is happening, but not odd enough to confuse me.

Do supermodels have juicily curving figures? I have to say, I'm not sure how actual supermodels would go over in a bar in cow-patty territory ("I like a woman with more meat on her"). The word "supermodel" is instantly understandable, and that's good, but precision matters. Supermodels do tend to be thin and straighter than curvy, from what I can see in Vogue magazine. So you might have some young people read that and see if they're getting the picture you want them to get. For some reason, I'm thinking "cover model" and "curvy figure" fit together better. "Supermodel" connects in my mind (and I'm not your target audience, of course!) with "thin and angular".

Otherwise, the sentence works pretty well to draw me in, and the diction seems appropriate to the genre you're writing in. The sentence is long but not very complicated, so I didn't have to re-read and untangle, and that's good. :)

If there were other shape-shifters in the world, they would probably despise me for being so shallow.

Okay, this is probably the sentence that clinks wrong for me. The inverted opening there ("If there were") is not really conversational and indicates a narrator with a more sensitive understanding of English grammar than most YA readers will have. That does NOT mean you shouldn't use it-- only that you need to make sure that it suits your character (and I suppose that your character suits a YA novel). I am definitely getting the idea that this narrator isn't a typical teen-- well, I knew that, since he/she is a shapeshifter, as we can tell by your clever use of "other" there (nice subtle touch). And really, as long as the voice expresses the character, it can work in any genre, probably. (Lemony Snicket's books-- wildly popular with grade-school readers-- feature a pompous 19th-C-run-amuck omniscient narrator, and it's the perfect voice for the stories.) Just make sure that the voice I'm getting is representative of this character-- that he/she would use "despise" rather than "hate", for example.

This is the sentence, anyway, that seems wrong and out-of-voice, but maybe it's not. It might work better if you went with two sentences that told more, like (just an example):
I didn't know if there were other shapeshifters in the world. But I did know they'd probably totally hate me for being so shallow. (My teenaged students would probably say "superficial," I think, but "shallow" says what you mean.)

or maybe:
You're probably wondering if there are other shapeshifters in the world. I didn't actually know, but I knew they'd probably hate me for being so shallow.

or if you really want to exploit that whole weird "who am I talking to" aspect of first-person:
Any other shapeshifters out there? Okay, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that I was shallow and not a respectable representative of the shapeshifting community. Well, duh.

IOW, there are lots of ways to say that, different voices, same message. This is really about channeling this character, and I do mean this-- if your sentences are matching your character, that's what's important. I'm just getting sort of a writerly vibe there, so I want to emphasize that you need to make sure-- in first-person-- that the narration sounds like the character, that we understand more about who this character is by how he/she sounds.

But I live in the land of cow patty bingo and weekly Two-Step Night, so I have to find entertainment where I can.

I like your glimpse of "the land". Now you're using past tense throughout ("If there WERE"), and that's actually kind of important in a first-person narration. There is the past of the book time, and there's the present when presumably s/he's telling the story, and you don't want to get us confused. Like what I'm getting is that she's not telling us that NOW (in the present) s/he knows or doesn't know there are shapeshifters, but rather that at the time of this scene, all we know is s/he doesn't know then. That's good, because you don't want to tip your hand (s/he might learn in the course of the book that there are other shapeshifters). But really, the most effective way to do this is to cast pretty much everything in past tense, so you're not posing the question in the reader's mind. "I live? Does that mean that s/he still lives there after the events of the book are done? Have to find? So s/he still has to find entertainment-- she hasn't found any fulfillment in the book?" If you aren't meaning to make some specific point about "after the book events," put all your verbs in past tense, and avoid the issue. (Some writers put it all in present tense, but that means narrating the events completely as they happen, with no retrospective at all, which can be fun, but might not be what you want.)

I think what confused me is what you mean by "so I have to find entertainment where I can." First, what's the entertainment? You might need to go back and add enough to the first paragraph that makes us know a bit about what he/she plans to do in that supermodel body. We just don't have enough info here. For example, after:
I stood in front of the water-spotted bathroom mirror and shifted myself into a supermodel, a tall one with sexy lips and a juicily curving figure.

... try adding another line to that first paragraph, like, say, "The cowboys around the bar would love me." Or "The boys hanging around the prom punchbowl wouldn't know what to do with me." Or "I was going to totally intimidate all the other candidates for cheerleader."
That would help nail down the setting and situation more, and also set up for that "entertainment" in the last line.

Back to the final line:
But I live in the land of cow patty bingo and weekly Two-Step Night, so I have to find entertainment where I can.

"Where I can"-- "where" seems a bit imprecise, because presumably she's not talking about a place. "How I can?" "When I can?"

Picky, picky, but every word should be just the right word in the opening. Also be aware of what the target audience is going to get from this. I'm not your target audience. I'm not even an editor who acquires for your target audience. So I might be completely wrong here. I do teach teenagers, though, so I hear their voices ALL THE TIME, so I don't think the character sounds like a normal teen... but of course, he/she isn't a normal teen, so that's fine. I'd just suggest making sure the voice sounds like the character-- and reveals what you want to reveal about the character.

Very intriguing! I like the idea of a shapeshifter in the YA world. Wish I'd had that capability back at Blacksburg High. :)


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Kelley's log line

I found your site through The Query Shark, and would love to get involved in the ER community. It looks like fun.

Aldon “Crash
Dally is a carefree hobo and leader of Chicago’s Shantytown. When teenage runaway Mary Burns stumbles into his realm, suddenly the police are everywhere. IMary has a secret that could destroy a powerful politican, and the two must run hard and fast to save her life, and put an end to the violent tent city shakedowns.

I like the first sentence. It describes him well, though "leader" is a bit weak for an outlaw type. See if you can find a stronger leadership word, because his outsiderness is your hook there.

I'd also suggest giving a sense of the time period. You can put that after "Chicago's", like Chicago's Depression-era shantytown.
That's the sort of insertion that doesn't get a lot of conscious notice, but is absorbed by the reader.
The second line:
When teenage runaway Mary Burns stumbles into his realm, suddenly the police are everywhere.
This is suddenly not about Crash, and you're losing some vitality. You could start with something like "His power is threatened when..." or "His realm is threatened when..." That is, don't lose your focus here.

With the last line, I think you're compressing too much and yet adding too much detail. We don't need to know why her secret is dangerous. What we need to know is why Crash is willing to risk all to save her. That is, when you say that a politician is threatened, that's about the pol's motivation. What's Crash's? That is, in this tight paragraph, you'll create more drama if you keep it unified on Crash.
Great idea! I love the Shantytown angle.

Amber's log line

Another one!
Hi. Here are my two loglines for my dark fantasy: 1. An innocent boy and his emotionless protector struggle for survival when a powerful demon becomes interested in the boy's destiny.

2. An innocent boy is caught in a violent tug-a-war between humans and
demons when both sides believes he is their prophesized messiah.
Thank you.
- Amber (you may use my name)

I like the second one more because I like the "tug-of-war"-- that so precisely describes what's happening. Notice though that you have "both"(plural) with "believes" (singular). "Each" might actually be better.
Is "prophesized" the word? Prophesied?

You're really using conflict words here-- tug of war, violent, between. That's good-- it's kind of bristly.


Monday, May 25, 2009

Susan's question

Susan asks:

I'm wrestling with my WIP and realized I have a character who's important because of who she is (family member) but has no real wants/needs in the book. Is this a necessary ingredient, or can she earn her spot in the story if she's there as merely an enabler to the other characters? (and now you see why I've been absent from the comments of late!) Thanks... Susan Helene Gottfried

Actually, you probably want to limit the number of characters who have goals and journeys in the book. Yeah, yeah, we're all human, and we're all important, and we all have needs-- but think about real life. I have no doubt that bank teller has problems and goals and a whole life, but I just want her to give me money. She's got a role to play, and her goals and needs just aren't important to me. Sorry. (But if she were to burst into tears, I'd be drawn in and suddenly care. Fortunately, she just cashes my check.)

Who is your protagonist? Okay, now what is this person's relationship or role in relation to the protagonist? If all she does is enable, that's fine. It might be boring, it might not. But if she's distracting us from the protagonist because, I don't know, her newborn needs a donor heart, well, that's a problem. She's not a major character, right? She's there to further the plot in some way. She doesn't even have to be interesting, actually, if her role is limited. For example, say she's the sister-in-law who calls to tell Joe that his father has died, and there's going to be a dispute about the will because dad's trophy wife has vowed to get every penny. Maybe that's the end of her role-- just messenger. But maybe not. If she's married to Joe's brother, obviously she has an interest in the will too. If so, go with it. Is she greedy too? Or is she heartsick for her husband, who is going to lose so much? Or what?

That is, you don't have to invent goals and conflicts. The role will have them sort of pre-ordained for you. If you give a plausible sense of that, you don't really need (probably) this person to have purely personal (not connected with protagonist) goals. Or at least, you don't need to show them usually. So think about who this person is and what her role is. It's probably (in relation to pro) one of these:
1) A motivation (she's his grandmother and he owes her everything and all she wants before she dies is to see his college graduation)
2) A conflict (she's his ex-wife, and they still own a business together, and it's hard to operate a business when there's so much emotional tension)
3) A foil (she's his sister, and they're a lot alike, but she's gone the conventional route and we can see by looking at her how far he's strayed from his affluent roots).

Make sure that you can figure out the naturally occurring conflicts and goals that come with the role. Show that role in operation. That is, don't have her as some business rival (that is, with a built-in conflict) who generously shares with him the information he needs-- she should only do that if it furthers her role as rival somehow (like they form an alliance). IF there's more to it-- like she's fallen in love with him and is betraying her own interests for him-- then she's become more than a roleplayer and yeah, you might need to flesh out her part and make her a major character. If you don't want to do that, go back to the role, and think about what that is, and give her plausible goals and needs and conflicts -- but all within the story. Make her real, but don't make her important.


Rasheeda's log line

Rasheeda's line:

When psychic with a conscience Jasmine Winters warns her worst enemy of an impending serial killer attack, she learns that killer may be closer than she thinks and now he's after her.
OR Psychic Jasmine Winters is about to find out which is harder: saving her worst enemy from a serial killer; learning someone she loves might be that serial killer; or finding out she's a target of that killer.

I like the second one because I like that list (though you need commas, not semicolons, in the list). And I'd maybe go with a dash for a pause before the last one, just so there's that breath of finality.

Psychic Jasmine Winters is about to find out which is harder: saving her worst enemy from a serial killer, learning someone she loves might be that serial killer-- or finding out she's a target of that killer.

Just a couple thoughts: I like "psychic with a conscience" and if you go with the second line, I'd use that before her name. And consider putting in some action-- you have "is about to find out," but that's pretty passive. Is about to discover might be stronger. Must discover? You have "Find out" twice in the sentence, and you don't want that.

And think about definite articles -- "a target" is indefinite, sort of formless. THE target sounds more focused, more critical. (And yeah, maybe he's got more than one target. Who cares? She's still THE target. Don't water down the danger.:)

Anyway, I do like that list! Think about strengthening the first part of that line. Does she find out through her psychic ability? Or some other way? You could add on something to the beginning, like "The crystal ball is telling Jasmine ..."

Again, experiment, and aim for precision and focus. But I do like the list! I think it's clever and sets up her conflicts in an intriguing way.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Linda's log line

Linda says:
Here are my two. You are welcome to use my name. In my case, Monster Mash is very appropriate!

1. When a celebrity assassin discovers the existence of a deadly weapon from the past, he has to dodge magic, B-movie monsters, and paparazzi to stop an assassination.

2. When a celebrity assassin discovers a map painted in magic in a painting, he is plunged into a desperate search for a weapon that could destroy his country.

Thank you very much for posting the original list. J It turned out that thinking about a couple of the elements helped me figure out a better ending for the book.

Linda Adams

Well, I'm obviously a sucker for odd things, but I immediately perked up with the first one because it had B-movie monsters and papparazzi. The second is serviceable but didn't fire any jets for me.

The term "celebrity assassin" was confusing-- that's one of those glitches in English, where you're not sure whether the first is a modifier (a famous assassin), or part of the noun (an assassin of celebrities). Either way, the question is-- if he's an assassin, why would he work so hard to prevent an assassination? I'm assuming he has a reason. So why not say? stop the assassination of his favorite porn star? to stop the assassination of the movie producer who expressed interest in his screenplay? The goal needs motivation. Why does he want to accomplish this?

The second one has more motivation (though fewer Alicia-inciting buzzwords)-- this weapon is going to destroy his country. (By assassinating someone? Who?) Actually, though the stakes are clearly higher-- destruction of a country vs. an assassination-- killing a person FEELS more stakey than ho-hum, another country destroyed (it's actually very, very hard to destroy a country, after all, and takes so long). Maybe if you make it clear who is to be assassinated, you can give a sense of the danger to the country?

Experiment, and let's see. :)


Jeannie's log line, because she has my mother's name :)

Jeannie says:
I see you are starting up with the loglines. I have since changed my book. Here are the old log lines
To create his perfect mate, Lucifer not only must first turn a frustrated artist into a vampire, but must convince her to give up her false notions about him, vampires and the universe, or he faces rejection...again. Fallen from Grace, now fallen in love, Lucifer discovers turning a frustrated artist into a vampire is only the beginning of a journey that will lead him to confront a merciless God, insatiable vampires and ultimately his own feelings of rejection.
Here are the new ones:
Clues found in mysterious rituals and ancient writings show a frustrated artist she's the reincarnation of a divine spirit destined to redeem the original fallen angel and bring peace, but first she must survive the vampires who will do anything to stop her. Vampires hunt a woman mentioned throughout ancient writings who's destined to redeem the first fallen angel and bring peace.

Thanks for doing this.

Hi, Jeanie.I like the first one because it's personal, because it shows a character who has a goal and a conflict. And I happen to have always had a secret hankering for Lucifer (the legacy of a Catholic girlhood :), so my interest was quickened just like that!
The second one is interesting, but very distant. Notice that you start with an impersonal noun (Clues) and you also have the last line, the conflict line, start impersonally, with vampires, not either major character. I'd go with the first-- It's strong on character and also has the buzz of Lucifer, and that great line about "fallen". Personal = high stakes.

For either, I'd give the frustrated artist a name, and since "frustrated" sounds sort of trivial, I'd go with a stronger, more conflict-filled adjective, like "Annie, a despairing artist/a failed artist/ a disillusioned artist...." Heck, I'm a frustrated artist. That is truly not as cool as a fallen angel. :)

Which do you like best?


Saturday, May 23, 2009

chris's question-

Chris's question (and sorry about all the formatting problems-- I can't get them fixed!):

Dear Edittorrent,

I was hoping that you might be able to analyze my opening and help me with the use of 'had.' I like this opening, but it feels clunky and I can't pinpoint why...

It's for an MG.

I'm very grateful for any help, whenever you have a chance...




“How many times have I told you-stay away from the corpses!” Mr. Pasternak stood behind Seth, his arms crossed over his chest.

Seth hadn’t heard his father enter the freezer. He was too busy zipping and unzipping body bags, looking for somebody whose nose was bigger than Morie Sorenson’s. He’d been looking for three years. He wished he would’ve taken a picture of Morie’s nose while he’d had the chance. His memory of it was beginning to fade.

“But Dad, nobody cares.” Seth motioned to the rows of dead bodies on both sides of him. “Except maybe Mrs. Heffinger.” Seth smiled and patted her on the head. “She likes me.”

Well, I like it pretty much. It's a cute opening. Just a couple thoughts-- This is maybe what feels clunky:
“How many times have I told you-stay away from the corpses!” Mr. Pasternak stood behind Seth, his arms crossed over his chest.

Of course, many times I've argued against starting with a line of dialogue, and this is an example of a clever line that might work as a hook, but ends up clunking. Why? Well, whose point of view are you in? Mr P's? No one's? Seth's? Or maybe omniscient?

We don't have a clue, so the tag there (Mr. Pasternak...) that tells us presumably who said this clunks. Let's say it's omniscient-- omniscient is good at setting the scene, telling where we are, etc. We don't have any of that. So it's probably not omniscient ("The freezer was dark and cold and the corpses ....").

It's probably not Mr. P's, because we pretty quick go into Seth's mind.

So it's probably Seth's POV, but notice that while you're pretty deep into his head the rest of the passage, that first line is nowhere, and confusing besides. Mr. P is his father-- Seth wouldn't call him Mr. Pasternak, would he? Plus if Mr. P is standing BEHIND him, Seth couldn't see that he's got his arms crossed.

Put us in Seth's body as well as his mind. Here's this sudden demand:

“How many times have I told you-stay away from the corpses!”
What does Seth do? Spin around? And how does he feel? Guilty? Scared? Amused? Don't wait until you fill in what he used to be doing-- establish the Right Now. If you don't want to establish the Right Now, then start farther back, when he's getting started examining the corpses.

But I know you want to start with that line of dialogue, and I guess it's pretty clever. So how can you do that, park the POV in Seth's mind, AND establish the Right Now before telling what he was doing?

I'd suggest start with the line. And then BE IN SETH'S BODY. DO SETH.

“How many times have I told you-stay away from the corpses!”
At this sudden demand, Seth spun around and saw his father there in the opening of the freezer, arms crossed over chest.

Now what? Think about whether it would be better to have Seth answer him (No one minds) first, and then backtrack to think about what he'd been doing. Why? Because a question (or demand) needs an answer, and if you postpone that, the reader gets antsy. Let's try it, just to experiment, and you decide if you've lost anything by rearranging:

“How many times have I told you-stay away from the corpses!”
Seth hadn’t heard his father enter the freezer, but at this sudden demand, Seth spun around and saw his father there in the opening of the freezer, arms crossed over chest.
He recovered quickly. “But Dad, nobody cares.” Seth motioned to the rows of dead bodies on both sides of him. “Except maybe Mrs. Heffinger.” Seth smiled and patted her on the head. “She likes me.”

He couldn't tell Dad the truth, that he'd been busy zipping and unzipping body bags, looking for somebody whose nose was bigger than Morie Sorenson’s. He’d been looking for three years. He wished he would’ve taken a picture of Morie’s nose while he’d had the chance. His memory of it was beginning to fade.

I don't know-- see what you think. But I would say the one real problem I see is that second sentence, where you have Mr. Pasternak. It messes up your POV approach and is going to confuse the reader. Begin as you mean to go on here-- if this is Seth's book, from the start, put us inside Seth. Try it and see if it feels better to you.

Good luck!

Friday, May 22, 2009


Today's blog post is being brought to you by the letters R and U.

Head on over to Romance University. I'm the guest teacher today, and we're talking about backstory. They've filed me under "Chaos Theory." Hmm.

ETA: I just found out that another article went live today, too. Talking about the history of Red Sage and futuristic erotic romance with Heather from Galaxy Express. She asked me one question that really stumped me. :)


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Voice thoughts-- world view

Voice, anyone?

I think writers are getting really self-conscious about "creating a voice," and maybe that's counterproductive. Not that whatever spews out is voice-- but I think you FIND and then REFINE your voice, you don't create it whole cloth.

Actually, I think voice starts not with sentences-- it ENDS with sentences-- but rather with world view.

Oh, first, this is something that might be different from author to author-- or from work to work. That is, is your voice consistent throughout your oeuvre, developing, maybe, but never transforming into something else? Or is it a work-oriented process, where you have a different voice in every book (perhaps because your voice is actually the characters' voices? Which would each of you say your voice is?

I would suspect, with my evidence only being my reading, that comedy writers have fairly consistent voices. That is, Carl Hiassen "sounds" similar from book to book, no matter who the major character is, because his voice is what makes him funny. (I remember asking Eileen Dreyer to do a workshop on "How to Write Funny," and she replied, "Look. Either you're funny or you're not. You can't fake it.")

But writers who do deep POV (and that is usually in books where one or two characters dominate, and their journey drives the story) might have radically different voice from one book to another, because they're actually writing in "character voice".

What do you all think?

But anyway, one aspect of voice I think is paramount and primary is "world view". What is that? It's how you (or the character, or both) view the world. That is, if you have sort of a paranoid world view, and I don't mean that pejoratively, because it's actually a great world view for horror and dystopic and cyberpunk, then your voice is going to reflect that. If you're funny, it'll probably be in a dark-comedy way. You are unlikely to have sentimental scenes (unless you're setting up for something really gross or disastrous). Your tone will invite the reader to feel a sense of dread.

But if you (or character in voice) have a sunnier world view, then you'll likely choose a sunnier genre or subgenre. If you write about vampires, they're probably funny vampires who chat about how cow's blood makes them flatulent.

This will affect everything else-- what events you choose, how you end the story, how painful the internal conflict is, how you develop scenes, and oh, yes, what words you choose in your sentences, and in what order you put sentences in a paragraph (do you end on an upbeat or a downbeat?).

I think this is the FIRST voice choice, and everything derives from this. This is why I get annoyed when writers act as if voice is all about their diction (word choice) or their syntax (sentence order). Those come last. And in fact, those should come naturally because of the choices you made even before you created a sentence. In fact, world view might not be a choice at all. You are probably born an optimist or a pessimist, and I don't know if you can change that, and it's likely to affect your world view as a writer.

I guess what I'm saying is, your voice task on the sentence level should be going through and finding the sentences and words which are not within your voice (or the voice of the book or scene) and fixing them, refining them to be within the voice you've already established. If you're self-consciously crafting "voice" into your sentences, I have to wonder how organic your writing is. That is, if your world view (in life, or just for this book, or just as a writer-- yeah, I do think a person who lives sunnily can write darkly, sure... but she's adopting the world view as she writes-- she doesn't just choose "dark words," does she? Not if she knows who she is as a writer and what this book is) -- where was I? Oh. If your world view is this and not that, the story and the scene design and the paragraphing and the sentences should reflect that world view-- the tone or the mood created in the reader should be constructed by all of that, not just word choice.

(Let me point something out. I was going to revise that last paragraph because I have been teaching my students how not to fragment and comma-splice sentences, and I really ought to set a better example. I mean, just attaching a bunch of clauses together with dashes does NOT a coherent sentence make. But then I thought, heck, what a good example of syntax reflecting world view? See, I tend to think, "It's all connected." I mean, if I weren't a skeptic, I'd be a conspiracy theorist, because within me there's a suspicion that Oliver North is connected to the assassination of JFK. Sure, maybe he was only 19 at the time, but really, in the 80s, he was connected with just about everything, and who knows? Anyway, my dark fantasies about Ollie North aside, I do think it's all connected, and that is reflected in my choice of university -- Chicago, where everything is cross-curricular-- and also my favorite punctuation mark, yes, the dash, and it'd probably also be the ellipsis if I wasn't so scared of Theresa's scorn. Anyway, point is, my stringing all that together in the paragraph above reflects my "connected" world view.)

(And no, I'm not sure what my penchant for parentheses reflects. Skepticism, somehow? Or maybe the suspicion that you always have to delve deeper?)

So what is a world view? Well, you know as well as I do. But here are some -- I think it's kind of about the assumptions you start with about life. (And the world view can actually be the major POV character's-- as I said, you can vary your voice by story or even by scene.)

Pessimist or optimist?
(Related to that) Do you think humans are innately good or not?
What matters more, justice or mercy?

Would you say principle matters more than pragmatics, or vice versa?

Democracy or benign dictatorship?

Are you more likely to laugh or cry?

Dogs or cats? Or no pets at all?

Is betrayal likely in this world?

Do you believe in miracles?

What about love at first sight?

Beauty or goodness, or are they the same?

"Live fast, die young, leave a handsome corpse," or "You can never be too careful?"

Destiny? Is there destiny, or do you think mostly we make our own way? (This is very important in romance-- I find that I tend not to believe in stories where people are "fated" to be together, as in Twilight... I like it when they have to work for it. That's world view!)

What genre-- horror or romance? Mystery or sf? Or????

Is the universe getting better or worse?

Community or individual-- what is paramount?

Urban or rural?

Active or reflective?

Expressive or private?

Bright colors or subdued?

Modern or traditional?

Fast or slow?

Poetry or prose, or both?

How empathic are you? Can you feel what others are feeling?

Do you believe in intuition?

Do you believe in God? (I ask this because I notice that some writers I know to be atheists or agnostics are fascinated by religion, but the way they deal with "absolutes" reflects their own complex feelings... cf. Joss Whedon's notion of "soul" in Buffy the Vampire Slayer... the incoherence of the treatment of soul, I think, reflects his agnosticism, his skepticism and yet reverence for the concept of faith -- and in fact, the incoherence makes the story deeper and more ambiguous.)

Should things make sense? Is incoherence annoying or deep?

Respect or love? (If you think you can have both, you are in a different world view than someone who thinks you can only have one.)

Are there answers, or only questions? Which is more important to explore?

I know these sound like I'm asking you about your intimate internal life, but in fact, who you are of course affects your world view, and your world view affects every aspect of your expression. (Again, some of us do subsume ourselves so utterly in a character, that the character's world view takes over, though our malleability is probably a result of our world view). And your expression, of course, comes out in your story, in your choice of genre, in your plot development, in your writing process. And eventually it will affect your sentences and word choice. For example, if your world view is skeptical, you will probably undercut your words a lot, maybe by having the POV character say something, and then immediately think something contradictory, or mentally "translate" it to what the truth is. Or if your world view exalts nature, you're probably going to have more description and use more vivid words, and maybe use natural phenomenon as a metaphor for emotion.

Thank you, Wikipedia: A worldview describes a consistent (to a varying degree) and integral sense of existence and provides a framework for generating, sustaining, and applying knowledge.

Okay, so it's about existence and knowledge. And expression therein.

But this is where you start, whence everything about the way you write derives.

For example, I think my world view is skeptical and yet optimistic. Everything I write, I think, reflects my world view that humans are innately good and yet can and should get better, and I can help. :)

So anyway, would you say that your world view is your own, more or less unchanging, reflecting very much who you are... or does your fiction-writing world view (as opposed to your personal world view) far more reflect the characters or book you're working with?



Monday, May 18, 2009

Log Lines, or, Picking Up Where We Left Off

Once, in the ladies room at a conference, I overheard an author complaining about her editor. "She takes forever to read anything. I think it's because she spends all day blogging and twittering."

Clearly, that author was not talking about me, despite my sometimes slow reading response times. Apologies for my recent lack of blogging, but blogging is for fun, and work does come first. The good news is that we've got two new acquisitions editors hard at work on our backlog, my injuries from the car wreck are about 98% healed, the Red Sage 15th Anniversary celebration is more or less planned, and there are fewer than 80 pending manuscripts in my inbox. Things are starting to feel almost normal again. (knock wood)

So. Where were we? Oh, right. Log lines.

Here's a pair from Beth, who blogged about finding our blog through Janet Reid's blog. Bet you can't say that five times fast.

After a teen girl who's been cryogenically frozen on a generation space ship is woken up fifty years before the ship's due to land on a new planet, she must work with the future leader of the ship to find the person who is unplugging (and thereby killing) the other cryogenically frozen people...before her parents are unplugged.

After two teens on a generation space ship discover a plot to kill the cryogenically frozen people on board, they also discover a terrible secret about the ship, and must decide whether it's better to tell the truth or let everyone else live in happy ignorance.

Anybody know what a generation space ship is?

My first thought is that I want to play mix and match with this pair. In no particular order, here are the things that jump out at me.
  • I want the teen girl instead of two teens, because it gives a clear protagonist.
  • The whole fifty years thing seems like a distraction.
  • The plot to kill the other cryogenically frozen people is interesting. And probably is the plot.
  • Her parents. There's your stakes.
  • How can the others live in happy ignorance if they're being picked off in their sleep?

If we scramble the bits, we might end up with something like,

After a teen girl on a generation space ship discovers a plot to kill the cryogenically frozen people on board, she must work with the future leader of the ship to find the person who is killing the other cryogenically frozen people...before her parents are unplugged.

Still not perfect. Teen girl is okay because it signals YA, but I'd like something that indicates character. Throw me an adjective. Lonely teen girl. Or a character tag. Prom queen.

But it does now sound like an interesting story, doesn't it? I can easily imagine wanting to read this one. What does everyone think?


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Revisions 2

Okay, here's another situation that came from revision requests, and I want to stress the author (and I :) were polite at every juncture.

I got a submission that wasn't really erotica, more like sexy science fiction, and I returned it with some suggestions about how this could be more appropriate for us. Author came back with a revised manuscript. It still was more sexy science fiction-- which is fine, but we publish erotica, and I did assume that, since she had submitted to us, she was okay with making this erotica. I made some more suggestions, got another version, but there was still too much Other Stuff, just right for a s/f story, but detracting from the romantic/erotic story. One of the major issues (I'm shifting some details here) was the title, which was based around "Stars," which might be great in a s/f title, but not so much for us.

Anyway, made some suggestions, including changing the title. Now I was figuring that we'd take this story if the final issues could be dealt with, though I didn't say that out-- I don't offer a contract until I really mean it. :) Author said she couldn't make these final changes as they made the story something other than she wanted it to be-- the title was a big part of that-- and withdrew it. No hard feelings, etc. The emphasis I wanted wasn't what she wanted.

And she was right. But so was I. Why? Because she had submitted to us, and we have a publishing focus, and I assumed that she was okay with our publishing focus, that she wanted to publish with us, because she submitted to us.

If you don't want to do a round of revisions, if you have aspects of your story that you want to keep but are somewhat in conflict with what an editor publishes, you'll save yourself and the editor a lot of time if you decide that before you submit. It is not crazy for me to assume that, if you submit to my house, you want to be published by this house. And there really are genre differences that if you submit to me, and I think your story can work with our focus, I will suggest changing.

For instance, we publish a lot of speculative fiction-- sf and paranormal. But it's erotica too, or primarily. Lots of sf romance can be modified or intensified to work for us, and when we get a story like that, we suggest the revisions which will make it more right for us. (No, we are not going to publish something wonderful but not right for us. That's reality.) It is not an intrusion on author authority to suggest the changes that will make the story more erotica and less standard sf.

I was at a conference once, on a panel about Beginnings, and I made a big point that I didn't want three chapters of worldbuilding before the romance gets going, that the setting information should be developed in with the story. A science fiction editor was also on the panel, and she laughed and said she DID want three chapters of worldbuilding, because that's what her readers were looking for.

If you want to have three chapters of worldbuilding, you should submit to her, and not to me. :)

Not that there's anything wrong with that type of story. But you're the one who is choosing the publishers you're submitting to-- and if you submit to us, we assume that you're accepting that we publish XYZ, and that you want XYZ in your story if that's what we publish. If you don't want XYZ in your story, you really shouldn't be submitting to us.

We publish a lot of novellas, and sometimes I think that everyone who has a novella of any kind just does a global search for "novella publishers" and sends it to all of them. If it's clearly inappropriate, I never even see it. The problem comes when we get a novella submission that is romantic in focus, that is, often rather easily intensified to erotica. Then, yeah, I'm going to make the suggestions to bring the story closer to what we publish. That is not taking over your story. That's not making it wrong for other publishers (you did keep a copy of the original, didn't you? If not, it's really not my fault :). It's seeing if it can be right for us.

This is why it's absolutely essential for the sake of your own stress level (and mine :) that you research the market before you submit. If this publisher doesn't publish stories like yours-- and especially if it publishes stories sort of but not exactly like yours (sf romance, but not straight sf, say)-- think before you submit about whether you are going to be willing to change this story that much. If not-- don't submit there. They are NOT going to change what they publish just for you.

Of course, we seldom know what we value until we contemplate not having it. So it's understandable that you might submit something somewhere and only later realize that you don't want to change the story so much. Just remember-- you're in control here, of yourself, your story, and your decisions. No one can take that away from you. But that also means that you're the one with all the responsibility to make the right choices for your own work.


She Shrieked Scurrilously

Go here and read the post on Editing Aids if you want a giggle.

I've been too busy to post, but help is on its way. I'm in the process of finalizing two new hires. Thank God, Praise Jeebus, Hallelujah and Amen. We'll do some log lines just as soon as my inbox stabilizes under the 100-pending-messages mark. I've been fighting for weeks to get it into the 90s, but then it shoots back up almost instantly. Just can't keep up right now. Sorry. Too much going on.

FYI, for those who are wondering about this sort of thing, I did pick up a new author from RT. This means I have a perfect record of finding new talent, at least one new author, at every RT I've attended. No other conference yields the same results.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Character question

Okay, I need examples here.

When do you know it's deep, textured characterization, and not inconsistent characterization?

Like a woman leader who has been, up to this time, all for freedom of speech, suddenly engages in censorship. What would make it inconsistent characterization, and what would make it deep?



Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Re comments about revision

Great comments to last thread--- go and read! Here are parts of a few, but they're all important and thoughtful.

Thus I think that as long as the parties are open with each other and the agent is trying to be helpful, an author would be foolish not to seriously consider the suggestions.

I could always go back to the version I had pre-editorial changes, and I'd like to think I'd have learned a good deal through the process.

Pat W
I guess I'm wondering why an agent/editor would put a writer through multiple rounds of revision, only to turn it down. If the writer wasn't doing a good job with the revisions, wouldn't the process have stopped much earlier?

So, while I'm sure you're great at your job, and a real asset to the authors you work with, there does come a time where I think you need to assess if your revisions are tailoring the book to the needs of you and your house. If so, I think it's fair for you to contract the book before those revisions happen. Because another editor might be turned off by what's cut or added at your request.

But, as Laura said, the author can always go back to the original, can't she?

A couple comments makes me realize that what I might consider "free advice", many writers will consider "unasked for interference without a contract."

The downside is, of course, that if I have to send out a contract before it's "right," I'll turn down stories that I think have promise, because I can't gamble on the author being able to reach that potential, and I won't go to contract before I know that. So... I think if Stephen's suggestion is helpful-- be absolutely upfront about what your expectations are.

But I also think the AUTHOR has to be the one to broach this, as it's clear many authors are happy to get free editorial advice whether or not it leads to a contract. (And most editors assume that, I think.) So if we editors have the perhaps silly notion that any feedback is helpful, the writer might say, "I'm happy to do this revision round, but after that (whatever)."

Now the question is, how would editors react to that. I probably would respond (having been through the whole contract/revision refusal situation) that I have no idea if this story will be right until I see all the suggestions enacted, and thanks and good luck placing it elsewhere, and you don't need to worry that I'll send a bill for my advice, because I did offer it freely. :)

That is, if I were a writer who really wanted to sell to this publisher or this editor, or to be represented by this agent, I wouldn't make any ultimatums. But if this was the book of my heart, one I couldn't imagine changing, especially for market reasons, I wouldn't even do one round of revisions, probably. I think I'd even be a bit resentful if the editor suggested I change something about the plot or characters, because if I love it Just Like This, I don't want to hear suggestion for improvement. And I have a book, actually, that I love Just Like This, and I won't change a word, and that could be why it's never sold.

What I'm doing now is asking with the initial rejection letter (and only when I can identify some aspect for improvement that isn't "write better" -- I mean, something useful-- "I have some suggestions on how to improve the (aspect), so let me know if you want that advice."

So I'd only give advice if it is asked for. So far, everyone's asked for it.

I should say there are two basic scenarios where I'd ask for major revisions:

1) There's some big issue that if the writer can fix, then the story will work for me. For example, a lot of writers start with a chapter or a scene which really is disposable-- it adds very little to the story, and maybe even detracts or sends the wrong initial message to the reader, like "this is going to be a book about two girlfriends and their bond," when it's really an action/adventure novel. This is very common, and it's also pretty easily fixable, because the story will go on very well without it, or maybe with just a bit of that first-scene information sprinkled in. In that case, if it's a pretty easy fix, I would suggest that and say that I'd like another look afterwards. And if it comes back, and I think it works, I'll probably offer a contract, and might say that further revisions could be needed, but we can get to that after the contract. The danger is, of course, what if what I think of as a minor revision after the contract-- and I'll be reading the book again (and doing the line edit) after that, and I might then notice other problems... it does happen-- might be a dealbreaker for the writer. And breaking the deal AFTER the contract is a pain for all concerned. But that's never happened yet, though I have had a couple painful post-contract wrangles that made me think, "I don't want to go through this again." :)

2) But just as common is a story that has promise, but needs a lot of work, and I doubt one round will do it. Maybe the writer has a great voice, but the plot is too contrived or over-complicated, or too much of the action is committed by secondary characters, or there's no control of point of view. I know this is going to take real advanced work on the writer's part to fix, and he might not get it perfect the first time-- or maybe ever. If I say, for example, that he's headhopping a lot, and he needs to get control over his POV, well, he might be one of those writers who need only to have this pointed out to them to suddenly grasp POV and make it work. Or he could need a couple manuscripts to practice on before he gets POV right. I don't know. And he might fix the POV, but in doing so, make a character unsympathetic (nothing like internalization to reveal unpleasant personality aspects, huh?). Or he might have terrific deep POV in one scene, and then the rest of the scenes are distant, making for a jarring contrast. So at any point here, I really can't know if the manuscript's going to end up as something I want to contract. And I must remember, I'm employed by my publisher, not by the submitter, and my job is to bring to contract only manuscripts she'll want to publish-- not to reward writers for their hard work with a contract. We can both work very hard on a manuscript and it's still not going to be ready for our contract (though of course, another publisher might be happy with it). So what then?

I just know this-- I can't offer a contract without being sure it's right or shortly to be right. It wouldn't be fair to the publisher, whose reputation, not to mention money, is on the line.

So suggestions? Thoughts? I really wonder if it makes a difference where you are in your career. If you're starting out, maybe it's true, all feedback is welcomed, but maybe later, you are not as eager to take advice because you are more confident? Or more savvy about the market, knowing that what one publisher wants "fixed" (say, Harry Potter), another might want as is?

Now that I think of it, I'm far more likely to trust in the ability of a well-published veteran to do revisions-- and to know what a contract means in terms of revision-- that is, it's not a contract to publish whatever the author wants to send me.

I know I have several times told a submitter that what is needed to make it work for me would change the book too much-- often, by the way, that's what "not right for us" really means, that it's not right for us. There is a difference between "a terrific book that we just can't publish because of subject matter or innovative style or genre considerations," and "a book that might be terrific for us except for these PROBLEMS." And maybe that should be made clearer-- well, actually, I meant to address that in the next post, because often this is a matter of the submission being in the wrong-but-closely-related category, and thus both "fixable" by my estimation while "just right" by the author's estimation. (And we're both right. But not, perhaps, right for each other.)


A Submission Puzzler

One of the more complicated issues in submitting to publishers is the revise-and-resubmit letter. I've had a couple exchanges recently that raised puzzling questions in my mind, and I thought I'd share them with you.

Many, if not most, of the good submissions I get could be right for us, but only with some work. Generally the disqualifying issue isn't mechanical-- if the manuscript has a lot of grammar and punctuation errors, I return it with a cheery note that I know the writer must want another chance to edit before submitting it, and when she does go through the manuscript again, she should look especially for (most egregious errors 1 and 2).

Fortunately most submitters aren't in that situation, or at least the first reader at my house snares most of them and rejects them before I can even see them. :) But often there's some structural or presentation issue, and, if that is fixed well, the ms will be more in line with what we publish, and I can evaluate it without going with that quick dismissal, "Not right for us, thanks."

Anyway, here are a couple recent exchanges that illuminate the complications of this "between not there and there" position (I'll do the first here, and then another post on the second, because I have a meeting to go to)--

First, I had an interesting submission with a lot of pluses-- clever premise, effective style, and just the right length (which is important right now). But there were some development lapses-- that is, some threads weren't really pulled through, some characterization was inconsistent, some later scenes weren't set up, and the opening was one of those "protagonist and best friend talking about the situation" scenes which can almost always be deleted without pain. Except for the last, each of these revisions required a fair amount of work. That is, if you have in Chapter 9 the revelation of an internal issue, you might need to go back and "seed" that in Chapter 2, and that's more than a matter of sticking in a new paragraph.

Of course, the original revision letter took a lot of time, and then when the revised version came back, I noticed some other aspects that could be deepened or expanded or set up, and in all, I think there were three revisions. A lot of work for both of us. After the second, the submitter asked, and I don't blame her, if this meant I would buy the story once everything had been fixed, as she had never done so much work before contract. I was a tiny bit stung-- I thought we were having fun :)-- and replied with something like, "Well, you get what you pay for." That is, I thought she was getting free editorial advice, and how lucky was that, huh? And whether or not we went to contract, the story would be better for my input. That's what I thought, anyway. She quickly responded that of course she was happy to do the revisions, and she did, and we did go to contract with a story I think will please us both (and will please customers).

This revision-before-contract process was a direct result of a couple experiences where we took a story to contract with a mere promise to revise afterwards-- and then the author had trouble doing the revisions, or was unhappy with the issues raised. I decided that with new-to-me authors, I'd really rather fight that battle beforehand rather than do it after the publisher had already committed money and contract. And if a writer doesn't want to do revisions, or is incapable of doing them, I want to know before I send a contract offer.

(Now this might not apply to authors whose revision history I know already. I'm more likely to go to contract on a promise from an author I've worked with before, and so far that hasn't been a problem.)

Getting the book nearly perfect for us before contract has ended up being the most effective process for me the editor. But let me toss this out for discussion. How does it feel to writers? Consider that you're asked to revise and resubmit, and the revision requests are fairly extensive, and the letter comes with not a promise of a contract, just a promise to take another look. What's your reaction to that? Would you feel differently if you were, say, previously published than if this were your first submission, or if you'd submitted a lot, but hadn't sold yet?

Now let's say you happily do the revision and resubmit, and the editor comes back with even more suggestions. What's your reaction?

At what point (if any) do you demand that the editor fish or cut bait?

Hey! I actually had a similar-- well, not really, but it was illustrative of how dim I can be when it comes to my own business-- experience as a writer! Someone emailed me-- on recommendation from a friend of mine-- asking if I'd consider ghostwriting a book. The money dangled was pretty good, and I can always be bought, you know. Anyway, I said sure, and they wanted credentials, which I sent happily, and then they wanted a sample --published-- of my work, so I sent them a copy of a book, and then they wanted to see how I'd fix a chapter, and so I fixed one of their chapters. And sometime about here I realized-- or they revealed-- that there were THREE OTHER people vying for this job, and dumb me, I hadn't realized I was competing. And I had this flash memory of some guy who had advertised for editorial help, and as an "audition," he sent a chapter of his book to each of 20 applicants. A -different- chapter. After the audition chapters came in, lo and behold, he had the whole book edited, as he'd planned all along. And of course he never hired anyone-- he didn't have to-- though I've always wondered how well all those differently-edited pieces fit together. Editors, like writers, have voices.
So I told the writers about this experience and asked straight out if this is what they were doing. They weren't-- everyone had gotten the same chapter-- and by their lights, they were simply interviewing different applicants for a job and using tests to determine who was best. By my lights, of course, I'd already done a lot of work for nothing, and I said I wasn't going to do anything more, that they had enough information to make a decision. (I guess they did... I never heard from them again.)
Not really the same thing, in that it wasn't a story but my skill and future work that was going to be bought, and so there was never any moment of certainty-- "Here! It's right!" But I know the frustration that came of that back-and-forth. The difference is, of course, I had nothing to show for it-- there was no improved story for me to take elsewhere.

Hmm. That's another question. I assume that my suggestions will improve the story, or at least that the process of working through my suggestions will help the writer learn more about the story or more about writing. And that even if we never go to contract, the writer hasn't wasted her time, and I haven't either-- I didn't get paid for my work if we don't go to contract, but heck, I've built up some karma points by helping, right?

But what if I'm wrong? (The next post will deal with a situation where the writer disagreed with the revision suggestions, btw.) What if after all this, we don't go to contract, and you secretly think-- I do hope you refrain from telling me this :) -- that it was a whole lot better before I mucked with it? Do you think of the time as wasted, as I did with my unsuccessful foray into ghostwriting? Or what?

What do you think is fair here?


Thursday, May 7, 2009

Mirrors and time and stuff

My poetry study group's theme last night was "mirrors", and we had some interesting poems that examined that motif. Does a mirror give an exact replica (as Plath says) or a distorted view? What does the mirror's reversal mean to how we interpret its information? What are some mirrors that aren't glass (like Hamlet's use of the play to "catch a king," mirroring Claudius's crime, or a photograph in "the day's mirror" -- the newspaper-- of a lynching forcing the viewer into the "shoes" of the hanged man)?

Anyway, it's a fascinating motif. Dottie brought a poem by Jorge Luis Borges, who many might remember as a creator of puzzles in prose, always examining paradoxes and presenting conundrums (and the one who said, memorably, "Every story benefits from a mystery"). Dottie translated it herself (she is a Spanish teacher), and we discussed how the long poem explored most of the thematic issues presented by mirrors. Dottie had this to say about Borges' fascination with "contingency" and its connection to time, and the refutation of that by story (and image, I think):

"The real world is one of contingency in which everything depends on space and time existing in a logical order, but within books, space and time are not contingent. So we see a lot of contemporary authors playing with time and space. The reader has to supply the logic in order to understand what's going on, so you have a reader who participates in the re-creation of the story. In Borges' story El Aleph, he describes a device that the narrator witnesses which allows him to perceive the universe all at once --all of time and space in one global concept, but then you realize that the narrator is outside of the universe looking at it from a separate point of view and describing it from a different point in time, so it can't be everything in the universe."

Not sure what it means, but "Aleph" is, of course, the first letter in the Semitic alphabets. So the device for seeing beyond time and space is language?


Monday, May 4, 2009

Starting right in

I am reading a memoir (My Lobotomy, by Howard Dully and Charles Fleming), and it starts like this:

My name is Howard Dully. I am a bus driver. I am a husband, a father, and a grandfather. I'm into doo-wop music, travel, and photography.
I am also a survivor. In 1960, when I was 12 years old, I was given a transorbital, or ‘ice pick’ lobotomy. My stepmother arranged it. My father agreed to it. Dr. Walter Freeman, the father of the American lobotomy, told me he was going to do some ‘tests.’ It took ten minutes and cost two hundred dollars.

The surgery damaged me in many ways. But it didn't "fix" me or turn me into a robot. So my family put me in an institution.
I spent the next forty years in and out of insane asylums, jails, and halfway houses. I was homeless, alcoholic, and drug-addicted. I was lost.

So... this is a memoir, not fiction, but it's still story. (Can't you imagine this as a first-person novel opening?) So... what do you think about starting right in on it, stating the conflict right up front, and here even the whole story is previewed ("the next forty years").

Now do you like this? Does it make you want to read more? Or do you feel more like you don't need to read more, because the whole story is right there-- there's no suspense?

In what case would you start a story so suddenly? What sort of story or character would elicit that sort of opening?

I think one thing we should all realize is-- there isn't a one-size-fits-all opening. It's often a good idea to "start right before something happens" or "start in the action" (and it's seldom a good idea to start with an unattributed line of dialogue :). But the opening has to fit the story. And so the question is, does the opening fit your story?

And with an opening like this, what sort of story would it be good for? Why would you make the decision to open with a comprehensive summary?

One danger I see is that the reader won't hang on for the first few pre-lobotomy chapters, which are essential (because we need to know why his parents even considered the surgery, what was "wrong" with him). But I notice that he says, "When I was 12," and that actually creates some anticipation/dread as he narrates in the first chapters his childhood. And knowing what is to come, we can hear about his misbehavior and his trauma (his mother dies when he's five, and he's never told anything but that she's gone away and won't return) and feel even greater dread-- that this isn't one of those stories where some wonderful teacher realizes that this is a troubled boy who needs some extra help, that it won't end up happily. We know-- he's going to get a lobotomy, and he's going to spend most of his life in institutions. (But we know there's eventually a happy ending too-- is that what keeps us slogging through the misery?)

That is, the author's decision to tell all in summary makes the details of his childhood more meaningful-- it's not just a bad kid, it's a kid who is going to be grossly mistreated. It's not just another wicked stepmother, it's a stepmother who has him lobotomized. It's not just a misspent youth, it's going to be a wasted life.

An interesting choice, anyway, and so far, it works to draw me in. (And next time I grump about how we treat kids with kid gloves these days, protect them too much, I need to remember this story! This is actually the era I remember-- he's 8 years older than I am-- as free and liberated, with parents benignly letting kids be kids without overprotecting or diagnosing them... yeah, and kids we now would recognize as having ADD or learning disabilities were just considered "bad" then, and expelled or sentenced or... well, I guess lobotomized.)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Inductive v. deductive characterization

I was just brainstorming a story with a friend, and learned something about myself! (I know, I was supposed to be learning something about the story, but heck, self-knowledge arrives in mysterious ways.)

See, we'd worked out the very basics of the situation and the main characters, and then my friend began speculating about the past of the protagonist, what conflict was plaguing him-- fear of abandonment? Loss of faith?

I was surprised to feel something akin to panic. No, no, I cried. Let's not decide on what his secret is, what his conflict is!

Instead, I wanted just to start writing without knowing much. And then we could look at what the characters were doing and saying and what they WEREN'T doing and saying, and from that, we could figure out what caused what. For example, if it developed that he always diverted questions with a joke, we could then think about what he was hiding. That is, I realized that what I like to DO (rather than what I teach :) is to let my subconscious create the character, and then my conscious can see the actions and reactions and "discover" the secrets and conflicts and internal motivations and all that.

Now this isn't the RIGHT way. There is no right way. What is right depends on the writer. But I'm thinking that maybe it's the way that's the most fun for me. I think it replicates the experience of reading, actually, to observe the character and notice the oddities and use those as a clue to the inner life. Of course, I think what's really going on is that my subconscious has created a character with an inner life already-- there's no conscious invention going on, but that sounds sort of crazy. But maybe not. Just the subconscious can create a dream and finish it in less than a minute, perhaps it can in a burst of inspiration create a whole character. (Or, well, maybe the character exists already... nah. Too weird.)

Contemplating these two different approaches to characterization, I realized they connect with two modes of reasoning. My idea of watching the character and using the "what" (she has panic attacks, she has a Boston accent) to find the "why" (her elderly parents spent their retirement funds to send her to Harvard, and she's never gotten over the stress and fear of failure)-- that's like inductive reasoning-- looking at the particulars and from there deriving a more general principle.

But others start with some sort of premise, idea, or conflict-- say, "I want to write a modern Iphigenia story to explore what it's like being a young woman sacrificed for the general good." What sort of woman would face that conflict? What would her family be like? If her father would sacrifice her, how would she feel about him?

That's more like deductive reasoning-- starting with an idea and from that deriving the way the a character would behave.

No great insight here, but I realize that the inductive is really what works for me, what makes writing fun for me. That process of discovery is what I enjoy. And yet, my analytical side is forever driving me to plot everything out, to invent rather than discover the characters, to control events rather than letting them develop. Neither way is right or wrong, but I think the inductive is right for me.

But that doesn't mean I won't get a chance to analyze, to speculate, to invent... it just isn't at the beginning. In fact, I'm going to try to write until I get stuck-- discover the characters through what I write, and then, when I can't figure out any more, or write any more, I can start analyzing.

So... how do you think you create best? Do you start with the outside-- the behavior, etc-- and move in to the psychology or theme? Or do you start with a more general idea and create the character? Or something else?


Friday, May 1, 2009


A few small items--

Log Lines

We still have a few log lines in our inbox. I'm willing to keep going with them if you want me to. What say you?

Brenda Novak's Auction

Every year, author Brenda Novak runs an auction fundraiser for juvenile diabetes. This year again I've donated one evaluation of one complete manuscript. If you're interested in bidding on this fabulous prize, go here.

There are lots of goodies worth bidding on. I've got my eye on Jane Porter's Frog Prince Package (because Jane is wonderful and I love that shade of green), the Faerie Basket (feeding my new fairy obsession), and damn near all of the celebrity-autographed stuff (Johnny Depp, Heath Ledger, Harrison Ford -- however is a girl to choose???).

In other news, I was in a fender-bender Tuesday and am still nursing some aches. It wasn't a bad accident. Just bad enough to fuck up my week. Grr. It's slowing me down on things like email and editing because typing is a bit difficult. The silver lining is that I did get a lot of reading done, mainly because it was one of the few things I could still do! Now if I can just type for more than a few minutes at a stretch, I might be able to do something about all these manuscripts I've read.

who has decided that if you're too old to remember your phone number, hear the blare of car horns, or see six vehicles in oncoming lanes, then you're probably too old to drive