Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Stumbling Blocks and Flying Notes

If you’ve been following, you’ll know I very recently begun my emergence from a nasty, festering pile of Writer’s Block. Over those dark days, I spent a lot of time thinking about process, talking to my crit group and other authors about it, and pondering both the blockage and what I felt was my own plot-less-ness. (Perhaps ‘plot-less-ness’ is too strong a made-up word. It was as if I were sitting in that festering pile in the middle of a complex, tangled forest, only catching tiny glimpses of the blue above the trees, unable to see which plotline or character quality would lead me up, out, and skyward. Have you ever experienced Writer’s Block? Did it feel similar for you?)

I have a number of writer-friends who write longhand before they take their work to the computer screen, and I’ve always wondered how exactly they do it. I also wondered why they would write longhand, when word processing programs make for such easy writing, quick changes, and moving things around. As a very non-linear writer, I’ve always loved the perceived freedom a word processing program allows. But I also had to wonder why others were producing so much more than I, and faster, and why they didn’t seem to get so stuck. Something in my process was clearly not working for me, and I was desperate to know what.

Last week, I had coffee with Rebecca Maizel, author of Infinite Days and out of our discussion about process, came an absolute epiphany (Thanks, Rebecca!). She showed me how she writes in a large lined notebook. And when she needs to make notes about craft, process, narrative arc, and so forth, she turns the book upside down and writes on the adjacent page. This helps her keep the two connected, yet separate enough not to break her flow.

Entranced by this idea, I stopped on the way back to my office, bought an attractive, eco-friendly notebook and—discovering (or creating!) a spare hour at the end of the day — took it out into the garden and began to write. Almost immediately, it was as if something clicked. I felt myself literally break free of the muck, and I was up, up, and away.

One of my main problems, I quickly realized, is that I do exactly what I tell my students and clients not to do: I edit as I go. Unlike many authors, I love revision. I love the subtleties in individual sentences, the cadence of the language, the fascinating interplay between characters and the nuances of their body language and behavior. I like to play and turn sentences upside down and bring out the music in words. I can happily get lost in that for long hours—until I realize I’m still as deep in the forest I was. As an editor, surprise-surprise, I have the perfect day job. But as an author, it turns out, I'd become my own worst enemy.

The beauty of the notebook is that it does not allow me to get bogged down in editing. I can still jump about from section to section of my book as I am wont to do. But because my handwriting is barely legible, I cannot edit on the page, or I risk not being able to read what I’ve written at all. This has the wonderful effect of forcing me forward with the narrative, hurrah!

In turns out that I am not, in fact, plot-less; I just get weighed down by the minutiae of individual sentences. And in the last week, I’ve carried an onscreen idea and some random paragraphs to an almost complete first draft of a new chapter book. Thanks to some great advice and a notebook, I feel light, I feel free, and I’m flying.

What about you? Do you write longhand? Do you prefer the screen? I’m eager to hear about your process.

Signing in the Waldenbooks

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Today, a question from the flock:

What is the rule on multiple submissions? I do not mean in the traditional sense. What I mean is, what about sending more than one MS to an editor/publisher at one time (in the same envelope)?

I've heard of extremely rare instances in which an editor has been kind enough to say, "Send me both picture books." But if she does, she's being very generous. You’ve probably had a critique with her. And you probably done her a favor, such as defend her from the rude and clueless writer who’s trying to shove an envelope in her face and refuses to understand why she won’t take it.

The rule is: one MS per submission.

And I think the reasons for this are very clear, if you have an understanding of the sheer volume of unsolicited submissions received by publishers. If every envelope contained more than one MS, most publishers' doors would be closed to unsolicited submissions faster than you can say, "Form rejection."

Monday, May 17, 2010

Bad Seeds: there was a noun verb-ing

From time to time, I’ll be posting little writing and editing tidbits, which I call ‘Bad Seeds.’ These are little issues that can weaken your writing in subtle ways, but if used frequently enough can make your writing style appear unpolished, possibly even undeveloped. Once you become aware of bad seeds, they should start to jump out at you.

Today’s Bad Seed is one I most often see when a writer is trying to describe a scene or a character. For example:

There were two big bookcases overflowing with books standing against the far wall of Wordy Birdie’s office. There was a deer skull, which she’d found while hiking, sitting on one of the shelves. There was another bookcase, full of dictionaries and books about grammar and writing, hanging above her desk. She had pictures of mountains and bugs and insects sticking to her pin board, and there was a dish of colored pebbles and sea glass lying on the glossy wooden desk.

This is how I would edit it:

There were Ttwo big bookcases overflowing with books standing stood against the far wall of Wordy Birdie’s office. There was aA deer skull, which she’d found while hiking, sittingsat on one of the shelves. There was aAnother bookcase, full of dictionaries and books about grammar and writing, hanginghung above her desk. She had pPictures of mountains and bugs and insects sticking to stuck to her pin board, and there was a dish of colored pebbles and sea glass lyinglay on the glossy wooden desk.

So we end up with:

Two big bookcases overflowing with books stood against the far wall of Wordy Birdie’s office. A deer skull, which she’d found while hiking, sat on one of the shelves. Another bookcase, full of dictionaries and books about grammar and writing, hung above her desk. Pictures of mountains and bugs and insects stuck to her pin board, and a dish of colored pebbles and sea glass lay on the glossy wooden desk.

Can you see the difference in strength and tone between the original and the final copy? The final has a more active quality, a solidity even, which the original lacked.

Take a look at your WIP. Do you see that kind of sentence structure?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Quack du jour

Isn't spring grand?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Goals and Idolatry

I’ve been thinking a great deal about goals after seeing “Big Mike” (Michael Lynche) voted off Idol this week. And no, I’m not ashamed to admit I love Idol. How brave and devoted and inspiring are these kids? Most of them have been catapulted from fairly ordinary lives onto a stage before bajillions of people. Working their posteriors off in the days between performances. Dealing with the psychological, physical, and emotional stress of such massive change, success, and knockbacks in such a short period of time — all in hopes of reaching their BIG goal.

Could you have done it at their age? Would you have had the guts and focus and stamina? Do you have it now? Guts and focus and stamina — just the things authors and illustrators (aspiring or otherwise) need in limitless supply. It’s also a good lesson in dealing with rejection, which I’ll talk more about at a later date. A contestant’s journey on Idol is, for me, something akin to the serious writer’s journey.

But there was something about big Mike’s speech after his performance that really got me thinking. He said, more than once during the night, it was his goal to make the top three so that he could do the Hometown visit. I could see that, even in the practice session, he was unsure, faltering, second guessing himself. He was on the very brink of making that goal and aware of that fact —so hyper aware, that he seemed to be quickly psyching himself out. And once you psych yourself out, if you cannot recover quickly, non-success is almost guaranteed. Based on this context, I find it hard to think that he was just having an off week. Indeed, Ellen DeGeneres’s comment was, “Your goal should be to win this thing.”

If Big Mike’s goal had been to win — if that had been his focus instead of making the top three— mightn’t he have more easily achieved the lesser of these two goals? Mightn’t he have chosen a song that allowed him to achieve what he did with This Woman’s Work? All psyching out aside, if he’d been focused farther into the distance, might he still be on that journey? If he’d had a different goal— a different and greater intent — might he still be reaching for it?

It made me wonder how often we hamstring ourselves by setting our ultimate goals too low, by not intending what we really want in fear of not even making a smaller goal.

I know I have some pretty huge goals. I also know I may never reach them, if I am realistic, but I do intend wholeheartedly to try. In setting the bar very high, I believe I may reach greater heights than I would had I not had the guts to reach higher. That way of thinking has already worked for me on numerous occasions.

We all know this, but I think it’s very easy from day to day to get caught up in the idea that one’s worth might not be as much as it should be, to psyche oneself out or to focus on little goals, rather than keeping the big one clearly in mind. Smaller, short term goals are important, don’t get me wrong. But I think even the short term goals tend to come more easily if one’s eyes are focused far into the distance, aware and somewhat detached from the outcome and enjoying the journey along the way —easy to say, not as easy to do.

If your main or sole focus is on getting from your home to the end of the street, how likely is it that you’ll ever stand on the Great Wall of China or peer into the Grand Canyon or even make Everest Base Camp, let alone scale the mountain herself?

What about you. Do you engage in active goal setting? Do you have goals you consider unrealistic or unattainable? Do you have them anyway? Or do you avoid making big goals for fear of never achieving them? How important are goals to you?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Poop and History

I was excited to get a link to this book trailer a few days ago. This is fellow NESCBWI member Sarah Albee's latest book POOP HAPPENED! A HISTORY OF THE WORLD FROM THE BOTTOM UP, which will be released from Walker Books on May 11th.

Hey, that's today!

Congrats to Sarah. Can't wait to get my copy!


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Query Letter Basics

"This is really hard!" I’m quite certain that’s the most uttered sentence from writers about concocting a good query or cover letter.

They’re absolutely right. It is hard to write a good query letter, especially when you’re starting out. I don’t know anyone who really likes writing queries, and most agree: the process can be confusing and feel very daunting. But adhering to the list of ingredients and following the basic formula can make it that much easier.

These days, most queries to agents will be e-queries. In an e-query, you don’t need to start with your address, the recipient’s name/title/ address, or date as you will in a traditional snail-mail business letter to editors/publishers. For e-queries, simply begin with the greeting.

First paragraph: Some agents and editors like essential basic information in the first paragraph:
• Title
• Genre
• Word count
• Target audience/age range
Others prefer you to start with why you’ve chosen to submit to them, or to dive straight into the hook and synopsis, and leave these basics until near the end. But note: this basic information must be somewhere in the query.

Do your research, online and through writers’ organizations such as SCBWI, to learn about the agent you’re approaching. Does the agent maintain a blog? Then read it. For example, Agent X may be one those with a rampant distaste for queries beginning with a rhetorical question, especially one they can easily answer in the negative:

Writer: “Have you ever wondered what it’s like to escape from a pickled herring factory?”
Agent: “Um. Actually, no.” *Queryfail*

Thorough research will make your process so much easier.

The Synopsis:

You need to answer the basic questions:
• Who is the protagonist?
• What do they want and why?
• What is getting in the way and what’s at stake?
• What does the protagonist do about it?
• How does the problem escalate?

Common errors:

• It’s too vague. Be specific. Editors and agents see way too many vague synopses. What makes your plot different from all the others out there? What is specific about these characters that will make us want to hear their story? It’s no use whatsoever telling an agent or editor that:
Betty-Sue goes on an emotional journey of self-discovery and learns what family means to her.
That doesn’t provide any concrete information about the plot or character, except her name, and it’s also:
• Too didactic-sounding. Agents and editors don’t need you to tell them what the protagonist or audience will learn from this manuscript. The themes of the book should be readily apparent from the synopsis—if it’s written properly.
• Too much self-appraisal. Good writing is so much about Showing vs. Telling, and you, the writer, have the opportunity to show you can ‘show.’ Don’t tell them your text is whimsical or lyrical—let that come through in the way your synopsis is written. Show them that you can write—and with style.
• It’s too dry. So often, writers say to me of writing the synopsis: “It doesn’t flow like it does when I’m writing my book. It feels stilted and awkward.” Try to get into your happy place or sad place or use whatever emotional fuel writing your book required. Make it exciting. Make it voicey. Make it sing. Have fun! Your passion and excitement will come through in your synopsis.
• It gives away the ending. Set up the protagonist, setting, conflict, and what’s at stake, and then leave the reader hanging and desperate for more.
• Not enough revision. Just like any fine piece of writing, a synopsis needs to be revised multiple times until it is right. I usually work with my clients and students on multiple versions of their query and cover letters before we consider them ready.

Bio Paragraph: What you include here should be as relevant as possible. It can’t hurt to say you are a SCBWI member, if you are. Certainly, if you’ve won awards (as long as they’re not utterly obscure) include that. If you have relevant publishing credits, list them. Your day job may or may not be relevant. For example, if you’re an elementary school teacher or librarian, it is. But don’t try to plump up your bio with irrelevant details or tell them about your dream of being an author (Why else would you be subjecting yourself to this query torture?) And if it’s your first book, don’t be embarrassed to say so. (You’ve written a book. That takes guts and determination and dedication and lots of hard work. What a feat! Good for you! You’re amazing!) But never “argue for your limitations.”

Sign off: Thank the editor or agent for their time; that’s just common courtesy. Do say you look forward to hearing from them—but I recommend you don’t say “soon,” especially if you’re writing to an editor/publisher rather than an agent. It may be soon, but it may be not, and I’ve heard some agents and editors say use of the word “soon” may come across as impatience or a lack of understanding about the industry. And, if you're querying an editor or publisher, don't forget to say whether this is an exclusive or multiple submission.

Email signature: A neat, concise email signature—with your name and contact details and a link to online presence, such as a website or blog—looks professional.

And finally: Proofread it! Check for grammatical and spelling errors. Check for word misuse such as their/they’re/there, sight/site etc. Then have someone else proof it for you. If you have used clipart or fancy stationary (either e-stationary or the paper kind) get rid of it—simple and professional is best. Make sure you have the correct phrase in the email’s subject line. Follow the agent’s directions. And then proofread it again. Remember, this letter is your introduction as a writer, so errors in the query are unlikely to go down well.

I'm planning to do more posts on writing successful query and cover letters in future, so feel free to email me your questions. I hope to have some examples of winning query letters from published and up-and-coming authors in the weeks to come, too.

The process of concocting a query is not nearly as difficult when you know the right formula. Keep it professional, keep it courteous, and above all, don’t be afraid to send it. An atrophied manuscript is far, far worse than a rejection.